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  • Beyond the Fringe
  • Carl Abbott (bio)
Lincoln Bramwell. Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014. xxiv + 309 pp. Maps, illustrations, bibliography, notes, and index. $34.95.
Andrew Needham. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014. ix + 321 pp. Figures, notes, index. $35.00.

If you’ve driven around the Western states, you’ve seen them, perhaps without paying much attention. Here, along the mountain highway is a sign pointing up a bumpy side road to “lots for sale, 15 acres” and then, a bit further on, a much more elegant entrance gate to a golf course and condo community screened from passing traffic by thick woods. Lift your eyes from the road for a quick glance at the encompassing landscape and you’re startled to see an army of Martian tripod invaders from The War of the Worlds—no, wait, it’s a procession of 120-foot pylons cutting across the landscape to carry 500-kilovolt electric lines from hydro dams and power plants to metropolitan customers.

These commonplace sights in the U.S. landscape are manifestations of the long arm of the metropolis. Large cities are imperial entities that stake out claims to the resources of surrounding territories. A classic theme of urban history is the rivalry among nineteenth-century cities to dominate the trade of developing hinterlands—pulling the products of farm, forest, and mine to urban factories and shipping facilities, and sending manufactured products the other way—with lucrative cuts for city bankers, merchants, and manufacturers. Boosters and city builders imagined regional geographies and then built the railroads, warehouses, wharves, and shipping lines that turned imagination into networks of trade and investment. The choice of locations for Federal Reserve banks in 1914 codified the results of a century of interurban competition by recognizing the special importance for the American West of San Francisco, Dallas, Kansas City, and Minneapolis–St. Paul.

A city also has a distinctive metabolism that depends on interaction with its surrounding region. It takes in building materials, food, manufactured goods, water, energy, and air, all to construct its physical “body,” power its [End Page 167] systems, and sustain its living inhabitants. An urban metabolism also emits waste products in the form of air and water pollutants, sewage, and truckload after truckload of trash for distant landfills The urban search by New York, Boston, Seattle, and other cities to tap more and more distant sources of water is a thriving subfield of urban/environmental history, and the efforts of San Francisco and Los Angeles have become embedded in anti-urban morality stories about the Hetch-Hetchy Valley and Owens Valley. Andrew Needham in Power Lines aims to elevate the urban search for electric energy to the same level of attention.

Cities and their regions also exchange people. Cities draw in ambitious young people from far and near, particularly from hinterland farms and towns (in Willa Cather’s O, Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson stays home but Carl Lindstrom heads for Chicago). In turn, cities “trade” for these newcomers by sending out certain categories of people. The prisons that dot the rural landscape of most twenty-first–century states are filled with the poor, marginalized, and criminal from its cities. On a happier note, hinterland amenity zones become what I have elsewhere called “weekendlands” where lakes, rivers, mountains, and coasts support growing tourist economies. The “young old” in their early retirement years move from cul-de-sac neighborhoods to seasonal or permanent homes in the same weekendlands to fish, hike, and contemplate nature. It is within this framework of demographic transfers that Lincoln Bramwell places Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge.

Bramwell defines wilderburbs—his own coinage—as “traditional-sized subdivisions located far beyond the city’s edge, built to achieve a new ideal about what it means to live with nature” (p. xvii). The book focuses on three communities: Burland Ranchettes located forty-plus miles southwest of Denver, Paa-Ko located twenty-five miles east of Albuquerque on the far slope of the Sandia Mountains, and the Snyderville Basin thirty miles east of Salt Lake City in the vicinity of Park City...


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pp. 167-174
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