The north-south interstate cut a swath through my childhood

In the late 1950s, rumors were rampant concerning a new interstate highway slated to cut straight through Oak Cliff. But it wasn’t a rumor.

Before circa 1963, traveling by car from Oak Cliff to downtown Dallas and beyond typically required a northward trip up Beckley, Zang, Marsalis or Lancaster, all of which more or less merged with Zang. Drivers crossed the Trinity River via the Houston Street Viaduct before landing downtown. And from there they chose a pattern through or around downtown and on to other destinations.

To provide land for the new interstate, the eminent domain law required hundreds of Oak Cliff families to sell their homes to the highway department. Many of the structures were re-sold and moved to different locations by the new owners. Others were demolished.

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Former Cliffite Sandy Almand, who lived at the corner of Illinois Avenue and Toluca, says she and her husband would be awakened in the middle of the quiet night by the large trucks moving houses down Illinois and on to their new locations.

And then construction began.

The first significant section stretched from downtown to the current Clarendon-Zang exit. The next expansion continued south to Illinois, and then to the Saner entrance/exit. Cliffites living in the southern portion of the community drove north, up Polk, Hampton or Beckley, and then took Saner, Illinois or Clarendon to an interstate entrance. From there on, it was smooth sailing.

Construction went on for months, kicking up dust and keeping the area’s noise level at a high decibel. But for some Oak Cliff adventurers, this situation offered a constantly beckoning temptation.

While the interstate remained under construction, and obviously without traffic, then 13-year-old Alan Elliott considered the newly paved surface his own private bicycle route to the Dallas Zoo. Elliott regularly took advantage of the smooth, wide-open thoroughfare by peddling his way, unbothered, from his house on Vanette to the zoo and back.

There was, however, one problem.

When the highway did open, Elliott had no idea that his bicycling among the ferocious U.S. interstate traffic would be problematic. Thus, after being pulled over and reprimanded by the Dallas Police, he became convinced. His cycling-on-the-interstate days came to an end.

Another incident took place late one night when two Adamson High School students (who shall remain nameless) decided to “drive” a piece of the highway department’s heavy equipment. It was left on the construction sites at night with keys still in the ignition. Moving forward on the massive machinery for only about 10 feet, the pair speedily abandoned their hijinks when a stealthy but alert security guard appeared. Some guys spoil all the fun.

Upon completion, Oak Cliff welcomed the beautiful, new north-south traffic lanes, which made trips to downtown much easier. Today, traveling to and from downtown Dallas without the Interstate 35 option seems unimaginable. But, before the interstate, it really used to be that way.

My grandmother’s house was among those removed by the highway department. Except for two homes that still stand, her block — the 300 block of West Montana — no longer exists. On the east end of the block, the red brick house at Montana and Toluca remains, peering down on the northbound traffic. On the other end, at the corner of Montana and Brookhaven, is the Lundys’ two-story home where I played with daughters Penny and Vicki.

Gone is the home across the street, with the parakeet aviary in its backyard and Tanya’s house next to that. Gone are the sycamore trees that lined the avenue, whose root growth caused the sidewalks beneath to heave and brake. And gone is Major and Mrs. Clement’s ranch-style house next door to my grandmother.

Because of the interstate, all vestiges of these childhood days have been erased.

But whenever I drive north into old Oak Cliff, my car passes directly over the property. I enjoy that.

The construction of I-35 is an integral part of the United States Interstate Highway grid. We need it. It has worked. And it certainly helps navigate others into the “Cliffs” and to downtown.

But it would be comforting, if only for a few hours, to once again have all those homes and families and streets back in place. A walk along the sycamore trees … down the broken sidewalk … past the Clements’ ranch-style house … visiting with Tanya … listening to the chirping parakeets … playing with the Lundy girls. And no interstate noise.

Now that would be nice.