Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Centrality of Interstates

Anti-War notes the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway system: This system has been at times a blessing and a curse for me, and the interstates have shaped my life significantly.

Interstate 75 cut right through the family farm back in the 1960s. Half the farm, including a fine orchard and strawberry fields, was cut off from the rest and was accessible by driving to the nearest overpass a couple of miles to the south. We kids just walked through a snake infested culvert that ran beneath the highway. The right of way was blocked by an eight foot fence topped with barbed wire, and it was too scary to try to cross the highway in any event. Eventually, my grandfather sold the land across the highway, and it was ultimately commercially developed. The eminent domain compensation, the proceeds of the land, and income from a Howard Johnson's billboard on the property allowed my grandfather to retire from commercial farming, although they maintained livestock and a substantial vegetable garden for many years. My uncles went to work for wages in town.

A real down side to the highway was the noise from the big rigs. You get used to it after a while and don’t even hear it. My mother’s house was shielded from the noise by a hill and some woods, but the old farmhouse was right next to the interstate.

The overpass down the road became home to a full service truck stop, a couple of motels, a KOA campground, and some more filling stations. I would walk or ride my bike down there and buy snacks from the vending machine at the Marathon station. As a teenager, I would go for eggs and corned beef hash at the truck stop (I also had a thing for the owner’s daughter, Donna). It was at the exit that I became familiar with Yankees, generally Midwesterners on their way to Florida or returning home. They all seemed to wear Bermuda shorts and sandals with dark socks, and they didn’t seem to have any dipthongs in their version of English.

The next exit north became our town’s first fast food row, starting with a MacDonald’s restaurant where I worked for a time in high school. The whole avenue came to be lined with motels, eateries, carpet outlets and stores. Today, it even has a large outlet mall. Lots of folks stopped by and spent money on their way to and from Florida. Local teenagers such as myself frequented the eateries and shopping centers.

The downtown started to die. In addition, the businesses all along Highway 41 closed one by one. Folks used to sell chenille bedspreads and farm produce by the road, and travelers could stop anywhere. Now, the highway funneled them past the town unless they stopped at the exit where commercial property cost way too much for farmers and bed spread makers.

I-75 was incomplete until I grew up and moved away. It ended at Cartersville, and you had to take 41 to Marietta before it resumed on the way to Atlanta. I remember the part of the trip on 41 as the most fun. There were lots of places to stop, lots of souvenir stands and businesses looking to cater for travelers, whereas the interstate was all road, rest stops and occasional exits, all of which looked the same as every other exit. I recall that it was protection of the snail darter that held up the highway. Now, you can drive from Atlanta to my hometown without seeing anything but trees and hills unless you get off the highway. You can even speed up into Blue Ridge, and bedroom communities have sprung up in places that used to be farmland. Folks who live 75 miles away commute to Atlanta now.

Chattanooga was easily accessible by interstate, and we would go there often to shop at the malls on the outskirts. Downtown Chattanooga was pretty dodgy back then, and the highways hastened its decline. It’s much improved these days, and the aquarium and river walks are must sees. Of course, you have to figure out how to get off the highway and into the town.

I have moved across country twice and have traveled by car across the continent many times, and this would hardly have been feasible without the interstates. Of course, I have seen very little of what I drove through. All the truck stops are more or less the same, and every fast food row is like every other whether in Helena or Little Rock. I love to take back roads nowadays to see what the country is really like.

Interstates are still important to me. Mrs Vache Folle takes I-84 every work day to and from the train station. This highway permits us to live in the country while she works 60 miles away in midtown Manhattan. I-84 also puts an airport less than 30 minutes away and allows Mrs VF to visit her family in Pennsylvania in less than three hours. Without the interstates, we would have had to make very different choices about where to live, where to work, and how to get around.

I don’t celebrate the interstates. They represent a massive subsidy of automobile transportation and artificially contribute to sprawl, environmental degradation, and a host of evils. I didn’t make the world with interstates; I just live in it. If the subsidies stopped, we would all adjust, and I imagine that our lives and environment would be very different. Mrs VF would have to work closer to home, or we would have to move closer to work. I bet there would be more small businesses in nearby commercial districts since it would be more convenient to shop there than to slog over to a mall or big box store. Demand for and use of buses and trains might increase.

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