Freeways and the death of the great American city


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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16 Responses

  1. Avatar Dennis says:

    Now, you are talking to a person who is from Michigan and is a car nut, but there is some sense in your views as well. I do have a keen interest in freeways and always have since I was a little kid, but I do think there is something to be said about not having freeways barrel into cities. In my hometown of Flint, MI, the freeway that came into the city went through a primarily black neighborhood displacing the residents and the same can be said for Interstate 94 when it went through St. Paul, MN (I live in Minneapolis) and displaced the Rondo neighborhood which also was mainly African American. I’m not anti-freeway (nor am I anti-mass transit) but I can say that urban freeways did hurt African Americans immensely.

    I would disagree with your take on the death of American cities and the suburbs however. St. Louis’ decline isn’t simply because a freeway went in, but for a lot of reasons. Minneapolis and St. Paul both have a lot of life in their cities and they have been great places to live. Being from the Rust Belt, there are a lot of reasons (mostly economic) that cities decline.

    As for suburbs, well, while they are not my perferred place to live, the fact of the matter is a lot of Americans do live in the suburbs. While there might be a sense of sameness at some level, I also think there is a lot more diversity in the suburbs than meets the eye. Twin Cities suburbs are becoming home to thriving immigrant populations for one thing. I guess I tend to favor some of what Joel Kotkin has said about suburbs, and while it isn’t my cup of tea, it is not always the bland hell that those of us that are urban tend to think.Report

    • Avatar Will H. in reply to Dennis says:

      @Dennis, You make a good point about the immigrant communities.
      In Kansas City, there is a huge Italian population, and not a single grocer would think of not carrying Italian sausage. It’s kind of difficult to find in St. Louis, if you’re able to find it at all.
      St. Louis does have a sizable Croatian community, and it’s common these days to see an aisle at the grocers with that writing I don’t understand.
      When I was in Milwaukee, I started going to a Polish deli to buy my beer and tea. Sometimes I would have to wait for them to bring someone who spoke English up to help me, but that didn’t bother me at all. I always had high quality tea and beer.
      Unfortunately, I took a liking to the Zywiec (pronounced ZIV- yitch) porter, and I’m not able to find it anywhere else. (There’s also a sausage called “Zywiecka” which is very good). I buy the place out (except for one or two) whenever I go to Milwaukee.Report

  2. Avatar Will H. says:

    St. Louis is a special case. What happened was, long ago, the city decided that the county was taking up too much of its services while not paying enough to fund them. So, they removed themselves from the county. The City of St. Louis is not within St. Louis County– it’s not in any county at all.
    The Earnings Tax (3% of the gross for everyone that lives or works in the City of St. Louis) convinced a lot of people and businesses to move from the city to the county.
    Meanwhile, the county has always been a vibrant and diversified community. I remember reading at a display (about the World Fair) at a museum there that families would often come to Forest Park with blankets to spread out on the grass, and they would sleep there overnight (there was a heat wave going on at the time). That area (University City, I believe) is still a popular place.
    The County is strong, but the city is dwindling, and it’s been like that for a long time. They cut their own throats. The story is indeed one of poor foresight, but it’s much larger than a single park.
    And Lindbergh runs parallel (curve and all) with 270, right through downtown Kirkwood and on to Lemay. I don’t see Kirkwood suffering for lack of a freeway (or Clayton, or Oakville, etc.).
    I don’t see why anyone would go to the city when the county is so much nicer.Report

  3. Avatar Ian M. says:

    I would second Dennis on the effects of freeway routes and African American communities. The story of I-40 in Nashville is one of the most nakedly racist tales I’ve ever encountered. The planning of Ellington Parkway was similar. Both these highways destroyed vibrant, predominantly African American, neighborhoods.

    Also, I grew up in the ultimate car town – Detroit, home to the first urban depressed freeway in America! Built in 1942, the Davidson freeway coincides with Detroit’s peak population (about1.8 million) and the place has been sliding downhill ever since. If there’s a correlation it’s weak, but I think it’s striking that the decline of Detroit almost perfectly mirrors the rise of the freeway.Report

  4. Avatar North says:

    I wanna agree partially with Dennis about Minneapolis. The c ity has a vibrant magnificent downtown. But I believe this is despite the freeways. I used to live in the Loring neighborhood which was a upper crust neighborhood on the edge of downtown. It had and still has magnificent churches built by their well to do. But when the highway came in all the wealthy abandoned the neighborhood and all their graceful townhouses and manors were converted into apartments. The neighborhoods are only just beginning to regenerate now.Report

  5. Avatar Sam M says:

    “A city like Phoenix which is essentially built for freeways will never be a great city.”

    OK. But does it want to be a great city? Does it try to be? It must be a nice place to live. A lot of people are moving there, or have in the recent past. (People make this argument about NYC all the time, and it rings true to me.) I understand that policy has a huge impact on peoples’ preferences. I get it. But many years of preference-making have… made preferences. And a lot of people prefer a 3,500-square-foot single-family home with a yard and a garage. And when a few million of them get together and invent a place to live, you get Phoenix. Not London. So be it. I just have a hard time buying the agrument that this basket of preferences is “spiritually” deficient.

    “All of which pushes urbanites out of the city and into the suburbs. As Tim notes, this exodus is hardly chosen.”

    Again, I am not so sure. I suspect that preferences and policy were working in the same direction, rather than one “causing” or “pushing” the other. Read Mencken some time. There were LOTS of reasons people did not like living in cities like Baltimore. And many of those reasons had nothing to do with highways or parking requirements.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Sam M says:

      @Sam M,

      I mostly agree with this comment. If you want to stick 3 million people together, you really have a couple of options. You either pack them in tightly or you rely on freeways to allow them to spread out. Both cases have their pluses and minuses. Both cases have their pluses and minuses. You simply can’t talk about suburbs without also talking about the ability to have larger houses and yards and so on. And you can’t dismiss these benefits as something that people only think they want without simply disregarding preferences that are not your own.

      That being said, there is a good counterargument in that there are a lot of Phoenices and very few NYCs and without government intervention there might be a better balance. My guess is that given their druthers a lot of people would prefer to be more packed in with the benefits that it provides and because of public policies it is made more difficult.

      I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should try to help those that want to live the NYC lifestyle in other cities do so. But I am unsympathetic to the argument that we should try to turn every city into a regional variant of NYC. EDK doesn’t like the freeways and the sprawl, but a lot of people do… and it’s not that we’ve been duped.Report

      • Avatar Sam M in reply to Trumwill says:


        I would be happy to let the market hold more sway. And I think ED and people like MY make a great point when they argue that a vast national campaign of highway building and minimum parking requirements is not, actually, some kind of libertarian utopia. Libertarians do not take that argument seriously enough.

        At the same time, I go back to my objection that casting this in “spiritual” terms is hugely overwrought. It’s not like prefering to live in a 20-story building with 450-square-foot studio apartments gives you more access to the divine. For almost all of history, living that way was well-nigh impossible, and peoples’ spirits survived just fine.

        Yes, modern american suburbia was an accident of policy, economics, culture, preferences and a whole host of other factors. But so was “The Great American City.” They both have their place, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that either is “better” on some cosmic level.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Sam M says:

          @Sam M, unfortunately, the market is inherently warped by government policy because even if we set aside land-use restrictions in the like, we still have public utilities, road-building, and so on. I don’t think it’s remotely possible to do these in a truly neutral manner.

          Regarding the supposed spirituality-dearth of the suburbs, I am in 100% agreement. I don’t really comment on it because it’s one of those intangible things that people feel rather than know and EDK and I have irreconcilably different views.Report

  6. I think it’s important to denote the difference between ‘freeways’ (usually ring roads that are intended for use by the city’s residents) and interstates. I think interstates are the primary problems. Routing interstate traffic through urban areas is a mess and creates numerous problems for the residents. We’re having the same battle in Louisville trying to getrid of expansion plans for I-64 right in the middle of our downtown area. It’s a real mess for us because we have three interstates that merge right in the middle of our city center.Report

    • @Mike at The Big Stick, I don’t entirely agree about routing Interstates through interstates*, but what you call “freeways” most places I’ve been are simply called “loops” and freeways represent any road with controlled access, most of which are Interstates or State Highways that connect cities and run through cities while connecting to other cities.

      * – The problem in my home town is that if you do away with those, you have to add to the loop for people trying to get from one side of town to the other. The interstates that go through the city alleviate traffic on the loop going around it.Report

  7. Avatar sam says:

    Well, some situations can be redeemed. When Boston buried the Central Artery, it reunited Charlestown with the rest of the city. And replaced one of the ugliest roads in America with walkways and parkways. Not that the project has been a worldbeating success overall, but that part was, I think.Report

  8. I think a great counterpoint to all of this discussion is Boston: the city itself is small with one of if not the largest suburban to urban population ratio in the country. A huge network of tunnels connects northern suburbs to southern suburbs, and ferries and subways respectively bring people to the city from the eastern and western suburbs. No one would say Boston is a lousy, uncultured city, yet it seems to defy most of the discussion on this site about this topic. I’m not saying there’s anything causal about it, and Boston may even be “the exception that proves the rule” although I’ve never really understood what that expression means. Anyways, just throwing out some food for thought.Report