Essay Project 2021: New Freeway Affects Lives in Portland
By Breckyn Werner
A landmark that we take for granted on a daily basis, that makes our lives more convenient, has changed the geography of Portland. Before the 1960’s, people would travel on Grand River (US 16) from Detroit to Grand Rapids. In the late 1950’s, early 60’s the construction of I-96 began, starting at the west side of the state and ending at the east side of the state. However, this new freeway would impact the citizens of Portland's lives in many ways.
Before the freeway was built, many people traveled through Portland and businesses thrived, especially downtown businesses. This was just like Radiator Springs in the movie Cars. All cars traveled through Radiator Springs because Route 66 went through it. Radiator Springs had a lot of customers going through and they were getting a lot of business until an expressway was built. This made Radiator Springs become a “ghost town” , a place nobody came to. Wes Davids, a local, told me, “Every building on Kent street was filled and now you go down Kent street and there are empty buildings.” During that time downtown was similar to the eastside of Portland, where most of the businesses are today. When the freeway was built a lot of new businesses were built off of Exit 77. For example, gas stations, fast food restaurants and other businesses. It made it more convenient for people to get on and off the freeway and have everything they need in an approximately half mile radius. The freeway affected more than just businesses.
The freeway didn’t just affect businesses, it also affected many people’s homes and farmland. An article by the Grand Rapids People’s History Project, called Working Class Families were simply forced to move: Consequences of highway Construction in Grand Rapids from the late 1950s through early 1960s, it talks about how people’s homes in Grand Rapids were demolished to make room for the new freeway. This is just like what happened to Portland farmers. “Farm land was taken away from farmers or the freeway went through the middle of their fields, having their fields being on each side of the freeway”, said Davids. Farmers lost money due to the loss of their farmland.
Not everyone was affected by the freeway in a negative way. It made it easier and faster for people to go to work, to go visit family and to travel. It also brought in and is still bringing in customers to all of the businesses. When the freeway first went in people were against it because it took away some downtown businesses and farmland. Today, most people love it and use it everyday because it is more convenient.
I-96 affected people and businesses in both negative and positive ways. Many businesses lost customers due to the lack of traffic through downtown, which resulted in some businesses closing. New businesses were born primarily around the freeway (Exit 77). These businesses accommodated travelers by providing them with easy on and off services. I-96 has changed Portland geographically, financially and socially by being this landmark that extends from Grand Rapids to Detroit.
This essay is part of a writing project by students in Chandra Polasek’s ELA class at Portland High School. The project asked students to focus on elements of their own town while getting students engaged with the community. The essays were written with the intention of being published in The Portland Beacon.