Will Baltimore's Black Communities Ever See Justice for the "Highway to Nowhere"?Breaking News
tags: infrastructure, racism, Baltimore, urban history, eminent domain, urban renewal, highways
Glenn Smith had just closed the car door and stepped onto the sidewalk in front of his childhood home when he recognized an old friend coming toward him. “Chubb!” Smith called out with a big smile. It was right before Christmas and the two men, both in their mid-70s, began reminiscing about growing up in the Rosemont neighborhood, specifically the Lauretta Avenue blocks around the Smith family’s corner rowhouse.
“‘Fort Lauretta,’ that was the Smith house,” says Laneaue Burch, explaining that everything and everyone had a nickname in the close-knit West Baltimore community. (“I got ‘Chubb’ because I was skinny.”) “This is where we gathered and played football. I caught a lot of passes in this street and that empty lot,” he continues, gesturing across the intersection. “This time of the year, we’d be pulling out our new footballs and roller skates—those metal skates you snapped over your shoes. Skating in the streets was big. Oh man, we had fun.”
Ironically, a sign on the corner now reads: “No Ballplaying in the Street,” though few kids appear to live or play here anymore.
Their neighborhood had everything a family needed in the 1950s and 1960s, says Smith, one of eight children raised by his father, grandmother, and a half-dozen “block moms” after his mother died. “This wasn’t the food desert it became. There were corner stores and grocery stores, clothing, furniture, and hardware stores, bakeries, pharmacies—mostly Black- or Jewish-owned—and movie houses, like the Harlem Theater at Edmondson and Harlem, the Bridge Theater at Edmondson and Pulaski,” he says, ticking off two favorite Saturday hangouts. “I tell people it was a Norman Rockwell existence.”
Then, in 1969, two years after Smith graduated from Edmondson High, the city informed his family that their home stood in the path of a planned expressway, and they intended to demolish it. Originally named I-170 (later re-designated Route 40), it was supposed to connect the booming white suburbs to Baltimore’s downtown business district. It certainly wasn’t conceived to assist Black commuters. The Franklin and Mulberry streets corridor had first been identified in 1944 by consultant and notorious New York highway builder Robert Moses as the path of least resistance—in other words, low income and Black. Neither Smith’s father, a crane operator, nor Burch’s father, who cooked at a white country club, owned a car. Before the expressway, the city had a dependable transit system: streetcars, and then buses, that reached Black neighborhoods.
“What choice did he have? My father took the money offered and moved to Windsor Hills,” recalls Smith, glancing down the hill to the near-empty east-west expressway, or rather the 1.39-mile stub, since known as the Highway to Nowhere because it never got connected to I-70, I-95, I-83, or any other major road. “Then, he had to get a car. My youngest siblings moved with him. I joined the Marines and the rest went on their own. I don’t think my father, who’d come to Baltimore from North Carolina after he got out of the Navy, ever adjusted.”
The dismantling of corridor neighborhoods had begun shortly before the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—and ramped up after them. Ultimately, 971 homes, 62 businesses, and one school were leveled, and more than 2,800 people were displaced. On Lauretta Avenue and elsewhere, almost everyone Smith and Burch knew—whether homeowners, tenants, or “rent-to-own” families—were forced out. It is a cruel twist that Fort Lauretta was spared and resold by the city after construction began in 1974. (Burch’s aunt was one person who did not sell, however, and her Lauretta Avenue home was spared as well. Burch eventually took over her home after she passed.)