Ongoing History: “Is it a corridor or is it a place?”

As part of a much larger project, the city is redoing everything on Penn Avenue between Evaline and Mathilda starting early next year, all the sidewalks, streets, intersections, lights, trees and traffic signals. (Given the scope and location of the work, I’m privately calling it the Protractor Relocation Initiative.) Last night the contractor showcased the design as it currently stands. One of the points of contention from the people in attendance was about the curbs. The plan involves “bump-outs” at every intersection along that stretch. “That’s going to tie up a whole lane of Penn every time someone wants to turn left,” one guy said. “Because right now you can use the parking lane to drive around the car in front of you.” By preserving parking on both sides of the street, the bump-outs also preclude a bike lane on Penn (something the city hopes to alleviate by possibly adding a bike lane to Friendship Ave). But by pushing parked cars back from the intersections, the bump outs will make it easier to turn onto Penn from the side streets.

“It’s a matter of how you divvy up the real estate,” one of the contractors said. The decision, he added, came down to this question: “Is it a corridor or is it a place?”

That distinction probably isn’t uncommon in city planning, but it’s really interesting in this case. Penn Avenue is a major “corridor.” It’s the oldest street in the city. It not only connects the eastern suburbs to downtown, but also carries traffic headed to Children’s Hospital. The image below shows Penn and Gross in 1908. Trolley tracks down the middle of a cobblestone street, and two little girls in matching white dresses stand at the end of an unfinished road. The power lines outnumber the houses needing electricity.

The four blocks of Penn between Evaline and Mathilda, on the other hand, are in the Penn Avenue Arts District. Over the past fifteen years, that’s become an increasingly important “place.” It’s got houses and fancy condos, art galleries and music venues, high-end eateries and beloved neighborhood restaurants. The bump-outs favor pedestrians, local residents and anyone coming to the Penn Avenue Arts District, and they make life difficult for anyone passing through the area. The city chose “place” over “corridor.”

So, in a small way, that simple concrete feature marks a transition. It’s a decision to slow down the most historic roadway in the city for the sake of the businesses running along it.

To keep those businesses from going under while the work is underway, the reconstruction will be piecemeal: first the northern half of the street, then the southern half. Penn will be restricted to one inbound lane for the duration of the construction, and the outbound traffic will be routed onto Liberty Ave. and then to Baum Blvd.

Penn and Gross, 1908 — via Retrographer

That means more traffic on Friendship, too, of course. The intersection of Friendship and Gross already generates, on average, fifteen angry horn blows and three audible swearing matches on any given day, and more cars will only make it more dangerous. I suggested some better signage to prevent complete chaos. One of the guys from the city shook his head, and in a tone reminiscent of a oft-bullied teen, said to himself, “Man, I would love to get my hands on that intersection.”

Then, Aggie Brose, of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, pointed to Friendship and Gross on the big map pinned up in front of us. “I used to live right there,” she said. “It was my honeymoon cottage.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yup,” she said. “I grew up in Garfield, but after Tommy and I got married we moved in there. On the first floor, right when you go up the steps. We liked it.” The neighbors next door were an older couple; the wife taught her how to cook. I imagined Mrs. Brose, a bit younger than I am now, carrying a casserole down the sidewalk, holding the hot dish between oven mitts. She did the math in her head. “That would have been 1957,” she said.

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