Highway to Park

On September 6, 2015 · 4 Comments

A park near my home happened to be constructed above an interstate highway leading into Washington, DC. The roadway at that point was tucked within a little valley leading downhill towards the Potomac River. Drivers on Interstate 66 entered a tunnel briefly before returning to daylight and crossing the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge into the city. Most people shot through there so quickly they probably didn’t even wonder what they’d burrowed beneath.

Sometime during I-66’s construction someone had the grand idea of creating a three-acre ceiling above the motorway and christened it Arlington Gateway Park, a decent attempt at open space albeit a bit underused. The county did try to talk it up though, saying the park "…is the home of the annual Rosslyn Jazz Festival every September, is a great place to watch the 4th of July fireworks and provides a nice view of Georgetown from the Skywalk." Little did I know Gateway Park was well ahead of the times when constructed in the 1970’s. Now there’s quite a trend of undergrounding freeways in order to create open space, or even obliterate roadways entirely.

I took a closer look at a few commonly noted instances of this trend in urban renewal, those often cited as positive examples.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

A familiar story of relentless highway construction supporting a prevailing automobile culture struck an axe blow through neighborhoods in Milwaukee during the middle of the last century. It reached its farthest tide with the East Park Freeway which was only partially constructed before activist summoned enough political power to halt further progress. The highway would have stretched from Interstate 43 to Milwaukee’s Lake Michigan shoreline. Instead it became an underused 1-mile spur, and "The elevated freeway lowered the value of the surrounding land, so it was used primarily for surface parking, though some of it was right on the Milwaukee River." Sensing the error of their ways, city officials demolished the East Park Freeway in 2002.

Renewal remains a work in progress in Milwaukee as demonstrated by several empty parcels along the old highway right-of-way in the satellite image, above. The route formerly ran along the southern edge of McKinley Avenue and the Milwaukee River. Three new neighborhoods began to rise on the newly-available land, the McKinley District, Lower Water Street District and Upper Water Street District. All of them are being redeveloped with New Urbanist elements although it will take many more years.

Seoul, South Korea

Cheonggyecheon Umbrellas
Cheonggyecheon Umbrellas by travel oriented via Flickr (cc)

The Cheonggye Freeway rose from postwar South Korea in the 1950’s with active construction lasting into the 1970’s. War refugees settled in makeshift shacks along Gaecheon stream, turning it into a fetid cesspool. The neighborhood became an eyesore and an embarrassment to government officials. The natural solution for that period involved the forcible removal of residents, undergrounding the stream, building surface streets over top of it, and finally constructing an elevated freeway one level above that. The government considered this project sleek and modern, a symbol of South Korea’s recovery and industrial might.

It didn’t work quite as planned as years passed. The neighborhood began to become a bit shabby, plus it had an elevated freeway running through the heart of it. The freeway itself became an annoying traffic choke point, perhaps more a symbol of frustrated driving and grimy air pollution than a modern South Korea. Cheonggye Freeway had to go. In its place came Cheonggyecheon (청계천) in 2005, a 10 kilometre restoration of Gaecheon stream along with accompanying landscaping and beautification (map). Now the area attracts residents and tourists alike instead of repelling them.

Madrid, Spain

Arganzuela - Madrid Río
Arganzuela – Madrid Río by Abel de Burgos via Flickr (cc)

The final example cited quite frequently could be found in Madrid, Spain. Here a river also had been undergrounded and replaced with a freeway. The M-30 motorway created a tight ring around Madrid beginning in the 1970’s, looping immediately west of the city center. Designers followed the path of least resistance, the natural bed of the Manzanares River, with asphalt taking precedence at the surface. The freeway created two negative consequences; a visual blight on the landscape and disconnected neighborhoods.

Once again tastes changed. The layers reversed in a series of efforts between 2006 and 2011. The M-30 shifted underground and the Manzanares River returned to the surface to form Madrid Río, a 7 kilometer linear park (map). As the New York Times described the situation,

The park here, called Madrid Río, has largely been finished. More than six miles long, it transforms a formerly neglected area in the middle of Spain’s capital. Its creation, in four years, atop a complex network of tunnels dug to bury an intrusive highway, also rejuvenates a long-lost stretch of the Manzanares River, and in so doing knits together neighborhoods that the highway had cut off from the city center… the park belongs to a larger transformation that includes the construction of dozens of new metro and light-rail stations that link far-flung, disconnected and often poor districts on Madrid’s outskirts to downtown.

Madrid Río converted a bleak asphalt landscape into an enjoyable pedestrian zone.

There were many other examples I could have referenced if I’d had more space. Certainly Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway constructed as a result of the Big Dig fit the same theme. I already talked about that one in 2010’s Over the Road article. Another example would be The High Line in New York City where an abandoned elevated spur of the New York Central Railroad became a park. A final example would be the Embarcadero in San Francisco where a 1989 earthquake provided a perfect opportunity to remove an ugly freeway.

Where They Lived as Children

On August 30, 2015 · 2 Comments

My recent trip to western North Carolina was like the gift that kept on giving of Twelve Mile Circle article ideas. Sadly I’ve reached the end of the line on that thread so this will be the last article that contains a connection to that earlier adventure. As noted in a prior installment, I enjoyed walking around Asheville in the early morning before the town woke up. I discovered all sorts of interesting nooks as I wandered aimlessly down deserted streets. One was the Thomas Wolfe House on Spruce Street, included as part of the museum complex at 52 N. Market Street (map).

Thomas Wolfe Memorial
Thomas Wolfe Memorial (my own photo)

This inviting structure has been designated as the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site, the childhood home of the author. The Queen Anne style home served as a boardinghouse operated by Wolfe’s mother. He used it as a backdrop for his thinly veiled 1929 autobiographical novel, "Look Homeward, Angel." That distinction certainly made it a property worth preserving. It occurred to me that oftentimes a famous person’s adult home might be preserved while his or her childhood home might be neglected, with notable exceptions of course. Certainly preservation made sense here.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum Properties
Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum Properties by Missouri Division of Tourism (cc)

Another place where I thought preservation made sense was the Mark Twain Boyhood Home at 206-208 Hill Street, in Hannibal, Missouri (map). Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, drew upon his youthful memories from Hannibal for some of his novels. These included actual locations associated with people who inspired major fictional characters such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher.

That was all fine and appropriate. However I wanted to bring the concept into the present. I wondered if there were people of more recent vintage whose childhood homes might someday become national historic landmarks. Where would tourists flock and stand in line to walk through rooms where a notable person once lived as a child? The big one of course was Elvis Presley, and for him that distinction had already been achieved. I wrote about Elvis’ early childhood shotgun-shack in Tupelo, Mississippi in The Cult of Elvis back in 2009. After Elvis, then the next logical choice might have to be…

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson first house
Michael Jackson first house by Paolo Rosa on Flicker (cc)

What would be a bigger Thriller than driving down to the corner of 23rd and Jackson Street in Gary, Indiana (map)? The Michael Jackson house probably stood a solid chance of becoming an historic landmark to rival anything from Elvis. It already seemed to be generating cult-like status barely five years after Jackson’s death judging by the numerous photos I saw on the Intertubes. Invariably images showed throngs of people, piles of tributes, a large granite marker and a generally celebratory environment courtesy of pilgrims and devotee that converged there.

Another question remained. Will tourists ever be able to visit Neverland Ranch like they can Graceland?

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain's Childhood Home
Kurt Cobain’s Childhood Home; Aberdeen, WA
via Google Street View, October 2012

I moved on to another music icon, albeit from a different genre. Kurt Cobain passed away at the height of success while fronting the band Nirvana, in 1994. One would think that his childhood home might attract the attention of some of his fans, and yet it didn’t seem to resonate much. The real estate website Redfin featured his mother’s property at 1210 East 1st St., Aberdeen, Washington (map) in August 2015, "Kurt Cobain’s Childhood Home Drops in Price, Again."

Kurt Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, just shaved off $71,000 from the price of his childhood home, bringing the new price tag to $329,000… His bedroom, which looks like a converted attic, still has Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin logos that he stenciled on the walls, and holes from where he punched the walls as a teen.

It would seem to demonstrate great provenance and even some residual historic significance given the doodles and damage. It remained unsold as of a few days ago.

Sandra Bullock

Sandra Bullock's Childhood Home
Sandra Bullock’s Childhood Home; Arlington, VA
via Google Street View, July 2014

A childhood home might have historical significance even if the celebrity who lived there happened to still be living, right? I selected Sandra Bullock solely because she lived fairly close to where I live today in Arlington, Virginia. In fact my children will someday attend the same high school that she attended during her formative years, Washington-Lee. Bullock spent most of her childhood at 2925 26th Street North in the Woodmont neighborhood (map). The Arlington County property search website valued the home at $1,241,900 for the 2015 tax year. It also noted that "Bullock John W & Helga M" purchased the property originally in 1966 for $40,000 (and it sold for $1,115,000 in 2005).

Kurt Cobain’s childhood home would be a lot more cost effective for, you know, creepy people who need to own one of those kinds of places.

Of Of

On August 19, 2015 · 8 Comments

Mouth of Wilson. I used it as a waypoint during my recent county counting quest and otherwise put it out of mind as I drove through an expansive rural corner of Virginia. It came to mind once again as I passed a sign for another town about an hour farther north and east, Meadows of Dan. How unusual, I thought, to encounter two locations in relatively close proximity to each other with the word "of" embedded in their names. I remembered a similarly concocted town a few miles away from my childhood home called Point of Rocks, sitting just across the Potomac River in Maryland. I tucked the notion away until my return. Interestingly, all of them became known predominantly for something other than the piece-parts of their oddly constructed names.

Mouth of Wilson

Waterfall in Mouth of Wilson Virginia
Waterfall in Mouth of Wilson Virginia by Jimmy Emerson, DVM on Flickr (cc)

Mouth of Wilson presented a couple of obvious questions. Who was Wilson and why the preoccupation with his mouth? Fortunately answers revealed themselves quite conveniently in Grayson County: A History in Words and Pictures.

When the Frye [sic.]-Jefferson party surveyed the line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1749, a young surveyor named Wilson died. His body was carried to the bank of a nearby creek for burial, hence the name Wilson’s Creek.

Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson surveyed uncharted corners of Virginia including its border with North Carolina, resulting in the definitive map of the colony from that era. Apparently Wilson, whoever he was, never got to see the fruits of his labor. He lived-on in a way many years later when a town grew at the confluence of Wilson’s Creek and the New River. That spot marked the mouth of Wilson’s Creek and the name shortened nicely to Mouth of Wilson.

Nobody much remembered Fry or Jefferson or especially Wilson, although maybe some people had heard of Peter’s son Thomas Jefferson. If by chance people ever caught wind of Mouth of Wilson it had nothing to do with 18th century cartographers. It was for basketball. Here, nearby Oak Hill Academy (map) built a basketball dynasty over three decades. The school never had more than about 150 students at a time and yet it produced a crazy number of professional basketball players. The school’s utter domination of the sport at the high school level continues today (e.g., "The Middle of Nowhere: Oak Hill Academy, the Best Basketball Program on the Planet").

Meadows of Dan

Mabry Mill in Winter
Mabry Mill in Winter by Sheila C. on Flickr (cc)

Flowing waters also underpinned the etymology of Meadows of Dan although there wasn’t ever some guy named Dan to serve as an inspiration. There were beautiful meadows however, and they were found near the upper reaches of the Dan River. One part of the name derived from a 1728 expedition mapping the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina (prior to Fry and Jefferson who improved and extended the line) led by William Byrd. According to the Danville Historical Society,

The surveying party began marking the line at the mouth of the Currituck River on the coast of Virginia, and went westward toward the mountains. When they reached this area, Colonel Byrd and his party encountered "the South Branch of the Roanoak River the first time, which we call’d the Dan."… Colonel Byrd never explained his choice of name for the river. However, the biblical limits of Canaan were "From the Dan to Beersheba." Because the northern limit of North Carolina was in question, "Dan" seemed to be an appropriate name for the river which at that time fixed the boundary in this area between the two colonies.

That likely explained Dan. The meadows portion joined the name much later, as explained by the community of Meadows of Dan,

This broad high mountainous area was settled in the early 1800s, mostly by German and Scotch-Irish settlers that traveled down from Pennsylvania… The Langhorne family, one of the few of English descent in the community, held a land grant that contained much of what is now considered Meadows of Dan… The Langhorne patriarch is credited with giving the area the name "Meadows of Dan". He settled on the headwaters of the Dan River, and grist mills in the Langhorne name were built along the stream.

Few people would know much about Meadows of Dan if it weren’t for two fortunate happenstances. First, Edwin Boston Mabry, a local resident built a wonderfully iconic mill in 1903 (map). Second, the Blue Ridge Parkway ran directly past the mill after its construction as a Depression-era jobs project in the 1930’s. Maybry’s Mill quickly became one of the most heavily visited and photographed spots along the entire parkway.

Point of Rocks

Point of Rocks, Maryland
Point of Rocks, Maryland by Bob Wilcox, on Flickr (cc)

I didn’t need to conduct any research to determine the source of the rocky point inspiring a town called Point of Rocks in Maryland. Literally, just west of town stood a point of rocks that I’d seen many times with my own eyes. The cliff might be a notable landmark for bikers on the C&O Canal trail, or to boaters on the Potomac River. Most everyone else would remember Point of Rocks for its nostalgic train station (map), built in 1873 at an important junction where trains routed either to Baltimore or Washington. Of course I’ll always remember Point of Rocks more for the drive-through liquor store of my youth.

Upon Further Consideration

It occurred to me that there may be many more "of" towns. Yet, I couldn’t find them using my usual search techniques and I couldn’t recall any others from memory. Sure, there were a billion examples tied to geographic units, for instance the City of London, District of Columbia, Commonwealth of Virginia, United States of America and the like. Those were all too mundane even to mention. I wasn’t interested in finding more of those. I wanted additional mouths and meadows and points and other strange yet appropriate descriptions of things. I imagined there were probably many very obvious instance that somehow fell into my mental blind spot. What am I missing?

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