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The Road to Nowhere

On Suburbia, the Interstates, and the National Defense: A Confession

I think of Germany in the night -- and sleep leaves me...

Out there, then; somewhere out there in the Great Nowhere; a particular stretch of nowhere between Chicago and Minneapolis: a freeway oasis. I am speaking of an afternoon several years ago now, but places like this have a certain persistence. There was a gas station, of course, and a restaurant that pretended to be classier than McDonald’s, one with a waitress and printed menus and place mats.

This was a bitterly cold day, the dead of winter. The windows had iced over; snowdrifts rearranged themselves in the parking lot. The restaurant was almost empty. A couple of truck drivers laughed to themselves in the middle of the room, and my friend Beth and I were in a booth in the corner.

Beth wasn’t happy with the restaurant. She wasn’t being a snob about it; she’d been in a lot worse places and would never pretend otherwise. But she hated everything about the look. The fake wood-grain Formica, the feeble little curtains, the cute place mats, the plastic plants that didn’t even bother to seem real — it was all so tacky, so devoid of locale, so American. I said, truthfully, that none of it bothered me; there was even a way in which I liked it. She didn’t believe me. I tried to explain — all I could say was that I liked the kitschiness. That approach didn’t work with Beth. She was a connoisseur of kitsch, and by her standards kitsch had to be lurid, grotesque, and uncompromising. This place didn’t measure up. It was just a void. The tacky details were there only to keep it from looking like a cafeteria.

I couldn’t explain; it wasn’t an important question for either of us, but I couldn’t. Just as well, really. I didn’t quite see it then, and Beth certainly would not have approved, but the truth was that I didn’t just like the place. I thought it was appropriate; I found it comforting.

If I had it to explain again, I would have tried talking about the waitress there. She didn’t look or act like anything special, just your average Midwestern girl. When she wasn’t waiting tables, she was sitting by the kitchen door, flipping through a newspaper. She looked bored — but then it was such a foul day she’d probably spent most of her shift there. Even so, she still moved and talked with a kind of style — she had an air about her.

The truck drivers were constantly flirting with her. They were probably doing it more out of habit than anything else, but they were lifers and their manner had an obvious air of threat. She handled herself well. She was friendly without flirting back, unthreatened without any hint of professional cool. The truck drivers were a little unnerved. She was so assured that they were pulling back without acting put off. I can’t help thinking that she displayed a peculiarly American confidence. There was no threat because she wouldn’t recognize one. I couldn’t quite grasp the point then, but the same confidence was responsible for the look of the restaurant. It would serve, it was enough, there was no need to do more. Stephen Spender, I think it was, once expressed amazement that anyone could call Americans materialistic — true materialists, he observed, could never have built such a cheesy civilization. The suburban America I grew up in, the America responsible for freeway oases and tract homes, floats on the ice of permanent fifth-rateness, and whenever I encounter that standard, I feel comforted. I recall Auden’s famous lines in “September 1st 1939”

All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home:
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good

These lines, I thought, could never have been written about the America created by the freeways. A freeway oasis could only look as it does if there is no need to conspire; they don’t seem to defend against any threat, even one that has to be denied.

This is what I couldn’t explain to Beth — not, as I say, that she would have understood or approved. But I see now that there was another reason why the waitress made such an impression on me, something that threatened to unravel the explanation I’ve just put together. It didn’t come into focus until Beth and I left the restaurant, and it hasn’t quit nagging me yet Where did she live? We got our first good look at the neighborhood when we went outside, and the neighborhood didn’t exist. The land was low, a bit lumpish, and empty. There was nothing but blinding snow all the way out to the horizon. So where did the girl live — where did that newspaper she was reading come from?

Over the next hill, you assume. But the tiny shifts of folding in the land that the freeway revealed to us were never big enough to enclose a town — rarely big enough to hide a house. There was just nothing there. The only answer that emerged, as Beth and I drove on north, is one that now bothers me more than the question.

She lived somewhere along an off-ramp.

That’s what freeways can do for you.


The following signs are prohibited.
Signs advertising activities that are illegal under Federal or State laws...
Signs which are erected or maintained upon trees or painted or drawn upon rocks or other natural features.
Obsolete signs.
Signs which move or have any animated or moving parts.
The message on directional signs shall be limited to the identification of the attraction or activity and directional information useful to the traveler in locating the attraction Descriptive words or phrases and pictorial or photographic representations of the activity or its environs are prohibited.
Attractions eligible for directional signing are limited to the following: natural phenomena; scenic attractions; historic, educational, cultural, scientific, and religious sites; and outdoor recreational areas. To be eligible,... attractions or activities must be nationally or regionally known, and of outstanding interest to the traveling public.

National Standards for Directional and Other Official Signs Within the Interstate System

On summer nights when I was growing up in the suburbs we would go cruising in an older child’s car; we were usually stoned, sometimes tripping, and always entranced by the serene, aloof glow of the freeway. Most of the time what we’d do is just zap down Edens for a few miles from, say, our exit to the exit where the big movie theaters were. But there were other nights when we needed a more substantial charge. Those times we would try to get as close to the freeway as we could without actually touching it. That wasn’t easy when you were as blasted as we were; we got lost a lot in unfamiliar little streets that doubled back on themselves near the freeway corridor, and whole nights, it sometimes seemed, were passed sitting in the parking lots of dark, ominous glass office complexes while we tried to figure out what had happened to us...

But then at the end of our energies we would suddenly see it: far down a side street there would be a blurred movement within dazzling light, a glimpse repeated at the next side street and the next like a slide show. Soon we were on a frontage road that wandered between the freeway and a subdivision. The houses there were dark and usually shabby; the yards were still strewn with toys; cars in the driveways had their hoods open; sometimes a sprinkler was left on, to drown the sparse grass and sooty dandelions. But the freeway itself was magic

I don’t know whether all freeways are like this — probably they are — but Edens at that time was guarded by a chain-link fence that was pretty deliberately booby-trapped. You didn’t realize it until you were actually at the top. The wire there had not been neatly folded back; it had been clipped off, and maybe even sharpened, so that any place you might put your hand could crucify you. I became adept enough at getting over unscratched — though there was one time on acid when I cut my foot open and became convinced, as I stared at the wound in the glow of the mercury lamps, that I was bleeding plastic. It was a perfect suburban insight; I still get nervous thinking about it.

But that was the worst thing that ever happened, to any of us. No one was squished like a squirrel or punted back over the fence. It amazes me that we were so lucky. There was one transcendently foolish moment when we began examining the white line at the shoulder and saw that the cracks in the paint formed rudimentary stick figures: a whole strip cartoon was contained within that white line, and it went on for miles. Who else had ever seen it? Probably no one — had anyone else ever stood here since that line had been laid down?

The cartoon, alas, proved to be somehow disappointing: I remember it as being nothing more than routine goings-on in and around a bathtub. But then the shyest of us — I don’t think she’d said a word that night — suddenly gestured to the line along the median strip and said, “I bet the line over there is truly cosmic.”

How can I describe the magic of that night? All around us were the rich stenches of summer; a few inches away the cars were flickering in and out of existence like mutant hornets; the wastes of blacktop twinkled in the lights, bleached-out, enormous, and austere; and beyond, in every direction, was the unfolding quiet of the suburbs. A quiet, not a silence, not at all: the most attentive mind would sense the hum of the power grid lighting TV sets, milky globes in rec rooms, Japanese lanterns in screened porches. We stood at the secret core of the world; the suburbs with gentle regularity filled the flat land out to the horizon.

It was secret, too — make-no mistake about that. “We had no doubt. We felt like intruders on sacred ground. And if the text we began unraveling there was even more disappointing than the one at the freeway shoulder — well, God’s own conversation would probably be dull when overheard at random. It would be nothing more than maintenance instructions for particles governed by the weak interaction, or adjustments in the fusion processes of a distant star. If you’re awed only by the miraculous, we consoled ourselves, you should stick to the movies.

Still: Why didn’t we have any doubts? Why was the freeway still sacred?

Consider a city child who has never seen the suburbs. Take this child out with instructions to ignore the obvious matters, like how everyone is white and how the houses are so ostentatiously huge, with lawns in front that no one ever seems to use. What will stand out more than anything about the suburban landscape? The streets, of course — those weird sinuous strips of asphalt, shorn in many places of their flanking sidewalks, that meander among the green lawns like mountain paths.

A city street, no matter how dilapidated or bombed out, is informed by a unifying concept. It is designed to serve as public space, to be approached from any angle, to link its buildings to the rest of the city in a comprehensible and harmonious manner. But suburban streets do not seem to perform this function. They don’t connect up with anything; they wind off into dead ends or other streets that look just the same, like someone losing the thread of a thought as sleep sets in. There are areas of the North Shore that seem to deny that streets have any use. Some of the richest people in the world live there, and their houses are strung together by streets no better than straggly driveways. They have a very plain message. This is not public space. There is no such thing as public space, at least not around here. No wonder you get the feeling you don’t belong even before you see anybody.

But there is one thing the outsider, the city child, wouldn’t be able to figure out Outsiders aren’t the only ones excluded. No one is permitted to touch these streets.

Suburban children are taught, from the first moment they go outside, that they must never, ever, step into the street. Later they learn that they can cross a street, but only at certain specified points and only after stringent ritual precautions. Fm not saying that parents are fools to teach their children to be careful, but suburban streets are nearly always empty, supernaturally empty, and any child would easily come to believe that the asphalt itself contains the threat I used to imagine, when I was a little kid, that the streets were rivers that would suck me under if I stepped, off the curb. Even today I can get a secret charge from wandering near the center line.

When one gets on an Interstate, one is in a very real way entering a self-contained world. It is a world that by design touches only tangentially on the actual landscape of America. The goal was never to join distant cities; it was to finish weaving a net that would contain the continent.

So now contemplate the Mississippis of concrete, sealed off by fences and carefully cultivated strips of greenery, that wind in slow curves and wide sweeps through the suburbs — not only huge and powerful streets, but hidden. It’s a curious thing, but unless you actually live next to a freeway, you hardly ever see one. They aren’t easy to get near on foot. I’m not talking about wandering down an on-ramp: I mean just getting near enough to see the freeway straight on. The sidewalks trail off, the frontage roads double back on themselves, the main streets get larger and more threatening. Everything combines to tell you to stay away. This is taboo space.

In fact, the psychic space of the freeway is almost completely severed from ordinary experience. You really get a good look at it only from the inside of a moving car, and there it’s not a real place — it’s a kind of total-environment TV. The reason for this is obvious. When traffic is moving at the proper speed, the freeway can’t be something you could touch — the touch is fatal. Nothing magical, about that.

But common sense, as always, doesn’t settle anything. Common sense would suggest that we stay away from such an intensely dangerous environment. But we built it; it was designed to be as dangerous as it is. One can at least entertain the idea that it isn’t taboo because of the danger. It was built in order to be taboo. In this sense it is the ultimate suburban street — the ultimate denial of a street as public space. The freeway is unreal; it doesn’t connect to geography; it has no stability. A few inches away from your feet is a lava flow of asphalt; the signs and fences and bridges aren’t fixed objects but abstract markers, points in a fluid coordinate grid. It only freezes into stability when something goes wrong. So we suppress common sense and forget that anything might go wrong.

Still, we know that it could happen, and moreover, will happen like nothing else-not as an accident on an ordinary street, where there is time to react, time even to be frightened, time for there to be witnesses. An accident on a freeway is an instant explosion of subliminal horror. Time has a different texture then. It’s shifts in delta t, stop frames on a videotape. And since there isn’t room in this interval of nightmare for actual fear, the fear tends to seep back retroactively. It infiltrates ordinary driving so that the most serene cruise on the freeway has the edge, the premonition of disaster.

There is a scene in Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard’s movie, that gets at the secret nature of freeways with a clarity I’ve never seen elsewhere. Lemmy Caution has to get from one planet to another, so he gets in his car and drives there on the freeway. It sounds like a joke; Godard probably meant it that way. But the shots of the freeway at night, with cars gliding out of the interchanges into the wash of mercury lamps, have an eerie, graceful beauty that drains off any laughter. The idea feels right. If you think of traveling through outer space, what you’re most likely to imagine is a drive on the Interstate, out somewhere in country darkness with the glitter of distant towns and the smeared impressions of forest preserves transforming the night into a dreamy image of the cosmos. Pure space flight — pure Newtonian movement.

Of course, there’s more to the joke than picturesqueness. Godard’s point is that a freeway might as well connect two planets as two cities. And this is so, at least in America — and, considering the origin of the joke, presumably in Europe as well. America’s Interstate system was designed to link every place anyone might conceivably want to get to with everyplace else; the result is a system that doesn’t seem to make any obvious connections. Stare at a road atlas and you’ll see what I mean. Interstate 70, for example, runs from Baltimore to Cove Port, Utah; I-40 ties together Barstow, California, and Winston-Salem; I-94 begins in Port Huron, Michigan, passes through Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis, and vanishes somewhere outside Billings, Montana. What economic necessity dictated building roads like these? And not just any roads, but state-of-the-art freeways, designed to accommodate maximum traffic loads at 70 MPH — do that many people travel from Baltimore to Cove Port every year?

The answer is no, obviously — the Interstate wasn’t designed out of that kind of necessity. Go on staring at the map, and the logic will emerge. At first the system looks like nothing more than a bewildering tangle of capillaries — especially knotted on the east coast, very sparse and meandering west of the Mississippi. But really the Interstate is a rectangular grid. Odd numbers are used on the north-south roads, from I-5 on the west coast to I-95 on the east, and even numbers on the east-west roads — I-4 cuts across Florida and the path of I-94 we have already observed. Not everything on this grid got filled in, and several factors combined to tug it out of exact alignment: geography, the location of population centers, and the Interstate builders’ having decided to save themselves some work and absorb existing freeways into the system. But when you get down to it, the Interstate is laid over America like a checkerboard.

What this means in practice is that Interstates tend to connect up with each other rather than with cities or lesser roads. In many places, especially west of the Mississippi, they connect up with each other because there’s nothing else there. Cove Port is incidental; it just happens to be where I-70 meets I-15; (Or is supposed to meet — the last few miles have yet to be built, so I-70 now peters out around Salina.) When one gets on an Interstate, then, one is in a very real way entering a self-contained world. It is a world that by design touches only tangentially on the actual landscape of America. The goal of construction was never to join distant cities; it was to finish weaving a net that would contain the continent.

I used to marvel, when I was a little kid, at how self-sufficient freeways were, how casually they brushed aside local roads. I think I discovered it at around age seven — I went through a phase then of being completely obsessed with maps. My particular favorites were those that showed the Interstate in gloriously elaborate detail. There was one brand that I collected. I used to ask my father, when he went on business trips, to bring them back from wherever he went. These were enormous spreads displaying metropolitan areas. The cities themselves were always shown in white; the suburban rings were dull rainbows of pink, gray, pastel green, and sometimes a kind of off-maroon. The streets — and that was the pleasure of these maps, they showed all the streets — were thin pencil lines of black: rafts and floes of streets filling the paper like the thick traceries office one found opening the shutters on a winter night.

And then there were the freeways. They didn’t seem to fit into any grid. They always, stuck out But they behaved more like lords than intruders. They weren’t rendered on these maps as one-dimensional tracings: each one was inked in, in bright green or red, between two thick black borders. They executed bold curves and sweeps across fold after fold, moving, it seemed, only by their own whims. The grid of lesser streets, no matter how densely complicated, tore like a cobweb whenever a freeway got near, yet — and here was the absolute fascination — whenever freeways encountered each other, they would divide and recombine in an exquisite minuet. It was as if there were a freeway etiquette, a freeway geometry; following out the routes of freeways was like learning a new language.

I was hooked. The Interstate emblem, the red-white-and-blue shield, was so intriguing to me that I drew pages of them, copying onto them the numbers I found on my maps. I plotted imaginary journeys through the system, avoiding local roads altogether — but at times flirting with Interstate segments marked “under construction,” or, more dangerously, “proposed.” (These were shown as a chopped-up version of the regal Interstate sweep, rather like a plank bridge over a swamp.) The determining factor in my itineraries was what kind of interchanges I would encounter along the way. I had very quickly exhausted the satisfactions of the standard cloverleaf. On my maps were strange irruptive flowerings that I found impossible to visualize; I was filled with a passionate desire to see these fever-dreams executed in steel and concrete.

Children tend to fill in the blanks of their psychic landscape. The plain Interstate numbers began to take on characteristics; each stretch of freeway had its own distinct personality. I can only recall a few of them now. Edens was bright, quick, and exuberant; the Tri-State was stern and brooding. My family spent a fair amount of time on these two, so their vibes were maybe a bit more vivid than some others. But it had nothing to do with whether I saw the roads; I remember that one night we went to the western suburbs by an unusual route, and I found myself on a stretch of freeway I knew only from maps — I don’t remember which one, but I had decided that it was the most darkly mysterious in Chicago. My intuition was confirmed. At midnight, in a swirl of headlights, it was dark and mysterious indeed.

I’m told that this kind of private landscaping isn’t uncommon among children; they often spend years inside worlds as closed and autistic as mine was and emerge without ill effects. In my case, the maps and the pages of Interstate shields migrated into a shoe box in the closet and the shoe box disappeared during one move or another. I forgot all about it; I don’t think it crossed my mind again until Beth and I were driving on the Interstate, so many years later.

But I’ve been thinking about it again lately, and what strikes me as odd now is that I did not invent my private world. It had already been built; it was, in a way, waiting for me before I was born. I wonder how many children found the suburban landscape invading their sleep; how many still carry it within, as a substratum of consciousness, the support pilings of dreams.

That’s what I discovered on that trip with Beth. It was all still there, waiting to be dreamed again. When we stopped later on that afternoon and drank a couple of pots of coffee, my private world began rising into consciousness. If I closed my eyes, I saw freeways streaming at me. But not the roads I’d been driving on; these were monstrous new freeways, high-tech 12-lane roads, that led toward enormous interchanges — interchanges ten stories high, with freeways approaching from every direction and weaving together in an ecstasy of geometric design. The towers stood on a green prairie against bright blue sky, monuments of an unreachable suburban future.


The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is the most important in the United States. It includes the roads of greatest significance to the economic welfare and defense of the Nation. The highways of this system must be designed in keeping with their importance as the backbone of the Nation’s highway systems. All known features of safety utility should be incorporated in each design to result in a National System of Interstate and Defense Highways which will be a credit to the Nation.
— Geometric Design Standards for the Interstate

A monument — -of course it is. It’s America’s Great Wall: the largest public-works proposal in American history, the biggest single construction job in the history of mankind. The Interstate was to be a unified system of freeways that would connect every city and town in America with a population greater than 50,000 — an enormous network 41,000 miles long that would make the great roads of the Roman Empire look like dirt tracks.

As government projects go, it hasn’t turned out too badly. It did get built, and for much of the time stayed within budget. It wasn’t finished by its target date of 1970, 13 years after construction began, but no one expects a big project to come in on time. It wasn’t finished by 1972, or ’74, or ’76, the revised dates; it isn’t finished now, 40 years after Congress originally approved the project. And while there will come a time — the early 1990s, most likely — when someone announces that they aren’t going to build any more of it, there is almost no chance that it will be finished in the sense meant by the designers.

But it did get built; even unfinished, it does pretty much what it was intended to do. The designers intended that it should carry a quarter of the nation’s traffic — more technically, that out of the total “vehicle miles” of a given period, which is the total number of miles every vehicle traveled on every road, 25 percent would be accounted for by the Interstate. Obviously, this can’t be anything more than an estimate — but the inevitable follow-up studies say that the Interstate really does carry about that much traffic. And then, there were other, grander reasons for building it. The designers had a dream of a motorized America, a suburbanized America, for which their freeway would be the skeletal structure. And for, better or worse they got that, too.

The tangle of political maneuvering that led to the Interstate need not concern us here. It should be enough to say that the name — the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways — gives us sufficient clue to the origins of the project Interstate, meaning a federal project, not that of a particular state or city. It was designed and largely paid for by the federal government.

While such a vast adventure may seem a natural outgrowth of 50s optimism, when confidence in the American Empire was at its height, it is, like most such projects, a much older idea. Plans for a national road system were in existence in the 1920s. The federal government backed one such plan in the 30s, which resulted in the “U.S. Highways” that honeycomb the country. The Interstate itself was approved by Congress in 1944; construction was put off for so long — until 1957 — because no one could figure out how to finance it. But there are two things that set the Interstate apart from earlier plans. The U.S. Highways are a kind of summation of the traditional wisdom. They were not intended as a radically new system. They grew out of the “primary system,” as it is called — it’s a generic name for big local roads. A road connecting two towns is a primary road; so is the main street of a town; so is an urban arterial street like Lake Shore Drive. The devisors of the U.S, Highway plan simply proposed upgrading and extending primary roads — in many cases that meant paving dirt tracks — and building new roads to link roads already in existence. The idea was that the scattered pieces of the primary system would coalesce into one big network. This is not what the Interstate planners had in mind. They wanted an all-new network built from scratch. The second difference follows from the first: they didn’t want to build primary roads, they wanted state-of-the-art freeways.

Did they really need to build it? This is a difficult question to answer fairly. Up until the Interstate, the railroads still had a stranglehold on cross-country transport, a monopoly that had been in existence since the late 19th century. It was bound to end, and it certainly did end by the time the Interstate went up. Then too, if one grants that after World War II everybody in America wanted a car and also wanted somewhere to drive it, then some kind of new road network was inevitable. The U.S. Highways were too patchy and sporadic — and in places, actively dangerous — for the kind of high-volume traffic that was starting up.

But try again — did they have to build freeways? Did we need 41,000 miles of them? Again, a mixed answer.

Local governments had been building freeways for a long time, and knew a great deal about their economics. They went for the simplest financing possible, which was charging tolls. They sold bonds to finance construction and used the tolls to pay off the bonds. The neatness of this method was that the people who actually used the road were the ones paying for it — and obviously if analyses suggested that they weren’t going to collect enough tolls to pay off the bonds, then there wasn’t much point in building the road. The sweetness was that the tollbooths stayed up after the bonds were gone, and provided a nice gathering of spare change for other expenses. So the builders of the Interstate naturally considered charging tolls. But their studies suggested that less than 25 percent of the system would pay itself off — which meant that their network wasn’t going to get used all that much. That didn’t faze them; they just looked for a new way to raise the money.

It must be understood that freeways have always exerted a hypnotic fascination over the minds of highway designers and government planners. The Bronx River Parkway, one of the first freeways of any consequence in America, was called (according to Robert Caro in The Power Broker) the “most beautiful highway in the world” when it was opened to traffic in 1922. And here is Adolf Hitler, speaking of his freeway system, the autobahns, in terms that should already be familiar: “as the historical stories of the pyramids of the pharaohs are retold, and the Roman roads are recalled, so, too, will these highways of Germany live and be remembered for centuries to come.” Then there is one David Brodsly, in his recent book L.A. Freeway, on what freeways have done for his community: “Los Angeles’ appeal lay in its being the first major city that was not quite a city, that is, not a crowded industrial metropolis. It was a garden city of backyards and quiet streets, a sprawling small town magnified a thousandfold and set among palms and orange trees and under a sunny sky. When the city began drowning in the sheer popularity of this vision, the freeway was offered as a lifeline. The L.A. Freeway makes manifest in concrete the city’s determination to keep its dream alive.” Bold words — but Life magazine agreed; here they are in 1964 on the same subject: “Los Angeles, seemingly boundless in size and energy, has taken on the one great attribute it has so far lacked — that of a cohesive city More important than the-Dodgers or civic buildings in giving Los Angeles its new personality are the ribbons of freeway which are gradually tying the city’s scattered pieces together.”

Why are they so enthusiastic? Granted, freeways can be beautiful things, all that concrete arrayed in clean lines, all that optional landscaping. It is also true — even the most fervent antifreeway agitators concede this — that a freeway really is a safe and efficient way of getting from one place to another. It’s much safer than an ordinary road. Most of the things that cause accidents on ordinary roads are eliminated in freeway design.

Terminology is of some use. A freeway is known in the trade as a limited-access divided highway. It is designed to move enormous amounts of traffic smoothly, with no interruptions in the traffic flow. There is a minimum speed as well as a maximum, and both can be set much higher than the kinds of speeds possible on ordinary streets, because the driver does not have to watch for ordinary traffic events — no parking, no cars emerging from side streets, no cars coming from the opposite direction. Traffic moving in opposite directions is separated by a divider — sometimes just a fence (not really satisfactory), more often now with a strip of empty space called a median. Most important, there are no cross streets whatsoever: access is limited to a few specified entrances and exits that are set at wide intervals. If the flow is maintained, then the individual car will not encounter anything to slow it down — will not, in fact, encounter anything. There will be only free movement, indefinitely. The industry says that under ideal circumstances, the basic four-lane design can handle 16,000 cars an hour.

It’s curious that the key question of access wasn’t solved right away, but in fact there are enormous variations in the design of pre-World War II freeways, and most of them have to do with on- and off-ramps. The Pasadena Freeway, for instance, which was built in the 30s as something of a showpiece of freeway design, has entrances and exits set at right angles to the road, as if side streets had broken through the fence at regular intervals. That’s terrible design; cars have to come to a full stop before coming in or leaving. Cars should join and leave the flow gradually, never stopping until they hit the surrounding street grid. Postwar freeways invariably include the curved ramps and elegantly flowering interchanges that are the high point of freeway aesthetics.

But then so many problems are still unsolved. LA never did become a city; most urban freeways are clogged with traffic, moving at rush hour a handful of cars rather than 16,000; and they still haven’t managed to finish the Interstate. At least the Interstate people themselves tried to avoid all the obvious mistakes. The design standards ultimately adopted for the Interstate are very tough, very exacting. No railroad crossings, no intersections, anywhere. No gradients steeper than 5 percent. Lane width set at 12 feet or more. Medians at least 16 feet wide in cities and 36 feet in the country. Ten-foot shoulders on either side. No skimping on right-of-way for off-ramps and on-ramps. The freeway corridor, counting its frontage roads, would have a minimum width of 250 feet. They were not going to have half-assed design.

The basic network map was also exacting. The checkerboard grid was necessary so that major additions could be made without destroying what had already been built. It would just be a matter of filling in more squares: The squares were numbered to make it easier, and assigned to keep a nice spread over possible extensions. Less than half of the basic two-digit Interstate numbers were ultimately assigned, and the rest — the ghost-routes, the future Interstates — are mostly west of the Mississippi, where there was no pressing need yet for extensive construction.

When construction of the Interstate system began in 1957, it happened massively, explosively, thousands of miles of it a year. The Interstate rained down on the prairie, blasted away hills, empted into city neighborhoods. Pieces of a possible future were falling on the country as if out of a time warp.

So they were designing for the future — but that’s obvious. No major road is built for the present, not if the designer knows what he’s doing. They make a bet as to what kind of traffic volume the road will have to carry a decade or so in the future, and then design for that. The concept is called “design year.” A road is built for a design year 15 years ahead, or 20 years ahead. The method of arriving at what a design year will be like consists partly of complex equations about future land-use patterns, and partly of guesswork; freeway history is littered with roads that had design years 15 years ahead but were already carrying well over maximum capacity traffic within months. The Interstate’s design year was set at 20 years — a segment of it begun in 1959 was to meet the traffic needs of 1979. This is about standard in the industry. But roads had never been built on this scale before; the Interstate designers were, in essence, designing a set for a science-fiction movie. They weren’t betting on what one community would be like in 20 years, but what the country as a whole would be like, and their projections were skewed toward maximum growth. They saw an America totally suburbanized, riding in cars for most of its waking hours. Their system was going to handle their dream-future with ease.

But it must be admitted that none of these reasons ultimately convinced Congress to authorize construction. The legislators weren’t opposed to high standards, you understand. Of course America had to have the best highway system in the world. They were convinced by something else — an idea that hit them where they lived. Eisenhower appointed a commission to figure out what to do with the 1944 Highway Act, which had committed the government to building a new road network; and when this commission came to Congress in 1955, it had come up with a way to pay for it.

The commission proposed that Congress levy a series of new taxes on gasoline and various goods associated with cars — tire rubber and the like. The money from these taxes would not go into general revenue but into a new fund, called the Highway Trust Fund. This fund would be wholly separate and autonomous from other government financial operations. The money in it would be offered to state governments as matching funds for Interstate construction. The matching ratio was set at the phenomenally high rate of 90 percent, which meant that if a particular piece of the Interstate cost a million dollars, the feds would guarantee to deliver $900,000.

Essentially, the fund could only be used to build the Interstate, and it would go on generating money until the entire network was built. Congress thought this was very nice. They weren’t even fazed by the $27 billion cost. If the project went over budget — at least a remote possibility — the fund would simply collect more money until the overrun was paid back. The whole mechanism was neatly self-limiting, since the taxes would expire as soon as the roads were built, and the road themselves — according to die builders — could be finished in 13 years. So When Congress was presented with the Interstate project in 1956; it passed it almost unanimously. In both houses combined, there were only 27 votes cast against.

The planners made one decision that gave them a big head start. They would absorb existing freeways into the network — assuming the roads were in more or less the right place and had been built to Interstate standards. In this way, most of Chicago’s freeways received Interstate designation. (By contrast, for various reasons almost none of LA’s monstrous freeway web became Interstate.) There was one problem about doing this — a lot of these existing freeways were toll roads, and Congress had decreed that the Interstate couldn’t charge tolls. So a compromise was worked out: the local toll-road authorities could keep their tollbooths and still get Interstate shields to put up — if they agreed to take the tollbooths down just as soon as the bonds were repaid. In the same way, they could even build their share of the Interstate and charge tolls if they made the same promise and didn’t ask for construction money from the fund. It was a reasonable compromise. But, as it happened, these local authorities have proved strangely reluctant to put themselves out of business: the bonds were paid off, the tollbooths remain, and the promises are largely forgotten.

But on one matter there was to be no compromise: the network map. It was absolutely to be built as described. Congress even included it as part of the 1956 Highway Act. This meant that there was no choice about it at all. They could not get halfway through and call themselves finished. Every mile of it had to be built by the deadline.

So when construction finally began, in 1957, it happened massively, explosively, thousands of miles of it a year. The Interstate rained down on the prairie, blasted away hills like landing strips for the Mother Ship, erupted into city neighborhoods. Pieces of a possible future were falling on the country as if out of a time warp.


Now in the roadside of the future I see mass, but not the jungle type of mass. I see clumps of large growing trees — a large mass or clump — and around these trees I see somewhat smaller trees, flowering trees like the locusts. A pattern some thing like the natural forest. And then, surrounding the locusts, a belt of flowering dogwood or any small flowering tree of that sort, and surrounding that, a thick belt of shrub-type material, so that an out-of-control vehicle will crash into a yielding object, a yielding cushion which will decelerate rather than kill.
— Charles M. Noble in Traffic Quarterly (1959)

Here is a dream I had, when I was a twerpy adolescent in the Chicago suburbs:

I had to tell a dream-version of Beth that someone had died. Beth was living in a small town away from everyone we knew, maybe in Iowa, or someplace vaguely beyond Chicagoland. I arrived at the town airport in a small jet, maybe a charter; a cab dropped me off on Beth’s street, in front of a small park — dead leaves were soaring through a jungle gym. On the other side of the park was a row of new apartment buildings looking very ominous against a dark sky.

Beth opened the door — it was an old house with a veranda on a street mostly made up of little explosions of post-Wright geometry. All the lights in her house were out, except for one bare bulb in the front hallway. She took me into the front room, but didn’t turn on the lights. I thought she knew what I was going to tell her already; she looked like she was in mourning. I perched on the edge of an overstuffed couch; she sat in a rocking chair and the bright light from the hall fell across her face. I began to speak.

Here is another dream, for contrast: the camera is tracking down a suburban alley on a frozen winter morning. It might be the same street from the other dream: all the houses are brand-new, clean lines and lots of glass. Icicles hang everywhere. We pick up some movement in a glassed-in porch several backyards ahead and to the left. The camera gains on it, panning, and we see that Beth and I are tangled together on a couch. Pink skin surrounded by lush green plants, seen through dripping windows: hothouse colors on a blinding gray background.


“ What does the word ‘city’ mean?”
She thought for a while,
“Ruins?” she hazarded

— Angela Carter

Take your basic suburban evening: shadows growing along the mall; picture windows lighting up along the freeway like an array of paper screens; planes like glowing brooches set in the deepening sky... and then, out of the ruins of Chicago, come the motorcycle gangs — real bottom-dwelling slime bent on trouble. The mall security force is gearing up in the parking lot — looks like total war — nah, it happens every Friday.

What we’re musing on here is a comic book, American Flagg, which is published, I am surprised to learn, in Evanston. It is concerned with the adventures of one Reuben Flagg, mall security guard. This may sound promisingly proletarian to you: alas, this is the future, and the mall is where everybody in the suburbs now, lives. Chicago is crumbling; the federal government has moved to Mars (where it is planning to sell the country to the Arabs, or somebody), and Flagg stalks through a dying landscape wrapped, for at least the episodes I’ve seen, in permanent winter. He isn’t defending a few franchise stores from the cycle gangs; he’s making a last stand for civilization itself.

That’s white civilization, of course, although nobody actually comes out and says so. The writer/artist, Howard Chaykin, is a conscientious man. He deliberately obscures the issue with affirmative-action quotas for heroes and villains. He also lays on enough vaguely libertarian anti-government rhetoric to muddy the fairly fascist waters in which he is swimming — I suppose this is also to his credit. In fact, he is so careful about all the unsavory implications of his premise that the explicit political message is totally confused. But suburban adolescents probably see what the score is quick enough. The city is a hostile, alien place; the mall is where safety lies.

The striking thing about American Flagg is that it’s new — barely a year old. But except for some distinct traces of Blade Runner, it contains no new ideas. It could have come out at any time in the last 20 or 30 years. I’m certain that I would have been absolutely hooked on it if I’d encountered it when I was a teenager. The air of terminal desperation that hangs over every episode, the sense that things have rotted away completely and yet will go on forever, would have seemed to me exquisite poetry. I could have said — sworn — that this particular apocalypse, suburb versus city, was the best future we were likely to get, by which I would have meant that this was the future I wanted. I’m not alone in this. The editors of American Flagg agree; they assure us in an editorial that what makes this comic book special is its “optimism.”

Why should this be? Because it had, in a way, already happened. Whenever I saw Chicago late at night, past midnight, when I stared out from the backseat of the car at the 10,000 blocks of the city jumbled on either side of the freeway, all dark, all, it seemed, empty, I was convinced that the mysterious disaster had occurred long before. Everyone had already been evacuated out to the suburbs. No one lived here anymore.

In this sense, one can say that the freeway is a suburban road. It serves the suburbs and reflects what the suburbs want the world to look like. We have to be careful here, since the Interstate is often blamed for creating the suburbs and destroying the cities, and that’s a heavy load of guilt for any road to carry. The truth is murkier. The suburban revolution was essentially won before Interstate construction began. There were less than ten suburban shopping centers in America right after World War II; by the end of the 50s, when the Interstate was first gearing up, there were already almost 2,000.

As for the destruction of the cities: There is one curious thing about the Interstate map, the original map. The cities weren’t on it. The designers planned that the Interstate would form loops, technically known as rim roads, around the cities arid leave the urban cores alone. There were several reasons for this plan; one big reason was that it would be easier and cheaper that way. Farmland costs less per acre than office blocks or industrial districts do. Likewise, if s not that hard to connect a freeway to the street grid of an unincorporated suburb; doing the same thing downtown can be murderous.

But the map was changed before Congress approved it. Spurs and additions were drawn in to connect downtowns to the network; a lot of the rim roads were erased. The record clearly shows that the changes were made because city politicians asked for them.

The logic behind these changes is so remote that we can now see that it wasn’t logic at all; but it was remarkably persuasive at the time. The city politicians sincerely believed that freeways and their attendant devastation would help their constituents. And it wasn’t simply some kind of Interstate fever; the argument that freeways would help the cities had been floating around since the 30s.

This is what’s so creepy, so ominous, about the suburbs: all those miles of houses unreel in the bright summer sunlight, and you never see any people. Where are they? They’re inside, they’re in the backyard, they’re in their cars. All of them. Whatever they’re doing, they’re watching TV.

Now, it is reasonably obvious that the cities, by building freeways through the urban cores out to the suburbs (the, basic construction pattern before the Interstate), were encouraging middle-class whites to leave. This is not what any sane city planner would want. But it appears that once white flight began in a big way after the war, city planners everywhere decided that there was nothing at all they could do. Freeways were specifically intended to lure suburban people back to the city for at least part of the day. In other words, the people the cities wanted were just fated to live somewhere else.

This is a suburban attitude; suburban people said that of course they had to move out of the city. By being coopted by this thinking in such a craven manner, city politicians seem to have shown themselves up as more thoroughly bankrupt than they usually are. But they’d been blinded by science. The freeway has a whole intellectual discipline behind it, called traffic analysis. Its practitioners tend to draw up lots of complicated charts, and these charts all showed that whites were going to move out of the cities and consequently the cities’ tax base was going to be ruined. Freeway construction, the traffic analysts said, would not reverse the trend, but it might bring whites back just to work and spend money.

Well, possibly this was not grossly illogical. It was mistaken. The people who wanted to leave the city wanted to leave it for good; they would just as soon take the freeway in the opposite direction, away from the city to a suburban shopping center. They wanted the world arranged so that they never had to go to the city at all.

But wait — why didn’t they want to go to the city? Because of the kind of people still living there, obviously. Traffic analysts had built that into their equations. To generate “trip distribution models,” one of the authors of Metropolitan Transportation Planning informs us, one must weigh factors like “lack of jobs in certain zones, better highways between certain points, dangerous neighborhoods that must be traversed, and so forth.” Dangerous for whom? And wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of those neighborhoods? Traffic analysts had the answer for that one, too. Put freeways through. It had happened already, of course, but more or less by accident. A Stanford Research Institute study, done in the mid-50s, complains of the “planning that is neither comprehensive or coordinated. Highway engineers maintain that they cannot take the initiative in coordination with urban renewal which would relocate routes to go through blighted areas.”

Ah, urban renewal. Stanford informs us of the kinds of renewal freeways would bring to blighted areas. A freeway is brightly lit and “illuminates the surrounding area”; this would tend to reduce crime. They need excellent storm drainage, from which the neighborhood would benefit. They would tend to prevent soil erosion. They promote the draining of swamps. And in the event of the ultimate catastrophe, a “nuclear firestorm,” they would be excellent firebreaks.

The distressing thing about all this is its claim to scientific objectivity. I don’t think it’s inherently racist. There’s just such satisfaction in the idea of using traffic patterns to remake a city. It’s like carving a statue with streams of water. Sheer poetry. Freeways have such a strong current that one just naturally thinks of using them, and then one sits around and tries to come up with objective reasons why they’re good. That the charts and the equations were dictated by the need to pander to suburban racism — well, an artist has to use the materials at hand. Nor can one blame the politicians. They saw their cities disintegrating and had no idea what to do. The suburban ideal was too powerful. Soon whole corporations, plants, office complexes were getting drawn out to the suburbs; the urban grids were breaking up like ice floes in the warm currents of the freeways.

We can now see exactly what the Interstate did for the suburbs. Local freeways had been built to service the suburbs; the Interstate had been built for the country at large. When the Interstate began absorbing the local roads, the suburbs became increasingly detached from the cities they had been dependent on. This is common sense: an on-ramp no longer led straight downtown; it gave you access to other freeways, to a vast system of them, in fact, that would soon extend across the continent. It wasn’t a question of convenience. It was a suburban dream come true. Not just to escape from the city — to have a way to deny its existence. That would be the ultimate suburban bliss.

So the Interstate didn’t create the suburbs; it legitimized them. If you live in the middle of a subdivision, you have no trouble imagining — it takes a positive act of will not to imagine — that America is made up entirely of suburbs, district after district of them, unfolding over the empty land like Japanese paper flowers. A block of tract homes, then a mall; another block, and a strip of franchises; another block, and maybe an empty field where condos are going to go. The world has no center and no boundaries. Everybody knows that suburban people will drive two blocks to the supermarket rather than walk unaided; one result of this habit is that any given place seems as hard or as easy to get to as anywhere else. A trip to a mall and a vacation in another state — there’s no qualitative difference. When there’s nothing nearby, and nothing blocks your view, every sight line extends to infinity.

All suburban people had to deal with any longer was their houses and the freeway — the armchair in front of the TV and the driver’s seat of the car. As the tendrils of the Interstate reached for each other all over the country, the suburbs seemed to be moving toward some ultimate completion. It was a giant act of love approaching climax. Oh yes, love. People did love the suburbs. Reuben Flagg stays with the mall, however much he despises the system that produced it, because he’s a man in love. The suburbs are inhabited by people so weak with love that they can barely stand.


It‘s a sky blue sky —
Satellites are out tonight.

— Laurie Anderson

Those two dreams of mine apart, Beth and I were never particularly close in high school. We didn’t wander into the same circle until college, when we all came home and spent the summer carousing. That led to our writing letters sporadically, which ultimately led to her asking me to give her a hand on this move to Minneapolis.

At that point, neither of us had lived in the suburbs for a couple of years. We were both starting to shed suburbia, as by different paths we came to realize that the way we had been raised was not the only way to live. In fact both of us, once we were out of there, had almost immediately adopted the position that suburbia was the worst possible way to live.

That should have made us instant allies. But we were annoyed and perplexed to discover, as we drove north on the freeway, that we weren’t anything of the kind. We didn’t seem to agree on any issue — except of course about how much we hated the suburbs. Beth thought that the only honorable solution was to leave America altogether, join some expatriate community somewhere and let the suburbs destroy themselves. I, on the other hand, was in the waning days of my Eastern period and thought non-attachment was the way to go — you could survive in the suburbs only if you weren’t involved with them.

An on-ramp no longer led straight downtown; it gave you access to other freeways, a vast system of them. It was a suburban dream come true. Not just to escape from the city -- to have a way to deny its existence.

I don’t want to make fun of these notions. It’s obvious enough that our ideas of rebellion were strictly dictated by our upbringing. Beth was from a phenomenally rich family, one of the richest on the North Shore; once she came into her inheritance she could spend the rest of her life however she wanted. I had no money and no chance of getting any (relatively speaking, that is; I wasn’t likely to spend any time on welfare). So she dreamed of being a burn-out exile and I had in mind a kind of affluent, uncelibate, nondenominational monkhood. The key point here is that we both sincerely hated the suburbs and at the same time were unable to see how totally they controlled our thinking.

For a lot of people this conflict is so specious and trivial that they can’t understand why suburban children find it at all difficult. It’s hard to believe that a way of life so inherently devoid of meaning could have any hold on anyone — unless of course they are as vacant as the suburbs themselves. I’m not sure I’m the person to argue against this view. I would only say in our defense that we can’t really be held accountable for where we were born. What I want to do is fix the nature of the world view created by the freeway and the suburbs, and show why the conflict has to arise.

The clearest formulation of it I’ve encountered is a poem by John Ashbery called “The One Thing That Can Save America.” Since Ashbery is still thought of as a difficult poet, we will proceed slowly.

Is anything central?
Orchards flung out on the land,
Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills?
Are place names central?
Elm Grove, Adcock Corner, Story Book Farm?

Suburban questions — questions about an America seen through car windows on the freeway. Notice the faint tang of the surreal in “urban forests,” and the place names that have the feel of local color without the benefit of location. This is the endless soft explosion of suburbia here, the off-ramp America. Taken all at once, it is a peculiar balance between the overwhelming and the serene:

As they concur with a rush at eye level
Beating themselves into eyes which have had enough
Thank you, no more thank you.
And they come oh like scenery mingled with darkness
The damp plains, overgrown suburbs,
Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity,

They cannot be denied, these places, if you are a suburban child; you can’t pretend they’re not a part of you. But you likewise can’t accept them as the way to live:

These are connected to my version of America
But the juice is elsewhere.

Well, where, exactly? Ashbery’s answer is not the one Beth or I gave, but it’s on the same level: the private life, the small unobserved life apart from history and community, the life lovers dream of creating together:

This morning as I walked out of your room
After breakfast crosshauhed with
Backward and forward glances, backward into light,
Forward into unfamiliar light,

A luminous and serene pastoral, but this answer won’t satisfy. Ashbery can’t get to the end of the sentence without doubt setting in:

Was it our doing, and was it
The material, the lumber of life, or of lives
We were measuring, counting?
A mood soon to be forgotten
In crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadow
In this morning that has seized us again?

How real or permanent can this life be? It’s a life created by sensibility, by whim. But then everybody lives that way to some extent:

I know that I braid too much my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.

The problem is that the suburbs offer no alternative, nothing to connect the private world to a community, no way of connecting particular to general:

Where then are the private turns of event
Destined to boom later like golden chimes
Released over a city from a highest tower?
The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
And you know instantly what I mean?
What remote orchard reached by winding roads
Contains them? Where are these roots?

There is a traditional answer to these questions, the received wisdom of any generation:

It is the lumps and trials
That tell us whether we shall be known
And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.

But is that answer still any good? The suburban life goes on being led, and nothing happens:

All the rest is waiting
For a letter that never arrives,
Day after day, the exasperation
Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,
The two envelope halves lying on a plate.

What does this letter — the solution to the suburban dilemma — say?

The message was wise, and seemingly
Dictated a long time ago.
Very good — it has the force of history behind it.
Its truth is timeless…

Even better — it may really be the one thing that can save America. But what does it say?

... but its time has still
Not arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limited
Steps that can be taken against danger
Now and in the future, in cool yards,
In small quiet houses in the country,
Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.

The one thing that can save America is a connection between an individual and a community, but that is not going to happen in the suburbs. All that is possible are those “mostly limited steps that can be taken against danger.” And the danger is there, there’s no question about that. Ashbery is not to be faulted for despairing — and the poem is, for all its casualness, one step short of a suicide note — rather he is to be praised for demonstrating just how difficult it is to see what’s wrong, how much of a struggle it is to recognize that there even is a threat. For all the people who complain how “sterile” the suburbs are (surely an inappropriate word for places growing so fast) there is very little awareness of the real horror. Even the worst slum in America has an objective reason for being what it is, however obscene the reason may be; the suburbs have no such excuse. They are a dream, a collective sitcom, the set for a science fiction movie. They do not appear to have any justification.

Beth asked me that afternoon if I was going to write a novel about the suburbs, so that people would know what our upbringing was like. I told her that I had tried, but that I didn’t think it was possible. Why I thought so then I’m not sure, but I have a theory now. Stories can only come out of communities where people tell stories about each other. If you’re going to be a novelist, you have to grow up believing that people and their lives can be described, and this can only happen if you hear it done.

What I found continually, exquisitely thrilling about the world around me when I was a kid — I could never get enough of it, I’m surprised I wasn’t permanently warped — was the sudden shock of rediscovering that other people really did exist As our car glided down some curved suburban street, I would stare at the unfolding array of picture windows, and hope for a glimpse of someone inside. Almost always there would be no one, or the curtains would be drawn. But at rare intervals I would see, within the luminous frame, someone — always doing something trivial, standing in the middle of the room, regarding the invariably huge TV; or getting up from a big armchair and heading toward the kitchen — a little pickup shot between scenes to help along the continuity. I can’t describe the magic that would halo these figures. It was like passing a row of movie screens, except that I knew, or tried to believe, that for a few seconds I was seeing real life. I’m surprised now not at my fervor, but at those people who left the curtains open. Still, it works both ways: from the inside, the street was just a perpetual establishing shot, with as much affect as a drive-in movie with the sound turned off. It was less interesting than the car shot, in fact, because you never saw anybody pass by on foot. That’s really what’s so creepy about the suburbs — the ominousness that Ashbery’s poem reflects: all those miles of houses unreel in the bright summer sunlight, and you never see any people.

Where are they? They’re inside, they’re in the backyard, they’re in their cars. All of them. Whatever they’re doing, they’re watching TV.

So maybe movies rather than books are the way to go, if you want to describe what the suburbs are like. In fact, I had once seen a movie, seen it several times, that exactly summed up the suburbs for me. I think I was around 12 when I first saw it. Throughout my adolescence, whenever I tried to think about the suburbs objectively, it was the first thing that came to mind: Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.

Now, I should say here in my own defense that I saw Fahrenheit 451 again recently, and I am perfectly aware that it isn’t a very good movie. There is even a way I knew it then. I could tell that it didn’t behave like other movies, but I didn’t draw the necessary conclusions from that. The very badness of it — the somnolent movement, the disengaged performances, the scenes and ideas’ included without reason or point — gave it a numinous quality. Just as the Interstate numbers took on personalities for me, the emptiness of the movie allowed me to colonize it. There were times when I was half convinced that I’d made the movie, or dreamed it to myself.

You probably know the story: in a future society where books are banned, a professional book burner, a fireman, begins to read; his life goes to hell; his drug-addled wife pulls herself together long enough to turn him in; and ultimately he escapes to the underground, the “book people,” who have all committed books to memory in order to preserve the lost past. In Ray Bradbury’s original novel, the hero’s movement toward exile is paralleled by the society’s drift toward a catastrophic war — the hero makes it into the wilderness just as the bombs start to fall. Truffaut leaves all this out, wisely I think, even though it is essential to Bradbury’s message. The book is basically a scream of rage and fear directed against. Yahoo America; Bradbury’s most earnest wish is that all of modern civilization, with its cars and TVs and scorn for sensitive, poetic people, should blow itself up. Truffaut keeps Bradbury’s hope — that those sensitive souls can escape — but ditches all the rest. What’s odd about his adaptation is that he doesn’t come up with anything to replace it with.

The result is a mood, a dreamlike progression rather than a plot, a setting rather than a situation. There is a vaguely repressive future society, suburban rather than Bradbury’s fascist urban, and then there is the hero’s remarkably easy escape, on foot, a journey that appears to take no more than one lovely autumn afternoon. But what else could one expect from any movie set on those suburban streets, with those tiny modernist houses surrounded by trees? What else but a vague reverie on science fiction themes, with melancholy violins on the sound track (Bernard Herrmann at his most romantic) — no actual story could possibly be generated from that setting. And as always with Truffaut, the point of view, the unseen dreamer, is an intelligent child: the future society would have to be repressive because for that child the world is repressive, what with school and home and all; reading books on your own just naturally seems a subversive activity. It’s surely not accidental that the movie (unlike the book) doesn’t even make the feeblest attempt at explaining how a modern society could function without the printed word. A child doesn’t care about that. The only actual institutions’ in the film are a firehouse and a school: the only ones a suburban child sees.

And as for the escape — well, for years I had daydreams about the escape. The hero follows an abandoned railway track through the countryside until he reaches the book people’s encampment. There he meets the girl who started him reading in the first place; she has just achieved book-personhood herself. As winter sets in, the, hero begins to memorize his own book. The final images, which have an exquisite sentimentality rare evselves, as snow softly falls all around.

The strange thing about this ending is how chaste it is. The hero gets the girl, who represents freedom from a repressive society, and they don’t even touch when they’re reunited. Never once is it suggested that she might be sexually attractive. (This is especially odd since the girl is played by Julie Christie.) Yet the movie, like any dream, does contain a good deal of sexual tension. Truffaut has displaced it. He fills the movie with phenomenally sensual images of fire; the camera is almost caressing every time a book is burned — it lingers as one by one the pages blacken and ignite. It’s as if the forces of censorship and repression are acting out of a daze of erotic joy. The connection is made explicit when the hero is caught and forced to burn his own books; he first turns the flamethrower on the bed he shared with his wife.

But it’s not quite enough to say that the hero is running away from sexuality. That’s just the secret content of the ending, the thing that makes it so subliminally haunting. The hero is running away from anything connected with adulthood. Truffaut’s message has a certain fascination, whether he meant it or not: you can rebel against society, and win without having to change — or without the society having to change. This last part is really the key, the reason Truffaut had to cut the bit about the bombs falling. The book people are out there at the beginning of winter, with — apparently — no money, no jobs, no houses, and no food. They don’t seem at all concerned. Is it unreasonable to suppose they’re all on welfare?

My own remake of the ending took this into account. My version essentially focused on a journey northward to a border crossing — it took longer than Truffaut’s did, and it had more of an epic feel to it. The final sequence began with me waking in an attic room on a winter morning, in a small town near the border. I would cross to the window and look out on the street buried with snow. Close shot of frost melting on the window. Then a dissolve to the border crossing — deliberately diminuendo, just a hike through forested hills to the other side. The walk ends at a small train station, where I make a simple phone call to my contacts in the underground. Soon they arrive in a battered pickup truck; we drive off to the farm and a hard but fulfilling life. Fade-out.

I had, you see, grasped the practicalities. No government capable of the repression Truffaut imagines would be likely to tolerate the book people; they’d be jailed on some pretext or another whether or not they possessed actual books. That’s why I had to escape from the country altogether. Then, too, any underground or exile community cut off from society entirely would have to spend most of their time in nasty, hard, physical labor. They wouldn’t be wandering around blissfully reciting books from memory.

But the underlying idea was the same. The society stayed exactly as it was. Why should this be so? Why should the happy ending leave the old evil world intact — rather than, say, having the hero bring it to its knees or, as in the Bradbury novel, the bombs reduce it to rubble? Well, maybe we’re just nonviolent people, Truffaut and I; maybe we just couldn’t bear to see anybody hurt. It’s only, a daydream, after all.

And yet here I was, journeying north with Beth, through this luminous and empty landscape. My relationship with Beth was as chaste as any that Truffaut could imagine. I had no job just then, nowhere in particular I had to be once I’d helped Beth move into her new apartment; I was cut free of society, and neither I nor the society had changed much since I was a kid.


Much has been written about the future potential of the ground-effects machine for personal transportation. This is the vehicle that travels a few feet over ground or water on a cushion of air Before it can replace an automobile, a new means of steering the ground-effects machine must be discovered. It is now steered by a rudder, like a plane or ship. This does not permit precision steering. … And the ground-effects machine is affected by wind. It is frightening to think of what would happen to a freeway full of such machines on a gusty day.
— Frank Donovan, Wheels for a Nation (1965)

Something must have gone wrong. If an escape from the suburbs is a flight from adulthood and adult sexuality, then the suburban landscape must have some kind of latent sexual content. Even the most maniacal Freudian might have some trouble with that one. Cars are erotic, granted — but how erotic freeways be? How can the rows of tract homes — laid out, as Thomas Pynchon once said, like printed circuits — how can they have a sexual charge?

And still one does hear things. The suburbs have made their way into the underground of collective sexual fantasy. Consider the legends of wife-swapping parties that began going around in the 60s — they were always set in some split-level suburban home, and usually involved the exchange of car keys. Suburbs and cars. When I worked for the Loop outlet of a retail chain in the mid-70s there were rumors in constant circulation about orgies at the other stores in the chain — after hours, of course. The stores involved were always the ones in suburban shopping malls. Even in the suburbs stories are told about other suburbs. Especially prominent in these fantasies are the high-rise condominiums built between subdivisions. I was assured by several people, during a stay in one development a few years ago, that one particular condo was S&M exclusive. None of the people who told me this was speaking from personal experience.

All these stories have in common a fascination with extreme forms of sexuality. Of course, there isn’t much point in fantasizing normal sex, but even so, the suburbs seem to attract rumors of strange doings. I think this is largely a consequence of how empty the suburbs are, how little sense anyone has of other people. The urge to connect grows out of the lack of connection; the suburbs don’t offer any way of imagining a life that isn’t in a state of extreme disconnection. Recall all those suburban sitcoms with their dream-images of suburban contentment. Even there, in Paradise, all you get is the nuclear family. Nobody in these shows ever knew the people across the street. The best they could do was the next-door neighbors. The desperation to make contact leads to inevitably desperate fantasies of sexuality.

Then too, there are all those cars — isolated bubbles of reality adrift in taboo space. It’s inevitable again that the sense of the forbidden gets mixed up with forbidden sexuality, and the stronger the taboo, the stronger the charge it contains. There might be something apocalyptic on the other side of the windshield. I would like to submit in evidence here another exhibit, a novel: Crash, by the British writer J.G. Ballard. It is a novel written to a thesis, and the thesis requires Ballard to be obsessive, obscene, preposterous, and disgusting in about equal proportions — qualities likely to be magnified in a summary, but still:

Crash is narrated by a character named J.G. Ballard, not a writer but a producer of TV commercials (though for all I know the nonfictional Ballard does this too). One day when Ballard is driving home from the film studios he has an accident on the freeway. He loses control of the car and within seconds it has jumped the median into oncoming traffic. He has a head-on collision. The driver of the other car is killed, his body flung through the windshield and dumped on the hood of Ballard’s car. Ballard and the woman sitting in the passenger seat of the other car sit there staring at each other, too badly hurt to move, in the eerie calm between the crash and the arrival of the ambulance.

Ballard isn’t seriously injured, but the finds that something in his mind has been “jerked free by the car crash.” As he lies in his hospital bed, he constantly and involuntarily dreams up bizarre images of violence and eroticism: “…surgeons would cut themselves carelessly before making their first incisions, wives would casually murmur the names of their lovers at the moment of their husbands’ orgasms.” Everything he sees makes him think of sex. His bed is in an empty ward, usually held in reserve for air-crash casualties, and soon he is imagining “the ward filled with convalescing air-disaster victims, each of their minds a brothel of images.” The accident, the head-on collision, becomes “a model of some ultimate and yet undreamt sexual union.”

The crash has shattered the barrier of taboo. Ballard is now, as it were, on the far side of the windshield, standing on the forbidden surface of the freeway. He isn’t sure what to do next. Once he gets out of the hospital, he tries to take up his old life, but it is increasingly phantasmal; soon he is buying a new car of the exact make and model of the one he crashed. He becomes obsessed with the woman passenger in the other car. He seeks her out and finds that she is also undergoing a massive psychic upheaval as the result of the crash. They begin an affair — and discover that they are only able to make love when they are in a car.

Inevitably, a new actor makes his appearance — the shaman who can explain what’s going on in this magical territory. This is Vaughan, a “hoodlum scientist”: he produces and stars in TV science documentaries, a sort of Carl Sagan of the techno-death orgasm. Ballard and Vaughan begin hanging out together. They pick up whores in airports, they cruise the freeways looking for car crashes, they watch Vaughan’s movie collection — slow-motion studies of crashes — and soon enough they become lovers. Ballard feels set free: “The world was beginning to flower into wounds.” The most casual events lead his mind toward the apocalyptic. A traffic jam causes him to reflect that “the enormous energy of the twentieth century, enough to drive, the planet into a new orbit around a happier star, was being expended to maintain this immense motionless pause.”

Vaughan does not actually talk much. He sort of intimates. From him Ballard learns “the true significance of the automobile crash, the meaning of whiplash injuries and rollovers, the ecstasies of head-on collisions.” For Vaughan, all these were “the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology. In his mind Vaughan saw the whole world dying in a simultaneous automobile disaster, millions of vehicles hurled together in a terminal congress of spurting loins and engine coolant.”

What exactly are the elements of this new sexuality? What is the true significance of the automobile crash? Interesting questions. One of the oddest things about this very odd book is how hard it is to find the answers. Ballard continually suggests that there really is a system of thought on the far side of the crash, a semiology of techno-death — as if the blank space of taboo were scribbled over with text. He writes so persuasively that you keep on turning the pages, expecting that on the next page the dawning vision will at last be revealed. It never does happen, though. In fact, there is a clear implication at the end that Vaughan does not appear crazed because of the new truth — he really is just crazy after all. His theories, or half-theories, or intimations of the grand synthesis of his theories, are failed attempts at rationalizing his own approaching suicide.

I don’t know whether this is deliberate or not. The fictional Ballard is pretty far gone at the end himself, and the nonfictional Ballard’s public statements tend toward the obscure and hermetic. And, of course, death is a part of the vision. But Vaughan’s actions in the final chapters are, as even Ballard admits, more and more random and senseless, harder to fit into any theory. Then too, his suicide — planned as a head-on collision with a limousine carrying Elizabeth Taylor (“Vaughan had dreamed of dying at the moment of her orgasm”), the ultimate in apocalyptic suicides as far as Vaughan is concerned — turns out to be a bungled disaster. He gets near Ms. Taylor’s limo, all right, but he loses control at a crucial moment, his car flips over the rail on an overpass, and he and his car do a header through the roof of a bus. It’s all very sad.

But in its own way it’s also reassuring. The novel would be much more disturbing if the system did emerge in the final crash. It might really be seductive. Ballard’s conclusion is abrupt and unsatisfying. All he can offer is the lamely ominous line, “Already I knew that I was designing the elements of my own car crash” — as if the techno-death vision, despite Vaughan’s ultimate klutziness, were irresistible. One can’t speak for the narrator, but the nonfictional Ballard was at last report still writing industriously in the London suburbs, 12 years after Crash. If he thought that making himself the narrator would raise the book from novel to prophecy, he certainly failed. Crash is irretrievably a fiction by now. Well, nobody should expect Ballard to kill himself in a car crash to authenticate his vision. But I would suggest that the system, the apocalyptic synthesis, doesn’t emerge from the novel for the simple reason that it can’t. The taboo space of the freeway doesn’t hide anything but death. This can’t be the key to a new sexuality. There’s nothing at all new about it.

Notice this, though: Ballard seeks to find a transcendence in the freeway landscape, if only the transcendence of death — some way for the suburbs to be other than they are. He fails, as did Ashbery, and Truffaut, and I in my small way, and the people who dreamed up those baroque rumors.

But at least Ballard tried. And, in fact, he goes on trying. His books since Crash have mostly been replays of the same ideas with much less intensity and conviction. Concrete Island, High Rise — the titles should be enough to indicate the lack of progress. But in a more recent novel, The Unlimited Dream Company, he makes a sustained effort to explore the far side of the taboo. In the opening chapters, the hero crashes a stolen plane into a stream that winds through — inevitably — the London suburbs. He dies, or may be dies, and maybe rises from the dead; his resurrection provokes the psychic revolution Ballard’s earlier books promised. The suburb is transformed into a surreal tropical paradise. Jungle creepers grow everywhere; orgies are held daily after lunch; and ultimately everybody learns to fly. “Along the Thames valley, all over Europe and the Americas, spreading outwards across Asia and Africa,” the narrator predicts, “ten thousand similar suburbs will empty as people gather to make their first man-powered flights. I know now that these quiet, tree-lined roads are runways, waiting for us all to take off for the skies.”

It won’t do, even as a parable. The suburbs are solipsistic enough as it is — there’s no point in suggesting that they’ll find salvation if they give up on reality altogether.

But why this same failure, again and again? What is it that gives the suburbs such an immovable strength, so that no one can even conceive of them becoming something else?

I think the answer is built into the problem: the lack of community. We tend to believe that a society will disintegrate without it, but this isn’t happening in the suburbs. People prefer living without a community, and the suburbs give them a way of doing it. But consider the world view someone raised in the suburbs will inevitably form. The child sees no symbols of authority other than the school and the family house; no marketplace other than the mall, where goods arrive, apparently, by transporter beam. How will this child understand the authority holding the suburbs together? It’s everywhere and nowhere, like God and TV. It hovers over the empty, immaculate streets like the smoke from a barbecue. Where are the systems that allow the suburbs to function? Power is unreachable as the surface of the freeway; the economy moves as invisibly and undeniably as TV signals. It will last forever.

And yet when you consider the shoddiness of it all — the thousands and thousands of houses built like Kleenex boxes, the pavement that shatters as soon as it’s dry, the ultramodernist schools that appear overnight and then close because of declining enrollment — when you consider how prefab and makeshift everything about the suburbs turns out to be, you begin to wonder if anyone expects them to last out the week. There were nights when I’d smoked too much grass and would wander out into an empty field between subdivisions, a field already staked out for development, and it would seem to me that the whole suburban world was a vast holding camp waiting for the order to move. The question was like the dirtiest of dirty jokes, more obscene than death: what possible future could follow?


Popular pavilions [at the 1963-64 World’s Fair]: Ford. You got in a car, a Ford car, and the car drove itself along a track. A voice came out of the radio. Then you saw the history of the world shown by Walt Disney automatons. It was not complete. The Future was shown as empty highway. Suddenly, there was just nothing. In the sky, there was a kind of glowing ribbon. Just that.
— George W.S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context

There was one time when I thought I saw it — on a spring afternoon when I was 16. It must have been a slow news day, because an editor at the Tribune decided to give big play to a standard fringe-science story off the wire services. A British astronomer claimed to have decoded a message from another planet. If the Enquirer had done the story, who would have noticed? But this was the Tribune. There on the front page, in its most serious headline typeface, was, “Voice From Outer Space.”

As I recall the story, the astronomer had been troubled by some unexplained, apparently random radio blips, blips that had been picked up by various receivers for decades. The astronomer decided to plot the blips on a grid, and what he got looked like a group of constellations with one particular star at the center. Through a chain of reasoning I have forgotten, he was led to hypothesize that an unmanned alien spacecraft was in orbit around our sun, had been there for 40,000 years, and was continually broadcasting its point of origin.

It took about a week for cooler astronomers to polish off this fantasy, but that first day was really something. Someone brought the paper into school; my best friend seized it and went running off to find me; we read and reread the story intensely, passionately, feeling the school walls and the houses beyond, the world we had grown up in, dissolve into triviality. This was what we had been waiting for.

We knew that we had to mark the occasion somehow. As soon as we safely could, we cut out of school and went to my friend’s house, where we immediately began searching through his star charts. It didn’t take long to determine that we would be able to get a sighting of the star that night. We decided to lug his telescope out to some reasonably dark spot and take a good look.

I don’t know what we expected to see. We may have been foolish, but we weren’t fools: we never fancied that the transformation this story promised was going to happen that night, or even that year. But we were certain that the event was going to change things. We wanted to perform some rite that would permanently mark this day in our lives. So, as we talked through the afternoon, we came up with a ceremony so classically teenage that I’m surprised it took us so long to decide on it. We would tell each other a secret.

We had dinner somewhere, a McDonald’s most likely, and spent some time cruising around the subdivisions. The power grid was coming on: living rooms were filling up with blue TV glow. We thought about all these people, about everyone in the world plugged into the information web. For the first time, a message had entered it from outside, and it was as if the whole web were about to come alive in a single blaze of light. Even driving down a dazzling strip of franchise restaurants and used-car dealerships, we could feel the energy mounting.

By the time the night was solidly in place, with unseen stars above the mercury lamps, we had figured out where to set up the telescope. This hadn’t been an easy problem to solve: there were a lot of blank spaces on the map, but most of these undeveloped zones would be lit by the glow of adjacent developments, and the light would wash out all but the brightest stars. So we headed for a particular spot on the margin between suburban and rural; the edge of the world as far as we were concerned. This was a golf course. We parked the car where we were fairly sure no guard would spot it, arid lugged the telescope into the middle of a fairway.

It was cool and very clear, already past moonset. There were trees in the distance on either side of us, and the dark puffball boughs were faintly haloed by the light of far-off subdivisions. Otherwise all we could see were the glimmering grass and the sky. More stars were out than we were used to seeing — in fact, it was years before I realized what a pitiful showing that sky was, since I had never yet seen the Milky Way in full flood across a real country night. The meager suburban stars were sufficiently cosmic for me. Too cosmic, that night. When we had the telescope set up, and the star We were looking for was at last shivering on the black glass, I felt a rush of vertigo so intense that I knocked the telescope over. My friend without a word set it up again so that he could get his turn.

I must admit that the star was nothing special in itself, and I found myself disappointed by that. I was furious with myself for being disappointed, because I had known what it was going to look like: a bright point of white light, nothing more. There was nothing else it could look like. No telescope in the world was powerful enough to pick out those tiny flecks of dimmer light in orbit around it that would have meant planets, worlds, the source of the message. Even so, at that moment, neither my friend nor I had any doubts that the story was true. It had to be true.

So we sat there and talked, and now and then took another look at the star. My friend had thought to bring a thermos of coffee; we took turns gulping it down as we marveled at our luck. The great event had come in. our lifetime. We hadn’t thought it possible that it would happen so soon, but it had, and we were witnessing it.

Even now the news was spreading like ripples in the net of information. Tomorrow when we woke up the world was going to be different.

And then we told each other our secrets. What is there to say about them? Both of them concerned love or desire, or whatever it was; and inside of a month both were obsolete.


From the car you can see it, the Running Fence, at one point close by, then like a shimmering wall ahead; then it disappears over a hill, escapes the eye, re-emerges far away on the horizon like vapor trails. You draw nearer and suddenly see it everywhere before you, stretching for miles but constantly interrupted by hills and valleys. The high, bulky curtain is transformed into lines that trace a drawing across the tawny land faded by heat and drought. An autonomous drawing, which sometimes follows the contours of the ground but for the most part changes them, lopping off hilltops, inscribing a softer, dreamlike landscape over the existing one. … All at once this inconceivable, this apparently utopian concept, which had kept supporters and opponents of the project occupied for months and years, had descended on the area as a reality. How was one to grasp the thousand facets it displayed? How did the region celebrate this, “the biggest picture in the world”?
— Werner Spies, Christo: The Running Fence Project

How indeed? What is there to. say about the Interstate, a much bigger drawing, a much grander dream of the future? It is a truth every science fiction writer knows, and the freeway engineers ultimately learned: set out’ to build the future, and what you get is an imaginary version of the present.

This is really all that went wrong with the Interstate. The bitterness and pain the project caused, the communities destroyed, the towns starved out because an Interstate passed them by, the towns snuffed out because a segment went straight through, the hills leveled, the miles and miles of franchise strips sprung up beside a segment like the sleazy hangers-on around a rock star, all of it happened because a vision of the future was passed into law.

The law provided for the biggest federal project ever contemplated. In practical undreaming reality, of course, the Interstate could not possibly have been approached as a single task. The network map was broken down on paper into hundreds of segments, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and each segment was treated as a separate construction job. And since (like most federal projects classed as “internal improvements”) the Interstate was being built jointly by the feds and the individual states, they very quickly developed a labyrinthine spiral of policy and design, selection and approval, authorization and apportionment, obligating and spending, between the two strata of government.

We don’t need to trace out the spiral in detail. Each state coordinated the work on its segments, and the feds reimbursed the states for 90 percent of the cost after each major stage of work (from selecting the freeway corridor to pouring the concrete) was completed. At the core of this whole exchange was a simple idea: access to the Highway Fund.

Access, it must be understood, isn’t the same thing as real money. The dollar amount the states had to work with was a hypothetical figure worked out through a complicated set of regulations and guidelines, and what it translated into at any given moment was a promise from the feds to provide the money at some conditional future point for a single specified purpose. It’s a little like a poker chip. You can’t buy anything with it, but the house will let you use it to play poker.

There was nothing special about the Interstate in this regard; it’s simply the way the government works. In a sense, the government can’t do anything unless it passes a law that says it has to do that one particular thing, and also provides a specific means for it to be done. Seen in this way, the government is nothing more than a set — seemingly an infinite set — of legal obligations and mechanisms designed to meet them.

All this may seem to be trivially obvious, but in the 60s, when debates on Interstate construction swirled around every city and seemingly countless wilderness areas, swamps, and burial grounds, it proved to be surpassingly important and completely obscure. The great days for the builders were past. Now they were hearing new phrases, like “neighborhood preservation” and “ecology.” Suddenly it seemed to a number of people that freeways weren’t going to save their cities at all. And these people began asking, reasonably enough, that the government either move the Interstate somewhere else, or not build it and spend the money on something that would do the community some good — like mass transit. The government said that it could not do either one of those things. Why not? The government said that the first choice was illegal and the second meaningless.

Well, there’s nothing more infuriating than being told you’re either a criminal or an idiot; but the feds were in fact being honest. The network map was part of the 1956 Highway Act, so it had to be built — by law. As for spending the money on something else, the government could only ask, what money? You can’t buy anything with poker chips.

But the feds were willing to compromise. They set up more elaborate public hearings, so that people could be “brought into the process,” as the saying was; they instituted complex environmental-impact studies of proposed segments; in 1968 they revised their guidelines to include payments for relocating people about to be bulldozed away; and with especially tricky segments, like our own much-despised Crosstown Expressway, they took the unheard-of step of commissioning local architects to redraw the plans so that community damage would be minimized. None of this answered the objection, of course; but the Interstate people really were going out of their minds trying to cooperate with angry citizens. The problem was that the issues that really needed cooperation had been put beyond negotiation.

It didn’t stay that way forever; it couldn’t. Both Congress and the local governments were getting tired of all the grief. There was an additional problem: by the mid-60s, it was becoming obvious that the network wasn’t going to be finished when the designers said it would be. The fantastic progress of the early years — better than half the total mileage had been completed and opened to traffic by 1965 — had proved to be something of an optical illusion. It had been created simply enough: the builders had put off doing the hard parts. Segments that went through flat, cheap farmland got built right away. But the thousands of miles that cut through cities, forded swamps, crossed mountains — most of it was still on paper. At the same time, inflation was beginning to push up the cost estimates (though no one dreamed they would go as high as they ultimately did) and states began asking for more extensions to the network, more little add-ons and corrections. Despite the steadily increasing heat they were taking from their citizens, some states were so fond of the Interstate that they wanted to build twice as much of it as they were supposed to.

So the due date was pushed back to 1973, the estimate of total cost went from $27 billion to $40 billion in 1965 and $80 billion at the end of the decade. The ceiling on total mileage was raised to 42,500, and a lot of the extensions and add-ons were agreed not to count.

But we are not done with the problems. There was a new one — one that at around the same time began to wipe out the space program. NASA intended the first moon landing to be the beginning of serious lunar exploration; but once they’d made that beginning, nobody cared anymore. In the same way, once the bulk of the Interstate was finished — three quarters of the network was open to traffic in the early 70s — people began saying that we had enough of a road system, we could live with it as it was, so why didn’t we just stop.

That kind of talk horrified the Interstate people. Public statements from the U.S. Department of Transportation from this time have a plaintive note, like a lover about to be rejected. The network “had to be finished as designed”; the advantages of the system, the “improved traffic efficiency, increased mobility, and savings in human lives,” would only be apparent when the thing was done. “Psychologically and in fact, completion of the 42,500-mile Interstate system would be a major national objective accomplished.”

The poignant thing is that they were right — not about the national objective so much, but that it would have been a big mistake to stop in the middle. The individual segments had gone up almost at random, and the network was still a jumble of completed and proposed pieces. Almost every major route had pieces missing, from a few blocks to hundreds of miles. In Philadelphia, for instance, there was a segment of 1-95 that didn’t connect up to anything — cross-country skiers had it to themselves all winter. Protesters in the San Francisco Bay area had turned a spur of 1-80 into a monument of sorts — it hung over the Embarcadero, unfinished, unusable. Then there was the infamous Franklin-Mulberry corridor in Baltimore: the land acquired cut a rubble-strewn path through one of the few stable middle-class black neighborhoods in America. Maryland didn’t want to actually go ahead and build the segment, but if they did anything with the land, anything at all, the feds would take it as official notification that the segment wasn’t going to be built and would want their money back. Twenty years after the bulldozers had come through, the broken glass still hadn’t been cleared away. In Chicago, the Crosstown caused a kind of phantom freeway corridor, in the form of declining property values and unrepaired streets. They never got to the point of deciding what land to buy, but people didn’t see the point of fixing anything up only to have it disappear beneath the bulldozers.

But none of this mattered: Congress had had enough. In 1973 — around the time that the estimated total cost had risen to $100 billion and completion itself had been put off to the end of the decade — Congress passed yet another Highway Act. They did reaffirm their commitment to finishing the network. But there was a condition. The sacred network map had to become negotiable.

The act introduced a new procedure called Interstate Transfer. This allowed states that had lost interest in building certain segments to get out from under them. The feds had to agree that the segment in question wasn’t vital to the network; if that agreement was made, the segment was, in the technical term, de-designated. The state could then take the cost estimate for that segment and use it for something else. States could, as it were, trade in their poker chips for other chips and wander on to a different table where the game was “Federal Aid Urban,” or “Rehab, Resurfacing, and Repair,” or even “Mass Transit.” When this happened, the de-designated segment was erased from the map and its mileage could be added somewhere else; states that wanted more Interstate might then be able to get it. Interstate Transfer spawned its own mythology. There is the story of the two guys at the Federal Highway Administration who worked on the network map throughout the 70s-one guy erasing lines, the other adding them somewhere else. According to informed sources, the two guys never met. There was also the wondrous Crosstown War fought between Chicago and Springfield. It was obvious early in the 70s that the Crosstown was never going to happen; but each side threatened, whenever a dispute got heated, that they were actually going to build it and cut the other side off from millions in federal money. (They jointly traded it in when it hit approximately $1.2 billion at the end of the decade.)

Throughout the 70s the work crawled on. The deadline for de-designation passed a year ago, and the Interstate chips will be worthless at the other tables after October 1986. At the present moment, there are still some ten segments in official limbo, tied up in court — they can still be de-designated, depending on how the court rulings go. But their mileage is now considered to be gone, no longer available for extensions. The official ceiling has been reached, and the unofficial extensions and add-ons have been pushed to their unofficial limit. Illinois got the last big hunk of mileage when it got the feds to agree to finish the rim road around Saint Louis.

The map has been modified countless times, in major and minor ways, and as it stands now the network is around 98 percent complete. There is a big push on now to get the rest finished before Congress gets tired of it again. That last 2 percent, by the way, will cost around $40 billion — or $13 billion more than the entire network was supposed to cost originally. (Total cost is now estimated at $200 billion, at a minimum.) If everything goes well, the last segments will probably be opened to traffic in the early 1990s-and someone will at last announce that psychologically and in fact, the Interstate is over with.

By that time, the Interstate is likely to be a ruin. That’s been happening for a while now. A 1982 congressional study estimated that about 10 percent of the network was substandard road and in need of extensive repair. That number becomes more ominous when one considers that it represents 25 percent of the miles that have reached their design year; presumably the crumbling will accelerate as we reach the end of the decade. It would be fair to say, then, that the Interstate never really will be finished; someday work will stop, that’s all. That’s the fate of, most monuments. By the time they’re finished, they aren’t needed anymore; the people who wanted them are dead.

The Interstate builders just don’t have the backing they did in the great days. The boosters and lobbyists have all moved on to something else. People no longer think that a totally motorized America is a good idea. Detroit has its own problems. And the Pentagon is pretty much satisfied.


Don’t think I’m going to get to work at all today. Went out after breakfast to get the car and drive to the station and the car wasn’t there nothing was there just gray everything gray no lawn no shrubs no trees none of the other houses in sight just gray like a thick fog swallowing everything up at ground level... I don’t want to live here any more I want to cancel my newspaper subscription I want to sell my house I want to get away from here:..
— Robert Silverberg What We Learned From This Morning’s Newspaper

The map let us down when we got to Minneapolis. It showed an intricate little web of proposed and completed segments, which somehow failed, to materialize as specified. Minneapolis had evidently traded in some of its chips. I had a moment of utter panic when I realized the map was wrong. Part of it was a kind of atavistic shock that any of my beloved maps could mislead me. But there was also another edge: the terror a space traveler might feel at realizing his trajectory was carrying him past the planet and out into the void.

So I bailed out down an off-ramp. Beth woke out of her doze and asked where we were; I had to tell her I didn’t know. Never a good move with her. I was the big expert on maps, so how could I have screwed up like this? There was no way of telling her, even if I’d known all this then, that because of Interstate Transfer, a number of proposed Interstates had gotten canceled. So I just told her it was an old map. She asked me scornfully if they had torn down all their new freeways since they’d printed the map.

Minneapolis may be, for all I know, a pleasant place to live. I can only speak for that night, and then I did not enjoy driving there. From the serene Newtonian movement of the Interstate I had descended into a perplexing maze of dark, narrow streets that were rendered indistinguishable by heavy snow. At intervals we came across high fences protecting expanses of untouched snow, or sometimes protecting only the night — possibly one of the thousand lakes, or however many there are, was hidden there. As we nosed about, I was feeling increasingly odd. I was exhausted, of course, and I hated being lost, and had to endure Beth’s nasty silence; but there was something more disturbing going on as well, as if a long-neglected stratum of my mind were preparing to shift.

Eventually we got directions. I would have asked right away, I wasn’t proud, if only I could have found somebody. The city appeared to have shut down at sunset. The first person we saw was the doorman of a downtown hotel — I got a glimpse of an empty lobby glowing behind him — and he was able to decode Beth’s scribbled instructions into a route I could follow.

The friend Beth was going to stay with, it ultimately proved, had an apartment in a big corner house, an old ramshackle .place at the end of a row of new apartment buildings. We parked on the other side of the street, in front of one more snow-covered field. Shutting off the engine after a long drive is always a dramatic moment. As silence filled up the car like rising lake water, I looked around to find something to mark the occasion. It wasn’t hard to spot: the field had lost its virginity. A line of footprints was cratered diagonally across it, from the sidewalk to a bizarre tangle of jungle gyms tucked in the far corner. The frozen track of movement seemed to be reasserting the stationary world against the traceless water of the freeway.

Well, I was fried. We had to go around to an obscure door at the back and wait for Beth’s friend to come down from the top story. I stood shivering and kept my eyes to the ground. I didn’t yet believe that the earth was as supernaturally solid as it felt; the unyielding layer of concrete and frozen soil could simply be a trick, like ice over a pond. The jumble of fences, walls, and steep roofs that the moonlight revealed had the air of a deserted fair ground, ready to be broken down and stashed whenever the order came.

Continuity, that was the problem. You get on a train and get off two stops later; do you really believe that that day the train is going to travel 200 miles? No — not unless you’ve ridden those miles yourself, more than once. Otherwise the tracks will never go farther than the vanishing point. If you grow up in a world as sealed off as the suburbs are, how are you to believe that the world has any continuity? You never see anything older than you arc.

Later that night, after Beth and her friend had talked and talked, politely trying to include me in their conversation; after her friend had gone to bed and Beth had stretched out on the couch; as I lay awake in my sleeping bag on the living-room floor, this image of the train began to plague me.

I always have a lot of trouble sleeping in strange places. Usually I can find some lulling image that will ultimately shut me off. That night nothing worked. My mind darted around like a frantic moth batting at a light bulb. For a while the freeways were flowing at me, and my whole body felt as if it were moving — as one sometimes feels after a day at the beach, when phantom waves go on washing across one’s skin long after the return home. I was again approaching those impossibly huge interchanges along wide and shining highways. But there was a problem. My body told me that I was moving in a straight line, and the roads, as soon as I got close to the interchange tower, would curve off into a subsidiary loop. The result was that each time a road curved, my mental car would leap the divider and plunge into oncoming traffic. The image would instantly break up and reform as a hew car on a new highway, the interchange coming up in the unreachable distance.

There’s only so much of this one can take; soon I was thrashing around for something else to think about. I thought of the train; instantly my mind settled on a car motionless at a railroad crossing. I was off the Interstate, at least — but I wasn’t quite sure where I’d ended up. So I began filling in the image. A county road, on a snowy night somewhere on the prairie; an endless freight train trundled past the headlights. It was a soothing image, on one level; but then my odd little fear began seeping in. With each boxcar, the distances grew; the night had to keep growing larger to keep the train in scale. Just how much of America was here, on the far side of the off-ramp? The night was enormous; so much of it was empty.

The wind picked up. A sizable shove rattled the windows. There were groans rising from dark walls and unseen floorboards; gusts tugged at the eaves, threatened to set the whole house sailing. I thought of the wind scattering paper down a spur line between dark warehouses, high wires humming, chain-link fences chiming, wall posters flapping; people warmed their hands above a fire in a trash can, as snow hurried across the train yard, heaped in corners of empty boxcars, tapped at steamed windows; a cat paused on a slatted roof as the wind raked his fur, and then went on more urgently toward his customary place by the radiator back home. There was no end to it, was there; the snow blurred the glow of distant towns only because there was nothing closer. An American night comprehends silences so deep they can reach back to the glaciers.

In Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, the railroad tracks reach into a hidden America, a sort of disinherited alternative only vaguely apprehensible beneath the crust of the suburbs. Pynchon’s heroine is only able to find pieces of it; the pieces appear to assemble into a vast conspiracy that once controlled the world and now waits for its inevitable return to power. Its cryptogram, W.A.S.T.E., suggests that the conspiracy is a metaphor for the force of entropy. And, as it develops, entropy, too, is a metaphor — for death.

I believe that Pynchon was tapping into something real; but it may be that his own fascination with suburban culture arid paranoia obliged him to reject what he saw — and, in fact, to break off the novel before we find out whether the conspiracy is really happening. The America hidden behind the suburbs is terrifying because it has a continuity; it is threatening because it is always there, like entropy and death. That even a writer as rigorous as Pynchon can falter here demonstrates how thorough and insidious this last suburban denial is. The suburbs exist to put the lie to the last twist of the knife, when death itself becomes a metaphor. The cryptogram, decoded, is really very simple.

Welcome to history.


War games, like politics, chess, and poker, can sharpen the intellect and give insight into human nature in conflict situations., I would like to ask the participants of the fourth Conference to try an experiment with another kind of game, a game of imagination. Let us pretend the twentieth century has discovered time travel as well as space travel. Let us suppose American science and industry have developed a pilot model of the famous time-machine invented by H.G. Wells.
Assuming that the time-machine is here and that its range is fifteen years into the future, I am going to push a button that will precipitate all of us forward into 1973! It is another February morning, the place is still Chicago, and the setting is the Nineteenth annual Military-Industrial Conference. Only it is not called that. It is called the “Emergency Conference on Terms for an Honorable Peace.”
1973 is a black hour for the American Republic. There is widespread unemployment and business is stultified by a critical shortage of raw materials. American foreign trade has been strangled in a web of Sino-Soviet intrigue and economic warfare. The ever-expanding Communist bloc has engineered ironclad trade monopolies in the handful of Latin American and African countries not yet completely absorbed in the vast Marxian Commonwealth of nations, which now embraces four-fifths of the land surface of the earth and stokes its further ambitions with the oil of the Middle East and the riches of what once was Indonesia. To the Russian and Chinese masses, Communism has added the manpower of India and much of Africa. We can neither buy from, nor sell to, more than 2 billion people.
The men who participate in this Emergency Peace Conference of 1973 have in their eyes the look of the accident victim who numbly intones: “ but this can’t happen to me.” And yet it has happened, and it continues to happen, as the chessmasters of Russia methodically coordinate their deceptive bishops and treacherous pawns toward what now seems to be an inevitable checkmate. By 1970, Russia had applied massive propaganda so skillfully to all media that the West was completely out of touch with reality. On the wings of transoceanic television, Communist leaders have regularly invaded American living rooms to warn our people we could suffer 100 million casualties in any future war. This fear this threat has engendered, together with widespread confusion sown by covert Communist sympathizers, has immobilized American military power at every crucial showdown…
— Frank R. Barnett in National Strategy in an Age of Revolutions (proceedings of the Fourth Military-Industrial Conference)

The enemy changes, the paranoia stays the same. How paranoid did they get in the 50s? How paranoid can we get about them now? Let us begin with what seems obvious: that America changed drastically after World War II; that Detroit and the suburbs remade the country into what it is — whatever it is. Motorized, suburbanized. Before the war, there were a few suburbs where the rich people hid themselves; everybody else lived in the cities, in small towns, or in the country. So the population was heavily concentrated in the urban areas and there was a thin scattering everywhere else. Now we are all much more evenly spread. It used to be that the only real roads were in and around cities; now the Interstate network connects up everything. You can get anywhere, even to places that were, in the old scale of things, nowhere at all.

So much is obvious, and it should also be obvious that questions like whether it was inevitable and desirable can’t be answered, at least not yet. But let’s be paranoid: let’s pretend that they were really paranoid in the 50s. Say they saw enemies everywhere, that they thought America was in mortal peril. Did they think the suburban revolution was desirable? It is in this connection that we can consider the Interstate’s full name: the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Defense? Of course. The Pentagon was heavily into the Interstate. Nobody denies that. But it’s often suggested — especially by the Pentagon people themselves — that this involvement was pretty casual, just a matter of consultations here and there. They say that you wouldn’t get into a project like this without checking it out with the Pentagon and billing the thing as good for national defense. Maybe so — yet the Pentagon people seem to have been hanging around quite a lot of the time. They sat in on the planning sessions; they were shown the network map and they made certain suggestions (which were incorporated); they came to Congress in 1960 and said that they were very sorry, but the bridges on the Interstate were too low and would have to be raised two feet so their new missiles could get under them (the bridges were raised). Further back, the first serious plan for a national road system, produced in 1922, was specifically military. General Pershing drew it up to show where good roads would be needed for mobilization during a national emergency. By the 40s, planners everywhere were impressed by Hitler’s autobahns: those freeways proved to be very handy for getting troops and equipment around during a war.

But all this isn’t really paranoia. It’s only since Vietnam that everything military has come to seem necessarily sinister or nasty. So let’s clear the air: one doesn’t have to be a Reaganite to admit that someday America might be obliged to wage war against a hostile power, and it is even conceivable to imagine that we might be morally right to do so. We can agree, then, that the Pentagon’s involvement in the Interstate project is on the face of it pretty reasonable. Suppose a genuine national emergency arises: a substantial and reliable road system would be necessary if the Pentagon were going to do its job and pull together a successful defense. A really major conventional war, a big war, like World War II, would certainly require some sort of high-gear military reindustrialization, for which the Interstate would be invaluable. Each significant industrial center would be connected to all the others by roads designed to handle the worst kind of heavy traffic. We may not want to think about these issues, but that’s why we pay the Pentagon to think about them for us.

But are we really likely to get involved in a war like that again? Questions of this kind are addressed in a field of discourse called “war games.” If s an axiom in the war-time biz that any big war will sooner or later go nuclear, and then how long could it last? A couple of days; a week. Even the most gung ho strategists agree that six weeks is about the tops. There just wouldn’t be any practical way of continuing; the arsenals would be empty. So there would be no reindustrialization, and there would be no need for the Interstate.

This kind of thinking, it has to be emphasized, is not exactly new. The strategic studies that were done in the early 50s all agree that a long nuclear war is a contradiction in terms. So we are left wondering: why did the Pentagon want the Interstate built? How would it serve the defense?

Now we can get into real paranoia. It is contained in a single phrase: passive defense.

Passive defense is a simple, even rather noble concept. It means carrying on normal life in such a way that an enemy finds it difficult to attack you. “Normal life” is the key. People who hide themselves in a fortress have an active, not a passive defense. Everything they do is controlled by the idea of possible attach. But a nation with a good passive defense is going about as if war were the furthest thing from its collective mind. No fortresses, no armies patrolling the border. Just everyday, ordinary behavior.

A good example of passive defense is provided by Afghanistan. The Afghani hill people have lived as squabbling tribes scattered in enclaves through impossibly rough terrain for as long as they can remember. That’s how they live; that’s what they’re happy doing. But whether they planned it or not, their way of life passively defends against invasion. An invading army needs a big target it can capture, and the Afghanis do not provide one. The invaders find themselves with no operational definition of victory, just an infinite series of separate skirmishes. The increasingly desperate behavior of the Soviet invading army shows how powerful a concept passive defense is.

It can be argued that every culture throughout history has evolved for itself some form of passive defense. That’s how, in the face of the permanent world war, the one that began in prehistory and is still being fought, the majority of the human race has been able to carry on daily life. The kinds of passive defense differ with the threat, obviously. But what they all have in common is that the people practicing it see it, to one degree or another, as a natural way of living. It can be imposed by a government, but if it’s going to work, the people must on some level want to live like that anyway. Ideally, they shouldn’t view it as a defense strategy at all.

But new types of war come up, and old ideas of passive defense get blown away. The introduction of large-scale aerial bombardment during World War II caused a crisis in passive-defense circles. Up until that time, cities had been viewed as the ultimate in passive defense. They could survive terrorist bombings, invading armies, even extended sieges. Best of all, people naturally wanted to live in a city, because that’s where they think the jobs are. But saturation bombing does far more damage to a city than to towns or farmland; and one nuclear bomb can erase a city in seconds. So now cities appeared to be worse than useless as instruments of passive defense.

(I should point out that there is a minority school of theorists who believe that the bombing in World War II was in fact ineffective, and thus that cities are not obsolete in the face of conventional bombardment. But they do not carry this position into the realm of nuclear strategy.)

It is probably best to think of the nuclear world as looking-glass land. Everything is the opposite of what it appears to be. The first reversal is the one that most people find hardest to believe. There are hawks and doves in nuclear strategy, and from the late 50s to the late 70s, the doves have been in charge. The “balance of terror” that we have now is pretty much what the doves wanted.

Here is the second reversal. The doves began by saying that cities were absolutely vulnerable to nuclear attack. But they saw a way that the absolute vulnerability could be put through the looking-glass and become absolute strength.

The dove strategy is known as Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, MAD is played as follows. Each side points its missiles at the other side’s cities. Then the players begin a series of increasingly larger bluffs, until each side has most of its population and industrial base in the pot. The object of the game is to not lose. You lose if one player decides to call the other’s ultimate bluff — that the missiles will really get launched. Not losing is a little trickier. It happens when one player decides not to call the other player’s bluff; and then the other player, seeing that his bluff won’t be called, decides that he won’t call, either. The players then agree to withdraw their chips from the pot and start over. If either side does call the bluff, of course, everything in the pot goes up in flames.

MAD was created specifically to prevent war. With these rules, calling the bluff is guaranteed suicide. Even as an act of total desperation, it could not possibly be within a nation’s self-interest; only a madman would do it. So war is by definition (they hope) ruled out. And MAD players can be granted this much: it doesn’t seem to be a bad game. The one time we know about when it was played out to break point, in Cuba, Khrushchev decided not to call, Kennedy agreed, and we’re all still here.

But even so, the hawks of both nations hate MAD. They have all along wanted to play a different game; they were playing it through most of the 50s, and in 1980 they convinced Carter to give it another try. This game is called Counterforce. Its object is to win. This requires that missiles really do get fired. The rounds proceed by increasingly larger obliterations of the other side’s forces until one side decides that it can’t take any more. The other side has then won — or as the game calls it, “prevailed.”

Most people react to the thought of Counterforce with blind panic or numb horror, but we can’t permit that to happen here. We must stay, if it’s possible, relaxed. After all, that’s how they are when they talk about it, and they’re the ones playing the game. Take a lesson from the Interstate protesters and their failures: you don’t get anywhere with an opponent if what he thinks you’re saying is meaningless.

So: the big advantage Counterforce has over MAD is that the bombs actually get used. If that doesn’t sound like an advantage to you, think of it from a military standpoint. Hydrogen bombs have never been used in battle, and nobody really knows what would happen if they were. The predictions are scary enough: fire storms, radiation sickness, the collapse of civilization, nuclear winter, extinction. These predictions may very likely come true; nobody knows. MAD players have long argued that such doubts are much to our advantage. It makes the bluff that much more ominous; it increases the chance that one op the other player will back down. But there is also a side effect to this uncertainty that is not much talked about in MAD circles. If the bluff is called, and the first bomb goes off — say some military installation on one side is erased — then, as the British strategist Lord Zuckerman wrote, “We are all hostages to what happens next.” MAD players can only hope that the essential sanity of the participants reasserts itself and no more missiles are fired. But if one side is so lost in nightmare that it sets off a bomb and invites instant, total retribution, then how sane could things be right then? Counterforce players at least know what they’re going to do next. Retaliate.

The Pentagon was very clear on what kind of system it should be: limited access freeways. Imagine how the movie of World War III will go: before and during the bombing, we will see many shots of the Interstate, mostly deserted with here and there military convoys gliding through the interchanges, dropping off patrols to guard the ramps.

This is the fundamental advantage they have over MAD players. They do not believe that nuclear war means the end of the world. Obviously there’s a cutoff point beyond which it would be ”spasm war,” as it’s called. This is when both sides, sealed off in terminal horror and despair, launch everything in their arsenals all at once. Even Counterforce players admit that there wouldn’t be very much left over after that. But, they say, a spasm war isn’t the only possibility. A few bombs could explode — maybe a lot of bombs — and we might still have enough people and enough of our basic economic structure remaining to consider going on.

You probably don’t believe that, and you’re probably right. But remember: we’ve hired them to think about these things for us, and they really are doing the best that they can. They do not believe that they can come back to us and say, “We’re sorry, but whatever happens, America will lose.” From the moment nuclear war became possible, the Pentagon has looked for ways to win — or at least to survive.

So they make assumptions. Whatever vile calamity is at issue, where the antinuclear people say “might happen,” the Pentagon says “probably won’t happen.” Nuclear winter is only, the latest in a long string of hypothetical catastrophes. There is a tendency in antinuclear writing for might to become probably and then certainly — so nuclear winter is now thought of as a foregone conclusion. But it’s still an untested hypothesis as far as the Pentagon is concerned. Even if it were true, which they doubt, the world has survived bad winters before.

What then would need to happen for some of us to come through? The basic outline was plain in the early 50s: an active defense, which included fallout shelters and evacuation plans; and a new form of passive defense.

It will not surprise you to learn that Counterforce players have never bought the MAD argument about the vulnerability of cities being a source of strength. They were much more straightforward about things. If the cities couldn’t be defended, they would have to be. abandoned. The population would have to be much more evenly spread; key industries would have to be scattered throughout the country, rather than thickly, and dangerously, concentrated in a few areas. New roads would have to be built so that movement to these newly created spaces would be as easy as possible. In a word, decentralization. Highways were the key. In the words of “Impact of Improved Highways on the Economy of the United States,” a study done by the Stanford Research Institute for the Bureau of Public Roads: “The mobility of the motor car had permitted, the spread of population to areas not previously accessible. This type of population movement is important in relation to the vulnerability of the population to large weapons. A megaton weapon which detonates downtown is unlikely to kill all the population in the suburbs if they have adequate shelter.”

So, the Interstate. The Pentagon was very clear on what kind of system it had to be: limited access freeways. (I am paraphrasing here from a 1949 statement from the secretary of defense, “Highway Needs of the National Defense.”) If war ever broke out, they needed to be able to close the system in a hurry to civilian traffic. No station wagons holding up the convoys, no terrorists hiding in the trees.

They won on this question, as we know. After all, this was what the highway planners wanted, too. But on another important issue they lost. They didn’t want the Interstate to go into the cities. What would be the point? If the bombs dropped, to quote the secretary, it would “render highways in areas with concentrations of tall buildings and structures of little use.” What they wanted were the rim roads of the original map. But they were just advising the Interstate people, weren’t they, not dictating public policy? As it happened, even though politicians insisted on building these “useless” roads through their cities, a lot of the rim roads were built, too.

And, of course, they got so much of the rest: defense contracts are scattered around the country, the Interstate did go up, and middle-class whites did move out to the suburbs. It’s all perfect passive defense strategy, because it probably would have happened anyway. The Pentagon needed only to nudge, suggest, and — with the Interstate — advise.

“If we had approached the problem realistically in the past,” Major Alexander de Seversky observed at that same sad conference in Chicago, “all new buildings erected since the last war would have had public gathering places, such as banquet halls, ballrooms, theaters, garages, etc, located in the basement. With modern lighting and air conditioning installed, the utility of these postwar structures would be enhanced, and ample civilian shelter would be provided. Passive defense does not have to be a burden on the country; father, it may be a boon to our civilization. [The Interstate] will solve our traffic problems and will induce the urban population to move into the suburbs. This, in turn, will effect the desired decentralization which is so important in order to minimize the vulnerability of our nation to atomic attack.”

So, without even knowing it, America remade itself into the Pentagon’s new ideal of passive defense. Just as the Interstate is a kind of science fiction, a fantasy of traffic use 20 years into Tomorrowland, the suburban landscape is a movie set — for a movie about World War III.

Can we imagine how the movie will go? A conventional war goes nuclear; there are one or two minor exchanges. Negotiations break down and there is a massive exchange. The script for this part — say, the first half or two-thirds of the running time — can be easily imagined (think of “The Day After,” but more suspenseful). There may or may not be evacuations of the major cities. This is a point of some controversy among Counterforce players. De Seversky thought it could be done; Stanford thought no one would bother to try it — where after all would you put them? But before and during the bombs dropping, we should see a lot of shots of the Interstate, mostly deserted, with here and there military convoys gliding through the interchanges, dropping off patrols to guard the ramps.

There follows the interval of horror. Cities and big military installations blossom into lakes and oceans of flame.

The last part of the film is the “postattack situation.” “The problem of the postattack situation would center around the rehabilitation of the islands of survival and extending them to include as much as possible of the area under heavy fallout,” Stanford again. Here is where freeways will come into their own: “Highways permitting high speeds through narrow bands of hot areas would be advantageous.” To put it mildly.

We can imagine how this part would have gone, too. The cities have vanished, but the government is still functioning — probably beneath a mountain somewhere. They’ve been able to reach a settlement favorable to America and the bombs have stopped falling. Gradually— maybe after a few months of winter, who knows? — signs of life start to reappear. Military convoys are moving on the Interstate. TV shows arc going out on the airwaves — old sitcoms, mostly, and brief but reassuring official news reports. Maybe fresh food shows up in the suburban supermarkets, to break up the monotony of price-controlled canned goods. People start going back to the malls. The skylights there are shattered, and the rain comes in, but one or two shops (with government backing) have opened up again. Slowly a country reassembles itself. The economy is planned, and there are only passing gestures at civil liberties (the army is everywhere) but everyone is happy to be alive, white, and American.

The movie probably won’t get made now. It would have been a big hit in the early 60s, but the government decided to do Vietnam instead, and by the time that one closed, the eruption of new weapons technology had rendered the script obsolete. Even some die-hard Counterforce players have been saying that the basic scenario probably won’t cut it any longer. Too many imponderables, too many untried systems. A nuclear war fought in the near future would probably be erratic and messy, more like a megadeath version of Eating Raoul than like Dr. Strangelove. There’d be a lot of tactical neutron bombs going off everywhere and the state-of-the-art technology would be in a state of continual malfunction. There’s also the crucial question of reaction time. Some missiles in place will reach their primary targets in less than ten minutes from launch, which means that nobody will be sitting around lazily debating the appropriate Counterforce response. This is one reason why Ronnie and his boys are off to play a new game called High Frontier (also known as Star Wars). Counterforce, like the Interstate it spawned, will be a disintegrating memory by the time the war is fought.

Yet the daydream still goes on, suffusing with nostalgia as it recedes from us. The cities are gone; the nation consists of suburbs strung together along the Interstate. All enemies are vanquished; all those troubling minorities vaporized; the future brightens along a ribbon of freeway. It’s America as it was meant to be.


May I touch the time-machine once more, lightly and with the brake pedals set? Our second journey is only five years hence; the place Chicago, with the Ninth Military-industrial Conference moving toward a confident close. In 1963 the nation still faces peril, the warlords of Moscow have not lost the race, and some areas of the free world are in danger. But the momentum of the Kremlin’s thrust is gone. ... For example, in 1961 a joint committee of the American Bankers Association and the Foreign Trade Council produced a blueprint for private economic development in Latin America that, as you know, has put the Communists out of court…
— Frank M. Barnett (1957)

Once I saw a riot in a shopping mall. Well, maybe riot is too strong a word — call it a civil disturbance. Here’s how it happened. I was working then for a retail chain on the west coast, and we used to travel around every month or so to the other stores in our district. One of these stores was getting a foul reputation in the chain. It had the lowest sales in the district, maybe in the country, and nobody in the home office could understand why.

Anybody who visited the store knew instantly why. The store itself was fine — well run, well stocked. But the mall was going under.

Perhaps you are aware of how malls are designed. They aren’t exactly shopping centers, or the suburban equivalent “of downtown; they aren’t crowded with stores where you can get a lot of things you need. There are one or two real stores — big department stores, usually — referred to as “anchors.” This means that they hold the mall together. The rest of the stores are lightweights. Junk stores, joke stores. This is why malls are public space only in the sense that carnivals are. When they go on permanently, they are best thought of as a parody of public space.

The problem at this mall was that the neighborhood, or at any rate the nearest development, had undergone a certain revision of its socioeconomic status. The chain that had provided the anchor store had taken note of this trend, possibly with charts supplied by traffic analysts, and had very quickly decided to haul in and sail somewhere else. That left the joke stores on their own. A few of them did all right — the record store was flourishing. But most were one by one flickering and going out.

But the mall was still open; people were still coming in. The wrong sort of people, but there they were. Radios drowned out the Muzak, and laughter — too loud, too shrill for my ears, for the right people’s ears — was coming from everywhere, from the escalators, by the bland little fountains, off the second-level railings.

We were touring our chain’s store, murmuring rote remarks to our regional manager’s spiel, when a fight broke out somewhere else — I think right out front of the record store. It was hard to tell what was happening. The sound coming through the doorway got deeper and more continuous; the people right outside stopped drifting and started hurrying, as if the wind had picked up.

Before any of the visitors could react, the store manager briskly slid the door shut and locked it. There were only a couple of customers inside. The manager turned to them and said, “Do you mind?” One woman laughed weakly. The other started in on a tirade about the people outside, repeating, “Someone should call the police.” But she was mostly talking to herself and we soon enough faded out on her.

The store had glass floor-to-ceiling on two sides; the door itself was glass. So we had a fair view of the fight as it progressed. But, as I say, it was hard to follow. There were isolated clusters of people swinging at or circling each other, and a lot of other people were swirling raggedly in between. I don’t know whether anyone called the police. After a while, the clusters seemed to break or move out of sight, and a more even flow resumed. I was left only with my own excitement.

I’ll grant you anything you like, beginning with how there is no way I would have felt what I did if I’d been standing on the other side of the glass when the door locked. But grant me this in return: the people outside were beginning to turn a parody of public space into the real thing.


Who has not known the life before the revolution hasn’t tasted the sweetness of living.
— Talleyrand

I think that the most hateful clichés all concern growing older and realizing that the world will always be there whatever happens. I’ve known grandparents of various persuasions who believed that the sum of their accumulated life’s wisdom was contained in the phrase, “Life goes on.” The bombs fall, the world we know vanishes in a sheet of flame, nuclear winter sets in, and then, the damnedest thing, it’s really kind of despicable when you think about it — the survivors struggle to fit together some kind of cut-rate culture and maybe even succeed at it. And there’s old granny, nodding, sagely among the debris, still saying, “Oh, yes, life goes on, I told you it would.”

Of course, there is the other possibility for suburban apocalypse. It will happen someday — maybe in a century, maybe it happened last night. Somewhere along the thousands of miles of antenna the astronomers have strung up will be resonating, faintly, secretly, and unmistakably, a message from another star. It will happen, I do believe that; but now I also believe — my one contribution to granny lore — that whatever the message is, we won’t be able to understand it. How could it be otherwise? If the message were simple, it could be interpreted in a thousand ways; if it were complicated, it could never be long enough, contain enough information about itself, for us to decode it completely. We’d just have to be content that the message really came at last.

That would never have been enough for me in the old days. The grand transformation into angelic extraterrestrials, the annunciation, the assumption — would any of that have been enough? Not if it didn’t happen in my lifetime — preferably before I had to get a job. Oh yes, life goes on. What I didn’t realize then was that no matter how conclusive the apocalypse, people will still find a way to make it go on.

But it may still come out some other way. The slow trickle of qualitative changes may finally overflow the bowl — a moment no one can predict, like the first atom at the heart of the warhead that shatters into the nova. One day, somehow, you wake to find the world redeemed. You leave, as usual, by the back stairs; sunrise is spreading soft yellows and salmons — clouds are gilded pearls — silver gleams on the laundry lines; cats blink from kitchen windows; and at last you stand on the street to see the world curve gently up around you, you see the thousand islands of the city shaking free of the transforming mist, mist winding in from the surrounding and forgiving sea. That’s what I dreamed inside my sleeping bag on an amazingly cold morning in Minneapolis. The pleasure of it stayed with me throughout the day, as I tagged along with Beth and her friend. I had done what I agreed to do, get Beth there, and so I really didn’t have any reason to stay with them: I just drifted, still fried from the day before, and felt very benign. When I remember that day now, I think that my mildness — not very typical of me then — was about the best I would get even if my dream came real. Today there may be some dazed astronomer musing down the street, his head ablaze with the signals he detected last night — the joy he feels right now is as intense as it’s ever going to be, for anyone.

For example: that afternoon Beth and I went to the apartment her friend had found for her. It was a big place, with lots of enormous windows, in an old and comfortable building. There was no question but that Beth would take it. She and I went down to the landlord’s office to sign the lease. She asked me to read it through, to make sure that everything was OK — a lawyer’s daughter who was baffled by contracts, whaddaya gonna do. The lease was entirely orthodox except for one clause, which read, as near as I can remember it:

The lessor assumes no responsibility for damages in the event of riot, insurrection, war, civil war, martial law, or other civil disturbance...

Oh yes, alas and god damn. Maybe this clause is standard, in Minneapolis, I don’t know. But they were covered; nobody was going to come up to them in some refugee camp and slap a summons on them. They’d be back in business as soon as the fallout cleared.

I don’t know whether Beth thought this clause was as funny as I did; but she laughed with me then and kept smiling the rest of the evening. There was in those days a sort of theory of interpersonal relations current that would have obliged me to find out whether she felt exactly what I felt, simply because we had found for the first time in our time together some common ground. Well, I didn’t press my luck. But it’s a measure of how crazed I was then that I thought this was some kind of revolutionary act, just keeping my mouth shut.

But then another form of possible contact was occurring to me that evening, as we lugged her possessions up to the apartment. Maybe she was feeling it, toop. There seemed to be a kind of easiness in our chatter that might have been the beginning of something interesting. We had dinner late in romantic circumstances: Chinese food at a little, rickety table, by the light of a bare bulb in the front hallway — Beth hadn’t brought light bulbs, everything was closed, and it was the only bulb in the apartment that worked. Later on, we sat in what would be the living room, among the boxes, and went on talking, or flirting, or whatever we were doing. She sat in her favorite chair, a rocking chair that she’d had for ten years and hadn’t been able to bring herself to leave behind. I leaned against a wall with my sleeping bag for a cushion. I kept thinking that it would make perfect sense for us to sleep together that night; it was what everything in our friendship had been leading up to; one by one the bits of the jigsaw puzzle had fallen into place, and the puzzle was now obsolete.

Much later, after Beth had drifted off to bed, I stayed on in the living room, staring out the window and chain-smoking. Across the street — I hadn’t taken a good look at it before, but there was no missing it now — was an enormous new construction, big enough to occupy a couple of blocks. I remember Beth telling me in passing that it was an arts center, or a cultural center, or something else generally humanistic. Hard to believe at that hour. In that light, it was a vast oppressive hulk: wastes of concrete stood on their sides, closing in to crush narrow, irregular strips of black glass. The place had nothing to do with the arts; everything about it reeked of bureaucratic thuggery.

If I have ever had a vision in my life, it was then, when I stared at that building and realized how much I had been in love with the future it represented — how much, despite all my protestations of hatred, I still wanted the suburbs to infect the world.

So here’s my vision. I saw, or remembered, a time when I’d gone down to Lake Michigan, on a winter night as cold as this one. By my house there was a little access road that led down to the beach and ended in a small pier. I walked down to the end, barely able to take the wind blowing off the water, and stood there for a long while. I don’t think I was ever more sure in my life that my world was the true one.

The lake was frozen, for as far as I could see by the light on the pier. It was a complex landscape of crags and gullies, over which the wind was whisking veils of snow; I couldn’t tell where it ended and the beach began. Beyond the rim of mercury light, the moonlight picked out more distant ridges, cryptic canyons, stretches of desolate plateau.

It was an eerie scene as it was; but it got much stranger when the wind dropped. The silence was slowly filled with a new sound. I had no idea what it was; it kept me there to the point of frostbite. I can best describe it as a moan — continuous, passionless, directionless; it seemed to be the ice itself crying out. And this was in fact the case. Water was moving under the ice, cracking it in a trillion separate fissures, seeping through and refreezing. Whenever I think of the suburbs now, I remember that: water moving mindlessly, erasing a landscape that no one should occupy.