I recently read John Steinbeck’s memorable non-fiction book published in 1962, entitled Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Intertwined throughout this charming book, Mr. Steinbeck makes some fascinating and poignant observations about American cities.
Here are a few chosen samples of his perceptive comments on urban America, many of which remain applicable today, a half-century later.
“By now I have been through hundreds of towns and cities in every climate and against every kind of scenery, and of course they are all different, and people have points of difference, but in some ways they are alike. American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash – all of them – surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.” (Page 26)
“The big towns are getting bigger and the villages smaller. The hamlet store, whether grocery, general, hardware, clothing, cannot compete with the supermarket and the chain organization. Our treasured and nostalgic picture of the village store, the cracker-barrel store where an informed yeomanry gather to express opinion and formulate the national character, is very rapidly disappearing. people who once held fortress against wind and weather, against scourges of frost and drought and insect enemies, now cluster against the busy breast of the big town,” (pages 71-72)
“The new American finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the townlets wither and die. and this, as I found, is as true in Texas as in Maine.” (page 72)
“First the traffic struck me like a tidal wave and carried me along, a bit of shiny flotsam bounded in front by a gasoline truck half a block long. Behind me was an enormous cement mixer on wheels, its big howitzer revolving as it proceeded. On my right was what I judged to be an atomic cannon…
…I drove for hours, never able to take my eyes from the surrounding mammoths. I must have crossed the river, but I couldn’t see it. I never did see it. I never saw St. Paul or Minneapolis. All I saw was a river of trucks; all I heard was a roar of motors.” (page 129)
“Curious how a place unvisited can take such a hold on the mind so that the very name sets up a ringing. To me such a place was Fargo, North Dakota. Perhaps its first impact is in the name Wells-Fargo, but my interest certainly goes beyond that.” (page 135)
“This Seattle had no relation to the one I remembered. The traffic rushed with murderous intensity. On the outskirts of the place I once knew well I could not find my way. Along what had been country lanes rich with berries, hire wire fences and mile-long factories stretched, and the yellow smoke of progress hung all over, fighting the sea winds’ efforts to drive them off.
This sounds as if I bemoan an older time, which is the preoccupation of the old, or cultivate an opposition to change, which is the currency of the rich and stupid. It is not so. This Seattle was not something changed that I once knew. It was a new thing. Set down there not knowing it was Seattle, i could not have told where I was. Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lumber from concrete was piled beside gray wall. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.” (page 181)
This last point has stuck in my mind and has really gnawed at me since reading Travels with Charley. John Steinbeck is exactly right – progress does resemble destruction. The familiar is literally ripped away, torn to shreds, and left in a temporary state of lifelessness. Then, as so often happens anymore, a bland, largely forgettable structure rises on the site to become just another mass-produced clone of everything else around it. Another seed of sameness has sprouted like an invasive plant species on the American landscape.
That is why we take notice of those places that are clearly different. Those places that said no, dammit to sameness and sloppy planning. That is why I was impressed by Ashland, Oregon; by Grass Valley, California (who said not to big boxes); by Moab, Utah; by Banff, Alberta; by Berkeley Springs, West Virginia; and by those other strong-willed communities who have said no to rampant sameness. It doesn’t matter whether it is 1962 or 2012, sameness is a disease of societal laziness that has been allowed to run roughshod across this land. As planners, we must be constantly on guard against sameness, for it can overrun our communities like hungry locust – the only difference is that urban sameness feeds on greed.