Cambridge and the Inner Belt Highway: Some Problems are Simply Insoluble


The Inner Belt has been discussed, debated, and damned in Cambridge for the good part of two decades. No other issue has remained so important so long. Controversy has surrounded its planning, and still does despite last month's selection of a route through Cambridge. The attention to the highway is easily explained: it was always clear that wherever the Belt was put, it would cause heavy damage and exert a strong influence on the city's future.

Consider, for example, the state's recommended location, the BrooklineElm St. route. It will, according to the estimates of the Department of Public Works (DPW), destroy the homes of 1235 families (3000 to 5000 people) and businesses with 2366 employees. For years, local leaders condemned this route. Yet the other ways to get across Cambridge also had their costs, and those which the DPW was willing to take seriously also had large costs.

The controversy over the highway has obscured its history and muddled some of the issues involved. And perhaps the supreme irony of the entire struggle is that the route that provoked the bitterest opposition in Cambridge, Brookline-Elm, had its original advocates not in the state DPW but in Cambridge itself.

The time was 1957, and the Brookline-Elm St. route got its start with the Cambridge Planning Board. Given the Board's concerns, Brookline-Elm certainly seemed the best choice. The DPW's original Master Plan had shown a so-called Lee St. crossing (halfway between Harvard and Central Squares) for the Inner Belt. If the highway were built there, according to the Planning Board's reasoning, large numbers of heavy trucks bound for the industrial area in Eastern Cambridge would have to travel through city streets, causing both congestion and noise. Moreover, the city wanted to embark on an ambitious urban renewal program, and it needed to have the highway's location fixed so it could plan the renewal projects around the road.

The solution to both problems was to move the highway East of Central Square. This is precisely what the Planning Board's consultants recommended; they endorsed--and the Board followed suit--a route along Brookline and Elm Sts., saying in part: "It passes directly through blighted and deteriorated areas in need of urban renewal and redevelopment." There were other reasons too. By locating a route just East of Central Square (in reality, through the heart of the business district), the highway would bring business to the area and make "possible the rebirth of Central Square in terms of retail and office building development."

Ten years later the arguments for Brookline-Elm have not disappeared and its advocates in Cambridge have not evaporated. Some, like the Planning Board and its director, Alan McClennen, have been muted by political pressures. Others have been converted by new arguments and new facts.

The ambitious neighborhood urban renewal program Cambridge planned was killed in a bitter political battle because the people in the project areas vehemently opposed the plans. Similarly, people in the path of the highway didn't want the Belt through their homes. When, in 1965, a group of young planners joined the fight against Brookline-Elm, the neighborhood described in 1957 as "deteriorating" and "in need of urban renewal" was pictured in much different terms.

The heterogeneity of Cambridge, prized by many as one of its most important social features, is exemplified by the Brookline-Elm area's mixture of Negroes, Portuguese, Greeks, French, Canadians, Jews, Irish, and Italians, many of whom are in the low and moderate income group. Many families have lived in their homes for many years. Their lives are built in significant ways on their relationships with relatives and friends living nearby, often on the same block, even in the same multiunit house, with churches and clergymen in the neighborhood, with schools and teachers, and with shopkeepers whom they know and trust and with whom they like to trade and talk.

Fewer than 10 per cent of the homes in these neighborhoods are classified in the 1960 census as "dilapidated."

The younger planners began searching for an alterantive to BrooklineElm and they looked even further east--specifically, two routes, one along, railroad tracks next to the M.I.T. campus (the state DPW had already ranked this as inferior to Brookline-Elm) and a path along Portland and Albany Streets, several blocks further from the railroad tracks. It was Portland-Albany that the planners preferred.

Regardless of the route, the choices--in terms of "Planning" or "people" --were still difficult by most standards. The affected residential area, for example, is one of contrasts because the highway cuts across the city and does not take out one unified neighborhood. Thus, by some measures, the area shows considerable stability; the 1960 census reveals that nearly 50 percent of the population had moved into the area before 1953 and 19 percent had arrived before 1939. And the life-long residents who show up at protest meeting after protest meeting confirm the statistics. Yet, the area is not totally immobile either. The census figures also show that fully 28 per cent of the residents who, in 1960, lived in the projected path had moved there only during the previous two years. Informal city figures between 1965 and 1967 show that about 30 per cent of the people along the route had left (many were pushed out, perhaps, by students, young professionals, or "transients" willing to pay higher rents; others, fearing the Belt, may have moved out of their own volition).

The alternative between Brookline-Elm and the route to the East was customarily pictured as one of homes The arguments between advocates of the different locations flew fast and furious, with contradicting statistics and claims abounding. The essential difference was always one of running the highway through an area of homes and small businesses (Brookline-Elm) or into a prospering industrial sector (Portland-Albany). And if Brookline-Elm were chosen, it would create a natural residential-industrial boundary on one side of Massachusetts Avenue, but on the other side, would leave a substantial strip of homes wedged between the highway and an expanding industrial area.

This was the broad planning calculus for Cambridge. But for the DPW, the issues were somewhat different. Since the Cambridge Planning Board's endorsement of the Brookline-Elm St. route, the DPW had slowly moved to adopt it as its own. Independent developments had made a Lee St. route much more difficult. And compared with the other possibilities further to the East, Brookline-Elm appeared to be superior in terms of locations and traffic service. In 1962, consultants to the department recommended Brookline-Elm, and everyone in the city knew that the DPW agreed with the recommendation.

In the end, however, the selection of the Cambridge route was as much a matter of politics as planning. And the highly visible opposition to the highway obscured some fundamental political realities: first, the forces against the highway were themselves splintered and not nearly so strong as they appeared; and second, there were many interests--mostly silent interests--which desperately wanted the highway to go down Brookline-Elm. The opposing forces neutralized each other. Once the DPW got around to picking the Cambridge segment of the highway, it could really heavily on engineering and traffic criteria, and by those standards, the DPW's engineers remained of one mind--Brookline Elm.