Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Gopher Prairie

Native Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis wrote the following in 1920. City-girl Carol Kennicott was playing urban designer to one of many unwilling townsfolk.

She had sought to be definite in analyzing the surface ugliness of the Gopher Prairies. She asserted that it is a matter of universal similarity; of flimsiness of construction, so that the towns resemble frontier camps; of neglect of natural advantages, so that the hills are covered with brush, the lakes shut off by railroads, and the creeks lined with dumping-grounds; of depressing sobriety of color; rectangularity of buildings; and excessive breadth and straightness of the gashed streets, so that there is no escape from gales and from sight of the grim sweep of land, nor any windings to coax the loiterer along, while the breadth which would be majestic in an avenue of palaces makes the low shabby shops creeping down the typical Main Street the more mean by comparison.

Lewis’ “Main Street” is often lauded for being way ahead of its time in exposing the societal, economic, and political ills of the nation’s small towns. When I plunged in a few weeks ago, I never expected to find such a treatise on town planning, architecture, and natural resources. Today, of course, these small town Main Streets that Carol dislikes so vehemently are being re-created amidst the suburban sameness that is perhaps Lewis’ true prophesy.

Nine-tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another. Always … there is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, the same creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops. The new, more conscious houses are alike in their very attempts at diversity: the same bungalows, the same square houses of stucco or tapestry brick.
At the moment of this rant (half-way through the book), Carol has repeatedly tried to stir the town to action. She has dreamed of a new city hall, an excellent Georgian layout of the town, and even housing programs for poor immigrants. She has been rebuffed at every turn. She is an outsider who, the townsfolk say, should rather focus on making her husband happy. She is by now exasperated

The remedy? Is there any? … The trouble is spiritual, and no League or Party can enact a preference for gardens rather than dumping-grounds.

Carol continues at length about the frightening power of these small towns, but I won’t bore you here (it’s in chapter 22 section 7 and definitely worth a read). But Carol’s confidant, Vida Sherwin, shows her up, and along the way offers a process for change.

We’re going to have a new school building in this town…. We didn’t call on you because you would never stand the pound-pound-pounding year after year without one bit of encouragement.

Urban design—that is, the correlation of building and landscape – takes time: time banging one’s head against the wall, time cultivating relationships with the right people, time spent in town learning, listening, and then envisioning. How many of you have labored over a master plan only to see the “townsfolk” put it lovingly on a shelf. In “Main Street,” Carol saw the problem, but didn’t know the process (or, at least, underestimated the necessary fortitude). Have you had a similar experience?

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