Healing City Scars

"When distance and convenience sets in; the small, the various, and the personal fade away.
- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Saturday morning I spent a few hours observing, photographing, and traversing several intersections in Rockford. My first stop was Ethel Avenue and 251.

Intersection of 251 and Ethel Ave, looking south. Number of lanes: 7 (including turn lane). Speed limit: 45. Distance cars have traveled from north without interruption: 1.6 miles. 

Southeast corner of Ethel Ave. and 251 intersection, an unassuming crosswalk button capable of stopping 6 lanes of commuter traffic.

At this point in the city, 251 runs parallel to the river as well as to a well-travelled section of multi-use path that includes The Symbol, Sinnissippi rose gardens and lagoon, Nicholas Conservatory, the YMCA, fishing piers, and lots of public park space. To the immediate north and east of this intersection lies Sinnissippi park, with a golf course, band shell, pickle ball courts, and acres of oak-forested park land. 

This intersection provides the only non-vehicle access (other than Spring Creek Road bridge) from east side neighborhoods to these incredible city amenities, from Loves Park to nearly downtown. It is also the only vehicle access (again, other than Spring Creek Road bridge) from west side neighborhoods to the east side, from Loves Park to nearly downtown. This was not always the case. 

Whitman Street Interchange. Photo courtesy of Rockford Reminisce

During the 1960s, as the great American experiment of urban renewal, suburban sprawl, and car madness began to take hold, Rockford was not immune to the appeal of fresh pavement and the "convenience" that an expressway bisecting the city would offer. Dozens of homes were bulldozed, and the working-class, downtown adjacent neighborhoods on the west borders of this interchange were neatly separated from those on the east. Numerous connecting streets were widened and made into one-ways to accommodate the interchange. And that fabulous expressway? Yeah. It never came. 

If neighborhoods are the fabric of a great city, the fine-grained network of economic vitality, the Whitman project ripped a gaping hole in Rockford's rich tapestry (although it is arguable that we avoided the full extent of the damage because of the expressway that never materialized). Many great American cities were irreparably damaged and bear the lasting scars of the expansion of the highway system. The Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma has created a unique representation of this damage in the form of "city sliders" which overlay aerial photos of downtowns of major American cities in the 1950s with the downtowns in those same cities today. 

Downtown Cincinnati, 1955 and 2013. Click image to visit article with live "slider"; within article click and drag circle with arrows to view before and after images. 

Downtown Cincinnati, 1955 and 2013. Click image to visit article with live "slider"; within article click and drag circle with arrows to view before and after images. 

At their best, city streets provide access to services and amenities, connect neighborhoods and districts, and promote economic activity. However, for any of these "bests" to be achieved, city streets must first be designed for the people living, working, and playing on them. The Whitman Interchange represents all the worsts that a city street can be: a literal, physical barrier to services and amenities, a disconnecting of neighborhoods and the people therein, a portal of convenience for people who don't live in the city to get through it as quickly as possible with no opportunity for interaction with city residents or with the city economy. In short, convenience for some has led to disaster for many. 

The word "disaster" may seem hyperbolic, but I use it very intentionally. A natural disaster may last only a few minutes but change the physical landscape and the emotional connection of a community forever; the response to such a disaster can unite residents and strangers in a common act of rebuilding. For urban communities, infrastructure projects such as those I have discussed also drastically alter the physical landscape, and with those physical changes come a social and emotional toll. Those living in the wake of these projects are left to reknit the delicate network of businesses and homes and find new ways to navigate the everyday paths of life (to shops, to schools, to workplaces, to churches), and all too often "the small, the various, and the personal fade away." Worse yet, these disasters are accepted as normal and necessary; the strangers that traverse these disasters for the convenience they offer have no reason to unite with residents in an act of rebuilding, or to become familiar with the diverse, unique assets of each region of the city. 

How do we begin to fully heal the scars of failed roadway projects across our city? How can we avoid further wounding the intricate and fragile web of places and people? How do we respond to current and (planned) future projects that continue to divide and damage, rather than unite and support, the regions of this city? Below, more pictures I took Saturday to highlight a few such projects.

South Main and Island, looking west. El Tanampa bar housed in purple building, a long-standing business in southwest Rockford, now accessed only by right-in, right-out traffic. 

South Main and Knowlton, looking north. Bus stop on gravel path in front of strip with Chiquita grocery, Family Dollar, Rent to Own, and across street from South Main Food & Liquor. 

Google streetview, South Main and Lincoln, July 2012 (the month after Michael and I moved to Rockford). House has already lost some yard due to road widening/retaining wall addition. Note truck in driveway. 

South Main and Lincoln, photo taken Saturday (August 15, 2015). Yard is nonexistent, retaining wall doubled, trees gone, driveway gone (same story for many houses in this stretch of road). Sign on door indicates that house is condemned. 

North Main and Fulton looking west, taken standing in front of Olympic Tavern. Former site of an insurance office, hair salon, clock repairman, tailor (further to south), barbershop (northeast corner of this intersection), and other homes and businesses. Removed to widen and slightly alter route of North Main (Rt.2). 

North Main and Fulton looking west, taken standing in front of Olympic Tavern. Former site of an insurance office, hair salon, clock repairman, tailor (further to south), barbershop (northeast corner of this intersection), and other homes and businesses. Removed to widen and slightly alter route of North Main (Rt.2). 

There is much, much more to say on this topic and no easy answers available to unravel 60 years of failed urban experiments. Even now Rockford city officials are weighing options for how to "deal with" the Whitman Interchange, in which 2 out of 5 bridges are currently closed due to structural issues. I urge them, as I urge you, to consider the needs of the people of this city first, and not settle for what is bigger, faster, more convenient. Remember, cities are for people.