State Rep. Daniel Riemer
Op-Ed

A World Without Walls

Freeways create concrete walls that divide the city. Their expansion is unneeded.

By - Sep 8th, 2015 02:22 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
Sound Wall. Photo by Gretchen Schuldt.

Sound Wall. Photo by Gretchen Schuldt.

Walls have been in the news a lot recently. Donald Trump leads the pack of Republican presidential hopefuls with a proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border: “It’s gonna be a great wall.” Wisconsin’s own Governor Scott Walker recently described the construction of a wall along the U.S.’s five-thousand-mile border with Canada as “a legitimate issue for us to look at.” Senator Rand Paul has described this frenzied race among Republican candidates to out-do each other on wall policy as an escalation of “a lot of dumb ideas.” The GOP Wall Debate has, not surprisingly, quickly become fodder for political humorists. The Onion’s latest headline on the matter read: “Ted Cruz Worried All the Good Countries to Wall Off Taken by Other Candidates.”

Walls to protect cities and nations from foreign invaders have been around for thousands of years. And to try to prop up a decaying Communist regime, the Soviet Union rammed a monstrous wall through the center of Berlin. But in the United States, building city walls has always been unnecessary. Strangely, after the Second World War, massive concrete walls resembling the monstrosity in Berlin began to cut through the middle of American cities. The reason: the massive expansion of freeways.

The freeway walls that America built during the last 60 years—often with concrete barricades twenty, thirty, or forty feet high—cut through the heart of every major American city. Like the walls that the Soviet Union rammed through the center of Berlin, the walled freeways built in the United States separated cities from themselves.

The high priest of this new religion was Robert Moses. Moses served in various urban planning and transportation capacities in New York State and New York City. He built miles and miles of freeways throughout the greater New York City area, often demolishing entire neighborhoods. Moses saw no limit to the expansion of freeways. He even wanted to build one through Central Park.

Milwaukee pursued this urban planning creed throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. In the mid-70s, John Norquist was elected to the State Assembly on an anti-freeway platform. During his tenure in the Legislature, Norquist and others worked with former Governor Patrick Lucey to prevent the expansion of Milwaukee’s freeway system, sparing neighborhoods I currently represent from demolition. In spite of a ten-year moratorium on new freeway construction from 1977-87, the call to widen and build freeways in Milwaukee has remained constant.

Like the wall the Communists rammed through the center of Berlin, the effect of freeway walls on cities throughout America has been devastating, scarring the landscape and splitting neighborhoods apart. The walls in Milwaukee run for miles at a time along stretches of I-43, I-94, and I-894. They loom over backyards and front porches. Originally envisioned as a way to reduce sound, their primary impact is to reinforce the divisions in Milwaukee neighborhoods.

Whatever the intent of urban planners, the freeways in Milwaukee also split neighborhood from neighborhood, often along racial lines. It is impossible to look at the original map of Milwaukee’s freeways without being reminded of redlining—the practice (now formally discontinued) of refusing to provide home loans to individuals because of their race or the racial makeup of their neighborhoods.

Sometimes the effect of these walls is palpable enough to see. I once sat in on a slide-show on cities presented by John Norquist, who went on to become mayor of Milwaukee. During one part of the presentation, Norquist showed photos of a bombed out, rubble-strewn Berlin in 1945. He then switched to photos of Detroit in 1945—a thriving downtown at the heart of a major American metropolis. Norquist then showed slides of the Berlin of today—modern, dense, prosperous, peopled. Today’s Detroit, which filled the next few slides, was rubble strewn, empty, and impoverished. “Who,” Norquist asked ironically, “won the war?”

Transportation policy in America has worsened our wall problem. For decades after the War, Wisconsin expanded freeways as Americans proceeded to drive more miles. It is hard to determine whether increased driving led to more freeways, or the other way round. Either way, for roughly half a century freeway expansion and more driving were concurrent phenomena.

For the past decade, however, the number of miles that Americans drive is flattening, even decreasing. The well-documented measure of “Vehicle Miles Traveled” (VMT) as recorded by the U.S. Department of Transportation demonstrates the new trend. The plateauing or decline of driving holds true for Wisconsin. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT), since 2004 Wisconsinites have driven fewer total miles in every year up to the last recorded year, 2013. The decline in driving is even more pronounced in the Milwaukee area. A recent study by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group study found that Milwaukee driving decreased by 20% between 2006 and 2011. This decline is happening in cities all across America.    

Yet transportation policy refuses to face up to—and adjust to—the new reality. Even though people are driving less in Wisconsin, the Department of Transportation continues to push for expanding freeways. Take for example the I-94 East-West project, which would encompass a 3.5-mile stretch of freeway between 70th Street and 16th Street in Milwaukee. The State Assembly district that I represent includes a portion of the proposed project and the neighborhoods adjacent to it. The DOT initially designed a plan, in excess of $1.2 billion, to expand the freeway by double-decking it.

That $1.2 billion number is almost half of the total $3 billion that Wisconsin plans to spend on all transportation related projects in Wisconsin in fiscal year 2015-2016 for tens of thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of bridges, and numerous other services. DOT’s “double deck” scheme would have meant less money in the future for maintaining and repairing the roads we already have. Under pressure from opponents, DOT scrapped the plan in favor of an almost equally damaging and unnecessary $850 million proposal. Yet by the DOT’s own admission, the repair and reconstruction of the I-94 East-West project could cost significantly less—$379 million.

But there is hope. The state legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance deleted the I-94 East-West Freeway project from the 2015-2017 budget. My Republican legislative colleagues were receptive to the arguments that I and fellow Democratic State Representative Evan Goyke made in a letter to the committee that asked them not to waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. We let them know that the project, as currently designed by DOT, is unpopular, unnecessary, and prohibitively expensive. It is, I wrote, an example of “big government out of control.”

Our strategy worked this time. But going forward, transportation policy in the State of Wisconsin still remains out of control. Driving will probably remain the dominant form of travel throughout my lifetime, but people young and old are looking for new ways to walk, bike, and bus their way to work, to shop, and to get around all over our great city.

The new way of thinking about urban space is not just about getting from A to B. It is about the way we shape the relationship between A and B by making it convenient for people and places to be close together in the first place. Summerfest was always a testament to Milwaukeeans’ desire to walk and inhabit shared space with others. County Park beer gardens, Newaukee Night Market, and countless other exciting venues and events that are happening in our city have affirmed and expanded on that fundamental fact that a growing number of Milwaukeeans—young and old, white and black—like proximity and enjoy density.

Our government needs to pay closer attention to what more and more Milwaukeeans (and other Wisconsinites) actually want. It should recognize that the time has come to stop foisting expensive, unpopular, and unneeded transportation policy on us. It should stop building concrete walls between us, and instead pursue policies that bring people and businesses closer together in dense, shared, urban space.

Walls divide. Whatever purpose they once served, expanding or constructing enormous concrete walls through the heart of Milwaukee (or any city) no longer serves any purpose. A sensible 21st Century transportation policy does not require them.

As fun as it has been to watch the Republican presidential field scramble to the right on wall policy, I prefer the demand of a Republican President with a different take: “Tear down this wall!” It is time to start saying no to walls right here in Milwaukee. Let’s be one city again.

Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) represents the 7th Assembly District, which includes the cities of Greenfield, Milwaukee, West Allis, and the Village of West Milwaukee.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

11 thoughts on “Op-Ed: A World Without Walls”

  1. Beer Baron says:

    Very well said! I still think the city proper needs a 30-year plan on full freeway removal. Vancouver doesn’t have them and they’re doing better than most.

  2. Dennis Grzezinski says:

    Excellent op-ed. You’ve got the old history, and the recent history, exactly right!

  3. Mary Beth McBride Doyle says:

    Thanks, Dan. So glad to have you as our representative. Hopefully, we can pursue a better, efficient transportation system for the greater metro area of Milwaukee and rethink the need for freeway expansion and neighborhood distruction.

  4. Devin says:

    I have a few problems with this:

    1. You’re using something many people in the city are sensitive to and attaching it to an unrelated opinion.
    2. The relationship between Milwaukee’s segregation and current proposed freeway expansion in the city doesn’t actually exist.
    3. There are many things that divide this city, and cities in general, to the point where freeway walls are hardly THE bad guy.

    The freeways in Milwaukee already exist. The expansion between 16th and 70th streets would simply widen the freeway, not expand the reach of the freeway. The entire argument against freeway expansion because it divides neighborhoods only works if the freeways are being extended, not widened, because the separation has already occurred. Adding an extra lane in either direction isn’t going to suddenly make two already distant neighborhoods feel even more isolated from each other. What it WILL do is adversely impact a number of residents while simultaneously diverting money from more worthwhile projects. Additionally, the “walls” are irrelevant overall because it’s the physical gap created by a freeway that actually does the dividing, not any retaining walls put up for sound purposes (when we’re talking about inter-neighborhood division).

    Additionally, freeways aren’t the only things that divide Milwaukee. Raised train tracks, rivers, and even parks work to divide neighborhoods. In Milwaukee, and I suspect in some other cities as well, even surface streets act as a dividing line between neighborhoods and the type of residents you will find. Bay View is visually cut off from the city to the north and west because of train tracks (think KK @ Bay, Becher between KK and 1st, and Lincoln between KK and 1st). In fact, the train tracks in the northern part of Bay View feel more isolating than I-794 does as it cuts through the neighborhood further south. Milwaukee’s rivers also do a fair amount of work when it comes to dividing the city. If you start at 27th and Capitol and drive east you will find the transition occurs not at I-43, but at the Milwaukee River just east of Humboldt. That applies to all of Riverwest (which is further divided from Harambee by Holton, a surface street). While I-94 runs along the Menomonee Valley, I wouldn’t have a problem believing that the valley itself has a greater impact on separation than the freeway. I’d argue that Kilbourn Park and the Reservoir are the real transitional boundaries dividing each side of North Avenue on the east side of the city.

    You can very easily use this piece to highlight how freeways have historically divided and segregated the city and it provides a great history lesson. You can use it to speculate that the Park East freeway could have created disastrous results for the area by putting up a wall in the neighborhood. You could talk about how much more connected to downtown the Third Ward felt when there was less freeway above St. Paul. You could even use this to advocate dismantling unnecessary freeways in some cases (I think 41, the Fond Du Lac Freeway, and 794 after it turns south could be solid candidates). It’s also missing some crucial points/arguments about how the freeways and walls serve to isolate suburban commuters from the city they work in to the point where visual engagement isn’t even necessary because you’re essentially driving in an open air concrete tube until you’re safely outside Milwaukee.

    Using it as an argument against lateral expansion? I don’t find it very effective in that regard because the article is trying to elicit an emotional response to the city’s segregation issues (and national immigration policy) and then use that response to gain sympathy for an unrelated position.

  5. Rich says:

    It is impossible to look at the original map of Milwaukee’s freeways without being reminded of…

    …The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company that once operated streetcars and other inter-urban fixed guideway transit lines in the area until 1958. A line went west to Ocomonowoc (I-94), north to Sheboygan (I-43), south towards Racine and Kenosha (I-94) and southwest to East Troy (I-43) plus even a line that, while freight only, ran right next to where I-894 is today.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Milwaukee_Electric_Railway_and_Light_Company

    Also, hat tip to Devin and his thoughtful counterpoint.

  6. Daniel Riemer says:

    Thanks all for reading and sharing your comments. I especially enjoyed Devin’s comments on superfluous freeway expansion:

    “What it WILL do is adversely impact a number of residents while simultaneously diverting money from more worthwhile projects. Additionally, the “walls” are irrelevant overall because it’s the physical gap created by a freeway that actually does the dividing, not any retaining walls put up for sound purposes.”

    I agree. Except I do not think the walls are “irrelevant.” I think they create an additional “physical gap.”

  7. John says:

    Another short-sighted comment by a local government official. Have you ever lived in another major urban area? Have you ever commuted from downtown to far suburbs daily (or vice versa)?

    Milwaukee’s downtown is slowing catching up with other cities with groups of recent college graduate looking to live and work downtown. New housing and office buildings are being constructed. With a influx of people desiring a downtown lifestyle, public transportation needs will expand naturally and the city will benefit and surrounding areas will benefit as well.

    Change is good.

  8. Daniel Riemer says:

    John: thanks for your comment. I have lived in Chicago and London. Also I commute from Milwaukee to Madison often. Change in Milwaukee means a departure from unnecessary, unneeded, unpopular freeway expansion.

  9. Big Al says:

    @ John – what do you refer to when you state at the end “Change is good.”? The freeway “changes” the DOT is proposing? Those aren’t changes; they’re expansion of what we already have.

    While I can understand the difficulties of long commutes from the far suburbs to downtown or vice versa, no one is forcing people to live that far away from their jobs. We all make our own choices of where to work and where to live, and then get to live with the consequences. I know plenty of people that have chosen to work in the city of Milwaukee but live in Oconomowoc, Waukesha, Pewaukee, Muskego, and Kenosha; but when they complain about their commutes, I don’t have much sympathy because that’s the result of where they have chosen to live and work.

    Don’t like your commute? Find a different house closer to work, or find a different job closer to home.

  10. Liloldlady says:

    26 minutes to get downtown from Hwy. 16 is considered a “slowdown during morning rush hour” by local tv anchors. I am retired and listen and laugh almost every morning. Give me a break as John Stossel used to say.

  11. GBJames says:

    Freeway walls don’t divide people, freeways divide people. The walls give residents who live near freeways some degree of noise reduction. The walls are mostly pretty ugly things and I’d welcome anything that would make them less ugly. But noise pollution is a serious issue and neighborhoods need protection from it.

    IMO, Rep. Riemer can do better than simply ignore the reason the walls exist. (“Whatever purpose they once served…”)

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us