Demolition and construction following World War II radically altered the landscape of the United States, and one machine in particular allowed for such a dramatic overhaul. The bulldozer leveled buildings, toppled hills, and then neatly covered its own tracks until the ground was smooth. It had already served in the war, clearing the way for bases and serving as a violent weapon, and back on American soil it carved out room for new developments, highways, and suburban sprawl.
Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape by Francesca Russello Ammon, released this April by Yale University Press, is an in-depth perspective on how this metal blade-wielding crawler allowed a new kind of urban design, where buildings could fall rapidly, and earth could be reformed. Ammon, an assistant professor of city and regional planning and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in an introduction:
In both its physical and cultural manifestations, the bulldozer dramatically transformed the postwar American landscape. To clear space for new suburban construction, interstate highways, and urban renewal development, wrecking companies demolished buildings and earthmoving contractors leveled land at an unprecedented pace and scale. The bulldozer was the iconic instrument of and symbol behind this transformation. Yet its history has thus far remained hidden in plain sight.
Ammon calls this a “culture of clearance,” citing a US Census of Housing statistic that from 1950 to 1980 around 7.5 million dwelling units were torn down. Along with that, the rise of the American interstates meant the moving of 42 billion cubic yards of earth. Through this excavation, there were incredible numbers of people displaced, particularly minorities. She writes that “60 percent of residents relocated by urban renewal were non-white,” and in some areas that percentage was even higher. For instance, in Atlanta, 95 percent of residents displaced by highway and urban renewal projects were black, “despite making up only about a third to one-half of the total population.”
Going back to before the war, the bulldozer existed, but its power had not been fully unleashed. When the United States entered World War II, the navy brought, for the first time, the Seabees division to bulldoze and build bases, air strips, and roads. The bulldozer also became a weapon, riding over Japanese pillboxes in the Pacific, crushing the bunkers with the soldiers inside. “During World War II an army of construction workers, including 325,000 Seabees, rehearsed large-scale land clearance practices on foreign terrain,” Ammon writes. “When these men returned home, they brought their new and refined skills with them.”
These skills were strengthened by things like the Housing Act of 1949, where the government traded federal funding for slum clearance and public housing. Often, however, the wrecking was quicker than the rebuild. For example, in Buffalo, New York, 2,200 families were displaced from 161 acres, where a decade later only six new homes stood.
Especially interesting is Ammon’s chapter on how the bulldozer became a beloved cultural icon through children’s books and toys. Books like the 1947 Benny the Bulldozer by Edith Thacher Hurd and Clement Hurd, where a bulldozer finishes a road in time for the Fourth of July, and Tonka trucks, secured an image of the benevolent, sometimes heroic bulldozer. “They helped the younger generation make sense of the world around them as their environment underwent massive destruction,” Ammon explains.
The bulldozer is still present, although not nearly as actively used. “Whereas one out of every fifteen dwelling units fell during the 1960s, subsequent decades have seen losses on the order of one out of every thirty to sixty dwelling units,” Ammon writes. Looking across neat postwar suburbs or at the veins of roads in the interstate highway today, it’s hard to envision what was there before the bulldozers ground the land down into a clean slate. Yet that radical redevelopment is in each flattened hill and lost community, from an era where military might transformed urban planning.
Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape by Francesca Russello Ammon is out now from Yale University Press.