Monday, March 21, 2016

Origins of a Divide That Still Haunts Tourism Today

Once you turn off the country road toward our place on Mayo Lake there is a mile of gravel road before you reach the last stretch of pavement leading to our lakeside retreat.

It is what was called “macadam” when road surfaces in America first started to be improved in the 1820s (as depicted in the image below.) 

Many so-called paved roads in the countryside today are macadam bound together with a little asphalt tar.

By 1909, just as what is now called North Carolina Central University was founded, Durham, where we alternatively live a part of each week, was being heralded for already having laid 82 miles of macadam road.

Nationwide at the time, only 700 miles of road, about 10% of the total were as good or better than those in Durham.

By that year there were almost 306,000 cars and a few more than 6,000 trucks registered in America, up from 8,000 overall in less than a decade. 

Those known as “highway progressives” were already shifting the economic impact rationale for good roads from “farm to market” to “tourism.”

But ironically, roads had long been politically, as well as ideologically, controversial.

Other than military roads, Founding Father progressives on both sides of the isle, such as Washington and Jefferson, had only been able to push through the first “national road” along what is now I-40 as a means to open up western settlements for Revolutionary War veterans.

Conservatives argued that roads were too expensive and that they should be a state issue.

Then at the state level, such as in North Carolina, they were often able to pigeonhole roads as a county-by-county issue clear up until the eve of the Civil War.

It was about this time that pleasure driving/riding in carriages took hold, usually limited to grand city parks such as those created by Fredrick Law Olmsted or in cemeteries.

But in 1888 the re-invention of the pneumatic tire, which had been unsuccessfully introduced in 1846, galvanized a grass-roots coalition of activists to push for good roads.

The coalition was spearheaded by bicycle riders who teamed with “farmers, nature-lovers, conservationists and tourists” to spawn a national movement not only better roads but a national network of “hard-surfaced, all-weather roads.”

Soon they were joined by nascent automobile manufacturers.

The roads envisioned were a means to an end such as farm to market or home to resort but all roads were intended to be scenic along the way.

Then as the movement gained steam between 1911 and 1926 “highway progressives” were overwhelmed by commercial interests who coopted the movement.

It created a schizo-polarization of tourism that persists today.

At one end are those with a deep respect for sense of place, authenticity and scenic preservation. 

On the other is a hawker-huckster form frenetically enabling billboards, developer churn, mainstream mega-facilities and other forms of cookie-cutter architecture.

To overcome conservative opposition to a system of national roadways, “highway progressives” had begun to tout tourism as a rationale.

To enlist communities along proposed roadways they encouraged them to “manufacture” reasons for tourists to stop along these routes.

Rather than look to innate qualities, community boosters egged on by a chamber-of-commerce mentality fell instead for hyperbole, thus the manufacture of roadside amusements along with monikers such as the “Grand Canyon of the East” or the “Paris of the South.”

By 1930, many states, including North Carolina had begun to fight back against blight but the forces of blight this has fueled including a faction of tourism that had found political cover among a wing of conservatives.

This wing of conservatives, which cut across party lines, has consistently and inexplicably argued that blight is good for economic development, something still being repeated by a candidate running for governor in the last election.

Tourism, if it was more open to introspection as well as critical and strategic thinking would align in such a way that it could shift this paradigm.

But don’t hold your breath. 

It isn’t just that one side of the schizo-divide is somewhat superficial.  More problematic is that the other side lacks the moral courage and passion of those early “highway progressives.”

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