“Streets Are for People Too!”: Community, Infrastructure, and Contested Spaces in 20th-Century America

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History

Friday, April 3, 2020, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Science and Technology; Transportation, Travel, and Exploration; Urban and Suburban


Historians of the twentieth century recognize the push into modernity through infrastructure and the built environment. Most often, such history lacks the voices of ordinary people. Debates over transportation, infrastructure, architecture, and places center heavily on policy and politics, and while people are involved, the voices of ordinary citizens are often stifled by the larger, more gregarious voices of politicians and policymakers. This panel will borrow from recent historiographical developments that places institutional and local perspectives alongside each other in examining the cultural implications of America’s built environment. These perspectives are particularly important in infrastructure as Americans experienced urbanization; professionalized expertise; and mass development, but also individuals and families faced disruptions in their local communities that required them to reconcile their stake in the politicization of local and national infrastructure. The significance of spatial autonomy in 20th-century America is best examined by the development and engineering of our physical environment. By examining the complex ways that corporations, the state, and individuals construct and reconstruct the liminal spaces within and among urban, suburban, and rural environments—as well as honing in on identity formation of any given place as it is shaped by the materiality of its infrastructure—historians can demonstrate the complex relationship between institutional structure and individual agency that built American society over the past century.

Papers Presented

The Road to Nowhere: The Politicization of Rural Road Improvement, 1890–1920

Some of the most recognized highway debates are those from the mid-20th century: Dwight D. Eisenhower’s massive interstate highway system and the legendary takedown of Robert Moses by Jane Jacobs. However, debates over roads began long before the mid-twentieth century. Most importantly, the debates began in rural America. In the 1880s the League of American Wheelmen lobbied for federal involvement in rural road improvement. By 1893, Congress answered the call of ardent bicyclists and authorized a federal Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With no authority, a mere $10,000 budget, and two employees, the ORI was only authorized to collect road data. By the early 1900s, the small federal office supervised the construction of demonstration roads in small towns across the country, encouraged the establishment of local highway commissions, and drafted legislation for federal aid for road building. The Federal Aid Road Act (1916) and the Federal Aid Highway Act (1921), launched an era of scientific road building that would lay the foundation for our national highway infrastructure. This paper explores the inequalities among local, state, and federal authority in rural road improvement. The politicization of where and when roads would be financed—and who would build them—launched some communities into modernity and left others stuck in the mud. The growing power of the federal government’s road office, and the shift in their expertise from dispersed to centralized reveals illuminating fissures within the America’s federal/state compromise.

Presented By
Amanda L. Katz, Carnegie Mellon University

The Elderly Navigating New York City: Old Age, Public Health, and the Politics of the Urban Street, 1920–Present

In the early twentieth century, excitement over the automobile ushered in a new era of high-speed transport and mobility. Safety pamphlets described the “art of walking” to free the roadway for cars, street vending was restricted, and traffic lights were timed for automobile circulation. As traffic statistics highlighted the growing number of fatal accidents involving children and the elderly, concerns rose with projections of a rapidly expanding elderly population. In 1990 the World Health Organization called for “age-friendly” cities to accommodate aging populations, while densely populated New York City developed the Safe Streets for Seniors initiative, lengthening crossing times and widening sidewalks at the expense of automobile traffic. How did elderly pedestrians, construed as dangerous and disruptive, become politically powerful in urban planning? How did conflicts between the modern city and aging bodies emerge? How did public health institutions and aging Americans secure change? This paper explores changes to urban streets in New York City between 1920 and the present. It examines the rising visibility of elderly inhabitants, the relationships between the disabilities common in aging and disability activism, public health discussions of the “needs” of the elderly, and the resulting reconfigurations of the built environment. Drawing on historical maps and photographs, Department of Transportation records, public health records, and mainstream media, this paper offers insight into the rise of “age-friendly” cities and how they responded to, and at times ignored, aging Americans.

Presented By
Cara Kiernan Fallon, University of Pennsylvania

The Cost of Air Travel: Cleveland Hopkins Airport and the West Park Neighborhood

Mark Souther’s Believing in Cleveland (2017), highlighted how planners and civic leaders in Cleveland directed revitalization projects that aimed at protecting and preserving certain neighborhoods (downtown and middle-/upper-class ones) while ignoring or even harming other areas of the city (African American and working-class neighborhoods). That argument could also be made when examining plans for the expansion of Cleveland’s municipal airport. Even though the city had already experienced significant population loss, beginning in the 1970s local officials supported plans to clear sizable portions of a stable, white, working-class neighborhood, West Park, to support proposed airport expansion projects. That part of the neighborhood had already experienced population losses due to the construction of Interstate 480. While some welcomed the buyouts, others fought to save their homes. Many residents had a strong sense of place reinforced by family ties and strong institutions. Residents even held reunions to commemorate the loss of their neighborhood and fought (successfully) to save a Catholic church threatened by a decline in the number of parishioners. Although airport projects also resulted in the clearance of white, middle-class and suburban neighborhoods (mostly of post–World War II construction), these were not the only communities that bore the cost of the expansion of postwar air travel. African American and working-class neighborhoods also disappeared to make way for new runways and provide the ultimate solution for airport noise issues, clearance of those who would lodge the complaints.

Presented By
Janet Rose Bednarek, University of Dayton

Real Estate and Risk: Telephone Buildings in the Age of the Urban Crisis 

In its first decades, between the 1880s and the 1920s, AT&T constructed the Bell telephone monopoly through massive investments in urban and rural infrastructure, connecting cities and towns across the United States in a near-continuous network. Telephone poles and wires crisscrossed the countryside, and buildings and design provided a corporate face that first helped make the disruptive technology acceptable, then helped make it desirable. The proliferation of art deco telephone buildings in American downtowns in the 1920s and 1930s marked the peak of this confident and exuberant public architecture for private infrastructure. In the postwar decades, however, this infrastructure was no longer new and began to require the less appealing investments for maintenance. As American downtowns began to empty due to white flight, once-proud institutional landmarks became defensive and battered liabilities. AT&T’s attempts to craft a corporate policy surrounding the urban crisis centered in part on fear of its offices becoming targets for civil rights demonstrations in Chicago, Detroit, and other cities by the late 1960s. This defensive posture produced an attitude of indifference to design and overt hostility to the urban environment. As real estate became risk, buildings that once welcomed the public in open houses and public offices turned inward providing a stark material symbol of the waning monopoly’s changing status in the American city.

Presented By
Kathryn Holliday, University of Texas at Arlington

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Amanda L. Katz, Carnegie Mellon University
Amanda Katz is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research interests focus on American cultural history, science and technology, and rural and urban studies of the early 20th century. She is currently working on a dissertation examining rural highway development and the scientific evolution of the Bureau of Public Roads as the central authority of highway engineering from 1893-1933. In connection with her dissertation research, she won the 2018 Bordin-Gillette Researcher Travel Fellowship from the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan; a Research Grant for Authors from the State Historical Society of Iowa; the Richard C. Overton Prize from the Lexington Group; and an A.W. Mellon Fellowship in Digital Humanities. She earned a B.A. in English Literature at Worcester State College and an M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought at New York University.

Presenter: Janet Rose Bednarek, University of Dayton
Janet R. Daly Bednarek is a professor of history at the University of Dayton where she teaches courses on urban history and the history of American aviation. Her work on airport history includes America’s Airports: Airfield Development, 1918-1947 (Texas A&M, 2001), Cities Take Flight: A Centennial History of the American Municipal Airport (American Public Works Association, 2004), and, most recently, Airports, Cities and the Jet Age: US Airports Since 1945 (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016). Her article, “The Flying Machine in the Garden: Parks and Airports, 1918-1938,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American History Essays, 2007 (Palgrave, 2007). From 2005 to 2014 she served as the Executive Director of the Urban History Association and from 2016-2017 served as the president of the Ohio Academy of History.

Presenter: Cara Kiernan Fallon, University of Pennsylvania
Cara Kiernan Fallon, PhD, MPH is a postdoctoral fellow in biomedical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy. She is a historian of medicine, public health, and medical ethics whose research analyzes the rise of the healthy aging practices in the twentieth century alongside evolving relationships between medicine, public health, the commercial marketplace, and aging Americans. She pays particular attention to issues of gender, disability, and structural biases in long-term public health outcomes, and her current research emphasizes the moral and ethical dimensions of aging, caregiving, and chronic disease in modern American history.

Her book project, Forever Young: The Social Transformation of Aging in America Since 1900 examines shifting societal beliefs about aging in modern America. It argues that the emergence of old age as a social problem the mid-twentieth century was not only due to demographic changes in the elderly population—the majority of whom were women—but also depended on new attitudes toward the aging body as a site for medical intervention and individual control. Her research combines close reading of physicians’ papers, advice literature, and company archives with an analysis of the products and devices of daily living—the material world of the elderly—to provide insight into medical and cultural interventions into aging bodies, the role of gender in shaping ageism, and the ironies of medical treatments that improved longevity but simultaneously undermined the common experiences of aging in an ever-expanding group of older people. Her work has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson’s Charlotte W. Newcombe Dissertation Completion Fellowship, the Charles Warren Center for American Studies, and the Consortium for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology.

Prior to her doctoral work, she earned a master’s degree in public health at the Yale School of Public Health and she completed her undergraduate degree with highest honors at Yale University in the History of Science/History of Medicine.

Presenter: Kathryn Holliday, University of Texas at Arlington
Kathryn Holliday is an architectural historian who studies the built environment in American cities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current book project is Telephone City: Architecture and the Rise and Fall of the Bell Monopoly, an architectural and urban history of telephone central office buildings that interweaves study of technology, geography, gender, and shifting corporate strategy between 1876 and the breakup of the Bell monopoly in 1984. Her most recent book The Open-Ended City: David Dillon on Texas Architecture, collected the writing of the prolific architecture critic to promote the reexamination of the ways that real estate developers and architects contributed to the rise of sprawl and city branding in Texas cities in the 1980s and 1990s. She has also authored monographs on the New York architects Leopold Eidlitz and Ralph Walker, and is deeply engaged in current issues of equitable neighborhood development and historic preservation in Dallas and Fort Worth.

Commentator: Tammy Leigh Ingram, College of Charleston
Tammy Ingram is a historian of the twentieth-century U.S. Her new book project, The Wickedest City in America: The Rise and Fall of Organized Crime in the Jim Crow South, examines criminal enterprise, government corruption, and challenges to the sexual and racial order in the Jim Crow South. The book focuses on a sophisticated organized crime syndicate in Phenix City, Alabama, a small town along the Chattahoochee River, but it surveys the full scope of crime and corruption in the South and beyond from the early twentieth century through the 1950s. Professor Ingram recently served as the Robina Fellow in Modern Slavery at the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale where she also taught a seminar in the history department. Ingram’s first book Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, is the first book about the construction of the nation’s very first interstate highway system, a largely forgotten 6000-mile network of roads that looped from Lake Michigan to Miami Beach and back up again. By looking at the tensions embedded in the formation of modern transportation policy, Dixie Highway helps to explain some of the partisan debates that surround infrastructure projects today. The book received awards from the Georgia Historical Society and the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council and was named a 2014 Book of Interest by the Business History Conference. She received her PhD from Yale University in 2007 and began teaching at the College of Charleston in 2011. In addition to her scholarly work, Professor Ingram has contributed essays and op-eds to publications such as H-Net, the Huffington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Like the Dew.