Monday, August 01, 2011

Earl Swift: The Big Roads

A few years ago, my sister coined the term "readable nonfiction." It's possible, of course, that someone used the word previously, but I'm going with this story. Earl Swift's story of America's interstates is, for the most part, readable nonfiction. It's also, and I hate to do this, quite meandering, and almost lost me to other pursuits about half way through. I suppose Swift had a big project, turning a hundred year history of road building into a readable story, and he almost succeeded.

I've mentioned Jane Kay's "Asphalt Nation" before: that book really takes an anti-interstate stance, after providing the history of the roads, in short form. Swift, on the other hand, attempts a more "neutral" stance, allowing historical figures to make their own arguments for and against the various repurcussions of 40,000 plus new miles of highway. "The Big Roads" could easily be titled "The Big (white and one token black) Men Who Made the Big Roads," and each of these men bring different perspectives bear. Although I think Swift's viewpoint is fairly clear- dismay at the homogeneity of the country now ruled by the interstates- he leaves stronger opinions to the men behind the roads. These are men like Carl Fisher, an entrepenuer who was ahead of the curve in realizing that "horseless carriages" were the Next Big Thing, and turned out to be one of The Forces behind the interstates. Quite buearucrats like Mr's Turner, Fisher and MacDonald who spent their lives as tireless public servants working to develop the Best Roads engineers could make. And those Other Guys, big ones like Lewis Mumford and little ones like Joe Wiles who spoke up for other ideas of "progress."

It's undeniable that the federal/state partnership that led to the interstates has created immense progress, not least in safety. I would venture that few of Americans can say that the interstates have brought them no discernible benefits. Sure, traffic sucks, and will continue to suck, forever. Caltrans will continue to be the butt of three quarters of all the jokes, and an enormous money sucker, but the maintenance of the highways is truly a first world problem. So what's the big deal? Well there's the homogeneity that my grandmother called "etcetera" and that Earl Swift shares some personal feelings about. Small towns were devestated by the interstates for multiple reasons. Some of them were just plain left behind: the interstates were designed for ease of construction and expediency, not for the sake of the people living nearby. So towns were left 5 to 50 miles away from the freeways, for example, and the offramps became destinations. The chain restaurants and motels that we all know are direct results of the interstates. And homogeniety isn't just seeing the same 5 chains over and over: highway planners were proud that you could drive from state to state and see a consistent road, driving without knowing you had crossed state lines. Sure, state lines are arbitrary, but in a country so proud of its heritage, and so diverse in environment and population, a unified view for 3000 miles is perhaps not a strong talking point.

This is just the beginning, and "Asphalt Nation," though over a decade old, is clearly the better read from an activist perspective. For history, and making your own call about where to go from here (man, bad pun central!), "The Big Roads" is a good start. The books probably read well together, although it's been years since I've read "Asphalt Nation," and they may overlap. Poignantly, for a Bay Area native, Swift uses the Embarcadero Freeway as an example of just how little the road planners worked with localities when planning, designing, and building freeways. Below is a picture of the Embarcadero, which was finally torn down in 1994, after the earthquake damaged it in 1989. (Photo by egcd32 used under creative commons license.)

Embarcadero Freeway (now gone)

The area near the freeway was dark and depressing, and quite scuzzy. The Embarcadero and Ferry Plaza is now a thriving area, and I imagine a tourist destination. I don't know- I go there, but I don't do much with tourists. I'm one of those tourist-scorners, and don't keep up with their destinations. It's beautiful now, too, and unfathonable that anyone, even the best planners anywhere, would have thought to block the view. "The Big Roads" is the big picture behind small pictures like this, all over the country.

Postcard Perfect

(post teardown, photo by Telstar Logistics, under creative commons license.)