People before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making

By Johnson, Marilynn S. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

People before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making


Johnson, Marilynn S., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making. By Karilyn Crockett. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018. 239 pages. $29.95 (paperback).

It has been almost fifty years since thousands of Boston area residents gathered at the Massachusetts State House to protest highway building in 1969. Bearing the slogan "People Before Highways," the demonstration graphically illustrated the growing public opposition to the human costs of highway building. The project that spurred this public uprising was the construction of the Inner Belt, a circumferential highway slated to run from Dorchester to Somerville, and to intersect with the Southwest Expressway, a proposed extension of Interstate 95 from Route 128 to downtown. Together these projects entailed billions of dollars as well as the demolition of thousands of homes and businesses in poor and working-class neighborhoods, mainly for the benefit of white suburban commuters.

The story is hardly new. A much-heralded moment in the history of urban planning in Boston, the highway battle has been described in numerous studies, most notably in Alan Lupo's 1971 book, Rites of Way. But in her new monograph, People Before Highways, Karilyn Crockett offers a more capacious understanding of these events. First, she locates Boston's struggle both nationally and internationally within the larger European modernist movement of urban planning. In Boston, this took the form of massive urban renewal projects in the city's "blighted" neighborhoods, but it also involved extensive highway building that was equally devastating to local communities.

Crockett traces the development of grassroots opposition to the highways, arguing that activists fought for and won "an alternative type of twentiethcentury modern urbanism" (193). In her first three chapters, she shows how groups like Urban Planning Aid, the Black United Front, and the Greater Boston Committee on the Transportation Crisis coalesced to stop the highways and forged a new vision of urban planning based on community control and public input. Analyzing these groups as social movements, she traces the political background of the activists in the civil rights, anti-war, and Black Power movements and shows how the cross-fertilization of those movements helped shape the organizing around highway building. She details the neighborhood meetings, slideshows, door-knocking campaigns, and the rise of "advocacy planning" to counteract the elite-driven planning process. …

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