Academic journal article The Geographical Review

American Roads, Roadside America

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

American Roads, Roadside America

Article excerpt

Not only is the Road one of the great human institutions because it is fundamental to social existence, but also because its varied effect appears in every department of the State. It is the Road which determines the sites of many cities and the growth and nourishment of all. It is the Road which gives its frame-work to all economic development. It is the Road which is the channel of all trade and, what is more important, of all ideas. In its most humble function it is a necessary guide without which progress from place to place would be a ceaseless experiment; it is a sustenance without which organized society would be impossible; thus . . . the Road moves and controls all history.

- Hilaire Belloc, The Road, 1923

The point is to drive. All this creates a new experience of space, and, at the same time, a new experience of the whole social system. All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behaviour. Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together.

- Jean Baudrillard, America, 1989

Although more than six decades separate these epigraphs, they reinforce one another. Hilaire Belloc's road begins as a geographical entity, a linear route of passage linking settlements to resources and enabling circulation, interchange, and the flow of ideas from place to place. This road harbors spatial, historical, and social dimensions. It is the basis for "civilized" modern existence. Jean Baudrillard's road is a window into the soul of an America that has embraced mass production and the resulting mass consumption. To understand what America has become, one should study the road and the kinds of places and behaviors it has nurtured. The road is a trope for social and economic life in the United States; it reflects what Americans hold to be important and central to our being.

Great, long-distance roads have powerfully influenced the process whereby people shape places and conduct their lives. Historically, people moving along such a road carried commodities and ideas and distributed them along its length. Travelers incorporated images, impressions, and ideas from the settlements and countryside they encountered on and along the road and found that what they learned about distant places invested them with the authority of knowledge. And, because influence was seen to derive at least in part from familiarity with outside phenomena, those who wished to acquire such influence had to travel to learn about things and places outside (Helms 1988, 12-13). Together, the road and the roadside became a didactic marketplace where knowledge - in its largest sense - could be delivered or exchanged.

The roadside is always created after the road itself, and the manner of travel along the road influences the pattern the roadside will follow. The roadside, however, reciprocally enables travel along the road - as wayside inns and taverns accommodated nineteenth-century travelers, for example. Therefore, we must recognize that the geographical, social, and political processes that underwrite the making and use of both roads and roadsides are interrelated. One provides context for the other, so neither can be defined, described, or understood in isolation.

The road and the countryside linked to it by direct or visual access constitute a cultural landscape that is never value free. Both in the selection of its character - direction, destination, capacity, and visual qualities, among many others - and in the manner in which people choose to represent it, the landscape of the road captures and mediates social and political relationships of the human world (Daniels and Cosgrove 1988, 1).

Roads are as much social as physical constructions. Road building requires the will of a polity and the collaboration of laborers; the scale of the project is beyond any individual undertaking. …

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