Eisenhower Interstate System
Perhaps nothing conveys so well the role the Interstate Highway System has played in transforming America as the front page of the United States Federal Highway Administration’s own website:
From the start on June 29, 1956, the Eisenhower Interstate System has been known as the Greatest Public Works Project in History. On this Web site, you will find information about the history of the Eisenhower Interstate System and how it affects each of our lives daily, not just as a means of travel, but as a part of our culture and the American way of life.
This Web site is dedicated to the visionaries and leaders of past generations who created and funded the Interstate System as well as the State and Federal officials, private contractors, and members of national organizations who helped make the United States the most mobile country in the world. As we honor the past, there is no higher calling for those of us in the present generation of transportation officials than to ensure Eisenhower Interstate System continues to serve America for decades to come. (Federal Highway Administration)
Initiated under the presidential authority of Dwight D. Eisenhower, both Houses of Congress approved the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and work on the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways began. The Interstate system, considered by many to be “the greatest governmental construction program in the history of the world” was originally planned to consist of 41,000 miles of road. It took 35 years to complete (Federal Highway Administration).
Although national defense is frequently cited as Eisenhower’s primary motivation for supporting the construction of the Interstate, more domestic concerns were often at the forefront of the decision to push through legislation. Chief among these concerns were economic prosperity, commercial growth, convenience, and safety as the number of traffic fatalities on American roads steadily increased from year to year (Rose 78). In remarks at the White House Conference on Highway Safety in 1954, Eisenhower points ahead to the year 1975 as he speculates about the future need for Americans to drive on a faster, safer, and more extensive interstate system.
In 1944, President Roosevelt signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944, but this Act didn’t make the necessary legislative provisions, such as laying out how road authorities would acquire land for extra wide rights-of-way, to build the interstate highways. In the years between the 1944 Act and 1956, contentious political debates about how to build and fund the interstate intensified. While some industries, such as automotive and steel manufacturers, clearly stood to gain from a federal highway system, farmers were likely to lose both land and access to public roads on which they depended to transport their goods, and so organizations like the Farm Bureau Federation and the Farmers’ Union advocated increased investment in farm roads. Commercial truckers initially resisted any plan that would increase their taxes. Nonetheless, amidst these and other conflicts that plagued the highway debate for over a decade, Eisenhower passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Rose, Mark H. Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1939-1989. Revised Edition. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. Web. 25 Jan. 2012. FHWA.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. “An Act to Amend and Supplement the Federal-Aid Road Act Approved July 11, 1916, to Authorize Appropriations for Continuing the Construction of Highways; to Amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 to Provide Additional Revenue from the Taxes on Motor Fuel, Tires, and Trucks and Buses; and Other Purposes, 06/29/1956.” National Archives.
Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway
Robert Moses first proposed the Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway (I-310) in 1946. Moses’ plan proposed an elevated highway that would have run through the French Quarter of New Orleans. When the plan was approved and funded by state and federal governments in 1966, city preservationists began to organize opposition against the highway, effectively delaying its construction until the project was finally cancelled in 1969.
Baumbach, Jr., Richard O., and William E. Borah. The Second Battle of New Orleans: A History of the Vieux Carré Riverfront-Expressway Controversy. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1980.
Weingroff, Richard F. “The Battles of New Orleans—Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway (I-310).” Highway History. U.S. Department of Transportation. 5 Jan. 2011.
“Octopus Eye View.” Louisiana Council for the Vieux Carré, Martha G. Robinson, President; artwork by “Darge” or “Parge.” Detail from protest flyer produced by the Louisiana Council for the Vieux Carré. ca. 1964-1969. Wikimedia Commons.
Lower Manhattan Expressway
The Lower Manhattan Expressway was a massive highway building project proposed by Robert Moses in the early 1960s. The plan involved building an eight-lane elevated expressway that extended from the East River to the Hudson River, connecting the Holland tunnel to the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges in Lower Manhattan, New York City.
The proposed plan, if approved, would have displaced nearly 2000 families and hundreds of local businesses. Though Moses had been successful in the past at ushering through massive public works projects, including dozens of parks, tunnels, bridges, and highways, mounting discontent combined with organized community resistance led by author and activist Jane Jacobs effectively blocked the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, marking the end to Robert Moses’ reign as the most influential “master builder” of the twentieth century. The plan was finally halted in 1962 after city officials unanimously voted down the proposed expressway in response to a series of rallies, protests, and demonstrations that galvanized support to block the project.
Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life. New York: Penguin, 1999.
“Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. Model. Long view.” Photo by Paul Rudolph. ca. 1970. Paul Rudolph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, repr. LC-DIG-ppmsca-26450.
Destruction of the Bronx
The Cross Bronx Expressway passes through the borough of the Bronx in New York City. The Expressway was planned and executed by Robert Moses; construction began in 1948 and lasted more than twenty years. The highway was the first major thoroughfare planned through a densely urban area. Consequently, it is still considered the most costly highway-building project in history. The highway is also blamed for the destruction of several low-income neighborhoods in the South Bronx. Community outrage at the destructive nature of the Cross Bronx Expressway led to a prolonged resistance to future highway building projects, including the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was eventually rejected by city officials as a result of community resistance led by Jane Jacobs.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.
“Truss Structure at 3rd Avenue, Cross Bronx Expressway, View Northeast.” 1974. Photo by Jack E. Boucher/HAER. Library of Congress.
Marshall Berman was born in the Bronx in 1940 and died in New York City in 2013. A Marxist philosopher and cultural theorist, he was best known for his humanist examinations of modernity and the modern condition. In the popular All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, first published in 1982, Berman bore witness to the devastating power of the will to modernize—embodied by the figure of Robert Moses—as it played out in his own neighborhood:
So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of “traditional” and “pre-modern” institutions and environments but—and here is the real tragedy—of everything vital and beautiful in the modern world itself. Here in the Bronx, thanks to Robert Moses, the modernity of the urban boulevard was being condemned as obsolete and blown to pieces, by the modernity of the interstate highway. Sic transit! (295)
Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. 1982. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Helen Leavitt was a D.C. journalist who became involved in the highway controversy in the mid-1960s when a freeway was planned that would have displaced her and her family from their home. Her scathing indictment of inner city highway construction, Superhighway—Superhoax (1970), was to urban freeways what Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was to pesticides. Calling the Interstate Highway System “history’s biggest boondoggle,” Leavitt argued that the special interests of a powerful few—automobile manufacturers, real estate developers, trucking associations, petroleum lobbies, road builders associations—were running roughshod over the public interest.
Leavitt, Helen. Super Highway—Superhoax. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.
Jane Jacobs, born in 1916 in Pennsylvania, was a writer and activist best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), an influential critique of urban renewal policies that ravaged U. S. cities throughout the 1950s. Relying on a street-level view of threatened urban communities, common sense, and irrefutable anecdotal evidence, Jacobs vehemently opposed urban redevelopment plans which, she argued, were guided, not by an informed understanding of “real life” in American urban communities, but rather by “principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities—from anything but cities themselves” (6). Emphasizing a healthy urban community’s “organic” tendencies toward safety, stability, density, and diversity, Jacobs admonished “orthodox” city planners like Robert Moses for designing cities around the needs of automobiles rather than the needs of people, the result of which, she argued, was the creation of unnatural and alienating urban spaces in which inhabitants suffered perpetually from crime, pollution, isolation, and dullness.
Jacobs is equally well known for her community activism, especially her instrumental role in the successful attempt in 1962 to halt Moses’ 100 million-dollar plan to construct the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a massive eight-lane elevated highway that would have extended from the East River to the Hudson River, displacing an estimated 1,972 families and 804 businesses in fourteen blocks of the West Village, SoHo (Hunt).
Jacobs moved to Toronto, Canada in 1968 where she continued her work as an influential activist and author until her death in 2006.
Hunt, Richard P. “Expressway Vote Delayed by City; Final Decision Is Postponed After 6-Hour Hearing.” The New York Times, December 7, 1962. 15 November 2010.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.
“Mrs. Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Comm. to save the West Village holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles Sts.” Photo by Phil Stanziola, December 5, 1961. Library of Congress.
Garden City movement
The Garden City movement was inspired by British urban planner Ebenezer Howard whose manifesto, To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898 (retitled later as Garden Cities of Tomorrow) and initial efforts to plan and build a garden city in England have influenced a number of urban planning movements, including the New Urbanism in the United States.
Although Howard’s vision of the Garden City was not what today we would consider “suburban,” this has been, to a large extent, the outcome of the Garden City movement. Garden Cities were imagined to be a self-sustaining alternative to rural isolation and urban squalor. Residents would be clustered into small, livable satellite communities but would have quick and convenient access to both a central city and a pristine countryside which Howard called “country zones.” Garden cities, as Howard conceived of them, would retain administrative autonomy and a central core that would offer social and cultural services to residents: museums, parks, hospitals, restaurants, and a public park which included a glass arcade called “The Crystal Palace.”
He writes of the Garden City movement, in the opening paragraphs of his manifesto,
Its object is, in short, to raise the standard of health and comfort of all true workers of whatever grade—the means by which these objects are to be achieved being a healthy, natural, and economic combination of town and country life, and this land owned by the municipality. (10)
As population density increased (30,000 being the maximum number of residents in any given Garden City) more cities would emerge, linked together by rapid rail and separated by large swaths of agricultural land.
Howard illustrated his vision of the Garden City with a graphic he called “The Three Magnets,” shown above:
THE PEOPLE. Where will they go?
Closing out of nature. Social opportunity.
Isolation of crowds. Places of amusement.
Distance from work. High money wages.
High rents & prices. Chances of employment.
Excessive hours. Army of unemployed.
Fogs and droughts. Costly drainage.
Foul air. Murky sky. Well-lit streets.
Slums & gin palaces. Palatial edifices.
Lack of society. Beauty of nature.
Hands out of work. Land lying idle.
Trespassers beware. Wood, meadow, forest.
Long hours, low wages. Fresh air. Low rents.
Lack of drainage. Abundance of water.
Lack of amusement. Bright sunshine.
No public spirit. Need for reform.
Crowded dwellings. Deserted villages.
Beauty of nature. Social opportunity.
Fields and parks of easy access.
Low rents, high wages.
Low rates, plenty to do.
Low prices, no sweating.
Field for enterprise, flow of capital.
Pure air and water, good drainage.
Bright homes & gardens, no smoke, no slums.
As outspoken against the Garden City movement as she was of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, Jane Jacobs criticized such “middle-class projects” for their lack of adequate public spaces (like sidewalks) and diversity, all which resulted, she suggests, from urban density. She writes of Garden Cities, “[t]here is no public life here, in the city sense. There are differing degrees of extended private life” (64).
Modern suburbs, considered by many to be the outcome of the Garden City Movement, lack this autonomy or vibrant city center and instead serve as “bedroom communities” for a commuting middle class. Sprawling, low-density “sub-divisions” made up of cookie-cutter single-family homes, strip malls, shopping centers, and fast food chains have led, inevitably, to a dependency on automobiles, so much so that suburbs are often associated not only with boredom, isolation, and a lack of neighborliness, but also traffic, commuter stress, and increased air pollution.
Howard, Ebenezer. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd., 1902. Prelinger Archives.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.
“The Three Magnets.” Illustration. In Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd., 1902. Prelinger Archives.
Le Corbusier’s Radiant City
Le Corbusier (1887-1965), born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, was a Swiss architect, designer, and urban planner known for his high modern architectural style. Le Corbusier’s architectural and urban designs, which were predominated by rigidly geometric uses of steel, concrete, and glass, were initially regarded as a utopian scheme to cleanse and restore urban slums in Europe. However, his designs, including the modern skyscraper, were later criticized, his work being described as soulless, sterile, totalitarian, and needlessly extravagant.
Perhaps most well known for his plan for the “Radiant City,” a city in which people were densely housed in stacked urban apartments, Le Corbusier’s architectural vision has come to be synonymous with the alienating effects of modern urban architecture.
In his 1933 book, La ville radieuse, Le Corbusier outlines his vision for the Radiant City, which would, in his mind, solve the problem of lower class slums and urban housing crises. His vision was influenced strongly by his visits to Manhattan and his observations of the cheap, dirty existence for the city’s urban masses whom he saw as living in chaos and squalor. Le Corbusier was equally disgusted, though, by the suburbs, which he characterized as “broken, dislocated limbs” (92):
The city has been torn apart and scattered in meaningless fragments across the countryside. What is the point of life in such places? How are people to live in them? . . . Suburban life is a despicable delusion entertained by a society stricken with blindness! (92)
His solution to this dual challenge of the overcrowded city and the alienating, dispersing effect of suburbia was to lift life off the street, to seek serenity in the sky.
The Radiant City, as conceived of by Le Corbusier, would be erected on the cleared site of the existing city and would include fifty-meter high pre-fabricated apartment complexes that were suspended above ground on stilts. Next to these densely packed residential units (what Jane Jacobs would later call “elevator apartments”) would be massive cross-shaped concrete and glass skyscrapers which would serve as the commercial center of the city. Beneath the apartments and skyscrapers would be layers of transportation systems, including arterial highways, trains, and subways, but no sidewalks. Situating auto-mobility at the center of his imagined city, Corbusier envisioned a suspended network of roads that would feed automobiles directly into “auto-ports” on the buildings’ lower levels. Pedestrians were kept off the streets, and instead were expected to amble beneath the roadways in ground-level, grassy parks.
Le Corbusier’s utopian dream was inspired by a paternalistic idealism that depended on those who would live in the Radiant City embracing absolute order and rational- ity, yielding to a higher, benevolent authority (in this case, the architect himself), and eschewing the sensual, the unpredictable, and the irrational. To Corbusier, the collective good that would emerge in and from such a perfectly planned environment would promote rather than squelch individual liberties through technology and progress. He wrote,
But we must not forget a second group of basic pleasures: action, participation in collective work, the realization of which by communal effort is an undertaking that represents concrete benefit for all and the elimination of one of the greatest causes of unhappiness amongst the humbler members of society.
These are the supreme joys that each individual can earn by a spiritual or “maternal” participation in working for the collective good.
That is what citizenship is! (Le Corbusier 86)
Architecture was, for Le Corbusier, a mechanism of control and discipline, a way to structure the private lives of the working classes, putting the principles of Taylorism to work at the level of daily life in the modern city.
In this respect, the Radiant City reveals his faith in what Rachel Kennedy calls “the inevitability of capitalist rationality and the aesthetic of the machine.” (Kennedy) As Jane Jacobs wrote of Corbusier in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, his was a vision of social as well as architectural engineering:
Le Corbusier was planning not only a physical environment. He was planning for a social Utopia too. Le Corbusier’s Utopia was a condition of what he called maximum individual liberty, by which he seems to have meant not liberty to do anything much, but liberty from ordinary responsibility. (22)
Le Corbusier’s original vision was, in his own words:
to bring decent living conditions and a light-filled atmosphere to places where everything at the moment is rottenness, filth, milling crowds, din, disorder, delay, fatigue, wear and tear, and demoralization. To create the nobility, the grandeur, the serene dignity made possible by suitable proportions. To provide a sublime expression (the mature fruit of machine-age evolution) of this century’s strength. To bring back the sky. To restore a clear vision of things. Air, light, joy. (128-29)
Although this may sound like a noble plan, his critics were quick to point out that the subtext of this vision of “decent,” “light-filled” urban living, was massive slum clearance, the destruction of existing neighborhoods and communities, and a deliberate incorporation of class hierarchies into the very architecture of the city. Jacobs characterized Le Corbusier’s fantasy city, in its failure to recognize the very people who would be expected to live and work in it, as a “wonderful mechanical toy” (23) and, consequently, utterly lifeless:
[H]is conception, as an architectural work, had a dazzling clarity, simplicity and harmony. It was so orderly, so visible, so easy to understand. It said everything in a flash, like a good advertisement. . . . But as to how a city works, it tells, like the Garden City, nothing but lies. (23)
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.
Kennedy, Rachel. “Le Corbusier and the Radiant City contra True Urbanity and the Earth.” (Jan, 2009).
Le Corbusier. The Radiant City: Elements of a Doctrine of Urbanism To Be Used as the Basis of Our Machine-Age Civilization. 1935. New York: Orion Press, 1964.
“Model of the Plan Voisin for Paris by Le Corbusier displayed at the Nouveau Esprit Pavilion (1925).” 2016. Photo by SiefkinDR. Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA.
Robert Moses (1888-1982) is considered by many to be the most politically influential, non-elected public authority in the history of New York. While some, like Moses biographer Robert Caro, have characterized Moses as a corrupt and opportunistic “power broker,” others, like Kenneth T. Jackson, cast Moses as a “dedicated public servant” who was merely “swimming with the tide of history” (Jackson 70, 68).
Moses began his career in New York government in 1913, but it was in 1924 that his interest in parks, parkways, and urban planning gained momentum. Moses drafted legislation in 1924 to create the Long Island Park Commission and the State Council on Parks. He would become the chairman of both and would hold these positions for much of his career. Ten years later, in 1934, Moses was named as the Commissioner of the New York City Parks Department.
One of his first acts as City Parks Commissioner was to reclaim Flushing Meadows, an industrial ash heap, and repurpose the land for the staging ground of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Under his extensive jurisdiction and during his long career, Moses was responsible for the construction of dozens of parks, parkways, bridges, tunnels, as well as an extensive network of highways in and around New York City. The number and scale of these massive construction projects established Moses’ reputation as the “master builder” of the twentieth century, and as the “shaper of the modern American city.”
In the late 1950s Moses’ power began to slip as he increasingly confronted organized opposition to his “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” campaigns, plans that would displace thousands of people, disrupt established neighborhoods, and destroy communities. According to Owen D. Gutfreund, the tide was turning against Moses and his unflinching commitment to auto-centricity:
In New York, Moses had over the years displayed little sympathy for those who were displaced by his highways, nor had he demonstrated much willingness to listen to those who opposed his projects. On the contrary, his heavy-handed and imperious manner had tarnished his once-gleaming reputation. Moses himself fostered the growth of his own opposition. (93)
This mounting opposition reached its peak in 1962 when local citizens, with help from outspoken community activists like Jane Jacobs, effectively coordinated grass-roots opposition to Moses’ plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway which would have cut through Greenwich Village and parts of what is now SoHo.
Caro, Robert. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Vin- tage, 1975.
Jackson, Kenneth T. “Robert Moses and the Rise of New York: The Power Broker in Perspective.” Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York. Ed. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson. New York: Norton, 2007. 67-71.
Gutfreund, Owen D. “Rebuilding New York in the Auto Age: Robert Moses and His Highways.” Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York. Ed. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson. New York: Norton, 2007. 86-93.
“Sponsor of Battery Bridge.” New York City Park Commissioner Robert Moses poses with a model of the proposed Battery Bridge. 1939. World Telegram & Sun photo by C.M. Stieglitz. Library of Congress.
The Rotolactor was an automated, hands-free milking system engineered by Walker-Gordon Laboratories and displayed at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. A 1931 article in Modern Mechanics magazine reported that the “merry-go-round” milking machine could milk fifty cows in a single twelve-minute rotation: “the cows step in turn upon the platform, receive their baths, and are then connected up with the automatic milking machine. At the end of each revolution the cow steps off the platform and returns unguided to her stall in the cow barn” (51). The milk then passed through a series of tubes before it entered the “lactorium” to be sterilized and bottled.
Another 1931 report in the American Journal of Public Health describes how the Rotolactor’s thoroughly mechanized production process improved both cow and milk hygiene through modern technology:
In operation the cows move from their living quarters into a separate building and a room devoted only to milking. This room is especially equipped and designed with one principal objective—cleanliness. Walls and floors are tiled and kept clean. The air in the building is filtered and washed so that atmospheric conditions are nearly ideal; there is a complete absence of dust and objectionable odors. There can be no doubt of the desirability of such a milking room compared to the compromise conditions which confront milk producers in the usual cow stable where there is a continual struggle between factors of stable hygiene, milk hygiene and cow comfort. (Hardenbergh 895-96)
“‘Rotolactor’ Milks 50 Cows in 12 Minutes.” Modern Mechanics. (Feb. 1931): 51.
Hardenbergh, John G. “Hygienic and Sanitary Features of Milk Production by the Rotolactor Process.” American Journal of Public Health 21.8 (Aug. 1931): 895–897. NIH.
The Rotolactor. Film still from White Ammunition. 1942. Prod. Blake (B.K.) Inc. for Borden’s Farm Products. Film. Prelinger Archives.