Once when I was touring Denmark my friend Jenka was visiting Europe at the same time. I picked her up at the airport and we headed into Copenhagen. As we were approaching the city, she got excited. “Wow,” she said, “it’s like a constant Critical Mass bike ride!”
As we wait at traffic lights at major intersections we pass through, the traffic passing by ahead of us generally includes a few cars and a lot of bicycles and pedestrians. Bike paths are as common as streets, and most people of all walks of life get around town by bicycle. Trains and buses full of passengers traverse the city, and you rarely have to wait long for the next one. Each neighborhood has a commercial center with shops, cafes, public spaces and streets off-limits to cars altogether. Most people live bicycling distance from where they work. Like so many European cities, it is a place that seems to have been designed for people. People like it that way and, to a huge extent, they keep it that way.
Some cities in the US share much in common with Copenhagen. Though they almost entirely lack bike paths, cities like New York and San Francisco at least have a lot of pedestrians, decent mass transit, centrally-located parks and neighborhoods where people both live and work. These are also the cities people tend to visit, whether they’re tourists from Europe, Asia or domestic travelers. Go to the movies or turn on the TV and you’ll see that so many of the stories take place in New York or San Francisco. It would be easy for many people to develop the impression that cities like these are representative of life in the US. But they’re not.
My friend Ash came to visit the US from Denmark once while I was in Washington, DC to sing at a protest. It was January a couple years ago. Her plan was to join me for a week in DC, but first to spend a week soaking up the sun in Florida. She flew into Tampa. She managed to make it to the hotel she had found online, checked in, and then thought she’d go try to find the beach. Like most hotels in the US, hers was located some miles down a highway outside of the city, in an area that used to be woods, swamp or farmland. An entirely recent development, a sort of sprawling cluster of hotels, fast food restaurants, and big box stores, surrounded by vast parking lots, connected by four-lane roads and six-lane highways. A sidewalk has never graced the area, and certainly not a bike path. Ash discovered a bus stop eventually, on the side of the highway, but no bus ever crossed it’s path. Welcome to the real USA.
Ash had never seen or imagined such a place. An entirely alienating environment where everybody gets around by car, and there is not a pedestrian to be seen unless it’s someone walking from their car to the mall. Where walking is actually somewhat dangerous and certainly not pleasant, there on the shoulder of the four-lane road with the trucks and SUV’s whizzing past. I had warned Ash that there would be no way to get around the area without renting a car, and that this was really the only way to get around most of the country, but this idea had seemed just too preposterous to be believed, and she didn’t rent one.
The European exchange students usually find the real USA. I used to cringe when I’d meet one and ask them where they ended up in their year abroad. The answer never seems to be one of those few really endearing places. It’s always some suburb of Dallas or Phoenix or something. And of course, I eventually realized, and decided to stop cringing. That’s where most people live. Those are the areas where somebody can find work, where a family that’s not rich can buy a house that might be spacious enough to put up an exchange student. Few people can afford to live in those interesting cities like New York and San Francisco. Few people are likely to find decent jobs in nice university towns like Madison or Berkeley, unless they’re students, living there for a few years while they spend their parents’ life savings and accrue massive debt.
New York state is losing hundreds of thousands of people every year, while cities like Houston are gaining population at a similar rate. The loss of population is coming from the abandoned cities like Buffalo and Troy. New York City’s population, on the other hand, gains some and loses others. Specifically, it gains yuppies and loses lower-income people. It’s strange, because if you go to New York City and ask people of any walk of life why they live there, many will tell you they moved there, or they stay there, because they like the place. Ask people in Houston why they moved there and the answer you get will usually be two words: “for work.” Which is probably not entirely the explanation, since there is work to be found in New York City as well – it’s just that the cost of living is so much higher there, it’s impossible on most salaries to pay the rent.
So people end up in Houston, and try to make the best of it. They buy a car because there’s no other way to get around. Usually they buy an SUV or a pickup truck, because that’s what everybody else drives, and besides, gas is still comparatively cheap, and it was really cheap a couple years ago, when they bought their SUVs. The most reasonably-priced property is always a few miles or a few dozen miles outside of what was once the heart of town. And the town lost any semblance of a heart a long time ago – if it ever really had one, and as a city of any size it has never had one. It is a monstrous creation of car culture gone horribly wrong. Most of it is pavement. Between the highways and the endless miles of strip malls lining them from east to west, north to south, are the parking lots. Far above your head, always, are the huge, flood-lit billboards advertising every product imaginable. Aside from a few blocks near Rice University, or a park or two on the outskirts of town, or inside the malls, there is nowhere in the city that people walk. The few people riding bicycles or attempting to navigate the barely-functioning bus system are Mexican immigrants too poor to buy a car yet. Naturally, the population is among the most obese on Earth.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone living there who thinks that places like Houston are models of urban planning that anyone should ever emulate. But the powerful forces of economics, of survival, dictate that the sprawl will sprawl even more. And what else should people do? In a society where corporations make all the important decisions, where private property rules and the profit motive is a kind of religion, there will be no mass transit, bike paths, local shops. But these are the places where it is where it is possible to live, to have a house and a job that will eventually pay for it.
And if you’re not a tourist visiting the chic bits on the coasts, or an exchange student ending up in some nondescript middle-class suburb somewhere in between the Starbucks and the Wal-Mart, there is yet more of America that you are unlikely to see. If you were driving all over the country and had a penchant for exploring “historic districts,” as the signs call what used to be known as “downtown,” you will see these places. You could select random GPS coordinates within relatively populated areas and visit them, that could be another way to see the forgotten majority of American towns and cities, these cities that have become towns again, you could say. You’re unlikely to go to these places for school, or work, or because there’s any sort of tourist attraction there, because there is really nothing to attract visitors in places like Trenton or Camden, New Jersey, or Corning or Elmira, New York, or Flint or Albion, Michigan.
The “historic district” in these places consists of a few blocks of dilapidated, abandoned buildings, some of which used to be shops, some used to be apartments, others used to be factories. In some cities, like Detroit, the old buildings in some parts of the city are being razed and turned back into fields. But in most places, the buildings sit there, abandoned, a silent testament to what used to be. If you drive west from Boston, the next really thriving metropolis you’ll get to is Chicago, about a third of the way across the country. Most of the cities in between, if you stop and look, after you go past the cluster of hotels, fast food places and Wal-Marts right by the highway, are ghost towns. Victims of the great one-two punch of deindustrialization combined with a few big box stores replacing what used to be downtown as the commercial “center” – the places where people shop, at least, for it cannot really be called a center, it’s central to nothing, in the middle of nowhere.
The few young people remaining in such towns as Dayton or Youngstown, Ohio don’t really seem to know that it used to be any different. People have a remarkable ability to accept reality as it is. I remember visiting my teenage cousins in a city just outside of Trenton called Morrisville, Pennsylvania. It was one of my earlier visits to their place. I asked them where’s downtown? Their response: what do you mean by that? It was an unfamiliar concept. Town begins when you pass the sign on the highway that says “entering Morrisville.” It ends when you pass the sign that says it’s ending. In between those two signs is the town. This is how it is understood.
When I was a child, every year my family would go to the Danbury Fair, outside the town of Danbury, Connecticut, where there was an annual season on the fair grounds with animals, rides, clowns, games, etc. I remember going to the last fair, before the fair grounds were converted into a massive parking lot, surrounding a massive shopping mall. For a few months it was the world’s biggest, I think until they built a bigger one outside of Minneapolis. They called it the Danbury Fair Mall. All that remained of the fair were a few pictures in the hallway to the toilets. Who can be expected to remember what was once beneath the asphalt, or the bustling downtown that used to exist before the Stetson factory closed and the mall opened. But at least there is a new condominium development miles from what used to be downtown, called Stetson Place.
With economics as they are in these many cities, even many of the malls end up being abandoned, along with the town centers they once helped destroy. I remember being on a march from the White House to the United Nations that the group Kensington Welfare Rights Union organized. Abandoned strip malls and ghost towns is most of what you’ll see in between DC and New York, and endless miles of not-yet-abandoned strip malls, and wealthier suburbs, with row upon row of house after house.
In St. Louis there is a neighborhood that used to have 30,000 residents, and now has 3,000. The bricks from the old buildings in what was once a working-class neighborhood are being sold to real estate developers in California, to make more homes for the rich, or at least the gainfully-employed. St. Louis is an interesting case – a city where one of their great claims to fame is the fact that Lewis & Clark passed through, on their way to explore Indian Territory with no visas. They left St. Louis. There’s a statue of them looking to the west.
Maybe Thatcher was right, society doesn’t exist, it’s just a collection of individuals. That’s certainly what it looks like in most of the population centers here in the USA. And these centers spread with no oversight like cancer cells, and the people drive more and more, and naturally, the cancer rate rises to go along with the cancerous, pavement-ridden suburbs of often nonexistant cities. We even bring skyrocketing cancer rates to the countries we invade, where we steal their resources to defend our insane way of life. We poison them just as we poison ourselves, in order to profit from burning their oil, so we can poison ourselves some more, along with the rest of the planet.
And what’s the point of all this, this thing that some have dared to call a civilization? Is it some kind of macabre, grand-scale economics lesson? Like here’s what happens when nobody is in charge of development policies aside from stockholders in very large corporations. All of society begins to resemble a mass of cancer cells. Some cities grow wildly in every direction, eating up all land and community around them, spewing toxins from coal-fired power plants and the exhaust pipes of SUVs. Other cities die, leaving behind their toxic shells. The people move further and further away, driving ever more, working ever more, losing their time, their physical and mental health. For the mental health, at least there are psych drugs. For the physical, well, cancer has always been with us, hasn’t it? America is #1, so there is no need to look beyond our borders to see whether people in Brazil are dying of cancer. By and large, they’re not. It’s an industrial disease, but that’s just how progress goes, the inevitable, unstoppable dictates of capital.
What of the legal opposition? My friend Jason West is the mayor of New Paltz, New York. Like the majority of the town council, he’s a Green. He was telling me about some big box store that opened on the outskirts of the town. Because of jurisdiction issues, there was nothing the town of New Paltz could do to prevent the store from opening. The best they could do was to require the store to buy more land that they had to keep in it’s natural state.
And the extra-legal opposition? Those youth who have taken the law into their own hands, in the tradition of anti-nuclear and anti-war activists around the world, usually under the call letters ELF (Earth Liberation Front) and destroyed the offending property -- the property of the corporate bulldozers destroying the last of the ancient forests, the property of the corporations building massive new developments in the already over-developed suburbs, the property of the corporate SUV dealerships selling the cars that are poisoning our air, our lungs, our children – these people are serving or facing prison sentences of up to 23 years in prison for their alleged crimes.
Perhaps the powers that be will learn from their mistakes by themselves, before they’ve completely destroyed any vestige of society, and the planet along with it. Perhaps they’ll realize that turning the entire country into one big National Sacrifice Area for profit was a mistake. When NASA gave tens of millions of the Earth’s inhabitants cancer by having one of their plutonium-filled satellites blow up in the stratosphere in the early 1960’s, they abandoned the use of nuclear fuel, at least until recently. Perhaps the developers can also learn. Perhaps after the last city has been turned into a strip mall, after the last Wal-Mart has been built, after the last bit of nature has been paved over, after the last Appalachian mountain has been blown up to find the coal to power the ever-expanding suburbs, they will decide it is time to pave a little more, perhaps a bike path there beside the highway, next to the parking lots, beneath the billboards.