The Big Idea: Lewis Shiner
These are the days of $4 a gallon gas here in the US, a fact which does not generate much sympathy from most other people in the world (who saw the back end of $4 gas a long time ago) but which pinches us pretty hard anyway, and makes us wonder if our car-driven society might have been better off not so car-driven.
Oddly enough, author Lewis Shiner has been mulling over the same thought (although not necessarily because of $4 gas), and the implications of cars and highways on the life of our nation, and the people within it. It’s a theme in his latest novel Black & White, which Publishers Weekly is lauding as a “powerful and affecting novel… a stunning tapestry that captures hopes, dreams, greed, bigotry, ambitions and betrayals.” A nice recommendation, to be sure, but why not hear from the author himself? Here’s Shiner himself to talk about cars, highways, and life, not necessarily in that order.
What if the US had decided against building the Interstate Highway System?
Admittedly, this is a long shot. From the days of Henry Ford’s “motor car for the great multitude,” we in the US have been assured that each of us deserves his or her own automobile. It’s our own little piece of Manifest Destiny, part of that fiercely independent, “Don’t Tread On Me” attitude that seems fundamental to our national character.
Still, if there was ever a last chance for an alternative, it was in 1956, when the fate of the $50 billion highway package was far from certain.
When I started researching my new book, Black & White, I hadn’t thought that much about freeways. Growing up in Texas, I’d welcomed the Dallas North Tollway and the 635 Loop that helped me get around faster. When I moved from Texas to North Carolina in 1996, I drove a U-Haul across more than a thousand miles of interstate highway. Freeways seemed inevitable.
Black & White is about a North Carolina neighborhood called Hayti, once the most prosperous black community in the South. During the 1960s, Hayti was bulldozed to make room for the Durham Freeway, leading to a new industrial development called Research Triangle Park. The money to do it came in large part from the federal urban renewal program. All told, urban renewal wiped out 150 neighborhoods like Hayti, and virtually all of the displaced residents were African-American. Freeways were often the excuse for the demolition.
Even knowing that, there was a certain cold logic at work that seemed hard to refute. Given that the highway has to go somewhere, the most likely place for it is where the land is cheap. Jim Crow still ruled the South in those days, so black neighborhoods were frequently poor neighborhoods, and the residents lacked the political clout to save their homes.
Then I read Tom Lewis’s Divided Highways (Penguin, 1997), and I started to ask if that highway really needed to exist.
The dream of the Interstate Highway System was to end traffic congestion forever. With the advantage of hindsight, Lewis makes it clear that the dream never had a chance. Once a highway is built, new homes, stores, and workplaces will naturally spring up in proximity. With more destinations now in reach of the freeway, traffic grows to fill all available lanes. Expand the number of lanes and more cars show up to choke them as well.
And the cycle grows more vicious by the day. With more and more destinations accessible only by freeway, cars become even more indispensable. Longer trips mean more fuel consumption, more pollution. With highways getting all the money and railroads proportionately starving, trucks take over all the freight transportation. More pollution, more wear and tear on the roads, more congestion.
Congestion and impatience breed collisions, creating more congestion, more frustration, road rage, feelings of helplessness, until in 2008 half the passenger vehicles on the road are huge pickup trucks or SUVs that look like armored cars. My daily commute to Research Triangle Park over ten miles of Interstate 40 is a nerve-wracking journey through a war zone.
What if, instead of spending all those billions on the interstate system, we had spent the same amount on public transportation?
I’ve ridden subways and commuter trains in New York and Boston, in Europe and Latin America, and the quality of the experience is profoundly different from that of driving a freeway. Instead of glorifying the individual, it values the community. There is no advantage to be gained by reckless stunts–everyone on the train arrives at the same time. Instead of spending the trip in caffeine-fueled aggression–or, as I do, in stark terror–you can read, listen to music with your eyes closed, or even talk to a stranger.
These thoughts had a considerable effect on the novel. It’s bad enough to sacrifice a neighborhood for the sake of a greater good. It’s far worse when the destruction–for dubious motives in the first place–is one more step toward the wrong future.
I put these ideas in the mouth of an activist named Barrett Howard. My viewpoint character in the longest 1960s segment is a highway engineer, and Howard’s ideas begin to eat at him, undermining his faith in his work, eventually sending his life on a new course.
In the largest part of the book, set in the present, the highways took on a more sinister character. Barrett Howard’s murdered body is found inside a concrete embankment of the Durham Freeway. Traffic jams, crazed drivers, and bleak expanses of concrete became part of the background of the novel.
Where would we be without our cars and highways? I can’t help but think we’d be in a better place. But thanks to our Interstate Highway System, we’ll probably never know.
Visit Lewis Shiner’s collection of online short fiction and other writing here.