Why must progress look like destruction? – John Steinbeck


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.

This entry was posted in book reviews, books, cities, civility, Communications, consumerism, culture, density, environment, geography, land use, North America, placemaking, planning, politics, spatial design, sprawl, States, tourism, transportation, Travel, urban planning, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Why must progress look like destruction? – John Steinbeck

  1. Steinbech is one of my favourite authors and ‘Travels with Charley’ also a favourite work. I have always loved the way he has been able to articulate what we see and feel; and it never fails to amaze me how much and how little the world really changes over the decades.
    A few years back, I visited Winnipeg, Manitoba for the first time. While it may not ever be ranked as one of the prettiest places in the world I was pleased to see a significant number of historic structures intact or being refurbished within strict architectural guidelines. I understand, when other Canadian municipalities were busy divesting themselves of its historic buildings (in the 70’s and early 80’s) many in Winnipeg was left standing in a state of disrepair simply because the economics didn’t support removal/replacement. In other words, even economic slumps can have a positive impact.
    We are always in such a hurry to make ‘improvements’ that we often lose sight of the beauty already before us. Perhaps, like John and Charley, we all need to take a step back, a deep breath, and learn to move forward a little less frantically and live little more deliberately, rather than running helter skelter looking for the next best way to make a dollar. Thanks for the reminder.


  2. David Hojsak says:

    Great book that was immortalized in the Beach Boys’ California Saga trilogy form the Holland album. Great trilogy. Give it a “listen to.”


  3. basil berchekas jr says:

    i agree. “Progress” should never appear like destruction! Seen it all too often, though!


  4. Terry Nobbe says:

    Rick: Yes, it’s true that most US cities have abandoned the ideals that our country started with. At the same time, there are definite pockets of resistance to “progress at any price”. Just within the last 30 years within the city of Portland Oregon, when ODOT brought forth the plan to continue the Sunset Highway in it’s path from the Oregon coast right across downtown Portland to connect with Interstate 84, the city fathers said “No, you’ll not destroy the homes, offices and schools across our city”. This is why Portland Oregon consistently places high is the annual list of Most Livable American Cities and has achieved the Platinum Cycling Status.


  5. David Hojsak says:

    Go to Vermont. No billboards!


  6. Whelp, looks like I’ll need to pick this one up. The thing that scares me is that this was a published shortly after The Death and Life of Great American Cities and there were so many people at that time who understood what was happening and couldn’t change things. It’s as if every generation has those who don’t just see nostalgia but understand something destructive is taking place and those people seemingly continue to get brushed aside.


  7. Pingback: Highest and best use is an archaic concept | Panethos

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.