Did a Highway Kill the City of Hartford?
This article was originally published on Common Edge.
Can a piece of infrastructure literally kill a city? This is the question that writer Jim Krueger poses in his recent podcast, The Road That Killed a City. The place in question is Krueger’s current hometown—Hartford, Connecticut—which he grew up next to in the leafy suburb of West Hartford. Kruerger has lived in both towns, and that helps to balance the amazing story he uncovers about how Connecticut’s capital was impaled by a roadway (actually, two: east/west I-84 and north/south I-91 converge in Hartford in a sort of arterial highway ground zero). I spoke with Krueger about what prompted the podcast, some of what he uncovered about the history of this ill-fated urban “improvement,” and the legacy of a highway that continues to thwart Hartford’s rebirth—an inheritance shared by many cities across North America .
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
JK: Jim Krueger
Highway Removals: Restoring the Urban Fabric and Unlocking New Development Opportunities
MJC: You were actually driving on the road that killed a city when you got the idea to do the podcast. Tell me about that moment and your motivation.
JK: I learned to make podcasts in college. And I was working as an Uber driver when I had time off from school, home visiting my family. I drove a lot of people from West Hartford into Hartford along I-84, and I started wondering about I-91 along the Connecticut River, which cuts the city off from the water. This is valuable land! I thought. I-84 seemed compelling because of the damage it ended up doing to the city.
MJC: Your podcast is a deep dive into many layers—racism, economic inequity, Hartford’s self-loathing—that all contributed to the construction of the I-84 viaduct. What surprised you most about these contributing factors?
JK: What surprised me the most was how bluntly it was talked about by the decision makers, about their motivation to locate I-84 where they did, looking through all these traffic studies and engineering documents. I figured I might never find anything really sinister until I read a document by Robert Moses that bluntly stated the reasons for putting the highway through the north end of the city, which had large concentrations of Black and poor residents thanks to the practice of redlining.
MJC: The podcast explains how real estate redlining concentrated people of color into certain Hartford neighborhoods, which were then cut off from downtown with the construction of the I-84 viaduct. Was the location of the highway the product of overt racism, or simply the path of least resistance in terms of ramming a highway through the city?
JK: There were some people who really believed in this Modernist strategy by Le Corbusier about introducing high-speed traffic into the middle of old cities—managing traffic and flow, how a city should work, as seen in his Radiant City plan for Paris. A lot of the engineers working on this were just really focused on providing more infrastructure in the city for cars. It was the same with the plan for Hartford done by RTKL in the 1960s: they wanted to include more low-income housing nearby and it just never got built. Redlining for race and immigrant populations is clearly motivated by discrimination. An earlier scheme called for putting the highway through Bushnell Park [the first public park in the U.S. and the setting for the Connecticut State Capitol, designed by Richard M. Upjohn]. But Robert Moses in his report states clearly that it would be a shame if you didn’t do some slum clearance while building the highway.
MJC: How did Moses get involved with Hartford?
JK: To the best of my knowledge he was an adviser to the city. The 1949 document he wrote was titled “Arterial Plan for Hartford,” and he was a consultant to other cities, like Albany, New York, where the same thing happened.
MJC: Hartford’s a city dominated by the insurance industry. Did the dominance of a single industry contribute to Hartford’s anemic urbanism?
JK: It’s a pretty big industry for a small city. It brought wealth that many similarly sized cities didn’t have. I would have to research more into that. It’s certainly Hartford’s reputation that it’s an upper-middle-class haven for insurance workers. The insurance companies certainly had a lot of pull.
MJC: In fact, four of the five entities that commissioned the 1949 Arterial Plan were insurance companies: Aetna Life, Connecticut General, The Phoenix, and Phoenix Mutual. Hartford’s got a lot of surface parking lots. Do they go hand-in-hand with I-84 in killing the city?
JK: Most certainly. If you want a city that has as much space for car storage as for human activity, Hartford’s got it. The municipal government recognizes this is a problem, but the parking lots are private, so it will be a challenge reducing them. They deaden the city’s potential.
MJC: There’s a great quote in your podcast from long-time Hartford resident Steve Harris: “You’ve got to be an activist to live in this city.” Where do we find activist role models here?
JK: Steve has been very active in challenging decisions made by others for his own North End neighborhood. A lot of people my age, in their 20s, want to make Hartford better. Many left Hartford in the pandemic for larger cities, but they’ve come back and are trying to make Hartford more like what they experienced in a place like Brooklyn, for example. A friend has opened a coffee shop north of downtown, near the ballpark. People like that are investing in the city to make it a more urban environment, despite what it is now. And we see alternatives—multimodal public transportation, walkable streets, biking—that we can use as models.
MJC: Your podcast points out that we live within patterns—the walls and the boxes—that continue to perpetrate the racism of the people who built them 60 or 70 years ago. How do we get out of the box?
JK: We’re shaped by our built environment, so we need to change it. Obviously, it’s going to take a little time. More open, equitable design is needed. And it will take people going out of their comfort zone, visiting places they previously wouldn’t go—this city that they’ve been told their whole life is terrible.
MJC: How would you fix Hartford? What are the solutions that might work here, that we might learn from other American cities that have been likewise violated?
JK: I think a lot of American cities are in their infancy trying to fix their “highway problem.” Rochester, New York, seems to be doing something interesting, but it’s a ring road. Here, I don’t know if you can transform I-84 into a pedestrianized road with traffic lights. We need to communicate the options that people have in public transportation right now to make it more accessible. We need more pedestrian-friendly streets—there’s plenty of research that shows that when people are on-foot they spend more money at local businesses. All this must happen with more citizen input, and the solutions have to be as daring as the problems that caused the city to be the way it is now.