Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Big Bad Roadway Remembered

The Inner Belt, a roadway project that would have reaped destruction through the Boston area, including cutting through the heart of Cambridge, was one of the terrible transportation ideas from the 1960s that was finally killed by the activism of the early 1970s.  The Cambridge Historical Society is examining this fascinating topic in a series of discussions beginning on April 4.

The implications of the Inner Belt were massive, and focused almost entirely on the needs of the automobile.  Streets right through the heart of Central Square in Cambridge would have been obliterated, similar to the area around Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston which had already succumbed to the wrecking ball before the project was halted.  As we know, courtesy of almost fifty years of hindsight to help us, these projects created dead zones throughout urban areas, dead zones that take a very long time to bring back to life.

I applaud the CHS for focusing on this topic, both because the issues still have implications for today's decision-makers, and for activating what I call "near history", history that is near enough to the present to be part of living memory, and benefit from the breathing record of those times.  Indeed, some of the activists who successfully stopped it will be a part of the program.

Of course, though projects come and go, needs remain, and many of the same questions raised by the Inner Belt -- namely, how to overcome the spoke and hub pattern of transit into downtown Boston by creating circumferential systems -- have not yet been solved.  As the economy goes through its next iteration, with the rise of Kendall Square in Cambridge as one of the key players regionally, and the efforts by Boston to develop the Seaport district, the pressures only mount to have the public investments in transit aid the effective movement of people around the region, particularly as cities regain their luster as hip, cool places to be after decades of flight.