Roosevelt Boulevard, officially named the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Boulevard, is one of Philadelphia’s most important traffic arteries. It carries millions of drivers every day and is arguably the backbone of Northeast Philadelphia. Roosevelt Boulevard has become such a part of Philadelphia that when one speaks of “the Boulevard” anyone who’s lived in Philadelphia for any significant length of time, whether they reside in the Northeast or not, knows immediately which road is being referenced.
The origins of the Boulevard date back to 1902 when Mayor Samuel H. Ashbridge proposed the construction of a road to connect central Philadelphia to the communities in the northeastern reaches of the city. At this time, most of the Northeast was rural farmland communities connected by a loose network of dirt roads. Ashbridge had to convince a reluctant Common Council (the predecessor of City Council) that the Boulevard was worth the cost of construction, arguing that it would open the Northeast to greater expansion and development which would be beneficial to the whole city.
When first built, the boulevard ran from Broad Street into the city’s Torresdale neighborhood. In the initial planning stages, the boulevard was to be called the Torresdale Boulevard. At its completion, however, it was renamed the Northeast Boulevard. It wasn’t until it was expanded to reach Pennypack Creek in 1918 that the boulevard was given its present moniker in honor of former president Theodore Roosevelt. In 1926, the Boulevard became a part of the first Federal interstate highway system, designated as US Route 1. The extension of the Boulevard continued over the next decades into the Far Northeast until it reached its current end point just across the border of Bucks County in the late 1950s.
In 1961, the Boulevard grew again when it was connected to Interstate 76 via an extension called the Roosevelt Expressway. The Roosevelt Expressway runs from its connection with I-76 at the Schuylkill River through North Philadelphia to connect with Roosevelt Boulevard near Hunting Park Avenue. While this provided an important link to I-76, it only increased traffic on the already congested Boulevard. Adding lanes did not solve the problem, and many other solutions have been proposed over the decades. One idea was to extend the Broad Street Subway line out to the Northeast. This idea came so close to fruition that Sears built a subway station underneath their famed Merchandise Center located along the Boulevard. Other people suggested building another road entirely. Called the Northeast Expressway, this new road would roughly follow the path of the Boulevard. Needless to say, the Northeast Expressway was never built, and Roosevelt Boulevard remains one of the most congested roads in the country.
Mayor Ashbridge was right; with each extension of the Boulevard, development of the surrounding area soon followed. Today, it would be difficult to imagine the Northeast without Roosevelt Boulevard. Because it played such a vital role in the growth and development of the neighborhoods in the Northeast, one has to wonder how much of “the Northeast” would exist as an urban area had the Boulevard not been built.
“Roosevelt Expressway Historic Overview” – http://www.phillyroads.com/roads/roosevelt/
“US 1; John H. Ware III Memorial Highway; Roosevelt Expressway; Roosevelt Boulevard; Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway” – http://www.pahighways.com/us/US1.html