There is one question that has been running through my head like a mantra since I arrived in Providence, Rhode Island: “Where are all the people?” According to national statistics (1), Providence is one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in the country, but that density is not visible on the sidewalks. I ultimately concluded that the answer to my question is, “They’re in their cars, driving like maniacs.”
I first noticed the Providence Civic Center Interchange while scanning Google Earth and looking in disbelief at the proliferation of parking lots downtown. I was trying to understand why such a geographically small city felt so difficult to navigate without a car, why public transportation wasn’t more available, and above all, where all the people were. But my eye kept wandering over to the complex knot of roads in the center of the city. Why would a city permit itself to be cut in half? Why place a major interchange with an interstate at a city’s heart? It may be ironic that despite my desire to create a pedestrian-centric design, I was drawn to a mid-century cathedral to the car. Or perhaps it makes sense to want to initiate change at the altar of the enemy.
At the Civic Center Interchange, the highway spins off into a beautiful swooping Celtic knot where I-95 and highways 6 and 10 meet. Not far away is the turn off for I-195. The railroad runs under the intersection. All of this sits just a few feet outside the Providence Place Mall’s parking garage. It is a hub of transportation, commerce, and natural passageways – the Woonasquatucket River runs directly through the whole scene.
While the roads make strangely dramatic patterns from above, from below they carve out spaces where nothing (nothing?) really happens. Construction equipment is stored there while the DOT is rebuilding the northbound I-95 bridge that is part of the interchange. A couple of miles to the west, some overpasses are known shelters for the homeless, and this location may serve that purpose too. I’m sure a certain amount of illicit activity happens at night, as evidenced by the graffiti, trash, and broken glass left behind. Aside from 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.
The space I am investigating is not finished; it was never started. By building a superstructure to support intersecting roadbeds, the DOT created a no man’s land with no designed purpose in between it and the ground. However, the space is very real, and has real effects on the neighborhoods around it and the people who pass through it. For some it is willfully made invisible, a literal no man’s land. Some view it as a blight. Across the board, it is unloved. Many abandoned spaces draw their own fan base, the romantic lovers of ancient decay. But this space is neither ancient, nor decayed. It doesn’t have the accompanying nostalgia that develops when a space is “lost” to humans and then subsequently “found.” A newly discovered or rediscovered space is imbued with magic, unknown histories and general charm. A space that has never been considered merely dissolves into the periphery. It cannot be ignored, but it is not acknowledged either. The 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 unusually curious).
This is hardly a novel condition, and much has been written about the relationship between the American city, the car, and suburban sprawl. Dating even before the generation of sprawl, the interstate traces its roots back to military mobility. President Eisenhower borrowed the idea from the Autobahn and other European highways that he observed during World War II. Guy Debord is referring to Haussman’s boulevards in Paris, but his wording still applies when he says “The concern to have open spaces allowing for the rapid circulation of troops and the use of artillery against insurrections was at the origin of the urban renewal plan adopted by the Second Empire....” (2) Later, the supremacy of the car, interstates and smaller highways fueled sprawl. Debord’s take on the proliferation of cars feels apt for the aspirational yet constantly self-disparaging residents of Rhode Island: “This present abundance of private cars is nothing but the result of the constant propaganda by which capitalist production persuades the masses...that the possession of a car is one of the privileges our society reserves for its privileged members.” Rhode Islanders do love their cars.
In keeping with the trends associated with Urban Renewal, I-95 ripped through Providence around 1965, displacing “slums” and “blighted” areas. The priority at the time was to connect urban centers to each other, and to an ever-growing web of suburban communities. A perceived benefit of this “progress,” according to developers and planners in the school of Robert Moses (3) was the elimination of slum areas, as if bulldozing the physical structures in these areas would be enough to exorcise the intangible demons of poverty. We have since seen that Jane Jacob’s pleas to maintain an active mixed-use street life, with low-rise buildings, makes for a safer, more vibrant neighborhood than the Moses or Le Corbusier master plans that involved high rises with limited access to the street. As we have learned over the last 40 or so years, these projects have isolated and further ghettoized the displaced urban poor, and have worsened rather than improved their lot.
It wasn’t until 1985 that the Civic Center Interchange was built. It connected I-95 with the westbound routes 6 and 10, as well as with local roads leading into Providence’s downcity business district. The interchange itself didn’t displace residents as much as the I-95 corridor did. The area immediately surrounding the interchange was predominantly industrial, and somewhat depressed, much like many other post-industrial cities throughout the Northeast and Rust Belt. The area was also used as a commercial railyard; Amtrak and cargo trains run through the area. I believe the interchange was added as a traffic mitigation effort, since so many major roads converged at that point., as well as an effort towards revitalization of the downtown.
Transportation engineers did not intend to disrupt the surface landscape of the city. In fact, that’s why certain roads were lofted above the local street level – so as to allow a continued flow of traffic (4). However, in such a complicated interchange with multiple on and off ramps converging all at one hub, this complex network of roads is doing all it can to stay out of its own way, let alone making way for pedestrians or slow local street traffic. I don’t know if the traffic engineers considered the spaces they were carving out underneath the overpasses; I imagine that their primary concern was the safe, expedient, and efficient transportation of high-speed vehicles through and around the city. We have since learned that adding more high speed lanes and interchanges in the hearts of cities is not the way to alleviate traffic congestion; in fact it accomplishes the opposite. However, the interchange was built. And negative spaces (negative as in surrounded by solid volumes, and negative as in unloved) were carved out as a byproduct of this structure.
- “List of United States Cities by Population Density. ”Wikipedia.” Wikimedia Foundation. Web. Apr. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_population_density>.
- Debord, Guy-Ernest. “The Situationist International Text Library/Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.” The Situationist International Text Library/Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2016. <http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2>
“New York.” Documentary. Ric Burns. Public Broadcasting Service. 1999.
Rapuano, Michael. Freeway in the City - Principles of Planning and Design - a Report to the Secretary, Department of Transportation by the Urban Advisors to the Federal Highway Administrator. 1968. Print.