America’s altered landscapes: a new visual identity

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Emergence of a new economy

During the first half of the twentieth century, the continual expansion of the automobile industry as well as the multiplication of roads forced the American economy to change, adapt, and reshape itself. The country also benefited from this emerging culture and economy. With the growing use and construction of roads came the almost immediate multiplication of roadside businesses, as well as changes in urban landscapes, and a plurality of economic developments. Roads and their economy shaped the country the same way the railroad did a few decades before them: Transportation has always had a dominant role in the American economy. We built canals, railroads, and finally highways in advance of, not in response to, the areas they served. Thus, more than elsewhere, each new system of transportation shaped the economic and social landscape rather than being shaped by it. (Patton 13).
In other words, roads, freeways, and highways were the first steps leading to a new economical empire that soon developed around them. Overall, “[t]he interstate program served practically every large interest in the country, from the automobile industry, with its backsuppliers in steel and coal, to the petroleum and chemical industry, and all levels of government bureaucracy” (Patton 17). But what we are going to focus on is more related to franchises and small businesses rather than such massive industries.
Roadside businesses consequently thrived, and, in suburbs, for example, the number of shops and other facilities revolving around cars and drivers grew exponentially: “Accommodating to the automobile most often required adapting cores to the needs of the car, be it changing the road system or adding gas stations, repair shops, auto parts stores, car washes, and automobile dealerships” (Melosi). An entire economy was, therefore, implanted along highways in order to serve car owners, and to respond to their needs in terms of care and assistance regarding their vehicle and trip. The motel, for instance, became very popular since it was a very accommodating and appreciated stay among drivers who had to stop for the night, not to mention the cultural economy that developed around the concept of the drive-in. More surprising than drive-in cinemas and restaurants were the bank drive-ins that developed quickly all over the country: At first, bankers adopted drive-up convenience as a means of combating downtown traffic congestion. […] Very quickly, however, motoring convenience ruled the day. Given a taste of “dashboard banking,” motorists came to expect and demand it, rendering obsolete bank locations without drive-up windows. After 1950, newly chartered banks in new city suburbs or suburban branches of downtown banks (in states where branch banking was allowed) were invariably constructed with both large parking lots and several drive-up windows. (Jakle and Sculle 207).

America’s altered landscape: a new visual identity

“I had a book with me I stole from a Hollywood stall, ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ by Alain-Fournier, but I preferred reading the American landscape as we went along.” (Kerouac 93) So far, we have mostly mentioned identity in relation to what could be considered as immaterial and conceptual (personal identity, values), but America’s identity was also physically visible from the outside. To fully tackle the subject of identity, a few words must be said on America’s landscapes, its visual identity, whether it be rural or urban, and the way the presence of roads also influenced this aspect. One question we might ask ourselves is: what did America look like in the 1950s and 1960s? The answer would probably not vary much from what we would reply today: America was the addition of different landscapes, from countryside and small towns to mountain ranges and big cities, all linked to one another by one single thread: the road.
Roads were such an important feature in American life at the time, with all the economy and culture developing around them, that they also became a visual element constructing and participating to the country’s physical appearance. Highways themselves developed an identity of their own: Each state highways system tend[ed] to have a visual personality of its own. The design of roadways and roadside, signage, rest areas, and picnic grounds all share[d] a certain commonality. Quite unforgettable, for example, [were] the sculpture gardens that gladden[ed] the motorist’s heart alongside rest stops for Nebraska’s interstate highways. (Conzen 355) Roads had their particularities which made them recognizable for drivers. This shaping of highways was also emphasized by American engineers, who helped roads develop their own personality: [e]ngineers liked to boast about their landscaping of the superhighways as “the nation’s largest park”; and in many places the landscaping was lovely, with groupings of trees and bushes, vast extents of grass or ground cover. Some states and highway authorities began systematic programs to disperse wildflower seeds along their thoroughfares. (Patton 138) These visual aspects and possible identification of highways depending on what they looked like also made some American routes (and, therefore, areas) recognizable from the sky: The highway also set up patterns to be read from the air and from a distance on the ground. Long after the pavement is gone, the four-hundred-foot cliff of the cut on I-40 along the Pigeon River in North Carolina or the huge slope of the Interstates of the Rockies will survive as features of the land. (Patton 137).

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Impacts and damages on urban and rural landscapes

The addition of thousands of new miles of roads throughout the country – especially after President Eisenhower’s 1956 Interstate Highway Act aiming at the construction of close to 66,000 kilometers (Weingroff) – negatively impacted the country’s physical appearance.
Roads were modern, practical, and economically profitable, but they were also highly destructive. Highways were used as devastating tools in cities so as to eradicate some neighborhoods that were considered as bothersome. This practice mostly impacted the poorest communities and also served racist purposes as these communities were very often either Hispanic or African American (Patton 104). As Alana Semuels explains in her article “The Role of Highway in American Poverty,” the concept was simple: “[…] if they put the highway in just the right place, it would allow the city to use federal funds to eradicate what they called a slum area in the center city.” In the same article she takes the example of the city of Syracuse and its 15th Ward neighborhood: They worried about race riots because so many people were crowded into the neighborhood and prevented from going anywhere else. They decided that the best plan would be to tear down the 15th Ward and replace it with an elevated freeway. The completion of the highway, I-81, which ran through the urban center, had the same effect it has had in almost all cities that put interstates through their hearts. It decimated a close-knit African American community. And when the displaced residents from the 15th Ward moved to other city neighborhoods, the white residents fled. It was easy to move. There was a beautiful new highway that helped their escape.

Table of contents :

List of illustrations
A) Expression and development of personal identity
1. The individual’s relationship with the road: the road to personal quests
2. Teenagers: central actors
3. A non-inclusive place: inaccessibility of the myth depending on personal identity
B) The country’s identity
1. Expression of American values and experience
2. Emergence of a new economy
3. America’s altered landscapes: a new visual identity
C) Landscape and societal changes
1. Impacts and damages on urban and rural landscapes
2. Car culture and the American lifestyle
A) American culture trying to identify the road
1. Car crash songs: depiction of the road as a danger
2. Feminine representation and characterization
3. Centrality: the road as a (main) character?
B) The arts trying to incorporate the road
1. The perfect setting
2. A means to an artistic end
3. Inclusion and what it says about American identity
C) The road today and what remains of these two decades
1. Road trip culture: re-emergence of the phenomenon
2. Relationship between contemporary arts and the road
3. Nostalgia: tourism and the return of old customs


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