Make Way for the Highway

Thanks to Interstate 95, travelers can drive all the way from Miami to New Brunswick without ever needing to leave the highway. Artists from Jimmy Buffet to the Front Bottoms have struck a chord singing about it, but a project from the Preservation Society of Pawtucket hopes to shed light on another, less-discussed aspect of the highway: The voices of those who were displaced in its construction. The Preservation Society has just launched a powerful initiative, The I-95 Oral History Project, which will curate stories from Pawtucket residents who remember how the highway’s construction made a lasting impact on the character and culture of Pawtucket.

In 1954, the community, particularly local business owners, were engaged in fierce debate about the possibility of a multi-lane highway being built in downtown Pawtucket. Many were worried that I-95 would detract from local businesses, weaken the economy and displace residents from their homes. That year, then-mayor Lawrence A. McCarthy persuaded the city council to approve a plan to establish a bridge over Division Street. Victorious, he declared, “We are going from an old-fashioned New England city into a modern, up-to-date community, accessible and convenient for business and industry.” According to the Preservation Society, upward of 1,000 residents were displaced and 300 businesses demolished in order to allow I-95 into the city.

Preservation Society member Jocelyn Dube says that hearing about how vibrant Downtown Pawtucket once was — how people would spill from the sidewalks because there was so much activity — was one of the main reasons why she felt so strongly about the project. Jocelyn, whose interest in preservation “leans more toward the people than the structure,” envisions the Oral History Project as eventually culminating in a panel of sorts, where the residents will speak about the impact that I-95 has had on Pawtucket. She tells me about one man who lived next to I-95 and spoke about how his house was moved incrementally, week by week, during the construction of the highway.

Certainly, with debates about the Hope Point Towers in Providence and the Belvedere at Thames in Bristol, the I-95 Oral History Project comes at a time when many Rhode Islanders are expressing concern about how the desire for industry can have real consequences on local communities.