As someone who grew up near the intersection of the Lincoln Highway and historic Route 66, the Mother Road, and as someone who has driven hundreds of thousands, maybe a million or two miles of American roads, I was curious this past week when I learned just hours before it was to be broadcast that PBS was showing 10 Streets that Changed America.
“Discover how streets have connected the nation, divided communities, and changed the way Americans live, work, and shop,” PBS said in its news release.
For the record, here are the 10 streets featured, presented as in the broadcast in chronological order:
• Broadway, New York City
• Boston Post Road, Boston to New York City
• St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans
• The National Road, Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois
• Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York
• Woodward Avenue, Detroit
• Lincoln Highway, New York to San Francisco
• Greenwood Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma
• Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles
• Kalamazoo Mall, Kalamazoo, Michigan
New to me were the stories of St. Charles Avenue, the Eastern Parkway and Greenwood Avenue, and Woodward Avenue was featured for a reason I didn’t expect.
To recount why the streets were included in the program:
• Broadway, based on the Native American trading route north along the ridge of Manhattan Island, was the first street with mass transit. It was interesting to learn that the Dutch, the first immigrants to settle on the island, built a wall at the south end of the trail (think Wall Street) to keep out the British.
• The Boston Post Road was the mail route that carried the written fire that ignited the American revolution.
• St. Charles Avenue led overcrowded New Orleans residents to Carrollton and was built for a commuter railroad system.
• The National Road was the first such infrastructure project paid for by the federal government, and passed through several state capitols, ending what was then the capitol of Illinois.
• The Eastern Parkway was built as a tree-lined urban oasis and part of a proposed Brooklyn green belt.
• Woodward Avenue was the first modern highway — with the first paved mile, the first 3-color traffic lights, and the first to provide room for 8 lanes of automobiles.
• The Lincoln Highway launched the nation’s eagerness for road trips.
• Greenwood Avenue, while literally on the other side of the tracks, was home to a prosperous African-American business center that was burned to the ground in 1921 when angry white residents stormed in and killed somewhere between 30 and 300 people. The area later was further obliterated by the interstate system.
• Wilshire Boulevard provided car-accessible shopping and buildings designed to make drivers want to stop and see — and to shop. It inspired the phenomenon of the shopping mall.
• Kalamazoo Mall was an experiment in 1959 that closed downtown streets to cars in hopes of restoring the traditional downtown shopping area. More than 200 cities copied the idea. But people were reluctant to leave their vehicles and walk and, by 1998, all but two blocks of the mall were reopened to motor vehicles.
The show was informative and even entertaining, and I recommend you find a way to watch it – a PBS re-run or your favorite streaming service.
But — isn’t there always a but? — I likely would not have picked the same 10 streets — for example, Route 66 would certainly have been high on my list, and I might have picked the roads ridden by Paul Revere and Sybil Ludington, and I’d likely include the Oregon Trail.
My guess is that if you asked a dozen people for their lists, the overlap rate might be only around 50 or 60 percent.
And that’s OK. As Chevrolet points out in its advertising, we Americans like to find our own roads.