The Urban Landscape

IMG_6090 edit

Advertisements

Concrete Entanglement in the Lone Star State

You can read the identity of a place in its transit system. How people get around a city says everything about who they are, the nature of their relationships, their shopping habits, how they have fun, even where most of them come from and where they’re going. If someone asked me to choose one feature of Texas that is emblematic of its identity, I would point not to its capitol building, whose dome looms larger than that of the U.S. capitol, nor to cowboy hats or oil rigs or the ubiquitous longhorn. No, I would point to its highways that unravel outward from every urban center and ribbon the state from east to west and north to south. I would rattle off the major interchanges, the nodes of this sprawling vehicle transmission system: the “High Five” in Dallas, the I-35/290 interchange in South Austin, the Beltway 8 Interchange in Houston. These knots of crisscrossing freeways rise from the Texas landscape as cathedrals might in many of the world’s great cities. And although they may be primarily utilitarian, they are also a profession of faith in and allegiance to a way of life, to a culture of cars and commerce and absolute freedom of movement.

A degree of artistry suffuses these monuments to life by car, most visibly in the symbol of Texas chiseled repeatedly in the massive concrete supports that hold flyovers aloft. Whereas elsewhere one might best appreciate the scope of a metropolis from a hill or from across a majestic river or lake, here, in the Lone Star State, a similar view may as likely be had from an overpass climbing and curving several hundred feet into the clear Texas sky.

These interlacing symbols of the Texas state of mind are by no means static. They evolve over time, and new ones grow annually out of the earth, as if vast tectonic forces continually heaved them skyward like mountains rising from the plains. The beginnings of an interchange are messy. Sounds of jackhammers and earth movers fracture the air. Colossal concrete pillars litter the terrain and dust wafts in the wind. A cacophony of horns honking and brakes squealing forms part of this chaotic birthing process, until finally a finished work emerges and the vitality of a populace flows through and brings the steel and concrete giant to life.

To some the highways of Texas may be a blight on the landscape, walls of traffic and noise that segregate one part of a city from another. They foster anonymity, lack of cohesion and a feeling of perennial displacement among the population. The impersonality of urban sprawl prevented me from ever feeling kinship with the DFW metroplex. I was always a stranger here, and the city, a clumsy behemoth only dimly self-aware, never cared that I existed. Yet since I was a little boy growing up in Austin I’ve seen our sprawling highway infrastructure as representing possibility, vitality and the irrational exuberance of a state on the move. Driving I-75 through Dallas or I-35 out of Austin I felt as if I was joining a society of nomads thronging along an asphalt ribbon of nowhere, bounded by somewhere, leading anywhere, so that the highway was an interstice between states of permanence. As a tree-hugging conservationist I’ll always argue for more trains, subways and denser urban spaces, yet the cloverleaf interchange will forever remain an entrancing symbol of the frenetic energy of my home state.