Lecture addresses interstate system

by Kobayashi Yasuyuki

Before Tom Lewis got a speeding ticket driving on an interstate in Montana, he hadn’t thought about how the interstate system in the United States affects the culture and environment.
Lewis, who wrote a history of the interstate highway system called “Divided Highways,” came up with the idea for the book while he was looking at scenery next to the highway when his wife took over driving after he got his ticket.
Lewis, an English professor at Skidmore College in Sarasota Spring, N.Y., addressed the phenomenon of the interstate system for more than 60 people Thursday at the Architecture building.
“We have to understand that we live in an era of great highway planning and great nonplanning in the 20th century,” Lewis said.
The lecture was sponsored by The State Historic Preservation Office of the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission, Weisman Art Museum and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Lewis discussed the history of the highway system by using slides, focusing on how the 43,000 miles of interstate highway system has affected the culture and physical environment Americans live in.
When President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Bill into law in 1956, the federal government became responsible for 90 percent and state government became responsible for 10 percent of highway funding. This funding distribution gave the federal government more discretion over highway construction.
“It’s not just something that is arcane and not interesting,” said Lewis, adding that it’s important for Americans to understand how the relationship between federal and local government can affect their everyday lives.
“America is something about moving. That is something we cherish in this country. The interstate highway system made it possible for us to satisfy that desire that we have for movement as never before,” he said.
The construction of the federal interstate highway system was one of the early driving forces in the preservation movement in the United States, said John Lauber, education and preservation outreach coordinator of the preservation office.
Since highway construction started in the 1950s, highway systems have threatened some historically important neighborhoods in Minnesota.
While preservationists are skeptical about the construction of the highway system because it’s often a destructive force for old neighborhoods, some historians have started looking at the shopping malls and gas stations that have grown up along the highways as having their own historical significance.
“Of course [the freeways] have to be built,” said Regents’ Professor John Brocher. “They are not always built to satisfy to everybody’s satisfaction. They reflect all the good and all the bad.”