The Motorcar vs. America

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Last summer I returned to my alma mater for the first time in thirty-seven years. The girls with skirts up to their bottoms and the young men made up for an opera with a cast of Balkan banditti or for the Last Supper were novel, decidedly. But what stunned me was the revolution the motorcar had wrought. Gone was the repose, gone the quiet in which reflection takes place, gone any feeling in the air that thought might be important, gone the sense of human community. The Harvard of old was now a collection of diminished and somehow shabby fragments separated by rivers of vehicular traffic. Bumper to bumper, flank to flank, the cars filled the streets, exhausts panting, motors roaring on the change of lights, horns blaring. Trucks and buses yowled and rumbled. Everything seemed incidental to the motorcar, to its racket and din, to its acrid stench, to the tempo of its acceleration, to the tension it engendered, to its power to crush flesh and bone. Which were the drivers and which the driven? If the students, obscurely but profoundly aware of the denigration of human values in the society they saw around them, were difficult to keep in order, we had no right to be surprised.

But of course Cambridge, Massachusetts, was no different from any other segment of urban America. It was simply that on returning I had been transported in minutes from 1932 to 1969. And the juxtaposition was too much. “Let me out of here,” I said to myself, “and don’t let me ever come back!”

But I have not been alone in this urge, which is the real point. By the millions the city dwellers have been getting out—to the suburbs. The congested streets on which traffic is slower than half a century ago; the danger to life in crossing them, especially to the lives of children; the pall of hydrocarbons; the torrent of noise (the truck routes through Manhattan at three A.M. sound like Panzer divisions on the move); the lack of a sense of space; the loss of peace of mind; the sheer oppression of the spirit under the weight of the endless spectacle of cars—all that and more have been behind the exodus. And the emigrants have been the people of substance who pay taxes and who, having a stake in the proprietorship of the city, could have been expected to fight to preserve it, had they stayed.

The damage the emigrants do by their departure they compound by the manner of their return. For as most of them are wage earners, return they must, every morning. And as far as feasible, or in the absence of choice, they come by the means that offers door-to-door convenience—the motorcar. Because they pour back into the city by the hundreds of thousands, giant freeways are called for. Picture a bulldozer a hundred feet wide levelling everything in its path through the city’s outskirts and the city itself and you have the coming of an autobahn—Herr Hitler’s one durable legacy. The city suffers a further shrinkage of its tax base as residences and businesses are shovelled out of the way. (In Washington, D.C., for example, where streets and highways already pre-empt 30 per cent of the land, it was estimated a few years ago that additional freeway projects on the drawing boards would cost the city six million dollars a year in lost revenues.)

For an urban freeway the toll of those displaced from their homes can run into the thousands, and since these are generally the poorer inhabitants, who have difficulty relocating, the result can be mass tragedy. (A stretch of freeway but little over a mile long proposed for lower Manhattan would destroy two thousand homes and ten thousand jobs, Jane Jacobs has charged.) The fabric of neighborhoods is torn, the city dismembered by raceways on which the roar of traffic is never stilled; four million cars a day race along the freeways of Los Angeles County, pouring enough fumes into the atmosphere to kill more than a million trees in San Bernardino National Forest sixty miles away. Parks that help make a city livable offer the highway engineer tempting rights of way: Juneau Park in Milwaukee, Overton Park in Memphis, Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, a park along Brandywine Creek in Wilmington, a whole system of green areas in San Antonio, including Brackenridge and Olmos Basin parks, have been or are evidently going to be gutted by freeways, while many others are under threat, including Washington’s Glover-Archbold Park and Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Park.

To accommodate the commuters’ cars, the city’s less profitable structures, and especially those centrally located, are turned over to the wrecker, and these are likely to include buildings that have been around longest and speak of the city’s continuity and give it personality. (See, for example, the story on the destruction of the historic Amoskeag mills in Manchester, New Hampshire, in AMERICAN HERITAGE , April, 1970.) Where they stood, the light glints on acres of enamelled car tops ; Los Angeles, where an estimated two thirds of the downtown area is already devoted to the transit and parking of automobiles, gives a taste of what is in store for all cities. More than ever it is clear who is boss.