Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Boardman Expressway

“Boardman Expressway Work Gets Under Way” Youngstown Vindicator, October 22, 1971 via Google News Archive

This was the groundbreaking, 50 years ago this week, that cut in half the time it would take to get to my girlfriend’s (now wife of 43 years) house on E. Midlothian Boulevard from my house on the West Side. Until 1975, I-680 ended at South Avenue. The Boardman Expressway extended I-680 to E. Midlothian Boulevard. Her house was a few houses east of the freeway. Mine was on Portland Avenue. When the Boardman Expressway opened, I would drive down the street, get on the freeway at Oakwood, and get off at Midlothian in just eight minutes–instead of the fifteen minutes driving up South Avenue, and over Midlothian (or the back way I took up Gibson and a couple other streets). Seven minutes may not seem like much, but when you are in love….

In my mind, the Boardman Expressway was made expressly for me, even though it facilitated movement throughout the city and to the border of Boardman Township. Eventually, the road would extend past Western Reserve Road and link up with the Ohio Turnpike.

The planning for the expressway began in 1956, a few years after I was born. The project would end up costing $16 million dollars. The city’s portion was just $818,000, generated from a 1956 bond issue. State bond issue wasn’t passed until 1968, and federal funds made up the remainder. Bridges had to be built where South Avenue, Gibson, Indianola, and Shirley passed over the road. The expressway would pass over Midlothian, Shady Run and Dewey.

It also displaced a number of people in its path in neighborhoods in the lower part of Gibson, separated neighborhoods near Poland Avenue from the rest of the South side, breaking up Powersdale Avenue, Caledonia and Union Streets, and taking out the homes between Taylor Street and Homewood Avenue. Part of the expressway right of way avoided homes, passing through Pine Hollow until it reached Midlothian Boulevard. In all, hundreds of families were “re-located” which accounted for a number of delays in the project, which went forward in “fits and starts” under several city mayors–Frank Kryzen, Frank R. Franko, Harry Sevasten, Anthony B. Flask, and Jack Hunter. All but Flask were part of the groundbreaking. Interestingly, Franko and Hunter, in the thick of an election campaign against each other, are at opposite ends of the groundbreaking group. These were all names I grew up with.

Also a part of the groundbreaking was J. Philip Richley, at the time Ohio Highway Department Director, and previously Mahoning County and Youngstown City engineer. He told the story of the fifteen year process to get to the groundbreaking. Fittingly, Mayor Hunter presented him the “Key Man Award,” only the third recipient of the award for his contribution to Youngstown’s development. A. P. O’Horo, whose construction equipment appears in the background, spoke as contractor and Edmund Salata as city engineer. The Wilson High School band played. And the work began.

That segment of I-680 was only open for the last couple years we dated. After the summer of 1976. I moved away from Youngstown. We got engaged the following year and married the year after. My wife’s mom lived on Midlothian until 1996, so we made many more trips over that expressway over the years. What was at one time a welcome novelty just became the way to mom’s house. But with a young child in the back seat, we were glad for every minute saved! And my parents were only eight minutes away on the West side–and so it was easy to see all the in-laws in one visit.

I-680 made our lives easier. But it changed the city. It broke up neighborhoods and displaced families. It facilitated travel to the suburbs, the plazas, and the malls. It changed downtown. The same story happened all over the country. One wonders, knowing what we know now, if we would do it over or at least do it in the ways we did. For better or worse, we live in a world of what is rather than what if. At the time, however, all this young man thought of was seeing his girl friend seven minutes sooner.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Freeways

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?