Thursday, November 27, 2008

Brian Ladd's "Autophobia"

Brian Ladd is an independent historian who received his Ph.D. from Yale University. He has taught history at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and is a research associate in the history department at the University of Albany, State University of New York. He is the author of The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age, and reported the following:
My page 99 is more than halfway through the text, and is far from rich in anecdote, but it marks a crucial transition to a deeper argument about the insidious effects of cars on us and our cities. Although I had fun compiling witty and occasionally profound expressions of outrage at the infernal machines, I really wanted to puzzle out how the growing fleet of cars (and the influence of their owners and associated interests) created pressure for more and more highways, which, in turn, have reshaped the space and time of our lives. That is why I open a chapter with a discussion of the well-known NIMBY phenomenon (“Not in My Backyard”). On page 99 I proceed to introduce its lesser-known corollary, the BANANA imperative (“Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything”), which has everything to do with cars:

There was of course nothing new about conflicts between neighbors or aversion to noisome activities: the deafening clatter of chariots had plagued imperial Rome, and medieval towns banished stinking tanneries beyond the walls. But the assumption that everyone would drive everywhere made it relatively easy for NIMBY to triumph in the form of BANANA. Most developments could be tolerated if they were a short drive away, out of sight and out of earshot. This kind of sprawl permitted suburbanites to hope they could keep a safe distance from all LULUs (“locally unwanted land uses”) and their odors, noises, sights, and people. It is striking how many of those unwanted disturbances came in the form of automobiles. People did not want to endure the ceaseless roar and exhaust plumes of highways. They did not want to face the dangers of fast-moving traffic in front of their homes. They did not want too many strangers driving through their neighborhoods. They did not want to live near tacky roadside businesses, with their garish lighted signs, grease-spewing exhaust fans, ugly parking lots, and–not least–ceaseless traffic. They did want easy driving access to the highways and the shops, preferably via a quiet lane. So the projects they wanted were roads, and the triumph of the automobile threatened to founder on the conflict between the growing need for roads and the growing damage they caused.

This leads to the beginning of my potted history of freeways and freeway revolts:

The NIMBY mentality has thrived in the suburban, automotive metropolis. But until the middle of the twentieth century, American cities (like most others) were densely populated and heterogeneous jumbles of industry, commerce, and many different kinds of housing, all in close proximity. It was not possible to build highways far away from everything. Not only did they cross backyards, they obliterated many homes and even entire neighborhoods, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Organized opposition to freeway construction, first in a few American cities, then around the world, foiled many ambitious plans to reconcile the automobile and the city. Although the freeway revolts did not, for the most part, grow directly out of earlier animosity to cars, their effect was the drive a wedge between lovers of cities and lovers of automobiles.
Read an excerpt from Autophobia and learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue