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WTS-Boston November Luncheon Seminar on Transportation and Social Equity Features Professor Karilyn Crockett and Ann Hershfang

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By Brooke Sullivan and Heather Scranton, Haley & Aldrich, Inc.

 

On November 21st Karilyn Crockett, Lecturer in Public Policy & Urban Planning in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, and guest Ann Hershfang, President of America Walks and WalkBoston, presented at the November luncheon seminar and shared how activists came together to stop a highway from being built through the heart of Boston.  This and stories of other activities are published in Crockett’s 2018 book titled, “People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making." Ms. Crockett has spent years researching the Boston activists and heard firsthand stories from these visionaries, including Ann Hershfang.

 

The story of Ann Hershfang and other activists is not widely known. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed off on the Federal Aid Highway Act, which would allow for 46,000 miles of highway to be built across the United States. The federal government wanted to connect the country physically and believed the answer was highways. Before long, cities around the country were in a road building contest. The government promised a hefty reimbursement to any state that would build highways, up to 90 cents on the dollar. In Massachusetts, the plan was for interstate I-95 to be expanded through the heart of Boston, spanning 10-12 lanes and 10 stories high. Officials claimed the highway expansion would make Boston stronger than ever; it would be easier for people from all over to come into the city to work, shop and spend time. It was thought that this might be the answer to many of the city’s pressing problems.

However, residents of the communities the highway would run through were not as excited. During this time, Boston neighborhoods were experiencing a housing shortage, a job crunch, and many other issues. They envisioned a different kind of future for their city, not one that involved a massive highway running through it. Ann Hershfang was a new homeowner in the Boston’s South End. When she heard about a meeting being held in her neighborhood about the highway project, Ms. Hershfang attended a meeting about the expansion.  She was very displeased to hear that the highway would be built only four houses down the street from her new home.  The neighborhoods that this expansion would impact were mostly communities of color.  Many of her neighbors didn’t want to fight it, they didn’t see a point. The police wouldn’t even come when they called, so who was going to listen them?

 

Ms. Hershfang, along with many others, decided they weren’t going to take this laying down. The movement mobilized from their very own neighborhoods to the Massachusetts State House. On January 25, 1969, Ms. Hershfang, along with 2,000 others, confronted the new governor, Francis Sergeant, determined to change his mind about the highway. Sergeant had been the Head of the Department of Public Works and had a pro-highway stance. Their pleas worked, and in 1972 Governor Sergeant put a stop to the expansion and instead introduced an alternative transportation plan that included community parks, gardens, and basketball courts. None of this would have been possible without the persistence of the activists.

On January 25, 2019, a reenactment was held at the State House to celebrate the anniversary of the People Before Highways protest. The same activists from 50 years earlier, were united again to celebrate their victory. Many of these activists went on to be public servants who made positive changes in the city they loved so much. Ms. Hershfang reminds us that when you truly care about something, to work for it.  Anything is possible even with the odds stacked against you.

 

To see more photos from the event, check out the WTS-Boston Flickr page here.

 

 

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