1956: The Roads That Changed America: Suburbia, Shopping Malls, Fast Food, and Drive-In Everything-The Interstate Highway System Gave Birth to Much of American Life as We Know It

By Roberts, Sam | New York Times Upfront, November 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

1956: The Roads That Changed America: Suburbia, Shopping Malls, Fast Food, and Drive-In Everything-The Interstate Highway System Gave Birth to Much of American Life as We Know It


Roberts, Sam, New York Times Upfront


In 1919, a young army officer named Dwight D. Eisenhower led a cross-country military convoy on the narrow, barely paved buggy paths that passed in those days for America's highways. It took him 44 days, at an average speed of 6 mph, to get from coast to coast.

More than two decades later, when he was Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower saw firsthand how quickly enemy troops could get around on Germany's highways, or autobahns, which Adolf Hitler had built in the 1930s.

Both experiences had a profound effect on Eisenhower, and in 1956, as President, he presided over the creation of the Interstate Highway System.

Fifty years and 47,000 miles of highway later, it's clear that the interstate program did much more than make travel easier. It ended up transforming the nation, giving us suburbia, shopping malls, fast food, and much of the America we know today.

Before the automobile, Americans rarely traveled long distances. And when they did, most went by train.

But by 1930, as a result of the mass production of modestly priced, reliable automobiles, more than half of American families owned a car.

The proliferation of cars and the availability of cheap gasoline spurred demands for a government road-building program after World War II ended in 1945. But it wasn't until 1956 that the federal government agreed to pay for most of it, in part due to Eisenhower's enthusiasm for the project.

It was the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the President saw the massive road-building effort not only as a matter of national defense, but also as a boon to the economy. He signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act on June 29, 1956. (In 1991, the interstate system was named the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.)

OUT TO THE SUBURBS

The interstates built in the following decades, marked by distinctive crest-shaped blue-and-red signs (see box, p. 18), had profound effects on an America in which people suddenly were a lot less constrained by geography.

One of the biggest changes was the explosion of the suburbs--and the decline of the cities they surrounded.

Built, in part, to evacuate cities in case of nuclear attack, the interstates enabled millions of middle-class, mostly white residents of cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and New York to escape to greener pastures. Many were veterans using low-interest mortgages from the G.I. Bill to buy their first homes in suburbs that seemed to sprout overnight in what had been wheat and potato fields. The American Dream became a house with a yard and a two-car garage, and the interstates filled with commuters who spent their days at work but headed home to the suburbs at night.

The change in culture was reflected on television. On I Love Lucy in 1957, Ricky and Lucy and Little Ricky--the quintessential city family--packed up their apartment in New York and moved to the Connecticut suburbs.

FAST-FOOD NATION

Entire new industries developed to serve commuters and long-distance travelers, including chain motels like Howard Johnson's and Holiday Inn, and of course, McDonald's and other fast-food purveyors. (The first McDonald's franchise opened in 1955 in Des Plaines, Ill.; there are now nearly 14,000 in the U.S.)

As time went on, suburban life became more separate from that of the city. Shopping centers and huge malls were built, as department stores followed their customers to their new homes, further draining business activity from struggling downtowns.

Some of the highways cut right through cities like Chicago, destroying neighborhoods and making cities even less-desirable places to live.

"First, we moved our homes out past the traditional idea of what constituted a city. This was the suburbanization of America, especially after World War II," Washington Post reporter Joel Garreau has written. …

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