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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 3 page 14


What really stabbed America’s great cities in the back according to Grescoe was the launch in 1956 of the federally-funded interstate highway system, 47,000 miles of spaghetti stretching coast-to-coast and border-to-border, the largest subsidy to the automobile and real estate industries in the annals of the known universe.

There was a Cold War rationale. The interstates were meant to assure the movement of military vehicles and evacuees in the event of nuclear armageddon. Each significant city is ringed by expressways bypassing the hypothetically bombed-out core. And if these new roads encouraged subdivisions to spread around the periphery, that was fine too because a dispersed target has better survivability.

Think L.A. is bad? Phoenix is worse! This is where the author momentarily loses hope for humanity. Things get off on the wrong foot because (1) as a last resort he has to drive a car to get there, and (2) he listens to right-wing talk radio, presumably for local color. Phoenix, Grescoe discovers, is a sprawl zone bigger than Switzerland. It's “a centerless city built almost entirely after the coming of the automobile.” Some of the local denizens might dispute the term “centerless,” because they can point to a straggle of office towers that constitute a sort of "downtown". Others think the city's focal point is the four-level interchange (a.k.a., “The Stack”) where the I-10 meets the I-17.

In a last-ditch effort to create a real city, voters in the year 2000 approved spending $1.4 billion on a futuresque Japanese light rail set that runs in mid-street for 20 miles. How is that working out?

Again Grescoe finds a massively under-used train trolling past car lots, big-box stores and seas of free parking. The trains recoup under 25% of their costs. There is talk of cutting back the hours of operation. Sunny Phoenix long counted on the real estate bubble for its prosperity, but since the subprime mortgage meltdown the malls are going to seed and the suburbs have been walloped by a tsunami of foreclosures. Now they are “slumburbs,” says Grescoe. “Phoenix could well be the west’s next ghost town.”

I think Grescoe has a certain Schadenfreude against Phoenix. He tries to pin moral responsibility for this "irredeemable monster of unbridled growth" on Ayn Rand’s hero, Frank Lloyd Wright — who was, in this telling, a reckless car fanatic and mean-spirited toff. Pedestrians were outcasts in Wright's car-centric ideal city, namely his notorious 1932 Broadacre City plan that presaged three generations of suburban sprawl. Wright, as it happened, operated a desert school not far from Phoenix.