Friday, October 23, 2015

Thinkin' Like It's 1959

Today's interstate highway system really got its start with passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. There were earlier stabs at building limited access divided highways, but the '56 law got the ball rolling in a big way on the nationwide system we love to complain about today. It was a grand experiment on a continental scale. One of the most radical pieces of the experiment was the idea of razing entire neighborhoods to plow the new mega structures into and through the hearts of cities like Little Rock and North Little Rock. People and communities were forcefully relocated in order to make room for futuristic swaths of concrete that would carry us in our private automobiles between fast-developing bedroom suburbs and the work centers downtown.

Portland, OR. (Museum of the City)

Now as the material underlying one of the early urban freeways in central Arkansas nears the end of its useful life, the busy bees at the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department are preparing to rebuild around seven miles of it at a direct cost of $500-$700 million. Some projections already put the medium-term costs at $4 BILLION to deal with the increased traffic and new bottlenecks resulting from the downtown I-30 enlargement.

Sitting on the cusp of an expenditure totaling over $4 billion essentially rebuilding a system that originated in a grand 1950s-era experiment should put one in a contemplative mood. Slipping into just such a mental state today got me to wondering: did people in the 1950s have any ideas that later turned out to be bad? Hmm... let's see...

Asbestos filters for cigarettes:

For reals? For reals. (Stanford School of Medicine)
Yes, amazingly this was a thing. The marketers called it Micronite. The chemists called it crocidolite asbestos. Lots of unsuspecting people died. We now call it nuts.

Piling an entire neighborhood worth of kids into the back of a station wagon:

Looks like fun. (Cruello)

Twinge of nostalgia for bygone, simpler times? Sure. Ok, maybe. A good model for parents arranging kids in a car today? No way.

Flying huge jets in the skies above us with OPERATING NUCLEAR REACTORS inside:

Yep, that's an atom in the circle (Wikipedia)
Nukes on a plane! And not just bombs, but FUNCTIONING, BUBBLING, RADIATION-EMITTING REACTORS! Some engineers and military types caught a severe infection of 1950s-hubris-itis and came up with the hackneyed notion that we could actually power a jet plane with nuclear power. Better living through fission and whatnot. The upshot would be weeks-long non-stop flying missions to keep our bombs in a constant state of easy droppiness near the Ruskies. The downside was... you know... mf nukes on a mf plane, man! (apologies to nsfw Samuel Jackson) The really cray-cray part of the whole 'idea' is that these fools made a working prototype and flew dozens of hours of airborn tests to see how little lead they could get away with installing to protect the flight crew from the NUCLEAR REACTOR sitting just feet behind them. You have to wonder if Al Hubbard got to these guys. Seriously.  #DuckandCover

Massive swaths of high-rise public housing 

Pruitt-Igoe in the beginning (Law Professors Blog Network)
Pruitt-Igoe in the end (Designerly Thinking)
So much money. So many good intentions. (well, not really, in many cases) So much failed experiment. 'Hey guys, I've got an idea! Let's destroy some neighborhoods where the marginalized live, build bleak single-use high-rises that further isolate the poor and powerless from where we live, give the residents time to develop a deep sense of community despite the challenges of their new surroundings, neglect them, and finally decide to tear the buildings down again, further uprooting the communities.' Rinse. Repeat.


Once the law of the land. (UGA Law Library)
When the Eisenhower-era government slide rule experts were hatching their grand plans for our interstate highway system and its radically disruptive urban segments, their office water fountains might have looked like this. Actually, on second thought, the office water fountains probably didn't need any labels. The maintenance facilities' probably did. [Now in 2015 with 35 trips around the sun under my belt, it is unfathomable to me that this level of profound injustice existed at a time closer to my birth than where we sit today. A huge chorus was screaming out in the 1950s against this type of fundamental wrong-ness, and we eventually came around as a nation to recognize it together. I do not intend to minimize the scale of this problem by listing it in the same passage as nuclear powered jets. But, it's a good example of how far we've come, despite the clear evidence that we still have far to go.]


So, what's the point of all this? Of course I know that there were plenty of good ideas developed in the 1950s (hula hoops, woot woot!). But, we have to put the origins of our interstate system into context, especially the parts that plunge through neighborhoods and civic centers and potentially productive, valuable land. Urban interstates were an experiment, and we have to be cognizant of the very real possibility that they were a failed experiment that we need to move on and grow from. It might cause some short-term consternation, and it might not be quite as obvious as our collective evaluation of asbestos, nucular aeroplanes, toting kids around at 55 mph with no provisions for safety, public housing high rises, and racial segregation. But, by ignoring the problem and just going along with business as usual, we're setting ourselves up to having to live with the mistake for another half century. Let's not do that.

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