I’m visiting an old college room mate this week. I’ve been close to him and his family for many years. While I’m in the area I decided to poke around to see how various towns have fared over the years. I stopped by his late grandmother’s house in Pennsauken yesterday. Back in 1952 the white middle class was eager to leave Philadelphia and live in a quiet suburb across the river in New Jersey. As I walked around the old neighborhood I could see the appeal of tree lined streets and charming old homes.
At the time a brand new house in a newly built subdivision was far more desirable than an older home. These homes were solidly built and had all the modern amenities home buyers expected at the time. She paid cash for her home, no doubt the result of hard work, frugality, saving, and memories of the Great Depression. The American middle class was also rising rapidly so it was possible to earn enough money to pay cash for a new family home.
I was pleased to see a bike path and linear park a couple of blocks away. But I was completely distracted by the road a few doors down from grandma’s house.
Back in the 1950’s having direct access to a commercial corridor and ample free parking was considered a huge benefit. There wasn’t all that much traffic back then. The roads were only two or four lanes wide. And all the shops that a family might need were a five minute drive away.
But over the decades traffic congestion increased and the highway was expanded to accommodate the increased volume. The road became less of a benefit for people living nearby and switched to an eyesore and safety hazard. The NJDOT placed a continuous concrete barrier down the center of the road to prevent accidents and help speed traffic.
Many of the old 1950’s shops failed and the empty buildings have not found suitable reuse, although some marginal chain stores and gas stations manage to stay afloat. The tax base of town has eroded as a result. Home values along the road declined and prosperous families moved away. Local schools suffered in direct relation to their exodus.
A series of accidents involving pedestrians – mostly children, young adults, and the elderly – lead the DOT to install fences to prevent people from attempting to cross the road. This was ostensibly to protect pedestrians, but the reality on the ground looks a lot like a series of containment mechanisms to keep cars safe from intruding humans.
To make it physically possible to cross the road the DOT installed elevated walkways. But due to the high cost of such structures these bridges are far and few between. And they’re spectacularly hard to navigate if you happen to be the most likely demographic (poor) in need of crossing the road on foot: a parent with small children, the elderly, the handicapped, a bicyclist, or a woman traveling alone at night.
The obsession with accommodating all the cars and keeping traffic flowing has resulted in radically lower property values, a decline in commercial activity, a migration of the middle class out and a lower quality of life for the lower class that remains. And all those road “improvements” were fantastically expensive. That’s a real shame because Pennsauken is a lovely place. Too bad they didn’t build a Main Street near all these nice homes instead.