By David Langlieb

In 1947, renowned Philadelphia planner Ed Bacon presented a vision for the city’s future at the Better Philadelphia Exhibition, an innovative effort to engage the public in the city’s postwar development. Bacon organized the exhibition with reform-minded architects and planners to cultivate public support for modernizing Philadelphia’s built environment. Hosted by Gimbels Department Store on the southwest corner of 8th and Market Street, the Better Philadelphia Exhibition’s central display was a massive diorama of the city as it was and as it could be. 

Bacon and his contemporaries offered several excellent ideas, many of which would come to fruition in the coming decades. The creation of Independence Mall and the elimination of the above-ground Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct were just a couple successes. By the mid-1980s, the city had creatively leveraged state and federal funding to deliver on several key initiatives, and we’re a better city for it.

But then there was the Crosstown Expressway. As originally conceived, the Expressway was to run west to east from river to river, effectively replacing South Street with an interstate highway and – at least in theory – reducing Center City traffic by diverting it around downtown. In doing so, reasoned supporters, the Expressway would help the city adjust to an increasingly automobile-centric country and preserve the manageable scale of Philadelphia’s urban core. 

As students of postwar urban renewal efforts know well, the push to build interstates through American cities was a nationwide phenomenon. But not every city came out the same way. Philadelphia ended up completing three of the four major interstates intended to ring the downtown core—the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) in the west, the Delaware Expressway (I-95) in the east, and the Vine Street Expressway (I-676) along the north. There was community opposition to all four, which resulted in certain modifications, but only with the Crosstown Expressway was the opposition completely successful. 

We have our share of problems in Philadelphia, but the Crosstown Expressway, thankfully, isn’t one of them. And it’s hard to imagine anyone proposing constructing the Crosstown Expressway today, which is telling. As the members of the Citizens’ Committee to Preserve and Develop the Crosstown Community (CCPDCC) maintained at the time, the intrusion of the Expressway would have stifled the quality of life in neighborhoods like Queen Village and Hawthorne. Opponents also argued that the plan would further cement the era’s residential segregation, with the growing Black population south of South Street cut off from downtown. Intentional or not, that’s likely what would have happened. 


Alternative Histories

I recently visited St. Louis, which is in many ways a wonderful town. I stayed at a beautiful Italianate-style hotel in the city’s Central West End neighborhood, abutting the lovingly maintained and picturesque Forest Park (home to the 1904 World’s Fair). I ate several excellent meals and saw some terrific live music. Unfortunately, the other thing I saw in St. Louis was a kind of dystopian alternate history of Philadelphia in which the worst instincts of postwar urban highway planning achieved their Platonic ideal.

St. Louis is a living reminder of how much worse things could have been. It approximates what our city would have looked like had the Crosstown Expressway come to fruition, entrenching racial segregation and compounding the innate difficulties of maintaining city neighborhoods. It’s even worse than that really, because municipal St. Louis was less than half the size of Philadelphia even at the two cities’ respective population peaks. To approximate the damage on a pro rata basis, you’d need to imagine both a Crosstown Expressway and an additional interstate replacing, say, Wharton or Tasker Street and perhaps a spur off I-95 to replace part of Cecil B. Moore Avenue, depositing motorists at Temple.

In St. Louis, I-64 bisects the middle of the city, dividing the mostly Black north side from the rest of town. Less than three-quarters of a mile south of the I-64 interstate, I-44 chops up a half dozen otherwise viable neighborhoods—including the city’s more racially integrated communities—and feeds into yet another interstate (I-55) and a spaghetti bowl of interchanges and off-ramps that divides the easternmost of these communities from St. Louis’s small downtown. As if that weren’t enough, I-44 heads north, dismembering downtown from the riverfront and branching inward towards the city’s baseball stadium. The riverfront park, home to the famous Gateway Arch, was constructed after eminent domain destroyed yet another neighborhood.

It’s not hard to understand what is happening here—St. Louis, in its current form, is a city that exists for the intermittent enjoyment of suburbanites who drive in for recreation, maybe eat dinner, and then leave. The interstates take them where they want to go while city residents navigate a built environment that wasn’t built with them in mind. 

During my recent visit, I walked around St. Louis for several hours across four sunny summer days and barely saw another pedestrian. Even the central business district was nearly pedestrian free during work hours. There was a time when county residents may have also commuted downtown to work, but given the trajectory of the city’s economy, St. Louis’s few office buildings are now sparsely tenanted. The city’s main private employers—the hospital system and the universities—mostly exist on the periphery of the municipal boundaries, and the city’s recent development successes have occurred around these economic anchors where they are mostly unmolested by interstates.

Unlike Philadelphia, where our city and county boundaries match identically, municipal St. Louis is a small wedge of much larger St. Louis County, creating problems with its tax base. But even more critically, this has had a devastating impact on regional governance and planning decisions.  

Political power follows votes, and between 1950 and 2020, St. Louis’s population declined from 856,000 to 293,000—a 66% drop. A population decrease like this far exceeds the typical population drop most American cities experienced after post-WWII suburbanization. If Philadelphia’s demographic decline had matched St. Louis’s proportionally over those 70 years, our population would have gone from over 2,000,000 to around 700,000—less than half the actual number of Philadelphia residents currently in the city and just a hair above the population of El Paso. Simply put, St. Louis diluted its essential urban character, and two out of three residents moved to the suburbs. The husk of the city that remains has a great deal to recommend. Still, it lacks the fundamental quality of life elements that are unique and appealing about urban living – pedestrians, street life, active commercial corridors, and dynamic neighborhoods. Modern St. Louis is a ‘city’ primarily in the sense that a teardrop-shaped boundary was drawn in eastern Missouri and declared a city.

We are not urban planners at the Philadelphia Accelerator Fund and claim no special insights. But we are nevertheless conscious of how building affordable housing—like all construction—is a kind of planning decision. Our essential goals are to build housing that is a) as affordable as possible to the homeowner or tenant, b) economically viable, and c) designed on a scale that fits the existing built environment. Achieving this trifecta is often easier said than done, but we attempt to finance development work with these principles in mind. Some of our initial efforts have included rehabilitating existing properties, and we are always looking to do more. Rehabs preserve the existing scale of the neighborhood, as does by-right new construction. 

St. Louis does not want for rehabilitation opportunities, as the many attractive but vacant residential structures scattered throughout the urban landscape attest. But if redeveloping these properties means future residents will live in the shadows of an interstate without access to quality retail, services, and a walkable community, it is no surprise why those opportunities have not turned into reality.