Nightmare Alley

The Roosevelt Expressway didn’t arrive without a fight

This photograph was originally published in the November 9, 1950, issue of the Germantown Courier shows unified community opposition to the Roosevelt Expressway, in a protest in Philadelphia City Council. Courtesy: Germantown Historical Society/ Historic Germantown.

In last month’s “Time Machine” article, I discussed the history of Wayne Junction and of the area surrounding it and included a discussion about the construction of the Roosevelt Expressway. This month’s “Time Machine” article examines the history of the Roosevelt Expressway in greater detail, and its effects on the neighborhoods of East Falls, Germantown, Hunting Park, Nicetown, and Tioga.

After World War II, the nation returned to the pursuit of “peacetime” activities, with the economy following suit. At the end of the War, our service men and women returned home, many eager to pursue what was then considered the “ideal” American life, of owning a single-family home in Colonial Revival style in newly-constructed suburbs, with a white picket fence and a two-car garage. With the construction of new suburban neighborhoods – for example, those in Levittown, far Northeast Philadelphia, and King of Prussia – came the increased use of the automobile, and the arrival of the interstate system.

The Schuylkill Expressway was completed in the mid-1950s, but there was no connection between this newly built expressway and the Roosevelt Boulevard. In his 1948 Report from the Mayor to the Citizens of Philadelphia, then-Mayor Bernard Samuels touted the construction of the “Roosevelt Boulevard Extension” (the Roosevelt Expressway) as an “important step” to eliminating traffic congestion. By 1950, plans for the construction of the Expressway were well underway.

Community reaction was swift and unified. According to the January 5, 1950, Germantown Courier, residents living adjacent to Fernhill Park were the first to galvanize against the project, noting that the proposed expressway would bisect the park, lower their property values, and be a safety hazard.

Those from Nicetown and Tioga lamented that the construction of the Expressway would mean the demolition of several hundred houses in those neighborhoods, with Tioga Business Men’s Association President Emil Schurgot arguing that the Expressway would be “a monstrosity which would create a veritable ‘Nightmare Alley’ under which nothing could live.”

The Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill Improvement Association announced that an engineer had volunteered his services to devise an alternate route, with one proposed route to the Far Northeast being from King of Prussia, then eastward to connect with the Roosevelt Boulevard in Somerton or Byberry. Despite these efforts, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, led by Executive Director Edmund Bacon, continued its plans to construct the Roosevelt Expressway in its present course, with its completion in 1961.

A result of the construction of the Expressway was that the neighborhoods of Germantown and East Falls became physically and culturally isolated from its neighbors – Hunting Park, Nicetown, and Tioga. The removal of traffic from the area’s streets physically and economically isolated these neighborhoods from the city and, along with post-war deindustrialization, contributed to the neighborhoods’ struggles with a lack of jobs and economic opportunities, poverty, and unemployment.

Due in part to economic investment in the area, particularly around Wayne Junction, there have been new signs of life in the area, a great sign hinting at a brighter future.

NOTE: Back issues of the Germantown Courier were invaluable in the writing of this article, as was information associated with various local civic and political organizations, including those of the City of Philadelphia. All of these resources are available for public research at the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown.

About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at library@germantownhistory.org.

 

About Alex Bartlett 12 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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