SPE Lecture: “It Don’t Exist”: The Impact of Sprawl and Suburban
Build-out on Inner City America
March 28, 2009
Download as 188 kb PDF file.
I’ve been photographing
the American cultural landscape for the past twenty years. This morning,
utilizing different series I’ve done involving the everyday urban and suburban
places we encounter, I’ll strive to make visual connections between these
overlapping territories of American life while sticking to our theme of how
Sprawl affected inner city environments.
Along with my other work,
I’ve been specifically exploring inner city America since 1995, documenting
urban landscapes impacted by racial segregation, white flight, and
deindustrialization in the northeast. For many Americans these
landscapes—mostly defined by abandonment, poverty and minority
populations—don’t exist; they’re below our collective radar. Over this
time-period I’ve come to believe that all photographs can have a social and
political meaning when viewed within a certain context. Feeling kinship with
the New Topographics Movement from the 1970s that documented the impact of the
constructed suburban world on the natural one, I wanted to invert that
premise—looking at the urban core instead of the periphery—and ask
how suburbanization after World War II affected city centers. What were the
consequences as we went from an urban, city-dwelling lifestyle based on mass
transportation, high density living, and production—to a suburban,
car-dependent, low-density lifestyle based on consumption?
I. Transportation Modes
The first thing we’ll look at is transportation...
The Rise of the Interstates
Prior to the 1930s there
was no organized infrastructure of highways across America; unmarked roads and
scarce services for the motorist were the norm. As automobile usage exploded in
America a cartel of lobbying interests including the oil, tire, auto makers,
insurance companies, land developers and the Federal Government—figured
out that roads and freeways were a vital component of infrastructure that would
help foster suburban development.
Eisenhower signed into law the The National Interstate and Defense Highways
construction of a freeway system linking all major cities began, fueled by this
idea of growth. In addition, Eisenhower’s experience as a young soldier during
WWI informed his commitment to the freeway system. According to Phil Patton’s
book The Open Road
Eisenhower had witnessed how inefficient road systems hampered troop and supply
movements, and reasoned that in the case of an impending nuclear
attack—this was the Cold War era after all—urbanites could exit
cities quickly with freeways in place. Essentials necessary to sustain them could be transported everywhere
over these arterial roads as well. In this way, decentralization became a
guiding principle for not only developers who owned land on the periphery they
wished to sell, but for a federal government who in the final analysis thought
a low-density lifestyle, dispersed population and scattered infrastructure
would be less vulnerable to a paralyzing nuclear attack.
factor to consider in our discussion today about sprawl: urban development
between 1890 and 1930 had been characterized by centralization as Americans’
moved from rural environments into cites. Crowding occurred and this, too,
became a factor encouraging decentralization—movement of human beings,
materials, capital, and goods away from the city center. So freeways, cars and
trucks coupled with the aforementioned political theories and social relations
were all important agents fostering this spatial rearrangement of the American
landscape—a rearranging that would have devastating effects on the urban
also helped the trucking industry take freight away from
railroads—railroads that couldn’t deliver goods everywhere highways went.
Freeways also fostered the growth of national chain stores ...chain stores that
used the “freeway”—a form of cheap transportation across vast
distances—as a circulatory system to distribute consumer goods. These
eventualities fueled the growth of sprawl.
emotional level freeways would also have an unintended consequence on the
American psyche and our way of life, contributing to an atomization and
isolation of the population, making us a nation of lonely drivers...
perhaps wondered whether our passion for movement on these ribbons of highway
made us free...
enslaved us to a myth of upward mobility—
The Demise of Railroads and Mass Transit
Railroads in the urban core were also impacted by sprawl’s growth....
terminals around the country lay fallow, suffering at the hands of suburban
build out, as more and more Americans moved away from the locked-in, scheduled
routes of the passenger train and chose instead the supposed independence,
privacy, and freedom of movement the automobile engendered.
inner-city urban freight yards now lay dormant after a 30-year decline in
manufacturing. Line side industries previously generated boxcars filled with
American products. No more. Freight trains today consist of containers filled
with goods produced overseas. The container, loaded onto a ship in China, gets
transported across the sea, unloaded onto a railroad flat car here, which is
then moved to an inter-modal freight yard on the metropolitan periphery.
Off-loaded as a truck trailer it’s driven to a distribution center
geographically situated in the middle of the country. Eventually it ends its
journey parked at a Wal-Mart loading dock for its “just in time” delivery. All
the freight forwarding and handling that use to take place in city centers has
been eliminated. Thus we see how mechanization, automation, rationalization and
decentralization are primary forces shaping the growth of sprawl.
II. Industrial Zones
Today, besides giving you
facts and figures about the socio-economic and historical relationships between
city and sprawl environments, I also want to engage in a brief discussion about
...and reflect on what
happened spatially and architecturally in and around inner city America as
suburban build-out occurred. So first we’ll look at a few specific
industrialized and commercialized zones that were commonplace in many mid-west
and northeastern cities.
Here are photographs from a
semi-abandoned warehouse district in Kansas City.
In the late 19th century as
cities grew, different types of business activity like retailing, wholesaling,
manufacturing, and office activities were confined to separate areas of the
city. Warehouse districts were no exception and were usually located adjacent
to transportation systems. In the early 19th century these systems of transport
were river networks, which became railroad networks in the late 19th and early
20th centuries. So with the warehouse district being neatly integrated into
... this kind of urban
district was a classic railroad landscape characterized by ...
railroad spurs and mainlines
directly adjacent to warehouses, factories, meat-packing districts, and
Consumer goods had to be
stored at, and shipped from, central warehouse districts because of this
transportation configuration. With the advent of the Interstates and growth of
sprawl freight shifted from trains to trucks as I’ve said ... trucks could
deliver goods to more places more efficiently. All of a sudden distribution
points became decentralized, could be located anywhere, and these types of
multi-storied urban warehouse districts fell into disuse and were supplanted by
long horizontal buildings on the periphery...which we now call big box stores.
As you can imagine freeways and railroads now mostly bypass urban warehouse districts.
Grain Elevator Districts
morphology in the industrial city was the grain elevator district like this one
in Buffalo—which at one time was the largest grain port in the world.
These terminal grain elevators fell into abandonment after the St. Lawrence
Seaway opened in 1959, which completely cut Buffalo
off in the shipping chain; the grain boats
could bypass the city... much like the trucks bypassing the warehouses on the
the grain transshipment business was ending, Buffalo's animal feed industry was
likewise declining; there are feed and cereal mills within this zone as well.
Between 1955 and 1970, decentralization brought a virtual halt to animal feed
ingredients being shipped to the large feed mills in Buffalo. Instead, smaller
mills were being constructed within trucking distance of the regions in which
cattle, hogs, and horses consumed the animal feed. With the feed industry gone,
Buffalo suffered still another drastic decline and another round of severe job
So as you can...ideas
like standardization, economies of scale, mechanization, lower transportation
costs, elongated supply chains, and the decentralization of manufacturing
plants—which were all things that affected Buffalo’s grain and milling
industry too—were the same processes that informed the spread of Sprawl.
Here’s a final image
of another Buffalo grain elevator; notice the boarded up house to the right.
With the demise of not only the grain trade, but the steel, auto and railroad
businesses too, Buffalo has about 7,000 homes awaiting demolition in
residential neighborhoods... former housing for workers who don’t live there
This leads us to
ponder other points about this inner city / sprawl dichotomy: Buffalo, along
with Detroit lost 1/3 of its population between 1950 and 1970 with a similar
increase in the suburbs; in 1959 33% of the American workforce was involved in
manufacturing; in 2009 that figure is 12 percent. In the same time span,
conversely, the percentage rise of service sector jobs increased by a similar
amount. Many people who use to work in manufacturing are now employed as
service workers out in the suburbs.
This is an LTV steel
fabrication plant being dismantled in Cleveland in 2004. The demise of this
plant and many others across the country are the result of outsourcing,
globalization, corporate takeovers, and flagging unionism—all structural
elements of a political economy that also informs sprawl. Two years after I
shot this image, developers had reconfigured this part of the Cuyahoga
... into a shopping
mall anchored by a Target and Home Depot. The name of the shopping
center—The Steelyard Mall. Joel Garreau in his book Edge City called this tactic—“to name a place for what is
no longer there”—typical of developers. It’s also interesting to note
that corporations like Home Depot and Target are now making incursions into
inner city areas as suburban land becomes too expensive. So this image
represents a flipside to the equation we’re discussing: here the periphery is
migrating to the interior.
This is an abandoned
auto parts plant in a mixed-use neighborhood in Detroit...
The same forces
shaping suburbanization (and later globalization) began to impact Detroit’s
auto industry in the early 50s. Many car manufacturers started to decentralize
operations, moving front offices to the suburbs. Also, in an effort to
destabilize the power of the unions (with a divide and conquer strategy), Ford
and General Motors started moving parts of the manufacturing process out of
urban areas to the rapidly suburbanizing Sunbelt regions of the US. Not only
did cheaper land exist there to expand operations, but these regions also had a
more compliant labor force—often hostile to unionism—willing to
work for less pay. Some things still hold true: you’ll notice little union
membership at your suburban Denny’s, Wendy’s or Wal-mart.
And now looking at
another characteristic of urban morphology: In the first half of the 20th
century industrial plants located in the city had a vertical orientation which
later shifted to a horizontal one as plants moved to suburbia. The brilliance
of Henry Ford’s philosophy—Fordism—was the centralization,
rationalization and integration of all operations under one roof. However, as
corporations grew, and industrial processes became more complex, companies
compartmentalized their operations at different locations and moved from the
city because there was no room for expansion...
... they shifted
instead to horizontal building configurations as it became less expensive to
produce and ship goods in one-story buildings. This is why so much of sprawl
has a horizontal look ... it’s a very efficient building form.
III. Commercial Zones
Active Main Streets & Central Business Districts
we’ll look at a few commercial zones...
next few slides are from local downtown central business districts. They
illustrate a commercial business atmosphere, as it existed prior to the growth
of national chain stores—chain stores that brought with them a
homogenizing influence on American consumer culture and the American man-made
landscape. These slides will provide a contrast to our next section on strip
business districts were vernacular “everyday” landscapes grounded in an economic reality having to do with
simple utility and function, instead of rampant consumerism. At least that’s
how I remember it. This universe, unlike the
suburbanize one that supplanted it, was at a pedestrian scale and not
necessarily centered on the automobile.
And lets also think about
the human costs of sprawl for a minute: a completely different social dynamic
existed between customer and owner at one of these downtown businesses back in
the day unlike what we might encounter today at a chain store. The owner and
customer probably knew one another, perhaps established a long relationship.
Compare this dynamic to walking into a Wal-mart today.... will you have a
conversation with the checker? Will he or she ask how your family is doing?
In addition, we need to
think about financial and taxation issues. Back in the day locally owned
downtown businesses paid local taxes; money generated from that business stayed
in town and re-circulated there. With sprawl and the growth of multinational
chains the majority of what you spend at Wal-mart today gets sent back home to
a out-of-state home office or funneled through tax shelters in Michigan,
Delaware or Nevada—states that charge no corporate income tax.
The big box store has also
gotten tax subsidies and rebates from local and federal government, meaning
they don’t contribute to local tax rolls or the maintenance of local
infrastructure in any meaningful way, but you can bet the owner of this local
downtown coffee shop once did. You can see how corporate sprawl negatively
impacts community networks and makes a mockery of civic responsibility.
Suburban Strip Malls, Big Boxes, and Fast Food
So eventually ...we got
here. As the suburbs grew in the 1950s and 60s along with a burgeoning consumer
culture, Americans decided that they didn’t need to go downtown anymore. The
suburbs became cities unto themselves, were predominantly white, and offered
many of the same amenities as the city but without the congestion, crime and
price we pay for all these shopping centers and outlet malls is that every day
in America 5000 acres of undeveloped land—mostly
agricultural—disappears under concrete and asphalt ... this means about
two million acres of open space are gobbled up by development every year in the
is a new Superstore, by the way, going up on former farmland in Indiana...
And more farmland adjacent
to the superstore that eventually gets converted.......
this.... and so on. Built space often
expresses a society’s material and political priorities.
I also wanted to
throw these abandoned drive-in movie theaters into our discussion; the land
many of these sat on got converted into big boxes or shopping malls, which
shows you how land use changes over time. A viable business supplants a failed
one. This process is called “creative destruction.”
Then here are some more
images of what I’ve termed the “franchised landscape” of sprawl. I’ve included
them as a visual contrast to the older downtown environments you saw a few
slides back and the other abandoned retail venues we’ll see in a few moments.
Dolores Hayden makes
no distinctions about sprawl having to be in metropolitan areas—it can be
in rural settings too. She derides policy-makers that have no consideration for
either the aesthetic or socio-economic costs of sprawl. You can also see how
the shift of retail trade from urban areas to the periphery caused the
desecration of some very pristine natural landscapes—which the New
Topographics addressed. Here in a narrow Colorado canyon with the Rocky
Mountains all around, a group of big box stores had colonized the valley.
For the last 12
years, I’ve been actively incorporating sprawl’s everyday monoculture landscape
into my work along with my inner city material. The garish semiotics of
corporate America are the visual trademarks of sprawl...
...but they also bear a
direct relationship to these skeletal remains of signs from once thriving inner
city businesses that have been supplanted by chain stores out on the edge of
Abandonment in the CBD: Zone of Discard
Now we’ll look at a
few inner city downtown areas...
When we see abandoned
central business districts like this one in East St Louis, Illinois, we ponder
the impact the 50-year build out of suburban shopping malls, freeways and
national chains has had on commerce in older city centers. In 1954 downtown retail sales accounted for over 50% of
the nationwide metropolitan total; by 1977 that number had dwindled to less
than 5%. It’s something like 1% now. Sprawl without a doubt sped the erosion of
This is an abandoned
streetscape of Gary, Indiana’s former business district on Broadway. Urban
geographers call this a “zone of
neighborhood scene in Detroit that represents the disparity of how tax dollars
are spent in cities and suburbs—by the way suburbs usually get the lions
share of federal subsidy. You’ll also recall Bush’s infamous LEAVE NO CHILD
BEHIND program—public policy reduced to a slogan.
education is directly derived from local tax bases. In the inner city with its
low-income population, depressed property values, and little to almost non-existent
manufacturing or commercial activity... there isn’t much of a tax base. In fact
the city of Detroit, where this image was taken, is looking at a projected 200
million dollar deficit for fiscal 2008-2009. Interestingly, nearby white
municipalities, like Ferndale and Grosse Point, both seven miles away, don’t
Another commercial street
in the blighted Ravenswood ghetto north of downtown Detroit.
And here’s another scene
of Gary. Dolores Hayden again reminds us that although sprawl may be most
obvious to the eye at the periphery of a metropolitan region—where
speculative new construction is common—older downtowns also reveal sprawl
because in an economy organized around new construction and rapid obsolescence,
existing places are often left to fall apart.
Many inner city mom and
pop stores succumb to the forces of sprawl and disinvestment; abandon
storefronts and small businesses abound in inner city areas.
IV. Residential Zones
New suburban housing
construction in the 1950s also had a huge impact on inner city areas, fostering
white flight from the urban core...
This is Daly City,
California. I’ve included this section for contrast as well. This was a suburb
built by Henry Doelger beginning in the late 1940s. Doelger adopted industrial
rationalization techniques: he graded his own land; employed in-house
architects; milled his own wood; used standardized floor plans; and had an
organized workforce based on assembly-line concepts These technological
innovations in mass production used for building homes for mass consumption
were Fordism concepts applied to the housing market. In addition low-interest
government-backed FHA loans, which came into existence in the 1930s, also paved
the way for the creation of suburbia. People for the first time could by a
house on time and pay it off in 30 years.
Notice the garage
integrated right into the design of the house; this type of home reinforced
individual automobile usage and discourage pedestrian activity...people could
drive right into their home without interacting with their environment ...
totally different then living in the city.
US population doubled
between 1910-1960...so it’s understandable why suburbia happened ... there was
a need to house all those people.
Home ownership increased
in the US by 50% between 1948 and 1973; again there’s a direct correlation to
these figures when we look at population loss in our cities over the same time
This is Dyer, Indiana,
which is 15 miles from Gary, Indiana ... shown a few slides back ... these two
places show the blatant economic and racial inequality that exists spatially in
our country even in locations close to one another. Dolores Hayden thinks
sprawl causes social injustice in America as it intensifies the disadvantages of
class, race, gender and age by adding this spatial separation.
So much of the built
environment of suburbia seems to be about order, uniformity and safety: the
antithesis of inner city America ... a place that seems to be about chaotic
liveliness... Federal Housing policy actually favored whites over
African-Americans when the FHA mortgage program was inaugurated in 1934. This
policy had devastating effects in terms of segregation, as you can image...
... given the fact that
mostly white families could afford to move out of crowded urban areas to the
periphery, essentially abandoning the inner city to African-Americans.
Many urban areas were
redlined—meaning no bank would loan money to buy businesses or homes, and
no insurance company would insure the property. Because of these discriminatory
practices it was harder for blacks to get home loans or buy businesses.
This redlining in turn
affected upkeep—absentee landlords who saw property values fall because
of red-lining wouldn’t bother to maintain their properties...so began the long,
slow decline of inner city America...
.... a location filled
with minority residents who lived in substandard dwellings, endured declining
employment opportunities and faced severe housing shortages. This image and the
next are from Detroit.
So one of the solutions to
the inner city housing problem, or so thought the government, was to erect
public housing, like the Robert Taylor Homes here in Chicago. This was
low-income public housing based on Corbusier’s Radiant City concepts. These concepts, when interpreted by city
planners in the 1940s and 50s to house the urban poor, produced results that
were the opposite of his intentions: the high rises were horrible and dangerous
places to live.
Here’s a group of the
Robert Taylor Homes.... and this photo really visually speaks to
sprawls impact on the inner city.... social engineering factored into freeway
construction in metropolitan areas during the 1950s. The freeway, by its mere
creation, became a barrier to cordon off one part of the city from the Other. Freeways
also played a key role in urban renewal: many slum areas in cities (usually
housing the urban poor) were systematically chosen as the pathways for the new
Interstate system. This in turn also fueled inner-city housing shortages, which
further enhanced white flight to new homes in suburbia.
Public housing came in several forms...this is in Atlanta
And some abandoned public housing in Cleveland...
These next few images are from Detroit where it’s estimated there are 16,000 buildings awaiting
But I want to point out
that it’s not all bleak... here’s some demolition going on in the Hough
district of inner city Cleveland, Ohio as a part of a revitalization program...
This is also a picture from
the same Hough neighborhood undergoing redevelopment. Here’s an interesting
story that relates quite well to our conversation today about the relationships
between suburbia and the inner city. James Rouse, who grew up in Cleveland was
a principle developer of suburban shopping malls in America, building his first
shopping mall in 1958 in Maryland. His intention was to create new town centers
with these shopping malls, but instead his work hastened the build-out of
suburbia across America, draining city cores of their retail trade and civic
life while initiating white flight to new housing in the suburbs. So feeling
deeply responsible for the unintended consequences of his development
activities—and it’s nice to see a developer with a moral compass—he
and his wife formed a non-profit organization in 1979 in Cleveland and raised
millions of dollars, seeding partnerships with other community developers
addressing the need for affordable housing in inner city neighborhoods. His
legacy continues today.
.... this is in the same
Hough area that shows a brand new home going up next to an abandoned, boarded
up public school.
... and this is new
single-family housing in a renovated ghetto area in Buffalo, New York. The photo is also an
homage, by the way, to the great British photographer Paul Graham.
This is a new fortified
home made out of cinder block in inner city Detroit in the middle left there.
Erected in the last few years, you’d term the owner an urban pioneer.
As demolition takes place
in the inner city more open space emerges and nature reasserts itself—a
“green ghetto” develops, which was a termed coined by Camillo Vergara.
V. Further Impacts of Sprawl on Urban Morphology
Often disguised as
office buildings, they’re sometimes hard to detect. As you can imagine
suburbanites often take a NIMBY or LULU position on this issue, not wanting
anything to adversely affect local property values. NIMBY by the way stands for
NOT IN MY BACK YARD and the lesser-know acronym LULU stands for LOCALLY UNWANTED
Placing jails and
prisons in impoverished urban municipalities—where open land due to white
flight and deindustrialization is plentiful and cheap—seems to be the new
trend. Many struggling rust belt cities such as Youngstown, Ohio, have actively
courted companies like the Corrections Corporation of America, which has built
three prisons there.... all to boost local tax revenue and create jobs—but
that’s a head fake too...many of the prisons are so automated it takes few
people to run them. Social justice advocates call this siting of
jails in inner city areas “environmental racism” because these kinds of
industries are usually placed in lower-income neighborhoods where residents
have little political power to block their construction.
VI. Creative Responses within the Inner City Environment
Then here’s our last section...
Having photographed in
inner city environments for over 15 years it dawned on me recently
that—despite all the destitution and abandonment—there was
liveliness there that’s missing in the more regimented suburban environments we
encounter every day. In fact it is was a landscape filled with political and
vernacular artistic expression. I just want to show you a few examples....
The first time my
wife and I went to Detroit we found ourselves in the Ravenswood neighborhood,
and noticed that brightly colored dots covered a lot of abandoned buildings.
Doing research we later discovered this was the work of the artist Tyree Guyton
And Guyton’s dots
blanketed the city, calling attention to abandoned buildings, dis-investment
and neglect. These dots, for him, symbolized the notion that people of all
colors are responsible for the landscapes we inhabit, the landscapes that
comprise our society at all income levels.
Sometimes inner city
environments are the only places in America where you see political
.... the language in this
image expresses a societal denial—these landscapes of chronic poverty and
racial segregation are places that don’t register in the consciousness of most
Americans as I said earlier. Inner city inhabitants feel invisible and
forgotten. Foreigners are often shocked to learn that the USA—a country
filled with so much abundance—has ten percent of its population living
below the poverty line; that number is 19% in Washington DC.
Another bit of language
suggesting a deep connection to religion and God within the inner city
environment.... This was chalked onto the wall of a Walgreen’s drugstore in New
Orleans after Hurricane Katrina...
This graffiti concisely
expresses the social realities of inner city life its inhabitants know only too