Italo-American City and Regional Planning and Housing Seminar
Ischia, 1955








Roadtown U.S.A.
by Douglas Haskell 

Roadtown is what we might as well call it because it is indeed a city a thousand miles long. Professional language has slighted it by referring to it as mere ribbon development: a term which is pinched and static. Roadtown is the folk creation of that industrial man whom we might as well call the Roadite, along with is inseparable inanimate companion, the automobile, which we might as well call a Roadbeetle. Roadtown is out in the country but it is not of the country. Its situation in direct contiguity with Nature is incidental, not organic. The presence of Roadtown in the country is not connected with farming or with raising animals. It belongs to travel and communication. The roots of Roadtown are widely spread among a large population but it is not that 13% of our population that still operates agriculture; it has nothing to do with the peasant or his heirs; it grows out of industry.
Between the people who create Roadtown and the professional architect or planner there is a wide hiatus due to the fact that the Roadite has an almost incredible lack of education so it is difficult in the extreme for an educated man to understand him. Roadtown has a virile if barbaric life of its own, often hideous beyond belief but not to be dismissed as either weak or consciously hostile to improvement. The sublime obliviousness of Roadtown to the natural scene and to civilized architecture as we know it almost suggests a strange species of human animal producing its own vast network of diggings and structure and lights and intense self-supporting colors along its concrete road- ribbon. This ecology is destructive to what has been loved in Nature, like a tornado or volcano - as if something from outside Nature had crashed down upon Nature; yet the inner purpose of the Roadite, however feebly grasped, is one of peaceful adjustment.
An exploration of Roadtown may as well start at the opposite end from where the Roadile started, who radiated out from the metropolis. Here is a mountain road 300 miles from New York. Roadtown is not yet here. Only a few Roadbeetles have penetrated, and are strewn here and there in front of mountain shacks that recall Tobacco Road in their poverty and disorder. Innocence of real Roadtown invasion is attested by absence here of wires on poles. These outermost feelers of Roadtown we encounter the minute this little dirt road, beautiful and tree-lined, meets a more important thoroughfare. The wire will be there whether or not the surface of the road has yet been converted to hard-top-asphalt or cement. Here, too, we encounter another element of Roadtown which is integral to it just as drums and horns are integral to jazz: the billboard. The billboard had its early beginning when advertisers would paint a farmer’s barn if he would let the paint carry a message. Today these faded barn-sides announcing “Mailpouch Tobacco” are scarce, for the billboard has been dignified with a standard braced structure of its own, planted out in the grass. Today much of the ink or paint used is fluorescent, and many a billboard is night-lighted. The billboard has become so ubiquitous a symbol of the road (or rail-road) that the leading manufacturer of toy trains says he has distributed 30 million toy replicas of billboards in the past five years. To the American boy, a billboard parade makes his toy railroad or toy highway seem “real”. It is a form of heraldry, an instrument of communication, a ritual reassuring the Roadite that, he is still loved by those producing the pickles, chewing gum, automobiles, cigarettes and gasoline which his fellow roadites are happily purchasing.
Out here in the country the butchery of trees for the sake of signs makes a sensitive person wince, it is such a violation of Nature’s mystery. Nearer the city the billboard parade is so thick it becomes virtually a phenomenon of Nature, or rather non-Nature, to be studied as we study the army ant. Roadtown has another essential equipment: the gas garden. It is now undergoing development and change. Formerly gas stations were frequent, spaced every mile of two along even the less traveled roads. That was when the Roadite’s gas tank had small capacity and no reserve. Today gas gardens still line major highways tightly but on minor ones are found mainly at the fringe of those old-fashioned towns through which Roadtown passes. The gas garden has grown more elaborate. Clusters of bright painted pumps, tall poles carrying highly colored signs, some of them illuminated within and translucent; masts flying clusters of little red pennants, all announces the joyful interruption of driving for the ritual of “filling up”, plus incidentally using a toilet, or perhaps dropping a coin in a slot for cigarette, pop or ice cream.
The Roadite fills himself up preferably at a “diner”. Some prehistoric Roadite entrepreneur once bought a discarded street-car, set it up alongside the road, ran a counter full-length down the middle, put facilities for preparing “short order” meals of sandwiches, coffee, pies and the like on one side, and a row of stools on the other. This caught on with the Roadites. The name “diner” was a brilliant stroke in conjunction with the old car, for it derived from the sumptuous and expensive dining car of the railroad. By now the “diner” has evolved beyond recognition. Permanently set on a foundation, recalling only faintly the old streetcar, it has been extended by outgrowths of conventional (though illiterate) building that have dwarfed the nuclear diner the way a gosling hatched by a hen outgrows its mother. Inside there is a proliferation of stainless steel on counters, refrigerators, and other equipment; there is quilted aluminum up the back wall: there are juke boxes, in gaudy colors, all lit up, furnishing nickel-in-the-slot music to the booths along the front. The diners where truck drivers stop employ fetching countergirls, with a good gift of gab added to Nature’s gifts, as a lure against competition. Other games abound along Roadtown. The various “Disneylands” or “Storytowns” are Roadite’s elaborate and un-mysterious substitutes for the French puppet show: whole series of “crazy” structures doing the pantomime in construction as well as in acting, and always in candy colors. The drive-in movie theaters let the Roadite sit in his own car in the dark with his girl watching and hearing the latest Hollywood; night clubs along the road likewise strain for fantasy, being usually built in parody of Mother Goose or other familiar lore. Yet occasionally there is a degree more of abstraction in the concept, where some struggling but immature spirit has translated Frank Lloyd Wright’s forms into a type of architecture known as “googie”. Unlike other Roadtown builders this young man is likely to be an architect and a high priest, not an abashed showman.
At night the Roadite stops at a motel. Unlike the old hotel it gives him a bit of curb, or a place alongside a cabin, where he can park his car close to his own door. His cabin may be a separate one - perhaps a miniature log cabin where he can play Daniel Boone with modern comfort. Or it may be in a closed row, forming a “tourist court”. Here he has a choice of masquerades: he can play George Washington at Mt. Vernon, or Alpinist, or roast beef Englishman at a half-timbered inn, or the owner of a mill-in-the-floss with waterwheels under him and wagon wheels ranged solidly all around. Like all children’s games the motel game gets along on a minimum of verisimilitude.
The motel has become a major industry, with an investment estimated at $30 billion in buildings alone and with a gross income of $11/2 billion annually, probably optimistic figures: and the old-line hotel is being obliged to transform itself to meet the competition. (A good motel gets higher rates). Surprisingly not many Roadites live permanently in motels, convenient as these are; perhaps this is because the motel has the reputation of providing escapes not only from the city but from strict family mores. Trailer owners, by contrast, drag their own elaborate house-cars all along the US, and will take any amount of trouble to find the trailer camp where they can mingle with one another and have ready water and electric connections while playing at the deluxe gypsy, often for long periods of time.
In quick review we have been talking of strictly popular manifestation that have created Roadtown. The Roadite is twice removed from Nature, for his ancestors escaped from the country into town and he is now carrying the city out into the country with him. He cares little or nothing for natural landscape, for trees, for natural materials; he has not the peasant’s tradition to offset ignorance, nor any subservience to any master as “authority” in taste – he has been taught all his life that his own taste is as good as anyone’s; he is cheerful and well off and generous and gregarious, ever ready for little games – rather juvenile in fancy – there is no training in his background for esthetics either, nor does his radio or TV give any now; he is ever on the move; the 1950 census figures show that one-fourth of his number were born in states other than they now live in; presumably one-half were born in towns other than they now live in; and according to the Bureau of Labor statistic figures, not one in five has the same job he had ten years ago. We speak of course of industrial population for Roadtown has nothing to do with farming.
Now however Roadtown is running into complications brought about by more sophisticated people operating at larger scale. The Roadite will soon cease to dominate the road as the pioneer ceased to dominate the frontier. For example, driving along the road one now passes an automobile factory, an abstract urban structure transplanted complete onto a well-shaved roadside lawn, its parking lots to the rear filled with an acreage of Roadbeetles. Or, the product of the factory may be surgical dressing. Or, the “factory”, slightly more polished may be the immense office building of an insurance company that has migrated into the country.
Yet again, what we have here? A sudden outcrop of city stores, but planned as you cannot find them within a US city: they are lined-up on a mall, as a coordinated “shopping center” put up by single promoter with heavy backing including big department stores. What else is new? The attack of highway engineers. To clear away slow local traffic from through-routes, a classification of roads is under way, resulting in new superhighways, throughways, speedways, expressways for long-distance movements. These have a gathering effect: since their entrances and exits are widely spaced, all the little droplets of gas station, motel, roadside diner, that are spread out along existing roads tend to be drawn together into big drops at intersection or interchange. This means elimination of whole strings of motels, signs, other Roadtown paraphernalia, which must die because the driver has no way to get off the road till he reaches an intersection. If these attractions try to extend too far on side-roads they will die again, from being too far from the motorist’s eye. Consequently such highway engineering tends to kill ribbon development and restore nodular new-town development at the major intersections. And here the scope of operations is large enough, the distribution dense enough, so professional skill may once again be called. Moreover the motels and roadside restaurants have begun to be organized by larger promoters to chains, and this again gives the architect the chance to design the prototype, and impose something like a sensible pattern for the landscape. Again, from time to time an exceptional manufacturer acting with an exceptional architect has found it not only good but profitable to clear up such ugly roadside manifestations as the small warehouse facility for course goods like pipe.
With endless education we can make such efforts spread, appealing to the basically good, constructive, cooperative temper of the Roadite. What must not be done is to attempt a “counter-revolution”. One must resist those who too often preach. The “parkway”, for example, is counter-revolution, an attempt to answer Roadtown by eliminating it altogether. As one who has driven on parkways a great deal I must testify that their particular form of beauty ends in boredom. It is wholly artificial and induced, a thin ribbon of landscaping as an art entirely for itself and insulating the highway from all natural surrounding. Gone is all life of men, all that activity which, for us as for the old-time farmer, might make the road a book. Nothing is left but prettiness; and although, in today’s terms, a switch from hard-boiled “Route 9” onto a parkway is a momentary relief for a civilized man, it is no genuine answer. For, although the Roadite still has an endless amount to learn, before he rediscovers truths larger and more authoritative than his own, he also has a little to teach. His “instinct” for living in an industrial age is in some ways more “natural” than that of sophisticated educated people because less inhibited by irrelevant taboos. He has his little spark of fantasy and wonder. To meet him and absorb him, a modern architecture must be a little less stiff, esoteric, blue-blooded and precious than today it is.