The more I read of [Frederick Jackson Turner], the more I find his theories fit well with many of the structural economic and social changes the US (and much of the global economy) is currently experiencing. Moreover, many of the attributes that Turner argues were present on the frontier are present on today’s college and university campuses. One example is the diversity of the population that inhabited the frontier. Today’s campuses are incredibly diverse along many lines (age, sex, race, work experience, religion, musical tastes, nationality, field of study, economic status, etc.)
Another attribute that the frontier and the campus have in common is distance from control. On a campus much of the population is far from parents or from former employers, while those who went to the frontier were beyond the reach of governments, churches, families, and tradition.
Jonathan Raban, concluding that My Space and Facebook comprise today's frontier, writes about London's former position as creative crucible par excellence:
Yet in Soft City I was trying to write about metropolitan life as it had existed since the 18th century – as a theatre in which the newly arrived could try on masks and identities more daring and extravagant than any they had been allowed in their villages or small towns, as a place that guaranteed a blessed privacy, anonymity and freedom to its inhabitants and, most of all, as somewhere where every citizen created a route of his or her own through its potentially infinite labyrinth of streets, arranging the city around them to their own unique pattern. That was why it was soft, amenable to the play of each of its residents’ imagination and personal usage. A town, even a large one, imposes on its people certain fixed patterns of movement and, with them, a set of rather narrow expectations of what kind of character you’re permitted there. If I live in Worksop, Worksop largely defines me; if I live in a great city like London or New York, I can make the city up as I go along, shaping it to my own habits and fancies. In an article published a few weeks ago in London’s Evening Standard, David Sexton cited Soft City and nicely summed up its essential argument in one sentence, writing that the book was about “how we all construct our own different versions of London, in our imaginations joining up the streets and places each of us knows, so that associations and familiarities matter more than the map and thus we all mould for ourselves a different city in which to live”. Aboard his newly bought bicycle, Sexton was busily discovering the intricate geography of his own soft city.
Has the university campus replaced the world city as frontier? I think the answer is no. Cyberspace doesn't qualify either. Turner's all-important social tabula rasa is located in the heart of any shrinking city:
The nightmarish view of downtown Detroit and its suburbs is ancient history. The city is currently home to a strong (though small by coast-city standards) art scene. Wayne State University is becoming known for it’s cutting-edge gallery shows, while older artists have contributed much to Detroit’s exceptional public art installations. Detroit is also the epicenter of the Urban Adventure movement, with intrepid explorers coming from as far away as Europe and Australia to clandestinely explore the city’s beautifully decaying factories, mansions, hotels, mental hospitals, and skyscrapers.
Belle Époque Paris, Soft City London or Beatnik New York were never quite as wild as Post Industrial Detroit is now. Perhaps Berlin just after the end of the Cold War compares. Dubai might be globalization's frontier capital. But to wander among the creative destruction dominating the urban landscape of the Rust Belt is to understand one's own limitless possibility.