The rise and fall of two freeways

As someone who has lived without a car for the past three years, I am no fan of freeways or expressways. But forgive me a moment of qualified nostalgia for two overhead urban highways that have met their demise on opposite sides of America.

San Francisco and now Boston have brought down elevated inner-city expressways, part and parcel of urban revitalization programs that have transformed these and many other downtowns over the past two decades. To my mind, these are good steps.

But that doesn't mean there isn't anything nice to say about the departed roadways.

They were a logical extension of the highway systems that attempted, in part, to keep the country's post-World War II suburban sprawl and its older cities somehow connected.

Those highways provided room to roam after they were beyond the city limits. But up against the denser urban landscapes, the designers often had to resort to tunneling or taking to the air with roadways on stilts.

The erasure of an overhead highway in San Francisco and now in Boston amounts to stunning reclamations of now-prized real estate in each city.

In San Francisco, an elevated freeway that wrapped along the city's eastern edge separated the downtown business district from its waterfront. For a city fed by ocean commerce, it struck many as a travesty.

Today, an enormous public space of benches, sculptures, charming old-world trolley cars, and stalls of produce and crafts has replaced the freeway.

In Boston, as the Big Dig winds down and the Rose Kennedy Greenway begins to take shape, few vestiges are now left of the old expressway that once separated the city's financial district from one of the oldest ethnic neighborhoods in the nation: the Italian North End.

As an inhabitant of each city for many years, I wouldn't want to turn back the clock. But I would like to pause for a moment and admit a certain nostalgia for these past chapters in each city's admirable history.

The North End is one of Boston's most interesting neighborhoods. It was built on European scale. The brick buildings line narrow streets, many of which have trouble accommodating more than one car at a time. In the early morning, the cafes are populated by older men speaking exclusively in Italian - with both hands and mouth.

To get to the North End, you used to have to take a twisted and littered path beneath the expressway. Part of the journey was to feel lost.

But for those who persisted in venturing beneath that dark behemoth, the eventual emergence into the quaint Italian neighborhood had the quality of a revelation: It was an adventure - from dark, dirty, and lost to warm and charming.

I will miss that journey and have a slightly queasy feeling about what might become of the North End now that it's stripped of its ugly, but formidable, protection from the spit-and-polished downtown.

In San Francisco, I also recall the freeway days with some fondness. The waterfront, having lost much of its ocean commerce to less-costly Oakland, across the San Francisco Bay, had already crept into a state of charming disrepair when the freeway was built in the 1970s.

Old wooden piers reached out into the bay, and the waterfront was populated by authentically bedraggled taverns and seafood joints that served the dwindling number of seafarers and longshoremen who still worked the wharf.

But enough nostalgia.

Each city is writing a new chapter. Space has returned to the people. That is good, even if the shadows from those ugly overhead roadways created a certain sense of urban grit that had its own shades of appeal.

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