Frightening Cities, Crumbling Bridges
Driving through an American city, circa 1975, in one of those Japanese imports could be a pretty depressing experience as well. The post-World War II building boom had developed suburban America, and throughout the 1950s, many middle-class families left the old cities for the new suburbs. The pace of this exodus accelerated following the racial violence that plagued many cities during the 1960s. Social commentators began to speak of white flight—though, in fact, the abandonment of inner city for suburb was as much a matter of economics as it was of race; middle-class blacks fled just as quickly as their white neighbors. The result was cities that rotted at their cores. With the urban economic base dramatically reduced, businesses followed residents to outlying areas, and once-vibrant downtown districts became ghetto ghost towns. Throw into this dismal mix the often-ineffective efforts of a chronically underfunded public education system plus a steady increase in the abuse of illegal narcotics, and it seemed that many U.S. municipalities had been reduced to forbidding urban jungles.
But deteriorating cities weren’t the only symptoms of a crisis in the national economy and spirit. The American infrastructure was in need of a general repair. The very roads that had carried the middle class out of the inner city were typically cratered with potholes. And a growing proportion of the nation’s bridges-physical expressions of the necessity and desire to join town to town and citizen to citizen-were failing inspection, too old, too neglected to bear the traffic for which they had been designed.