Imagine It Gone: On Megan Kimble’s “City Limits”

David Alff reviews Megan Kimble’s “City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality, and the Future of America’s Highways.”

Imagine It Gone: On Megan Kimble’s “City Limits”

City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality, and the Future of America’s Highways by Megan Kimble. Crown. 368 pages.

“THE PEOPLE OF East Tremont did not have much,” wrote Robert Caro in The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, his 1974 biography of the influential city planner. So when Moses began dredging the Cross Bronx Expressway toward the neighborhood’s prewar walk-ups and brick tenements, residents fought to save their homes. They rallied, but Moses prevailed, and those living in the path of his projected road had no choice but to leave. East Tremont grew quiet at first, then roared with traffic. The air absorbed so much exhaust that matches burned “with a pale-blue flame.” And yet, Caro marveled, “the human constitution apparently adapts itself to such fumes. One can sit next to the expressway for five days, observing it, and notice that by the fifth day, the nausea and headache and dizziness one felt at first are gone.”


The word “infrastructure” appears nowhere in Caro’s account of the social wreckage wrought under the guise of public works. Coined by 19th-century French railway engineers to name the cuts, bridges, tunnels, and embankments that support train tracks, “infrastructure” now refers to any material endeavor that promises to uphold collective life: the wires that light our homes, the plants that treat our water, the roads that bring us elsewhere. In East Tremont, Caro recorded the agonistic history of one such promise, exposing the ambitions and animosities behind a fuming ditch that might otherwise seem as God-given as the Hudson River or Bronx air.


Infrastructure is a repository of decisions we forgot we made but with which we learn to live. Or, as investigative journalist Megan Kimble observes, “once a highway is built, it is almost impossible to imagine it gone.” When roads congeal into the “essential shape of the built environment,” we forget they were ever up for debate—or that they can change again. Kimble’s new book City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality, and the Future of America’s Highways tells the stories of people who reopen infrastructural conversations that might otherwise seem closed. Where Caro plotted the rise of a single logistical maestro, Kimble profiles the chorus of residents, activists, and experts waging generational fights for the future of Houston, Dallas, and Austin, Texas. The result is at once a compelling inventory of what people have sacrificed for vehicular speed, an instructive primer on who makes what go where in urban space, and a call to rethink our reliance on highways in light of their environmental impact.


The rise of American car culture is a story well told. Many have described the origins of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, Norman Bel Geddes’s motorized diorama at the 1939 World’s Fair, the boom of Levittowns, and the implosion of inner-city cores. We know the basic script, whether from Tom Lewis’s Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (1997), Martha Olson and Jim Klein’s Taken for a Ride (1996), or Gary K. Wolf’s (and Disney’s) Roger Rabbit. Kimble takes a fresh approach to the automobile’s triumph by mapping its history onto the operations of state and local government. We learn that the Eisenhower administration was unsure about whether interstates should even enter cities before it coaxed an avalanche of urban road schemes through the Highway Trust Fund’s use-it-or-lose-it granting system. Federal government, in other words, created the conditions for municipal leaders to act, and act they have.


Kimble traces this action through a narrative weave that is painstakingly local and indelibly Texan. Oil-rich, transit-shy Texas now boasts more road miles than any other state and the most American drivers outside of California. City Limits fills in the backstory to Lone Star motorscapes that have entranced authors from Lawrence Wright, who disdains the “ugly sprawl of car lots and franchise chicken joints and prefab warehouses that issued out of the heart of every city and crawled along our highways like poison vines,” to Jia Tolentino, who ponders Houston’s “unfamiliar and unfathomably large expanse of highway and prairie.” These busy yet desolate scenes derive not only from laissez-faire Republicanism, Kimble shows, but also from a devotion to accommodating cars that spans the political spectrum.


The cities of City Limits play variations on a Texan theme. Houston sprawls over 637 square miles of flood-prone tabletop. The breakfast-taco utopia that is Austin gentrifies itself to death. Dallas struggles to remember, much less reverse, its history of Black displacement. When citizens challenge projects to widen, deck, or downgrade roads—I-45, I-35, and I-345 are this book’s headlining arteries—they are also implicitly raising questions about affordable housing, environmental racism, pedestrian safety, and climate change. To oppose a road, Kimble shows, is to call for a new city to be built around something other than what already exists. Or, as a Dakota Access Pipeline protestor once explained, “to be against pipelines is to be against the very world we inhabit.”


All of Kimble’s case studies grapple with the Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT, the state agency that administers highway funds and exercises eminent domain. Delving into the conference chambers and Zoom conclaves of state bureaucracy, Kimble meets planners, judges, surveyors, appraisers, elected legislators, and unelected commissioners staging “democracy, but at a remove.” Engineers wield incomprehensible traffic models. Items appear and vanish from council agendas. Meetings drag on or end abruptly. Lawsuits resolve without resolution. Pamphlets entitled “State Purchase of Right of Way” rain down on residents caught under the “translucent red” map line of an intended road. Officials do not rebut public will so much as dampen it. What makes TxDOT’s obfuscations especially nefarious is the agency’s massive scale (12,000 employees disbursed across 25 geographical districts) and lack of oversight. Of the seemingly autonomous department, Kimble writes, “TxDOT would do what TxDOT wanted to do, and what TxDOT wanted to do was make space to move cars.”


With few exceptions, the outcome is inertia. Texas keeps laying road despite acutely feeling the effects of global warming in the form of heat domes and hurricanes, and the inescapable awareness of the harm highways inflict on communities of color. TxDOT keeps paving even as Texans come to grips with what they lost by “pushing the limits of our cities farther and farther” under the assumption that “speed would always be available to us.” If I-45 cost Houston’s Fifth Ward—a historically Black community—its “barbershops and beauty salons, drugstores and medical clinics, shoe hospitals and tailors, restaurants and clubs,” why would its planners consider trading homes for lanes? If Austinites miss the tamale vendors and picnickers who once gathered on the pecan-shaded median of East Avenue, why would they expand the highway that obliterated this idyllic scene?


Texas’s refusal to change course is all the more incensing in light of progress elsewhere. When the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, the city board of supervisors wisely chose to demolish it. Boston eventually replaced its perpetually clogged Central Artery with a tunnel and greenway. Kimble visits Rochester, New York, where city officials used federal and state funds to backfill part of the sunken Inner Loop Highway. The liberated six acres now host a boulevard, bike paths, apartments, and coffee shops. This development comes as a welcome jolt to the long-struggling city, though some fear it may unleash new waves of displacement by pricing residents and retailers out of surrounding real estate. (The idea that Rochester—population 209,352—could represent the future to Texan boomtowns still sounds surreal to this Rust Belt denizen.)


While bureaucracy creaks on with business as usual, Kimble turns her focus to non-officeholders agitating for slower, smaller ways of life. Under the banners of Stop TxDOT I-45 and Rethink35, citizen activists write letters, draft petitions, pen op-eds, canvass neighborhoods, pack meetings, and share testimonies. They also lead pub crawls, celebrate happy hours, and otherwise hang out, advocating for new urbanist goals while demonstrating the kinds of togetherness that could coalesce in the place of roads. By showing up, they debunk the highway’s exclusive claim to connection. By throwing sand in the gears, they imagine democratic possibilities in a world where, as Columbia professor Bruce Robbins notes, so many decisions are “safely left to the technocrats.”


Much depends on the efforts of these groups, for as Kimble illustrates, everyone is a highway stakeholder: residents trying to save their homes from bulldozers, citizens hoping to preserve their communities from the emulsifying wash of progress, taxpayers underwriting infrastructure, anyone who inhales roadside air. The stakes of roadbuilding feel most poignant at Escuelita del Alma, a Spanish immersion day care in the shadow of Austin’s elevated I-35 freeway. Here, “victories are small—zipping your coat all by yourself, being first in line to open the door to the playground”—and “it matters when your half birthday is, because here, half of a year is an eighth of a life.” If TxDOT’s plans to widen I-35 proceed, Escuelita del Alma will become part of the highway. Given the stratospheric price of real estate elsewhere in Austin, the little school will probably close.


City Limits is an activist document that restores public works as a matter of common concern. Highways are not “an unmoving feature of the urban landscape” to which we must habituate ourselves, Kimble shows, but the product of conscious choices. Revisiting these choices means interrogating the same infrastructural promises that Caro took to task half a century ago. As Kimble’s title insists, every aspect of our built environment must be rethought as it reaches a limit, whether that limit is how far cities can sprawl, how wide roads can bulge, or how much a community can take. Even in Texas, a land of endless horizons, infrastructure is not an infinite promise but a set of obligations people impose on one another in order to move around. Everyone’s movement comes at someone’s cost, and every road is a decision with consequences that extend far beyond right-of-way.


¤


Featured image: Russell Lee, Highway sign, Waco, Texas, 1939. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. CC0, loc.gov. Accessed June 10, 2024.

LARB Contributor

David Alff teaches in the English Department at SUNY Buffalo. His new book, The Northeast Corridor: The Trains, the People, the History, the Region, was published by the University of Chicago Press in April 2024.

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