Reckoning with the Three-Digit Interstate: Part II

II. Intermediate Freeways: The Ballad of Garfield Heights

Suburban freeways, as a whole, are a study in contradictions, especially from a racial and socioeconomic perspective. But for our purposes, we should draw some distinctions.

The Katy Freeway, mentioned at the end of Part I, is actually a radial freeway that carries traffic toward and away from Houston’s urban core. For the most part, this series of articles is not directly about radial highways (although some places, like Atlanta, do likely have too many of them and can apply my concerns in this part to expressways like I-575, I-985, GA-400/US-19, GA-141, and US-78).

Instead, I care more about freeways that tend to be aimed at connecting two outlying portions of the metro area, whether they form part of a beltway-type formation or serve to create a continuous “grid” of expressways, as the Twin Cities do south and west of Minneapolis or as the Miami-Dade metro does between Fort Lauderdale and Kendall. While most of these suburban routes are three-digit interstates, this really more precisely refers to suburban freeways, regardless of their designation. For example, I-95 in Boston forms a partial beltway around the city, and my concerns apply more to it than, for example, to I-290 in Chicago, which functions largely as a radial highway in and out of the Loop.

This applies to these freeways regardless of their original intended purpose: many beltways were constructed to allow long-haul traffic and trucks carrying hazardous materials to stay out of a congested city center. However, even with those good intentions, residents (and developers) have recognized the convenience of freeway access, any freeway access, even if the urban core isn’t particularly convenient. Indeed, while part of the goal of I-475’s unusual shape, as discussed in Part I, was to provide a convenient connection between Ann Arbor and points south and east of Toledo, that doesn’t save the growing sprawl along its length.

The suburban freeways tend to do one of two things, regardless of their purpose. Other than the occasional true bypasses (such as I-495 in Wilmington, DE), these freeways: 1) split a neighborhood that is already reasonably built up in order to increase convenience for adjacent neighborhoods (what I call an “intermediate” freeway), or 2) anticipate development in a sparsely populated area (an “outer” freeway). Many suburban routes include at least a little bit of each.

It’s not particularly difficult to tell the two apart. The former runs mostly through neighborhood layouts involving grids and small lots, and the latter runs mostly through neighborhood layouts involving cul-de-sacs and large lots. The two pictures below are at the same scale and depict I-264 and I-265 (signed on the map as Route 841) in Louisville, respectively. These sections of freeway were both initially built in the 1960s. Without having to look at a map, you can probably guess which one is the outer freeway and which one is the intermediate freeway.

These characterizations may seem rather specific, but keep in mind that most interstates were indeed built within a relatively narrow stretch of time, during which the prevailing concepts of residential development also changed.

Most of these suburban freeways, whether inner or outer, are roughly 1-2 generations old, and as compared to urban freeways, very little rumbling is happening regarding reducing lanes, let alone demolishing them altogether. Indeed, in perhaps the most entrenched example of induced suburban demand, the Capital Beltway (I-495) is in the process of expanding to 12 local lanes plus 4 tolled lanes in Virginia, with Maryland contemplating similar action. And while this construction has drawn criticism, the higher-profile freeway fight in DC is over the very urban Whitehurst Freeway, a worthy target for demolition but a highway that plays a much smaller role in DC driving patterns.

Perhaps it’s because many of the arguments currently being made against urban-core freeways in current discourse aren’t directly applicable to intermediate (and certainly not to outer) freeways. People worry about noise and air pollution being concentrated in a single area where massive numbers of cars enter and exit these freeways (that is, at the work ends of their commutes), something that isn’t traditionally seen as a problem with an intermediate freeway. Similarly, a large focus of the discussion around urban freeways parallels the concerns over gentrification and displacement, which in most US cities is a question of neighborhoods immediately surrounding the urban core and not something that has reached these intermediate freeways (yet).

But this framing is too narrow. The grid-based neighborhoods that these intermediate freeways cut through are not necessarily multi-family housing, but they are still built to be walkable and reasonably accessible from neighborhood to neighborhood. These kinds of neighborhoods will need to make up the majority of housing stock in a more compact, more sustainable, and more livable city. But they, like many urban neighborhoods bulldozed in order to encourage freeway usage, suffer the same kinds of ill effects when they are cleaved from their neighbors.

This is particularly true given that the proposed intermediate freeways that cut through more affluent neighborhoods tended to be successfully opposed. My hometown of Cleveland provides the perfect illustration.

The east side of Cuyahoga County (where Cleveland is located) contains three freeways: I-90 east-west along the lakeshore, I-271 north-south through outer-ring suburbs, and I-480/US-422 east-west across the southern portion. Five additional ones were planned in the early 1960s, all to fill in the gap between downtown Cleveland and the area bounded by these three freeways. (All five of them would have counted, at least using my highly unscientific criteria, as intermediate freeways for most, if not all, of their length.) These freeways would have included the north-south Lee Freeway, about halfway between I-77 and I-271, and the Bedford Freeway closer to downtown. There were also three separate east-west freeways: the Clark Freeway and the Heights Freeway, which would extend from downtown to and past I-271, and the Central Freeway, which would run from downtown and terminate at the Lee Freeway.

The centerpiece of the plan was a 67-acre interchange planned between the Lee Freeway and the Clark Freeway, one that would be built over the Shaker Lakes. But there was one problem: The Shaker Lakes happened to be in Shaker Heights, the most affluent city in the United States at the time. Residents immediately started to organize against the freeway projects.

The result of eight years of meetings and protests was the cancellation of the Lee and Clark Freeways in 1970, which doomed the other three as well. But Garfield Heights, further south, was not spared.

Garfield Heights is a working-class community that looks much like the denser neighborhood in the Kentucky satellite picture above. Lots are typically about 1/8 acre, which makes the residential portions of the town comparable in density to San Francisco. While only the northern parts of the city were ever connected to Cleveland’s streetcar network, it was clearly dense enough to support carless living.

In the 1970 census, the same year that the Clark and the Lee Freeways were officially canceled, Garfield Heights reported over 41,000 residents. I-480 was completed through the city in 1978, and the 1980 census found only 34,000 people living in the town, a number that has continued to sag in the 40 years since.

Indeed, while car culture has fully taken hold in Cleveland, leaving the extensive streetcar network a distant memory, the presence of the freeways through the middle of communities such as Garfield Heights work as a strong reinforcement. Like now-maligned urban freeways, they create barriers to walking, they increase segregation, and they were built by bulldozing communities. Consider this before-and-after picture of Garfield Heights in Cleveland (maps from 1971 and 1980, respectively):

There’s an argument that this was the least disruptive path through the town, but even if the planners minimized the number of connections that were demolished, they took houses, businesses, and green space with them and substantially limited the walkable area around virtually every civic institution on the map.

Gentrification, and the displacement that often comes with it, creates a further irony. Communities like Garfield Heights, whether they are outlying city areas, inner-ring suburbs, or another classification entirely, are arguably ignored in this conversation precisely because they are not yet ripe for gentrification or “urban renewal”.

Consider the case of I-345 in Dallas, a prime candidate for urban freeway removal. Built in the 1970s, it obliterated many of the businesses in the Deep Ellum neighborhood, a neighborhood with deep African-American roots and “a mecca of jazz and blues in the Southwest”. Its impact was particularly severe because it cuts across the neighborhood at almost a 45-degree angle to the street grid, creating a tangle of bridges and ramps multiple blocks wide in any direction.

The surviving sections of Deep Ellum carried on its history of performing arts, and the area has indeed undergone a substantial transformation as white residents have moved in and displaced much of the Black community. As property values start to rise in Deep Ellum, the drumbeat for tearing out the freeway gets louder, fueled both by the benefactors and the targets of the accompanying displacement.

By comparison, Garfield Heights is not a prime candidate for redevelopment or “urban renewal”. It’s ten miles from downtown Cleveland, not accessible by rail, and barely served by the bus system. The cultural institutions aren’t any more convenient from Garfield Heights than from any other random place in the Cleveland area. And so, unless we start to advocate otherwise, these broken grids will likely persist, lower- and middle-class sacrifices to the idea that high-speed thoroughfare access would facilitate better living for all.

And perhaps it has provided residents of Garfield Heights access to the same catalysts of economic growth in the outer suburbs. But in doing so, it has hollowed out the bones of the community, a surrender to continued suburban sprawl that was neither necessary nor productive.

So let’s talk about some of those outer suburbs next.

Click here to continue onto Part III (Outer Freeways: The Stretching of Columbus, Ohio).
Click here to skip ahead to Part IV (Moving Forward: Road Diets and Overlapping Jurisdictions).
Click here to return to Part I (Toledo, Minneapolis, and the Entrenchment of Suburban Freeways).



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