History Theater’s “The Highwaymen” Hit on Some Crucially Unexplored Themes

Rondo 1940.

I am finally putting up my “review” of The Highwaymen, a play produced by the History Theater that centered on the construction of I-94 through Saint Paul’s African-American Rondo neighborhood. Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I got to attend the play during its closing week. I liked it but, since I’m so interested in the intersection of urban development, freeways, and inequality, I inevitably had some thoughts. The key takeaway: this is a good, if limited, beginning to a long overdue conversation about the history of highways in the Twin Cities. I hope we keep excavating this festering historical wound.

Here you go — here’s a review. If you saw the play, share your perspective in the comments!

Construction of I-94 through Saint Paul.

After many many people told me to go, I finally got around to seeing The Highwaymen, the latest local history play from the History Theater. The theater has a unique mission — it entertains, educates, and inspires through creating, developing, and producing new and existing works that explore Minnesota’s past and the diverse American experience — and they focus on using theater to help people better understand local history. (For example, I saw a play there about the history of First Avenue, another interest of mine.) The theater is a useful tool, if limited in comparison to archives, history magazines, or actual books. But theater reaches a far broader audience, so that’s a big plus, even if a lot of historical complexity drops out in the retelling.

This is to say that The Highwaymen, a play about constructing I-94, did some things right and left other territory unexplored. One key challenge lay in understanding the perspectives of a different age. When I’m reading an urban planning history book, I almost always find it nearly impossible to understand what people were thinking back in the immediate post-war era. It’s a massive irony that in countries like Germany, France, and Italy, where large parts of cities were bombed to rubble, they rebuilt their urban landscapes in ways that are humane, walkable, and (relatively) sustainable. But in the US, despite not one bomb dropping on our shores, we tore down massive amounts of our urban centers in the name of post-war progress.

I-35W model in Minneapolis.

I keep coming back to the same question: What were people thinking? How could they look at the warehouse district, the historic buildings of the Gateway, the Ryan Hotel, the Metropolitan building, or entire neighborhoods like Rondo, Stevens Square, Seven Corners, Central Park, Near North / Oak Lake, and other huge parts of our cities and simply say “let’s bulldoze it!” “Progress!”

I look at pictures like the one at right (planning for I-35W, from the Star Tribune archives) and sadly scratch my head. From my 21st century eyes, the mindset these “highwaymen” is madly destructive. But it doesn’t keep me from trying to understand what they were thinking, and so I’ve spend hours going through old newspapers or reading history books on the post-war development, skyways, or Block E history, for example. I struggle to come up with narratives that fit with today’s understanding of our cities and social issues. There’s a huge gap between today’ problems and whatever manic logic gripped the the boosters, businessmen, and planners of the bulldozer era.

The Highwaymen grapples with the same kind of challenge. The play, written by Josh Wilder, attempted to offer some of the 50s-era freeway-building perspectives, but in the end I think it didn’t quite capture the essence of the how these people made sense their actions.

Cartoon from the 1960s.

Not that it didn’t try… As the play opens, it starts with the three “highwaymen” lauding the new era of interstate freeway construction. They’re in a small wood-paneled office toasting the passage of the 1956 Eisenhower Act, a sure sign of progress against the impending car-pocalpyse.

(One of the men describes a big 57% spike in car traffic in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul as a huge problem, probably the dominant public impulse for the project.)

One one hand, I’m grateful that this play explored that weird-to-me, tear-it-down mentality. But I wish they’d had more! What were the different planning logics, for example, that the planner, the businessman, and the engineer (three supposed-to-be-distinct “characters” in the room) might use to explain to people in Rondo that the highway was good for them? Or good for Saint Paul? How do these different arguments proceed? What kinds of narratives, assumptions, or evidence might these different people use?

The play only scratched the surface of this complex puzzle, and to me, digging deeper would have been useful because so many of these arguments remain alive today. The engineer’s perspective — “there’s too much traffic, so we need a bigger road” — is a paradoxical thought process that still plagues community conversations.

There’s also the role of expertise and the “science” of traffic engineering that colors conversations between cities and massive state and Federal agencies. Just last month, I got into a back-and-forth debate with a highway engineer about one of the finer points about sidewalks, safety, and lane width. (The conversation was about whether or not bumpouts made pedestrians safer when crossing the street; the engineer claimed that the details of the state statute, where you have to “step out” into the street in order for cars to be legally required to stop, meant that bumpouts had little effect on safety. I disagreed.)

I-94 model from the 1960s showing the “bottleneck.”

In other words, the production of expertise that surrounds our current (deadly) street design priorities was often a problem in 1960 and can still be a problem today. I would have loved to have seen a bit more of that in this production.

You might say similar things about the businessman, the only obviously political figure in the play, the clear “villain.” How does the kind of racially-coded thinking that he probably used persist in our urban landscape? In fact, I felt that the play painted a bit too sympathetic of a picture of him, made him seem a bit too understanding. Compare his character to the actual quotes and footage of the 50s-era Robert Moses, for example. I am guessing that there were many people would would have been at the table saying now-blatantly racist things about “the negroes” and why bulldozing their neighborhood was best for all involved. (See also the “Saint Paul slum map.”) I could have used one or two slimy “these people…” rants that might have really exposed the racism and hubris of the folks making decisions like this…

One thing I liked about Wilder’s script is how it toyed with the contrast between the black and white points of view. The play had a set that literally flipped between the “highwaymen’s” 50s-modern office and an old-fashioned Rondo Avenue barber shop, offering paired conversations on the same topic from the black and white communities. From the African-American perspective, the conversation seemed to center on exactly how much collaboration was effective, whether or not different characters in the play should fight, embrace, or passively ignore the freeway construction’s sham of a “political process.”

Minneapolis freeway ped bridge today.

For example, one of the characters, the preacher, worked with the highwaymen and managed to “win” a slight concession: the highway would be depressed below grade and there would be a few pedestrian-only bridges. (Some prize! Ugh.) Meanwhile, the barber shop owner pointedly denied the “good” highwayman the gift of a clean conscience, resisting his overtures for forgiveness. That whole dynamic was eye-opening and, at least to me, had some resonance with contemporary political dynamics around race and inequality in the United States.

Characters aide, the other big takeaway for me was the magnitude of the kinds of decisions that were made in this little office. The play makes a reference to the decision to route 94 straight through the Rondo neighborhood instead of using a more peripheral “northern route” that might have spared the diverse neighborhoods of Saint Paul. (In a way, the figure of the “noble planner”, based on the historical George Herrold, reminds me of the role of Bishop Whipple in 19th century Minnesota indian saga.) The point is that the construction of 94 had generational impact on the city and especially the black community. Its legacy — and the other freeways built in other parts of the city — will be measured in centuries. My feeling was that, in the play, the stakes were lost a bit in the retelling of a specific story about specific people arguing about small differences. Meanwhile, an entire neighborhood was being destroyed, house by house.

The mythical “northern route” of I-94.

Rondo Days these days.

On the other hand, I appreciated some of the references to the violence that accompanied the displacement of Rondo neighborhood families. In many cases, thugs, manipulation, and vandalism were used to terrorize people who didn’t want to give up their homes or businesses. That facet of the story is one of the under-explored bits of Twin Cities’ history, and I would have liked to have seen more of these visceral, heartbreaking moments instead of the more heady and abstract discussion about political collaboration.

Another big part of the picture is the political inequality politics of the freeway construction: who got a voice, who had political clout, and who was pushed to the margins. Three recent examples of how this story is told include Eric Avila’s new book, Folklore of the Freeway, which details inequality in freeway backlash movements, the new Jane Jacobs documentary (my own review forthcoming), and MnDOT’s new two-part documentary on “rethinking 94” (featuring yours truly in part 2). Each of these narratives describes how freeways were built, and outlines some of the problems and political processes that went on. But only Avila’s book actually begins to describe how race and access to power played a role in the eventual urban landscape that the freeways and all their onramps, industrial parks, and urban renewal scorched earth developments became. At least The Highwaymen started to tell this part of the story as well, offering a glimpse in the marginalized world of Rondo during this time of massive post-war change.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask for a single play to untangle the complex tendrils of urban freeways, displacement, and race in Saint Paul. Some of the parts of the story that I think are most important might be nothing but footnotes from another point of view, and I liked the play most because it opened a door into one of the most important chapters of our urban history. I’d love to see much more work done thinking about these decisions, voices, logics, and erasures. Kudos to The Highwaymen, the History Theater, and playwright Josh Wilder for beginning an important conversation.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.