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.

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

  1. Monte Castleman

    It’s easy to look back at the destruction of the Metropolitan building and it’s kin and say “what were they thinking?”, but people really did hate the thing, viewing it as an antiquated stone monster that was holding up the modern city they wanted to build.

    The Met building though was the last to go down and there were a few people that wanted to save it including some in charge of the Gateway redevelopment, Like the K-Mart though market forces tipped their hand. There was zero interest from the people with money to renovate it when they could locate in one of the sleek new modern glass buildings instead. What’s more the Sheraton refused to build until all the demolition in the area was complete.

    I developed a theory that architecture goes in phases that lasts about a generation:

    Generation 1 builds it and enjoys it
    Generation 2 uses it as it’s still serviceable even though it’s not new and shiny anymore
    Generation 3 hates it and destroys as much of it as possible, and this is the age where it starts taking real money to keep it
    Generation 4 and beyond hates generation 3 for destroying it and treasures what’s left.

    The Metropolitan building was demolished towards the end of generation 3, but lets look at some other examples. After the Art Deco era ended it was viewed as over-the-top ornate and didn’t really become appreciated until the 1980s; quite a few Art Deco masterpieces have been lost. Right now Mid-Century modern is right at the transition from three to four. We tried to destroy as much of it as possible in the 1980s-1990s; see Nicollet Mall and the Southdale interior. Now some people are just starting to appreciate it.

    But those of those making a fuss about Peavey Plaza or the St. Paul Dayton’s building are kind of looked at as misguided obstructionists on the fringes; just as those that wanted to save the Met were viewed back in the day. Meanwhile we’re still solidly in generation 3 with the 1970s “exposed air duct” style of architecture, witness Orchestra Hall. My high school Minnehaha Academy recently buried their 1970s fine arts building with square off brick, symmetrical windows and a cornice to make it look like it was built in the 1920s. This all should be a warning that just because we view something as subjectively ugly doesn’t mean future generations won’t appreciate it.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      You make a good point about design, age, and appreciation, But your generational rule of thumb comes with a watershed point for me: the difference between buildings designed around cars or people. Before 1955 or so, most buildings (that weren’t factories) were designed around people on foot and street-level engagement. Afterward, buildings became designed around people driving in cars and moving quickly. Entrances centered on parking lots, either interior or exterior. Sidewalks and detail disappeared. Scale exploded.

      Style is one thing, but basic principles of human perception and engagement with their environment are something beyond aesthetics. That’s one reason I have trouble with mid-century and later preservation movements. In some specific cases it’s fine, sure, but many of those buildings are fundamentally inhumane.

    2. Karen

      Real good points, very true.

      But there is also some architecture no one ever much liked, even when it was brand new. Some times trends are just stupid.

      The thing I keep wondering about, is now that denser cities with complete streets, transit, walkable neighborhoods are all the rage, and are gentrifying, I see to groups of people meeting that don’t seem like it will end well.

      When well-off white people were returning to cities, they often embraced the racial, ethnic, cultural diversity. But I know a whole segment of conservative white people who really like having their space, they like to be in exurubs, have an acre of land etc, but it seems more and more diverse people will be moving into their territory, artist looking for cheap space, immigrants and people of other races who can’t afford the city anymore. We will see how this ends.

      But having a hard time imagining the day when we wax poetic about strips malls and suburban office parks.

  2. Karen

    Have noted this before, but the fact that the freeways took out neighborhoods was seen as a feature, not a bug.

    My dad worked for State of MN architecture office when our family moved here in the late 60s. Many of the older people in state government talked proudly about how the interstate had taken out undesirable neighborhoods – they said the freeway got rid of some bad ghettos. These white employees of the government were proud of what they had accomplished and bragged about it to my parents.

    Of course, looking back at class-diverse neighborhoods like Rondo as ghettos seems nuts by today’s standards of concentrated poverty, and was clearly based more on racism and hate than real issues with the neighborhood.

    Also, all these folks knew what RR alignments meant to towns, and they all knew how highways and highway junctions made towns thrive and how bypassed towns of new interstate had towns dying….so what town, like St. Paul or Mpls would want a interstate freeway bypass their downtown. Suburbs and malls that grew up around loop freeways would have been even bigger and more prominent if no freeways went to central cities.

    As it was, the downtowns lost much with the freeway building spawning mass exodus to suburbs, how much more would they have lost if no freeways went to these business districts?

    Sure, it would have left intact the much better designed cities for future generations to better use and appreciate, but in meantime, they would have been likely even more economically hurt not having a freeway to their center.

    Even SF that successfully stopped a freeway from going north south through their western neighborhoods ( I guess they were white and thus considered more desirable), still built double-decker freeway on east side of town, through to their downtown. Only an earthquake was able to remove that.

    So if you had a downtown to promote, you could get the traffic and ease of access of a freeway to your downtown, and also get rid of “ghettos” at same time. Win win in their minds.

    I think the opponents of their time are best at describing what those in power were thinking – they often argue by saying what the power-that-be say, and then point out what really is motivating them and how they are wrong. Most clear-eyed perspective usually.

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