In 1896, Charles Brady King drove the first automobile in the city of Detroit. His route included Woodward Avenue, a main thoroughfare for the city then as now. What portions of Woodward weren’t constructed of planks infilled with sand were more or less dirt; the first pavement wouldn’t come to the road for another 13 years. Among the crowd that watched King’s route from St. Antoine Street to Cadillac Square was Henry Ford, trailing King on a bicycle.
That drive not only secured Detroit’s place in automotive history, it also secured Woodward’s place in the history of roads, as the upcoming PBS show 10 Streets That Changed America argues. While roads had existed long before the advent of the automobile — Woodward itself dates back to 1817 — the automobile totally upended how those roads were constructed and who got priority on those roads.
“This idea that streets are exclusively for vehicles really comes about with the advent of the automobile, and Woodward Avenue is the first street, really, designed for automobiles,” the show’s host, Geoffrey Baer, said.
Until orange barrel season hits, it’s easy to take streets for granted. They’re ubiquitous, they’re literally the means to an end, and they’re designed to enable you to fly along them without noticing them. But each mile of pavement has not only centuries of evolution behind it, but also decades of societal implications embedded in it.
Take, for instance, the issue of who pays for roads. The National Road, which stretches from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois, was the first improved highway that the U.S. federal government financed in 1811. Over the years it would become a model for toll roads and the use of turnpikes to spur economic activity. The Lincoln Highway, on the other hand, arose a century later after Indianapolis businessman Carl Fisher championed the construction of a cross-country highway funded by municipalities, state governments, and individual donations.
Native American trails formed the basis of many a road that later took on significance. Manhattan’s Broadway, which hosted the first mass transit in New York City and which later became the setting for the first electric street lamps, originated as a pre-colonial footpath. So did the Boston Post Road, which facilitated trade and communication between New York and Boston, and without which the American Revolution may never have happened.
Other influential roads, however, arose from concerted municipal planning. Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway in 1870 — the first road that incorporated bike lanes — to maintain parklike green spaces among urban areas. In New Orleans, real estate developers pushed for construction of St. Charles Avenue and a streetcar line to link the city itself to the suburb of Carrollton, effectively creating the bedroom community.
Commerce, of course, played a role in the rise of many a road on the list. Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was known as the Black Wall Street and served as a hub for black enterprise and wealth until the 1921 riots in Tulsa decimated the community. That same year, developer A.W. Ross began to transform Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles into the Miracle Mile retail district.
The final street on the list, Kalamazoo’s downtown mall, serves as a counterpart to Woodward Avenue and St. Charles Avenue. While it started out as another city street, in 1959 it became the first outdoor pedestrian mall in the United States as part of an effort to counter the rapid suburbanization made possible by the automobile and the spread of streets designed entirely for automobiles. Parts of Kalamzoo’s mall have since reopened to automobile traffic, but pedestrian malls have also since proliferated across the United States.
PBS’s 10 Streets That Changed America began airing on July 10. For more information, visit PBS.org.