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America's love affair with the romance of travel, (I couldn't begin to count the number of love affairs this country has) especially with the open road, pervades the lyrics of our music, our poems, our stories and our shared history of moving from place to place across the vast landscape that is our country. Equally well documented, if at least in the news and in history books, is Americans' obsession with finding better ways to get from here to there, whether that be crossing the continent by rail or airplane or getting to and from work everyday on freeways, subways and streetcars. Countless forests have fallen to print the innumerable tons of legislation proposing ways of moving Americans best, let alone the news accounts of that legislation, opinion pieces, public grievances, NIMBY signs and petitions filled with signatures. I always wondered if they included that in the Environmental Impact Reports.
An interesting shift in American transportation is the public's attitude towards the ever-present Interstate Highway System. The change reveals itself appropriately in the words of the former Senator and Secretary of the Interior under John F. Kennedy, Stewart Udall, who voted for the original system in 1956, but expressed his regrets about the program's environmental impact in our film Earth Days. Even less than ten years after the system was signed into law, the outlook on the effects of the project were less than rosy in some people's eyes. The turn was highlighted in the 1964 publication of Peter Blake's God's Own Junkyard, a best-selling photo book and essay that captured, what Mr. Blake thought to be, the deterioration of the American landscape at the hands of the freeway along with modern economic progress. You can read the Harvard Crimson's account of a 1964 event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in which Blake called for a moratorium on highway building, a call that was heeded by an embattled Massachusetts Governor, Francis Sergeant, seven years later in 1971.
Governor Sergeant's moratorium stopped one of the most controversial planned highways in the US: I-695, Boston's "inner belt," and the proposed I-95 Corridor. Both highways would have dissected the cities of Cambridge and Somerville, making mincemeat of Porter, Union and Inman Squares along with great swaths of Roxbury, Brighton and Jamaica Plain in Boston. You can see some remnants of the preliminary construction in the abrupt stops of unused interchanges and stubs of exit-ramps-that-never-were throughout the corridor, along with cleared rights-of-way since used for other purposes, such as Roxbury and Jamaica Plain's Orange Line subway.
John Doolittle, Massachusetts's undersecretary of transportation in the early 1970s remarked of the opposition to I-95 that "It started with the whole community awareness thing in the late '60s. Community action groups, the peace movement, students, mayors from surrounding towns. There was even a political revolution in Lynn (north of Boston) where pro-highway people were thrown out of office." The "anti-highway" people, as Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970 explained in Earth Days, were one piece of the broader environmental movement puzzle. But, the movement against the Interstate Highway System was particularly important, as it rallied activists around a very tangible destruction of progress as neighborhoods fell under the freeway.
One of the funny little ironies of the "Eisenhower Interstate Highway System" is that President Eisenhower himself didn't know that the system included urban freeways (a fact confirmed by the Department of Transportation). Even after he had signed the law and construction began, he was under the impression that it was a rural-only system similar to Germany's Autobahn. His ignorance of the particulars of the project reveals why city dwellers' perception of the system changed rapidly once construction began in urban centers and why there is still disagreement in the historical record on the benefits and disadvantages of the Interstate system. Although most high school history books (at least the ones I looked through) have at least one paragraph on the backlash to the urban highway projects, they all paint a fairly favorable picture of the highways that "changed the way Americans lived." And really, the highways did change the way Americans lived. They shifted our economies, moved populations and changed the face of every city they passed through. But whether that change allowed wealth to flow to a sleepy town, or killed a vibrant street culture (I'm looking at you Claiborne Ave in New Orleans) is a fairly local issue.
Our own personal histories ostensibly determine our perspective on this very national project. I can remember seeing a muted-fading mural of citizens angrily opposing the I-95 Inner Beltway on the back of our local computer store in Cambridgeport while on my way to pick up a city-building simulator for our family's computer and thinking "well, I guess public transportation is the way to go." Others instead see the interstate as a sign of progress and a freedom of movement that wasn't available before the system was in place. The lack of transportation before the Interstate isolated many parts of the country and put people at the mercy of the railroad companies and the inadequacies of old roads. The positive view of the system can be seen in this 1966 retrospective on the first ten years of highway construction in the Miami News. The article describes how many lives the interstate saves each year, along with how far on it you can drive without encountering a stoplight-from Boston to Des Moines at the time.
The national history of the Interstate isn't unique in being comprised of small local vignettes of a larger event. Part of the beauty of American history is the vastness of our country, diversity of our people and how national events and programs are perceived from state to state, county to county, town to town and even from person to person. Although national history is often spoken of as some amalgamated story of all Americans, how each person sees an event and how they pass on that perception is equally American history. It's the reason for our My American Experience feature and why personal narrative is so important to the perception of history as a story that envelopes disciplines from across the academic spectrum, from science and urban planning, to psychology, sociology and art. The Interstate Highway System has done well to connect us, not just physically, but in history as an event that everyone participates in and a story everyone can tell.
Sean Cleary is a blogger for Inside AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and a member of the Communications team, where he also assembles AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s weekly newsletter.
Category: Behind the Headlines