- City Dreams, Country Schemes: Community and Identity in the American West
An extraordinary collection of engaging and innovative essays that explores how developers, city planners, civic boosters, “cultural elites” and ordinary residents reimagined the city in the trans-Mississippi United States, this volume should [End Page 202] quickly join the required reading lists of any serious urban studies program. Thirteen chapters explore how western cities obscured the boundary between the rural and the urban, and how western planners created new urban entities like exburbs and what contributor Lincoln Bramwell calls “wilderburbs.”
Brosnan and Scott organize the essays into three sections: one focused on how western cities like Boulder, Colorado, aimed to incorporate natural settings within their boundaries and the limitations nature imposed on city planning; another on how communities such as those in Napa Valley and Monterey in California reconfigured their landscapes to accommodate tourists’ desire for nostalgia and bucolic settings; and a third on how gays, Chinese immigrants, and Native Americans claimed neighborhoods in cities like San Francisco to forge a sense of group identity.
In all these essays, we learn that utopianism motivated many of the people who created these cities. Planners and boosters conceived of the West as a place where the convenience of urban life could somehow be blended with scenes of epic natural beauty, a sense of belonging and togetherness, and where one could escape from the racial tensions, filth and crime of the East Coast. “[W]esterners wanted the best of both worlds—modern urban amenities in the midst of a garden,” as the editors put it in their thoughtful introduction. Ignoring the Latino and Native American peoples already resident there, the mostly Anglo civic boosters and leaders of utopian communities who peopled the land west of the Mississippi in the mid- and late-19th century saw the territory as a tabula rasa— “a place more receptive to change, less set in the old ways,” as contributor John Findlay puts it in his essay, “The Wishful West” (18).
Especially in the mid-twentieth century, urban planners sensed the anxieties city dwellers felt due to immigration, traffic congestion, and pollution and aimed their promotional literature directly at would-be migrants’ optimistic pastoralism. Thus, California’s Irvine Company, in promoting the future college town, promised “an urbanism of tranquil peace and serenity, where the ‘balance between man and nature’ would be lovingly restored . . . in various idyllic settings involving sail boats, grassy fields, and immaculate store fronts,” as Stephanie Kolberg writes in the essay “Crafting the Good Life in Irvine, California” (49).
These essays are not just thought-provoking, but well-written, especially Kolberg’s, Bramwell’s and Findlay’s contributions and Jeffrey Sander’s “Public Art, Memory, and Mobility in 1920s New Mexico,” which uncovers the surprising battle over competing, sanitized Anglo memories of the southwestern past. The conflict erupted when Sen. Harry Truman traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), seeking to deliver a statue of a white pioneer woman, “The Madonna of the Trail.” They were ambushed by angry local artists who saw the sculpture as lowbrow and clumsily executed. These artists had also fought to promote a romanticized depiction of the Hispanic past as the proper inspiration for local aesthetics. This was a conflict over memory. The DAR white pioneer Madonna denied the presence of Hispanics and Indians. The white artists’ contrasting vision denied the bloody oppression of the Natives by the Spanish.
Such rich details make this work a compelling read. One essay, Nan Alamilla Boyd’s “The Making of San Francisco’s Queer Scene,” seems tacked on and does [End Page 203] not fit well with the overall aim of the book. Otherwise, this important anthology should inspire new approaches to Western history.