Located in the rural south of Pennsylvania, situated amongst a sea of green, grassy hills sits the town of Breezewood. Often described as a “notorious choke point”, Breezewood acts as the interchange between two major Pennsylvania highways, the Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This pit stop town has gained an infamous reputation amongst both highway travelers and the terminally online (people who are closely engaged with internet culture).
It is the town’s unique conditions that characterize it as a notable talking point in transportation infrastructure and political commentary. As a highway interchange, the town is an awkward and contentious chokepoint for millions of drivers, often avoided by many. On the internet, Breezewood is an infamous representation of late-stage capitalism, overbearing corporatism and dystopian American culture.
The conditions which have shaped Breezewood’s notoriety and fame are rooted in history. The town is the product of “the intersection of politics and transportation policy”, as told by the New York Times.
According to the Times, “It began as a truck stop when the builders of the turnpike placed an exit there during the Great Depression. Two decades later, when the I-70 leg was under construction, a since-changed law barred spending federal funds on a project that would send drivers directly, without a choice, from a free road to a toll road.” In order to bypass that law, planners built a two-mile loop that goes through Breezewood, indirectly connecting the two highways and “giving drivers the theoretical option of avoiding the turnpike.”
Due to the town’s crucial status as the connecting point for these two highways, Breezewood is a host for numerous commodity establishments. Populated with fast food drive-thrus, trucker rest stops and gas stations, Breezewood offers a plethora of services to truck drivers and interstate travelers. However, these services are often passed on as millions of drivers opt out of going through the interchange to avoid traffic congestion and resource wastefulness. In fact, the American Transportation Research Institute shows that 80 percent of truck drivers avoid Breezewood. The Times reports that the trucking industry could save over 140,000 hours in driving time and $9 million in operating costs if ramps were built to avoid traveling through Breezewood.
Despite Breezewood’s unfortunate circumstance as an interstate nuisance, the town has proven to be an obstacle for political intervention. The aforementioned “host of commodity establishments” that make up the town are responsible for employing a large number of local residents, supporting the economy for the region. Thus adding infrastructure to bypass Breezewood would kill the businesses that depend on the trucks and drivers that pass through the two. As aptly put by Bloomberg about the dilemma, “...no politician is going to suggest the elimination of hundreds of local jobs.”
Thus, Breezewood now exists as a “tourist trap”, as described to the Times — a town made up of fast food eateries and commercial facilities.
In 2008, the town’s essence was captured on photograph by famous photographer Edward Burtynsky. Unbeknownst to Burtynsky, the photo he took would become an Internet meme, launching Breezewood’s online popularity. The photo would become the subject of many critiques and commentaries about wider social and political topics spurred by the town’s appearance. Popular meme archivist website Know Your Meme explains, “The photo and the town itself has been associated with…commentary about the supposed lack of American culture or the effects of unfettered capitalism.”
This is glaringly true, as social media posts about Breezewood commonly feature Burtynsky’s photo paired with captions about the wider economic status or culture of America. One of the most famous posts about the town is a tweet which features the infamous photo and a caption which reads: “This is one of my favorite photography pics taken mainly because if [sic] youve never been to the US then this is how it looks alot of the time”
Bloomberg’s article about the town’s meme status notes this common critique, “...Breezewood memeing is mostly a form of cultural critique. A common refrain is the supposed homogeneity of the American landscape.”
However, media outlets connected that the comments and critiques suggesting the “sameness” of American towns are based on the most prominent symbols displayed in the photo; corporations, brands and capitalism. Midwest online magazine publication Belt Magazine states, “What most online commentaries get wrong about the Breezewood picture is that they’re far too literal—what the image actually signifies is not representation of any place but a glimpse at the unfiltered American Id.”
This “American Id” Belt is describing is in reference to a growing dominance of hyper-consumerism and wasteful capitalism over American culture. Belt's most radical description of the Burtynsky photo reads, “This segment of U.S. Route 30 is an awkward, unnecessary, doubled-back stretch of no-man’s land regulated by traffic-lights and lined with the commercial detritus of late capitalist dystopian American neoliberalism.”
Late capitalism is an especially polarizing term, as it’s commonly used as a sharp critique against the capitalist system. “‘Late capitalism,’ in its current usage, is a catchall phrase for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and super-powered corporations and shrinking middle class…”, the Atlantic reports.
Interestingly, Bloomberg’s article makes the same conclusion from the social media posts about the town, seemingly reinforcing Belt’s narrative about the dystopian American society presented through Breezewood. “For others, the photo speaks to the relentless march of globalization and a deficit of high culture,” Bloomberg states. Burtynsky himself weighs in on his infamous photo, stating, “In one image, it tells a lot about our culture and our commerce,” he said, “and the whole notion of drive-through culture … and that we’re a car-dependent, oil-dependent culture.”
It almost seems as if there is an online consensus that Breezewood’s outward appearance is a defining statement about American society; that it’s a dystopian capitalist hellscape. Yet, one Reddit post reveals how Burtynsky’s photo is often misrepresentative of the region, not capturing the whole picture of the surroundings. The post compares and contrasts two photos of the town, Burtynsyk’s picture and another, the latter photo reveals the lush, green scenery surrounding the town. The post seemingly serves as a counterpoint to the harsh accusations of a lack of American culture, portraying perseverance of America’s natural beauty surrounding the town.
Breezewood is the center for a large amount of scrutiny and critique, both on and off the internet. While the town lives infamously as an often cursed traffic interchange and as an involuntary representation of American excess, the reality of Breezewood is overlooked. What’s certain about the town is that a community of everyday Americans live there, attempting to persevere under uncertain circumstances, deep in the green rural south of Pennsylvania.
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