How’s 1952 treating you?
“The Perry Como Show,” Doris Day, duck and cover. Great stuff.
Wait, you don’t recall these things?
Well, in a sense, you are living in 1952—in Harrisburg, we all are.
In that year, Gov. John S. Fine approved the widening of Forster Street, allowing the state to blast through a leafy, quaint residential neighborhood to create what eventually would become a nine-lane (six through, two parking, one turning lane) asphalt hellscape.
We are now living in someone else’s reality, someone else’s vision of Harrisburg, namely a bunch of state officials and engineers, long gone, who sketched out a future ruled by the automobile.
I have in mind Judge Doom from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” as he dreamily imagined “eight lanes of shimmering cement” in place of Toon Town.
“They’re calling it a freeway,” he said, lost in a reverie. “My God, it’ll be beautiful.”
Like in the movie, plenty of stuff was inconveniently in the way on and near Forster Street—not fictional cartoon characters, but very real houses, businesses and human beings. But that was nothing that condemnation orders, property takings, bulldozers and blacktop couldn’t remedy.
Where Judge Doom failed, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania succeeded.
As we enter the 2020s, it’s perfectly reasonable to reassess this experiment. After all, 70 years seems plenty of time to judge whether or not something has worked.
In terms of moving workers to their jobs—the state’s only concern during Howdy Doody times—I’d give Harrisburg’s mini-freeway a grade of “C-minus.”
It basically accomplished that mission, but at a very high cost. Yes, the street successfully carries traffic from the Harvey Taylor Bridge to the Capitol Complex and back, but it’s also poorly engineered. Its width, speed off of the bridge and intersections with other busy city streets encourage speeding and light-running, which inevitably means crashes.
It’s also, for 22 hours a day, far too wide. All of those lanes are unnecessary to carry the average traffic load for about 95 percent of the 168-hour week, a sign of poor road design, planning and vision. In other words, Forster Street is vastly overbuilt, which may not have been obvious in the 1950s, but is now.
In terms of its impact on Harrisburg—can I go lower than “F?”
Forster Street ripped the heart out of Harrisburg, dividing neighborhoods and creating a vast, dangerous chasm smack in the middle of the city. Built as an integrated series of walkable neighborhoods, Harrisburg became fragmented and inhospitable. Soon, Front and 2nd streets also became mini-highways, making residents feel that they were living on one big traffic island—and who wants that?
It’s difficult to exaggerate the disaster that this was for the city. These road projects kicked off a decades-long death spiral of urban flight, depopulation and disinvestment that we’re only now emerging from. Yes, state workers got to their jobs a little faster, paid for by the ruination of the capital city.
My understanding is that two aligned forces pushed the Forster Street expansion.
The first consisted of state officials under the sway of the wealthy and influential road construction industry, as well as powerful political boss Harvey Taylor, who saw the expansion of the Capitol complex and the grand boulevard leading up to it as a living monument to himself. In retrospect, they deserve all the censure we can muster.
The second force consisted of rank-and-file engineers and planners who likely believed this truly was the future. After all, Harrisburg was hardly alone in the urban highway trend. Roads were plowing through city after city, soon destabilizing and destroying them, too. If you were a civil engineer in the 1940s and ‘50s, knocking down buildings and throwing up highways was the thing to do.
But that was 70 years ago. Time moves on. Societies change, cities change, Harrisburg has changed. But Forster Street is essentially the same as the day the project’s ribbon was cut in the 1950s. It’s like we’re in a time warp, living out someone else’s failed vision of the future.
So, where to now?
It’s time for a rethink. The state should be working with the city to assess all of its road infrastructure in Harrisburg—what works, what doesn’t, and what might prepare us for the future, not just ignore or patch up past mistakes.
The thing is—we already know generally what this would look like based upon similar efforts in many cities around the country.
No, we can’t go back in time and magically return Forster to a small neighborhood street, but we can integrate it better into its city. This might mean a slimmer street with wider sidewalks, more green infrastructure, differentiated pavement, bump-outs, bike lanes and other measures that put pedestrians and cyclists on a more equal footing with autos. People shouldn’t fear for their lives simply because they want to cross the street between downtown and Midtown Harrisburg.
Harrisburg circa 1950 was a vastly different city than it was 70 years earlier—the mud-street, horse-centric 1880s. Likewise, Harrisburg of 2020 is vastly different than Harrisburg of 1950. To me, a rethink every 70 or so years is entirely reasonable.
Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.