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Yesterday's dream road

As neighborhoods go, mine "went," as we used to say as kids.

Oh, the old stomping grounds on Salt Lake City's near-west side, an area with a history that dates back to the pioneers, are still there. A few family friends stayed through all the years; other folks now call the area home.But the interstate - the American Autobahn, Eisenhower's federal defense highway, a k a "the superslab" - sliced the neighborhood down the middle when I was a boy, changing the area's organic essence.

I've had a love/hate relationship with the freeway system ever since.

Like others in this automobile-dominated age, my lifestyle merged long ago with the access, ease and speed fostered (until today's deconstruction and reconstruction) by this 1950s "dream road." Still, I've never been particularly attracted to the fast lane in any of its meanings.

And I cannot forget how dominant, even menacing, this embryonic superhighway seemed when I was small.

I grew up in a rented red-brick house a half-block away from a great and growing miles-long pile of Beck Street gravel paralleling what is now 700 West, although it was 600 then. Oddly, an east-west cousin of this mighty freeway was going up about the same time right across the street from my grandparents' home in South Salt Lake.

As a consequence, though we moved to the freeway-fed suburbs in 1965, a startling number of childhood memories intersect with the highway's earliest years.

On occasion, when I was an undersize schoolboy at Jackson Elementary School, we'd get to see short films in the big kids' auditorium at the adjacent junior high school. One of these was Frank Sinatra's "The House I Live In," made in the mid-'40s when Ol' Blue Eyes was really skinny and not at all old.

As I remember it, he descended the stairs of a brownstone, strolled down the street and sang sentimentally and with patriotic feeling about how much he loved the neighborhood and society at large all around him. I haven't been able to track down the film, but the song is readily available.

In the lyrics, Sinatra admiringly makes note of the neighborhood grocer and the butcher, the children in the playground and people of all races and religions. In one stanza he sings,

The town I live in, the street, the house, the room;

The pavement of the city or a garden all in bloom;

The church, the school, the clubhouse, the million lives I see;

But especially the people, that's America to me.

I liked "The House I Live In." It reflected the demographics of the Jackson area as I perceived the neighborhood to be. Except Sinatra's urban milieu seemed a lot more orderly than ours. For another memory is of seeing for the first time photographs of cities wrecked by World War II bombs - houses with blind, gaping windows; walls broken and teetering; piles of rubble.

For a brief time, that's what it looked like between my house and our church, two blocks to the east. The meetinghouse sat on the other side of what was becoming the freeway right of way. Houses and small apartment buildings were in the way and had to go.

One of the fringe benefits of working at a newspaper is being able to dig into dusty library files stuffed with stiff old pictures and yellowing clippings. I did so and realize now that 99.9 percent of the stories from the mid- to late 1950s and early '60s concerning the interstate projects were about the freeways' necessity, intergovernmental squabbles regarding their placement, their costs and the construction process.

Those detailing (if that's the word) the impact on people and property owners in the highways' paths were few and far between. Progress, then even more than now, seemed enviable and inevitable - the natural course of things. People got out of the way with few squawks.

Imagine how a September 1958 story headlined "Road routes cause headaches," with some interesting numbers, would play today. It begins by noting that "property belonging to 6,500 Utahns will be purchased in obtaining right-of-way for the 946 miles of Interstate Highway to be built in the state." It concludes a few paragraphs later, quoting the Utah State Road Commission's chief right-of-way agent, who said:

"In Salt Lake County about 1,600 homes will be purchased for the Interstate and Seventh East projects. . . . We have very little trouble buying land from people. We try to give them 60 days' time to find another place to live. After that we must charge them rent."

As routing of the "north-south freeway" - I-15 wasn't part of the parlance yet - was still being discussed, there was at least one meeting, in January 1957, between my old neighborhood's local religious leaders and city and state officials in which the planners were asked to consider "the human angle" and hardships of the project on those who moved and those who lived nearby.

Perhaps they did to a degree; it's hard to say, especially taking into account today's touchier standards. But houses started tumbling in late 1958. A few months later they were gone, and the "elevated earthfill roadbed" we know today began to rise. By mid-1959, piledrivers started pounding tree-trunk-size poles into the dusty heart of the neighborhood with a rhythmic thump-thump-thump, helping to shore up the mounds of gravel. The dull beat is unforgettable. Some people complained to the city about the noise continuing into the late-night hours.

In my memory the pounding competes with the summer sounds of crickets, kids playing kick-the-can in the alley between our house and the McKinleys' and the distant buzz of stock cars racing at the state fairgrounds a few blocks to the west.

As the highway's foundation began to stack up, crews buried a gigantic (to me) ribbed culvert pipe and blacktopped the bottom of it, creating a cavelike path under the roadway that allowed people to get from one side of the project to the other at the end of my street. The huge embankment had to settle for a couple of years, so that route was popular for a long time, even though hobos and delinquents used it as a urinal and we kids had to kick wine and beer bottles out of the way on our way to church.

One spring day my brother Paul - seven years my senior and the most adventurous of us - helped my sister Elaine and me scramble up the road-to-be's steep slope. The layers were in one of their "settling" periods; there was no earth-moving equipment to be seen.

We had new paper kites, and the prospect of blocks and blocks of open space along the future highway without power lines or other impediments was too much to resist.

We had an invigorating, if guiltily nervous, time up there - and did not get caught at it.

By the early 1960s the rebar-and-concrete overpasses were in place, spanning city streets. Paint spray cans were common enough. Soon the streetside columns had become a canvas for the era's primitive graffiti writers.

Among the scrawls in big blocky script were the most notorious of words. I could see them. I could read them. I had no idea what they meant and had never heard them uttered on the playground or anywhere else.

Times have changed.

Construction of the first major segment of Salt Lake City's urban interstate was moving ahead. It would be dedicated by Gov. George D. Clyde and company on Oct. 30, 1964. Our still-at-home family would then be able to zoom to visit my married sister Darlene, who lived near 3300 South. The effect seemed as exhilarating as a ride on a Lagoon roller coaster.

But about a year before that date, on a sunny September day in 1963, our Jackson Elementary teachers escorted all of the schoolchildren a block and a half south to the new freeway's North Temple overpass. Flags in hand, we lined up on either side of the busy westbound lanes.

John F. Kennedy had been in Salt Lake City for a few days and was returning to the airport.

Deseret News photographer Ray G. Jones caught the moment. I hadn't thought to track the photo down until recently, but there it was, tucked into the library stacks. The young president of the United States, riding in the back of an open-top Lincoln Continental, is smiling as the elegant car slips under the overpass. All of the kids are very excited.

I'm there, on the island in the middle of the road, third from the left.

Two months later the same photo would be republished in a sadder context, as a memory, a Salt Lake memorial: JFK had been assassinated in Dallas. Riding in his open-top Lincoln Continental.

Just as the Age of the Freeway had bisected our neighborhood, the 1960s now seemed demarcated by national tragedy.

There was distinctly a before, and obviously an after.