"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, July 28, 2014

Commercial Strips–American Exceptionalism At Its Best

Any small town over 5000 pop. has a commercial strip with Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Walmart, and much more.  The bigger the town, the bigger the strip.  By the time the traveller gets to Rockville Pike,  DC’s strip deluxe, the low-end fast food, cheapo oil changes, nail salons, and Piggly Wiggly of the South have long since given way to high end container stores, go-to destination restaurants, gourmet delis, Bloomingdale’s, pick-up bars, and thirty-something fitness centers; but it is still a strip – long, concrete, treeless, and mercilessly  retail. 

Many highways in America still look like Tucson’s Speedway Boulevard, called the nation’s most ugliest highway by Time Magazine in the early 70s.

“New Jersey has such a bad image”, the Chairwoman wrote the First Lady when she had first heard of her Highway Beautification initiative, “and we hope that you can help us show the world that we are not the sinkhole that most people think”.

A tall order for anyone who spent any time in northern New Jersey back then and smelled the stink of the oil refineries along the Jersey Turnpike, made it out of accidental detours through the decaying cities of Newark and Jersey, lost their way amidst the tangle of rail lines, container terminals, freight depots at Port Newark, fought their way to the airport or banged into the City on the  Pulaski Skyway and onto the feeder roads into the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels.

Jersey was ‘over there’; not only no man’s land, but Indian country – used cars, bail bonds, and Cuban sandwiches.  No reason to go.

Steinberg New Yorker Cover.png

Then came Lady Bird Johnson and her campaign to beautify New Jersey.  Of course she could not pick on a whole state, no matter how blighted, and therefore focused her attention on the one aspect of the state which was by far the ugliest – Route 1.   Thanks to her the State of New Jersey and local communities began to bury telephone lines, set back and limit the size of signs, plant trees and bushes along the roadway, and clean up litter. She put the nation on notice that she and her husband would no longer put up with highway blight, and no one else should either. 

Urban sprawl must have been particularly painful for Lady Bird, growing up as she did in the Texas Hill country where ranches spread for acres over grasslands, wooded hills, and plains.

“God, this is awful”, she told the Newark Herald as she rode down Route 1.  The comment got picked up by the national media, and the tangled overhead wires, miles of neon signs, unregulated retail, chaotic access, and sheer garish cheapness gave New Jersey unwanted attention and a renewed prominence as the country’s ugliest state.  Lady Bird meant only to draw attention to the highway – a before snapshot to be compared with her final vision of daffodils and tulips – but the press, and especially the Western newspapers saw it differently.  Residents of Montana and Wyoming were particularly critical.

“It isn’t bad enough”, wrote a woman from Butte in The Crested Butte News, “that the federal government sucks us dry with tax and spend programs, but to waste money on a state with no remedial promise, no hope for rehabilitation, and certainly not a chance in hell in becoming beautiful is downright stupid.”

The residents of New Jersey have always insisted that their state is not just what you see on the Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway.  “The adventurous tourist”, a recent brochure claimed, “will find a world of wondrous beauty in the Pine Barrens and in the Kittatinny Mountains”; but most Americans think that such promotions are pure nonsense.  New Jersey can’t possibly have mountains and wooded trails.  It is all a fiction, and a PR-spun fantasy.  One of the best-sellers in San Francisco is the New Jersey Turnpike T-Shirt, apparently made by the State Turnpike Authority without a trace of irony but appealing inadvertently to the retro-ironic chic of the Bay Area.

New Jersey has consolidated its image as a tough low-end state thanks to The Sopranos and Jersey Girls.  The Jersey Shore is more synonymous with hot-combed Nicky Norks, Frank Sinatra, and Buicks than ever before.  Of course the demographics of the state have changed dramatically since they heyday of the mob when goombas flocked to Neptune Beach; but it is still white and low-end, drawing from both Newark and South Philly.

Newark is the East Coast’s Detroit, and despite young, progressive mayors who take on the city’s ills as political challenges.  The city school system is the worst in the state and has been under state control for almost twenty years – a drastic step which was intended to reverse the decline and rescue Newark’s children.  Its social indicators – income, family composition, crime, drugs, and levels of incarceration – still rank alongside Detroit and most areas of  the eastern quadrants of Washington, DC.

So, no matter how much state officials protest, and no matter how much the exuberant Governor can praise his state, New Jersey is a state to be driven through as quickly as possible.  By the time Lady Bird’s Highway Beautification program had taken hold, few people used Route 1 as a throughway, preferring the Turnpike and the Parkway, and it has returned to its original land use – a hodgepodge of low-end retail, gas stations, and fast-food chains.

Although commercial highway strips may have started in the congested Northeast, they have spread everywhere.  Route 45 outside Columbus, Mississippi is a case in point.  Downtown Columbus is an attractive town with modest retail, a few quality restaurants, and many antebellum homes.  It has a traditional Southern feel, a landed gentry whose families have lived there for over 200 years, a small university, and reasonable racial mixing. 

Five minutes out of town, however, the blight begins.  Dollar stores, outlets for every national fast food chain, pawn shops, nail salons, cheap gas, liquor stores, and guns.  It is awful, but not unique.  There are strips outside of Hattiesburg, Greenwood, Laurel, Starkville, and Oxford, just as low-end, just as ugly, and just as necessary.  There is no room downtown.  The state is poor, and land out on the strip is cheap.

I grew up on the Berlin Turnpike which was one of the first commercial strips in the Northeast.  I hung out in bowling alleys, grinder joints, army-navy stores, and even in the cheap cabin-style motels at the far end of the Pike near Meriden.  Gas was cheap on the Pike especially during the gas wars, and soon most retail moved out of New Britain, Berlin, Meriden, and Wallingford.  The Berlin Turnpike is still there, but only the cheapest motels, no-name gas stations, and seedy bars have survived.  There has been no investment since the Interstate diverted north-south thru traffic, land is cheap, but nobody wants it.  Strips haven’t gone away, they have just been disassembled and regrouped in malls and shopping centers.

The architect Robert Venturi published Learning from Las Vegas (1972) wrote about American pop art as embodied in commercial strip development.

Denise Scott Brown characterized Venturi’s vision this way:

Learning from Las Vegas is a “treatise on symbolism in architecture.” Las Vegas is analyzed as a phenomenon of architectural communication. The ‘Strip’ is architecture of communication over space, achieved through style and signs. This is a unique condition in comparison to "enclosed space," which architects are more familiar with. Value of symbolism and allusion in architecture of vast space and speed are evidenced through the Strip. Hence, Las Vegas is not the subject of the book. The symbolism of architectural form is. Venturi has described in the Las Vegas study the victory of symbolism-space over forms-in-space.

This is perhaps too generous – an ex post facto justification for all that is kitsch and low-brow in America – but Venturi was on to something.  In many ways Las Vegas is the most American of cities – false, glitzy, fantastical, garish, outrageously big; but somehow full of the energy of the Wild West.  Las Vegas is just a supersized cartoon of the frontier town where cowboys got drunk in the saloon, hooked up with the prostitutes upstairs, took a bath, and gambled.  Frontier towns just grew up, and as long as they had a tack and saddle store, bar, and whore house, nobody cared what they looked like.  Every strip retail establishment with a donut on the top was symbolic of American hucksterism, enterprise, and total disregard if not disdain for planning.

A French friend of mine visiting from Paris visited Las Vegas and immediately said that it was is favorite city.  Coming from the trim, cultured, and sophisticated world of the French aristocracy – his family’s chateau was one of Europe’s finest and his great-ancestors had fought in the Third Crusade – I thought he would have preferred the more familiar brownstones of Boston, Georgetown, Philadelphia, or the antebellum South.

“Boring”, he said. “European knock-offs.  Las Vegas is the real America”; and so were the strip malls and highway commercial corridors outside of every town.   He and Robert Venturi agreed on the energy, Americanism, and symbolism of these places. Most critics dismiss this ironic French take on America.  France is the country which embraces Jerry Lewis, after all, as a genius; but always has done so with Gallic tongue-in-cheek and not-so-veiled derision of the country that spawned him.  The French and Robert Venturi can’t be serious.

On my many trips of exploration of the American South, I looked for its antebellum heart; and found it in towns that were preserved more because of neglect and indifference than any sense of local historical pride.  The wealth was out on the prairie, in industrial parks, and far from the old genteel center of town.  The only vitality in these small towns was out on the highway, the strip mall.  Everyone shopped out there, and only the most particular and wealthy patrons drove to Jackson or Birmingham or even farther to New Orleans to stock up.  The strips were the community’s arteries, and no one even noticed the ugliness.

The American highway strip is as American as any other cultural expression, if not more so. While tourists will still visit the Liberty Bell, the Washington Monument, and the Old South Church, they have to drive in and out of center-city on the strips surrounding the cities.  They pass through the real America without notice or comment. Which is why strips are more American than church steeples, old houses, or New England commons.

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