A highway runs through it

Grist / Google Maps

When a government official takes a reporter out to see some concrete colossus, it’s usually to show it off. Not this time. On a recent spring morning, Matt Nichols, transportation director of Oakland, California, gazed down through a chain-link fence walling off a sidewalk overpass from the massive sunken freeway below — I-980, which runs between downtown Oakland and the historically black neighborhood of West Oakland.

Five lanes of traffic howled beneath his feet at 70 miles per hour. Throughout the 1970s, Nichols’ predecessors had argued that Oakland needed to build this freeway to thrive. But when Nichols looks at it, he doesn’t see a triumph of infrastructure.

“What I see is desolation,” he said.

Nichols pointed toward a line of houses with a view of an onramp. Noise and pollution spreads into the surroundings, he said. “You can feel the impoverishment of what a freeway does to a community.”

Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, thinks the land has a higher use: I-980, she has said, “remains a scar on our urban fabric. In its place we want livable infrastructure that creates local economic opportunity, reconnects neighborhoods, and connects the region.” So the city government has made the freeway’s removal a part of its plan for a growing downtown Oakland.

The reasons to build inner-city highways seemed obvious in the 1950s, the golden age of the automobile. They allowed thousands of cars to flow through big cities without slowing down and clogging up streets. Like TV dinners, Tang, and dishwashers, they made things convenient. 04-17-19

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