Philadelphia Odology: Before the Northeast Extension There Was Broad Street

[SIGN ON THE NE CORNER OF BROAD AND BRISTOL STS. c. 1930-40]

To those accustomed to the Interstate Highway System, this sign at Broad and Bristol Sts., with its pale references to unreachable places, seems to point at a human trace now lost. Its presence at the intersection of U.S. Route 13 (Hunting Park Ave.) and U.S. Route 611 suggests an undefinable significance.

Before the stultifyingly boring Northeast Extension, Delaware Valley motorists took U.S., later Pennsylvania Route 611, (pictured below) to get into the Pennsylvania northeastern hinterland. It was, no doubt, a leisurely drive through gritty North Philadelphia and into the sedate rolling hills of Montgomery, Bucks, Northampton, and Lehigh counties. Growing ever steeper the hills slowly lapsed into the upper Appalachians in Carbon, Luzerne, and Lackawanna counties.

[THE 1926 U.S. NUMBERED HIGHWAY SYSTEM PLAN FOR PA]

Drives like this in the early 20th century were opportunities to satisfy wanderlust in the pastoral Pennsylvania’s landscape. Beginning in the teens and twenties, auto companies, driving clubs, gasoline dealers all developed customized guide books to broaden and deepen the experience of moving over America’s new roads. The iconography of these early guides tapped into that seemingly preternatural American impulse for freedom and independence; by showing cars all alone on the open road they reinforced the myth of the auto as affording isolation. In actuality, however, more Americans were taking to the roads, infiltrating the formerly pristine wilds of the country. As Paul Sutter has argued in his Driven Wild, it was precisely the presence of more automobiles in places like the Shenandoah which prompted planners, ecologists, and conservationists to establish car-friendly and car-unfriendly spaces in the National Park system.

[THE MYTH OF AUTOMOTIVE ISOLATION]

But what undergirded the entire mass produced experience of driving were the roads themselves. The Good Roads Movement, initially instigated by bicyclists or “wheelmen” in the 1890s, was gradually coopted by automobilists who saw the movement’s objective as mutually beneficial. Pennsylvania’s Route 611 was an outgrowth of the country’s first attempt to develop a workable interstate system. In 1916, Congress passed Federal-Aid Road Act enabling the federal government to distribute $75 million for the construction of well-engineered to connect the rural American to the urban mart and the frazzled metropolitan to the open road. The 1921 Federal-Aid Highway Act supplemented the initial funds and in 1926 a consortium of state and federal highway officials created the U.S. Numbered Highway System, which Route 611 was a part.

This sign remains only through a kind of salutory neglect. Though it indicates a path no longer discernable to most Philadelphians, it is a part of this city and this country’s odological history. Rootlessness and travel are what define the American experience. One day these 20th century road systems will be less understood than the tracks and traces of the colonial era.

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5 thoughts on “Philadelphia Odology: Before the Northeast Extension There Was Broad Street

  1. Very nice post, and rather than steal your photo I’m gonna ride my bike over there and snap a picture.

    Thanks for mentioning the good roads movement. Bikes invented roads, something that seems lost on modern transportation engineers.

    One very minor quibble: In the 30’s and 40’s North Philly was a thriving neighborhood. It wouldn’t have been described as ‘gritty’ at that time. The white flight and decimation of the industrial base came a little later.

  2. Fixedgear: Although some may even argue that Philadelphia’s industrial slowdown began as early as the 1920s, you are right: most of the white flight and plant closures occurred 1950-80. I meant “gritty” in its literal meaning–that in the 20s-30s, the air would have been filled with coal smoke and other industrial effluvients.

  3. Thanks crd2 – this post is just really cool. Amazing what one finds just roaming around some of the more neglected (and yet in plain view) portions of this city. This entire post would make a great cultural geography lecture. Mike

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