Guest Host: Matt McCleskey

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has made highway expansion a centerpiece of his transportation plan, which has led to balking and organizing by some Montgomery and Prince George’s County residents. It’s not the first time, though, that locals have fought major road projects. In the ’60s and ’70s, people in the Washington region pushed back against federal freeway construction, successfully stopping some and rerouting other highways.

We look back at local “freeway revolts” and explore how they shaped the geography and transportation systems of the Washington region.

Produced by Mark Gunnery


  • Linda Poon Staff writer, CityLab; @linpoonsays
  • Chris Myers Asch Editor of Washington History; History instructor at Colby College; Co-author of "Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital"; @chrismyersasch


  • 12:32:02

    MATT MCCLESKEYWelcome back to the Kojo Nnamdi Show, here on WAMU 88.5. I'm Matt McCleskey, sitting in today for Kojo. Maryland's Governor Larry Hogan has made highway expansion and the addition of toll lanes a centerpiece of his transportation plan. And that's not sitting well with some residents of Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties, where the new lanes will be built. They've been pushing back at rather heated town halls.

  • 12:32:25

    MATT MCCLESKEYIt's not the first time, though, that locals have fought major road projects. In the 1960s, people around the Washington region and elsewhere around the country fought against federal highway construction, successfully stopping some highways and rerouting some others. Today, we're looking back at the so-called "freeway revolts," and how they shaped the geography and roads in and around Washington. Joining me now to discuss, Linda Poon, a staff writer at CityLab. Thanks so much for being here.

  • 12:32:51

    LINDA POONThanks for having me.

  • 12:32:52

    MCCLESKEYBefore we get into the specifics of what happened here in the Washington region, let's first set the stage. Why were so many freeways built across the country, starting in the mid-1950s?

  • 12:33:01

    POONSo, starting in the mid-1950s, highway planners had this grand plan to build a 41,000-mile interstate system. And so they started with sort of rural communities, because it was easier land access and everything. And the idea is that, you know, highways bring easier access between suburbs and cities, and it will cut community costs, therefore, you know, therefore boosting the local economy of downtowns.

  • 12:33:30

    MCCLESKEYWell, as highway construction spread across the country, so did resistance, in some places. Why were people skeptical of the new highways? How did they demonstrate their opposition?

  • 12:33:38

    POONYeah. So, once they started expanding into sort of urban areas, and a lot of the plans that were drawn up at the beginning were cut through neighborhoods. And that caused a lot of concerns for residents. Some obvious ones are the environmental concerns. So, you have your air pollution, your traffic congestion, noise pollution. So, a lot of cities started fighting back. The most popular one, famous cases, Jane Jacobs fighting back the Lower Manhattan Expressway in New York City. And then we have a case here in D.C., as well, fighting back the last 10 miles of Interstate 66 connecting D.C. to Virginia.

  • 12:34:21

    MCCLESKEYYeah, and others, as well, in our region. We're going to be talking more about those, particularly. And joining us, also, by phone, Chris Myers Asch. He's a history instructor at Colby College, and he runs the Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta, Maine. He's the coauthor of "Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital." Christ Myers Asch, thanks for joining us.

  • 12:34:41

    CHRIS MYERS ASCHThank you for having me.

  • 12:34:42

    MCCLESKEYWell, what was the initial plan for highway construction here in Washington, or where were highways slated to be built, originally, coming into the city?

  • 12:34:51

    ASCHWell, it's hard to exaggerate how popular highways were, as you have been talking about in terms of -- not just in terms of economic development, but city revitalization, national defense. Everybody seemed to love highways. And so comprehensive plans drawn up in 1959 laid out a whole extensive network of highways, including some that were built, like the Capital Beltway, which opened in 1963. But there was also going to be an outer beltway beyond that, but also what they called the inner loop, which would go down F Street and would be like an interior beltway through downtown that would be connected by these spoke highways, out to what we now know as the Beltway.

  • 12:35:39

    ASCHAnd so D.C. would have more highway, more concrete per capita than any other city in the country, had they all been built. And, as we've been talking about, these highways were planned to go right through neighborhoods, right through existing neighborhoods. And we're talking about 10-lane highways. These were massive highways that would have leveled Brooklyn and Takoma Park, Silver Spring. And there was actually even a plan that was going to go -- one of the spokes connecting this inner loop to the outer loop to the Beltway was going to go through Cleveland Park, you know, right along Wisconsin Avenue. And, of course, that's a very wealthy part of town. That got shot down very quickly. Planners abandoned that almost immediately, and then focused on the other areas.

  • 12:36:29

    MCCLESKEYYou can just imagine the impact on the city, had all these roads been built. So, it seems like not just the one in Cleveland Park, but some of the others through Brooklyn and Takoma Park, as well, did not wind up being built. The protest movement was effective, and you said it's one of Washington's most significant and successful protest movements. What changed as a result of pushback from residents?

  • 12:36:50

    ASCHThe movement against the highways was extraordinary, and then one of the unheralded social movements of the late 20th Century. And it started with a teeny, little neighborhood group called the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis. Didn't have a cute little acronym or anything, but ECTC was extraordinarily effective. It was launched by a man named Sammie Abbott. Those of you in Takoma Park, Maryland probably know of him very well, former mayor of Takoma Park. And he found out that one of the planned highways, North Central Freeway, was supposed to go right through his front yard and destroy his entire neighborhood.

  • 12:37:27

    ASCHAnd so he gathered together some of his neighbors in Takoma Park, and they started protesting. This was in 1964, when pretty much money had been appropriated, everything was in place. The bulldozers were starting up, and it was pretty much inevitable. I mean, all the big players, corporations, the developers, the members of Congress, the press, everybody supported these highways, except for ECTC and a growing number of neighborhood activists.

  • 12:37:53

    ASCHAnd Sammie Abbott recruited a young African American fellow named Reginald Booker, and the two of them really became this tag-team that put together this cross-class coalition, cross-class, cross-race coalition. He recruited lawyer Peter Stebbins Craig from across the park, on the west side of the park. They started filing lawsuits. They protested any time the city went through to condemn buildings to prepare for demolition. Reginald Booker and Sammie Abbott would come out with crowbars to unboard the properties and clean them back up and put families back in.

  • 12:38:33

    ASCHThey did not want any of those highways built. They advocated instead for a subway, a subway system that would be more accessible to the poor and to people in the city, as opposed to highways that were built for suburbanites to get into and out of the city.

  • 12:38:47

    MCCLESKEYLooking at this now, you can see that the impact would've been huge. You can imagine the neighborhoods and people displaced, had all these roads been built through the city. And how many people are we talking? How many homes, potentially, could've been destroyed? How many people would've had to move?

  • 12:39:02

    ASCHSeveral thousand homes, you know, more than 10,000 people. It would've been a significant displacement. And those are just the ones that were in the direct path. But you can imagine, as a highway slices through a neighborhood, the entire fabric of the neighborhood is rendered, right. It's torn apart. You see this in many Southern cities. If you look at New Orleans or Houston or Atlanta, where highways just spliced through the heart of cities, Durham, North Carolina, and those neighborhoods are destroyed. I mean, it's very difficult to have neighborhood cohesion.

  • 12:39:36

    ASCHSo, even if a family's not displaced, even if their home's not condemned, they're negatively affected by the presence of a highway. And if you look at the maps, I mean, it really would've been an extraordinarily negative impact. But this ragtag group of protestors, white and black, poor and wealthy, lawyers and government workers, you know, set out with a freelance artist. I mean, these people had no power. And the D.C. residents, of course, at the time, didn't have any right to vote. They didn't have any local government, anybody to appeal to at all. And yet they continually won in the courts. They won in the court of public opinion, and it became very clear that the people of D.C. and surrounding suburbs did not want these highways.

  • 12:40:22

    ASCHAnd, finally, what was inevitable in 1964, when Sammie Abbott first took up the cause, really becomes impossible by the early 1970s. And now, of course, it's unthinkable. We can't imagine. You know, much of what we love about our city -- these walkable neighborhoods, the beautiful old architecture, the townhomes, and so forth -- all of that would've been destroyed. And so it really is remarkable what they were able to preserve through this interracial movement.

  • 12:40:52

    MCCLESKEYWell, looking at it in hindsight, it does seem obvious that it would be terrible to tear up neighborhoods and put these highways through, coming into downtown D.C. Linda Poon, what was the argument for it?

  • 12:41:04

    POONSo, in general, on sort of a bigger context, the argument was that, you know, if you cut commuting costs, you would bring more foot traffic into the city. And, you know, back then, highway planners were thinking, you know, if a lot of these downtown areas were suffering from blight and vacancies, they can easily just tear them apart and then rebuild downtowns without really considering that they were displacing families. That they were lowering population decline -- or, sorry, lowering population in these city centers, because more affluent residents were moving into the suburbs, because now commuting into the city would be easy, and therefore taking away tax revenue and just investing in cities.

  • 12:41:52

    POONSo, I guess highway planners, in the beginning, didn't really see it that way. And so these protests sort of came as a surprise to them. And what actually happened, though, is you saw population decline. Like I said before, you saw lower employment rate, because of these barriers that Chris had talked about. You know, cutting access to job opportunities. And then you saw lower income levels, lower land values. So, these effects were the most prominent, sort of, in neighborhoods that were near urban centers where highways were built.

  • 12:42:29

    MCCLESKEYWe had one Tweet from dreamafrisk, is the handle. She says: I revolted against I-66 before it was built, as young as we were. I dug up $100, she says, to stand with neighbors in Arlington to stop 66 then. It cut a mean swath through neighborhoods. Certainly, that is something that looks like would've been even more broadly spread around the Washington region, had the initial plans been followed. Linda Poon, I want to ask, in the end, how did the fight against the highways in D.C. shape both how the interstate system and the metro look today?

  • 12:42:59

    POONSo, the interesting thing with I-66 is that it was meant to be built through Arlington and Fairfax Counties. And because it was delayed first, because of Metro planning, highways planners were, you know, let's push it back, and let Metro planning -- or the planning on how to build the rail system. And so that got pushed back, and then lawsuits were filed. And by the time the lawsuit process went in, the rail, I believe, had already been built. And so the I-66 -- the last 10-mile stretch between D.C. and Virginia were sort of deemed obsolete.

  • 12:43:35

    POONAnd so a new proposal was to downsize I-66 from eight lanes to four lanes, and sort of shift it to, I guess, a different area. So, if you see a map -- which you can see on -- you can see how I-66 diverted. And so, you know, that just made more of a case for public transit, rather than highway building.

  • 12:44:03

    MCCLESKEYYeah, well, Chris Myers Asch, as you said, it was a cross-racial and cross-class coalition that fought against these, but there were some racial undertones and overtones to the fight against highway expansion, including the slogan, in one case, “no white man's road through black men's homes.” And black organizations from SNCC to the Federation of Civic Associations fought the freeway construction. What were the racial fault lines at work in this debate?

  • 12:44:30

    ASCHWell, this is the mid and late 1960s, of course, when this movement takes off. And so we're at the height of the civil rights movement, the beginning of the Black Power movement, and people are beginning to speak in racial terms in ways that they had not before. And interpreting events and understanding events in their full racial dynamic way that, even five or 10 years earlier, would not have been expressed so bluntly and so clearly.

  • 12:45:01

    ASCHI think one thing that was clear was that the neighborhoods that were chosen, that were slated for destruction not coincidently happened to be primarily low-income, primarily black neighborhoods. The fact that the Congress instituted a moratorium in 1964 on any highway construction north and west of 12th and F Street was a real indication about whose neighborhoods should be protected and whose should not. All that had to happen, really, after the initial plans came out, members of Congress noticed that, you know, some highways were slated to go through Cleveland Park. Very quickly, they objected, boom, there's a moratorium established.

  • 12:45:41

    ASCHMeanwhile, highways going through -- that had already been built through Southeast and Southwest Washington, highways that were slated to go through black neighborhoods in Northeast and in Northwest Washington, those plans were going forward, even though, as you said, many organizations pretty much universally, there was unanimous opposition in those neighborhoods to the construction of those highways. But those voices were not heard, SNCC voices were not heard. The voices of the local civic groups were just not heard in the same way that the concerns of wealthier white residents in Northwest were heard.

  • 12:46:16

    ASCHAnd so people very much saw this in racial terms to say, look, you're building these highways for white consumers who have abandoned the city, moved out to the suburbs. You're trying to lure them back, and you're building these highways on the backs of black neighborhoods. It was very hard to miss the racial dynamics of that equation.

  • 12:46:38

    MCCLESKEYYou mentioned Southeast and Southwest D.C., and we've been talking primarily about highways that didn't get built. But, of course, I-395 comes right up into the southern part of D.C. And if you're heading through those neighborhoods, there are row houses. In some cases, they go right up to where it is. I mean, what was the impact in that part of the city when that highway and others in that area were built?

  • 12:46:59

    ASCHWell, you can see. I mean, look at Southwest, I mean, basically, urban planners through what was called urban renewal -- which, in some ways, predates, but it's part of, you know, how our movement grows out of the urban renewal movement. And D.C. was a test case. Southwest was a little petri dish, where urban planners were going to create the city of the future. And so, you look at parts of the Southwest, and that's what they wanted. They wanted high-rises, lots of highways spaghetti-ing through, in and out.

  • 12:47:30

    ASCHSouthwest was leveled. Southwest was destroyed. Ninety-nine percent of those buildings were destroyed to make way for the highways and for the high-rise buildings. And, again, as Linda was saying, this is part of this larger effort to, what planners said, you know, revitalize cities. And, in their terms, revitalization meant bringing white people, wealthy people back to the city, either permanently, as residents. Like in Southwest, they built high-rise, luxury apartments precisely to bring upper-middle-class people back into the city, or to bring them in temporarily to shop. And that's what the function of the highways was, to bring people in temporarily, shop, and then get them back out to their suburbs.

  • 12:48:12

    ASCHBut, you know, we saw the effect of 23,000 people -- a community of 23,000 people was basically wiped off the face of D.C. And Southwest Washington was at the center of D.C. history for the city's first 150 years, and then it was just leveled.

  • 12:48:28

    MCCLESKEYIt was gone. Well, in your book "Chocolate City," you describe the local push to stop freeways as the beginning of a new era of confrontational politics in Washington. Now, what were the long-term ramifications of this movement on local politics in the District?

  • 12:48:42

    ASCHWell, this is happening at the same time as the civil rights struggle. Refocus is on D.C. We had a burst of civil right activity right after World War II, accomplished a lot of what the civil rights movement elsewhere in the South would not accomplish for another decade. But we still didn't have the right to vote. We still didn't have any participatory democracy in the city. You know, a lot of people like to think of 1968 and the riots of 1968 as kind of being the beginning of the end of the city. You know, all these areas were devastated, people would flood the city, and there was just this destruction that spiraled downward, you know, until the crack epidemic and bankruptcy in the '90s.

  • 12:49:20

    ASCHBut it's really not true, because the anti-freeway movement reaches its height after 1968. The home rule movement finally succeeds after 1968. And the home rule bill has this wonderful little provision that was inserted, much to the chagrin of established political leaders, to create ANCs, right, the neighborhood commissions where local people, at the neighborhood level, can really have a voice in the city.

  • 12:49:50

    ASCHThe historic preservation movement doesn't really gain steam until after 1968. And so, this whole year where city residents, D.C. residents are saying, you know what? We want control over the city. You have been controlling us for too long, you and Congress, you, the unelected commissioners. We want to take our city back. Right? We want to take control. We're going to express ourselves at the ballot box. We're going to express ourselves in protests on the street. We're going to express ourselves at the ANC level. We're going to express ourselves through historic preservation. We are going to have a say in what happens in our city.

  • 12:50:26

    MCCLESKEYAnd it really did usher in some change in how politics is done in Washington. That's Chris Myers Asch. He's the coauthor of "Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital." And we are coming up on the end of the hour. I quickly want to mention a Tweet, though, from Botts, Incorporated, the handle, who says: did I miss the mention of Bible Way Church? The founder, Bishop Smallwood Williams, fought and won the construction of 395 such that his church was not moved. Instead, the tunnel is next to the church. I know that is in “Chocolate City,” Chris Myers Asch. You can find more information on that there.

  • 12:50:58

    MCCLESKEYWe are out of time, though, at the end of this hour. I want to thank you both for being here. Christ Myers Asch, also Linda Poon, a staff writer at CityLab. Thanks so much for coming in to talk about this aspect of the history of D.C., particularly around the building of the freeways back in the 1960s. Thanks for being here.

  • 12:51:11

    POONThank you.

  • 12:51:12

    ASCHThanks for having us.

  • 12:51:13

    MCCLESKEYAnd I'm Matt McCleskey, filling in today for Kojo. Thank you for joining us. Join us tomorrow. We're talking about cutting pedestrian deaths in Prince George's County, including lowering speed limits on some dangerous roads. Also, with the Citi Open underway, we'll get the latest updates on the tennis tournament. I'm Matt McCleskey, in today for Kojo. Thanks for listening.

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