[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]
“66 Motels” raises questions about preservation, nostalgia and understandings of Americaneness along the historic Route 66, which originates in Chicago. The project is an on-going archive of the independently owned, historic motels of Route 66, including photos, interviews and ephemera. One specific goal of this project was to understand the power of signage and the history and contemporary practice of labeling a property as “American Owned”.
I began this project thinking that “American Owned” was a label that was used exclusively by white motel owners to promote their properties to customers who were disinclined to rent a room at an Indian-American owned motel. This is, without a doubt, the origin of the “American Owned” sign, and some motel owners today defend this language and signage as a legitimate component of their advertising strategy. But thanks to several generous interviewees, I’ve learned that this type of signage is often an accident of history, something that came with a property when purchased, or something that foreign-born owners themselves use to make a statement about themselves and their properties. Through this research, I’ve also discovered that motel owners are as diverse as the architecture of their properties – something that gets lost in the fog of nostalgia that characterizes the American dream of Route 66.