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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

What will become of the most famous road in America?

Kaid Benfield

Posted July 13, 2012

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  get your kicks here (by: Miguel Montesinos, creative commons)

There is no more famous American road, and possibly no more evocative representative of the things we collectively call “Americana,” than US Route 66, once stretching unbroken from Chicago to Santa Monica.  The road was immortalized in the famous song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” recorded by everyone from Nat “King” Cole to the Rolling Stones to Depeche Mode to Jason and the Scorchers (and even my own musical hero, Van Morrison, as a youngster back with his Belfast group Them):

“Now you go through saint Looey
Joplin in Missouri,
And Oklahoma city is mighty pretty.
You see Amarillo,
Gallup, new Mexico,
Flagstaff, Arizona.
Don't forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.

"Won't you get hip to this timely tip:
When you make that California trip
Get your kicks on Route Sixty-Six . . .”

  the glory that was (by: Enric Archivell, creative commons)

Once dotted with popular attractions and thriving towns, the road today stands in many places as decaying testimony to the past, the fantastic landmarks of yesterday now faded or abandoned (though, in some places, restored as nostalgia).  The tale of Route 66 is partly the tale of small towns and rural America disinvested as the Interstate Highway System took different routes, ensuring that travelers would no longer pass through many of these communities.  It is also an environmental story, since so many properties along the road, particularly old gas stations, became contaminated brownfields.  The question is whether there is a future for these remaining places.

  abandoned (by: Rick Harrison, creative commons)

Here’s how the Center for Creative Land Recycling, a nonprofit organization using innovative land use to help communities to develop sustainably and equitably through restoring underutilized, blighted sites to productive use, puts it:

“Once a thriving thoroughfare, Route 66 was abandoned for faster freeways leaving abandoned gas stations and economic strife in its wake.  The EPA Brownfields Program and state and local initiatives are addressing the issue: How can Route 66 be cleaned up to promote economic vitality and bring new life to rural communities?  Brownfields have already been cleaned up and restored to new use as parks and transit depots in communities like Winslow and Flagstaff.  Potential redevelopment opportunities also include land for green technology such as solar and wind energy.”

Route 66 raises issues of historic preservation, economic development, environmental cleanup, and future sustainability all at once.  For a provocative and poignant, yet entertaining look at the possibilities, check out this well-produced video from CCLR:


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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channels.

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Michael RonkinJul 13 2012 03:02 PM

“Once a thriving thoroughfare, Route 66 was abandoned for faster freeways leaving abandoned gas stations and economic strife in its wake.”
I also blame better cars: cars with A/C, better suspension, and motors that don’t overheat. Back in the 30s-50s, driving more than an hour at a stretch was tiring, especially with kids in the backseat, so the roadside attractions were welcome breaks.
I see the same phenomenon here in Switzerland and France, even if there is no freeway bypassing the small villages: people go further faster, driving right through villages that once had a store, a bakery and a café.
This is one of the many reasons bicycling is better: we go slower, and need replenishment more often. But it’s tough when you’ve ridden for 3 hours and the village store is no longer in business.

Linda Neal ReisingJul 13 2012 10:30 PM

If you want to see a part of Route 66 that is thriving, go to Miami, OK, which has the longest stretch of Main Street on the Route. It is a testament to what can be done to preserve an icon when enough people care.

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