New Haven — Wrongheaded Then, Wrongheaded Now

The New York Times brings the news that New Haven, Connecticut — that wonderful state that gave us the Kelo case as well as the Bridgeport and Hartford redevelopment disasters — has seen the light. Yes indeed, brothers and sisters, they have seen the light! It finally dawned on them that when they built freeways, starting in the 1950s, in order to make downtown and its businesses readily accessible to suburbanites coming into the city in order to shop there, that also made the suburbs more accessible to city dwellers who, being no dummies, moved to the suburbs, where housing and life in genersl were better, and they used those freeways as a convenient way to reach their city employment. See C.J. Hughes, Righting a Highway’s Wrongs, N.Y. Times, July 18, 2012, at p. B5. Click here.  But retailers, likewise no dummies, then moved their businesses out to the suburbs (where their customers now lived), thus bringing about the now sadly familiar ruination of older cities, as suburbanites increasingly lived, shopped and paid taxes in the suburbs, using those freeways to get to work, and at the end of the day heading for home, leaving behind empty city streets.

To digress for a moment, no one that we know of foresaw this calamity, except for Detroit’s then Mayor, Edward J. Jeffries who in testimony before a congressional committee in the 1940s expressed his concern that construction of freeways linking city centers to suburbs, would also link suburbs to city centers, and motivate urban dwellers to head out and become commuters, leading eventually to abandonment and ruination of cities. Which is just what happened, particularly in Detroit. So Hizzoner may have been prescient and rightly concerned, but he tooks the feds’ money anyway, and spent it on the very freeways that he foresaw as Detroit’s “ruination.”

Anyway, to get back to the New Haven dispatch,  having realized what they had done, and evidently figuring that better late than never, New Haven highway builders have announced — what else? — the construction of another (this time sunken) freeway segment, with a platform above it, on which — disregarding the worrisome fact that “details are still being worked out,” there would be built  “streets, sidewalks and buildings.” This would also restore a direct connection to an area severed by the original freeway. As usual, pedestrian-friendly ambiance is being prognosticated. But get this: “The [new] highway will have fewer exits into the city and will lead directly into parking garages.” Will that work? Will New Haven suburbanites relish getting into cars in their own suburban garages, and exiting in a municipal garage in town, hoofing it in summer heat and winter frost to their city destination? Some no doubt will. But will enough of them do so to justify this caper? We shall see. We wish those folks luck, but we note that critics of the project worry that it “doesn’t call for enough apartments or the kind of stores that stay open late enough to create lasting streetfront vitality,” and thereby attract enough inhabitants — as opposed to in-and-out suburbanites, and restore urban vitality that is essential to a healthy city.

 

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