What Internet Memes Get Wrong About Breezewood, Pennsylvania
A photo of a strip of fast-food outlets and gas stations is used to critique the sameness of the American landscape. But it could only be one place on Earth.
CityLab, July 24, 2019
It’s summer, and for hundreds of thousands of Americans, that means at least one burger-and-bathroom break in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. This half-mile gauntlet of gas stations, fast-food outlets, and motels, its oversized signs towering above the surrounding countryside, is familiar to anyone who has to drive regularly from the East Coast to the Midwest or vice versa.
As the New York Times explained in 2017, Pennsylvania’s “Gas Vegas” sprang up because of an obsolete law. Breezewood is a deliberately awkward transition between Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where they (almost) meet. Back in the 1950s, as I-70 was being built, a law prohibited spending federal funds to channel drivers directly from a free road to a toll road. The law was later overturned, but to comply with it, highway planners designed a looping interchange that lets drivers avoid the turnpike if they (hypothetically) want to. From this constant stream of slow-moving traffic, a mega-rest-stop was born.
Each year, an estimated 3.5 million passenger vehicles and 1.5 million trucks crawl along the Breezewood strip on Route 30. Yet building a bypass here is a political nonstarter. Such projects must be proposed at the township and county levels in Pennsylvania, and no politician is going to suggest the elimination of hundreds of local jobs.
So vacation stops in Breezewood have become a tradition for many families (including my own). More recently, a parallel tradition has emerged: sharing Breezewood memes online. Most of these memes feature the same, striking image of the strip, dominated by Exxon and McDonald’s signs: “Breezewood,” by photographer Edward Burtynsky.