Wrong Way

Los Angeles is the American Gomorrah. Like that ancient den of iniquity, whose sins were so great that even Abraham’s principled plea could not shield it from the divine’s annihilating rain of “sulfurous fire,” the West Coast metropolis has long served as a marker for the evils of modern urban life and spatial design. The key to its horror, according to a scolding scholarship, is its presumed lack of a physical core. Historian Robert Fogelson depicted (and denounced) it as a fragmented metropolis, a disconnected landscape; the center would not hold in this auto-mad valley. Downtown LA? The concept, architecture critic Reyner Banham scoffed, was an oxymoron.

Without definition, this unbounded place has given rise to a people on the prowl. Their vicious, Darwinian struggles for survival, staged within an unstable environment that quakes, burns, and floods, has become the leitmotiv of Mike Davis’ troubling texts, City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (1998). In their pages, gangs rampage throughout South Central, anxious elite cower in their gated hillside enclaves, and a malevolent police force mans the ramparts. For all the power of Davis’ whiplash prose, however, it derives its exaggerated animus from an earlier exposé, Nathanael West’s haunting novella, Day of the Locust (1950). A child of the east, West was appalled by what he perceived as the looseness of coastal life, its lack of social cohesion, its frenzy. His postcard from the edge prayed for Armageddon, and although the reckoning was delayed by a half-century, finally those nasty aliens in the 1996 movie Independence Day complied: The first place on Earth they vaporized with their death-ray was the City of Angels.

Warring with this smug cultural disdain for all things Angeleno is the cover illustration to Oliver Gillham’s The Limitless City. Absorbing the fore- and middle-ground of this stunning photograph of the central business district is a dense concentration of tall towers; these steel-and-glass edifices, so emblematic of the modern fusion of architecture and commerce, soar above an earlier generation of stolid office buildings and squat hotels, and contribute to an ever-more vibrant street life. This glittering skyline’s very existence–and the focus it commands–complicates the usual representations of Southern California as a flat terrain of undifferentiated subdivisions loosely linked together by a network of freeways. In Gillham, has Los Angeles found its Abraham?

Not exactly. The metropolitan core depicted on the book jacket, and the market forces that brought it into being, are largely ignored as Gillham persists in labeling Los Angeles a “horizontal metropolis.” The label sticks because it matches his central argument: The outward thrust of human population and economies over the past 50 years or so has been a predictable outcome of public and private investment in suburban infrastructure that is, as his book’s title confirms, endlessly repetitive, infinitely expanding.

And Gillham and others are correct that Los Angeles was among the first to experience the full consequences of this pattern of post-war urbanism–smoggy skies, clogged highways, ticky-tacky housing, polluted groundwater–although Seattle and Portland, Phoenix and Tucson, Houston and Dallas, Miami and Atlanta would know these blights soon enough. Even the older, industrial behemoths such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, as well as the rusting Great Lakes crescent of Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo, would experience collapsing centers and expanding peripheries that have challenged their capacity to survive as livable environments. Further complicating their survival was the fact that these demographic changes hardened long-standing distinctions in each city between class, race, and ethnicity, gender, and age. Our love affair with the automobile, and the world it helped construct, has cost us dearly.

The price tag is steep, Gillham observes, due to the astonishing amount of resources we consume to live–that is, drive–as we do:

With 80 percent of the nation’s energy budget being spent by cars and trucks and 84 percent of that energy coming from petroleum, it is little wonder that transportation accounts for nearly two-thirds of the nation’s petroleum consumption.

It’s an even more staggering quantity when compared to our longtime economic rival, Japan; we suck up more than six times the amount of oil they do. Put another way, the United States absorbs approximately 33 percent of the world’s transportation energy, “even though [it] accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population and about 25 percent of the planet’s combined gross product.” Add to this figure the monies spent on the pedestrian (sidewalks) and the profound (expressways), as well as on the earth-moving equipment, cement mixers, and street pavers so necessary to the laying down of each; toss in such building materials as wood for framing; rock and gravel for fill; limestone, sand, and tar for the roadbeds and surfaces; and then by truck, ship, and train haul them to any number of construction sites: only then do you begin to recognize how much it costs to build up and maintain the national highway grid.

Jack-hammering this concrete landscape would be a monumentally impossible task, Gillham acknowledges, and because “the nation is already so committed to the automobile … it will be difficult to trade it all in rapidly for something radically different.” What then? As he does throughout this carefully weighed argument, Gillham proposes a Methadone-like cure for our daily petro fix. Accelerating the production and purchase of hybrid cars; speeding up the development of fuel-cell technology; bringing on line more energy-efficient transportation such as light rail (a form of transit, data from Europe indicates, that is seven times more efficient than automotive transport) will decrease the daily number of car trips and reduce oil consumption, moves that would bring balance to our “transportation system and [forestall] roadway congestion and economic gridlock.”

Gillham’s prescriptions reinforce his conclusions about a host of sprawl-related problems. One of these is land loss. Swallowed up in the relentless suburban surge is productive farmland, as well as wildlands and wetlands; the Natural Resources Defense Council, for one, alleges that we are losing 365 acres of open space an hour, a startling amount that is entirely believable to any commuter who navigates I-35 between San Antonio and Austin, or along Houston’s I-10 corridor. As big-box retail, super-sized convenience stores, and cookie-cutter homes fan out from clover-leaf interchanges, they grade over site-specific flora and fauna, obliterate scenic vistas, and befoul water supplies.

Perhaps contractors are right that we shouldn’t worry about these transitions, given that existing “development comprises only 5 percent of the total landscape of the contiguous United States.” But that seemingly small figure means little without factoring in population. Knowing that 75 percent of us live within that narrow band of land, and that we are growing more numerous, prompts Gillham to project that within 50 to 75 years upwards of 10 percent of the nation’s land mass will be built out. And when that happens, it won’t just be compact eastern states that will suffer; Colorado’s Front Range, from Greeley and Fort Collins south to Denver and Colorado Springs, will look much like the Texas freeway triangle that links Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. To understand that future one need but fly over the dense mass that runs from San Diego (and points south) to Los Angeles and on to Santa Barbara (and points north), home to more than 10 percent of the nation’s population.

Managing this pattern, deflecting its energy, and offering viable alternatives requires a complicated and layered set of responses. Cities and states, Gillham concludes, will need to figure out how to fence off open space, encourage mixed-use development, rehab industrial brownfields, and renovate inner-city housing stock; undergirding these proposals will be a long-overdue reconsideration of how Americans move across space, the first step of which is getting out of the car.

With all of this, there is little to quibble. But what this information-packed volume does not address–oddly–is the politics required to secure any of these alterations, big or small. The apolitical character of The Limitless City has its rhetorical point: It defuses how people will read the text and respond to the issues it lays out, and therefore can serve as a literary template for how we might engage one another on what have proved to be deeply polarizing matters. That noted, it is hard to imagine how the required changes on the ground will occur absent any pointed discussion of the contours of the current political landscape and the vested interests responsible for its construction. Shying away from the civic arena–no matter how contested–will only diminish our chance to pursue what Gillham stipulates in his last words is the citizenry’s preeminent responsibility, “the common good.”

Contributing writer Char Miller is chair of the history department at Trinity University, and editor of On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio.

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Published at 12:00 am CST