Our ‘nuclear’ cities

One of my guilty pleasures is rereading the science fiction novels that so enthralled me growing up. Robert Heinlein’s whimsical “Glory Road,” Pat Frank’s grim “Alas Babylon.” I couldn’t get enough high-tech mayhem and destruction.

Recently I reread “Tomorrow,” Philip Wylie’s horrific account of two midwestern cities reduced to thermonuclear ruin by a sneak Soviet attack.

I can see what attracted the teen me to the book. Graphic accounts of unsuspecting city dwellers reduced to ashes in a mili-second, or left to linger a miserable death by radiation.

Funny thing, though. It took rereading the book through adult eyes to realize how much Wylie really, really hated cities and wanted them gone.

That might not seem like such a big deal, except that Wylie wasn’t just a sci-fi writer. He was a widely respected author who weighed in with some authority on many social and cultural issues of his time.

And in “Tomorrow,” Wylie manages to find at least one silver lining to nuclear devastation: It killed his detested cities.

Indeed, in his “happy ending,” the old urban monstrosities are being rapidly replaced by idyllic suburban utopias.

His vision is, of course, the very essence of the expensive and unsustainable suburban development that has for decades conspired to ruin more American cities than any nuclear bomb.

Wylie’s dream of sprawling paradise was supported by wasteful and expensive road building and land use policies that had one goal in common: To make it as cheap and convenient as possible for motorists to flee the cities at the end of the working day and get back to their quarter acre lots in Eden.

But at what cost?

Bombs? We didn’t need no stinkin’ bombs to destroy the fabric of urban American life. We did it with asphalt and concrete, gasoline and the internal combustion engine.

Or at least we very nearly managed to destroy our cities in the process.

Funny thing, though. Bustling, vibrant cities have come roaring back in recent years precisely because the suburban dream has become a dead end lifestyle for many Americans.

Jane Jacobs, the anti-Philip Wylie, understood that, at heart, urban life is “the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”

That Wylie dissed cities in a book about thermonuclear war is not in itself all that remarkable. Rather it is that his was a sentiment shared by all too many Americans – policy makers and elected officials especially – at the dawn of the autoAmerican Age.

It is a shared vision that almost destroyed our great cities. And we may yet come to national bankruptcy trying to sustain “peanut butter” development – spread out all over the landscape and beyond.

This hit urban America like a nuclear bomb.

And left this in its terrible wake.

Hopefully, the promised Biden infrastructure package will help reimagine urban America….rather than simply rearrange the rubble as so many infrastructure/jobs packages have done in the past.

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