This weekend, the missus and I decided to give ourselves a wedding present by acquiring a spanking new 2011 Kia Soul, in all of its hideous boxy, burnt orange glory. (The Wedding is a private ceremony this upcoming Friday, folks). For the last 72 hours or so, all I’ve been thinking about is cars.
Car cars cars. Thus, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at construction of a most important Austin thing: its roadways. And what roadway is more important tto Austin today than I35? The section of the IH-35 freeway that runs through Austin altered the shape of the city and more than doubled its annual population growth.
In the late 1940s, American engineers began to develop plans for the construction of a national highway that would run across the entire middle of the US. It would eventually stretch over 1,500 miles, crossing 7 states. The project opened its first section to motorists in 1956. Austin’s section was officially opened in 1962.
It’s interesting to note the bareness of North and South Austin in these pictures. A brief aside: When we moved here from Ohio in May, we drove through a lot of empty-but-new Texas suburbs and talked about how it seems like Texas builds its roads before it builds its towns.
So much of Austin’s roadway was laid out well in advance of Austin’s growth. It was a gamble that has obviously paid off, but it also educates us as to why Austin is shaped the way it is — why its territorial girth far exceeds the reaches of the downtown populous.
Obviously, the interstate was a major moment in the growth of the Capitol City. But it is also important to think about the lasting, damaging effects of such projects, and perhaps why the public transit debate in Austin is such a hot topic today.
This last picture is a photograph from a section of Austin roughly around present-day MLK Blvd. This picture is striking in that what you are seeing in this photo essentially does not exist today, as the area was completely restructured for the purpose of building IH-35 nearby. You’ll notice the clean, grass covered medians and the line of housing on the street. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what metropolitan American could look like before McMansions.
IH-35 is also a little infamous in Austin because it has long served as a racial dividing line. Research by the East End Cultural Heritage District web-site shows that Austin city planners had sought to create a “Negro District” in the East Austin in the late 1920s. Forty years later, at the height of the battle over civil rights, IH-35 became a literal barrier between east and west, and sadly, black and white. This is, unfortunately, a piece of Austin that still exists somewhat today. I can’t count how many times we were told when moving down here to steer clear of “East of 35″ — and I never really understood why.
I think this gets at the essence of what the writers at Republic of Austin are trying to accomplish here, with its commitment to clean, urban living, financial stability, understanding our history, social acceptance and so on. Austin remains one of America’s beautiful cities and can thank its commitment to modernness for that, but pre-IH 35 Austin also presents a very different, wholesome kind of attractiveness.
So while roads connect us — allow us to grow, it is important, especially for a place like Austin, to make sure we don’t lose that *something* that comes with being a unique American city — a special place in a special time. It’s important, in other words, to make sure the Kia Souls of Austin don’t replace the actual souls.
The next time we talk, I’ll be: Mr. Matthew Stewart, Married Person. I’ll let ya know if it feels any different.
Was the growth of major roadways in Austin bad for its cultural identity?
Are the folks in far North and far South Austin *real* Austinites?
Would expanding the highways in Austin help or hurt in “Keeping Austin Weird”?