Skip to main content


Towards Life in the Fast Lane

By Ronica Roth | HUMANITIES, September/October 1997 | Volume 18, Number 5

"O public road . . .
You express me better than I can express myself"
      -- Walt Whitman

Poets have written for generations about the restlessness of American life, about an ingredient in the American psyche that keeps people looking beyond the next rise in the hill.

A little more than forty years ago, that restlessness took concrete form, in a federal law creating the Interstate Highway System. Before it was finished, it would become the country's largest public works project, crisscrossing 42,000 miles and altering the physical and cultural landscape forever.

The highways are emblems of our desires, Gertrude Stein says. "Think of anything -- of cowboys, of movies, of detective stories, of anybody who goes anywhere -- or stays at home -- and you will realize that it is something strictly American to conceive a space that is filled with moving. That is filled, always filled, with moving."

A new film looks at the effects of this grand highway project: the towns it opened up to prosperity and commerce, the neighborhoods it split, the boom it gave to the steel industry in the 1950s, the car culture it spawned, and the price it paid in oil shortages in the 1970s.

"The highways are divided, and our feelings about them are divided as well," said Larry Hott, producer and director of Divided Highways: The Interstates and the Transformation of American Life. The ninety-minute documentary, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and by the state humanities councils of Texas and Oregon, is scheduled to air on PBS October 29.

Divided Highways captures the blur of cars flashing down the interstates, the jam into the malls, the fleeting images of a passing roadside. Superimposed over the visual hustle are sociologists, engineers, activists, and philosophers describing the profound impact the Interstate Highway System has had on our culture and commerce, on cityscapes and landscapes.

The story resonates on many levels. The documentary reminds Americans what an encompassing role the car and the highway play. There is a light-hearted moment as columnist Molly Ivins recreates the scene of a mother breaking up a backseat battle between her children. And humorist Dave Barry recollects family trips with Dad at the wheel: "'There's the Grand Canyon,' he would say as we passed at forty or fifty miles per hour. We saw a lot of the country. We didn't actually touch any of it or get out. But we saw a lot of the country, thanks to the Interstate Highway System."

For Michelle Grijalva, a Yaqui Indian/Mexican American who studies Indian peoples and their interaction with American technology, the speed is a sadness: that at seventy-five miles per hour, we do not see the simple things in life, like watching a cactus bloom, nor do we see the land that the highways are designed to bring us closer to. "On the highways, destination becomes everything," Grijalva observes.

Highways were destiny and without enough roads to take us somewhere, there was gridlock. A commercial from the 1960s addresses the annoyance: "What's a citizen gonna do?" asks the narrator. "Don't honk your horn, raise your voice. Ask for better highways," comes the answer.

The answer was to come at a price, and the price was sometimes paid by poorer neighborhoods. The Overtown neighborhood of Miami is an example used in the film. Footage from the 1950s shows a vibrant community, and local attorney Jesse McCrary describes a neighborhood with churches, night clubs, restaurants, hotels, lawyers' offices and doctors' offices. Modern footage shows I-95 running over the center of what is is now only empty lots, vacant buildings and boarded businesses.

"The neighborhood could not continue to thrive because the highway came right into the heart of the neighborhood," says McCrary on camera. "There are as many sixteen-wheelers at this intersection twenty-four hours a day as you have taxis in New York City. You cannot run a business of any kind with that kind of vehicular traffic over your head all day, every day, twenty- four hours a day."

Leaders in some cities allowed the interstates to separate white from black, rich from poor. In Chicago, eight lanes of expressway and Comiskey Park separated then-Mayor Richard M. Daley's neighborhood from the high-rise Robert Taylor Homes housing project.

In other cities, residents fought the destruction of their neighborhoods. One of the earliest came over Boston's "Inner Belt."

"Urban planners at the time used something called 'desire lines,'" explains Sandra Rosenbloom, director of the Drachman Institute of Transportation at the University of Arizona. "They interviewed people to find out where they came from, where they were going, and the nature of their trip. Then they designed roads to take people to their destination in the shortest and most economical way. Desire lines produce plans that are logical for automobiles but not always logical for people and neighborhoods."

Boston's planners followed the desire lines in designing an extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike into the heart of the city, where it would connect with an inner beltway running through thirteen communities. Construction began in 1961 with only a few objections. But when engineers presented detailed plans for the Inner Belt, protests began. The highway was designed to go through 5,000 low- and moderate- income apartments, many of them public housing.

"It was a bigger issue than just highways," said Carla Johnston, a Somerville resident and opposition leader. "It was about open space and parks, preservation of our schools and churches, our playgrounds. It brought us together. There were white hard hats from Somerville and blacks from Roxbury, Italians from the North End, Irish from South Boston, and academics from Cambridge."

Soon, the battle was not over the route of road, but whether the road was needed at all. The late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, took a group of citizens to the head of the Federal Highway Administration. In archival footage, he says: "I remember saying, `It's been nineteen years since a basic study has been made on the need for this road. The Inner Belt would be a China Wall dislocating 7,000 people just to save someone in New Hampshire twenty minutes on his way to the South Shore.'"

Massachusetts politicians worried about losing the $500 million in federal gas tax money available for building the road. But the protests and lobbying led to something else -- a change in the way transportation was financed. The Federal Highway Act of 1973 gave states the leeway to use highway money for mass transit.

In Portland, Oregon, when it became time to build highways, the city capitalized on the trail blazed by Boston. "We took advantage of the clause that let cities withdraw from the Interstate program and use the funds for other forms of transit," says former mayor Neil Goldschmidt. "With the money we built the first light-rail project in the northwest. We ran a line from downtown Portland to Gresham, which is now the fourth largest city in the state."

Planners went further. They removed an expressway along the west side of the Willamette River and replaced it with a park. Now, Goldschmidt reports, the downtown is alive seven days and seven nights a week: "It's intense. It's diverse. It's most interesting. It's the only place that isn't a mall." Film footage shows traffic flowing smoothly around a thriving downtown.

In some newer cities, the highways did not come as a threat; instead, they built the metropolis.

"Dallas was really willed into being by the interstates," says historian of architecture David Dillon. "The interstates have channeled growth; they are the form givers here. They are great public spaces, too. Because they were here first, they haven't devastated the neighborhoods, as they did in Boston or Philadelphia or Chicago. Instead, they spawned enormous amounts of development and have strung the city out in very dramatic ways."

The highways have also dictated architecture. Buildings are designed to be seen at speed from the expressway, not up close, standing across the street. The large glass boxes along countless suburban highways only work -- only reflect sky and landscape -- when seen from a distance and at a glance.

Similarly, roadside advertising changed. The outsize statuary of hot dogs and coffee cups along the old two-lanes gave way to the more abstract and ubiquitous Golden Arches of MacDonald's, and Americans find themselves caught between the security of a predictable standard of food and lodging wherever they go, and nostalgia for the mom-and-pop shops and regional food specialities that are disappearing.

Divided Highways tells the story as the America of forty years ago building its way again. The interstate, the film says, is "a physical expression of the part of America that desires to resolve its destiny in the seemingly limitless land."

"This is the history of the United States," says Lisa Newton, an environmentalist and professor of philosophy at Fairfield University. "We undertake one massive project after another; we have no idea what the effects are going to be. So we thought it was going to be just the United States as usual, except that it was going to have these neat roads, which we could use for military purposes and which would be convenient for the new automobile culture. And the fact that this would have an effect on the countryside and have an effect on neighborhoods . . . never occurred to us."

The Interstate Highway System was an engineering marvel. "There was the thought that we could handle any job -- no river was too wide; no mountain too high; no valley too deep. We could just build a bridge, or a tunnel, or blast our way through," says former commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads Ellis Armstrong.

In Virginia, where I-395 passes the Pentagon outside the District of Columbia, engineers spent $51.5 million constructing a mile of highway known as "The Mixing Bowl." Workers moved 1.5 million cubic yards of earth, poured 68,000 cubic yards of concrete, and poured 17 million tons of steel, much of it in nineteen bridges. At one point, twenty-eight lanes of traffic move over three different levels of roadway.

"The question is, as I reflect now, how much is too much?" says Armstrong. "For Interstate 10, as it crosses from Arizona into California, we decided to just blast through the mountains, level them, with twenty nuclear bombs each bigger than the ones over Japan in '45. . . . We had it all planned, where the bombs would be, even where we would place the reviewing stand for the dignitaries to sit and watch them go off. We abandoned the plan -- thank God -- not because of the fallout. No. But because we worried what the dust cloud would do to the weather."

The access created by the work of these engineers has had a profound impact on the habits and movements of Americans. Thirty years ago, eastern and western Colorado were completely isolated from each other during the winter. The roads through the Rockies became impassable, and before the invention of pressurized cabins, planes could not fly over the mountains. Technology allowed engineers to blast a tunnel right through the mountains. Today, thousands of cars go through the Eisenhower Tunnel each weekend, enabling Denverites to ski Breckenridge for the day and dine that night in Denver.

The Interstate Highway System had an impact on other sectors of the American economy as well. Trucks on the highways made large warehouses less economical. Manufacturers no longer needed to maintain large inventories; a car manufacturer in Michigan could keep just enough car seats to see him through a day's production as parts were shipped daily from factory to factory.

An economic downturn in 1954 had led to the creation of a federal highway system in the first place. The system had been talked about for years, but the man who brought it into law was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was well aware that he was the first Republican president since Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression. Eisenhower wanted to create an economic cushion: not a make-work project, but an endeavor that would involve private industry and create a need for American goods. Highways brought cars, and cars needed steel, and the increased demand brought employment for people who rolled the steel and built the cars.

Americans remain ambivalent about the interstate highways. While condemning the sameness and ugliness, and complaining about gridlock and pollution, at the same they insist on the individual freedom a car brings.

Sometimes, the highway is even celebrated. The opening of the last piece of the Interstate in 1993, the Century Freeway in Los Angeles, brought an only-in-America ceremony of high school bands playing, Asian American women and Mexican Americans in traditional dress dancing in the median strip, and Native Americans blessing the concrete that covers land they once owned.

Divided Highways looks at how this huge project changed the American landscape.

"In a way, interstates are really both sides of America," film writer Tom Lewis says. "It's got all the virtues and not a few of our vices."

The film, which airs October 29, is a joint production of Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Tom Lewis, and WETA television in Washington, D.C. The film is accompanied by a four-part series on National Public Radio, a study guide, and a book to be published by Viking/Penguin.

About the Author

Ronica Roth is a writer in Denver.

Funding Information

Divided Highways received $555,000 from the Endowment and $24,000 from the state humanities councils of Texas and Oregon.