By Arnold Berke | From Preservation | March/April 2008
Why does Route 66 enthrall us so? What is it about the celebrated highway that so many find so alluring, that generates so much emotion? Surely not its physical beauty, at least not now, for the road and its commercial trappings have decayed terribly. It offers no beauty, you might declare. Yet you might be wrong, for many see beauty in decay, and some feel hope, typically bound up with decay, that the road's revival is sure to come. Others sense an emotional beauty arising from the highway's historical function: a conduit for long-distance travel that fed the desire for a better tomorrow, whether it last a lifetime or a week. The rosy journey was usually westward, and even today, from the armchair, our mental map of Route 66 runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, not the other way around.
In her essay on Route 66, fiction writer and contributing editor Ann Beattie gives fresh meaning as she views images of road and roadside by photographer Edward Keating ("Scenes from the Open Road," page 30). She sees shape and geometry, symbolism and inference, sadness and humor, and above all, the special dance with time that Route 66 performs so well. With some of the images, Beattie wonders about events just before or after the shutter clicked; with others, about worlds long ago. "Vanished spaces may … live in and through us," she writes, "reminding us that we vanish as well, parts of memory falling away like the half-legible words of abandoned signs." Time, of course, is the truth with which preservation takes issue, and sometimes wants to deny.
A very different sort of road is the East Broad Top Railroad in south-central Pennsylvania, a narrow-gauge line built in the 1870s to haul iron ore and coal but which, since 1960, has pulled tourists. How long the latter will continue, though, is uncertain, as Lawrence Biemiller reports in his feature ("End of the Line?" page 42). "The years of tight budgets," he writes, "have left the railroad in serious trouble," and its "infrastructure is rusting and rotting, too." Yet the owners, operators, and fans of this National Historic Landmark—which includes a shops complex, roundhouse, and station in addition to six steam engines and other rolling stock—remain optimistic that East Broad Top, as one supporter put it, "has an exciting future."
It "simply" takes perseverance, which has paid off richly for another national landmark, New York City's Eldridge Street Synagogue, an underused 1887 structure that had sunk into appalling decay by the 1970s. Diane Cole's feature ("Joy on Eldridge Street," page 24) relates its rise and fall and drawn-out rebirth. Once again a stunning building, the still-functioning synagogue has assumed a new role as a museum of one immigrant group's blossoming in America. Quoting Dickens, a congregant says about the project's completion: "We've been 'recalled to life.' That's what restoration, what preservation, is all about, isn't it?"
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.