June 21st, 2024


Nightmare Avenue

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Dec. 3, 2015

Aerial View Of Highways In Dallas Texas

You may think moving six lanes of heavy highway traffic through an old, already congested and only newly revived neighborhoods is an awful idea. And you'd be right. And not only because those old, established neighborhoods would be torn apart. Just as city after American city from Chicago to Dallas was divided into largely racial zones years ago. The costs then weren't just economic but human, the effect inhumane. Talk about madness....

But a little over a decade ago (2003), one study proposed not just six additional lanes of traffic through Little Rock but a minimum of 10 new lanes. Call it madness multiplied.

What we have here may be one more example of how far removed city planners and traffic engineers are from the madding crowd, ensconced as they are in their nice, clean offices with maybe a fern or two on their desks and the usual certificates on the wall. As if all these real live human beings they were moving about were just stick figures in their drawings.

Scott Bennett, who is Arkansas' top highway official, sounds deaf as ever to these simple but basic human considerations. "I don't know if anything has changed since then," he says, referring to 2003. When, of course, the whole world has. But he talks as if all he can think about is cars, cars, cars -- not the people in them and slicing through their neighborhoods, livelihoods, plans, hopes and memories.

There may be only one word to say to technocrats like Mr. Bennett who keep coming up with these purely abstract schemes year after year, decade after decade:


It might help if our Great Planners reviewed the tragic history of some Great Plans That Failed -- even if those who dreamed them up had the best of intentions, and the best of reputations for designing and executing great plans.

What could be a more impressive accomplishment than conceiving and then carrying out the Normandy Invasion during the Second World War? Dwight D. Eisenhower would do both, earning the respect and gratitude of not only his countrymen but all those struggling to be free of Nazi tyranny.

As a popular president and commander-in-chief after the war, he came up with a defense measure that would have sped military convoys across the country in no time without interfering with civilian highways. It sounded like a good idea -- a great idea -- at the time. Indeed, it was the beginning of this country's system of interstate highways, inspired by the German Autobahn, that would make America a leader in highway planning and the envy of the world. So was the plan. But then Ike made the mistake of going to see how his plan was working out on the ground.

It took the president only one look to realize his folly. Instead of connecting the country's great cities and speeding traffic through them, his plan divided those cities, and some haven't become whole yet. Because his Great Plan tore apart old established neighborhoods. Ike was appalled at the sight. As soon as his interstate surrounded a city like Chicago, for example, development followed it. And sealed it off. North Siders were divided from South Siders, the east from west sides of town. Old rivalries were aggravated, but this time there were steel and concrete lines of demarcation between them, as if not a highway but a great gulf had been opened between them -- a gulf not unlike the split that the Wilbur Mills Freeway had opened in Little Rock years ago. The divisions were not only ethnic but racial as Polish and Chinese neighborhoods, say, were split and racial ghettos sealed.

Yes, it was as fashionable then as it is now for great cities to grow in all directions, and metropolises like Dallas were supposed to be the model to imitate. But ask anyone who's ever been lost on the Dallas freeway, doomed to go on forever circling his destination without ever getting there, if he really envies this country's big cities and wishes Little Rock were more like them. Yet every chamber of commerce and regional planning agency in the country seems bent on imitating their hellish growth and its less than livable result.

Perhaps it's just my own small-town background that prejudices me against Great Plans, or a naturally conservative streak that warns me it is better to love what you have and seek to improve it than turn our backs on it and aim to be a little Dallas or Atlanta. No thank, you.

You can have that kind of "progress," which is little more than a kind of elephantiasis that swallows up everything in its path rather than carefully choosing what is worth saving and then conserving and enhancing it.

Plans are just fine, and ambition a noble quality, but beware: Great plans can prove great failures, even if some of our planners are oblivious to the great failures they are courting.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.