On November 3, 1951, Robert LeRoy Shepherd wrote an opinion article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Freedom, Independence, Taxes and the Freeway.” I found this article 60 years after it was written and was struck by the candor of his voice and the content of his message: Plans for the future must respond to reality.
At the time it was written, the city was in the midst of a highway battle over the plans for the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (what is now a section of I-95). As was common practice at the time, Richmond politicians contracted large firms to develop plans for this expressway without significant input from the residents of the city. As a result, the thought of destroying the city for a highway divided citizens and outraged residents. Many conceded that the city fathers had already decided what would be best for Richmond, but fought to make their voices heard during the second public referendum of the highway plan.
Uncertainty filled the minds of Richmonders who were unsure whether their city would be completely transformed by this idea proffered by huge national planning firms and local politicians. The highway plan would result in the destruction of large sections of the city and would forever change the way people move throughout the region. On a more philosophical level, the plans for the highway also seemed to fundamentally question the legitimacy of the physical structure city. After 210 years of individuals shaping the built environment, an outside idea was being presented as more legitimate. At this moment of crisis in the battle for Richmond’s future, Shepherd wrote a philosophical piece that questioned the idea of a highway in Richmond and made a simple, yet compelling argument for democracy in the midst of the American highway era.
At this point in time, the Richmond Times-Dispatch was not new to articles and ads related to the expressway. Leading up to the referendum on November there were dozens of references to the highway including political ads, cartoons, editorials, news articles, and opinion submissions. Many of these references simply recycled the same ideas and arguments for or against the highway plan. In these arguments it was too expensive or it was the ultimate solution to traffic, either not the will of the people or a well-developed plan vetted by studies and experts.
Amidst the banal arguments, Shepherd’s article called Richmonders to think critically about the process of planning a highway in the 50s. He was not enamored by the professional firms that planned the highway or their ideas for the future of Richmond. Instead, he writes, “Inflexible plans result in a fixation of mind. Steering them becomes an obsession kindred to a driver’s headlong dash above or over a freeway.” To Shepherd, politicians in Richmond were trying to make the plan fit an unwilling populace. To Shepherd, the future was not so easy to predict.
While many framed the highways as American progress, Shepherd framed the highway plan as megalomania. He compares the politics to Alexander the Great, Caesar, Hitler, Hirohito, and the British Empire. The one thing in common was the concept of invasion and empire, but more philosophically the empires were imposed and forced on unprepared societies. The empires constantly developed their ability to transform the life of citizens in order to complete the assimilation of diverse societies. The highway was no exception. Plans for the city of Richmond were meticulously developed before being presented to the people of Richmond and expected to impress and amaze. The highway was an idea from the outside that was forced upon cities in America and unwilling to change or shift to fit the will of the people.
To Shepherd, these plans did not make sense in context because they weren’t democratic. “Taxes and plans?” writes Shepherd, “Yes.” In some instances it is wise to plan for the future and prepare for potential changes and developments, “But [while] some lead to the freedom of men, others lead to a fixation of mind and bondage just a binding as chains.” Today we are living the legacy of these plans and I believe we finally beginning to understand the captivity of which Shepherd spoke. While the highway seemed like an opportunity for growth, it has become a fundamental aspect of American life. What was once vehemently opposed has now become part of routine commutes and shopping trips.
Many people look at cities without any sort of historic lens or context, but a deeper understanding of the politics of a place will give us a better understanding of the place itself. As we continually struggle to recover our buried past we will likely find similar instances where democracy failed and voices were silenced. Uncovering these voices will further illuminate our nation’s past and present and allow us to begin to right our future.