25 June 2015

Highways and their impact on cities -- so many neighborhoods no longer exist!

Have you ever had an address from a directory in the first half of the 20th century and then put it in Google Maps (or something comparable) and nothing happens?

Often, when I go to try and figure out what is going on, especially if the address was in a city, I look at an older map and then a newer one and realize that a big highway is running right over that neighborhood!  The same happens when you know someone lived off a creek (clearly shown on an older map) to find that the town is now under a reservoir!

Much of our landscape has changed as a result of building highways and creating lakes.

Whole neighborhoods no longer exist except in records. 

I bring this up because such changes in “the lay of the land” are important to our research and understanding the records to look for. 

As with all our research, understanding the context of highways as presented in Highways gutted American cities. So why did they build them? helps us better appreciate these roads that we often take for granted.  Since most of these were built after I was born, they have always existed for me.  It’s hard to imagine what once was when I have no memory of a vastly different landscape.

We need to remember – they didn’t always exist!

On a related note, there is a website, 60 Years of Urban Change: Midwest (links are provided to other geographic areas as well), which talks about many cities across the country and has interactive maps depicting them from the 1950s to the present.

“60 years has made a big difference in the urban form of American cities. The most rapid change occurred during the mid-century urban renewal period that cleared large tracts of urban land for new highways, parking, and public facilities or housing projects. Fine-grained networks of streets and buildings on small lots were replaced with superblocks and megastructures.” 

I find historical context pieces like this fascinating.  They remind me to try and look through records and color my interpretation of people’s lives by better understanding what the world looked like to them at the time, not the world as I see it today.

Did you ever have an aha moment where you realized that there was some element of geography that has completely changed since your ancestors were alive?

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