Cities of Future Past
A recent Facebook piece on the ten most dangerous cities in America got us thinking about the link between urban blight and science fiction. The cities chosen in the piece were, with the exception of Detroit and Memphis, mostly located in the vicinity of a larger metropolis and were cited because of their high crime rates. But the pictures accompanying the sparse captions were more telling, for they showed trash-strewn vacant lots, boarded up storefronts and decaying houses, that is to say, the back story for station house statistics. At some point in our nation’s past, all these cities, such as Camden, Oakland, and Little Rock, showed great economic promise. Yet the convulsive forces of economics and politics left them to rot. Many other similar cities could be added to the list if one considers that the more successful ones are merely doing a more effective job of compartmentalizing their blight into mini-disasters, such as Homewood next to Pittsburgh, Roxbury in Boston or the currently famous case of Ferguson, Missouri. Core areas can be tarted up with development grants to keep the tourists happy in their security cocoon, but outlying disctricts often literally pay the price by collapsing into neglect. The area west of Chicago’s Garfield Park is an example, as are the rings of blight around Houston, successively written off as the megacity expanded. Urban governments have dynamited the once-troublesome public housing complexes, sometimes with odd results, as in the case of Boston’s transforming Columbia Point into a branch of UMass. However, as with the abolition of state psychiatric facilities after the 60’s, the misery did not cease to exist, but dispersed into rundown welfare motels or nomadic homeless populations. As in the depression of the 30’s (no longer dubbed Great, because it’s obviously not the last), seasonal hobo camps are popping up everywhere an anonymous patch of woods will give them cover. They remain invisible because their inhabitants hide from police, census workers, and even many charitable would-be helpers. The governments breathe a sigh of relief at this, since localities want to hush up such detractions from their real estate values and the feds refuse to include them in unemployment statistics.
The fate of New Orleans, which we mention briefly in our novel Life Sentence could be a major case in point. Following the predicted devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, there was an ensuing breakdown of human institutions all around the Big Easy. Many police and emergency workers abandoned their posts to evacuate their families – understandably so, since there was no realistic evacuation plan. Prisoners were left to their fates or forgotten as guards saw to themselves. Only with the arrival of the National Guard reinforcements was there an improvised attempt to control looting or to scour neighborhoods for survivors. Within the Superdome, a microcosm of misery developed among the disparate refugees, with some leaping off balconies as though Judgment Day was at hand. Finally, the once-teeming Ninth Ward and parts of New Orleans East were simply red-lined by the banks and deserted, becoming an eerily precocious urban wasteland.
In the postindustrial world, there is a possibility that such mini-disasters could become generalized, link up and expand into an extended dystopia. Paul Verhoeven’s vision of Detroit or even the more laughable portraits of the Bronx in Escape 2000 or the City of Angels in Escape from LA may prove increasingly to be prophetic. It is probably no accident that a Dutchman gave us the most coherent image so far of future urban desolation, Even in relatively prosperous Holland, urbanization is taken most seriously, adhering to a wider European concern with the phenomenon. A visit to any European city will make this immediately obvious. Mass transit will whisk the newcomer immediately from Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle or Rhein-Main into a center city of lively and attractive pedestrian zones. Contrast this with Washington or Los Angeles in our own country. The down side is that even Europe faces the ubiquitous conditions imposed by corporate economies. They have simply pushed their mini-disasters to the periphery, most noticeable in Paris’s infamous banlieue or southeast London. Properous economies may be able to avoid this cycle for a time. In the years it has taken to replace a gaggle of buildings destroyed in 9/11, China has built dozens of entire new cities. Yet a glance around the world at the squalor surrounding Lagos or Cairo will show that the developing world seems to replace every success with a plethora of failures. In the matter of urban decay, the human race is paradoxically united.
Some recent sci fi films even postulate that the beautiful people will simply abandon a decaying Earth to live on satellites or on Mars. This is a logical, if not necessarily probable, outcome to contemplate. In some ways, an orbital platform is the ultimate gated community. The rich would no longer need Latino security guards and the limpiadoras could be robotic. No need for poor-doors in the dwellings. Better than a luxury suite at the Super Bowl, since there would be no need to be jostled by the hoi polloi in the parking lots. Just as billionaires are lining up for trips beyond the ionosphere in space tourism ventures, rooms in the still-unlaunched (and government-assisted) Bigelow Space Hotel are already booked. Near-Earth may be the Hamptons of tomorrow.
Meanwhile, back on terra firma, the over-populated Earth of Soylent Green or of Asimov’s Caves of Steel has become more and more threatening to Generation X and Millenials. Studies show that young people are increasingly aware that a future in something resembling Beaver Cleaver’s Springfield may be more illusory than George Jetson’s floating hi-rise. They are more receptive than their forebears to the challenges of global warming and the prospects of alternative energy sources, more concerned with cleaning up the oceans and negotiating population dynamics. Ultimately, that may be the only way we will ever really manage (or deserve) an interplanetary destiny.