Two powerful documentaries about the social and environmental impacts of suburban sprawl are now available on home video. The first, “Radiant City“, combines the documentary form with some surrealistic touches in an effort to show how far removed a vast subdivision of Calgary is from the title of a 1935 Le Corbusier book: “La Ville radieuse“, or radiant city. The second is “The Unforeseen“, which explores a struggle that took place in Austin, Texas about 25 years ago between environmentalists and some truly villainous real estate developers. If these two movies do not convince you that suburbia is no longer sustainable or worth sustaining for that matter, then nothing will.
“Radiant City” is a story narrated by members of the Moss family who live in one of the oversized new homes in a vast subdivision that is utterly devoid of trees. The houses seem as if they were dropped from helicopters onto barren tundra, with no more than 10 or 15 feet separating each house. Apart from the occasional swimming pool and strip mall, there is not a single amenity associated with urban life. The two Moss children escort the viewer around their neighborhood making sardonic observations. We follow the boy to the top of a cell phone transmitter tower where the rooftops of what Malvina Reynolds once called “little boxes” can be seen in all directions, except these boxes are rather large. He tells us that he can’t stay in the tower too long because it will fry his brain and maybe cause a tumor.
The father admits that the subdivision is sterile and depressing but confesses that he had no alternative. If he wanted to live in a more traditional suburban or urban neighborhood, he would have had to accept far less space. Ironically, the creation of such oversized houses has led to an increasing atomization since such subdivisions foster a retreat to one’s own house where recreation (video games, cable TV, etc.) are geared to the family unit rather than the community as a whole. For that matter, there really is no such thing as community in the subdivision even though its inhabitants keep using the word.
One of the experts on urban malaise interviewed throughout “Radiant City” is James Howard Kunstler – the author of “The Geography of Nowhere,” who co-director Jim Brown acknowledges as a major influence. In an interview that can be read in the press notes section of the movie’s website, Brown explains his purpose in making such a movie:
Suburbs promise the good life – but they don’t deliver it. They promise community but in fact they atomize people into weird anti-communities. Walk down a street in a recently built suburb – and it’s so eerie and quiet. There’s nobody on the streets. No birds because there are no trees. Sprawl eliminates the features that make communities distinct. Unique local characteristics disappear in a strange monoculture. As we approach an age of resource scarcity – suburbia is the worst possible model for urban development. It overtaxes our dwindling supplies of petroleum and water. But I I don’t think it will change until we’re hit with a real crisis, and it may already be too late. India and China are racing to copy us, but there’s still no real will here in the West to change. We’re not ready to turn the corner yet.
“The Unforeseen” pits local Austin residents committed to the traditionally laid-back, nature-worshipping life style of this truly beautiful city and real estate developers bent on turning it into another Houston or Dallas. As someone who lived in Houston, Texas in the early 1970s on assignment with the Socialist Workers Party (trust me, that’s the only way I would have ended up there) and who had occasion to visit Austin from time to time, I can assure you that it was like going from hell up to heaven. With its sterile subdivisions, parking garages and strip malls, Houston, Texas might be considered as a sister city to the Calgary of “Radiant City”.
At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Gary Bradley, an ambitious real estate developer who built a 4000-acre Circle C Ranch subdivision just outside of Austin, just on the brink of the Savings and Loan crisis which destroyed him. As interviewee Bill Greider explains the real estate bubble of the early 1990s, you are struck by how similar it is to the one today. In either case, you are dealing with a financial industry that has convinced itself that there will be an inexhaustible market for suburban housing and shopping centers that will reach to the moon and in both cases the finance/construction tower of Babel comes crashing to the ground.
Before the crash, Bradley enters into an alliance with another real estate developer to take on the local environmentalists who question the benefits of suburban sprawl, especially the impact it will have on Barton Springs, a local waterhole that has been a Mecca to local residents for generations. That developer is none other than Freeport-McMoran, the multinational corporation that operates a gold mine in Papua, New Guinea that has been responsible for dumping a mountain of waste into local streams. In other words, the perfect company to turn Austin into a toxic dump.
Dick Brown, a lobbyist for Freeport-McMoran, is interviewed throughout the movie making the case for “property rights”, all the while working on a plastic model of an F-16 fighter plane. It is hard to tell which is more off-putting, the spectacle of a grown man playing with such a creepy toy or his defense of profits above people.
The movie also features interviews with Robert Redford, one of the movie’s producers, who used to visit Barton Springs as a child and still has vividly pleasant memories of those days. He also has fond memories of Los Angeles in the early 1940s before it too became like Calgary and Houston. Although I don’t have much use for celebrity liberals in general, I found his observations truly affecting since they jibe with my own reflections on a golden age that has disappeared. Even though my own home town remains as rustic and under-populated as it was in the 1950s, the local lake has been destroyed by “development”, i.e., sewer drainage.
While I was watching the two movies, I could not but help make the connection with indigenous peoples who lived near Calgary and Austin, one group I know through direct contact and the other through scholarly material.
Calgary is in Alberta, the home of the Blackfoot reservation that lies on the border with Montana. I visited the reservation about 10 years ago and got a chance to see first-hand how American Indians lived. No matter how impoverished, they still valued community (and communal values) in a way that the contemporary suburban dwellers of Calgary cannot.
Meanwhile, I am finishing a reading project that has lasted nearly 6 months that is focused on three tribes of the Southwest: the Comanche, the Apaches, and the Quechuans-all of whom are represented as savagely dangerous “Others” in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”. Suffice it to say, the Indians of the 18th and 19th century should not be romanticized in “noble savage” fashion, but up until they were fully integrated into the capitalist economy that surrounded them, they knew how to live in harmony with nature. At the risk of sounding reactionary, I would argue that we have to learn such lessons from the savage or die at the hands of civilized capitalist excess.