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50 Years Later, Reflecting on the Meaning of “People Before Highways”



Participants gather for the 50th anniversary rally. Photo by Georden West.

On January 25th, the steps of the Massachusetts State House bore witness to reunions decades-long in the making. Activists both young and old gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of People Before Highways Day, where approximately 2,000 residents from throughout Greater Boston assembled to ask a newly inaugurated Governor Sargent to halt the construction of the Inner Belt Expressway and other highways in Greater Boston.

Had the expressway been constructed, it would have torn through parts of Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline and Boston, whose neighborhoods would change dramatically and permanently. Activists also fought against the proposed I-95 route, designed to cleave its way through the South End, Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. The maps that supported these designs imagined the city for its conveniences and economic utility, with the radial I-95 connecting to the neat loop of the proposed Inner Belt.

As represented, expressways were simply connective lines passing through blank space. In reality, the highways would violently cut through minority and working class neighborhoods, requiring the clearance of homes, businesses, communities and livelihoods for their planned construction. Those that remained would have had to breathe air polluted by exhaust and listen to the noise of traffic passing through what was once their own neighborhoods.

The 1969 gathering was representative of a diverse coalition of citywide resistance, including women’s groups, environmentalists, Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements, neighborhood-level activists, academics, and well-intentioned public officials and practitioners.

In 1972, three years after the original gathering, then-governor Sargent halted the construction of the expressways.  He advocated to utilize Federal funds to support public transportation instead, including the extension of the Red Line and the construction of the Orange Line as it’s known today. In addition to celebrating a seemingly-impossible victory, activists, who met at the State House for the anniversary gathering, also reflected on their hopes for the future of the city- one that faces its own 21stcentury impositions and uncertainties.

Soon after the rally began, a mixed crowd of of older activists and their younger counterparts formed a talkative bottleneck at the State House’s security check to hear the day’s speakers. Dr. Karilyn Crockett, professor at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, organized the day’s events and opened the remarks.  Dr. Crockett is the author of People Before Highways, which chronicles Boston’s anti-highway movement. The book describes how residents and activists to re-imagined the status quo principles behind planning and governance, and the infrastructural forms they yield. She framed the work of the activists, describing their radical success in organizing and coalition-building, as well as their aspirations for a city truly governed by its residents. Crockett described how, for activists, that highway expansion ultimately “represented death and the end of the community they love.”

Wishes for the future on display inside the State House. Photo by Georden West.

Beginning in 1956, after the Eisenhower administration passed the Federal Highway Aid Act, the federal government began allocating the funds that produced the interstate highway system as the public understands it today. Coupled with the postwar subsidization of suburban housing, the federal government utilized public dollars in ways that would largely benefit car-owning, white, affluent Americans.  Such a vision was contingent on the losses sustained by neighborhoods that would have been destroyed or irrevocably transformed as a result of highway development. The anti-highway movement here and in cities around the country came from the ability of people to envision a transportation system that was not dependent on the extractive or sacrificial.

After activists gathered within the State House, the names of the movement’s leadership were read out loud in remembrance. A sense of reverence came over the seated crowd, as many of those recognized had since passed. In memory of these individuals and their achievements, program speakers reflected on storied past. Speakers representing organized movements in Cambridge, the South End, Jamaica Plain, and Roxbury described the past, the more uncertain present, and the looking-glass ways in which future activism is inspired by how things once were. Attendees wrote and read wishes for the city’s future, and viewed archival material from the past.


An attendee views archival material from the 1969 rally. Photo by Georden West.

Chuck Turner, longtime activist, former city council member, and former co-chairman of Boston’s Black United Front described how the movement was “…really the first time where people from different neighborhoods came together and activists stood up and said ‘we have to struggle with others.’ City officials who also saw themselves as activists came down and joined us in that struggle. For the first time since I can remember, there were community activists, and city officials, and businesspeople sitting at the table with environmentalists, putting our heads together to try to figure out how we can make this a better city.”

Regarding the future, Turner explained that, “We are in a challenging time. We know we’re in a city where there are forces that want to drive some of us out…. Those that don’t have as much money, those that don’t seem as educated, those that don’t fit their definition about what a human should be.”

Today, the very same neighborhoods that activists sought to protect from highway expansion face evictions by opportunistic developers, and rising rents signaled by cranes and glassy condominiums on the horizon. Though 50 years have since passed, many communities continue to fight for agency over their own neighborhoods.

State Representative Nika Elugardo reflected on the day, as a younger policymaker inspired by the legacy of the movement: “Anniversaries are a good time for remembering and remembrance, it is a good time to remember organizing. Organizing is not just powerful to stop highways: Organizing protects affordable housing, organizing wins elections… It bears the fruit of justice and demands that that justice is for every single person.”

Following the speeches, Participants in the rally took a photo on the steps of the State House, documenting the anniversary in official portraiture. Attendees arranged themselves to fit within the space of a photograph, sidling next to strangers, colleagues, and longtime acquaintances.

One might wonder what students viewing the image fifty years later might learn about the questions of governance, citizenry, housing, and health Greater Bostonians were asking of themselves and of the city in 2019.

Attendees, including students, policymakers, officials and activists pose following the program. Photo by Georden West.



At the end of the speeches and photos, a smaller delegation of policymakers and activists placed flowers next to Governor Sargent’s portrait in gratitude for his role in stopping highway expansion. The State House has its own architectural power with its walls of portraits and displayed artifacts, histories on show, to be preserved and cherished.  Livened by the rally and its activists, the walls of the State House became less imposing, and history itself becomes less of a static object and more of a joyful force. As such, the anniversary served as a reminder that the State House and the institutions that it houses belong to the people of the Commonwealth, whose role in shaping the material world of their communities cannot be forgotten or understated.

Dr. Karilyn Crockett (author and MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning professor), Fred Salvucci (former transportation adviser to Mayor White and former Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth) , and Chuck Turner (activist and former Boston city council member) pose in front of Governor’s Sargent’s portrait. Photo by Georden West.


All photographs are by Georden West


The following groups were collaborating partners in organizing the anniversary event:

Historic Boston, Inc.
Mel King Institute/Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations
Massachusetts Historical Society
Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections
Haymarket People’s Fund
Massachusetts Communities Action Network
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