- Easy On, Easy Off: The Urban Pathology of America’s Small Towns by Jack Williams
Williams is a landscape architect on a mission to examine how elaborately constructed small towns ended up being abandoned with the [End Page 425] proliferation of interstate highways, strip malls, and big-box retailers. He traveled extensively throughout the land, camera in hand, wrote field notes, and consulted U.S. Geological Survey and Sanborn insurance maps in the quest to understand the “urban pathology,” as he puts it, of small town life. The thesis of this elegantly written and produced book is that “the homogenizing effects of contemporary American culture” have jeopardized the distinctive histories of the nation’s small towns, as evidenced by the deserted storefronts, grain elevators, and waterpower canals that now grace once vibrant landscapes (15).
Five case studies, corresponding to five interstate exits, form the core of the book, each one representing a different region of the country—New England, the American South, the Great Plains, the Southwest, and California. He explores the natural environment of each region before discussing how the built environment evolved in response to various historical developments—the harnessing of waterpower for energy in Massachusetts; the rise of the county unit system in Georgia, which worked to deprive blacks of their rights; the land divisions under the cadastral survey in Nebraska; the emergence of electricity and copper in Arizona; and the development of hydraulic mining and agribusiness in California. After World War II, all of these landscapes were forced to yield to the interstate highway system, fast-food restaurants, and corporate hotel chains, as well as to such mammoth retailers as Wal-Mart. Although the focus of the book is the physical environment, Williams found that he could not explain the changes over time in the landscape—why, for example, towns emerged and evolved when and where they did—without touching on the broader forces at work. In that regard, he refers specifically to the role of “globalism” in shaping the markets for labor and natural resources that structured life in small-town America (273).
This book is effective at documenting the standardization of the landscape and the lost places and diversity that resulted from the “monotonously similar developments spawned by the same limited access that makes highways so secure for high-speed travel” (278). Although Williams’ view of the homogenized landscape as an “unfolding tragedy” is compelling, he is much less successful at examining the driving force behind it (279). Many of the changes to the landscape that he bemoans—the eclipse of heterogeneous independent shops by Wal-Mart, of local banks by corporate entities, and so forth—are better explained by examining the rise of global capitalism in the postwar period. Oil is at the material foundation of this economic order, as Williams well knows. But by using wish-washy terms such as globalism, he manages to mask the process of endless capital accumulation that has spurred theme parks and malls to build faux shopping villages to address the desire for an intimate setting akin to the lost small towns that Williams brilliantly describes. [End Page 426]