By Pete Stidman
During Jamaica Plain’s great debate on the Casey Overpass, some have said that it has no relation whatsoever to Boston’s highway revolt of the 1960s—the “street fight” that brought us the Southwest Corridor instead of an elevated highway. But the truth is they are both part of a relatively short period of history when road engineers, politicians and even newspaper reporters were all fighting the evil “bottleneck” and devising everyway they could to drive long distances without ever experiencing a slow down or even a stop light.
Over the last few days I’ve dug into the annals of the Boston Globe to get a little context that adds some detail to this time period and how the Casey rests within it. In its time, Casey was the largest structure the Metropolitan District Commission had ever constructed—and considered “massive” by Bostonians when it was built in 1953. It became part of larger plan for highways utilizing the edges of the Emerald Necklace and other parks called the “Inner Circle” that was eventually halted.
A second scheme, the Master Highway Plan announced by the state in 1948, was even more ambitious. It included the Southwest Expressway (I-95) that would have plowed through Jamaica Plain, seven other radial highways and an “Inner Belt” highway that would have run through Roxbury, Brookline, Kenmore, Cambridge and Somerville.
Once these projects began, and Bostonians began to see the results—not to mention the thousands who were made to move out of their homes—a citywide revolt emerged and after much battle, the governor called a moratorium on all highway construction.
Going back to the beginning of the story, it’s not hard to see how the desire for huge car infrastructure developed. Cars were already gaining popularity rapidly when Henry Ford began producing the Model T in 1908, making cars affordable to a growing middle class.
In Jamaica Plain, the Arborway was already becoming a dangerous speedway as cars hurtled down the hill from Jamaica Pond. In one account of a police speed trap in 1908, the officers attracted so much attention with their work that informers had blown their cover within an hour.
For the period between 1900 and 1915, the number of motor vehicles registrations in the country was doubling every two years according to the U.S. Census. The numbers slowed and paused for the Great Depression—but growth began promptly again at the close of WWII. As early as 1924, parking along the Arborway, Jamaicaway and Riverway was prohibited in order to make more room for the “autoists.” This effectively doubled the capacity of many of those streets overnight.
Accounts of crashes also ratcheted up, in part due the fact that the first street lights did not arrive in any large numbers until the 1930s. Officers controlled only the most congested intersections, but those were multiplying rapidly, and the first stop signs in the country began appearing in 1915. During the 1930s City Councilors and state Representatives often endeared their constituents by demanding more stoplights for their districts—and it took a while before they got around to every place they were needed.
The first overpass in Boston—at American Legion Highway and Morton Street, also arrived the early 30s, and they were added elsewhere only slowly. Mass Ave and Commonwealth, Mass Ave and Huntington, and a few others sprinkled in. Often the motivation was safety, as many articles lamented the roadway death tolls, but the most intense ire of the day was reserved for “the bottleneck.”
By the 1930s Arborway and Washington St.—-a popular route for long regional trips before the advent of I-93—-was considered one of the bottlenecks that needed mending, along with Atlantic Avenue downtown, several spots on Massachusetts Avenue, and other intersections in the city. Sullivan Square became a focus of attention in the 1940s, but construction on both the Casey and Sullivan Square’s underpass/overpass combination were underway by the 1950s amid a rapidly growing political frenzy to get a handle on the “traffic problem” and ample funding from Washington along with President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1948 Master Highway Plan.
During the 30s, 40s and 50s Republicans and Democrats battled over which party could plan better, which could spend its dollars wiser, but never whether or not elevated roads or overpasses should be built. The answer, even the skeptical newspaper reporters were chanting, was to “take to the sky.” Some in the public, however were making the connection between the hated elevated train lines (for their noise and negative effect on property values) and the proposed elevated roadways.
At the dawn of the elevated highway era in 1935, Governor James Curley was asking the federal government for $40 million in funds to take down the El on Washington Street and stick it underground all the way from Sullivan Square to Forest Hills—stating that “removal of the elevated structure would do much to restore property values along its route.” (Boston Globe, Mar. 28, 1935) Numerous other articles make it clear that there was a huge hue and cry from the populace to take the El down.
The first inklings of an elevated roadway that would one day become the Central Artery first appeared in the Globe in 1928. Commercial tenants and merchants in the district around Faneuil Hall ran a “determined campaign” to alter the city’s planned route, but to no avail. One writer of a letter to the editor in 1950, as the groundbreaking for the project came closer, made the direct connection easily enough: “The Legislature has voted to take down the Elevated, as it is a nuisance, and yet here is the state planning to put another elevated right alongside the one they are going to take down.”
After construction began in the 50s (completed in 1959) it was instantly and widely hated—not only for the traffic it developed later in its life, but for the “great wall” it created between the North End and other parts of town and the suppression of the business district that thrived where it stood before it arrived. A half-century later the roadway was famously buried as part of the Big Dig—the largest and most expensive highway project ever undertaken in the U.S. at over $22 billion all told.
While the Central Artery was linked to the 1948 Highway Master Plan from the state—which included the Inner Belt and eight radial highways (including the SW Expressway that would have run through Jamaica Plain), Casey was linked to the Metropolitan District Commission’s “Inner Circle” highway plan for circumnavigating the city via the parks.
The MDC (today renamed as the Department of Conservation and Recreation) had been acquiring a number of roadways along the Boston parks it managed—many of which were originally designed as an interconnected loop around the city to provide recreation—the famous Emerald Necklace. With the advent of the car, this convenient loop and other unspoiled parks around the state put the MDC into the business of moving traffic. From all appearances, the agency accepted their new charge with gusto.
The Inner Belt idea had been around for eight years by the time the MDC trotted out its plan for an “Inner Circle” in 1956, just three years after the Casey Overpass was completed. It’s hard to imagine its outlines hadn’t been thought of before the massive Casey was built with three lanes in each direction—more capacity than anyone would propose in today’s redesign process.
Titled boldly as a “circumferential highway,” the Inner Circle plan was to turn Jamaicaway into a one-way highway northbound, and the roads on the Brookline side of the pond and Olmsted park into a highway for the southbound traffic. Jamaica Pond would have become the center of a giant traffic circle. To the north, the new highway would connect to the Riverway, which would link to Storrow Drive. To the South, the highway would head down Morton St. to Gallivan Blvd. and connect to Morrissey Blvd. It was anticipated that the planned Southeast Expressway would someday help complete the loop.
Both the 1948 state highway plan with its “Inner Belt” and the 1956 MDC plan with its “Inner Circle” would see opposition build as more open space, homes and businesses were taken. Even as the Casey began construction there were hints. One of the Boston Globe’s concise “Editorial Points” in 1950 proclaimed: “For an example of utility in architecture nothing beats the big highway overpass, which cost three zillion dollars and saves the motorist going nowhere three seconds.”
The Roslindale Board of Trade was perplexed by the Forest Hills Overpass at the time as well. Frederick A. Robinson, that board’s vice president and an engineer employed by the city’s assessing department, wrote that the overpass wouldn’t be needed. Not only would other planned highways obviate the need for it, but in an eerie prescient to today’s bridge/at-grade controversy he wrote, “the traffic on both [Arborway] and Washington Street is only two-way traffic. Couldn’t the section at Forest Hills be expanded for the intersection to four lanes? There is enough room for this… A 60-foot high skeleton of steel for the overpass will certainly not make the parkway there any more attractive.”
Robinson clearly considered himself a pragmatist and a saver of taxpayer dollars, but was also interested in devising the shortest routes for highways. He wrote reams of letters to the editor on traffic planning. In other letters he suggested both that the Central Artery be built underground (predicting the Big Dig), and in another letter that it be built along Commercial Street around the city, rather than directly through it.
Despite his harangues, the Casey Overpass was opened on Labor Day weekend in 1953 and the Central Artery six years later. At the time the Casey was built to handle 100,000 cars passing through the intersection at Washington and Arborway (the actual count made in 1949 was 43,140 vehicles per day for both streets). Robinson’s prediction that an overpass was overkill in this regard turned out to be true—Just over 60,000 vehicles pass through that intersection per day according to more recent counts (36,000 via the Arborway and 24,000 down Washington/Hyde Park Ave).
During the 1960s the fight against the Inner Belt and the SW Expressway planned for a route through Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, the South End, and other communities drew the most ire, but riding on the coattails of this larger movement was a backlash against the MDC’s Inner Circle plan.
Brookline played an early part in both battles, but it wasn’t long before the whole city was up in arms about one part of either plan or another. In 1948 when the Inner Belt route was first announced Brookline residents and officials got riled and let their displeasure with the plan be known—and you can imagine why. It was set to cruise down Longwood Avenue, cross the Riverway and plow straight through the neighborhood over to Beacon Street and Commonwealth beyond, taking out nine homes, five businesses and Amory Playground, Brookline’s biggest. By 1962, the movement was jumping neighborhood boundaries. At one meeting for the SW Expressway in 1962 2,000 people were in attendance, and the crowd jeered and booed when plans were announced. In all, 7,500 families (30,000 people) were facing evictions thanks to the Inner Belt plan.
The Inner Circle wasn’t seizing homes and businesses, but it was acting much more like a highway authority than a conservator of the state’s park system. The plans for the Inner Circle that were laid in 1956 met a formidable obstacle in 1969 when they ran into a young state Rep. named Michael Dukakis. In the preceding years Dukakis had been working with the victims of improper landtaking in Brighton by the state for the Massachusetts Turnpike. A few parcels had allegedly been seized by eminent domain only to sell again to private firms. In 1963 he had alerted the Globe to an investigation by the state’s Attorney General into the matter. When the MDC moved to seize ownership of the Jamaicaway, Riverdale Parkway, and parts of Chestnut Street and Perkins Street by eminent domain, Dukakis clearly understood the process.
The MDC’s plan was to “straighten out” the Jamaicaway and make it into a one-way northbound highway, and widen Riverdale Parkway, Chestnut and Perkins for a one-way southbound route, turning Jamaica Pond into the center of a giant traffic circle. The Casey, of course, was large enough to handle the increase flow this new highway route would bring. But in 1969, according to the Globe, Dukakis filed legislation to nullify earlier legislation that put the MDC in charge of maintenance on the Riverdale Parkway, just as the agency was trying to seize it, and he and others ultimately blocked the project from moving forward.
“The MDC was determined to go ahead with the double barreled road along the Muddy River which would have made the Jamaicaway one way and put a Storrow Drive type road on the Brookline side between the river and what is now Brook House and the Whiskey Point section of the town,” wrote Dukakis in an email this week.”We found a clause in a grant of land to the town in the area which prohibited its use for other than park purposes, took the MDC all the way to the Supreme Judicial Court, and won. Without that court suit, the road would have been built, and the lovely park along the Brookline side of the Muddy would never have happened.”
Dukakis was elected Governor in 1974 and made one of his goals in that first term dismantling what he believed to be a mismanaged and patronage-choked MDC. The agency proved to have a great deal of political power of its own, however. This era also marked a renewed interest in the then neglected Emerald Necklace, which the state and cities of Brookline and Boston began restoring in the 1980s. The Emerald Necklace Conservancy, a public-private partnership now actively campaigning to take down the Casey and reconnect the link in the Emerald Necklace that was obliterated by it, was formed in 1996 to protect and help maintain the park.
The late 1960s and early 70s saw a broad coalition not only of citizens but also elected officials objecting to the highway plan. Reacting to the changing winds, Governor Frank Sargent put together a citizen task force to review every major transit and highway project in the state in 1969. That same year Mayor Kevin White asked Sargent for a moratorium on all highway construction in Boston—which the governor accepted and expanded to include all highway construction inside Route 128.
Thus began a major shift in the state—rare in the nation—toward investing in transit expansion. The Orange Line’s Elevated on Washington street was finally dismantled according to Mayor Curley’s wish, and the line moved to its present location in the Southwest Corridor—where a linear park and bike path were also installed. The Red Line was also extended in both directions, and several parking structures built at terminal stations across the MBTA system. Much later, the Central Artery was also dismantled and put underground as part of the Big Dig.
No longer considered part of a highway plan, hardly ever remembered as part of a highway plan, the Casey Overpass of today is crumbling, and the neighborhood is carefully considering its future. The controversies that developed over the highway proposals of the past helped ensure that a full public process preceded any work on the old bridge, with a 35-member Working Advisory Group meeting 12 times over nine months and six large public meetings to discuss what became over time two concepts for its replacement. One at-grade, and one a not-quite-so massive bridge. Once the state announces a decision, a further public process will help determine all the details of what the next chapter in Forest Hills history will look like.
[Ed.—Additional information from former Gov. Michael Dukakis was added to this article after initial publication.]