A Road Runs Through It

When Highways Bisect Historic Neighborhoods

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Western North Carolina roads wind through spectacular fall foliage near Asheville.

Credit: Hugh Morton

Famous for its splendid scenery, Asheville, N.C., home of the Biltmore Estate, the striking residence of the wealthy Vanderbilt family, is dotted with pricey neighborhoods that have become even more expensive in the past few years.

But one area, the city's West End/Clingman Avenue section, traditionally has boasted neither mansions nor mountain views. Instead, industrial workers, laborers, and African American residents settled there in small but affordable dwellings. 

Split by one highway and targeted for another road-building project, the neighborhood has organized a resistance. Known as "WECAN" (West End/Clingman Avenue Neighborhood Association), the group is fighting attempts to change the area's distinct personality, acting as a social unifier for those who dwell there.

Roads spider-web the country as evidence of America's postwar preoccupation with automobiles. In the 1950s and 60s, a more efficient road system often came with the destruction of architecturally significant buildings and cleaving of longtime neighborhoods to make way for more pavement. Despite growing concerns and protective legislation, older, less affluent neighborhoods often found themselves in the way of one transportation corridor or another. Some teardowns went without a whimper, but other owners, like those in Asheville, fought back, instigating a change in the law that provided some protection for historical structures.

A number of communities have defiantly faced down highway expansion proponents, forcing their governments to rethink transportation.

Joe Fioccola has lived in Asheville's West End for 24 years; his wife's roots there date back to the turn of the last century. A founding member of WECAN, Fioccola says the original road project, an extension of I-240, literally sliced the neighborhood in two, displacing residents and distancing longtime neighbors. "This neighborhood grew up around factories," he says. "There are people who have been living here 30, 40, 50 years."

Seven years ago, a corner of WECAN's blue-collar neighborhood was nominated for historic district status. Although Asheville's Historic Resources Commission signed off on the nomination, it turned out to be anything but a done deal. As the nomination wound its way through the usual bureaucratic tangle, WECAN's board was stunned by what happened next. Area resident Patty Torno says, "We were approved at the local level, approved at the state level, then torpedoed by our own."

Asheville's city government officially opposed the designation, but eventually the option of running the new connector through West End/Clingman Avenue was cast aside. When the state transportation department moved on, WECAN members let out a collective breath, but they remain wary. Fioccola says no one explained the department's change of direction; the option was simply no longer on the table. They think it's smart not to question their good karma.

Road to California

East Coast or West, it is not unusual for highways to supplant homes and business districts, especially in older neighborhoods. In South Pasadena, Calif., former city transportation commissioner Joanne Nuckols remains a staunch opponent of a scheme to connect Long Beach and Pasadena. In preparation for the highway project -- an extension of the 710 Freeway -- the state purchased several hundred homes along the proposed route back in the 1970s. The houses were both large and small; some were spacious, and some were tiny bungalows.

"They're an equal-opportunity destroyer of neighborhoods," Nuckols says.

South Pasadena, a community that is so hometown America it's been the backdrop for movies like "Back to the Future," became a backdrop for a community crusade. The highway corridor was on the National Historic Trust's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for a record five straight years, from 1989 through 1993. When the 40-year push to build the road derailed after the City of South Pasadena, the National Trust, and a broad coalition of other groups obtained a federal court injunction against the project in 1999 – an injunction that remains in place to this day – the California Dept. of Transportation (CalTrans) decided to conduct a technical feasibility study for an expensive full-bore tunnel under the City. However, CalTrans has refused to relinquish the houses.

"We will not consider the project dead until [CalTrans] agrees to sell the 500 homes they bought," Nuckols says.

Inroads in Buffalo

Mark Goldman, a businessman, writer and community activist in Buffalo, N.Y., has a different view of the highways that slashed through upstate New York. He says Buffalo's roads were established before the districts in which they were built were considered historic. And, although the highways definitely change the city's character, Goldman says at the time they were built, officials were largely unopposed and had the community's best interests in mind.

"It was a way to get around the city," he says. "The shortest line between two points."

Goldman says that although some now regret the loss of what would be historic architecture destroyed to build the roads, "few tears were shed at the time." One road was built through Olmsted Park, the first of its kind to be designed by the father of New York's Central Park, legendary landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted. Unlike the Asheville project, Buffalo's highways sliced through both blue-collar and affluent neighborhoods, but Goldman sees the road-builders as symptomatic of the times.

"These weren't bad guys. They just weren't very far-sighted," Goldman explains.

East Coast or West, it is not unusual for highways to supplant homes and business districts, especially in older neighborhoods. Groups like Asheville's WECAN and those in Pasadena find their strength through both numbers and resilience. Their message is simple: bulldozing houses and trees in favor of more roads can destroy not just neighborhoods and historic buildings but a way of life.


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