Historian Offers Advice On Defending Main Streets From Highways

Aug 22, 2017

From rivers to railroads to highways, the destiny of many Florida cities is tied to local infrastructure. Small neighborhoods and whole towns can live and die by the construction of interstate exits. But public historians say there are ways to balance public access and preservation.

A view of Apalachee Parkway from Lafayette Street circa 1958. Portions of the black neighborhood of Smokey Hollow were demolished and displaced in order to build the highway.
Credit Florida Memory / https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/35306

Millions of Floridians take to the roads every year. The increasing number of vehicles is fueling the demand to expand old highways and build new ones. But what happens when that highway runs straight through a historic neighborhood? Or a traditional, walkable downtown? State architectural historian Ginny Jones says communities can balance public access with preservation.

“This is sort of the dichotomy of preservation is that, you know, we want to keep our historic districts, our commercial historic districts alive and viable. But the reasons they were there is because they were on a major highway and we have to improve our roads to keep them viable,” Jones said.

The Panhandle town of Milton is currently weighing these issues, as federal regulators develop a plan to expand U.S. 90, which runs through the heart of downtown. The interstate follows the route of the Old Spanish Trail, a historic tourist road that runs from St. Augustine to San Diego. Jones wants drivers to consider the cultural costs of expanding roads.

“There are people that like to take the Old Spanish Trail. There’s Old Spanish Trail tours. People purposefully drive those roads. So how do you encourage people to do that without… not expanding your roads?” she asked.

Expanding U.S. 90 in Milton, and other interstates in similar towns, could be an opportunity for economic development. Tourists could have expanded access to roadside attractions, locals might see fewer traffic jams, and long-haul truckers and timber operations could have more leeway for their semis. 

But expanding the footprint of the road could lead to the demolition or displacement of historic buildings and sites. Historians say those very structures are what make these traditional downtowns attractive to residents and visitors in the first place. Altering these locations could come at a heavy cost, for main street business owners and local culture.

Jones says it's not always clear how communities should chart their course forward, and says many infrastructure updates should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis with project-specific solutions. But she says it's important for communities to defend their historic places. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, the federal government must consider local interests when developing road projects near historic sites. Jones is encouraging residents to exercise those rights.

"People just need to may attention to what's going in their community. And when there's a meeting that's coming up they need to go and present themselves and present their opinions," Jones said.