Friday, January 11, 2013

Old Roads

Seems like everywhere I turn these days, I see roads.  Not in character for me: I ride on 'em, of course, but the bump of automotive transport in my skull is almost   a depression, and the quantum of prior knowledge on the topic would not be enough to fill a modest storm drain.

But I did just lately get around to reading Robert Caro's biography Robert Moses.  I was looking for the power, the politics, the intrigue and lord knows I got plenty of that.  But Moses' story begins with the Long Island parks and parkways; it finally runs aground on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, with lots of twists and turns and straightaways in between.

Having finished Caro, I was provoked to inquire what and how much influence Moses had on the building of the Interstate Highway system.  So I moved on to The Big Roads by Earl Swift.  It's a worthwhile read though not nearly as rich in detail as Caro.  Perhaps the best thing about it is an undocumented extra: his account of the prehistory of the Interstates, in the first great spasm of road building in the 20s.  I learned inter alia of what you might also call a proto-social-media phenom: the network of auto enthusiasts who self-organized to promote early avatars of what ultimately emerged as the interstate system. I even got introduced to something called the "National Old Trails Road Association," whose name pretty well defines its identity.

From Swift I  moved on to David McCullough's biography of Harry S Truman, and dam if I'm not embroiled in the road story all over again.  By McCullough's telling, Truman gained his first round of notoriety as that rarest of phenoms, an honest  man in politics--all the more astonishing, the instrument of a big-city machine who nonetheless undertook to spend the public's dollar in the public interest.

And his passion was roads.  He loved to drive himself, and engaged in long "research" trips whose nominal purpose was to study construction methods and finance, but whose real intent, I suspect, may have been to give Harry time behind the wheel.   And--wait, here's Harry, still a county judge in Missouri, as president of that selfsame National Old Trails Association, unknown to me until just a couple of days ago.    Does it still exist, I wonder?  Wiki is unavailing, but my experience is that outfits like this almost never disappear altogether.

There's more to this story that I'd like to know--in particular, more about the role of the Interstates in destroying great cities (I don't think Harry can be blamed for that).  For the moment though--I was driving up the Sacramento Valley last night, on the back roads that lead through what is still mostly farm country.  Every inch of it paved and graded and drained, in a way we have just come to take for granted.  It amused me to reflect that exactly none of these amenities would have existed 100 years ago.



The New York Crank said...

"There's more to this story that I'd like to know--in particular, more about the role of the Interstates in destroying great cities "

More likely, the Interstates destroyed a lot of small towns by bypassing them, or sucking traffic off Main Street, which at one time had also been the primary state route from here to there, with passing cars and trucks stopping and helping to support the local diner, the drug store, and who-knows what else.

Why travel that pokey old two lane road (drained or not) when you can take the Interstate straight to the megamall exit and hand your wallet into the loving embrace of Wall-K-JCP-Mart

But what do I know?

BTW, although I'm relying on a vague-ish memory, I think Moses' final undoing was his intention to run a throughway straight across lower Manhattan, cleaving the island, wrecking neighborhoods, killing business and making much of Manhattan unlivable. But hey, it would have speeded traffic between Long Island and New Jersey.

This might have been around 1960-something, give or take 2/3rds of a decade.

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

The Crank's experience is not mine. I live in Juhsey (NOT!!! "Joisey"), alongside of several of those old primary state routes: e.g., US-1-9, paralleling the Turnpike, or US22, paralleling I-78. They're pretty vibrant centers of commerce.

And then there is Route 40, which has a lot more Maryland commerce than the I-95 it parallels.

I will go along in part. The interstates have murdered the motels, because they're a lot faster, and sleepovers are less necessary.

Buce said...

I suspect there are different stories in different places. But to my certain knowledge, the Crank remembers Washington CH Ohio, once the very model of Thornton Wilder America, now a shabby imitation of itself, listening to the thrum of traffic as it rolls by.

Re Moses' demise, I suppose the trouble is that the inflection points are so numerous. I am right that there was the Cross Bronx; he is right that there was the cross Manhattan (actually, Moses wanted three). There was also the time he tried to put a parking lot next to the Tavern on the Green-perhaps his first visible defeat. And in the end, he fell to an even greater than power thsn he: Nelson Rockefeller just took his toys away from him.

The New York Crank said...

There *is* a parking lot next to Tavern On The Green. Right there in Central Park, just north of the tavern entrance and east of Central Park West. But it's nicely disguised by trees and landscaping and stuff.

Let's not forget, while we're not forgetting, the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, a Moses chef d'oeuvre which destroyed the lovely suburban-ish neighborhood of Bay Ridge, a Scandinavian small town-in-a-borough, a town (then) of single family victorian houses with widows walk towers where the spouses of sea captains would gaze out at New York Bay, waiting for their husbands' ships. Screw it. Moses wanted to build a road and the sea captains' wives were in his way.

My father, ethnically as far from Scandinavian as a Jewish street fighter with blue eyes and ginger hair can get, was particularly embittered by the plight of the sea captains' wives. Whenever he mentioned Moses and Bay Ridge in the same sentence, it was a certainty my father was speaking through gritted teeth.

Moses made some pretty attractive roads when he built the Southern State and Northern State parkways on Long Island, but when he bulldozed for those, the only warm blooded creatures who were disturbed were a handful of potato farmers and some deer.

Problem was, Moses seemed to build for the sake of building. Humanity (or nature) had nothing to do with it. In the end – and call me an oversimplifier – he was a megalomaniacal son of a bitch.

Very Crankily Yours,
The New York Crank