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On the Wrong Side of a Right-Of-Way

See the related story What Was Saved.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Rites of Way: The Politics of Transportation in Boston and the U.S. City, by Alan Lupo, Frank Colcord, and Edmund P. Fowler. Published by Little, Brown, 1971.

Spring, 1970: Lamartine Street in the working-class district of the Jamaica Plain neighborhood in the city of Boston, ground zero of the Federal Interstate Highway System. A scattering of blacks and Puerto Ricans are here, but mostly there are white Catholics who make up the bulk of Boston’s population. Ask them where they live, and they’ll as likely tell you the parish before the name of the street. And if you’re not familiar with the parish, they’ll think it strange. You’ll call their neighborhood parochial, and some will call it colorful. Whatever you call it, those who plan, design, and construct America’s highways call it a right-of-way.

To find out what Lamartine Street was like, you have to look on the odd-numbered side of the street, because that’s not part of the right-of-way. It ranges from well-kept two- and three-story houses to somewhat shabby three-deckers to a mix of commercial and residential red brick in the style of Late Industrial Revolution.

Some houses on the even-numbered side also remain. Number 260, for example, is a yellow house with brown trim and a neat garden. Its occupants are an elderly couple. Their home is not needed for the highway. But they have seen and heard the bulldozers and the earthmovers rip up their neighbors’ homes and leave a flat dirt wasteland, all the way to Number 226, a vacant space two blocks long and a block from the street to the railroad tracks.

The old man and his wife want to be left alone. They watched the machines at work and then saw vandals rip the plumbing and pipes and all the other vital organs out of the abandoned houses, and, finally, they smelled the stench of arson and heard the almost nightly wail and clanging of fire engines.

From Number 226, a dilapidated house with its door ajar, to Number 216 is more vacant land. Both Number 216 and the house behind it are gutted.

Here, in the yard adjoining Number 216, is one of the last links in the chain reaction set off by the approach of an interstate highway. A man’s personal life, from the kind of beans his family ate and milk they drank, to the frame of their television set, is strewn all over the lawn. His wife owned a Maytag washer; they had a red scatter rug; he wore size 10 French Shriner black shoes; and he read Field & Stream and American Rifleman.

In back, in the large field that was once a neighborhood, you find other artifacts. A grisly torso of a plastic monkey in a soldier’s suit; a mangled tricycle with one wheel missing; the heart of a record, with jagged edges (“Unbreakable,” the label insists) that once featured Blue Barron and His Orchestra in “Cruising Down the River” with Vocal Ensemble; and two-thirds of another record, this one a collection of Christmas carols by Bing Crosby. Bing Crosby and Blue Barron and the American Rifleman. It may not be your lifestyle, but it was somebody’s. It was from the civilization known as White Urban Ethnic American, a local colony of which was being plowed under for Interstate 95.

Do you know that if I-95 is ever completed, it will take you from Houlton, Maine, to South Miami, Florida, a distance of 1,866 miles, without one traffic light? Not one traffic light.