The Metropolitan West since 1940

The Metropolitan West since 1940
Almost all up-to-date American cities west of the Mississippi are variations on a basic prototype, and that prototype is Lubbock, Texas . … There
is a new kind of city evolving in America, chiefly in the Sunbelt, and on a
small scale Lubbock tells us what these new cities look like.
-John Brinckerhoff Jackson,
“lbe Vernacular City” (1985)
We drove back to the house to crash, each in our separate cars, through the
Campus grounds-22 buildings’ worth of nerd-cosseting.Jun-cloistered
by 10o{oot-tall second growth timber, its streets quiet as the womb: the
foundry of our culture’s deepest dreams.
-Douglas Coupland,
Microse,:fe (1995)
Los Angeles in the 1940s was scarcely fifty years old as a significant
“American” city, yet it was already the site for elegiac nostalgia. Poet Ivor
Winters crafted a long requiem for the passing of time in “On a View of
Pasadena from the Hills.” Looking down over the growing city, he muses on
the passing of his father’s generation while he sees that “mowed lawn has
crept along the granite bench …. Cement roads mark the hills … And manmade stone outgrows the living tree.” 1 Setting the scene in the crime novel
1 The Little Sister, Raymond Chandler also laments the end of simpler times
from a not-so-distant past:
A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly
Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering
at eleven hundr ed dollars and no takers …. Los Angeles was just a
big sunn y place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and
peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to
sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that , but it wasn’t
a neon -lighted slum either.2
The poet and the mystery writer both wrote as Los Angeles and other
western cities were entering an era of extraordinary growth and change.
World War II and the postwar boom fundamentally transformed the urban
West, setting forces in motion that have made the years since 1940 a distinct
era in regional history. Thes e decades have vaulted western North America
into a new global position, central rather than peripheral to global circuits
of trade and migration. In th e process, its cities have filled the valleys with
houses, contoured the hillsides with freeways, and lined the highways with
the lights of commerce, a process that Winters notes with other lines in the
same poem: “Through suburb after suburb, vast ravines/Swell to the summer drone of fine machines.”3
Between the late nineteenth century and the later twentieth century, North
America tilted southward as well as westward. In the decades before World
War I, Bostonians and Londoners who came looking for western cities usually covered territory bracketed by Minneapolis , Denver, San Francisco, and
Seattle, with stops perhaps in Salt Lake City, Portland, Spokane, Helena, and
Bismarck. That’s where William Thayer found inspiration for his Marvels of
the New West in 1887, where Julian Ralph explored the region he details in Our
Great West in 1893, and where Edward Hunge rford found candidates to profile in The Personality of American Cities in 1913.4 It’s the same territory that the
distinguished English observer James Bryce traversed to research his chapter
“The Temper of the West” in The American Commonwealth, published in 1888,
and which Rudyard Kipling reports on in From Sea to Sea (1899), with chapters on San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Omaha.s Served
by a thick network of self-promoting railroads, this section of the western
United States achieved statehood before the tum of the century, whereas the
southwestern territories of Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona had to wait
until the early twentieth century. 6
Anyone making the same sort of high-minded journalistic junket after
World War II would have followed a different itinerary. Great Falls, Butte,
and Portland were no longer hot news compared to the cities of Route 66-
literally Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque, San Bernardino , and
Los Angeles- to which we could metaphoricall y add Dallas, Fort Worth,
. Lubbock, Midland/Odessa, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. This is the newest urban
FtCURE 41. Calgary skyline. Calgary transitioned from a small prairie city to metropolis
with international connections in the last quarter of the twentieth century, particularly
by hosting the l 988 Winter Olympics and experiencing a wave of investment by energydevelopment companies that rebuilt its skyline.
America, created by petroleum, global war, air-conditioning, and the Social
Security Act of 1935. A few of the cities of the Greater Southwest, such as San
Antonio and Los Angeles, should have been in James Bryce’s travel plans, but
many are twentieth-century phenomena in the manner of Las Vegas.
The urbanization of the Southwest and continuing metropolitan growth
through much of the rest of western Canada and the United States has
involved headlong participation in the world’s third-and ongoing-urban
revolution. Patterns of urbanization around the world now reflect the instant
mobility of capital in a weakly regulated world financial system. East Asian
and South Asian economies are competitors with the established Atlantic
core. A networked world economy runs on the services of a handful of world
cities and intricate international exchanges among second-level cities. Within
western North America, patterns of urban/regional growth have responded to
this internationalization, to the global shift toward services (especially those
involved with the leisure econom~f recreation and retirement), and to the
expa.nsion of the U.S. military establishment. Cities like Calg’?ry, San Jose,
Honolulu, and Dallas are not only regional centers but also nodes in specialized globe-spanning industries.
Western urbanization has responded to the long fifty-year pulses in the
world economy. The mid-nineteenth century was the era of steam and steel,
and the early twentieth century, the era of electricity and petrochemicals.
The years after 1945 saw the cresting of a third wave and the probable takeoff of yet another. From the mid-194os to the mid-197os, the drive wheels
of economic growth were the scientific-military complex, the maturing of
automobile and air transportation, and the postwar housing boom. After a
decade of troubled readjushnent to high energy costs and the offshoring of
much manufacturing, the latest cycle took off in the 1990s with explosive
increases in the capacity to exchange and manipulate electronic and biological information.
These sixty~plus years have continued both of the basic processes of urbanization. More and more small cities have grown into metropolitan centers:
Canada designated only three western province Census Metropolitan Areas
in 1941 but eight in 2001, and the roster of western metro areas recognized by
the U.S. Census Bureau rose from forty-one in 1940 to eighty-seven in 2000.7
At the same time, the largest of the places have claimed a greater and greater
portion of the western population and economy. At the start of the twenty-first
century, half of the people of western Canada lived in the four largest metropolitan centers, and half of the people in the western United States lived in the
region’s ten largest metro areas.
Postwar growth has been accompanied by deep restructuring of the metropolitan fabric. Western cities have experienced galloping Manhattanization of
downtown cores along with radical decentralization. “Suburbs” like Burnaby,
British Columbia, and Mesa, Arizona, rival core cities in size; residential development in Phoenix spills around long mountain barriers into new valleys;
and Bay Area workers commute from new subdivisions far into California’s
central valley. Edmonton was the site for the first supersized superregional
shopping mall. Las Vegas, already the pioneer of the suburban strip, now has
“neighborhood casinos” where 400-room hotels and surrounding shopping
malls colonize formerly residential neighborhoods. .
Large-scale tract development may have been happening on Long Island
as well as Long Beach after World War II and in Atlanta as well as Aurora, but
it was most visible in open western landscapes. In 1950, work crews at the Los
Angeles suburb of Lakewood started a hundred houses a day as they moved
down one side of the street and back up the other, digging foundation trenches,
pouring concrete, and working through the dozens of other stages of home
building. A set of four aerial photographs of Lakewood’s construction process ,
from bare ground to foundations to framing to closed structures, helped to fix
western suburbs as the archetype of the new cityscape. They were taken origi.
nally as corporate publicity photos. Magazines ranging from Business Week to
Time accepted the images as representing an industrial-strength solution to
postwar housing shortages.s
It was different a decade later. Architecture critic Peter Blake turned the
same pictures into icons of sprawl in God’s Own Junkyard (1964), as did architect Nathaniel Owings in The American Aesthetic (1969).9 Suburban California
was now the prime exhibit of worst practices. “Flying from Los Angeles to
San Bernardino,” wrote journalist William H. Whyte Jr., “the traveler can see
a legion ofbulldozers gnawing into the last remaining tract of green between
the two cities.” A few pages further into his seminal essay, “Urban Sprawl,”
FIGURE 42. Las Vegas Strip. The entertainment corridor universally known as the
Las Vegas Strip originated in the 1950s, was vastly expanded in the 1970s, and was
reinvented again in the 1990s with huge themed hotel-casinos like Paris Las Vegas, the
Luxor, and New York-New York. (Wikimedia Commons.)
he offers San Jose and Santa Clara County as the epitome of voracious farmeating, land-spoiling suburbanization that shaped a new environment that,
quite bluntly, “looked like hell. “10 Malvina Reynolds aimed her popular song
“little Houses” at Daly City on the San Francisco peninsula.
The chapters that follow explore the effects of World War II, rapid regional
growth, and the changing global economy of the last half century. Western
cities grew with the expansion of the metropolitan-scientific-military complex and the global shift from manufacturing to services, especially those
involved in the leisure economy of recreation and retirement. The previously
peripheral half of North America has developed into a new center that has
begun to change the United States (and certainly has rebalanced Canada).
Three chapters center on changes associated with the Great Boom of
1940-75 (although they carry their story to the end of the century). This was
an era in which domestic immigrants, private investment capital, and federal
funds (both Canadian and American) poured westward, “tilting” the continental economy toward the Pacific. Chapter 10 focuses directly on the effects
of hot war and Cold War, which combined to give western cities a leading
role in the development and application of new technologies and emerging
industries. Chapters n and 12 tum to metropolitan politics, describing the
tension and tug-of.war between growth-oriented business coalitions and the
competing goals of quality-of-life liberals and ethnic communities.
The final chapters center on the increasingly unbounded urbanization
, of the most recent decades. Chapter 13 looks at the spread of suburbs and
exurbs and the resulting pattern of metropolitan regions and corridors.
Chapter 14 returns to the theme of global connections, showing how contemporary western cities function within thick transnational webs of economic
and social ties. Chapter 15 looks outward once again at urban claims on rural
environments as places of recreation and leisure, claims that have broken
down many of the remaining barriers between urban and rural and which
parallel the long-standing urban claims on regional water and power.

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