US 40, a 1.32 mile, six-lane freeway, cleaves west Baltimore in two. The sunken cavern of cracking asphalt stands as a testament—a monument of sorts—to the awesome human destruction wrought by the interstate project. As the alternative name of the road suggests, the “highway to nowhere” is a highway in form only. Local roads bookend the sunken cavern, doubling the injustice of its construction. Black neighborhoods of decades past mattered little to the engineers and public works officials determined to segregate through freeway modernism. These same officials began construction on the US 40 segment before the approval of the whole route—ultimately resulting in a fragmented road network surrounding Baltimore’s core.
The incomplete highway confirms what west Baltimore freeway activists from Relocation Action Movement (RAM) knew prior to the condemnations, to the displacement, and the wrecking ball: “We have been asked to make sacrifice after sacrifice in the name of progress, and when that progress has been achieved we find it marked ‘White Only.’”
The steps leading to the “highway to nowhere” carry forward lessons on the promises and perils of community participation and engagement in road projects. In the contemporary moment, civic participation in the planning process is suggested to advance more equitable infrastructure projects. But framing participation as a solution neglects the broader history of these practices.