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October 26, 1984 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-10-26

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Friday, October 26, 1984


Benyas-Kaufm an



Oak Park's Orthodox
Jewish community
struggles to survive
the coming of the
1-696 expressway

Special to The Jewish News







n the wall charts in
Rabbi Eli Kaplan's Kris-
ten Towers command
post, the 1-696 ex-
pressway flows along
Ten Mile Road — parting Oak Park
and its Orthodox Jewish enclaves as if
it were the Red Sea.
Rabbi Kaplan, the Orthodox
Jewish Community Highway Advi-
sory Committee's community advo-
cate, is both helpless and powerless in
the face of the oncoming tide.
He is also 20 years too late.
Rabbi Kaplan, whose employer is
the same Michigan Department of
Transportation with whom he does
almost daily battle, functions mainly
as the champion of the victims of the
expressway — Jewish "refugees."
The march of the invader con-
tinues unabated. Advance shock
troops, massive bulldozers, have al-
ready flattened or moved much of what
blocked its path. The latest landmark
to fall was the 96-unit Riviera Apart-
ments, onceinerely a neighborly shout
down Greenfield from the huge North-
gate Apartments complex.
The battle to save Oak Park and
its Orthodox Jewish community of
7,000 from almost guaranteed de-
struction by the expressway was
high-minded, heroic, and ultimately
A small band of determined but
outnumbered Orthodox Jews took on
the combined forces of the federal and
state bureaucracy in a valiant effort to
preserve the integrity of their commu-
nity. Although they eventually had
the support of some of the surrounding
predominantly Gentile communities
— not always for the most altruistic of
reasons — the majority of the general
Jewish community, and certainly the
Jewish Establishment, offered very
little in the way of encouragement or
The founding fathers of what has
become known as the Orthodox Coali-
tion are Rabbi E. B. Freedman, ad-
ministrative director of Yeshvath
Beth Yehudah; attorney Mark Schlus-
sel of the Southfield law firm of
Schlussel and Lifton; Rabbi Feivel
Wagner, until recently with Young Is-
rael of Greenfield; and community ac-
tivist Max J. Zentman. To at least one
of their non-Jewish detractors in the
Michigan Department of Transporta-
tion, they became known as the Or-
thodox Mafia — less of a pejorative
than a tacit, albeit begrudging, ac-
knowledgement of the coalition's
cohesiveness. Their grass roots cam-
paign was almost a textbook example
of how to fight the system. But still it
didn't* work. Is there a lesson to be
learned in all this?
The long history of organized op-
position to the 1-696 expressway goes
back to the era of President John F.
Kennedy. Once plans for the ex-
pressway were announced, a series of
public hearings was held in Oakland
and Macomb counties during July
1963. At that time, a series of six
alternate routes were under consider-
ation. Two were subsequently elimi-
nated, but each of the remaining four
were located along the Ten Mile
Road-11 Mile Road corridor.

Cover photo: Percy Kaplan is shown near
the site of his former home on Kenosha in
Oak Park. His home was removed earlier
this year to make way for 1-696.

As the year dragged to a close,
meetings were held with individual
municipalities along the route. Each
city received the same message from
the State Highway Department (the
predecessor agency of the Michigan
Department of Transportation): we'll
accept any of the four alternatives,
provided there is a consensus among
the affected communities. This con-
sensus had to be obtained by the end of
December 1963 in order to meet the
then-projected schedule for progres-
sion of the expressway. The city of Oak
Park was among the first to
enthusiastically welcome the advent
of progress.
But in effect, there was another
alternative almost from the start. A
seventh alternate, a composite of the
others, was developed in an attempt to
eliminate most of the objections to the
initial proposals. This alternate route,
which would have followed Ten-and-
a-half Mile Road (Lincoln) through
Southfield, was recommended by the
State-Highway Department's Office of
Planning and received the approval of
Highway Commissioner John C. Mac-
kie shortly before his election to the
U.S. Congress in 1964.
During 1965 and into 1966, even
more alternate routes were proposed
by the Highway Department, but the
Federal Highway Administration in
Washington had already given the
green light to the Ten-and-a-half Mile
Road route.
One of the alternate alignments
would have virtually removed Ten
Mile Road, from the map. The State
Highway Department presented this
proposal to a select .number of Or-
th.odox community . leaders in 1965
seeking their support for the align-
ment, which would have gone some-
what north of existing synagogues.
Because this plan called for the
preservation of the synagogues, the
community, of course, gave it their
blessings and were persuaded to sub-
mit numerous letters to that effect. La-
ter, at the Tieight of the involvement of
the Orthodox Coalition in fighting the
expressway, these letters were pre-
sented as proof that, to paraphrase the
words of the highway planners, "ev-
erything is great — you people said so.
You've actually sanctioned the pre-
sent route." This ploy was quickly
withdrawn, but only under pressure
from the coalition, which pointed out
that when faced with the possibility of
total disruption, any alternative
would have been welcomed by the
Early in 1966, Governor George
Romney jumped into the fray and held
several joint meetings with the con-
cerned cities in an attempt to resolve
the impasse over the route. At one
meeting, Romney was-almost jubilant
when he received unanimous agree-
ment for the need of the expressway
through the corridor. But Romney's
joy was short-lived. In June, at a joint
marathon meeting in Southfield, the
communities broke ranks. Several
gave the proposal their approval,
others agreed to submit the problem to
binding arbitration, and some just
plain refused to agree on anything.
Responding to intensive lobbying
by the Highway Department, the
Michigan Legislature in 1967 created
an arbitration board to determine the
final route for interstate highways.
The Highway Department then
recommended an alignment which fa-

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