alternative present

I just finished reading Ned Sublette’s The Year Before the Flood which is a memoir chronicling his year spent on a fellowship at Tulane right before Katrina. It is so great (thanks Charles) and I learned so much from it. I wish I could hang out with him. He jumps seamlessly back and forth from Louisiana history to music history to his own story, and it is breathlessly paced and utterly fascinating.
Among the many other riveting details was his discussion of the Interstate Act. He mentions at one point that, as a child driving around before the interstate system was created, you had to drive through cities rather than above them or around them. What a difference in people’s conception of the inner city that must have created! I have long been interested in the way public space and public architecture creates consciousness, and the idea that folks are going above, or over “bad neighborhoods” seems like it could create a sort of mental hierarchy of good (up) versus bad (down). Not just that, but it’s less human interaction, less opportunity to stop and ask for directions, and less opportunity to see any local flavor or diversity. That’s what I hate about taking the interstate myself (though something american in me can find the beauty in ugly infrastructure), that every place looks the same when seen from the interstate.
Sublette’s salient point isn’t this, however, it’s that many times, interstate bridges were built right through the middle of thriving black business districts: effectively cutting neighborhoods off from other neighborhoods, and curbing commerce where it once existed. I know some of this firsthand because I grew up steps from I-75. The book is worth reading for his discussion of the moment when he experiences a second line brass band walking underneath the interstate bridge in the Treme in New Orleans. It’s a moment of pure joy, community strength, and strong beautiful resistance to this ugly infrastructure.
His discussion of the interstate system got me thinking as I was flying back from Denver on Sunday morning: It was clear until we reached Western Oregon, and I could see tiny roads etched in the landscape below, those telltale clovers at interstate exchanges, and spidery lines running through mountain passes even in the most remote locations. I was thinking, what if the Eisenhower administration had done what was best for the people, rather than for the car and oil industries? What if another public project had the money, talent, and cultural capital behind it instead of the Interstate? What if all those lines cutting through the landscape were high speed passenger trains, making it easy and cheap for us to get from place to place, but allowing us to see each other’s faces, get to know people, and not to mention impact the environment a hell of a lot less. As far up as I was in the air, you couldn’t really tell that they weren’t that. It felt good, imagining a more just and beautiful infrastructure from up there.
Mostly, I can’t wait to read Ned Sublette’s companion book to this one, The World that Made New Orleans.

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