Picture a field of dirt, piled knee high, that covers an area the size of Connecticut, or imagine a concrete sidewalk extending a million miles into space. You will have envisioned, Tom Lewis tells us, the amount of earth moved and the amount of concrete poured to make America's interstate highway system, a network of roads planned far back in the 19th century but completed only a few years ago. The public's view of the interstate system, Lewis writes, has been colored in recent decades by the grim realities of gridlock, smog, and road rage. In their early years, however, these highways seemed to promise the freedom of the open road, a gateway to faraway coasts. Lewis does a fine job of conveying the grandeur of the project, the largest work of civil construction ever undertaken by a democratic power.
Lewis's narrative is peopled with largely unknown figures, among them the little-heralded but critically important engineer Harris MacDonald. MacDonald turned the federal Bureau of Public Roads into a powerful force of social as well as physical engineering and paved the way for the large-scale projects of the Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations. Lewis, a well-traveled explorer on the byways of technological progress, extends his history well into the past. He describes the building of the first national and post roads, the great parkways that connected such far-flung cities as Winnipeg and Miami, the once rural roads that, over the decades, blossomed into multilane highways--a process that has always depended on what Lewis calls "Americans' faith in technocracy" and their will to shape the future, acre by acre. --Gregory McNamee
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Kirkus Reviews
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 clichs 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 African- Americans (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. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.