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InterviewsFred Salvucci

Great Projects: The Building of America

INT: Your grandmother and also your brother-in-law lost homes during this period?

FS: Yeah. I mean just to put it in a personal context my brother-in-law lived in the West End. So I read about the West End, you know, studying urban planning, but I also heard about it from my brother-in-law in terms of what kind of neighborhood it was and what kind of process happened. People were treated very badly. My grandmother lived in a house in north Brighton that was taken by eminent domain when they when they built the Mass Turnpike. People were treated very badly in that neighborhood. They were relatively poor and my grandmother's Italian, but most of the family -- most of the neighborhood was Lithuanian, all immigrants. Nobody spoke very good English. Didn't really know how to defend themselves against this giant bureaucracy that came in and basically ripped through the neighborhood, took people's houses. They were given a dollar for the house and told, "When we get around to it, we'll give you an appraisal." I mean imagine a 70 year-old widow gets kicked out of her house with a dollar. I mean what is she supposed to do? It's just outrageous. And the it was so bad that it did generate an understanding that this was no way to treat people, and within five years of this horrible treatment, Massachusetts ended up having some of the best relocation laws to protect people against this happening again. But the initial intrusion of the Mass Turnpike was the same story as what happened on the Central Artery. It's just people didn't matter, they were gonna get pushed out of the way, and that's the way it was in the highway program. That's the way it was in the urban renewal program and we were lucky that that attitude is substantially gone today.

INT: Do you remember this period?

FS: It was basically you can't fight City Hall was the attitude. I was a student at MIT. I was particularly upset with what was goin' on, 'cause I was studying civil engineering, majoring in transportation, and here civil engineers and a transportation agency were coming and treating my grandmother in this ridiculously horrible way. I mean not just my grandmother, but that whole neighborhood. It was just not dealt with fairly and for me as a student, it was kind of a formative experience because it was like, "This is wrong and I'm not gonna -- if I'm ever in this field, I'm not gonna treat people that way. It's just not the right way to do things."

INT: What motivated you to become a civil engineer?

FS: Most of my family are construction workers. My grandfather came to this country -- on both sides my grandfathers worked on construction. My father's father worked on building the big Clinton Dam that created the reservoir to bring water to Boston. So construction has always been something that everybody in the family did, from my grandparents to my father to my uncles and cousins and civil engineering and architecture and urban planning were things that I was really interested in. It was what had brought us to America in a way and the family literally came over to work on different pieces of infrastructure to make Boston work from the water supply to the South Station. My mother's grandfather came over and worked on that. When I was a little kid, I was always hearing about construction ...

INT: What was the BRA?

FS: Yes, well, the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the '50s was the agency that had tremendous power to condemn land, raze whole neighborhoods, get federal funds under the Urban Renewal program and then sell that land back to other developers who'd come in and do something different with the land. And it was done in a very nasty way. In reaction to that, there've been several reforms in the BRA, and I think it's fair to say that the BRA has come to be viewed as one of the better planning agencies around and is certainly a lot more sensitive in dealing with neighborhoods, as a big shift towards planning with people and the right of people in neighborhoods to participate in planning their own future. So, it's the same letters, the same agency name but a very different approach to people. But the '50s, it was a very tough agency. It had a lot of power and, in my view, would abuse that power and hurt a lot of people and hurt the city in the process.

INT: You became a volunteer for the anti-inner belt movement?

FS: Yeah. There were a group of who worked at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, young engineers, planners who really felt that the highways were wrong, were bad to the people in the neighborhoods, but also wrong for the city. And we began work as volunteers, supporting initially a community group in Cambridge that was fighting the inner belt, which ultimately broadened to a city-wide movement that included East Boston, South Boston, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, as well as Cambridge and Sommerville, saying, "Stop! This is a huge mistake both for the people and the city and we need to go in a different direction and we need to emphasize public transportation." I mean, first, we have to stop destroying these neighborhoods because they're valuable. They're not throw-away items. They're -- they're important places that people live. And, secondly, in terms of the real future of this city, we shouldn't be betting on bringing new cars into the city. We've got more cars than we can handle. You know, you're gonna knock down half the city to building parking lots and really destroy what's left of Boston? You know, the whole urban attitude was, "This is a great city. Let's reinforce it with public transportation so people can get here without cars and be part of the city's economy." So it was a combination of reaction against the destruction of the urban neighborhoods but also I think a positive force for a different vision of the city and how the city could really thrive. And I think the record is clear that the roads did not get built, transit did get built, and the City of Boston is thriving. So I think there's substantial evidence out there that that direction has been a good thing for the city not only in terms of avoiding the destruction of those neighborhoods and avoiding the harm to a lot of people, but also in terms of building a different kind of economy that Boston has prospered with.

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