Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life

Overview

In Divided Highways, Tom Lewis offers an encompassing account of highway development in the United States. In the early twentieth century Congress created the Bureau of Public Roads to improve roads and the lives of rural Americans. The Bureau was the forerunner of the Interstate Highway System of 1956, which promoted a technocratic approach to modern road building sometimes at the expense of individual lives, regional characteristics, and the landscape. With thoughtful analysis and engaging prose Lewis charts ...

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Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life

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Overview

In Divided Highways, Tom Lewis offers an encompassing account of highway development in the United States. In the early twentieth century Congress created the Bureau of Public Roads to improve roads and the lives of rural Americans. The Bureau was the forerunner of the Interstate Highway System of 1956, which promoted a technocratic approach to modern road building sometimes at the expense of individual lives, regional characteristics, and the landscape. With thoughtful analysis and engaging prose Lewis charts the development of the Interstate system, including the demographic and economic pressures that influenced its planning and construction and the disputes that pitted individuals and local communities against engineers and federal administrators.

This is a story of America's hopes for its future life and the realities of its present condition. It is an engaging history of the people and policies that profoundly transformed the American landscape—and the daily lives of Americans. In this updated edition of Divided Highways, Lewis brings his story of the Interstate system up to date, concluding with Boston's troubled and yet triumphant Big Dig project, the growing antipathy for big federal infrastructure projects, and the uncertain economics of highway projects both present and future.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Anyone who has ever driven on a U.S. interstate highway or eaten at an exit-ramp McDonald's will come away from this book with a better understanding of what makes modern America what it is."—Chicago Tribune

"A fascinating work . . . with a subject central to contemporary life but to which few, if any, have devoted so much thoughtful analysis and good humor."—Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Divided Highways is the best and most important book yet published about how asphalt and concrete have changed the United States. Quite simply, the Interstate Highway System is the longest and largest engineered structure in the history of the world, and it has enormously influenced every aspect of American life. Tom Lewis is an engaging prose stylist with a gift for the telling anecdote and appropriate example."—Kenneth T. Jackson, Harvard Design Magazine

"Lewis provides a comprehensive and balanced examination of America's century-long infatuation with the automobile and the insatiable demands for more and better road systems. He has written a sprightly and richly documented book on a vital subject."—Richard O. Davies, Journal of American History

"This brightly written history of the U.S. federal highway program is like the annual report of a successful company that has had grim second thoughts. The first half recounts progress made, while the second suggests that the good news is not quite what it seems."—Publishers Weekly

"Lewis describes in a convincing, lively, and well-documented narrative the evolution of America's roadway system from one of the world’s worst road networks to its best."—John Pucher, Journal of the American Planning Association

"Tom Lewis is a very talented and engaging writer, and the tale he tells—the vision for the Interstates, Congressional battles, construction, and the impact of new highways on American life—is important to understanding the shape of the contemporary American landscape."—David Schuyler, Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of the Humanities and American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College, author of Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820–1909

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This brightly written history of the U.S. federal highway program is like the annual report of a successful company that has had grim second thoughts. The first half recounts progress made, while the second suggests that the good news is not quite what it seems. Lewis (Empire of the Air) begins with Thomas Harris MacDonald, who in 1919 became head of the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Public Roads and, before he retired in 1965, was to federal highway construction what J. Edgar Hoover was to law enforcement. The high points here include the building of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which set the pattern for 20th-century toll roads, and the maneuvering leading up to the passage of the 1956 law establishing the Interstate Highway System. Lewis also touches on such matters as the parkways of the 1930s, the education of civil engineers and the design of highway signs. With a successful late-1960s revolt by New Orleans preservationists against a highway through the French Quarter, Lewis begins to relate the darker side of road building and its lobbyists, which led to the malling of the landscape. Today, despite the great sociological changes they have made in the country, interstate highways, according to Lewis, are treated with complete indifference by Americans. Photos. (Oct.) FYI: A 90-minute PBS documentary based on this book will be broadcast nationally in October.
Kirkus Reviews
Similar to his Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (not reviewed), Lewis (English/Skidmore Coll.) has written a tie-in to a PBS documentary (set to air in October) that traces a ubiquitous institution and how it altered everything in its path. Covering more than 42,000 miles, the Interstate Highway System is the longest engineered structure in the world. Dwight Eisenhower discovered once that the cause of the city traffic in which he found himself was the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, which he had signed as a Cold War military necessity and employment driver. In his inability to foresee the bill's consequences, Eisenhower typified the pioneers of the road system. In their technocratic expertise and lack of human relations skills, they took their cues from influential predecessors, such as the incorruptible and intimidating Thomas Harris MacDonald, who as chief of the Federal Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 to 1953 "did as much as Henry Ford or Alfred Sloan to put America on wheels," according to Lewis. While Lewis is not always careful with his facts (e.g., the first enclosed shopping mall was built in 1956, not in 1947 as he claims) and sometimes employs clichés about suburban sterility, he usefully notes that the system did not result merely from a conspiracy of unions, auto associations, and builders, but also expressed Americans' deepest yearnings for "speed, and space, and privacy." The interstates promoted the fortunes of African- Americans (who previously had to ride southern back roads where they were at the mercy of bigots) and women (who used the interstates to break free of social restraints), and boosted entrepreneurs like McDonald's Ray Kroc. Yet theinterstates also fostered enough noise pollution, urban decline, and railroad deterioration to spark opposition. While not aspiring to be definitive, Lewis offers a bright, lively account of the greatest public works project in US history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801478222
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 5/21/2013
  • Edition description: Updated
  • Pages: 387
  • Sales rank: 940,849
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Lewis is Professor of English at Skidmore College. He is the author of Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio and The Hudson: A History, as well as researcher, writer, or producer for documentary films including Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers, and Empire of the Air (all directed by Ken Burns) and Divided Highways (directed by Larry Hott and Diane Garey).

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Cornell Edition

Preface

Part 1
1. The Chief
2. Mastering Nature
3. The Dreamway
4. The GI and the General

Part 2
5. A Grand Plan
6. The Great Puzzle
7. Lines of Desire

Part 3
8. Revolt
9. Busting the Trust
10. New Rules
11. Continental Drift
12. The Greatest of Improvements

Sources and Notes
Selected Bibliography
Supplemental Bibliography to the Cornell Edition
Acknowledgments
Index

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2002

    A terrific overview of a vast topic

    An eye-opening view of the haphazard and unintended path transportation policy took in the US in the 20th century, and how our increasingly road-oriented system changed the American landscape and culture. It is a rather unique book on the subject not only for its readability, but its balance between the benefits and vision encompased in some of our highways, and the destruction embodied by others. Readers of this book should most definitely also read Robert Caro's 'The Power Broker' about New York's master builder, Robert Moses, who gets relatively little ink here.

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