Luskin: Highways and sense of place

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(HOST) Driving on Vermont’s interstates has prompted commentator Deborah Luskin to think about how the highway has changed our sense of place.

(LUSKIN) About ten years ago, we took the kids to Washington, DC, and stayed with friends in Maryland. Every morning, we drove to the Metro and commuted into town. The mile trip from the house to the parking garage was an eye-opener for us hicks: three lanes of traffic in each direction, stop lights at the end of every block, and lots and lots of cars. Driving to work the following Monday was a great relief.
There I was on I-91, and not another car in sight. It wasn’t until White River Junction, as I was curving onto I89, that a familiar car overtook me. It was Peter Shumlin, heading to Montpelier. This story proves the old adage about small town life: you not only know who’s in which car, but you also know where they’re going. Before the Interstate, Vermont was made up of just such small towns. Since the highway’s been built, the whole state’s become a small town.
Vermont’s 322 miles of Interstate weren’t finished until 1978, but enough was completed by 1965 to bring my family north for the summer. By 1969, the highway took us all the way to Waterbury, just ten miles from the skiing in Stowe.
But it wasn’t until the mid-nineties, after I’d lived here for more than a decade, that I realized how much the interstates must have changed Vermont. Curiosity sparked, I started doing some research. I interviewed people whose families lost land to the highway at the north end of Brattleboro. The place was all farms fifty years ago, not the asphalt strip it is now.
I’ve tried to imagine what Vermont was like before the highway arrived, and how the highway changed the state. Along with the highway came huge changes in agriculture. Forty- and fifty- head Holstein herds replaced the twelve-cow Jersey herd, and bulk-tank collection replaced milk cans hauled down to the plant for processing.
Lest I sound nostalgic for times gone by, let me set the record straight: the coming of the highway was neither all good nor all bad. But the law of unintended consequences had its effect. The road came, farming changed, and we all got in our cars and started driving. Nobody expected we’d poison the air with cars – or ever run out of cheap gas. Or that the farmers who modernized would depend on trucking in mid-western grain to feed their cows, or that people would drive past their local stores to shop twenty miles away at the supermarket, or, more recently, drive out-of-state to warehouse-like big box stores.
For better or worse, the Interstate is here, and it’s a beautiful road through a beautiful landscape. I’m grateful for the ease with which it allows me to get around. But I can’t help thinking about how the road steamrolled our sense of the local and helped homogenize traditional culture, diminishing our sense of community and belonging.

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