“Our complicity in the age
of ‘Cheap’ Oil and Hypermobility”
A Review of
The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway.
By Matt Dellinger.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway.
By Matt Dellinger.
Hardback: Scribner, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Driving back home to Indianapolis from Evansville one night last year, a city in the southwestern most tip of the state, which I’ve only been through this once, I pulled out my Indiana road map to figure out how to get home. It was late, and so I started along the route that looked quickest – not a common choice for me, but there I was. And after just a couple of miles, signs began to appear to tell me that the Interstate was ending. I checked my map, and sure enough, a thick red line stretched all the way to Indianapolis, but it wasn’t here. I realized my mistake, as this was only, as my state-produced map indicated in its margin, the I-69 CORRIDOR, which I knew about only vaguely at the time, mostly from its huge opposition. And so, I took state roads back to Bloomington and on to home, much as I normally would.
I relate this incident because it seems now, as it did then, to indicate the power of an image – in this case a line drawn on a map – as representing a complex set of desires and hopes, beliefs, fears, and narratives about how the world works (or should work). The dream of Interstate 69, reaching from Canada to Mexico, via this route through Indiana, and down through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas, has been in the air for multiple decades now, and its history tells the story of transportation in the States. Matt Dellinger’s Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway starts down in Evansville, and winds down the path of the proposed I-69, meeting its advocates and adversaries all along the way; tracing the routes of rivers, trains, and state roads that all predated the Interstate system; and telling the stories of cities – large and small – that stand to feel the effect if I-69 ever reaches them: what the effect will be is the driving motivation behind anyone interested in the I-69 project, and is telling of broader beliefs about cities, economies, and communities; read this book with an atlas in your other hand.
The earliest character we meet is David Graham, in small Washington, Indiana, whose family has been in those parts for generations, seeing the B&O Railroad put a stop in town, part of the family later manufacturing Graham-Paige automobiles, and David, now retired from the family turkey farm and as chairman of a local bank, in the early 1990’s, was planning, along with a few other southern Hoosiers, the first draft of what would become the I-69 extension, one direct line through North American, or the NAFTA (North American Free-Trade Agreement) Highway. As Graham travels south drumming up support to make this new interstate project not just an Indiana project, but a national one, he meets a cast of folks as excited as he isto get their respective towns along the path of this proposed highway: John D. Caruthers, in Shreveport, Louisiana (“‘Can you imagine Shreveport having north-south and east-and-west interstates and the Red River navigation and a diagonal highway?… It would make the city one of the major distribution centers in the country’”); or Charles Newman, in Memphis, Tennessee ( “a steady stream of FedEx planes descends from the sky, barges steer though a wide bend of the Mississippi River, and freight trains and interstate traffic hum across steel bridges to and from Arkansas”). These are the figures who see Interstate travel as the foundations of an economics of rapid commerce and ever-expanding ‘growth.’
Likewise, we meet those who view this new Interstate proposal as part of a system of ‘cheap’ personal transportation that is hopelessly outdated, and irresponsible: Thomas and Sandra Tokarski, who live on the I-69 Corridor between Bloomington and Evansville (“The idea that the highway might save dying places like Odon and Petersburg was a wish not supported by the state’s own study, they insisted. It was just as likely, if not more so, that some of the communities could become ghost towns after the highway reshuffled jobs and businesses. And these questionable results… would come at a cost of over a billion dollars”); or David and Linda Stall, in Fayette County, Texas, also in the path of the proposed interstate (“the residents of Fayette County were unaware that they had transportation problems”).
All of these people and places are linked through the vision of another Great American Interstate. It comes at a time, though, when questions abound about the sprawl, energy consumption, and placeless-ness that interstates and car culture in general have bred. In a city such as Indianapolis, which has interstates running out in five directions from the urban center, all of which are pushing their exurbs further and further out to the surrounding counties, adding a sixth spoke out along a new southbound I-69 would surely only bolster yet another leg of sprawl, drawing even more resources out from the city. Looking at maps of Indianapolis’ long-since defunct trolley, rain, and Interurban systems, which were extensive, it is easy to see how the construction of our interstates fundamentally changed the shape of the city, emptying the city center. Dellinger writes:
“Just as the building of the interstates changed the face of the country, the establishment of the Highway Trust Fund helped create a uniquely American attitude about highways… Without tolls to pay, Americans grew to love ‘the open road.’ But the popular perception of the ‘freeway’ has impaired the driver’s appreciation for the direct and indirect costs of driving. It hastened the decline of ticketed rail and transit services and encouraged decentralized development across the landscape. It has led to congestion and has made it politically difficult to raise the gas tax – a move that would be an unwelcome reminder that driving costs money” (206).
Interstate 69 tells the story of one highway that may never exist beyond the printed CORRIDOR line on my map, but in its telling, it forms the entire shape of the States’ car culture, from the time it replaced the train, to its current state, where the train is coming ‘round again. Even a simple preference for trains or other modes of mass transportation will still have to face many of the same questions that face this new stretch of I-69 – these vehicles will have to go somewhere. Although Dellinger carefully and graciously tells all the sides of this complicated narrative (the only folks he’s ever hard on are political lobbyists), for many of us Interstate 69 will be a reminder of our complicity in the age of ‘cheap’ oil and hypermobility. In the short time since the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, interstates and two cars in every garage have proven to work against local culture and place-making, giving us instead identical Steak ‘n’ Shakes, Taco Bells, and Speedways at every exit in the Midwest. Interstate 69 suggests just how much our built environments reinforce our practices – the freeways are named that for a reason, after all – but in the present time, it seems opportune to revisit these staples of the American landscape, and consider new (or old) ways to inhabit our places, much along the lines that David Owen has suggested in Green Metropolis… living smaller, closer, and driving less.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com