Paying A Local Price For I-95's Global Promise Interstates changed the way we think about cities. The highways helped create the suburbs, the megalopolis and the 90-minute commute.  In return, Interstate 95 demanded sacrifices that changed some communities forever.
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Paying A Local Price For I-95's Global Promise

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Paying A Local Price For I-95's Global Promise

Paying A Local Price For I-95's Global Promise

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The interstate highway system was designed for long distance travel. It also helped create suburbs and determined how communities would grow.

As part of our series, I-95: The Road Most Travelled, NPRs Greg Allen reports on how the road shaped developments in Florida.

GREG ALLEN: You may have expected the sounds of traffic. Instead, Im in Floridas Martin County, standing on the bank of the Loxahatchee River. Its just a few miles from I-95, but it's much the same as it was a century ago. And thats a source of pride for Maggy Hurchalla.

Ms. MAGGY HURCHALLA: Its a truly wild, beautiful, cypress-lined - dark brown is the river, golden is the sand.

ALLEN: If you drive north on I-95 from Miami, Martin County is where much of the development suddenly ends. Hurchalla says thats not just happenstance. She was a county commissioner here for 20 years and for much of that time fought with developers over a single pressing question: Where I-95 should be built. A compromise eventually was reached that preserved the river and existing neighborhoods. But in Florida, and up the East Coast, that approach to interstate building was the exception, not the rule.

Hurchalla says Martin county officials did something else unusual. They restricted growth, both residential and commercial development near the countys I-95 interchanges in order to stop suburban sprawl.

Ms. HURCHALLA: We have had two or three major developments over the years that have been turned down, that wanted to be I-95 cities. That kind of thing has happened all up and down the interstates of the world. It generally makes the interstates so theyre not much good for interstate travel anymore.

(Soundbite of traffic)

ALLEN: Just north, in adjacent St. Lucie County, deliberations about where to build I-95 took a different course. Michael Busha, of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, says when I-95 was being planned, developers from Port St. Lucie successfully lobbied to build it far to the west, through area that had been farmland.

Mr. MICHAEL BUSHA (Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council): They went to Washington to make sure that I-95 didn't run through the middle of the city, that they wanted an edge road - or a ring road, the planners call it - so that there would be access. And also a really nice address - a new address for business and housing in the western portions of the city.

ALLEN: Today, 15 years after it was completed, I-95 is no longer on the edge of the city. It runs right through the middle.�After it was built, developers asked the city to annex 42 square miles west of the interstate for commercial and residential development.

Opponents called it sprawl, proponents called it growth.�Busha says at the time the housing market looked unstoppable, so officials went for it.�

Mr. BUSHA: Water systems were built, roads were built, and then the boom went bust. The bubble burst.�And now there's a bill to be paid.

ALLEN: It's a story that's played out up and down I-95 over the past 50 years from Maine to Florida.�A federally funded highway system, designed for interstate commerce and national security, was embraced by local governments, planners and developers as a roadmap for growth.

In cities like Miami, I-95 also was used as a tool for urban redevelopment -reshaping the city, or at least those parts of it which authorities felt needed reshaping.

Mr. MARVIN DUNN: How's my callaloo doing?

ALLEN: This is Marvin Dunn. He's a retired history professor, author of "Black Miami in the 20th Century." Callaloo, if you're wondering, is sort of a Caribbean spinach. We're at an organic garden Dunn helped found in the heart of Miami's historic black neighborhood - Overtown.

During the '40s and '50s, it was a bustling hub of Miami's black community.

Mr. DUNN: There was a nightclub just on the other side of the street. There were major, major businesses all along this avenue before the interstate came in. We're right across the street from historic Mount Zion Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave many of his speeches here in Miami.

ALLEN: That all came to an end, Dunn says, when city, state and federal officials began looking for a route for the new federal highway.

Mr. DUNN: They had two choices. They could have brought the interstate straight down the old railroad track, which was vacant property in the industrial section of the community, which would've amounted to very little displacement of the population.�The white downtown business establishment didn't want that.

ALLEN: Dunn says at the time even many black residents agreed that I-95 and urban redevelopment could be good for the community.�What residents hadn't expected, though, was how much of the community would be taken for the road.

When I-95 was completed in the early '60s, a thriving community of 40,000 had been reduced to one quarter of its size.

Something similar happened in Jacksonville, Nashville, Birmingham, Kansas City - all places where black neighborhoods were demolished when expressways came through.

Today, with its organic garden, a historic designation and some new businesses, Overtown is struggling for a comeback. But it will always be literally in the shadow of the interstate. And Dunn says that pains him a little.�

Mr. DUNN: As you approach Overtown, the highway rises over the community. So if you didn't really want to see any black people coming into downtown Miami on I-95, you wouldn't. But yes, it's a public amenity that we all use with little appreciation for the cost involved in getting it.

ALLEN: And that might be something else to think about the next time you're tooling along on I-95 or another of the nation's interstates. Did Americans shape the interstate highway system into what it is today, or did it shape us?

GREG ALLEN, NPR News, Miami.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Our series, I-95: The Road Most Traveled, continues tomorrow, WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY with reports from Maine and Delaware. We've got some other stops you shouldn't miss on our website, npr.org/I95.

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