In this post, I'll look at three bad uses of engineering -- two that did happen - the demolition of Boston's West End, and Boston’s Central Artery and one that did not - the Inner Belt Highway that would have gone through Cambridge, Somerville and Brookline.
This rendering shows the Inner Belt (I-695) as it would have passed down Elm Street at Broadway in Cambridge. After a huge community organizing effort, the Inner Belt was cancelled. Click here to view this video, which was taken at the Inner Belt Symposia in April 2012, sponsored by The Cambridge Historical Society and MIT.
The West End of Boston was demolished in 1958 to 1960 as part of Urban Renewal. The new land made way for suburban-style apartments (“If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now) and for Government Center.
This 1953 photo shows the initial construction of the Central Artery highway in Boston, Over 1000 buildings were cleared to make way for the highway. Later, in a feat of engineering prowess, the elevated highway was removed by the Big Dig and placed underground. Photo - Boston Public Library
As Spider-man was told: "With great power comes great responsibility." I think this is very true of engineering, and it leads me to celebrate when things are done well, and to want to understand the opposite -- when engineering goes awry. I love to understand engineering disasters and what led to them. Usually, the problem isn't with direct engineering errors -- although the Hubble Space Telescope did need eyeglasses delivered to it simply because of a calculation error. Usually the problem relates to the overall environment in which the engineering work being done. It might even be unfair to use the term "engineering disaster" in some of these cases - For example, the Shuttle Challenger crashed when it was launched at a temperature way below its true design parameters.
In the 1950's, cities were in trouble. People were moving to the suburbs. The car was taking over as the main means of transportation. The idea of Urban Renewal began to take hold after World War II, and the concept was to completely demolish parts of inner cities and start over. Federal money was allocated for this purpose, and in Boston, the West End -- a neighborhood of brick buildings just across Cambridge Street from Beacon Hill -- was torn down.
This Google Map shows the proposed path of the Inner Belt (and other unbuilt highways, including Route 3 and the Southwest Expressway) Click here to view on Google Maps. Source: User "BigRock" on Google Maps.
Ever since I learned about the Inner Belt, I wondered exactly what was the planned route? What buildings would have been taken? Where would it have crossed Mass Ave? How would it have gotten through Brookline? With the advent of the original documents on archive.org, and from other newer sources, I was able to find that out in great detail.
The highway story begins with the 1948 Master Highway Plan that details a whole range of highways, some that were built, and many that were later cancelled. This 206 page document contains a wealth of drawings and illustrations, as well as traffic studies that of course make the case for the new highways.
This map from the 1948 Master Highway Plan shows an early routing of the Inner Belt. It was changed in many ways later, but the basic idea remained the same. Notice how the city itself seems to be a willing canvas for innocent red lines. Notice Cambridge -- which seems to have only a few buildings, as if the highways would pass through farm land rather than an intensely built urban area.
This reference map from the 1962 Plan is particularly useful. It shows the detailed plans for each part of new highway system. For example, Maps B-11 and B-10 cover most of Somerville and Cambridge, while B-9 covers Brookline and B-8 covers Boston and Roxbury. Note that of the areas shown with red boxes -- those designed in this plan -- almost all were cancelled. Route 3 from 128 never connected to Route 2 as shown. Route 2 did not continue to the Inner Belt, as Map B-24 had planned. The Mass Turnpike Extension was later built. So was the extension of the Mass Pike to Logan Airport as part of the Big Dig. The Southwest Expressway was cancelled as well, and part of its routing is now the Orange Line.
Governor Francis Sargent began to take up the cause of those who wished to stop the highway. He created the Boston Transportation Planning Review (BTPR) in 1970. Their report became the model for what we now know as the Environmental Impact Report. On December 29, 1971, Governor Sargent gave a speech from prepared remarks about the State's approach to highways and mass transit, and in that speech, he made it clear that the Inner Belt was dead. He even used those words. The text below can found in the BTPR's final report from 1973
The Governor's comments on the Inner Belt were straightforward and direct. "The much discussed Brookline-Elm and Portland-Albany Street alignments are now officially dead." Without the path through Cambridge, there could be no Inner Belt.
This mural in Cambridge commemorates the citizen action taken to stop the Inner Belt.
A future post will cover the path of the Inner Belt in detail, and will look at many more sources of maps and other visuals to illustrate where the Inner Belt would have been built, and what it would have looked like. Was the Inner Belt a monster that lurked just outside your door? Find out next time.