"DIVIDED HIGHWAYS: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life" by Tom Lewis

"DIVIDED HIGHWAYS: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life"

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Similar to his Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (not reviewed), Lewis (English/Skidmore Coll.) has written a tie-in to a PBS documentary (set to air in October) that traces a ubiquitous institution and how it altered everything in its path. Covering more than 42,000 miles, the Interstate Highway System is the longest engineered structure in the world. Dwight Eisenhower discovered once that the cause of the city traffic in which he found himself was the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, which he had signed as a Cold War military necessity and employment driver. In his inability to foresee the bill's consequences, Eisenhower typified the pioneers of the road system. In their technocratic expertise and lack of human relations skills, they took their cues from influential predecessors, such as the incorruptible and intimidating Thomas Harris MacDonald, who as chief of the Federal Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 to 1953 ""did as much as Henry Ford or Alfred Sloan to put America on wheels,"" according to Lewis. While Lewis is not always careful with his facts (e.g., the first enclosed shopping mall was built in 1956, not in 1947 as he claims) and sometimes employs clichâs about suburban sterility, he usefully notes that the system did not result merely from a conspiracy of unions, auto associations, and builders, but also expressed Americans' deepest yearnings for ""speed, and space, and privacy."" The interstates promoted the fortunes of AfricanAmericans (who previously had to ride southern back roads where they were at the mercy of bigots) and women (who used the interstates to break free of social restraints), and boosted entrepreneurs like McDonald's Ray Kroc. Yet the interstates also fostered enough noise pollution, urban decline, and railroad deterioration to spark opposition. While not aspiring to be definitive, Lewis offers a bright, lively account of the greatest public works project in US history.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Viking