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Neon Jungles of Road Trace Roots, Routes to Breezewood

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Her family buried Mary Elizabeth Colledge on a quiet, rural hillside, a resting place they had every reason to believe would be tranquil forevermore. Sure, the new highway was coming through, but what harm could that do? It was limited access, after all.

If they only knew.

Fifty-seven years after her death, the small churchyard that holds her remains overlooks a bustling miniature metropolis.

Colledge’s body lies 50 yards from the back of a Quality Inn, at the edge of an unusual, vaguely unsettling place: Breezewood, the self-described “Town of Motels,” a late 20th-century thicket of commercialism that exists for a single purpose: to serve the passing motorist.

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From a pristine valley in the Laurel Highlands, it rises, a glowing, multicolored jungle of neon and its bastard child, backlighted plastic, beckoning drivers and assaulting eyes. Exxon. McDonald’s. Taco Bell. Texaco. Dunkin Donuts. Best Western.

On a clear night, you can see its light 10 miles away, an Emerald City to the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s Yellow Brick Road. The granddaddy of countless islands of commerce at highway exits across America, it is presented at one of the East Coast’s major crossroads as a refuge for truckers, a rest stop for drivers, a place to fill up the tank, to go to the bathroom, to eat, to sleep.

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“This is a town that owes everything to the highway, its entire existence,” said Art Helton, owner of the All American 76 Truck Stop, which sits on a bluff in view of the access ramps for the turnpike and Interstate 70.

“They call it an oasis, which is probably true,” he added. “But I’m not sure what kind of an oasis it is.”

No one would argue its incredible convenience. But some important questions lurk below that truism: Is Breezewood a community? A town? Is it even a place? Do Breezewood and its progeny represent an entirely new kind of locale created by our national obsession with the car and the road?

Is its existence a good thing or a bad thing?

The answers depend on whom you ask.

Since humans began settling on coasts and beside navigable rivers, the byways of transportation have created and defined new communities.

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In America, Colonial “post roads,” trying to put mail along civilization’s pathways, put civilization along the mail’s pathways as well. The 19th century’s railroads cut through wilderness and deposited towns along their tracks.

The 20th century’s version is, of course, the automobile. But the interstate highway system, launched in Eisenhower’s 1950s, has created a unique hybrid. Interstates wind through myriad nowheres, and the exits built for them often become happenstance islands of food, phone, gas and lodging.

Some are the product of one commercial mind, like the Mexican-motif “South of the Border” complex off Interstate 95 on South Carolina’s northern edge, or Wall Drug’s sprawling store in South Dakota. Others sprout on edges of towns, connecting communities with highways on their outskirts.

Most are simply haphazard: two or three gas stations, an Arby’s, a 7-Eleven, maybe a Motel 6. In rural areas, they sit at the edge of exit ramps and go on for maybe 500 yards before tapering off into remoteness.

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Few, though, are as extreme as Breezewood.

It was a typical rural Pennsylvania town when, in 1940, the turnpike--really the nation’s first superhighway--was built between Carlisle in the center of the state and Irwin in the west.

Quite a few of Breezewood’s residents helped build the pike, and those being days when the road still symbolized adventure, people reacted with excitement. What better way for a small town to be part of this road to the future than having an interchange?

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“It was seen as access to the great highways, to go somewhere. They’d say, ‘Oh, we’re going to be connected to the world now,’ ” said Jonathan Johnson, who studies small communities for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

Charles Swartzwelder, a native of surrounding East Providence Township, remembers the days of turnpike-building, when “my grandfather owned just about all the area that Breezewood sits in.”

“When the turnpike went through, the Gateway was the first one, and then there was a Sunset Hill Motel built in the area,” said Swartzwelder, a township supervisor. “And it just kept growing.”

Growth was gradual until the late 1950s, when the interstate system brought I-70 up from Washington and ran it into the turnpike, which was brought into the fold and christened Interstate 76.

It intersected with the turnpike at Breezewood, making the remote area a major East Coast interchange, and the businesses started sprouting. At first, locals say, there was an even mix between locally owned operations and chains. But as the traffic increased, the chains took notice.

At last count, 37 restaurants, gas stations, truck stops and motels sit on the quarter-mile stretch of commerce. Seventy-five percent of East Providence Township’s tax base comes from the businesses in Breezewood.

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About 1,000 people are employed in the commercial district; the population is virtually zero--maybe a few motel operators who live on their property.

Now, precious little is left from the pre-turnpike era. John Nyeum’s steam tannery is a motel, a McDonald’s replaced the four-room school, the broom factory has yielded to an overpass and Old Forbes Road, well, that’s the turnpike itself.

Over a hill on the western edge, there are, still, a smattering of houses, a beauty shop, a post office and a bank. In all, maybe 100 residents.

“People were very excited because it would promote economic development,” Johnson said. “But the interstate’s been both a blessing and a curse for rural communities. You get more development, but it’s not always the development you really want.”

Today, corporations have more reason than ever to do business in Breezewood. According to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, 2,609,492 cars got off at Breezewood’s Exit 12 in 1995, and 2,585,589 cars entered the pike there.

Compare that to the next interchange, Fort Littleton, which in almost every respect is the same as Breezewood except that it does not intersect with I-70. There, in 1995, 241,494 cars exited and 251,635 entered.

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Something else accounts for the vast difference, something that makes Breezewood even more singular. No one seems quite sure why, but when I-70 was built, the only way to connect from it to the turnpike was to go right down Breezewood’s main drag, which technically is actually a section of I-70.

No cloverleaf interchange. No direct way from one highway to the other--except through this small town.

As Breezewood grew, so did the traffic snarl.

“It has been virtually a blockade between Pittsburgh and our nearest East Coast neighbors,” said Ann McHoes, a Pittsburgh technical writer.

“To require everyone going south to west or west to south to travel through three blocks of red lights and change lanes and gas stations and chain restaurants is just not right.”

Many advocate a direct interchange. Understandably, businesses oppose that, and they have a backer in Robert Jubelirer, a powerful state senator who many say has blocked all attempts to bypass Breezewood.

In 1991, the state Department of Transportation widened the road in Breezewood, reducing the gridlock somewhat and freeing the sheriff’s deputies who had directed traffic there for years. But the basic problem remains.

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And because of that, many Pennsylvania motorists, when asked about Breezewood, say something similar to what a man from suburban Pittsburgh said as he put gas in his car at the Exxon station the day after Thanksgiving, the area’s busiest day of the year. “A community? This isn’t a community. It’s a transportation annoyance,” he said.

The catch? He, like all the others, was using it.

“Never,” American road essayist Sue Hubbell once wrote, “order pie within one mile of an interstate highway.”

The implication is clear and the sentiment widespread. Many feel interstates breed the dull sameness of corporate standardization: a patchwork retail landscape that, whether it be in Pennsylvania, Iowa or California, looks as if it could be anywhere. Who ever got a memorable wedge of pie at a Burger King, anyway?

Consider: The Breezewood Taco Bell has a chili cheese burrito. It’s a perfectly good chili cheese burrito. But it’s the same chili cheese burrito you get 80 miles east in Harrisburg or 400 miles west in Ann Arbor, Mich. And it’s served in a place with the same decor of purple, teal and dusty rose.

The spread of standardization worries the holdouts in places like the Post House Cafeteria, one of a handful of independent restaurants still left in Breezewood.

There, the busiest times come on the lobster shift, when Greyhound red-eyes heading west from New York, Philadelphia and Washington unload sleepy passengers for 20 minutes of bathroom breaks, tuna-salad sandwiches and plastic containers of Jell-O and pudding.

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When the buses pull out, the place is desolate once again. And the waitresses say the daytime isn’t much better.

“You have kids traveling on the buses, and kids only want fast food,” said Mary Conrath, ringing up purchases for weary passengers from the Detroit-bound Greyhound at 2:57 a.m.

The future holds little promise. Sheetz, a convenience store that makes sandwiches to order, is coming in, as is Perkins, a family restaurant chain. Word is, another national pizza franchise is opening too.

The quirky, individualistic stops along the roadsides of the 1930s and ‘40s existed largely because they represented the quirks and creativity of individuals. Now, real estate near highway exits costs so much that those who would be individualistic can’t afford the space.

John Crawford runs a roadside gift shop that used to be part of a museum of stuffed animals shot in the first half of the century by his great-grandfather. This place has individuality: wild animal T-shirts, postcards of Amish Country (even though this isn’t), magnets and patches and shot glasses from all 50 states, even the odd zebra or elk head protruding from the wall.

But today, the shop struggles and the museum animals gather dust in storage. The parking lot is empty, Burger King’s is full, and the 30-year-old Crawford is stoic.

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“I think this place just kept up with the times,” he said. “People today want everything the same. They just feel more comfortable that way.”

The people buried in Mount Zion Lutheran Church’s cemetery before 1940 could never have dreamed of what has transpired. They settled this land, then rested silently on the hill while it evolved into a place where the highway isn’t just a part of life but life itself.

And all over the country are little Breezewoods.

It used to be that, in communities, everything melded together. People on main streets lived above stores. Gas stations were a few doors away from pharmacies. Now, everything has a parking lot. Newer communities are sectionalized, parsed: commerce in one place, industries in another, homes in yet another.

And Breezewood: It’s as if someone excised a dollop of suburban sprawl and plunked it down in the middle of nowhere--another product of the interstate highway system, builder of some communities, destroyer of others.

“Breezewood is a creature of the highway, by the highway, for the highway,” said James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Fall of America’s Man-Made Landscape” and a vocal critic of highway development.

“And as long as the highway is the ruling institution in our world, then Breezewood will reign.”

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