Agents Of Change


Turner shared the vision of the man he worked for. Dwight Elsenhower, too, championed the system in the context of farm-to-city routes. When Ike once found his limousine stalled by interstate construction outside Washington, he was baffled; he thought the interstates were supposed to stay away from the cities. Elsenhower’s vision had been shaped by the muddy roads of his boyhood and a famous crosscountry Army truck convoy to which he was assigned after World War I. It took the vehicles weeks to make it from coast to coast over dirt roads.

Turner became head of the Federal Highway Administration in 1969—just as a backlash set in. That year a Boston downtown artery was killed in a battle that set a national pattern. Under fire from Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, William Whyte, and others who saw urban highways destroying old neighborhoods, the interstates found themselves effectively brought to a halt. Having conquered mountain ranges, rivers, and swamps, they were being stopped by human forces. Soon no mayor could support a downtown interstate.

Maintenance funding became hard to pry loose from a Congress that preferred cutting ribbons to patching potholes. The system fell for a while into decline, and funds were diverted to mass transit. The era of the building of the interstate system came to an end.

Turner, who had outlived that era, was both bitter and bewildered. He thought vital opportunities were being lost. To tap into the Highway Trust Fund for mass transit offended him morally. He took the word trust literally, he said. He had turned down under-the-table offers from developers for advance word on the location of highways that could have made him rich. And among the people whose homes were razed to make way for the new highways were a couple near I-45 in Texas, his own parents. He privately derided what he called “rabbit transit.” “If you like waiting for elevators, you’ll love rabbit transit,” he would say.

Today, although his monument is often widely criticized as dull to drive and as a homogenizing factor in American life, the interstates’ benefits are so taken for granted as to be beneath the level of consciousness. And there is testimony to their power in the contemporary metaphor for the latest infrastructure dream: information superhighway.

If a national system of wires could provide such benefits as its advocates say, doesn’t that point to the benefits of the national system of roads? Doesn’t all the talk of the wonders of the Internet point implicitly to the wonders of the interstates? There is a neat parallel between Al Gore’s advocacy of the information superhighway and his father’s role in shaping the interstate legislation, questioning and listening to Frank Turner and others. The Vice President recalls as a child being “in the committee room when the signs were made green” on the system.


On the ocean liner Leonardo da Vinci , contemplating the Renaissance artist’s drawings of his Renaissance ideas for organizing traffic systems, Victor Gruen was reconsidering. It was the early sixties, and his great innovation, the covered shopping mall, had become a disappointment to him. He had hoped to bring the amenities of European-style public spaces to Americans, but Americans had taken his ideas and used them as weapons against the very sort of urban life he had sought.


Intellectually Gruen might have felt most at home halfway between Europe and the United States. In July of 1938 he had made the crossing westward on the SS Staatendam , with eight dollars in his pocket and little more than his T square as his luggage. Before that, in Austria, he had championed innovative public housing and other elements of modern architecture’s highminded social program. He had studied with Peter Behrens—the godfather of modernism, teacher of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier—who had declared that ornament was a crime. Gruen had just begun to get good architectural commissions from Vienna department stores when the Anschluss came. He fled to the United States and there created that most American of environments, the mall. It would, he was convinced, help halt suburban sprawl.

The idea was inspired by the markets of medieval Austrian and Swiss towns he had visited on bicycle as a young man and by the stately Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan (whose name was echoed first in a Houston mall and then in gallerias all over the country). But in lesser hands malls came to take on a form that reflected American efficiency and disdain for frills and showcased the amazing power of American marketing.

When it all began, in Minnesota in the mid-fifties, Gruen was dealing with a more immediate problem: balancing the competing claims of two “anchor” department stores. In shopping centers, one anchor was the rule. Gruen responded with a central courtyard equidistant from both stores. The result, Southdale, opened on October 8, 1956. It had a roof because the local climate offered only 126 days of ideal weather a year. “In Southdale Center,” the first ads read, “every day will be a perfect shopping day!”

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Gruen envisioned retail centers as civilizing nodes in the open space of America. But to developers the mall had a different appeal: Covering it with one giant roof meant that construction costs for individual stores could be reduced, making the whole complex cheaper to build.