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Suburbs of Last Resort: Landscape, Life, and Ruin on the Edges of San Francisco Bay

  • Author(s): Ekman, Peter
  • Advisor(s): Groth, Paul
  • et al.

This study surveys the historical geography of suburban landscapes built and abandoned over the course of the United States’ long twentieth century. Diverse thinkers and actors, it shows, have understood the edges of the American metropolis to be laboratories of a sort, experimental sites where the forms of a reordered city might be glimpsed in microcosm and put on display. Suburbs have also served as laboratories where questions of landscape’s animacy — not what landscape means, the focus of a generation of scholarship in cultural geography, but what landscape does — came vividly to the fore, provoking much debate and speculation. Drawing on archival sources, visual materials, maps, plans, and field study of the built environment, this work recasts debates that have long been central to cultural geography, geographic thought, urban and suburban studies, and the intellectual histories of planning and urbanism. It argues that both the modal techniques planners and builders came to prescribe for the post–World War II suburb and the most noticeable programs since predicated on redressing suburbia’s perceived failures can find their roots in prewar debates, ontological in character, on the “life” proper to landscape, indeed to matter itself. Both tendencies, the study argues furthermore, established the terms by which Americans since have considered the possibility of giving life form by way of its environment — and assessed the threats presented by built environments deemed formless.

This work makes its intervention in three stages. It first assembles a new intellectual history of American planning around questions of the suburbanization of industry and the decentralization of urban form. During the Progressive Era, planners, architects, industrialists, realtors, and a host of reformers held industrial suburbs, more than strictly residential ones, to be the key to remedying urban “congestion.” In ways that existing histories have not realized, these actors also articulated a distinctive ontology of suburban landscape as an animate participant in life and work. This was not an environmental determinism, as most geographers would have it, but rather a multiform theory of the milieu that was indebted to broader vitalist and materialist currents in social thought. Numerous social scientists, life scientists, and philosophers, too, contribute to this history. In juxtaposing their thought with that of the first generation of self-identified scientific planners, this study explores ongoing tensions between formalist and anti-formalist, rationalist and vitalist, organismic and non-organismic tendencies lending structure to how certain Americans have made sense of how landscape matters. Many maneuvers central to contemporary “new” materialisms, “object-oriented” ontologies, and “non-representational” theories in geography and its neighboring disciplines are, in fact, quite old. To couple them with questions of landscape, one does well to revisit the decentralist debates taking place at the turn of the twentieth century.

The analysis then scales down empirically to the San Francisco Bay Region, where premiums on a decentralized metropolitan form, as well as notions of the environment’s “influence,” have particularly deep roots. It turns most especially to the Carquinez Strait, a peculiar, imperfectly visible vector of suburbanization east of the bay, to which industrial flight was early, intense, relatively coordinated, and financed remotely by capitalists in San Francisco and, to some extent, Oakland. From the late nineteenth century on, the Carquinez became a repository for only the most noxious functions expelled from denser urban centers, as well as a site of considerable experimentation in sorting, buffering, and enclosing the “whole” new towns employers composed adjacent to their workplaces between 1880 and 1930. In surprising, sometimes unsettling ways, planners and industrialists also theorized the affordances of ambient climate and unbuilt environment to industrial work. A prehistory of the post–World War II suburb must consider the portable models and morphologies worked out in these and other “suburbs of last resort.”

As the narrative moves into the postwar period, its conceptual focus pivots from questions of suburban order to suburban ruin. Since the 1970s, the Carquinez has been marked by landscapes of abandonment: decapitalized workplaces, decommissioned military installations, and, lately, overgrown pockets of the post-2008 residential foreclosure crisis. Suburbs and peripheries are increasingly the loci of American privation, but there is still a tendency among analysts to narrate urban “decline” in ways that privilege denser centers, deploying metaphors of the rotting core rather than the fraying edge, and granting visibility and salience to some landscapes of decay at the expense of others. “Suburbs of Last Resort” establishes a prehistory in this sense as well. It argues that concepts of inbuilt suburban “formlessness,” which intensified in Northern California in the 1950s and 1960s, have rendered working-class suburbs, even or especially in times of their abandonment, peculiarly invisible. Such notions, too, have roots in prewar debates. The study closes by tracing a countervailing intellectual history, complementary to the more affirmative account of prescriptions for suburban form, of attempts to ontologize — and to denigrate — newly built suburbs as their own species of “ruins.” It has been precisely when their form is ambiguous or abandoned that suburban landscapes have seemed most animate: “contagious” in their putative spread, productive of manifold anxieties, and provocative of new forms of reflection and action.

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