50 Years of Highways and the Decline of Springfield’s North End

Back in December, I went to a MassDOT public meeting on the long term vision of the I-91 corridor from the Connecticut line up to Holyoke. Eventually, the Springfield stretch of I-91 is going to have to be totally reconstructed, and this is MassDOT leading the effort to think about what we want that major arterial roadway to look like.

History on I-91

For those of you unfamiliar with I-91, it is the major north-south connector between the Canadian border, down along the New Hampshire-Vermont border, and then along the Connecticut River to eventually connect up with New Haven.


I have heard that the original plan for I-91 was to run along the west side of the Connecticut River for the entire length. This was altered for one of the two following apocryphal reasons (or both):

  1. West Springfield, which is on the west side of the river, didn’t want a highway cutting through their town; or
  2. Springfield, on the east side, didn’t want a major highway not cutting through town.

Regardless, I-91 makes a detour to the east side of the river, and then crosses back over in one of the sharpest turns in the entire interstate highway system.

crossing the river

According to Bostonroads.com, the highway was constructed between 1958 and 1970, with the most challenging sections in Chicopee and Springfield saved for last. The authors note:

Construction of I-91 left perhaps it biggest scar in downtown Springfield and the city’s North End, where the highway severed the Connecticut River from the rest of the city, just as the adjacent railroad did a century earlier.

What Happened in Boston

In that classic urbanist masterwork by Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she writes in some detail about the North End of Boston, an historic neighborhood that was cut off from the rest of the city by I-93.

north end

Jacobs explores the efforts by the city to raze the North End to the ground and turn it into modern “towers in a park,” like what happened in the West End of Boston.

west end
Boston’s West End, before and after “Slum Clearance.” Source: The West End Museum

Of course, Boston’s North End persevered through the decades of highway building, white flight, urban disinvestment, race riots, and neglect, and today is one of the most sought after neighborhoods in Boston. It is not coincidence, I suspect, that at the same time that the North End has become supremely desirable, the highway which cut it off from the city was buried underground, out of sight and out of mind.

What’s Still Happening in Springfield

How ironic that the North End of Springfield should mirror the North End of Boston, except without the happy ending (yet).

Today home to a large Puerto Rican population, the North End of Springfield has historically been home to immigrant groups, from the Greeks of Memorial Square to the Russians of Liberty Heights. It is little wonder, then, that highway planners in the 1950s would see this part of town as prime real estate for roadway building. New immigrant groups tend to be lower income and less involved in the political process, two key ingredients for the mass evictions and property takings needed for highways.

The North End in Springfield was first cut off from the rest of the city by I-291, or “The Springfield Expressway,” an urban arterial spur connecting downtown Springfield to the Massachusetts Turnpike. Then, it was bifurcated by I-91, which cut the neighborhood into two pieces, running on the east side of the river.

north end_spgfld

What I kept reading again and again in the historic documents was that city and regional planners wanted to bring highways into downtown Springfield as an economic stimulus. According to an MIT project I found on Springfield’s North End:

The City of Springfield’s Urban Renewal Plan of 1958 attributed the decline of the neighborhood to the construction of the railroad in the 1870s. In order to reverse the problems of “blight” a plan was proposed to provide highway access into the neighborhood and City of Springfield.

The Economic Boon of Highways

I don’t have any 1950s economic data for the North End to compare it to, but we can look at the economic data today to guess the impact of those two highways on the North End. I put together this map showing incomes, and laid down I-291, I-391, and I-91 on top.



Highways and income_small
Source: 2014 American Community Survey


What immediately jumps out at me is mostly that Springfield, overall, has a lot of poor households. There are several areas where the median household income is less than $15,000. And those areas looked clumped around the highways and downtown, but maybe I’m just suffering from confirmation bias.

But one thing is certain: if the highways, built fifty years ago, were supposed to remedy poverty, then that effort has failed tremendously.

The Future of Springfield

Since it looks like the original intent of the highways has failed, now is the perfect time to plot out a different path for the North End of Springfield. For MassDOT’s visioning exercise, I make the following proposals:

  1. The “Springfield Expressway” is totally unnecessary. Get rid of it.
  2. I-91 was a bad decision. It blocks access to the riverfront, brings air pollution into the heart of a poor neighborhood, and has cut the neighborhood into pieces. Sink it.

I-291, or the Springfield Expressway, could be turned into an amazing street, accommodating all modes of transportation, and open up new developable land right near city center. Slam dunk.

I-91 is trickier – it’s a major interstate route and, as much as I just want to bulldoze it, that’s not realistic. But MassDOT can channelize at least part of it into a grade-depressed highway. Or at least install some amazing pedestrian access points to the riverfront.

This MassDOT visioning process is just getting going, and the next public meeting isn’t until April. I’m sure there are going to be plenty of suburban commuters and their employers talking about how we need to expand the highways to even more lanes so that people can shave a few minutes off of their daily drives.

But we need to move in the opposite direction. We need to think about how to minimize the impacts of these highways, how to achieve what they were actually intended to do – improve the lives of North End residents.

Commuters from wealthy bedroom communities have had their fifty years of easy access at the expense of those living in the North End. Now is time to abandoned failed community development models, and try something new.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s