URBAN VS RURAL# Part 2
Urbanversusrural is an ongoing conversation — in words and images — between Jack Williams and Jon Kalev. Williams is Emeritus Professor of Landscape Architecture and former Chair, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture , Auburn University, and author of East 40 degrees: An Interpretive Atlas and Easy On Easy Off.
Kalev is the town and county planner for Platte County Wyoming and former student of Williams.
Jack’s response: The prefix new is a cultural marker reminding us of the hopes and aspirations of a generation of people tied of the wars and religious persecution of Europe. Every state has a “new” — New England, New York, New Amsterdam before, New London, New Rochelle — even Wyoming has a New Castle! I would bet your ranchers would fell right at home in the “old” York landscape — rolling grasslands, distant mountains. A landscape of sheep and famously reticent people. But New York too has a dramatic landscape. The placement of Manhattan, the convergence of rivers, the Palisades (Cliffs along the New Jersey side) all attach the city firmly to a place. So I think you are conflating two things here: a natural, physical landscape with place names. New York is a name, Wyoming is a name- each is attached to a landscape. High desert vers eastern escarpment. The fact that one is built upon, built very densely, makes it no less a landscape. In a way, New York as a name is more honest than Wyoming — for Wyoming is a name stolen from those whose original settlements where eradicated. Wyoming is hypocritical. We name our places (like my state, Massachusetts) for those we disposed. Kind of like a housing development called “Fox Run!” No foxes, nothing running wild. I do not think that the written words of a constitution — or a Declaration of Independence — means much. We white folks are perfectly able to say one thing and do another. While I do grant you that women sufferage was a big deal for Wyoming, the population is 90% white, 8% Hispanic and less than 1% black. No real test of civil rights there! Why old Thomas Jefferson was able to say “All men” when he was perfectly willing to hold a large segment of our population in slavery. So come back to the table in Western Skies Dinner when there is a true test of tolerance. (By the way, where do the coffee drinkers stand on immigration?)
I think the notion of a landscape influencing the way we look at the world is an intriguing one. I believe Jefferson is advocating education in the passage you quote — I would argue that education, more than landscapes, shape our world views. How is the educational system in Wheatland? Education makes us more self-reflective — and from that we make our world view. I do not doubt that landscapes do effect certain human characteristics. As a New Englander, my notion of distance is far more contracted than that of someone from the Great Plains. But can landscapes shape our values. I think not.
Nor do I believe that rural communities have any prescription or predisposition towards unique and altruistic values. Community can be found around a table in Wheatland. On the front stoops of row houses in North Philadelphia, on the back porches of triple decker worker housing in South Boston — even around the doorman in the lobby of a fancy high rise apartment building in Manhattan. Community is a universal human need found regardless of the place or landscape. In fact, I do not believe small towns are repositories of any unique values (as distinct from dense urban cities) — there are only human values such as greed, lust, honor, hope, betrayal, - I attach the front piece or prologue to my third book — a quote from Faulkner — that sets this out rather more poetically.
My position is that the small town as a repository of values such as community, neighborliness, kindness, etc is a myth. Small towns too have other attributes far less benign such a crushing social control and conformity.
Big cities also have meterological foreplay. New York City is dependent upon the moon — for the flow of tides and the transport of ships in and out of the harbor. (even if these are enormous container ships to the port of New Jersey — ships from the far corners of the globe as in globalism.) We are about to get this particular foreplay in full force and the ocean levels rise!) One enters Boston’s outer harbor with its many shoals and reefs only during a southwest wind — even if a big ocean-going freighter. I would suggest that all places have their geographies — both actual and cultural.
This is enough thoughts for now. A couple of things: there are Sanborn maps of Wheatland (and many other towns and cities in WY) — the Library of Congress has them but I bet there is another set at the University of Wyoming — or another university library.
There is a great article in this Sunday’s New York Times (that pesky “new” again) on the front of the week in review section titled “Abandoned America: The hard truths of trying to bring jobs back to small towns.” I would be very much interested in your take — perhaps you can access it on line as I am sure the New York Times never makes it to Wheatland! (sorry, couldn’t resist a little eastern snobbery)
And to put my perspective in context, I attach the epilogue to my book. So between these two , the prologue above and this epilogue, I must write the damn book! I should sit down at the table in the Western Skies and not get up until I finish.
Nice photographs by the way. Very nice- such desolation and emptiness. Are the souls of those that live in such a place equally desolute?