Tales from the T: The Southwest Expressway

Graphic by Kayla Drazan

Last week, we discussed the Atlantic Avenue Elevated, which once carried subway trains above the Boston waterfront. One of several bygone elevated railroads in Boston, both it and today’s Orange Line tunnel once connected to another line, the Washington Street Elevated. This line ran to Forest Hills via Washington Street and Nubian Square. Part of the Orange Line until 1987, the Washington Street Elevated was then demolished, ostensibly due to its noise and age. The Orange Line was then rerouted westward to its current route, in a trench alongside commuter and intercity trains. If postwar planners had their way, the line would also have run alongside an eight-lane expressway. What happened?

In the postwar era, American railroads entered a period of decline — which, alongside excessive em dashes, is quickly becoming a recurring feature of this column. Cars were the fast, stylish, futuristic way to travel, and governments planned massive taxpayer-funded highways accordingly. In 1948, the Master Highway Plan for Metropolitan Boston was released, which envisioned, alongside other routes, an expressway along the Boston-Providence railway. This “Southwest Expressway” would directly link downtown to the southwest and would include a rerouted Orange Line in its median. 

Of course, it takes far more than drawing a line on a map to build an expressway. Even though it followed an existing railroad, over 700 households would need to be evicted. Entire communities would be slashed in two by a 300-foot wide trench — or simply obliterated.

But it was no coincidence that these communities, like Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, were home to many low-income people of color. It was no coincidence that these were the very communities being bankrupted by government-sanctioned redlining. And it was no coincidence that these communities, like others across the country that lacked political capital and power, were to be the sacrificial lambs for white suburban commuters. 

Thankfully, residents were able to successfully fight back against this butchering of their neighborhoods. In 1970, a moratorium was placed on expressway construction within Greater Boston, calling instead for transportation designed for neighboring communities. In 1972, the Southwest Expressway was canceled. 

But by then, land had already been taken for the expressway. It was decided that the Orange Line would be rerouted. The remaining land would be turned into the Southwest Corridor Park, a ribbon of greenery with design features varying based on the needs of individual neighborhoods. 

These neighborhoods were the lucky ones. By 1970, highways had already been hacked all the way into downtown Boston. Adjacent neighborhoods like Chinatown and East Somerville remain exposed to dangerous levels of airborne pollutants, a risk that, unsurprisingly, disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color.  

We now know that building more roads actually increases traffic, instead of reducing it. We now know that cars are a major cause of pollution and deaths in America. In short, we now know that the Southwest Expressway was frankly a bad idea. But whether we now know how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and how to heal the communities wounded by our choices is up to us.


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