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Roman Mars [00:00:29] Squarespace is the all-in-one platform for building your brand and growing your business online. Stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything–your products, the content you create, and even your time. You can easily display posts from your social profiles on your website or share your new blogs or videos on social media. Automatically push website content to your favorite channels so your followers can share too. Go to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Over its more than 40-year journey from conception to completion, Boston’s Big Dig massive infrastructure project, which rerouted the central highway in the heart of the city, encountered every hurdle imaginable–ruthless politics, engineering challenges, secretive contractors, outright fraud, and even the death of one motorist. It became kind of a poster child for big government boondoggles. But the full story, of course, is much more complicated and really represents a turning point in how America builds infrastructure. For much of the 20th century, public works projects were viewed as an unalloyed good. Our capacity to build big things was a point of American pride and something that both political parties could agree on. But as we learn more about the neighborhoods ruined, the lives affected, the graft taken, the cost overruns, and the environmental damage–all of which will be discussed more widely during an ascending movement towards privatization and small government–well, we got much more cynical. And public works became just like everything else. If you’ve ever had this question than I have had– “Can America still build big things?”–the story of the Big Dig in Boston has many of the answers. A project that had a raft of very public problems but ultimately delivered on its promises. Today, we’re presenting the first episode in a series that offers a true inside account of one of the most complicated and expensive public works projects in American history. It is a remarkable rollercoaster ride of a documentary produced by WGBH in Boston and reported and hosted by Ian Coss. Enjoy.
Ian Coss [00:02:46] There are many strange and bitter ironies in the story of the Big Dig. But here’s what has to be my favorite. It’s the most expensive highway project ever built in America. And yet the architect, the man who started it all, hated highways.
Fred Salvucci [00:03:05] My grandmother lived near here on Lincoln Street.
Ian Coss [00:03:08] A man named Fred Salvucci.
Fred Salvucci [00:03:10] And to engage in ethnic stereotypes, she was this Italian lady that grew terrific tomatoes and sold them to the Polish people next door as if only Italians know how to grow tomatoes. But she grew everything there–tomatoes, potatoes, beans, basil, garlic. It was an incredibly big garden.
Ian Coss [00:03:30] And she lost all that?
Fred Salvucci [00:03:32] Yeah, she lost all that.
Archival [00:03:35] The Massachusetts Turnpike stretches across the state like a life-giving artery. 123 miles…
Ian Coss [00:03:41] Back in the 1950s, when Fred Salvucci was a teenager, the state of Massachusetts was on a highway building spree east to west, north to south, and all around the city of Boston. The greatest of these new roads was the Mass Turnpike.
Archival [00:03:57] Six lane–three in each direction–a highway miracle knifing through the heart of New England…
Ian Coss [00:04:03] The state celebrated the occasion with this nearly hour long documentary film. But for a young Salvucci, it was not a time to celebrate because the road came right through his neighborhood.
Fred Salvucci [00:04:15] They took the southern half of Lincoln Street. The neighborhood was mostly Lithuanian and Polish people–very poor people with no education–didn’t know how to protect themselves.
Archival [00:04:29] Obviously, some families had to be moved. Structures not worth saving were demolished or burned on the spot…
Fred Salvucci [00:04:35] My grandmother was a 70-year-old widow. They came to her house in September and gave her a dollar and a piece of paper saying, “The land is now ours. You have to go. We’ll eventually give you an estimate of what we’re willing to pay.” And they just squeezed people.
Archival [00:04:54] And those responsible for the turnpike’s building, we say, “Hats off…”
Fred Salvucci [00:05:02] So it was outrageous. And I kind of promised myself that if I ever had anything to do with public works, I would never treat people the way people had treated my grandmother with the turnpike.
Ian Coss [00:05:12] So why is it that a man scarred by highways would set out to build one? The answer is that he wanted to build a better kind of highway–a more humane kind of highway. And that’s what the big dig was. But if that’s all it was, well, we wouldn’t be here, would we? The subject of infrastructure inspires deep cynicism in America today. There’s a feeling that once our cities were the envy of the world, but now we can barely keep our trains running–that once we built the interstate, and now any time we even attempt something ambitious, it’s over budget and behind schedule before a single shovel hits the dirt.
Archival [00:06:12] Running nearly three years behind schedule…
Archival [00:06:15] The delay could jeopardize the train’s funding plan…
Ian Coss [00:06:18] There’s almost a sense of glee each time our doubts are proven correct.
Archival [00:06:22] The multi-billion-dollar project…
Ian Coss [00:06:24] We can shake our heads and laugh it off. What a joke.
Archival [00:06:28] But only after many more years of costly and complicated construction…
Ian Coss [00:06:33] For me, no one project embodies the cynicism around American infrastructure quite like the one Fred Salvucci would one day take on–what we here in Boston call “The Big Dig.”
Archival [00:06:46] If you think you are furious about the Big Dig, the mess, and the cost overruns, you’ve got company.
Ian Coss [00:06:53] If that name “Big Dig” has only the vaguest meaning to you, don’t sweat it. We’ll get there. But it was a tunnel project. And when I was growing up in Massachusetts in the 1990s, it was hard to ignore. Back then, the project went by many names. It was called “The Big Mess,” “The Big Hole,” “The Big Pig,” “The Big Lie.” It was, as everyone loved to point out, the most expensive public works project in American history. Full stop. It went on in my young mind forever–from before I started kindergarten until after I graduated high school. And at the end of all that, it was held up for the world to see as a boondoggle.
Archival [00:07:38] A $14 billion fiasco…
Ian Coss [00:07:41] A cautionary tale.
Archival [00:07:42] Everything that could go wrong…
Ian Coss [00:07:44] A punchline.
Archival [00:07:45] The Big Dig, a construction project that backed up traffic for 16 years. I mean, there are commuters just getting home now.
Ian Coss [00:07:58] But if it is a joke, then the joke’s on us. And I don’t just mean us, the suckers up in Boston. I mean all of us because there are big things that need building in this country. And I, for one, want to know where that cynicism comes from–the feeling that America can’t build big things. My name is Ian Cos. And from GBH News, this is The Big Dig, a study in American infrastructure. In many ways, this first episode is the prequel–the turning point that sets the whole saga in motion. We’re not going to talk about the Big Dig just yet or about how hard it is to build in America. We’re going to start back in a time when America built a lot, maybe too much, especially when it came to highways. This is the story of the inevitable backlash, the Anti-Highway Movement. Part One: We Were Wrong. The origin story of Fred Salvucci and the Big Dig are really one in the same story. They both begin with the truly most sweeping and expensive building project in American history. That would be the interstate system.
Archival [00:09:40] This is the American dream of freedom on wheels–an automotive age, traveling on timesaving superhighways…
Ian Coss [00:09:51] The interstate is so ubiquitous now, it’s almost invisible to us. We’re talking about nearly 50,000 miles of highway running through every state in the country. It’s the reason you can drive from Seattle to Boston without making a single turn or hitting a single traffic light–and not just to the edge of the city, but right into the heart of it.
Archival [00:10:15] They can lift traffic up over city congestion with elevated highways raised by an aroused public…
Ian Coss [00:10:23] In the ’50s and ’60s, these roads meant progress–the future.
Archival [00:10:29] In San Francisco, the Bayshore Freeway…
Ian Coss [00:10:31] The big American cities, including Boston, were losing people to the suburbs, specifically white people. Highways were seen as a way to bring them back in. And for the states, the whole thing was basically free.
Archival [00:10:46] President Eisenhower’s militant call for a modern, controlled access highway system led to the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Ian Coss [00:10:56] The deal was this. The feds provide 90% of the money. The states are responsible for the planning and building as long as what you’re building is an interstate highway. In Massachusetts, just like everywhere else, the interstate program was a pretty hard deal to turn down.
Karilyn Crockett [00:11:21] You had federal money available–ready to go. You had a plan and the promise of jobs to the tune of about a billion dollars. So, to say no to all that seemed unthinkable.
Ian Coss [00:11:35] Karilyn Crockett is the author of the book People Before Highways and also a professor at MIT. She argues that despite all the incentives to build, build, build, the costs of that building would eventually force city residents to think the unthinkable.
Karilyn Crockett [00:11:51] So the anti-highway fight becomes a moment of imagining possibilities.
Ian Coss [00:11:58] In the 1960s, there were anti-highway movements all over the country–in San Francisco, New York, D.C. In many ways, Boston was late to the party. But the consequences of what happened here would be more sweeping than any of the highway battles before it. It would change the way cities and states around the country thought about their urban highways. And Fred Salvucci was at the center of it. So, to go back to where we started–with young Fred Salvucci’s story. When he made that promise to his grandmother to treat people better–to build more humanely–it was not at all clear he would ever get to act on it. As long as he could remember, the plan had always been for him to be a bricklayer like his father, Guido, was. G. Salvucci & Company would become G. Salvucci & Son. But the plan got thrown off when Fred was in junior high. His music teacher saw potential in him and suggested he apply for the city’s most prestigious public school, Boston Latin. And he got in.
Fred Salvucci [00:13:09] First day at Latin, they give us a piece of paper, and it says that I intend to go to college. So, I took the thing home, and I said, “Gee, ma. I can’t sign this. I don’t intend to go to college. This is a lie.”
Ian Coss [00:13:24] His friends in the neighborhood weren’t even planning to finish high school, let alone go to college. But Fred’s mother said, “Look. Just across the river in Cambridge, you’ve got MIT, one of the best engineering schools in the world.” And she made this deal with him.
Fred Salvucci [00:13:41] “You go to work with your father every summer, and you learn to be a good bricklayer. You go to MIT if you can get in, and you learn to be a good civil engineer. When you finish, you can do whichever one you want.”
Ian Coss [00:13:53] That’s how Salvucci wound up a student at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One day in the early 1960s, he’s sitting in class, and a professor starts talking about a new highway project proposed for the city. His ears perk up. It sounded an awful lot like the highway that had taken his grandmother’s house.
Fred Salvucci [00:14:15] It was another piece of insanity–something that I was sure made no sense.
Ian Coss [00:14:20] The difference was that this time, armed with that degree in engineering, Salvucci could actually do something about it. So, let’s get the lay of the land. There will be several highways you need to keep track of in this part of the story. But they all have a common origin–a master plan for the region drawn out way back in 1948.
Karilyn Crockett [00:14:45] So if you could imagine something that highway planners often call a “spoke and wheel” system, so you’re looking at radial roads coming out of a center circle.
Ian Coss [00:14:56] For the 1960s, a few pieces of that hub and spoke system had been built. But there were still crucially a handful of roads needed to complete the whole scheme, including something called the “Inner Belt.”
Karilyn Crockett [00:15:11] So when we think about the Inner Belt Road, it’s the heart of that wheel.
Ian Coss [00:15:17] This is the road that Salvucci’s professor was lecturing about that Salvucci thought was absolutely insane. And he wasn’t the only one.
Anstis Benfield [00:15:27] We said, “No, no, no, no, no. It’s not going to happen.”
Ian Coss [00:15:31] And Steve Benfield lived one block from the proposed route of the highway.
Anstis Benfield [00:15:36] Right square in the middle of the line of the Inner Belt.
Ian Coss [00:15:39] The road was supposed to start in Boston, then loop around into the neighboring city of Cambridge. That is where Anstis lived and where the whole region’s highway fight would begin. This part of Cambridge was largely working class. People used to call it the Greasy Village because historically it had been the site of a massive factory that made soap from rendered pork fat. Then just down the road, you had the candy factories. Necco Wafers, Charleston Chews, Junior Mints–all made in Cambridge and all giving off smells of their own. So, in the 1960s, you had a lot of longtime residents who had come to work the industrial jobs–immigrants from Ireland, Poland, Barbados, Panama, and Black Americans coming up from the South. But this being Cambridge, Massachusetts, you also had the grad students and professors.
Anstis Benfield [00:16:39] One side was MIT; the other side was all Harvard. I mean, a lot of Harvard.
Ian Coss [00:16:45] That meant engineers, sociologists, highly educated troublemakers of all stripes.
Archival [00:16:52] Mayor Hayes, what is your objection to the abundance of hippies in Cambridge?
Mayor Hayes [00:16:56] The basic objection I have is the amount of them.
Ian Coss [00:17:01] Noam Chomsky was lecturing at MIT. Joan Baez was singing protest anthems in Harvard Square. Women’s liberation, the Vietnam War–it was pretty fertile ground for an activist movement. And a highway was the kind of issue that could bring everyone together–from Catholic priests and housewives to radical lefties and college students.
Anstis Benfield [00:17:30] I had my graduate degree in urban studies, and I had a lot of energy and I needed something to do. Well, lo and behold, within a year of buying that house on Chestnut Street, they started planning to knock the thing down. At that point, I went into action.
Ian Coss [00:17:50] In early 1966, Anstis collected over a thousand signatures from other residents along the Inner Belt route.
Anstis Benfield [00:17:58] I took the pile of signatures and nailed them to the wooden doors of City Hall.
Ian Coss [00:18:04] There’s a picture of this in the local paper, the Cambridge Chronicle, with Anstis carrying her two-year-old daughter on her back.
Anstis Benfield [00:18:11] Within two weeks, they changed the wooden doors to glass.
Ian Coss [00:18:15] But the point was made. The residents of Cambridge would not go quietly. Around the same time, Fred Salvucci set aside his bricklaying dreams for good. He took a job as a transportation planner with the city of Boston. His boss, the mayor, actually supported the Inner Belt. But Salvucci found that many of his fellow city planners did not. So, they started to meet.
Fred Salvucci [00:18:45] There was no game plan from the beginning. We just sort of stumbled into it.
Ian Coss [00:18:50] One of those rogue city planners started writing pieces about the highway for the Cambridge Chronicle.
Fred Salvucci [00:18:56] Why has Cambridge got its head in the sand? Why aren’t we proposing alternatives? There were questions about whether the road ought to be built at all, but certainly if you’re going to build it, it doesn’t have to be this bad.
Ian Coss [00:19:07] And one day, a local priest reached out to the group.
Fred Salvucci [00:19:10] And said, “Gee, you are saying things that we’re thinking in the neighborhood, but you’ve got technical skills that we don’t have. Would you be willing to work with us?”
Ian Coss [00:19:20] That call would change the course of the movement.
Fred Salvucci [00:19:24] All of a sudden, we’re like unpaid consultants working for the neighborhood.
Ian Coss [00:19:29] And I want to stress just how radical this was. For years, states around the country had been telling residents, “Trust us, we know what’s best. We have the experts.” Now, here were those same experts saying, “No, the state is wrong.” Eventually, Salvucci’s group got a name. Urban Planning Aid. Did it feel like you’re almost crossing enemy lines or something? I mean, you’re working for the city, and then you’re moonlighting, helping residents and communities organize to oppose the city and state. Were those things in tension for you?
Fred Salvucci [00:20:08] I’m not by nature a sneaky person. So, I sent the memo to my boss and said, “Look. At night, this is what I’m doing. I’m working with people who don’t believe in these highways. If you have a problem, let me know, and I’ll find another job.” He said, “Well, no, we don’t want you to go, but we want you to stop doing what you’re doing.” And I said, “You don’t have an option. It’s my life. I do what I believe in.” He said, “Are you crazy? Fine. Do what you’re doing.”
Ian Coss [00:20:35] At that time, Salvucci was not convinced the Inner Belt could be stopped. You had the governor, big construction companies, labor unions, not to mention a decade of unstoppable growth in the interstate system, all pushing to make the road happen. So, Salvucci was more focused on finding a way to make it less destructive so fewer families would have to lose their homes like his grandmother had. That might sound like a modest aim, but it turned into a battle.
Archival [00:21:09] Mr. Chairman, members of the city council, ladies, and gentlemen…
Ian Coss [00:21:14] This audio is from a Cambridge City Council meeting in 1966 discussing the impact of various routes.
Archival [00:21:21] First of all, I’d like to give a general description of the routes that have been considered as two possible or feasible alternatives to the Brookline Elm Route, using the criteria…
Ian Coss [00:21:31] The route that the state was proposing was terrible in Salvucci’s opinion. It went straight through the neighborhood, the old Greasy Village. If the plan was built, a sleepy one-way street lined with houses would be turned into an eight-lane, elevated highway.
Archival [00:21:49] The width that’s required just for the structure would be roughly 135 feet…
Ian Coss [00:21:55] But there was a logical alternative, which Salvucci’s group was able to actually map out and publish. It was just south of the original route, running along the path of old railroad tracks.
Archival [00:22:08] This is referred to as “Scheme E” or “N.”
Ian Coss [00:22:10] It would take a fraction of the number of homes. But in a little twist of irony for Salvucci, it would go through the campus of MIT.
Archival [00:22:19] And the present needs of MIT need to be considered.
Ian Coss [00:22:24] This, of course, set many MIT types against him and this alternate route. Salvucci recalls one critical moment–really a very Cambridge moment–when faculty from MIT and Harvard basically wound up debating the route issue upstairs at the Wursthaus in Harvard Square. On the neighborhood side was a Harvard economist named Kenneth Galbraith.
Fred Salvucci [00:22:51] Now, Galbraith had just flown in from Switzerland.
Ian Coss [00:22:55] That meant that Salvucci and another organizer named Jim Morey had only a few minutes to brief him on the details of the issue.
Fred Salvucci [00:23:03] So he’s just come off of a plane and he’s bleary eyed and he’s bounding up the steps two at a time.
Ian Coss [00:23:09] Galbraith, by the way, was six feet, eight inches tall.
Fred Salvucci [00:23:12] Jim Morey was about five foot six. And he’s running to keep up with Galbraith. And I’m two steps behind him. And talk about the elevator talk. Morey briefs Galbraith in the space that it takes this giant to go two steps at a time from the ground floor to the second floor of the Wursthaus. So, Galbraith says, “I think I got it.”
Ian Coss [00:23:40] The meeting begins, and a professor from MIT speaks first.
Fred Salvucci [00:23:45] He basically said, “Look, I’ve been living here for a while now, and we keep trying to elect more progressive school committees and more progressive city councils. And every year, those people–that is the blue-collar population–get the majority. And we have lousy education and lousy government. And maybe, just maybe, if this highway knocks out 2,500 dwelling units and associated voters, maybe we will win the next election.”
Ian Coss [00:24:14] The guy sitting next to him then makes a similar argument that the road should go through the neighborhood not the campus.
Fred Salvucci [00:24:21] At which point Galbraith picks up his arm, which seems to almost reach the other side of the room, points a finger, and says, “Only a moral imbecile would articulate such a cynical argument. We’re living in a country that’s being torn apart by race–in a city that’s being torn apart by racial strife. And somehow through some magic that none of us in this room is smart enough to understand, there’s an integrated neighborhood here in Cambridge where people are getting along reasonably well. And they’re low-income people and minorities. And how on earth could we ever think of destroying this precious resource?” He just carries the day.
Ian Coss [00:25:08] These debates over the route were strategically important. They bought time, drew attention, and made sure that the whole city of Cambridge had a stake in the issue. As long as the road could go anywhere, everyone had a reason to oppose it. But ultimately, the fate of the Inner Belt could not be decided in Cambridge. This fight was bound for higher places–the governor’s office, the White House. The trouble is the occupants of those high offices could always change, and that would force the activists to change, too.
Archival [00:25:47] This election coverage is coming to you from WGBH TV and WGBH FM Boston.
Ian Coss [00:25:54] 1966 was an election year for governor. And the man running to keep that job was named John Volpe, and he was a highway guy. Before becoming governor, Volpe had owned a major construction firm and then served as the very first leader of the Federal Highway Administration under Eisenhower. In Cambridge today, there is a mural that shows angry residents standing in front of a bulldozer. It’s a little hard to tell just by looking, but if you ask Anstis Benfield, the man in the bulldozer is no other than…
Anstis Benfield [00:26:31] Governor Volpe.
Archival [00:26:33] We’re going to Volpe headquarters directly at this point…
Ian Coss [00:26:37] The election was November 8th. Urban Planning Aid scrambled to publish new data about the highways just beforehand. But it didn’t matter.
Archival [00:26:46] Oh, and joy has really broken out here at Volpe Richardson headquarters…
Ian Coss [00:26:51] Volpe was here to stay.
Richard Volpe [00:26:52] During the next four years, we will try to work as hard if not harder than we have during the past two years and again, as I say, place Massachusetts number one in all fields of endeavor. Thank you very much.
Ian Coss [00:27:06] So with a highway supporter firmly entrenched in the governor’s office, the anti-highway activists now took their fight further up the ladder to Washington.
Anstis Benfield [00:27:17] And within a year we had four or five busloads of kids to Washington. And–oh, yes–I can tell you we had signs that said, “Cambridge is a City Not a Highway.” And all the kids started chanting, “Cambridge is a city not a highway! They will never build roads through our homes!” And we would holler these songs out all the way to Washington from Cambridge. Oh, that ride was amazing.
Ian Coss [00:27:49] Anstis Benfield showed me another newspaper clipping–three kids sitting on the grass outside the Capitol with the headline Lollipop Lobby.
Anstis Benfield [00:27:58] That was on The Washington Post front page. I mean, that was the kind of thing that drew attention to our objections.
Ian Coss [00:28:06] Yeah, it’s hard to say no to 150 singing children.
Anstis Benfield [00:28:09] That’s exactly the idea.
Ian Coss [00:28:12] And the strategy paid off. The Lyndon Johnson administration ordered a pair of new studies on the Inner Belt, questioning both where the belt should go and whether it should be built at all. It was a huge win for Benfield, Salvucci, and all the anti-highway folks. But just as those studies began, the whole game was turned on its head.
Archival [00:28:36] It’s time for new leadership for the United States of America…
Ian Coss [00:28:41] In 1968, Richard Nixon was running for president. And in the words of one Boston Globe reporter, Governor John Volpe was running right after him. Volpe was tired of democrats in Washington holding up the Inner Belt. So, he set out to replace them with himself, and it worked.
Karilyn Crockett [00:29:02] When Richard Nixon becomes president, he immediately taps Volpe to be the head of transportation in D.C.
Ian Coss [00:29:11] Secretary of Transportation for the whole country. Volpe gave a speech after the election in which he spoke about the Inner Belt and told the crowd with confidence, “There’s a new administration taking office in Washington, and I think we’ll start to see things happen.” Again, author Karilyn Crockett…
Karilyn Crockett [00:29:32] So Volpe gets whisked away. And quickly, his second in command becomes governor.
Ian Coss [00:29:41] All of a sudden, the activists’ allies in Washington had been replaced by their foe in Massachusetts, and their foe in Massachusetts had been replaced by a question mark.
Anstis Benfield [00:29:54] Didn’t know anything about him.
Ian Coss [00:29:57] The question mark’s name was Francis Sargent.
Karilyn Crockett [00:30:00] So when Francis Sargent would become governor in this surprise, almost sleight of hand move, the thought on the ground was, “Hmm. We have maybe an opening here.”
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Ian Coss [00:33:58] At the same time that the debate over the Inner Belt is playing out in Cambridge, work is already beginning on another new highway in Boston. It’s called the Southwest Expressway. And it’s important because when linked together, the Southwest Expressway and the Inner Belt would carry traffic from Interstate 95 straight through the city. I-95 is the busiest interstate in the whole national system. And by 1968, when Nixon is elected president, the road already runs through almost every major city on the East Coast. It has cut through Miami’s historic Black neighborhood of Overtown. It has cut through New York along the Cross Bronx Expressway. It has gone through New Haven, Connecticut, Providence, Rhode Island. And now it’s two strands of concrete have literally arrived at the edges of Boston where they are waiting for the gates to open. The person holding the keys, so to speak, was the brand-new governor of Massachusetts, Francis Sargent. To change his mind, it would take more than just activists in Cambridge, plus some rebellious city planners. It would take a coalition, including all the neighborhoods along the Southwest Expressway.
Fred Salvucci [00:35:19] So we had this very sophisticated strategy. We went down to the gas station, got a road map, and with crayon we marked out the route of the proposed interstates. And we just went neighborhood by neighborhood, wherever the crayon mark went.
Ann Hershfang [00:35:35] I went to a meeting where a group called Urban Planning Aid showed us this godforsaken plan. And it was stunning.
Ian Coss [00:35:45] Ann Hershfang was one of many, many people who heard a version of that presentation. It included drawings of the highways and maps with dark lines superimposed on them. Images that could activate the imagination–make you realize that the house you had just repainted or the block where you knew everyone’s kids–that those things could be taken away and paved over and no one even needed to so much as ask your opinion. When the presentation was done, the person sitting next to Ann volunteered to help spread the word.
Ann Hershfang [00:36:19] Then I put up my hand. I thought, “I’m going to do it, too.”
Ian Coss [00:36:25] The Southwest Expressway would cut across three neighborhoods, each with its own character. First, it would enter Boston through a largely white, working-class neighborhood called Jamaica Plain. The state started clearing land there in 1966.
Tom Corrigan [00:36:42] I actually went from house to house and took pictures of the abandoned houses.
Ian Coss [00:36:47] But there were still gardens growing in the backyards? Flowers?
Tom Corrigan [00:36:50] Yeah, it looked like a normal neighborhood, except there weren’t people.
Ian Coss [00:36:54] The next neighborhood in the highway’s path was Roxbury, the historic center of Black culture in Boston.
Chuck Turner [00:37:01] Everybody knows that there are going to be 1,500 jobs that will be taken. Everybody knows that there’ll be another 400 homes that’ll be taken. We know that…
Ian Coss [00:37:08] Like in so many cities, Boston’s Black residents were facing perhaps the greatest impact from highways because Roxbury is where the Southwest Expressway and the Inner Belt–the spoke and the hub–they were going to meet in a towering five-story interchange.
Chuck Turner [00:37:25] The fact that 150 acres of developer land in the Roxbury, Jamaica Plain area is going to be taken by this four-lane highway.
Ian Coss [00:37:35] On the other side of that interchange was a third neighborhood, the South End. Here the city started to get more dense with rows of old brownstones that were pretty rundown in those days.
Ken Kruckemeyer [00:37:47] It was a neighborhood approximately one mile square that would have been entirely surrounded by highways.
Ian Coss [00:37:56] Those voices you just heard–Tom Corrigan, Chuck Turner, Ken Kruckemeyer–would all end up involved with a new umbrella organization, the Greater Boston Committee on the Transportation Crisis, or GBC, for short. But as the coalition grew, it also became more unwieldy. Each neighborhood had its own particular issues with the highways and its own particular culture. There’s a story of Chuck Turner showing up for a protest in a mostly Italian neighborhood dressed in a dashiki and carrying a poster of Malcolm X. Some residents were grateful for the solidarity. Some walked away right there. To help unify all the various factions, the GBC took a very simple position: no new highways in Greater Boston period. The days of debating roots were officially over. And the strategy of this new group was right in the name. Make this an issue for all of Greater Boston, not just three neighborhoods. That’s how you get the governor’s attention.
Ken Kruckemeyer [00:39:09] I had the set of slides in a carousel. And a whole group of us spread out over the entire metropolitan area and tell people about the plans for the highway.
Ian Coss [00:39:20] And everywhere they went, they found people who wanted to listen. Here’s Chuck Turner, one of the lead activists in Roxbury, speaking at a public meeting.
Chuck Turner [00:39:29] You know, in this country, it’s a strange thing that if you look at issues, you usually see Black people fighting white people, you usually see the rich against the poor, and you usually see the suburbanites against people in the inner city. And it’s strange. It’s strange when you see one issue and all those people are united and saying, “We don’t want it built, and we’re going to stop it.” And Governor Sargent and no other elected official in this state is going to be able to build the highway over that objection.
Ian Coss [00:39:56] By January of 1969, when Francis Sargent took his oath as governor, the GBC protesters were ready.
Karilyn Crockett [00:40:04] About 2,000 folks show up in front of the State House saying, “What are you going to do about this road? What are you going to do about this, Sargent?”
Ian Coss [00:40:12] What had started as a small group of Cambridge residents pushing back against a single road had grown into a radical challenge to the state’s entire road building policy. And this was the coming out party for the movement. All the players–all the factions–gathered in one place.
Tom Corrigan [00:40:32] It spilled down the stairs of the statehouse over into Boston Common.
Fred Salvucci [00:40:36] The Fire Department came–people from every neighborhood in Boston.
Ian Coss [00:40:40] Anstis Benfield led a march over from Cambridge and addressed the crowd.
Anstis Benfield [00:40:47] An area of 15,000 residents. This road would go right through the middle of it.
Ian Coss [00:40:51] A group of protesters carried a giant coffin that said, “Here Lies Cambridge.” A plane flew overhead towing a sign that said, “Homes Not Highways.”
Tom Corrigan [00:41:02] And so to his credit, Francis Sargent does come out of the State House on that day and addresses the crowd.
Archival [00:41:09] We have with us now the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Ian Coss [00:41:17] At this moment, Sargent is kind of a contradictory figure. On the one hand, he used to run the Department of Public Works, so he was the guy in charge of planning and building roads for the whole state. And he acknowledged that fact right away.
Francis Sargent [00:41:33] I was the person who made the decision back a number of years ago regarding the route through Cambridge. I made that decision…
Karilyn Crockett [00:41:41] These people do not look impressed by him. They do not look pleased by him. But he tries to make his appeal.
Francis Sargent [00:41:46] I want you to know…
Ian Coss [00:41:48] Because on the other hand, Sargent was known as a nature lover and a conservationist. Before he was in charge of roads, he had campaigned to create the Cape Cod National Seashore and protect the whole area from development. So, the question was which side of his past would come out now, the conservationist or the road builder?
Francis Sargent [00:42:10] And I said at that time, and I say now that if we ever build highways, we must build them with a heart.
Ian Coss [00:42:24] The only concrete promise Sargent made that day was to review the whole issue of urban highways and come back with the decision. For the protesters, that was not good enough. Work on the expressway was happening. Houses were being taken, land was being cleared, and every day that passed made the whole thing feel that much more inevitable.
WGBH [00:42:50] It’s an eerie place to visit, even on a sunny autumn day…
Ian Coss [00:42:54] WGBH sent a reporter out to document the empty strip of land that had been cleared for the Southwest Expressway. By the summer of ’69, over a thousand homes had been taken along this corridor–almost two miles long–and there were hundreds more homes still to go.
WGBH [00:43:13] Suddenly, in the middle of the crowded city, there are acres of open space–an unnatural quiet. Sometimes a clothesline and drawing sheets behind the house tells you that not all of the buildings in the block are abandoned yet. And far off at the edge of this wasteland, the city abruptly begins again. To people living in this area, the empty buildings and weed-filled lots have become a nightmare.
Ronald Perry [00:43:38] It’s pretty wild. I’ll put it that way. It was growing wild.
Ian Coss [00:43:42] Ronald Perry grew up in a public housing project less than 50 feet from where the highway was supposed to be built. And as a 13-year-old kid, the whole area felt like a no man’s land.
Ronald Perry [00:43:54] I would go to the chain link fence and crawl up and just walk.
Ian Coss [00:43:58] Would you see other people out there?
Ronald Perry [00:44:00] No. Just me and my dog, Tiger. That was it. Dirt. Grass. Just open areas. Just open areas.
Ian Coss [00:44:11] As he walked along the route of the planned highway, Perry would pass a trailer that the Black Panther Party had set up to provide basic health services and breakfast for neighborhood kids.
Ronald Perry [00:44:22] You know, milk, cereal, or anything like that.
Ian Coss [00:44:26] He would then pass the boarded-up windows of a local hamburger joint called Kemp’s.
Ronald Perry [00:44:31] I don’t really remember when it closed. Just over time, it just gradually disappeared. It was almost like being abandoned–slowly but surely.
Ian Coss [00:44:40] And farther down, on the side of a railroad embankment, he would see the words “Stop I-95” spray-painted in white letters maybe 12 feet tall.
Ronald Perry [00:44:51] It was huge. It was huge.
Ian Coss [00:44:55] Even as a kid, Ronald Perry could tell that something big was happening. Neighbors were talking, and fliers were posted, warning of two serpents coming to strangle the neighborhood. That mile of dirt and grass he walked was surrounded by over a thousand units of public housing–a thousand families, just like his, wondering how much more land would be taken and what the effects of those roads would be. And so, the whole place–the land, the people, the buildings–hung in limbo.
Ronald Perry [00:45:29] What was going to happen to my mother and me? It’s a lot of people to displace. And if you displaced people, where were they going to go?
Archival [00:45:42] How come the governor did not stop the demolition of homes that is still going on today as requested…
Ian Coss [00:45:51] All through 1969, pressure was building on Sargent from all sides.
Archival [00:45:57] I-95 isn’t an answer. It’s a continuation…
Archival [00:46:00] For some reason, it seems fashionable to be against highways…
Archival [00:46:04] Cars are here to stay. And don’t forget it…
Archival [00:46:07] Tell ’em then people have had enough…
Ian Coss [00:46:11] To the average citizen, it probably didn’t look like Sargent was taking any action at all. But that year, the new governor did follow through on his promise. He created a task force to study the issue.
Alan Altshuler [00:46:25] And somehow identified me as a person to lead the task force.
Ian Coss [00:46:29] Alan Altshuler was teaching political science at MIT, and he was content in his academic life until he got the call from one of Sargent’s aides.
Alan Altshuler [00:46:38] And I said no. But then Sargent personally called me. He said he really didn’t know what to do about the highways. And I said, “I’ll tell you what.” This was my fatal mistake. I said, “I will do it if you promise that when we finish, you will publish our report.”
Ian Coss [00:46:54] Sargent agreed. And Altshuler got to work. He met with activists from the GBC and heard their arguments. But what really struck him was the lack of any coherent argument from the other side.
Alan Altshuler [00:47:07] The anti-highway people were talking about some of the devastating consequences. And the Department of Public Works really didn’t have any significant answers.
Ian Coss [00:47:16] They just wanted something to build because building is what they did?
Alan Altshuler [00:47:21] Well, they were in tune–to be fair to them–with highway departments all across the United States. I mean, all 50 states were trying to build out their interstate systems. This legislation had been enacted in 1956. We’re now in 1969. No governor or no state government had ever stopped a segment of interstate highway in all these years. So, they were typical. They weren’t villains of some sort. They were conscientious people who were just doing their thing.
Ian Coss [00:47:50] In January of 1970, just a few days after New Year’s, Alan Altshuler’s task force finally presented their findings to the governor.
Alan Altshuler [00:47:59] It was my job as the chairman to brief Sargent.
Ian Coss [00:48:04] The report was scathing–not just about the highways, but about the entire planning process that led to those highways. And it basically called on Sargent to halt all construction immediately.
Alan Altshuler [00:48:16] His face got red. He stiffened. And he was polite, but I wouldn’t have bet at that moment that he was about to take our recommendations very seriously.
Ian Coss [00:48:30] By this time, a whole year had passed since Sargent became governor. And activists were already planning a second demonstration in front of the State House. Tom Corrigan from Jamaica Plain was leading the GBC. And in his words, “the goal was to pull out all the stops–to hold the governor accountable for his lack of action.” Then, three nights before the date of the protest, a cryptic message arrived from two men close to the governor. They said, “Call off the demonstration.”
Tom Corrigan [00:49:02] They were very serious about it. They came close to saying, “We’re very close to an announcement. Don’t blow it by making him think that he’s giving in to you by having a demonstration.”
Ian Coss [00:49:18] It was Corrigan’s call. He knew that the rank-and-file membership were rearing to go. And the last thing they would want was to give in to the governor as will. But Corrigan decided to give Sargent a little more time. He promised he would resign if the gambit failed.
Tom Corrigan [00:49:35] And we postponed it.
Ian Coss [00:49:38] Did it feel like a gamble, though, at the time?
Tom Corrigan [00:49:42] It’s always a gamble, but it worked.
Ian Coss [00:49:46] A week later, Governor Sargent did something very unusual for any politician. He said, quote, “We were wrong.” That day, he ordered a freeze on all active highway construction in Greater Boston. None of the activists I interviewed talked about that day as a major victory in itself. It was only a freeze pending more study. But at least the destruction of homes had finally stopped. Altshuler remembers going down to Washington, D.C. with Sargent soon after that announcement and meeting with Sargent’s old boss, Volpe, who was now the Secretary of Transportation. They were hoping to use some federal money to further study the state’s options, and they needed approval from Volpe.
Alan Altshuler [00:50:41] And he went into a ten-minute tirade against Sargent for having made this decision. Sargent just stood there. And when it was over, he said, “Governor…” He still called Volpe “Governor.” “You have to listen to the people.” And Volpe twirled around. And he pointed at me–who he had just met–and he said, “Frank, you’re listening to the wrong people!”
Ian Coss [00:51:08] Despite that initial response, the Department of Transportation did ultimately grant the funding. That money would support a two-year comprehensive study of the region’s entire transportation network–roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, buses, everything. Crucially, Altshuler’s group looked into whether they could spend the money meant for highways on new mass transit options–new subway lines, for example. This was unprecedented. No state had ever reallocated money like this. It was a laboratory for what could happen when the narrative changed, and the orthodoxy of highways was questioned. At the end of it, Sargent scheduled a broadcast slot to announce his final decision.
Archival [00:51:57] Governor’s Transportation Message. Message video tape 424. Airdate 11/30/72…
Ian Coss [00:52:03] Did you know what he was going to say?
Fred Salvucci [00:52:05] No. We were all lobbying like crazy. But, you know, we didn’t know.
Archival [00:52:13] In ten, nine, eight, seven, six…
Ann Hershfang [00:52:15] So we were all sitting in our houses, watching. Breathless.
Archival [00:52:20] Here is the governor of the commonwealth, Francis W. Sargent.
Francis Sargent [00:52:25] I present to you tonight decisions touching the lives of all of us. I will ask that you share the risks. I’ll show you the opportunities. The problems of transportation have held us prisoner for 40 years. And recently that captivity has become intolerable. You, your family, your neighbors have become caught in a system that’s fouled our air, ravaged our cities, choked our economy, and frustrated every single one of us. Shall we build more expressways through cities? Shall we forge new change to shackle us to the mistakes of the past? No. We will not repeat history. We shall learn from it. We will not build the expressways.
Karilyn Crockett [00:53:14] I think Sargent’s decision to cancel the road was a shock.
Fred Salvucci [00:53:17] Better than anything I could have hoped for.
Ann Hershfang [00:53:20] So he announced this. And we all in our individual houses leaped up and ran to the GBC headquarters and drank and cheered and hullabalooed.
Ken Kruckemeyer [00:53:30] It was a miracle, it seemed.
Anstis Benfield [00:53:33] Joy! Joy! And happiness. And thank the good Lord.
Ian Coss [00:53:38] With that speech, Sargent removed almost 25 miles of highway from the interstate system–the first time any state or governor had done so. Sargent then went on for almost 15 minutes, detailing how the state would seek alternatives to the canceled highways and invest in mass transit. Yes, highways had been canceled before, but not like this. Not on this scale. Not with this kind of authority and vision. I think it’s worth sitting with Sargent’s words for a little longer and reminding ourselves this is a Republican governor and former commissioner of public works speaking in 1972.
Francis Sargent [00:54:22] The risks we take come down to betting on ourselves–on people versus things, on people versus automobiles, on people versus the reckless destruction of our homes, our environment, the very quality of our lives–all in the false name of progress. The only real progress is the progress of people. I’ve counted on your help before, and it’s been there. I call upon you once again, and I’m sure that you will answer that call.
Ian Coss [00:55:00] Every time I hear those words, I feel inspired. Odd, really, that our governor could speak with that kind of unabashed idealism–that belief in government–and also with the conviction that it wasn’t just talk. It was action. It feels refreshing, to be honest. My interest in this whole story springs from a feeling–a hope, really–that our nation is on the precipice of a new era of infrastructure. And I’m not just thinking about roads and bridges here. I’m thinking about wind turbines, solar farms, transmission lines, battery plants, about making our buildings more energy efficient and our coastlines more resilient to storms and flooding. If you look at any optimistic scenario for surviving climate change, it involves building stuff on a totally unprecedented scale. In a way, Sargent had it easy. He was choosing not to build something–to keep things as they were. And I don’t think we have that luxury right now, which is why the story I am most interested in is the story of what comes next. It’s not about what our state said no to. It’s what we said yes to–what we did build. Among the many physical legacies of Boston’s anti-highway fight, there’s now a train line that runs where the Southwest Expressway was supposed to go.
MBTA [00:56:42] This is Roxbury Crossing.
Ian Coss [00:56:46] If you get off in Roxbury, those acres of cleared land are home to a community college, a health center, Boston police headquarters, and the largest mosque in New England.
Pedestrian [00:56:57] Do you know where to get the Back Bay bus?
Ian Coss (field tape) [00:57:00] Yeah, you want to get on the train towards Oak Grove in 2 minutes.
Ian Coss [00:57:02] Imagining a highway here now–it’s unthinkable. And now, at the edge of the city, you can still see where the two strips of concrete dead-end in the woods–never to be continued. But there is another legacy–a connection that most people don’t talk about and that I certainly didn’t understand growing up–because in that same speech Sargent gave, there are few lines about an ambitious and visionary idea.
Alan Altshuler [00:57:35] Interesting long-term idea, but we’ll see.
Ian Coss [00:57:39] What if the city could go further than just stopping highways? What if we could tear them down, put them underground, and stitch the city back together? This would be better than learning from the past. It would be correcting the past.
Alan Altshuler [00:57:54] That actually became the origin of the Big Dig.
Ian Coss [00:58:01] And in two years, Fred Salvucci would be in a position to take it on.
Archival [00:58:08] Thank you all for joining us here today for the announcement of a very, very important decision. And it’s a decision which required more than a little soul searching on my part.
Ian Coss [00:58:18] That’s next time.
Roman Mars [00:58:29] The Big Dig podcast is available wherever you get podcasts. I’ve heard every episode. I got a little preview. It just gets better and better. It is a real triumph. Episode Two is already available in their feed. And new episodes will be released weekly. Go subscribe.
Ian Coss [00:58:45] The show is produced by Isabel Hibbard and myself, Ian Coss. It’s edited by Lacy Roberts. The editorial supervisor is Stephanie Leydon with support for this episode from Lisa Wardle. Mei Lei is the project manager. And the Executive Producer is Devin Maverick Robbins. This episode was informed by two fantastic books about the Boston anti-highway movement. People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making, by Karilyn Crockett. And Rites of Way: The Politics of Transportation in Boston and the U.S. City, which includes an incredibly detailed account, written in the ’60s and ’70s, by a Globe Reporter named Alan Lupo. I highly recommend them both. To see archival video and learn more about the show, go to gbhnews.org. The artwork is by Matt Welch. Our closing song is ETA by Damon and Naomi. The Big Dig is a production of GBH News and distributed by PRX.