Why would a city permit itself to be cut in half?

When I-95 was built in Providence, RI, that’s exactly what happened. It was 1959, the height of the Urban Renewal movement. Taking a page from Robert Moses’ book, Providence saw the highway as an opportunity to cut the slums out of the city landscape.

Cut the cake scene from Alice in Wonderland from 1985.

I can't help but think of this clip when I talk about cutting things in half. Providence's situation is just as surreal.

I’ve been wandering around underneath the highway, and have become obsessed with one particular chunk of land. It’s right behind the mall, which is smack in the middle of downtown. The highway spins off into a beautiful swooping interchange where I-95 and highways 6 and 10 meet. Not far away is the turn off for I-195. The railroad runs under that intersection. All of this sits just a couple of feet outside the Providence Place Mall’s parking garage. It is a hub of transportation, commerce, and natural passageways - the river also runs right through that intersection.

Road spaghetti. Photo from Google Earth.

Road spaghetti. Photo from Google Earth.

The roadbed makes strangely dramatic and beautiful patterns from above. From below, there are spaces it carves out where nothing (nothing?) really happens. Construction gear is stored there, because they’re expanding and/or replacing the northbound I-95 bridge that is part of the interchange. A couple of miles further west, some overpasses are known shelters for the homeless, and this spot may serve that purpose too. I’m sure a certain amount of illicit activity happens at night. But other than that, it appears that many of the lots under the overpasses are left to lie fallow. Some have grasses and other native flora, some are just patches of dirt. People are rare.

Man has altered the landscape with the intention of increasing productivity. The city has almost immediate access to the highway, and therefore other major metropolitan areas, like Boston. But the unintended consequences of the highway’s placement have been destructive. The highway cuts off the city from itself, and getting across to the other side is difficult, even for cars. Furthermore, all this land beneath the interchange is a place you go around. Going through it is illegal, inconvenient, dangerous, or ugly. And there’s no legitimate reason why you would choose to spend time under the highway (unless you’re weirdly curious, like me).

In other cities around the world, spaces like this are used for parking. This city is pockmarked with surface parking lots and garages. Parking lots take up space that could be occupied by retail, schools, grocery stores, offices, and even residences. It is clear that downtown Providence is intended to be navigated by car, based on all of the amenities built for cars.

So what? This is hardly a novel condition, and much has been written about the relationship between the American city, the car, and suburban sprawl. The thing that remains strange for me is that there are traces in the civic center of a pedestrian-friendly plan. There are sidewalks with retail frontage and strips that lend themselves to a walking nightlife. But the sidewalks are frequently empty, leading me to constantly wonder “Where are all the people?"

I will continue to examine these questions in a series of posts over the next several weeks as part of my thesis research. I am currently wrestling with how all of these questions relate to each other, and what my part in it might be. For now, my obsession with this patch of highway, dirt, asphalt, and concrete symbolizes a city that needs to be better connected.

Waterfire does an admirable job bringing people together from all over the city and beyond. It’s big, it has primal elements of fire and water, it draws people from far away with light and music. It creates a spectacle. Spectacle draws people. I wonder what would happen if I created spectacle in the place where the knife cut the city in half?