Monday, June 28, 2010

Urban Manifest Destiny Geography

The Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech maintains a blog titled, "Shrinking Cities". Many readers here would appreciate the content posted there. Today, Michael Hill provides a critical geography of the urban frontier. There appears to be an early draft of the analysis from last year. It reads like a diatribe against Creative Class gentrification. Just to be clear, Hill is deconstructing the very same urban frontiers I seek to promote. Keep that in mind as I interrogate his construct.

Hill sets his sites on the American myth of Manifest Destiny and the homesteading migration of the 19th century. There are two geographic themes:

The first is that people simply moved to the frontier for abstract notions of freedom and liberty. People moved to the frontier mostly for economic reasons – they wanted to make a decent living and decided the dangers, when weighed against the opportunities, were worth it. They were often escaping limited options in other countries or in established American urban areas, including racial and class discrimination against Eastern Europeans, the Irish and people from the Mediterranean countries in Europe. This is in addition to African Americans and poor whites from the Appalachian regions of the Northeast.

The second myth is the myth of the uninhabited landscape. Hostile and alien, maybe, but not uninhabited. Like every other area on the American continent, the west had been inhabited for centuries by Native Americans whose social and community structures were well-adapted to their environment. The sense of an alien landscape can be attributed to the common practice of European settlers applying habits of living developed in other places to the western landscape.

Homesteading and Manifest Destiny aren't necessarily related. The former predates the latter, by decades. Manifest Destiny doesn't make any sense in the context of contemporary urban homesteading. On the other hand, the American frontier has proven to be a durable part of the national mythology and helps us to model the exodus to the suburbs. In terms of understanding American historical geography, I think the difference between Frederick Jackson Turner (frontier/homesteading) and John L. O'Sullivan (Manifest Destiny) is crucial.

There is no myth of the uninhabited landscape. "Frontier" is culturally relative. There is being closer to the hearth of civilization and then there is the land of the profane, the periphery. Any reader of James Fenimore Cooper should grasp the dichotomy. Putting Natty Bumppo in today's urban core (or Huck Finn lighting out for inner city Detroit) is a grand irony. Only dense living in shrinking cities will save your depraved suburban soul.

People did and do move "for abstract notions of freedom and liberty." Economic reasons may push people out, but rarely do they pull them into the orbit of a place. A good example is the Mormon migration. In the 19th century, you don't move to Utah for economic opportunity. In the 20th century, no Dust Bowl no Okies. California Dreaming is all frontier and no Manifest Destiny.

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