- Easy On, Easy Off: The Urban Pathology of America's Small Towns by Jack Williams
Easy On, Easy Off: The Urban Pathology of America's Small Towns is essentially two books. One is a predictable polemic about the automobile's impact on the American landscape and the other a deeply considered work of historical geography and urban analysis. The former will undoubtedly appeal to followers of Jane Holtz Kay, William Howard Kunstler, and a long line of critics going back to Peter Blake and Lewis Mumford, but the latter should be of greater interest to scholars of vernacular architecture. Through an impressive combination of fieldwork, archival research, and well-integrated secondary sources, Williams reveals the history embedded in areas that are taken for granted or bypassed entirely by modern Americans. Along the way, he makes a convincing case that the titular affliction is not, as many would have it, a cancerous outgrowth of America's toxic embrace of the automobile, but a congenital condition that long predated the internal combustion engine. The tension between these seemingly contradictory interpretations makes Easy On, Easy Off a provocative if occasionally exasperating contribution to debates about the highway's impact on American lives and landscapes.
From New England mill towns and southern pine plantations to Southwestern mining settlements and California's Sacramento River Delta, Williams chronicles the boom-and-bust cycles that typified much of American development, showing how unsustainable [End Page 102] exploitation, global fluctuations, and technological change combined with mobile populations to produce successive waves of expansion, abandonment, and decay. Williams's affinity for traditional design principles does not prevent him from disclosing the ways in which romanticized relics of earlier eras embody social, spatial, and environmental transgressions that rivaled or exceeded the imprecations ascribed to the automobile.
An emeritus professor of landscape architecture at Auburn University, Williams drives this point home in a series of regional portraits extending the approach he employed in the first installment of a prospective trilogy on American small towns, East 40 Degrees: An Interpretive Atlas (2006). Combining astute observations gleaned from multiple fieldwork forays with wide-ranging research and a practiced eye for design details and spatial relationships, he traces the rise and decline of once-vibrant communities. These well-rounded expositions elucidate underlying physical features and show how environmental conditions combined with social, economic, and technological factors to produce distinctive patterns of regional development.
Representative examples located within easy reach of interstate interchanges are explicated in greater detail. An avowed admirer of the Library of Congress's cartographic collection, he relies heavily on historical maps, both as sources of information and as engaging illustrations. Williams also provides figure-ground studies of targeted towns. This classic means of rendering urban form helps clarify his observations about spatial relationships. Williams's own photographs, reproductions of historical images, and a variety of other graphic techniques underscore his design background and contribute to the book's considerable visual appeal.
For a chapter on southern New England mill towns, for instance, he explains how the region's physical characteristics were ideally suited to produce the water power that fueled America's first foray into the industrial age. We learn about southern New England geology and hydrology, the design and construction of textile mills, and the architecture and arrangement of mill towns, along with the ways in which these elements related to one another and evolved over time. Homing in on Webster, Massachusetts, Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and several other cities, he employs Beers atlases, Sanborn maps, period sketches, and bird's-eye views to show how these factors influenced local landscapes. While many of the stories he tells will be familiar to academic historians, Williams clearly means to address a broader audience. Some passages might be a bit dense for general readers, but he writes in accessible prose free of academic jargon.
Ample illustrations afford a parallel narrative...