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The City as Motion Picture: Notes on Some California City Films

From: Wide Angle
Volume 19, Number 4, October 1997
pp. 109-130 | 10.1353/wan.1997.0020

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Wide Angle 19.4 (1997) 109-130


I've long recognized that, whatever pretensions I have about being an individual, for the most part my experiences are typical of large numbers of people; and therefore, if I say that in my lifetime I am aware of three distinct attitudes toward the American city, I do not mean to privilege my personal experience, but to recognize it as an index to the experiences of at least a portion of a particular generation. As I was growing up in Easton, Pennsylvania, during the 1940s and 50s (I was born in 1942), New York City was for me "The City" and our family trips into New York were the most exciting moments of my life. While I was thoroughly bored by what my family called "beautiful scenery" (expansive vistas of the mixture of farms and low Appalachian mountains characteristic of Pennsylvania and Virginia) I was fascinated by cityscapes --the more industrial, the better. The drive from Easton across New Jersey on Route 22 was foreplay leading to two climactic moments: the incredible industrial vista that opened between Newark, Elizabeth, and Jersey City; and the sight of Manhattan from the Pulaski Skyway. For me, and for my father, New York City and its industrial surround were a human creation beyond art, and whatever pollution and environmental devastation we were vaguely aware of seemed not only inevitable, but romantic. For my father, whose hopes of a college education vanished the year he graduated high school when the Great Depression hit, the distant, wavering flames burning off petroleum fumes in Elizabeth were candles lit in honor of America's postwar industrial boom and the smoke that darkened the sky was incense -- even the horrific stockyard smell near Secaucus (if we were entering Manhattan via the Lincoln Tunnel) was humorous: "P.U. Secaucus," we'd laugh. Of course, the conclusion of our journey, and the greatest product of America's industrialization, was New York City itself. It was the largest and, we assumed, the most dynamic city in the world. That seemed obvious from the panorama we could see from the top of the Empire State Building and from the awesome golden cavern of the Radio City Music Hall, two of the inevitable goals of these trips.

This consciousness of New York City as the great American product of successful, democratic industrialization remained with me through my adolescence and into my twenties, when history and my personal circumstances revealed a new sense of the American city. During my six years living in Gainesville, Florida, as a graduate student at the University of Florida, I couldn't help but wonder what Gainesville residents did for a living. Except for the university itself, there didn't seem to be any substantial employers, no big factories -- and yet every year I was there, Gainesville grew by a considerable percentage. It wasn't until much later that I realized the obvious: that Gainesville's "industry" was the building of Gainesville itself (when I arrived in 1960 the population was less than 30,000; as of 1990 the city had tripled in size, and Alachua County had passed 180,000). Increasingly, my sense of the city as a product -- epitomized by Manhattan -- gave way to a new sense of the American city-in-process, growing larger and suburbanizing, so that increasingly it made sense to rank cities in terms of the population of the metropolitan areas of which they were a part. If I remained snobbishly loyal to the idea of New York as the best an American city could be, I couldn't help but recognize that the "new," expanding metro areas in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and especially, California, were where the real city-building energy was, and as the metropolitan area of Los Angeles passed the metro area of Chicago, I was forced to realize that it might be only a matter of time before the New York area was no longer the biggest urban space, even in the United States.

In recent years, the relationship of the expansion of cities and their resulting transformations not merely of the landscapes within them and immediately surrounding them, but...

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