In Stopping a Freeway, They Started a Revolution

For 15 years, the city freeway commission wanted our neighborhood to become a highway. The trees would be removed. A bridge would be placed just south of us and an interchange to the north. The interchange would play havoc with the local park. It would uproot tulip beds, displace the statue of Lincoln, and destroy the lobby of the dry cleaner across the street. Had our street become a freeway, thousands would speed past boarded-up homes or new offices. Few would ask what kind of neighborhood it would be, had it not become a highway.

I'd heard of the proposed freeway, but I never considered it more than an ambitious proposal, like the suspension bridge from New York to Ireland or giant smog vents for L.A. through the San Gabriel Mountains. The highway didn't become real to me until I saw an exhibit at the local museum, part of an appreciation for Washington, D.C.'s neighborhoods.

Among the faded and dusty photos was a Texaco road map from 1962 with a blue line drawn down our street. The words "Proposed Eastern Bypass" were neatly written over the point where Mrs. Jackson's house now stands, and "Completion date: 1967" where Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell still live.

A couple of weeks later, we met a young man walking down the street as my wife and I worked in our garden. He said he used to live in our house. His family had left just as they were starting to empty the houses for the freeway. He admired our house and the ones down the block, and took his leave happier, I think, to see that his childhood neighborhood still flourished.

The freeway project stopped because the families that remained fought it. Not with marches and placards or by chaining themselves to bulldozers. They cooperated. They met in living rooms and church basements. They raised money, plotted strategy, honed their arguments. They spent hours learning who in the city government supported them and who would have to be persuaded.

I don't know the climactic event in their campaign. I suspect it was a court case in which a judge ruled that the planning commission had not taken into account the residents' rights. It is easy to picture the final scene: The families huddled outside the district courtroom, straining to hear the judgment. And when they realized they'd won, rejoicing. No doubt they retired to someone's house and celebrated with food and back-slapping.

That was the beginning. Having learned to cooperate, they turned to other problems. There was a school-board race, then a campaign for city council, and finally the mayorship. The group that worked on the school-board race was less devoted than those who fought the highway, the city-council action committee even less so. The mayoral campaign split the group.

And between the big events came the small projects: a new library for the junior high, a playground in the park where the "Lincoln Park Exit" sign would have stood, a garden in a former alley, a house rehabilitated, a fence repainted.

Most of the old organizers are gone now. Some moved to the suburbs. Others passed their home to a second or third generation. But as you walk the neighborhood, you can find little reminders of the neighborhood that was.

Mrs. McCaffrey, who spent 22 years on the local civic board, can tell you who owns each house within five square blocks of her own. Mr. Edson rarely leaves his front porch, but he knows every crack in every street and alley. Mrs. Mitchell still receives calls from one of the retired mayors, who comes to check on his old supporter and share the latest stories of city politics.

OUR neighborhood is probably quainter than it was in 1962. The trees are leafier and the gardens better tended. Other than a few concrete pillars at the southern end of the street, there are few reminders that anyone ever contemplated a freeway.

Generations of commuters may curse our street because it ended their hope for a quicker commute. But instead of speeding past our houses and wondering what the neighborhood might be like had the freeway not been built, we can walk the streets and wonder at the sort of neighborhood that stopped a highway.

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