Paul Mason Fotsch. Watching the Traffic Go By: Transportation and Isolation in Urban America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. xiv + 240 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-292-71425-0; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-292-71426-7.
Reviewed by Michael Brooks (Department of English, West Chester University)
Published on H-Urban (July, 2007)
Trolley, Highway, Subway, Freeway: The Cultural Meanings of American Transportation
Watching the Traffic Go By is a study first of the narratives that influenced the building of America's transportation system and then of the ways in which writers and filmmakers have used it to portray American society.
Paul Mason Fotsch starts from the premise that mass transit brings different kinds of people together but that the automobile isolates both the driver in the car and the communities spread out along the freeway. But this is not a book about the transportation system as a physical entity. It is about the stories that surround it.
Fotsch's material is carefully chosen and his chapters are organized by a series of contrasts. The introduction establishes the dichotomy that governs all that follows with a brief contrast between Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, where the author pursued his graduate studies, and San Diego's University City, where he now teaches. The rest of his book is an effort to understand the cultural forces that created this contrast between urban diversity and suburban sameness.
The six chapters that follow are structured in a series of contrasts. Chapters 1 and 2 balance the promise of the interurban trolley system with the early, utopian hopes for a highway America. Chapters 3 and 4 contrast the optimistic vision of the highway at the 1939 World's Fair with the critique of car culture put forth in the writing of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and in the films of Billy Wilder. Chapter 5 and 6 treat New York's subways and Los Angeles' freeways. A brief epilogue turns to the New Urbanism.
It is all but forgotten that for a brief moment at the beginning of the twentieth century the interurban trolley system was a rival to the automobile. Using articles in McClure's, Munsey's, and other popular magazines, Fotsch's first chapter shows that Americans welcomed the trolley because it offered an escape from the unsanitary conditions associated with horse cars, was quieter that the train, and took riders to more places than the railroad ever did. In contrast to the anxiety-inducing city, the trolley promoted something that popular writers called "brain health."
Why, then, is America covered with freeways rather than trolley lines? Fotsch thinks that part of the reason is that publicists for the automobile made a successful appeal to the mythology of small-town individualism. The trolley was often crowded--and often crowded with the poor inhabitants of immigrant neighborhoods. The automobile offered a sense of individual autonomy. It gave teenage boys something to tinker with and prepared them, said the magazine writers, for adult responsibility. Highway construction, moreover, seemed free of the political corruption that still plagued trolleys. The moment of balance between trolley and automobile was brief. It soon seemed clear to urban reformers that their real challenge was to realize the promise of the automobile.
No one responded to this challenge with more infectious idealism than Lewis Mumford. Chapter 2 shows how Mumford, along with his colleague Benton MacKay and the members of the Regional Planning Association of America, argued that the automobile would support a new regional approach to landscape planning and, as Mumford said in 1931, "effectually transform the physical means of life and make possible a higher type of civilization" (p. 37).
The plan of Radburn, New Jersey showed how the highway could lead to a leafy village, with housing well separated from industry, with cul-de-sacs controlling traffic flow, and with houses turned away from the street toward shared parks. It is a wonderful vision and it reinforces the irony of Mumford's lament twenty-two years later that "the American has sacrificed his life as a whole to the motorcar" (p. 37).
Fotsch's third chapter shows how that sacrifice was powerfully encouraged by the New York World's Fair of 1939. It contrasts the enthusiastic vision of magic motorways presented in Henry Dreyfus' Democracity exhibit and Norman Bel Geddes Futurama with the developing critique of the new car-worshipping America presented by two German exiles--Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. The material on the World's Fair is well presented but familiar. The juxtaposition of the Fair's optimism with Adorno and Horkheimer's critique is less expected and it leads, in chapter 4, to a perceptive analysis of two films by their fellow German exile Billy Wilder--Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Fotsch is not arguing that these two films are about automobiles. They are about, rather, the triumph of a kind of capitalist rationality that was sometimes called "Fordism." It is represented in Double Indemnity by the insurance industry's calculation of risk and in Sunset Boulevard by the studio system of film production. In each film a cynical (but still likable) protagonist tries to manipulate this rationality in his own favor.
Not surprisingly, automobiles play significant roles in each film. Double Indemnity's Walter Neff murders Phyllis Dietrichson's husband in the privacy of the family auto. Joe Gillis's fall down the Hollywood ladder in Sunset Boulevard is measured by the attempts to repossess his car. Norma Desmond's illusions are symbolized by her ancient limousine. Like Adorno and Horkheimer, Wilder shows the dangerous temptations of an inhuman but very rational drive toward profit.
Fotsch's fifth and sixth chapters balance New York with its subway and Los Angeles with its freeways. The chapter on New York tries to cover more ground than it can comfortably handle but it makes the important point that the subway represents the city as a symbol and therefore becomes a public forum for competing and sometimes antagonistic groups. I think Fotsch romanticizes subway graffiti--he focuses on the often splendid murals that adorned the outside of the cars and ignores the ghastly tags that covered every inch inside. He is right, though, to separate himself from those who cannot see anything positive in graffiti at all and he gives an effective account of the ways in which the Arts for Transit program deploys art in a public dialogue about both the subway and the city it represents.
The last chapter brings us to Los Angeles, the freeway, and, inevitably, to the pursuit of O.J. Simpson. That event reminds us that the freeway is the object of a complex monitoring system that includes police helicopters, video cameras, radar, and mechanical counters. It has inspired a genre of TV show that specializes in police chases. Films like Falling Down (1993), Speed (1994), and Crash (2005) dramatize the tension between the real frustrations of the freeway and the presumably still more violent urban world beyond it. Michael Douglas's problems intensify in Falling Down when he leaps over the freeway wall into what a police officer calls "the badlands" beyond. At least some of the complications in Speed come from the fact that it shows an express bus--a vehicle that, unlike the surrounding private cars, contains some of the urban types and urban problems that suburbanites seek to avoid.
Fotsch's epilogue offers a tentative but skeptical assessment of the New Urbanism. It focuses on the town of Celebration, Florida, and, I suspect, as perhaps Fotsch does as well, that future historians will be able to evaluate more challenging New Urbanist projects than this one.
Watching the Traffic Go By chooses its subjects carefully, sets forth its arguments clearly, and makes unexpected connections. It is not the last word on its subject. For all my admiration for this book, I cannot resist a parting skepticism. I share Fotsch's preference for Hyde Park over "edge city" but I am suspicious of this contrast as a paradigm for understanding the American landscape. It simplifies too much and it simplifies "edge cities" in particular. Someday a book will be written by someone who was born in the suburbs and who grew up thinking not in terms of the city-suburb contrast but in terms of the differences between one suburb and the next. That author might share my distaste for casinos, megachurches, and malls, but he or she will notice that they provide meeting places for a racially and ethnically diverse population. Suburban America has put vast resources into building parking lots. Somebody has to fill them.
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Michael Brooks. Review of Fotsch, Paul Mason, Watching the Traffic Go By: Transportation and Isolation in Urban America.
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