One striking feature when viewing This Great Nation from the air is that we are everywhere. This is well-documented. At night our luminescence burns and our civilization is a stringy web. Actually perhaps more like a metastasized series of cells which is perhaps a more apt description considering our push for boundless, endless, and unconstrained growth and the new shape of America. Perhaps that is too harsh an analogy, too flip a metaphor, a crude and impolite comparison. Bethatasitmay, that is what crosses my mind when I press my nose against the cool glass of the aircraft and sit in wonder at the miracle that I am flying through the air at hundreds of miles an hour perhaps 30 or more thousand feet in the air. Another feature is the patters seem to be changing in order to fit our new reality, the New Normal.
Down there in the woods, are a hundred million light bulbs each left on or a special and different reason. The intersection is dangerous. The neighbors feel saver from criminals if the streets are lit all night. The light went on as the dog pushed his way out a door he is almost too fat to move through. The furniture store wants to make it easy for the police to see in as well as make sure the parking lot remains unused not that there is more than a handful of cars using it during the day now that the big box store down the street opened. Sally forgot and left the lights on again and when grandma wakes up, she will be quite disappointed. Light pollution is not some amorphous thing. Is is the sum total of a million little decisions.
When I land I am in a different city yet as I travel about I am seeing some similarities.
I was in a Dunken Donuts and the cashier was Hispanic, the man who passed on my order appeared Indian, the woman who made my McWhatever had a large gold ring in her nose and I’m not sure where she was from but she didn’t speak a lick of my mother tongue. About me the patrons were in little clusters – the older men who appeared Mexican and were wearing cowboy hats and speaking Spanish, another group of men speaking Russian or a hard Slavic language, and a few ancient folks sitting each alone not speaking at all – one wearing a large Star of David. I was in a Dunken Donuts in Boston. In Naples. In Houston or New York or Omaha in Wilmington in Albany in Cleveland in Orlando in Sioux City in Columbia Falls in Springfield or any number of places since my surroundings, the establishment, was exactly the same. The offerings. The “food” I ordered. For all our alleged multiculturalism our land is filled with Panda Houses, Outback Steak Houses, Petcos, Walmarts, Kentacohuts and sundry hallmarks of the New American Roadway where anywhere could be somewhere else and all places the same. I have driven past what I call the Kreeping Krud(c) for hours and hours to no end and not just in New Jersey.
In each of these same establishments are people from around the world, the cultural edges knocked off to make them safe, safe enough to serve me the exact same Tatter Tots in the exact same setting somewhere on the edge of a long-dead city in exactly the same way and then offer to me the exact same customer service survey. They live together and yet apart. Balkanized and provided a common culture of the Corporate State, the nodes of existence.
I wondered that to walk such a journey by foot would immediately turn the hardest conservative into a flaming screaming environmentalist – or at least a New Urbanist. For all these new cultures apparently adding to the American melting pot/mosaic, our landscape from Portland to Providence, Chicago to Corpus Christi is so flat and similar as to be like the background to a cheap cartoon where one runs and runs and never changes their position. It would be something out of science fiction however, much of our nation does not believe in science, and this is not fiction.
Between these strips of land given over to duplicated commerce, the forests, fields, and hills are being slowly covered by cul-d-sac developments, or what I call the nodes. These nodes are often gated communities but even without the gate they are the intentionally cut off, an elegant Lebenstram set aside to ensure that those who can afford to do so can live out-of-contact with those who we don’t know, our neighbors and community. It used to be (for good or bad as all designs have flaws) that there were two types of American towns and cities. The stage run and the grid. The stage run and the grid often grew up at crossroads, but they followed very different developments. The stage run was that series of establishments set along a line. This is very similar to our Kreeping Krud development. However, the run was set by natural factors, the stride of horses, the edges of town, the wild areas outside of town. There was usually a center even to a stage run, and that often was the primary crossroads. A post office. A general store. A something. Then there was the grid. An invention of late this is best seen in our great cities (except Boston). A planned community of lines and coordinates. This allowed for a tighter use of space and a more refined organization of the city or town. Now we have moved beyond that. We have melted the grid and the stage run and created a new feature on the land.
Our commercial areas are along pathways. Stretching out. Even when a plaza or lot becomes again vacant it is tainted apparently since the new development continues somewhere on a field or forest yet put under the pavement. I never can stop being amazed by the number of vacant strip malls, malls, and structures complete with huge parking lots only to then see a new commercial development being created just further out. These strips creep in all directions from whatever historical center may have existed and from off of these develop nodes.
The nodes are the New American Community(tm). The New American Community (NAC) is built to prevent movement. It is a series of dead ends. We don’t need sunset laws we don’t need Jim Crow. Every direction belongs just to those who live there. There is often one entrance and exit and if you are in Houston, this usually has a gate over it or some barrier to prevent the people who you don’t know from entering the compound and mingling with the neighbors you never talk to. From the air these patters send off in all directions from the line of commercial Krap-o-la. On the ground these “communities” present an unfriendly face to the highway the good news being I need not slow down since the gates lead to walls that prevent pets and children from leaking out and my noise of my rig or rented Prius or whatever from leaking in. I need not consider anything, even the most casual and civic understanding.
The nodes are in Houston and Charlotte, Atlanta and DC this is mile upon mile of highway lined by cement blast walls or wooden noise barriers. In Naples they build moats and have bridges leading to the nodes that are paradises of golf courses and retirement communities (I will say this for Naples, they want you to see the community and I’ll take a moat and strategically planted trees over the rude and unfriendly walls of the New City States I see in much of the rest of the land). Perhaps you live in a node or know someone who does.
If one breaches the security (the gates are often up in the day to let in the people who trim the hedges and bushes and grass and expand the kitchen and change the tiles in the bath since who choose green not me) one does see a very different Amerika. The large houses. Larger cars. The comfort and confidence expected in Modern Life. It is very different from those wastelands outside the gate. The diverse staff cut the grass or build the extension on the already large house. It is the same no matter where I travel. For all the poverty I see in so many communities, shacks and hovels aplenty in this rich land, there are such clusters of large unfriendly houses in places divorced from the rest of the nation.
It is a return to the old medieval landscape, minus the charm of the towers and crenelated walls. The city-state minus the unity of a common people behind a common wall fighting a common enemy. In these quiet citadels each house is indeed perhaps a fortress. A keep set apart from neighbors who could be from anywhere, could be anyone, and are viewed only by security cameras and whispering rumors by the hired help. The poor live outside. Out there in the badlands. The rich are retreating behind the gates or the complex and Byzantine mazes the corporate planners have created – having rid ourselves of City Fathers we have not replaced them with City Mothers, but asexual and immoral immortal companies that lay out the ground not according to rational design but to the specifications of the back of a customer survey card filled out with a golf pencil or online very, very late at night.
I returned to the air to fly over these cities of nodes. After dark the gates close and the help is ushered out and there are no visitors from elsewhere. The people in these nodes are from a diverse number of nations but together they hide from others like them. Together we build a landscape where we travel without moving. The ultimate expression of a science fiction now made science fact. I am flying now as I write this and looking out over the curvature of the earth, the sun setting on one side of the airplane the crescent moon with a star between the horns rising on the other. Below me the sprawl and the nodes just starting to put their lights on.
Perhaps Sally will remember to turn off the lights tonight. Her grandmother worries she won’t grow up to be a thoughtful person. This is not about the pennies it takes to needlessly run the lamp all night that occludes the stars. There is more at stake and her grandmother knows this. She wants Sally to see beyond her little cul-d-sac – the immense and vacant house with both parents out there frantically trying to afford the house the SUV the gates the home alarm system and all other worries of parenthood. Sally may see beyond that still. She may learn to understand diversity is not the golden child that hands you a doughnut. She may see that the barriers to the highway are also walls to create a new Amerikan gulag archipelago. She may not know it now, but we are at a juncture where we can reach that very best of our civilization or slip in to a new and perverse Dark Age. And… with her finger upon that lamp switch, let us hope Sally chooses the right path.