I was born before freeway construction began in Youngstown, but not so early that I remember the area before freeways. When I was about 6 or 7, I remember going out with my dad and walking on the roadbed of what would become I-680 on the West Side going from the Oakwood Avenue entrance toward Steel Street and the underpass at Mahoning Avenue. My dad was fascinated with the pile drivers because at that time he worked for a company involved in the manufacture of the concrete piles that would make up the foundation of the bridges. Mostly, I remember rough walking, lots of piles of dirt, and wondering whether it was really OK to be there. But I figured if anyone were to get in trouble, it would be my dad–after all, I was just the kid!
We went for rides on the freeway after it opened. At first there was just a section from the west side (and then, I don’t believe it initially extended to Meridian Road) over to South Avenue, running along the south side of downtown Youngstown. How amazing to whiz past downtown at 50 mph and get over to South Avenue in under 10 minutes!
I think many of us in the city thought only of the convenience the new freeways offered. While I was dating the girl who became my wife, I-680 was extended to and beyond Midlothian Boulevard. She lived on Midlothian, just east of the new freeway exit. The new freeway cut about 5-10 minutes off the trip over to her place, which I previously made on surface roads from South Avenue. Similarly, the Madison Avenue freeway made travel to St. Elizabeth’s and Youngstown State a breeze.
I-680, and the other freeways around Youngstown changed the city in other ways that we probably didn’t think of at the time. For one, the I-80 bypass on the north side of the city meant that many people who once would stop in Youngstown on their way east or west saw the city merely as an exit sign. The freeways facilitated travel to suburban shopping centers like Southern Park Mall and Boardman Plaza while bypassing downtown. It also meant we could connect more quickly to interstate highways that would take us to Cleveland or Pittsburgh and sports and entertainment options in those cities rather than our own.
Those who have studied freeway construction talk about how freeways isolated neighborhoods from each other, contributing in many cases to the decline of urban landscapes. Also, people lost homes and had to relocate because of freeways going through neighborhoods.
Looking at a street map of Youngstown, for example, I can see how streets in the Salt Springs area of the West Side were interrupted by the freeway right of way: Division, Eddie, Roy, Donald, Russell, and Cherry Hill all have portions both east and west of the freeway and those neighborhoods are now isolated from each other. On page 8 of The Youngstown 2010 Citywide Plan I came across statements like these:
“The land between the 711 Connector and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (U.S. 422) is also classified industrial green. This section of the North Side’s Brier Hill Neighborhood currently has a hodgepodge of commercial, industrial and residential uses. This area is currently wedged between Tod Homestead Cemetery and V & M North Star Steel, and when the 711 Connector is completed, it will be isolated from the rest of Brier Hill.”
“The majority of the Lower Gibson Neighborhood on the South Side also gets converted to green industrial use. Like Brier Hill, this area has been isolated by a freeway, in this case I-680. In addition to I-680, this area also suffers from some serious slope disadvantages. . . . Much of the residential housing stock has outlived its usefulness and many units have already been abandoned or arsoned and subsequently removed. As the old mill housing slips away, the best use for this area becomes industrial green.”
What these statements describe are the deaths of neighborhoods. What the plan describes is a transition in these areas to “green industrial” which has in mind warehouses and other light industrial uses of a non-polluting nature. Cities do change and I don’t know enough to pass any judgments on these changes. I simply would observe that freeways were and are part of the factors contributing to those changes, as portions of a larger community are isolated from the rest.
While we can’t roll back the clock, I wonder if we can learn from the changes and unintended consequences of freeway development and think more carefully about how construction and transportation and zoning changes might affect the fabric of the places we live.
I would be interested if there are others who can tell stories of how the freeways in Youngstown changed neighborhoods they were familiar with. Were the advantages of travel worth the changes?