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A City Divided: The Building of the Mass Turnpike in Newton (Part II)

Today, millions of people travel on the Massachusetts Turnpike, but many do not appreciate the involuntary sacrifices made by so many for the conveniences of travel that we take for granted today.

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part column on the Mass. Pike Extension in Newton.

In January of 1962, William F. Callahan sold the final bond to fund the building of the turnpike extension through Newton and was able to break ground on construction shortly afterward. Contractors were hired, and the taking of property by eminent domain began.

Toby Berkman details that, in all, “approximately 350 homes and businesses would be demolished. $4.5 million in property would be destroyed. One-third of the business in Newton Corner would be wiped out. The loss of property would cause an automatic $1 tax increase in Newton.”

While the entire city would feel the effects of the highway, the villages in the northern sweep of the city were the hardest hit. Homes and businesses that generations of families had built together were to be obliterated, and they were notified by a straightforward letter in the mail from the Turnpike Authority. Business owners were given only two months to close up shop and move elsewhere, and homeowners were given just four months to relocate.

To facilitate a speedy transition of ownership, property owners were forced to move out first and negotiate a price after it was no longer theirs. The Turnpike Authority was taking advantage of its tremendous power to bilk people out of the fair value of their homes.

No single neighborhood was hit as hard as the Hicks Street area of West Newton. In the late 1800s there was a large influx of African Americans into Newton, many of them fleeing racial proscription in the south after the Civil War. These people found homes and work in West Newton. Shortly after establishing themselves in the Hicks Street neighborhood, .

This historically African American neighborhood was almost entirely eliminated by the Turnpike. Thirty-two homes were demolished, and black residents who were evicted had difficulty finding a new home in the city due to racial discrimination in the housing market. With cars whizzing past nearby, residents of this neighborhood who remain today have a constant reminder of the damage done to their community by the highway. Thankfully, Myrtle Baptist serves as a home base for those who were forced out of the area in the 1960s.

According to bostonroads.com, “Callahan did not live to see his turnpike completed. In September 1964, five months after [he] died, the Boston Extension was completed to…EXIT 18 (Allston-Brighton-Cambridge). The entire 135-mile length of the Massachusetts Turnpike opened to traffic on February 18, 1965.”

Since its completion, the stretch of the Mass Pike that extends through Newton has caused much less controversy. Undoubtedly changing the city it bisects, the highway is simply part of the physical environment. But let us not forget the hundreds of people who lost their businesses, their livelihoods, and their homes for this road to be built.

Jerry Reilly September 27, 2011 at 07:51 PM
Some amazing info in your article Allison. "One-third of the business in Newton Corner would be wiped out" and "homeowners were given just four months to relocate" it really was a different world. Thanks as always for your great local history
MARASH GIRL September 28, 2011 at 11:25 AM
Yes, we lived in Newton, and when it was built, was were all told that as soon as the loan was paid off, travel on the Massachusetts Turnpike would be free to all. My father, prophetic as he was, said free would never happen, and as often as possible, he refused to use that road that had caused so much heartache to so many.
Kristine Munroe September 29, 2011 at 05:23 PM
I live in West Newton and I can see the Mass Pike's off ramp from my living room window. My neighbor told us that before they built the Pike, there were row houses across the street. I'm certain it changed the dynamic of our street, because instead of houses being across the street from mine and my neighbor's homes, there's a loud off-ramp, trees with dead branches dangerously hanging off of that the city refuses to take care of, and litter scattered about.
Terence Powers June 15, 2012 at 03:52 AM
I used to live on Kenyon St from 1955 to 1967. I used to take a shortcut to Warren Jr High by going down Webster St to Crescent St. It dead-ended at the tracks and we cut across 4 sets of tracks and came out at Myrtle Baptist church. After the road was built, I had to walk all the way around down Auburndale Ave to Elm St. Just a trivial bit of information, but to a kid it was devastating.

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