What Should We Do With the James White Parkway?

In Architecture Matters by George Doddsleave a COMMENT

Infrastructure wasn’t much of a hot-button topic in this country until relatively recently. There have always been occasional inter-beltway debates over Amtrak funding and other rail-related projects. That said, during the past few years it seems we have witnessed a sea change of sorts: Congressional diatribes regarding the meaning of “shovel-ready projects;” the governor of New Jersey putting the kibosh on a multi-billion-dollar rail-tunnel connecting Manhattan and northern New Jersey; the alarmingly high percentage of bridges in this country that are unsafe at any speed; our major airports operating at “developing nation” levels. All of which contributes to creating the controversial profile of what was, for decades, a dusty pro forma affair of state, and state of affairs.

Of course, public funding of infrastructure is not new. Writing in the last century before Christ, Marcus Vitruvius dedicates much space of his “10 Books on Architecture” to infrastructural matters, although he does not use the term. While in Augustan Rome the state paid for such things, this concept dissipated in the modern era. The construction of railways, roads, and canals increased dramatically during the 19th century, keeping pace with a radically industrialized West, yet many were privately owned (including parks).

In the early 20th century, before the invention of the modern military-industrial complex, the federal government invested in several large-scale infrastructural projects simultaneously: the Intracoastal Waterway, Hoover and Great Coulee Dams, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Works Public Administration, for reasons that were equal parts social, political, and economic. Following World War II, our national appetite for massive infrastructural projects was as insatiable as our wartime industrial capacity seemed without limits. It was, after all, as Time magazine’s Henry Luce famously called it, “The American Century.”

In many cases, the desire to build roads seemed to far outpace demand. A photograph documenting the completion of the first portion of the Eisenhower Interstate System depicts a collection of beef-fed middle-aged white men standing in front of a large billboard proudly announcing “eight miles concrete pavement on US-40” that was “completed under provision of the new Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.” That photograph, taken in Kansas, was in the middle of a markedly dusty vacant terrain. There are remarkably similar photographs documenting the construction of other stretches of interstates from the late 1950s, all of which have the look about them of Neil Armstrong grading roads in the Sea of Tranquility. Yet, there is something to be learned from the horror vacui provoked by these quintessentially American void-scapes. It can be said of a path that it connects one place with another while a highway simply goes on. As anyone who has driven the James White Parkway knows, it is neither. Yet, nor is this conspicuous shard of infrastructure a parkway. It offers little utility and none of the ambiance that a parkway originally was intended to provide.

Frederick Law Olmsted and partner Calvert Vaux coined the term in 1866 to describe the Eastern Parkway, a scenic roadway they designed to connect one public park with another. For Olmsted, who also designed the site of the Chicago Columbian Exposition (1893), the Biltmore Estate (1895), the campuses of three dozen important schools and colleges, and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, a parkway was a verdant, picturesque place, slow moving and serene, conceived as linear park, connecting one place with another, which incidentally carried vehicular traffic.

Certainly, based on its original meaning, the James White Parkway is no such thing; it is a blunt tool connecting nothing at all to nowhere in particular. And now that its extension into the wilds of South Knoxville seems to have died the slow death of multiple failed funding votes, it is time to seriously consider how the city and county will repair the environmental and cultural damage done by this road to nowhere. Not that the natural basin and First Creek that much of the parkway covers was a paradisaical garden prior to James White Parkway’s construction. By the middle of the 19th century, the basin at the eastern edge of center city had become a relatively rough and unpleasant place populated by Knoxville’s outcasts, and the creek little more than an open sewer.

There are a range of strategies to remediate the current dilemma posed by JWP: from submerging it beneath an artificial platform on which the pattern of existing streets are extended, physically connecting Central with Hall of Fame Drive, to simply building pedestrian walkways connecting the urban core’s east-west streets to cross the natural divide. In a more extreme proposal, the existing roadway would be excised, First Creek exhumed and rehabilitated, creating an inhabitable and sustainable urban landscape. This new landscape would be an extraordinary amenity to a developing city and a long-term method of remediating the polluted runoff that daily filters its way through the ravine.

These are hardly new ideas as urban designers have been confronting, for decades, dilemmas such as the James White. I was introduced to this strategy of urban planning during my undergraduate studies in Detroit, where I spent a year working with Charles A. Blessing, the director of city planning for Detroit (1953-77). Blessing’s obituary in The New York Times notes that in addition to his work for the city and as an educator, immediately following the war he worked on city planning in Gen. MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo. Blessing was famous for his profound knowledge of the history of cities and his ability to draw beautifully what others could not yet see. While discussing the ubiquitous relation of Detroit’s many elevated or canalized expressways to the contiguous urban fabric, he often retorted: “Grass can always grow on the expressways!” He meant it, and he was right. Think of Boston’s Big Dig or Manhattan’s High Line. Anyone who can remain relentlessly optimistic after confronting post-nuclear Japan, or post-OPEC Detroit for that matter, is a man worth listening to.

Make no mistake about it; Infrastructure has always been a powerful force in the shaping of cities. Infrastructure does not follow the expansion of the modern city; it anticipates it. Certainly, the James White foresaw a certain vision of a particular part of our future metropolis. In the case of this hopelessly dysfunctional means of vehicular conveyance, however, if we follow this infrastructural fragment, it leads us nowhere. For we miss the point if we focus on how and where it begins and ends. The critical matter before this city now is what lies on either side, and what can be gained from bridging the gap, joining center and edge in support of a reinvented urban core.

George Dodds’ Architecture Matters explores issues concerning the human-made environment, primarily focused on Knoxville and its environs. He has been teaching and publishing commentaries on the practice and history of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture for over 30 years. He has practiced in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., has lectured internationally, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals. Since 2000, he has been on the faculty of architecture at the University of Tennessee.

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