Here, upstate, I see the fall-out of such monumental arrogance towards the landscape in the tragic city of Albany. Albany has a lot going for it, in theory. First of all, it is the state capital, so, unlike most upstate cities, it actually has a thriving industry–government–which employs many thousands of semi-intelligent and semi-well-paid people. It also has a wonderful setting, on the hills rising above the Hudson. It has incredible architecture–magnificent Gothic Revival townhouses, in particular, of a sort I’ve never seen anywhere else. And it is one of the coldest, bleakest, most pleasure-free cities on the planet, thanks to urban planning,
What these far-sighted civic leaders did was bulldoze the oldest part of town in order to run a highway along the river. I can only imagine how lovely those 18th century neighborhoods were, because what’s left is very beautiful, if completely ruined by sitting in the shadow of the road. The highway not only cost Albany a good part of its architectural heritage, it cut the town off from the great jewel of its setting, the river. And, the coup de grace was, it also cut the town off from its biggest industry. The highway runs right into the capitol complex, so all those thousands and thousands of state workers can shoot by vacuum tube every day from the suburbs to their desks and back without ever having any contact with the surrounding city whatsoever. As a result, there is nothing worth speaking of in downtown Albany–no shops, no restaurants, no newstands, no place even to get a latte.
I’d argue that to make sure this kind of thing never happens again, we need to all think small, to get rid of eminent domain and that craven Supreme Court, too, to allow cities and towns to grow organically, not by Moses-like fiat–but of course, this is totally wrong. There are too many people in the world to allow completely haphazard development. And well into our third or fourth or fifth generation of Ford drivers, people have so forgotten how to contribute to the landscape that we share, that without city planning the whole world would look like my native New Jersey–nothing but McMansions and would-be McMansions that can only be approached by car, so arrogantly sited on their lots that they don’t even face the street, and don’t even have a walkway from the street to the house. Houses that shout, "It’s mine, for me alone! You have no role here, except to envy me from afar!"
So maybe we need planners that, like today’s Ford Motors, are little humbler than they used to be. Maybe what we really need is for Ford to disappear entirely and the rest of us to figure out some non-car-based means of getting from place to place. Not too likely, given the car’s legacy in sprawl.
I frequently feel that the only people fighting the cancerous uglification of our landscape are the gardeners. We are shoveling against the tide, arguing that when an ordinary person steps out into the world, it ought to look good and smell good and sound good. It ought to be an encouraging place. Not one that makes us want to roll up all the windows in the Ford, use the automatic door opener to head directly from the Ford into the attached garage, and from the attached garage into the house…where we can throw ourselves into bed, pull the covers over our head and dream that the 20th century never happened.