This shouldn’t have been a tough book for me. It has loads of personal interest for me. I’ve been to and seen the places he discusses. I’ve even lived in some of them. My work historically also takes meto the themes and issues that he so badly wants to explore. And I’m engaged with the subject matter intellectually. It invigorates and broadens an already invigorated interst in sprawl and the associated loss of historic towns, communities, economy, philosophies.
Archibald wants to show us what we are losing when the box stores and fast food joints open at the edges of town and our downtowns begin to rot. We lose our pedestrian-level neighborhoods, our intimacy of community, our person touches and knowledges that include the friendships and opportunities and broader social safety net of our historic past. Archibald takes on and rejects the notion that suburbs are “good development,” that our social circles now are not contingent on place but on technology, that growth at any cost is growth we want. He uses his personal history, where he was raised, where he went to school and got his first professional jobs, and where he matured and became a leader of good growth and good history to convey the nature and import of fighting sprawl. I know what he’s talking about. I’ve stood in many public meetings and mentioned that geographic growth is exponential, that every new ring is a pi-r-squared cost for providing and maintaining our most basic needs, that the greenest buildings are those already built, that sidewalks and neighborhood schools exponentially enhance property values too, and on and on. I very much wanted this book to win, to sing to me like Tom Hylton’s Save Our Lands Save Our Towns.
The book was a huge disappointment. And here is why: the subject matter is of paramount importance to us as a nation and though he recognizes this, he treats it as an indulgence. He is a professional historian, one whose career is spent conveying important historic themes to the public (not the academy). He is trained and understands the nature of historic context but fails to go there. His only real whack at it is in land use: the 35 percent population growth of St. Louis from 1950 to 1990 resulting in a 400 hundred million percent (or something like that) land use growth. Now that is a good argument, a good point to make. It’s easy for people to see that their sewer bills will be ten times higher and that his kind of growth is pocket-book expensive, no matter where you live. Throw in the need to pay for roads and gasoline and cops and lights zoning officers and rec departments, and suburban campus schools, and people get it.
But he never really goes there for much of the book. It’s, instead, indulgence. He has inspired and fond memories of graduate school, and work, in Albuquerque, but never saw or understood the city’s sprawl the whole time he was there. For him, it’s not an issue until he’s conscious of living in it, in St. Louis, or seeing his boyhood neighborhood in the Upper Peninsula being ravaged by “good development” choices. For him, the evidence is in what he remembers, or hopes for, not in what is factually before us adn has been for a long time. And that is a huge disappointment. As evidence it’s just not good enough. It is anecdotal, personal. It is listening to a grandfather and removed from the need to universalize the issues he most wants us to believe in. His approach is to have us believe in his own journey, that his own awakening and awareness should drive us to awakening and awareness, and that’s not good enough, not by a long shot, for this.
Archibald could have grabbed his themes by the heels and like a real purveyor of historical evidence could have used a lot of other things, especially statistics, for a LOT of metropolitan areas, Boston to Seattle, Miami to Marquette. He could have talked about the numbers of school buses that we disproportionately support, ever declining church membership (if that’s your thing), the wanton waste of whole, complete, functioning cities resulting from suburban flight, the lies and half truths that Chamber-of-Commerce Growth-At-Any Cost types continue to get away with. It’s not like there’s a lack of evidence. Or the ability to ask a developer “When will we be developed? When are done?” (The answer is always NEVER). The evidence is everywhere before us, in the numbers, in the landscapes, our wallet, absolutely everywhere in our everyday existence.
I mentioned Tom Hylton because his book is a terrific example of how to both celebrate the past and move the anti-sprwal good growth cause forward. Hylton is a journalist, disciplined, imaginative. He is a researcher first, and a purveyor of emotion second. Archibald is the other way around. Hylton is the better historian, in this. He deserved the Pulitzer he got. And I wish dearly that Archibald had bothered to even look at Hylton’s work for his own efforts.
In the end, A Place to Remember is a slog of a read. It could have been great. But it’s not. I finished it, and that’s the best I can say.