Calling on the Ghost of J.B. Jackson

08-11-2004

Where is J.B. Jackson when you need him? The spirit of the seemingly unbiased observer of the American built environment, who is said to have said that he never saw a landscape he didn’t like, and who extracted a quiet poetry from the most modest, mundane, and – let’s face it – sorry of places is strangely missing in Dolores Hayden’s new book, A Fieldguide to Sprawl. And what a shame. Regardless of what side of the sprawl debate you’re on, you have to admit that some of the things produced by (and for the sake of) sprawl are, if not awe-inspiring, then at least wonderous. It may be ugly, wasteful, and dehumanizing, but sprawl is America’s urban vanguard, and, for all the criticism that has been leveled at it, it remains true that, as Hayden herself acknowledges, “well-educated Americans often lack words for the cultural upheaval caused by rapid sprawl.”

What is needed, then, is precisely what A Field Guide to Sprawl isn’t: a scientific illumination of what’s going on out there. The biggest (though unfortunately not the only) problem with A Field Guide to Sprawl is that it interprets when it should inform; proselytizes and polemicizes what it should explain. Thus in an entry for “duck” we’re told not only what a duck is (a building that replicates and serves as an advertisement for the product sold within it), we’re told (incredibly), that “while some Americans justify ducks as zany landmarks that help people locate themselves in sprawl, ducks are always out of context and do little to unify neighborhoods.” In an entry for “big box” we’re told, predictably, I suppose, that “big boxes undercut smaller, local businesses, causing abandoned buildings on Main Streets in older town centers.”

Hayden is certainly aware of this criticism. In her introduction, she criticizes the American Planning Association’s Glossary of Zoning, Development, and Planning Terms for “playing it safe” by “defining terms for zoning legislation in a neutral way.” As an example, she sites the Glossary’s definition of “billboard,” which, in her eyes is too respectful for avoiding words like “garish” and “aggressive.” Indeed, if we look up “billboard” in the index of A Field Guide to Sprawl we’re told to see “litter on a stick.”

A Field Guide to Sprawl is propaganda for the New Urbanist movement, plain and simple. Further evidence of this is the fact that many of the entries in fact have little to do with sprawl, but are nonetheless keywords in various (hackneyed) New Urbanist discourses. “Ball pork,” for example, which “combines ballpark and pork barrel to describe a stadium built with public funds for the use of a privately owned ball team,” is, as Hayden herself acknowledges, a largely urban phenomenon, as most new stadiums that get built today get built downtown. Ditto “theming,” which, like “ball pork,” is associated more with casinos, festival marketplaces, and other downtown developments than with sprawl. “Litter on a stick,” “LULU,” and “TOAD” are similarly out of place here.

But if A Field Guide to Sprawl is propaganda, what useless propaganda it is. This is the second problem with the book. It is poorly researched, and shockingly naive. Almost every entry in A Field Guide to Sprawl raised an eyebrow. In the entry for “manufactured housing” we’re told that “manufactured housing contributes to sprawl because . . . units are often crowded together.” In the photograph that illustrates the entry for “low density,” we see a subdivision of about ten houses per acre (the intended subject of the picture), set in a landscape of farmhouses, each of which takes up about five acres (the intended background of the picture). Hayden’s case against the “snout house” is that it’s “difficult to see residents’ activities since protruding garages take up most of the street frontage,” and that it fails the “Trick-or-Treat Test,” which measures how easily children can find the house’s door. Moreover we’re supposed to take solace in the fact that the city of Portland criminalized snout houses by limiting garage-frontage.

Moreover, A Field Guide to Sprawl is photographed poorly. Not only is the grainy, 35mm quality of the photographs mediocre at best, they don’t do nearly enough to illustrate the entries. The photograph accompanying “strip,” for example, is an aerial photograph of two gas stations. Accompanying “putting parsley round the pig” are some wildly colored plants lining a fairway. These pictures do not sing.

Are there exceptions? Of course. “Mall glut” is an illuminating concept and Jim Wark’s aerial photo of a mall with “room to grow” is perfect. “Leapfrog,” “groundcover,” and “alligator” are also fascinating, but looking at them only wets the pallette. Granted, it’s only a lexicon, but how about a few diagrams? How about some maps? How about some annotation? How about some history?

Hopefully, someone will steal Dolores Hayden’s great idea and redo this book the way it should have been done (I nominate Atilier Bow-Wow). Again, Hayden’s insight that “words such as city, suburb, and countryside no longer capture the reality of real estate development in the United States” couldn’t be more true. J.B. Jackson, where are you when we need you?

 

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