Transportation Planning Legacies: The Crosstown Expressway

In the post-war era, the reinvigorated Philadelphia Citizen’s Council on City Planning sought to influence a vision of the city in which economic and cultural development would be drawn back into Center City by a plan of urban redevelopment, housing solutions, and modern expressways designed by Edmund Bacon and Oscar Stonorov (Bauman 1990). Recognizing the movement of primarily white residents out to the surrounding suburbs, in a process known as white flight that was common to major urban centers in that period, city planners began to strategize for how to bring the people and their money back into the city and thus into the tax base of the city’s economy. These strategies reflected the thoughts of earlier urban studies theorists who came out of the Chicago School and perpetuated an idea of city development patterns that were the result of individual’s personal choices, with a universalizing idea of how a city develops in concentric circles from center out to middle class suburbs (Burgess 1923). City planners took on ideals of grand city plans and architecture to entice the middle class suburban residents back into the city for work, housing, and culture (Clow 1989). Rather than recognizing the political, social, and legal structures that determined who had the freedom to move and where, thus creating the areas labeled as slums and obsolete, the economic inequality within cities was not addressed by the planning strategies of that day (Bauman 1990, Clow 1989).

As the plan for a new Philadelphia developed, the major emphasis on growth and development resulted in the construction of the Schuykill Expressway and Delaware Expressway, the former inciting some opposition and complaint due to its design and subsequent traffic woes (Bauman 1990). However, the bulk of the energy opposing transportation infrastructure was first dedicated to the Crosstown Expressway, intended to cut east-west across the city along the South Street corridor. Though this element of city renewal had been talked about consistently during the post-war era of the 1940s-50s, it wasn’t until the mayoral administration of James Tate in the 1960s that the idea would be more concretely discussed and subsequently opposed (Clow 1989).

In his description of the ideal city design for Philadelphia, Edmund Bacon advanced the ideal of a city of enclave neighborhoods that were not connected to each other in a grid, but were arranged like gardens along sweeping highways (Bauman 1990). Bacon promoted a “clearly expressed movement system” in the Design of Cities, which built upon the Chicago School model of a city that is uniformly organized with a clear central district surrounded by outer zones of residential enclaves (Burgess 1923). It was the beginning of the folly of relieving traffic congestion by adding and expanding roads, which we now know creates induced demand.

Resistance to the Crosstown Expressway activated the community to resist the labeling as slums and to champion the value of their neighborhood. In 1967, a diverse base of residents formed the Citizens’ Committee to Preserve and Develop the Crosstown Community (Clow 1989) which highlighted the need for resources to counter resident displacement and sought ways to obtain greater investment in the existing physical neighborhood. Significant portions of the area where the Crosstown Expressway was destined to be built were inhabited by black residents. Recent unrest in North Philadelphia had raised the profile of communities facing displacement, which made the Crosstown project a less favorable project for those in local politics. Additionally, in the western portion of the highway’s path, wealthy white neighbors had a political legacy in their involvement with the Central Philadelphia Reform Democrats. Finally, some city planners with a new bent towards structural thinking and social issues latched onto the project and debated the architectural sensibility of the plan which disregarded neighborhood input (Clow 1989).

These various groups each worked with various frames of meaning-making around the neighborhoods at risk, forming identities both within their place and from various other racial and power dynamics. Their collective-action frames addressed the issues of neighborhood input and determination at different scales, influencing both local politics as well as the regional planning organizations. After the project lost political support and the necessity of the freeway was called into question by city planners, it was finally scrapped in the early 1970s. Although victory could be declared for the neighborhoods saved from demolition, the political machinations in Philadelphia still exerted far more influence over future city planning projects than community activists. The shift in economic investment over the following decades would see more investment in highways and a steady decrease in public transportation, a reflection of the ongoing prioritizing of white residents and suburbanization.