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

By Robert J. Samuelson


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.


Cambridge really lost, or began to lose, the battle over Brookline-Elm many years ago. And it began to lose because it became isolated from its natural allies--other cities affected by the Belt--in a fight against the highway. Ironically, the very thing that protected Cambridge so long from the Belt also contributed towards isolating the city. This was the so-called veto.

For years--beginning in 1961--progress on the Inner Belt had been stalled by the existence of a veto that Cambridge, like other cities affected by the highway, could exercise over any route picked by the DPW. In 1963, the state legislature diluted the veto and made it no longer absolute. An arbitration panel, consisting of one representative of the DPW, one representative of the DPW, one representative of the affected city, and a neutral chairman, could now decide any conflict between a city and the DPW. But this arrangement was still referred to as the "veto," and it conveyed an impression of safety.

The existence of the veto was no accident. Cambridge's delegation to the Great and General Court (the state legislature), led by Rep. John J. Toomey, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, had fought to put it there. The veto had been effective, or so it seemed, and the city's representatives were determined to keep it part of the law. This was Cambridge's shield. The city--the Administration, the threatened neighborhood--feared the highway, but, protected by the veto, did little to organize a permanent political opposition to it.

But the protection was deceptive. Not only was the veto no longer absolute, but the DPW had begun to move forward on a route for the highway. In late fall of 1963, it won tentative approval of a route through Boston from Mayor John F. Collins, and the next January it received a similar nod for the location of the small but important segment of the highway in Somerville. Cambridge had done nothing to join in opposition with either of these cities, and now the opportunity to do so was gone forever.

Crucial Link

Cambridge became the crucial link, though it still was certain that it could make use of the modified veto. DPW commissioner James D. Fitzgerald appeared before the Council in October and left little doubt that his agency favored the Brookline-Elm St. route. Newspaper accounts later in the fall indicated that the DPW might reconsider a route along railroad tracks in East Cambridge, and a number of councillors wanted Fitzgerald to return and give his views on this location. By a 5-4 vote, the Council defeated a resolution inviting the commissioner; the majority wanted no part of any Inner Belt. For the rest of winter and following spring the issue lay dormant.

During the summer, Cambridge was stripped of the shield to which it had clung so many years--the veto. A new DPW commissioner, Francis W. Sargeant, went to Beacon Hill determined to get rid of the veto. And he did. Sargeant has become known in the Boston press, as an effective "salesman," and his meteoric rise in politics (he left the DPW in the summer of 1966 to run for Lieutenant Governor, won his race, and is now seriously mentioned as a possible candidate for Governor in 1970) is often attributed to his personable, but persistent approach.

Moreover, with each passing year, the state's case became stronger. Sargeant could make the claim that the DPW had to move on the Inner Belt, or risk not completing the road by 1972 and thereby forfeiting millions of dollars in federal funds (the Interstate Highway program, financing 90 per cent of the Inner Belt, was scheduled to stop then).

The fortunes of Cambridge's delegation to the legislature had also sagged in 1965. There had been a leadership fight for the Speaker's chair, and in the ensuing struggle, John Toomey lost the chair of the Ways and Means Committee. Whereas he enjoyed the ear of the former, retired speaker, John F. "Iron Duke" Thompson, he had no c'ose relationship with his successor. Sargeant's bid to remove the remaining vestiges of the veto did not run into opposition from the new leadership in either the House or the Senate.

By the fall of 1965, then, progress on the Belt was further along than most people in Cambridge realized. Cambridge was the only holdout, the last obstacle in the way of the completion of the project. In December, the formal plans for the Boston section of the highway would be announced. (Sargent was taking a "soft" line and trying to alter the DPW's image of constructing "inhuman" "ugly" highways; the DPW's plans for Boston included a 3000-foot tunnel through the Fenway district of the city and a tunnel under the Charles -- both significant concessions to complaints raised by private groups in the city.)

By this stage, the struggle against Brookline-Elm had suffered grave, perhaps insurmountable setbacks. The Inner Belt's location had been set on either side of Cambridge--and the agreement with mayor Lawrence F. Bretta of Somerville to put a key interchange in the heart of a proposed industrial park was to prove especially troublesome. The DPW had gained momentum. In Cambridge, City Councillors, residents along Brookline and Elm streets, state legislators would all speak against the highway. However, concrete plans to fight--or accommodate--the highway were almost non-existent. There was no prominent local group specifically organized to oppose the highway.

At least so it appeared. But over the summer and in the early months of the fall, a small group of young professionals--its members included a planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a young architect, a real estate broker and an assistant professor at Harvard -- got together and concluded that the Inner Belt must be fought. And into the struggle, they brought new skills and, more importantly, a new strategy, one sharply at odds with the prevailing plan of the City Council.

For the young planners, though professing to be unconvinced of the need for an Inner Belt. were convinced that there would be a highway. Given the Belt's inevitability, their approach was to look for the "best possible" route through the city, a route other than Brookline-Elm. Their opposition to Brookline-Elm reflected a shift in values from those of an earlier generation of planners: where earlier planners had satisfied themselves that Brookline-Elm was a good route because it went through low-value real estate, the new planners saw the highway as a destroyer of neighborhood stability (and the neighborhood was stable, they argued repeatedly). Where earlier planners viewed the highway as a way to get rid of "deteriorating" areas, the new planners saw it uprooting thousands of families who could never replace the homes they lost. For these reasons and more, Brookline-Elm could not be tolerated. The DPW, the group was sure, would pick Brookline-Elm unless they were presented with other feasible routes through the city and persuaded that these other routes would do just as well. The planners set out to find such routes, using as a start some of the alternatives rejected by the DPW. Refining and redesigning some of these basic routes, they hoped, would lead to a practical alternative to Brookline-Elm.

Despite their enthusiasm, the group, which called itself the ad hoc committee on the Inner Belt, did not provoke unqualified support in city government circles. There were good reasons for low-key response. The ad hoc committee had challenged the City Council's long-established strategy against the highway: that is, the Council was opposed to an Inner Belt anywhere and was not going to give its stamp of approval (qualified or not) to the highway by favoring one route over another. And not only this: the new committee was also challenging, though probably ambiguously and somewhat unintentionally, the Council's political role. The committee was saying, in essence, that the Council had to be serious in its opposition to the Belt, that it had to take an active lead in preventing the DPW from sending eight lanes of

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