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Interchange: Highways and Displacement in the Postwar American City

Abstract

Though its route cleaved to a 19th century rail corridor, building the urban extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike (1962-1965) was an unsettling experience. The six-lane highway overflowed the tight dimensions presented by the Boston & Albany Railroad’s graded right-of-way. The result was significant land-takings and human displacement, on either side of the rail bed and especially at the interchanges within the limited-access road network. In West Newton, an African-American community (in place since the 1870s and organized around the Myrtle Baptist Church) was ruptured by a wide-swinging turnpike interchange. In Boston, the Mass Pike connects to the Central Artery at Kneeland Street (figure 1), the site of a longstanding Chinese-American community that was partially displaced.1 By urban space to the function of traffic, Turnpike planners and builders embraced the some and exiled the other, thus inscribing a selective realm of citizenship. As a physical system, the toll road unevenly reflected commuter trends: a center-seeking automotive circuit, built by a bond-issuing Authority, and largely paid for by the dime-tossing motorist. Chartered by the State Legislature to implement an explicitly spatial policy, the Authority marshaled extra-legal instruments of eminent domain, as well as a normative rhetoric of citizenship that equated traffic projections with democratic validation. By doing so, the Pike enthroned white-collar commuters as the heirs apparent to urban space in the postwar American city. This paper shows how the legal inception of the Turnpike Authority set into motion an unaccountable politics of displacement, framed in the language and logic of rational planning. I also argue that the Authority’s (led by a garrulous Chairman, William F. Callahan) none-too-gentle methods of land condemnation and resettlement would catalyze a virulent anti-highway lobby in Massachusetts, which culminated in the1970 moratorium on the construction of freeways by Governor Francis Sargent.

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