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U.S. Route 66, running 2,400 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, was once one of the most-traveled highways in the nation; John Steinbeck referred to it as the “Mother Road.” But the rise of the Interstate Highway System led to a loss of traffic, devastating communities that relied on the route’s travelers. Now, Route 66 is making a comeback, thanks to its storied past. Jeffrey Brown reports.
Now another in our series of stories about Culture at Risk, and, in this case, what's been lost along one of the more storied highways across the country.
Jeffrey Brown took a recent road trip along U.S. Route 66.
It was neither the country's oldest nor longest road. For Hollywood and everyone else, Route 66 came to symbolize America, a people on the move, a lifestyle that characterized it.
Some 2,400 miles of asphalt winding through eight states from Illinois, south through the heartland, then through the Southwest to California, it's a journey that millions once took, before the nation's economy and culture underwent vast changes.
It begins here in downtown Chicago, an older American story about the open road and connecting small rural communities to big cities, and a newer story about preserving some of that cultural past for economic gain today.
Route 66 got its official designation as a national highway in 1926. For John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath," it was the mother road, a major artery for migration during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and later for travel and tourism. But by the '70s, the federal interstate highway system had begun to take over, bypassing towns, and devastating communities along the original route, in favor of speed.
MAYOR BOB RUSSELL, Pontiac, Illinois:
That was it. The stores started closing one by one. The gas stations went out of business. The restaurants went out of business. And, boy, your town starts to look really bad in a hurry.
Now, says Mayor Bob Russell, Pontiac, Illinois, an agricultural community of 12,000 two hours southwest of Chicago, looks pretty good.
And it's a prime example of a rebirth of Route 66 that's occurring in various parts of the country. Town leaders here decided to use the history of the famous road to their advantage, 20 large murals, a museum of Route 66 collectibles, and much more, all bringing in tourists from around the world.
They have renovated historic buildings and encouraged new mom-and-pop stores to come in.
This building in a couple of months will be ready for sale or lease, and we will have another business move in here. Then that generates tax revenue and it keeps us from raising our real estate taxes.
And when a collector of vintage Pontiac cars was looking for a place to build a museum, Pontiac, Illinois, not Michigan, provided just the right incentives.
And if you watch the old 66 movies, there's always a girl involved and there's always a fast car, the Corvette or Mustang.
There's a car. There's a — that's part of the culture and part of the whole history.
That is the culture.
And a lot of people from the other countries coming here, they want to experience that freedom that they saw in that movie.
But Pontiac is still an exception.
In Berwyn, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, some 26 stylish auto showrooms once lined Route 66. Most have been bulldozed to make way for fast-food franchises.
JON FEY, Berwyn Route 66 Museum: This was a Chevy dealer when it was built in the '30s.
Not everyone might agree that '50s era showrooms are worth saving. But businessman Jon Fey of the Berwyn Preservation Committee does.
This is the kind of business that is just perfect for…
This is what you want?
This would — yes, this is a great example of using the building in a way that enhances what they are doing and helps the community.
But Fey says Berwyn hasn't provided enough incentives for businesses to preserve much of downtown.
I'm realistic enough to understand we can't bring it all back. It's not going to be 1926 again.
But if there's enough gems that we can recognize and preserve, I think we will have a real valuable commodity for the community.
But it's tough going?
It's very tough going.
Far across the country, Glen Duncan tells a similar story about the struggles to preserve landmarks along what for many is the most famous part of old Route 66.
GLEN DUNCAN, Author, "Route 66 in California": This is a former hotel.
He took me to the town of Barstow, California two hours east of Los Angeles, where motels and restaurants of another era still line the route. Many have shut down, but some are thriving.
This is the Casa del Desierto, which is a Fred Harvey house.
The town has refurbished this former hotel and train station, which now houses two museums, a ballroom and conference space.
In the summer, they say that 50 percent of the travelers on Route 66 are from Europe or Asia.
Because they're fascinated with some idea of Americana?
Well, Route 66 is somewhat — one of the things that they know about America. I think it's because it sort of represents America back when everybody loved us.
But 15 minutes from Barstow is the crumbling town of Daggett.
Daggett was where they had an inspection station back in the Depression. If you didn't have more than $20 in your pockets and didn't have evidence that you had a job in California, they turned you back.
Those inspection stations were designed to keep unemployed workers from pouring into California. And Duncan says it's important to preserve the entire history of Route 66, even the less savory parts.
That's also the mission of self-described cultural documentarian Candacy Taylor, who's photographing properties along Route 66 once listed in what was known as the Green Book.
CANDACY TAYLOR, Cultural Documentarian:
There would be opportunities for some businesses to actually have their photos.
A travel guide of hotels, restaurants and other businesses that served African-Americans in an era when many establishments wouldn't.
This was a time when it was dangerous to travel for black people. So if you got stranded or you got a flat tire in the wrong place at the wrong time, there was — your life could be threatened.
More than three-quarters of the Green Book buildings on 66 have been torn down. Others are at risk of demolition or decay, as here on L.A.'s Skid Row, where the Regal and Norbo hotels were once fashionable gathering spots.
Now it's Skid Row. But back in the day, this was a vibrant community. So, it was a place to eat, see some entertainment and spend the night.
Just five minutes away, one of the more famous listings in the Green Book has been renovated. Clifton's Cafeteria, with its murals, redwood trees and wild animal displays, was renowned for serving whites and blacks, and those who were too poor to pay.
This is really a piece of American history, of living history. These sites are physical evidence of racial segregation and integration. So there were a lot of people on the sidelines really trying to make some kind of change happen. So I think this is a part of history that hasn't been documented.
A history once vibrant, then lost, and now, perhaps, making a comeback.
From downtown Chicago, and 2,400 miles away here in California's Mojave Desert, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."
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