In Virginia Lee Burton’s classic 1939 children’s book, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Mike and his trusty steam shovel, Mary Anne, have enjoyed a long working relationship, but with the advent of new technologies, their days of usefulness appear to be numbered. Eager to prove Mary Anne’s continued worth, Mike promises a small town that the two will dig a basement for a new city hall in one day. While he and Mary Anne successfully complete the task in the allotted time, they forget to leave a ramp to exit out of the hole. A boy who has been watching the day’s activity comes up with a suggestion: convert Mary Anne into a boiler for the new city hall and retain Mulligan as the janitor. The idea is met with enthusiasm, and Mike and Mary Anne are able spend their retirement together. Francesca Russello Ammon uses texts like Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, along with a multitude of other source materials, to examine shifting attitudes towards the wholesale clearance of land for housing developments, urban renewal efforts, and interstate highway construction from World War II through 1973 in Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape.
The “culture of clearance” originated in World War II, which saw the widespread use of earth-moving equipment to facilitate military construction. The heavy machinery developed during the war then found practical applications in the post-war clearing of the American landscape for new development. Popular culture and visual media supported this image of the bulldozer and its operator as harbingers of progress and conquerors of the natural world. Yet the costs of such clearance, evidenced in the displacement of people and environmental degradation, were eventually realized, and the bulldozer and other heavy equipment became symbols of destruction in the 1960s and 1970s. Ammon uses an impressive array of sources to support her arguments, including the archival collections of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Interstate Highway Research Project and the New Haven Redevelopment Agency records, along with media like photographs, advertisements, and film.
Popular culture and visual media supported this image of the bulldozer and its operator as harbingers of progress and conquerors of the natural world. Yet the costs of such clearance, evidenced in the displacement of people and environmental degradation, were eventually realized, and the bulldozer and other heavy equipment became symbols of destruction in the 1960s and 1970s.
Bulldozer, which developed from Ammon’s dissertation, is organized into three sections: war, work, and cultural imagination. For those who study the built environment and urban history, the first two sections will be most useful. In the third section, Ammon uses visual media and literature to analyze the cultural meaning of clearance, moving from bricks and mortar to cultural history. Each of these sections could easily have been its own book, and there are times when the information is cursory because of the breadth of the topic. For example, Ammon chooses to only briefly acknowledge how federal legislation enacted in the post-war period, like the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, fundamentally changed how large-scale clearance activities were undertaken. Nevertheless, Ammon should be praised for using a variety of source material to tease out the far-reaching effects of a seemingly mundane machine, even if there is less substance in some areas of inquiry than some might want.
The need for rapid clearance and construction of military infrastructure in a wide range of environments spurred the development of heavy machinery technologies and the establishment of a workforce skilled in clearance during World War II. The Naval Construction Battalions (NCBs or Seabees), established in 1942, performed the necessary engineering work for the U.S. military. The Seabees were recruited from the construction industry, although less skilled men capable of doing heavy labor were also enlisted and trained. By tackling complex construction projects, like the Alaskan (or Alcan) Highway, Seabee members acquired a base of knowledge they could later use in civilian post-war projects. Using visual media, Ammon analyzes the portrayal of bulldozer operators as heroic, patriotic, and strong men in films like The Fighting Seabees from 1944 and a photo-essay of bulldozer operator Glenn Selby done by Life magazine photographer J.R. Eyerman in 1945. While images of large-scale destruction abounded during World War II, this was often presented as an opportunity to rebuild. Therefore, in the post-war period, “instead of multilayered social and economic issues, urban problems became largely material enemies to be destroyed, as the nation had successfully destroyed a previous wartime foe.” (57)
World War II also encouraged equipment manufacturers to develop new technologies and make improvements, such as the incorporation of hydraulics and new types of blades. In addition, equipment manufacturers took advantage of the publicity their machines garnered to promote their products. Companies like Caterpillar produced advertising, most of which centered on five basic themes, including patriotism, the wartime success of a particular machine and how it might transition to peacetime use, the achievements over the enemy, and its applicability to building demolition and clearance. To mollify customers suffering from wartime shortages of equipment, advertisements sometimes included maintenance tips or urged patience. After the war, there was a period of consolidation among equipment manufacturers as well as technological improvement, which would result in bringing the “wartime bulldozer to work on the postwar domestic landscape,” the focus of the second section of the book. (93)
For this reviewer, the second section was the most successful of the book. The post-war period saw a boom in housing construction. The development of suburbs has been well studied in other recent books, such as James A. Jacobs’ Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia, but Ammons focuses on the initial clearance process, likening the American landscape to an enemy to be vanquished so that profits could be made. Housing tracts in the former orange groves of Orange County, California, for example, were made possible by the bulldozer and the attending perception that the landscape could (and should) be molded to suit man’s needs. The state eventually passed legislation protecting open space in the mid-1960s, but developers were able to identify other unused tracts of land. Construction equipment and earthmoving techniques like landform grading allowed the carving of terraces into hillsides on which houses could be erected, as seen in Anaheim Hills in southern California.
Ammons focuses on the initial clearance process, likening the American landscape to an enemy to be vanquished so that profits could be made. Housing tracts in the former orange groves of Orange County, California, for example, were made possible by the bulldozer and the attending perception that the landscape could (and should) be molded to suit man’s needs.
Heavy machinery also found use in urban renewal efforts. Ammon utilizes New Haven, Connecticut, as a case study to understand the destructive impact of urban clearance. During the 1960s, nearly one of every six housing units was demolished in New Haven, aided in part by federal and state legislation. Despite the impact such demolition had on residents of the city, those costs were deemed minor in comparison with the rebirth possible by starting with a blank slate. The new beginnings promised by this clearance failed to materialize, however, and instead the cleared landscapes languished. Attitudes towards such widespread demolition projects soon began to turn, and by the 1970s, federal legislation ended large-scale demolition projects.
Finally, Ammon looks at the post-war interstate highway construction, characterizing it as engineers choosing “economy and efficiency over environmental considerations and individual social impacts.” (185) Agencies like the Bureau of Public Roads, the American Association of State Highway Officials, and the Department of Defense established highway design standards characterized by straight alignments, modest grades, and a greater number of lanes. This is another example of an area where contextual information would be useful, even if only brief, to help illustrate how significant a departure post-war highway construction was from the earlier parkway model evidenced in the Bronx River Parkway or the roads in national parks that were specifically designed to “lie lightly on the land.” As with the other topics Ammon examines, she ends by looking at the development of resistance to the highway-building practices, including federal legislation that slowed wholesale clearance and grassroots efforts.
In the last section of the book, Ammon delves into cultural history, looking at the proliferation of children’s literature with themes and characters related to the construction industry as well as the development of construction toys like Tonka trucks that were based on real-world machines. Ammon argues the literature and toys served to normalize the culture of clearance. She identifies recurrent themes within the literature. The first is celebratory depictions of clearance focused on the potential for redevelopment and progress with no acknowledgment of the negative consequences. Another theme is to encourage participation through positive depictions of occupations like machine operators or by providing lists of suggested activities related to construction. A third is the depiction of the operators as masculine heroes who can protect the machine, which is usually given female attributes (like Mary Anne, the steam shovel). While later books began to explore the negative and unintended consequences of clearance, they were in the minority. Thus, Ammons posits that “perhaps it was the safe and simple world of children’s literature that the celebratory culture of clearance expressed itself most clearly.” (249)
In sharp contrast to the portrayal of bulldozers in children’s books was the exploration of clearance by earthworks artists like Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Robert Morris, and Gordon Matta-Clark in the 1960s and 1970s. These artists created massive works of art using earth at the site or engaged in selective destruction of buildings. Their work emphasized environmental degradation and made such clearance ambiguous—was it really progress?—by leaving the destruction rather than immediately rebuilding. Ammon concludes that “in the course of a few decades, the machines of demolition and clearance were remade in the popular imagination. Their image changed from celebrated, patriotic icons to maligned symbols of destruction. … by the late 1960s and early 1970s, a broader ideological transformation had occurred. New voices questioned the definition of progress, the costs at which it was achieved, the appropriate limits of power, and the authority afforded technology and its expert overseers.” (297)
Ammons posits that “perhaps it was the safe and simple world of children’s literature that the celebratory culture of clearance expressed itself most clearly.”
Ammon’s creative use of visual media and literature to bolster her arguments results in a richly illustrated book that takes into consideration both the physical changes the bulldozer wrought upon the American landscape and the social and cultural changes. Described as the “first scholarly history of the bulldozer,” this work succeeds in bringing the initial clearance process to the foreground of the post-war American landscape, filling a void in scholarly inquiry.