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The Big Roads Big Review

I decided to set off on my literary journey of The Big Roads with an open mind and my Pennsylvania Turnpike bookmark.  It seemed fitting considering I was reading a book about the Interstate System, and the Turnpike was one of the earliest segments of it that was completed.

When I say “an open mind” it is because I was a bit skeptical approaching reading this book. The reason being is there are many in the Pennsylvania Highways Library on the history of the Interstates.  However, in the Introduction, author Earl Swift hooked me with his description of the trip across the country which he took to research The Big Roads.  As part of that trip, he came through the southern portion of the Commonwealth on the historic Lincoln Highway.  Earl, his daughter, and a friend of hers stayed on the Lincoln through Buckstown to Ligonier and eventually onto Pittsburgh “…crawling from one stoplight to the next…”  Unfortunately, that is a realistic description of travel down US 30 through Westmoreland and Allegheny counties!

The book takes readers on a journey, with a focus on persons who made the transition happen. Starting with Carl Fisher, a businessman in Indianapolis, who began his career selling bicycles. He then moved onto the “horseless carriage.”  To demonstrate the power of the car, he built a racetrack outside Indianapolis. Once it was repaved with brick, the power of the automobile could be exhibited in the way he intended.  He also got into the road-building business by backing the creation of the Lincoln Highway and its north-south counterpart the Dixie Highway.

Along the way, author Swift introduces us to Thomas Harris MacDonald. Mr. MacDonald started his career in roads in Iowa by laying out their system. Then the Feds tapped him to do the same on a national scale.  We also meet Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in 1919 as a young Army officer, got a yearning for good roads after a cross-country trip on the Lincoln Highway and who, just under three decades later, would experience really good roads — just not on this continent.

The one good road, whose idea and planning came from those Ike saw in Germany which were the forerunner of the Interstate System, was our very own Pennsylvania Turnpike. Just as safety was an impetus for the construction of the Interstates, the Turnpike was constructed to provide a safer alternative than the windy, mountainous, and narrow US 30. That was the primary route between Pittsburgh and the Mid-State area at the time.

Once Eisenhower got into the White House, he pushed for the need for high-speed, limited-access highways such as the Autobahn his military used to speed across Germany en route to Berlin.  He did not need to look far for ideas. The Bureau of Public Roads had drawn up plans for such expressways, albeit tolled, while Ike was Supreme Commander in World War II.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same” is a saying that often rings true.  When talking about the debate Congress had over the Federal Aid Highway Act, it rings like Big Ben at high noon.  Some legislators came out in favor of the plan. Others like Senator Albert Gore, the inventor of the Internet’s father, argued that it “…could lead the country to inflationary ruin.”  Senator Harry Byrd said that “…nothing has been proposed during my twenty-two years in the United States Senate that would do more to wreck our fiscal budget system.”  I’d hate to see what the “talking heads” on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News would have said had those channels existed at the time.

The Big Roads is not just a reflection on how the highway system of the country changed, but how the country itself changed.  The Interstates allowed the movement of goods and people in a short amount of time. They did so safely without the worry of cross-streets, traffic signals, stop signs, or rail crossings; and all but eliminated head-on accidents in a uniform, monotonous drive devoid of local flavor.  They also allowed for the growth of cities by pushing the suburbs farther out. This helped in the creation of satellite cities along beltways and bypasses.  However, their paths into and through the cities would be a double-edged sword.

As I said in the beginning, I have other books on the Interstates and wondered how this book would differ.  My answer would come in the final chapters of the book.  The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 came into being just before the tumultuous 1960s. It was this period when the struggle for civil rights would reach its pinnacle.  Urban Interstate routes were once seen as a way to rejuvenate the nation’s cities while at the same time clearing out undesirable sections.  The problem was that those undesirable sections contained people. They did not want to lose their homes just so suburbanites could get downtown quicker.

One such person was a man by the name of Joe Wiles. Mr. Wiles lived in the Rosemont section of Baltimore which was under attack by Interstate 70.  Mr. Wiles led a revolt against construction of I-70, which was both successful and unsuccessful.  His revolt had been initially successful when its planned route through the City of Baltimore cancelled. However, it was also unsuccessful because discussions of the impending expressway doomed Rosemont to neglect. Ironically, it had become the type of area that would be favorable as an Interstate corridor.

Black neighborhoods seemed to be under attack across the country. From Nashville where Interstate 40 was planned to isolate about 100 blocks from the City, to here in Pennsylvania where Interstate 695 in Philadelphia, known as the Crosstown Expressway, was to sequester black neighborhoods from Center City.  These seemed like classic examples of white men’s roads going through black men’s homes.

Interstate 695 through South Philadelphia was one proposed Interstate discussed in "The Big Roads."
Interstate 695 between the Schuylkill Expressway through South Philadelphia to Interstate 95 would have been the Crosstown Expressway. The segment shown on the map was proposed as the Cobbs Creek Expressway.

Those other books in the Library only talk about the positive aspects of the Interstates. They hardly discuss the turmoil they caused as they carved their way across the country.  I admire that Mr. Swift mentioned the issues of the urban routes through Baltimore, for example.  When I write about the history of a route, I, too, mention the negatives in addition to the positives; and I am glad to see a publication which does the same.

In conclusion, I would recommend The Big Roads. It is a well-rounded look at how we have progressed from roads that were narrow, dirt paths to today’s wide, concrete expressways.  It makes for a good read, especially stuck in traffic on one of the Interstates.

If you would like to purchase a copy, drive over to the Pennsylvania Highways Bookstore.

 
Categories
Events News

The World Comes to the Commonwealth

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in May that the next G-20 Summit would be held in Pittsburgh. As a result, there was more than a few laughs from the White House Press Corp.  And why not, what does anyone there know about finance and banking or surviving an economic downturn?  After all, it is an area where people pay a fair market value for a house.  How quaint! However, the world came to discuss all of the above.

The reason President Obama chose the “City of Champions” was due to visiting the area during the 2008 campaign.  He saw how it changed from a center of steel to one with a more varied economic base. One focused on medicine, finance, and high-tech industries.  Fortunately, the industrial fore-fathers of the city were not misers and gave back to their community in the form of libraries and universities. These were the crutches by which Pittsburgh could pull it self up by its bootstraps and start over.

Leaders from around the world began arriving on Wednesday. This prompted rolling roadblocks on the Parkway West between Pittsburgh International Airport and Downtown.  The motorcades passed through the US 22/US 30-PA 60 interchange project. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 partially funded the work. Passage of the ARRA was to dig (no pun intended) the country out of the global recession. The topic of which would be the focus of the next two days.

While the leaders of the 20 largest economies and the European Union were arriving, so were the protesters. Members of Greenpeace repelled off the West End Bridge. They displayed a banner protesting the lack of attention paid to the environment by these leaders.  Arrests took place at the Fort Pitt Bridge where five others tried to do the same.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl deputized 1,000 men and women. They came from police departments as far away as Miami and as close as Johnstown. In addition to National Guardsmen and state police troopers, they made up a force of more than 3,000 officers.

The world’s leaders had an easier time getting around the city than the locals.  Only residents with a driver’s license with a Downtown address, delivery trucks (with deliveries made between 5 AM and 7 AM), taxis, hotel shuttles, armored cars, ACCESS vehicles, and medical suppliers could continue into the Golden Triangle.  Three police checkpoints were established. The locations were Smithfield Street Bridge at PA 837/West Carson Street, Fifth Avenue at Ross Street, and the Roberto Clemente Bridge at Isabella Street. However, motorists could exit anywhere.  Meanwhile, barricades closed ramps from Interstate 279, Interstate 376, and Interstate 579 and other bridges and streets.

The two-day summit went off without a hitch. Pittsburgh was able to do something no other city could: host a blood-less G-20.  Only 193 arrests took place, a few minor fires happened, and some minor damage to stores occurred.  The nearly 6,000 law enforcement personnel outnumbered the 5,000 protesters who had come to the city. Needless to say, crime dropped steeply. On the other hand, so did the need for EMTs. For instance, at times every ambulance in the city sat idle!  Thousands of police vehicles, driven by mostly out-of-towners, managed to navigate the maze of city streets without a single accident. That was perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of the two days.

Leaders of the 20 largest economies in the world came to discuss matters in Pittsburgh.

VisitPittsburgh hopes that the G-20 Summit helps tourism and attracting conventions.  It did raise interest on the global stage. As a result of the summit, the city was awarded another international event.  Pittsburgh will be the North American host city for the 2010 United Nations World Environment Day.  Meanwhile, perhaps the highest praise came from the Italian-born songwriter, singer, former model, and the current French First Lady. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy said, “I think I wish I could stay a little longer because we only stay one-and-a-half days.”

She added, “But I think it’s beautiful.” I don’t think VisitPittsburgh could have asked for a better spokeswoman in the world.

 

 

Categories
General

It’s a Road, Charlie Brown!

I’ve always enjoyed the comic strip “Peanuts” and the gang, and watching the yearly specials that air around the holidays.  I even had a dog named Snoopy, but he already had that name before my family adopted him. Not to mention, when I was little, he was by my side when I played out in my parents’ back yard. Since Charles Schulz retired from drawing the daily comic strip featuring Charlie Brown and the gang in 2000, I now get a daily Peanuts comic strip via e-mail. So when this one popped into my inbox, it definitely hit close to home. It’s as if it should have been one of the many specials that have been broadcast over the years. Perhaps its title could have been It’s a Road, Charlie Brown. Just throwing it out to see if it sticks!

The strip that arrived in my e-mail today originally appeared in newspapers on October 19, 1959.  Much like most little boys, I liked to play in the dirt with my toy trucks. Either building roads out of mud or repairing mud roads, mimicking what I saw in the real world.

Let me tell you, there was plenty to mimic back in the 1980s in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Penn-Lincoln Parkway reconstruction project was winding down just as construction was beginning on the Parkway North. Then of course there was the usual construction work that took place from year-to-year.

With my interest in roads, I’d usually end up “building” or “repairing” one made of mud. My dog, Snoopy, would usually be the first to use my mud road. You could tell by the definite paw prints in the newly poured roadway.

Linus is playing in the dirt in a strip that could be called "It's a Road, Charlie Brown."

Since it was 1959, I wonder if Linus is “building” one of those new Interstates people were talking about.

Peanuts – GoComics

 
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