clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

10 Streets that Changed America

New, 11 comments

From Broadway to Wilshire Boulevard, a new PBS show examines how street life defines our city life

Broadway in New York City.

Americans define their homes in many different ways, but few parts of the landscape capture the culture of a city or the rhythm of daily life better than a signature street. From small town Main Streets to bustling commercial corridors, these are the places where everyday exchanges play out (Curbed explored the idea in our own feature on what 10 particular streets reveal about the state of the nation in 2016). They’re also the setting for a new TV series exploring how planning, culture, and technology helped shape the country. After all, what rhetorical device works better when charting the historical pathway of a nation than a road?

The new PBS show 10 Streets That Changed America wants to use famous streets and roadways as a jumping off point to explore history. A continuation of a series that includes 2016’s 10 Homes that Changed America, 10 Streets explores the ways real estate, technology, and travel alter ways we get around, and in turn, shape modern life.

Premiering Tuesday, July 10, the series, hosted by Geoffrey Baer, chronicles the country’s love affair with the open road, from Colonial mail routes to car-centric streets in California. Bookended by examinations of New York City’s Broadway past and present, the special highlights the importance of infrastructure, and how today’s planners are, in many ways, coming full circle in their efforts to return many of the country’s great roads to walkable, pedestrian thoroughfares. The series continues later this summer with shows exploring monuments and modern marvels.

Here’s a closer look at the roads spotlighted in the show.

Broadway (New York, New York)


First established by Native Americans, this pedestrian path ran past some of the highest ground on the island of Manhattan. Dutch settlers took to the road as soon as they arrived, at one point referring to it as “Gentleman’s Street.” After widening the street to accommodate more horse traffic, this new “broad way” became one of the main arteries of Manhattan.

It would continue to evolve and define street life. Bowling Green, one of the first city park, is off Broadway; the Omnibus, a public carriage and the first mass transit in New York, first ran up and down this street; and at the end of the 19th century, Broadway was one of the first roads illuminated by electric lights, earning the nickname “The Great White Way.” In recent years, new visions for streetscaping and urban planning are helping the street rediscover its pedestrian roots.

Boston Post Road (Boston, Massachusetts to New York, New York)

Photograph showing the Boston Post Road as it passes through Darien, Connecticut, 1925.
Getty Images

An early trade route that linked two of Colonial America’s biggest cities when it opened in 1673, this postal route dramatically cut the time it took for people, goods, and information to cross the American wilderness (at the time, it took eight weeks for a letter to go from Boston to Williamsburg, Virginia).

The designer of this early route, Francis Lovelace, repurposed Native American roads—called “high ways” by colonists—to create a new postal route. Later, a clerk by the name of Benjamin Franklin would help the route become an even more efficient, economical means of transporting ideas and publications, just in time to ferment the debate and dialogue that fed the American Revolution.

St. Charles Avenue (New Orleans, Louisiana)


Early in the 19th century, as overcrowding and disease struck the bustling port city of New Orleans, real estate developers hatched a plan to profit off the city’s misery: create a new settlement, or “faubourg” (fake city), on a former sugar plantation outside of the metro area, and lay down a rail system to get workers to and from town. The forbearer to today’s suburbs, Carrollton would make St. Charles Avenue an early commuting route, and become a catalyst for early bedroom communities and streetcar suburbs.

The National Road (Cumberland, Virginia to Vandalia, Illinois)

A 1933 photo of a home once used as a toll station on the National Road.
Library of Congress

Nicknamed “the road that built America,” this 620-mile roadway, the first project to use federal funding for infrastructure, took shape after the Louisiana Purchase as an early effort to connect the Eastern seaboard with the sprawling new territory. Eventually, this early multi-state roadway would become a boon for commerce and new settlements—in small towns, roads where clusters of businesses gathered would be renamed Main Street—and also help pioneer the idea of turnpikes, and tolls for road usage.

Eastern Parkway (Brooklyn, New York)


Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind Central Park and Prospect Park, and built between 1870 and 1874, this wide, leafy street was constructed with the idea of bringing the park to the neighborhood and connecting green spaces throughout the city. Containing some of the nation’s first bike lanes, and lined with roughly 11,000 trees, Eastern Parkway can be seen today as a forerunner of today’s complete streets concept.

Woodward Avenue (Detroit, Michigan)

Afternoon shift at the biggest auto plant in the world, circa 1924. Photo shows workers in the Ford Automobile Plant at Highland Park, leaving their shift and waiting in line for Woodward Avenue trolley cars.
Bettmann Archive/Getty

The modern American highway started here. In 1908, industrialist Henry Ford built a massive factory on Woodward Avenue, a street designed for carriages, creating a hub for the nascent auto industry. The gravel-and-dirt street wasn’t made for auto traffic, so locals funded upgrades for the modern era, including the first stretch of concrete roadway as well as the world’s first three-color streetlight (originally manually operated by a traffic cop).

Woodward would also help birth the car-centric urbanism that reshaped U.S. cities for most of the 20th century: The term jaywalking gained popularity here, and an early plan to expand the road to eight lanes, without including mass transit options, foreshadowed similar “urban surgery” projects across the country.

Lincoln Highway (New York, New York to San Francisco, California)


You can get your kicks on Route 66, but Lincoln Highway truly established the country’s love affair with the road trip. Envisioned in 1912 by Carl Fisher, a car salesman who once rode in a vehicle suspended from a hot air balloon as a promotional stunt, this cross-country roadway was seen as the ultimate car commercial. Funds were raised through a membership drive and various marketing stunts, trying to sell the Lincoln Highway as a means to unite the country, much like its namesake. As the roadway was built over subsequent years, the path, a months-long journey that wound through 13 states, would firmly establish the idea of a coast-to-coast network of roadways as an American birthright.

Greenwood Avenue (Tulsa, Oklahoma)

A crowd of black Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921.
Library of Congress

Part of an area known as Black Wall Street, this commercial stretch was the center of oil wealth and entrepreneurship among Tulsa’s growing African-American population in the early 20th century, one of the more thriving examples of black business districts in a segregated America. On May 30, 1921, thousands of white Tulsans instigated a race riot, brutally attacking the town’s African-American community—machine guns and even airplanes dropping turpentine conspired to destroy Greenwood.

Later in the 20th century, the construction of an interstate highway further cordoned off the community from the rest of the city, one of numerous examples of such plans crippling and destroying black business districts. A new Reconciliation Park in Tulsa aims to keep the memory of Greenwood alive.

Wilshire Boulevard (Los Angeles, California)


Wilshire Boulevard was the brainchild of Henry Gaylord Wilshire, who developed the wide street as part of a bet in the early 20th century that the growing city of Los Angeles would expand toward the ocean. Real estate developer A.W. Ross, who foresaw the centrality of cars in the 20th century, turned a stretch of Wilshire into an upscale shopping district, a “shopping center without a roof.” Ross’s vision—using architecture as a spectacle to attract motorists to shop, as well as large parking lots—foreshadowed how future urban development would take attention away from the sidewalk.

Kalamazoo Mall (Kalamazoo, Michigan)

PBS host Geoffrey Baer at the Kalamazoo Mall, the nation’s first pedestrian mall.
WTTW and Mallory Patterson & Randy Strobl

A post-war reaction to malls siphoning off commerce from urban shopping districts, this pedestrian shopping district was the vision of mall architect Victor Gruen. This car-free mall was meant to liberate shoppers from the “tyranny of the automobile.” While it didn’t work as planned during the second half of the 20th century, due to the commercial shift towards the suburbs, this “malling of Main Street” idea is getting a second life as a template for urban redevelopment as downtown populations boom and more Americans seek a more walkable lifestyle.