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Street Smart

An unstoppable highway meets an immovable community. And yields.

A group of harried travelers pours out of the train station’s heavy aluminum doors. We are all rushing — across the street toward the bus stop, racing home or to work or to errands. This is Roxbury Crossing, bustling at 1:00 pm on a weekday afternoon. A guy is standing outside selling incense, African black soap, and essential oils. Behind him Domino’s Pizza is doing a brisk midday business. The woman next to me eyes her watch. A teenager talks into her cell phone. We all know where we are supposed to be and when. But I wonder: Is anyone else thinking about how we really got here and why?

The landscape here tells the story of a halt. Roxbury Crossing is not, after all, the site of a multilane elevated highway connecting suburban motorists to downtown Boston. Instead it is a busy stop along the city’s newest rapid-transit line. Where the highway’s medusa-like interchange would have roared above Boston’s streets, a glossy plaque commemorates what did not happen. It reads:

You are standing in the middle of the Southwest Corridor. It was originally planned as the twelve-lane highway shown in the drawing below. The efforts of thousands of citizens banding together to save their homes, neighborhoods and open spaces created the Orange Line rapid transit, the railroad, and the Southwest Corridor Park you are enjoying today.

As the plaque asserts, citizen activism is the theme to this story. The state’s plan for an interstate highway system through Boston was stopped not because politicians had a sudden change of heart, but because residents pressured the establishment to abandon outmoded and antidemocratic public policy. Citizens defeated the Southwest Expressway, variously planned as a 12- and then eight-lane highway, and fought to have a 52-acre linear park and mass transit take its place. In the process, local and national transportation policy — fairly dry stuff — was catalyzed into an enduring monument to the efficacy and reach of progressive democratic politics. Yet no one at the time thought this was remotely possible. What appears, in retrospect, an inevitable success story of 1960s activism was anything but.

The fight that stopped the highway through Boston began in Cambridge. Sitting in her living room one morning in 1965, Ansti Benfield eyed a newspaper headline announcing that Cambridge had lost the “veto” — a legislative vote enabling the city to reject state highway plans. Benfield had recently purchased a Central Square–area home and now feared displacement from the planned Inner Belt highway. “Well hold it, just a minute! Your adrenaline rolls when you just bought a house and you’ve got two little kids; you’re not about to move again,” Benfield recalled for me in a recent interview. “This was just a lit piece of dynamite.”

Benfield’s anger fueled a door-knocking project to rally neighbors and gather as many anti-highway signatures as possible. Neighbors offered Benfield their signatures but reminded her again and again, “You can’t beat city hall!” Within four months, Benfield and her allies collected 1,000 signatures and marched precisely to Cambridge City Hall, where she nailed them to the front door. With this defiant visual splashed across area newspapers, a local movement burst into regional consciousness.

The Cambridge battle soon traveled across the Charles River to find a powerful lever in the activism of Chuck Turner. In 1969, Turner was co-chairman of the Boston Black United Front (BBUF) as well as the Greater Boston Committee on the Transportation Crisis. The moment was ripe. The committee had created a region-spanning umbrella organization for the anti-highway movement and was intent on resetting the state’s transportation policy. The BBUF was a black nationalist organization laser-focused on creating a comprehensive development agenda for Boston’s black population.

These two organizations advanced cutting-edge political ideas about devolving state power to grassroots communities that were eager to expand local decision making. Black nationalists expressed the idea as “community control,” whereas Washington bureaucrats fighting President Johnson’s war on poverty preferred the words “maximum feasible participation.” Whatever the language, the goal was increased citizen participation and decision-making authority.

Like his Cambridge allies, Turner solicited neighbors through door-knocking campaigns. His efforts were instrumental in securing resident support to tap the gasoline tax for mass transit. On a January afternoon in 2010, I asked Turner about his original assessment of the highway fight. He replied, “You don’t win in highway fights… it’s one of those situations where it’s a long shot at winning. We felt we didn’t have any alternative but to fight against it.”

Organizers like Benfield and Turner linked the dots between bad policy, untapped citizen outrage, and anti-highway mobilizing. When they and more than 2,000 of their neighbors showed up on the steps of the Massachusetts State House on January 25, 1969, the newly inaugurated governor, Francis Sargent, knew that he was in for a struggle. However, on that day, no one — not Benfield, not Turner, and not Governor Sargent — knew who would succeed. No one knew I-95 and the Inner Belt would be scrapped. No one knew the city of Boston would be given a new public transportation line or a park. The path from protest to policy to a transformed urban infrastructure was long and arduous but not guaranteed.

Although resident-led protests, signature drives, and mass demonstrations pushed Boston’s anti-highway movement forward, they did not instantly affect the formal political process. A boisterous throng of allies in the form of advocate planners, political insiders, suburbanites, and proto-environmentalists beefed up the technical analysis and strategizing that ultimately sealed the deal. All this was only aided by Governor Sargent’s 1970 call for a comprehensive transportation policy review, with its phalanx of professional planners and technicians paid to develop ideas first birthed by protesters. With that, a citizen movement that began in living rooms and on city streets gained essential political recognition.

Today, democratic citizen input in major development decisions is a given. Some cynics contend that the people’s voice has curdled into shrill obstructionism, that local control only impedes progress. But just come to the Roxbury Crossing MBTA stop and see for yourself. Try to imagine an elevated multilane highway traveling right above your head. In this modern transit system that benefits the whole region, in this lovely four-mile linear park, in this revitalized urban community, the value of community intervention is manifest.