The Twin Swords
America’s cities were cut down with roads paved of dubious intentions. Now, with a chance to correct one of our most destructive legacies, will we rise to meet the challenge?
3,000 men marched in a melange of military & civilian uniforms along the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan. Led by the calvary of New York City’s Police Force, these men weren’t going into battle, at least not in the traditional sense. After a raft of self-congratulatory speeches and requisite ribbon cuttings, the troops ascended the West Side Highway. Begun in 1929, with its first section completed in 1930, the West Side opened on November 13th as the first elevated expressway in the world.
Celebrations were in order for this global first. The roadway marked a triumph over a stretch of Eleventh Avenue, which had been known as Death Avenue for the chaos of its surface level trains, horses, pedestrians and other vehicles that all too often collided into one another. Cool as they were, New York’s Cowboys were only a temporary solution to Death Avenue’s danger, a vestige of the past that would soon make way for the modern world.
The West Side’s completion was important not just for its physical triumph over chaos, but for the symbolism of it. It marked the beginning of the subjugation of cities and people to cars. Inspired by New York’s success, the earliest mention of a national Interstate System was described in a 1939 report from the Bureau of Public Roads entitled Toll Roads and Free Roads. Momentum continued with 1944’s Federal-Aid Highway Act, which framed the allocation of funds “after the war” for the development of a 40,000 mile system.
Euphoric after victory in World War II, attention was directed towards the home front. With National Defense top of mind, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 into law, which provided $25 billion (~$250 billion in 2021 dollars) in funds for the construction of 41,000 miles of highways. As the lore goes, the system was inspired by Eisenhower’s 1919 trip with the U.S. Army’s first transcontinental motor…