The expressway that never happened

The urban interstateBrian Stouder left an interesting comment on the previous post about my “Longing for a City” talk:

If I was going to ask a question – it would have been what you thought of the old Fort Wayne’s massive mistake of NOT adding an expressway along with the railway elevation project, back in the day. My dad (who grew up in Fort Wayne in the ’30’s and 40’s, and came of age in the ’50’s) always used to express mortification at our city’s decision to skip the expressway – and the reasons for that rejection.

Indeed, the News-Sentinel ran a very big and informative feature series on just that subject something like 10 or 15 years ago (written, in whole or in part, by Alan Derringer, as I recall) which confirmed all the things my dad always used to say.

If the expressway had existed, the bypasses wouldn’t have the glitter (and the concurrent development) that they attained, and the city would be all the more vibrant – in my opinion.

Which begs the question – why WOULD we really “miss” (at least the attitudes) of old Fort Wayne? They certainly had consequences.

The reasons for that rejection, if I remember correctly, was pure and simple racial prejudice, at least according to The News-Sentinel article referenced above.

Now, that’s a lousy reason, but I’m not sure an urban expressway — that would later have become Interstate 69 — is an 100 percent positive thing.

One obvious problem is the destruction of in-the-way neighborhoods and buildings, and considering we’re talking about the 1950s, who knows what treasures we would have lost.

But a second problem is the cleaving of the city in two along this manmade border. An interstate highway is a dead zone through a city with too-few connections, and those connections are stark bridges and dark underpasses.

But what do you think? Would the benefits of an urban expressway have outweighed the detriments?

— Photo courtesy the U.S. Department of Transportation

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  1. Now, that’s a lousy reason, but I’m not sure an urban expressway — that would later have become Interstate 69 — is an 100 percent positive thing.

    Well, we can certainly agree that an expressway would not have been a 100% good thing; but I betcha it would have been at least 60% better for us!

    Leaving aside the positive social aspects of relocating the residents that would have been bought-out, into other areas of Fort Wayne (which may have lessened or softened some of the big racial bumps we hit in the 1960’s and ’70’s, especially concerning FWCS and integration) – just the easy access into and out of the heart of the city couldn’t help but be a good thing, it seems to me.

    I grew up in southeast Fort Wayne, near McMillan Park, and all through our neighborhood were families of people who worked at ITT and Fruehauf and Tokheim and Falstaff and IH. While my mom would sometimes “go downtown” and shop, usually she and others in the nighborhood didn’t go further than the big Sears on Rudisill, and we got groceries at the Kroger that is now part of Indiana Institute of Technology. When they built Southtown Mall, there was almost no reason to go downtown, let alone through town to anywhere else. (I was probably in my 20’s before I was ever on Wells Street, for example!)

    Easier access to (and through) town would, I think, have drawn the city closer together, instead of the outward-facing development that Fort Wayne had and continues to have. The access ramps and bridges and so on wouldn’t be any worse than the railroads and rivers that we’re all used to dealing with.

    One other thing that always fascinates me in the older photos is the extensive light-rail and trolley system that Fort Wayne had. I had relatives who lived in Aboite (when Aboite was all corn and soy beans!) and who road the light-rail system into town to work at the GE plant.

    While that system was maybe doomed to wither away in the absence of those very large factories that we had, still it is amazing that ‘everything old is new again’, when it comes to mass transit.

    I’m still pondering the example of the circa-1900 man stepping into 1950 and fitting right in socially while the circa-1950 man steps into 2000 and offends everyone he interacts with. I agree with the supposition that this WOULD be the case, and I think the observation was not intended as a lament about modernity, so much as an appreciation of it….except when one looks at the stated theme of “missing old Fort Wayne” – and what we should do about it.

    I must say that in those terms, I don’t miss old Fort Wayne at all

  2. Though I’m somewhat familiar with the Jacobesque arguments against mid-century urban expressways, I’m hard pressed to imagine the city could have fair worse than it has with 69/469 bypasses. When I look at a current map of Allen County, and look at the rotten core of the apple that is Fort Wayne’s center city, I can’t believe it was obvious to the planners back then that this exact disaster would have occurred. It seems so obvious today! I mean… BYPASS. What did they think was being bypassed if the the city? And what did they think would DO the bypassing if not all future economic activity?

    So again, could it be worse than what we got?

  3. Thanks for posting this great piece of Fort Wayne history that many in my generation have no knowledge of and like you explained would have reaped the benefits of. Most young professionals from my generation find themselves leaving Fort Wayne to pursue careers in larger cities such as Chicago and Indianapolis, due to a lack of opportunities in Fort Wayne. The lose of these young professionals is being felt across the board from housing to the local grocery store and its been that way for quite sometime. I agree, looking back is always easier then looking forward and those in power at the time most likely didn’t see this playing out as it has. Downtown Fort Wayne is a shell of itself and despite new efforts will never be what it could have been. Good or bad, it is what it is. We created a bypass and essentially split the city up, which is one of the reason they didn’t want the expressway ironically. Most likely the neighborhoods that would have been affected by the expressway are the same ones that now find themselves crime ridden and in shambles. Again, this could be a direct result of the cities decision not to build an expressway. Fort Wayne has lost many of its middle class blue collar and white collar employers and there has been a major lack of new businesses entering the city to fill the gap left behind from such companies as GE, Tokeim, Harvester, Lincoln Life…etc Downtown Fort Wayne has over 1mil sqft of office space sitting empty by last accounts. Downtown Fort Wayne reminds me a lot of Southtown Mall.

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