10 Streets That Helped Shape America

PBS takes the wheel for a tour of the nation's most influential streets.

Lined by grand manses and serviced by an iconic streetcar line, St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans is featured in a new, street-centric installment of the '10 That Changed America' series from PBS affiliate WTTW Chicago. (Photo: By John Hester Photography/Shutterstock)

In 2016, American architecture and history buffs rejoiced when PBS took a deep dive into a deliberately eclectic assemblage of the nation's most game-changing man-made marvels—towns, homes, and, last but not least, parks—in the acclaimed and endlessly fascinating "10 That Changed" series.

Hosted by Geoffrey Baer, this WTTW Chicago-produced series that showcases the most revolutionary examples of the American built environment is now back with a slew of three new hour-long specials: "10 Streets That Changed America," which kicks off the series' return on July 10, "10 Monuments That Changed America" (premiering July 17) and "10 Modern Marvels That Changed America" (premiering July 24).

Premiering just in time for the late-summer and fall road trip seasons, "10 Streets That Changed America" tackles a staggering 400 years of sometimes turbulent history. Each individual segment documents how American roads, which evolved from wilderness trails established by Native Americans, have shaped not only the way we get around but also the way we live.

As mentioned, the streets in question are an eclectic bunch that includes a colonial postal route, a trailblazing transcontinental highway and a grand tree-lined avenue that gave way to the nation's first streetcar suburb. Broadway, a street that needs little introduction, also makes the cut. And while the automobile played a central role in the development of many of these roads, the "10 That Changed" team also smartly delves into how pedestrianization, an issue roundly ignored during the mid-20th century as our national obsession with cars took hold, is more vital than ever as an increasing number of Americans gravitate toward walkable urban environments serviced by "complete" streets.

Below, you'll find a quick taste of the 10 influential streets that have helped, for better or worse, shape American life. For clips, photos and additional information including local showtimes for all season two episodes, head on over the excellent, interactive "10 That Changed America" website.

Boston Post Road (New York City to Boston)

A marker for Boston Post Road in Spencer, Massachusetts
Distance-based postage rates were established by Benjamin Franklin using mileage markers along the old Boston Post Road. (Photo: Doug Kerr [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

The simple act of delivering the mail has had a vast influence on how Americans travel from points A to B. Case in point is the Boston Post Road, a primitive mail delivery route-turned-toll highway that linked two of colonial America's largest population centers, New York City and Boston, through what was then the vast New England wilderness. Taking advantage of old trails established by Native Americans, the Boston Post Road now comprises sections of present day U.S. Route 1, U.S. Route 5 and U.S. Route 20.

For those who lament how slowly mail sometimes moves today, consider this: In 1673, the inaugural parcel-hauling journey along the newly established route—"10 That Changed" calls it America's original "information superhighway"—took a total of two weeks through uncharted and sometimes perilous territory. (Suburban Connecticut was a wee bit different back in the day.) In the mid-1700s, travel picked up considerable when newly minted Deputy Postmaster Benjamin Franklin placed stone mileage markers along the entirety of the route to help establish distance-based postage rates. In 1789, newly elected President George Washington completed the journey, stopping in for sustenance at the numerous taverns and inns that dotted the rudimentary road. Many of these historic establishments are still standing today and proudly boast "George Washington Slept Here" placards.

"I don't see why it shouldn't be famous, but it's not widely known outside the Northeast," Eric Jaffe, author of the "King's Best Highway," told the New York Times of the old Boston Post Road in 2010.

Broadway (New York City)

Times Square, featured with Broadway Theaters and animated LED signs, is a symbol of New York City
Broadway may be best known for the theater district, but the road is much more — and much longer — than that. (Photo: Andrey Bayda/Shutterstock.com)

In a town where public thoroughfares running north-south are dominated by named and numbered avenues, Broadway stands alone—the Cher of New York City streets.

For as well-known as it is, there are plenty of misconceptions about the Big Apple's oldest and longest north-south street. A literal translation of the Dutch brede weg, Broadway isn't entirely lined with theaters nor is it limited to a limited section of Manhattan. Originating near the tip of Lower Manhattan, Broadway spans 13 miles upward, cutting diagonally east-to-west through the island's otherwise predicable parallel grid. It passes through a diverse range of neighborhoods—they include SoHo, the Upper West Side, Washington Heights and 10 blocks or so of theatre-y stuff in Midtown—before crossing into the Bronx and then entering Westchester County where it becomes part of U.S. Route 9 and terminates in the village of Sleepy Hollow.

Roughly following the route of the old Wickquasgeck Trail established by the area's original Algonquin-speaking inhabitants, Broadway can, of course, claim a handful of firsts. As detailed by "10 That Changed," Broadway was the first street in America to feature mass transit. It also, in 1880, became one of the first streets in America to be fully illuminated by electric streetlights, earning itself the enduring nickname "The Great White Way." Today, Broadway continues to break new ground as vehicle traffic gives way to pedestrian plazas and other beneficial, cityscape-altering projects.

Eastern Parkway (Brooklyn, New York)

Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway
Just like roller coasters and Barbara Streisand, parkways — highways with park-like landscaping — were born in Brooklyn. (Photo: Nutmegger at English Wikipedia [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

Broad, leafy and dotted with a smattering of stately apartment buildings and some of Brooklyn's top cultural attractions, Eastern Parkway is credited as the world's first parkway, a term originally used to described landscaped, limited-access highways that were connected to vast tracts of parkland and largely reserved for leisurely scenic drives.

While Eastern Parkway is decidedly not as pleasure drive-friendly as it was back in the 1870s, this historic urban thoroughfare's starting point, just outside of Prospect Park at Grand Army Plaza, is a reminder of its park-y origins. In fact, the parkway concept was conceived by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the famed 19th century landscape designers behind Prospect Park and its even-more-famous Manhattan counterpart, Central Park. While today's Eastern Parkway serves as a bustling multimodal transport corridor, it was Ocean Parkway, another tree-lined Olmsted and Vaux-designed parkway in Brooklyn, that became the first road in America to have a designated bicycle path in 1894.

Greenwood Avenue (Tulsa, Oklahoma)

Greenwood Ave in Tulsa's historic Greenwood District
Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa was an early 20th century epicenter of African-American wealth and entrepreneurship. (Photo: Marc Carlson [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

The routes and roads selected for "10 Streets That Changed America" largely revolve around exploration, expansion and good, old-fashioned progress. The story of Greenwood Avenue is one of fear, intolerance and, ultimately, destruction. And it's no less important.

In the early 20th century, Tulsa's Greenwood Avenue was the main commercial drag of an wealthy African-American community heralded as the "Black Wall Street." Black-owned businesses flourished because, at the end of the day, there were unable to flourish elsewhere. "The success of Greenwood as 'Black Wall Street' wasn't an isolated phenomenon," host Baer recently told Tulsa World. "What set Greenwood apart was the wealth from oil. But a number of cities—Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, Pittsburgh—had these prosperous, self-contained African-American communities. Because they weren't able to shop downtown, they went ahead and created their own downtown, and many of these grew into vibrant, dynamic communities. They had their own theaters, newspapers, bars, you name it."

And then, in 1921, came the Tulsa Race Riot, a brutal act of mob violence that saw the entire neighborhood burnt to the ground by white Tulsans with an assist from the Oklahoma state government. Hundreds were killed, thousands were left homeless and the country's most affluent Black enclave was lost to the worst act of racial violence in American history. Surviving residents ultimately rebuilt Greenwood, although it later floundered due in part to desegregation. In the 1970s, the neighborhood was leveled once again to make way for urban redevelopment projects including the construction of an interstate highway. (Greenwood wasn't alone in this regard, as many major urban infrastructure projects during this era did more harm than good by further isolating historically Black communities from the cities they were once a part of.) A small section of the neighborhood flanking Greenwood Avenue was spared and is now a protected historic district.

Kalamazoo Mall (Kalamazoo, Michigan)

The Kalamazoo Mall is an intriguing—and incredibly pertinent—inclusion to "10 Streets That Changed America" given that most of the other entrants on this list helped, each in their own history-making way, to get more cars on the road. The Kalamazoo Mall, debuting in 1959 as the first pedestrian shopping mall in America, did away with them.

Designed by architect Victor Gruen, the aim of the Kalamazoo Mall was to breathe new life the Michigan city's struggling downtown core by closing two blocks—two additional blocks were closed in subsequent years—of Burdick Street to vehicular traffic and allowing pedestrians to rule the road. This was a wildly contrarian concept for car-obsessed midcentury America: one part urban revitalization scheme, one part antidote to the enclosed suburban shopping malls that sprouted up literally everywhere during the era. (Gruen also famously designed these types of malls too, and in great numbers, including New Jersey's Cherry Hill Mall, Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, and the original Valley Fair Shopping Center in San Jose, California.)

While the Kalamazoo Mall has had its ups and downs over the years, its influence is widespread and enduring. Following its opening, numerous other cities—Burlington, Vermont; Ithaca, New York; Charlottesville, Virginia; Boulder, Colorado; and Santa Monica, California, among them—gave cars the boot from their downtown streets in favor of pedestrian zones.

Lincoln Highway (New York City to San Francisco)

The Lincoln Highway passing through Tama, Iowa
The unmistakable Lincoln Highway Bridge in Tama, Iowa, was built in 1914. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. (Photo: Joe Elliott [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., wasn't the first national memorial created in honor of the beloved 16th president.

In 1913, nine years before that iconic monument was dedicated, Carl G. Fisher, the Indiana-born car dealership owner, racing enthusiast and fervent champion of the nascent American auto industry who later went on to develop the city of Miami Beach, dreamt up the ultimate method of memorializing Lincoln while also promoting this newfangled invention known as the car: the country's first coast-to-coast automobile route. "The automobile won't get anywhere until it has good roads to run on," said Fisher, an entrepreneur with friends in very high places and a knack for generating publicity.

Stretching from New York City to San Francisco, the Lincoln Highway passed through a total of 13 states and covered 3,389 miles of varied American landscapes both rural and urban. Over the decades, the original route has been realigned, renamed or erased altogether. (One of the first interstate highways, I-80, follows a similar route as the old Lincoln Highway.) Still, a number of state routes that were once part of Fisher's transcontinental highway embrace their Lincoln Highway heritage and still use the name proudly. The same goes for many businesses located adjacent to the old highway, which sports numerous segments that are now designated historic districts. Vestiges of the old road do and will live on. Meanwhile, Fisher's then-revolutionary vision of driving cross-country has been passed to a new generation of intrepid explorers eager to hit the open road.

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

The historic National Road passing through a rural stretch of eastern Ohio
The National Road, America's first big federal infrastructure project, passes through a rural stretch of eastern Ohio. (Photo: Bwsmith84 [CC BY 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Designated as an All-American Road by the National Scenic Byways Program, the National Road is known by many modern-day motorists by a variety of other names, which, as things go, are largely unremarkable and not-all-that-illustrious. Most involve state-road numbers. But whatever the signs might say, the historical significance of this 620-mile route spanning from Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac River, to the former Illinois capital of Vandalia is undeniable.

The National Road—today, it's largely aligned with U.S. Route 40—dates all the way back to 1811 when work commenced on the first federally funded highway in the United States and continued for nearly 30 more years. Given its central role in aiding the steady flow of covered wagons that ventured westward from the Eastern Seaboard across the Appalachians during the mid-20th century, the route is rich with detour-worthy sites including a mid-19th century suspension bridge, a host of historic inns, taverns, and tollhouses and stone mile markers that have been around since, well, forever. For those interested in viewing historic relics of a completely different nature, no summertime journey along this fabled route—once known as "America's Main Street"—would be complete without several extended pitstops at the Historic National Road Yard Sale.

St. Charles Avenue (New Orleans)

Historical photo of St. Charles Ave. in New Orleans with streetcar in the snow
A light snow falls on the streetcar on St. Charles Ave. in New Orleans. (Photo: A. Murat Eren [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans—the "Jewel of America's Grand Avenues"—is predominately known as a genteel, buttoned-up boulevard lined with a collection of southern live oaks and stately manses that are both equally impressive in size.

Wildly atmospheric St. Charles Avenue, which bends from Uptown and Downtown along the crescent curve of the Mississippi River, is a street best soaked in, with the preferred method of doing so being the famed St. Charles Streetcar line. Established in 1835, the St. Charles Streetcar is the oldest continuously operated streetcar line in the world. (Along with San Francisco's famed cable cars, it's one of two streetcar systems to be designated as a National Historic Landmark.) Today, it's a touristy mode of transport, to be sure, but also one used by ordinary commuters just like it was back during its 19th century heyday when the streetcar linked the heart of the Big Easy and its port with its well-heeled—and then-far-flung—commuter suburbs.

Wilshire Boulevard (Los Angeles)

Fifties-era postcard depicting Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile
A 1950s-era postcard depicting Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile and its landmark buildings including the Art Deco Wilshire Tower on the right. (Photo: Ellis-Sawyer [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

Melrose. Sunset. Mulholland. Los Angeles suffers no shortage of iconic streets. None, however, boast the same historic salience as Wilshire Boulevard, a broad avenue that spans east-to-west from downtown to Santa Monica. Lined with swaying palm trees, glistening skyscrapers and million-dollar condo towers, Wilshire is the quintessential major L.A. artery: at turns glitzy and gritty and perpetually traffic-clogged. Wilshire's most famous section is the Miracle Mile, a once rural area that, in the 1930s, gave way to a first-on-its-kind retail hub that catered to affluent motorists with money to burn. (This is early L.A. car culture at its most anti-pedestrian, to be certain.) With its abundance of Art Deco architecture, this storied stretch of Wilshire, once hailed as America's Champs-Élysées, is now home to a host of major cultural institutions including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Writes Christoper Hawthorne for the L.A. Times: "... rather than act as a perfect symbol of Los Angeles, Wilshire has operated as a proving ground for new ideas about architecture, commerce, transportation and urbanism in Southern California. For nearly a century Wilshire has been L.A.'s boulevard of prototypes, a string of hypotheses 16 miles long."

(Also of note: Wilshire was home to L.A's first dedicated left-hand turn lanes and automated traffic lights.)

Woodward Avenue (Detroit)

Detroit's Woodward Avenue
Part of Michigan's trunkline highway system since 1970, Woodward Avenue is arguably the most famous of Motor City's five main avenues. (Photo: Michael Barera [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Woodward Avenue—the fabled M-1 trunkline—is the quintessential Midwestern main drag but with a distinctly Detroit-ian twist.

Following the path of the old Saginaw Trail, Woodward Avenue originates at Hart Plaza along the downtown Detroit riverfront before shooting north northwesterly through the heart of Motor City where it serves as the divide between the East and West sides. Crossing over 8 Mile Road and into the northern suburbs of Oakland County, Woodward Avenue terminates in the nearby city of Pontiac. Christened as the Automotive Heritage Trail under the National Scenic Byways Program in 2009, this is a road so steeped in the history of American car culture that the entire 22.5-mile-long route itself is a tourist attraction. Once flanked by car dealerships and auto manufacturing plants, Woodward Avenue was synonymous in the mid-20th century with drive-ins, drag racing and cruising culture — the muscle-iest of muscle cars positively ruled this legendary strip that, among other things, birthed none other than the Ford Model T. (It's also home to the first patch of concrete-paved highway and the first modern tricolor traffic light in the U.S.)

Although the landscape has dramatically changed along parts Woodward Avenue over the years, many of the road's most recognizable landmarks still stand tall and Detroiters remain mighty proud of their one-and-only "Main Street."