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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Horseless Age

In my last post, I wrote about Futurama, an exhibit sponsored by General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair. Futurama was Norman Bel Geddes vision of an America of 1960, fully connected by interstate highways. That vision became reality.

But visionaries have always been with us. I recently came across an editorial written in 1896 in the first publication that exclusively focused on the automobile. The magazine was called The Horseless Age and the publisher was a man named E.P. Ingersoll. He was a tireless reporter and promoter of all things automotive. In the fifth issue of Volume 1 of his journal, he penned an editorial with the very sedate title of "Effects on Land Values and the Distribution of Population."  But what he wrote was an insightful analysis of things to come.


The first thing that caught my eye when I read his piece was that it was the trolley and bicycle that began the movement of people to the suburbs - even before the advent of the automobile. When this editorial was written, there were essentially zero automobile companies in the U.S.  Any cars that were being purchased were imported from France and then only by the wealthy. It was this same trend to the suburbs that was illuminated in the Futurama exhibit forty-five years later. 

Ingersoll clearly understood the impact of transportation systems on land values. What Ingersoll didn't state was that it was the cost of transportation and not just its availability that drove land values. I think of the falling home prices today in the outer exurbs as people respond to high fuel costs by trying to move closer to the urban centers. The problem, of course, is that their homes are worth less than they owe on them, essentially trapping them in the exurbs.

Finally, I think Ingersoll deserves credit for not mincing words about congestion in the cities. He understood that the poorest people in the cities could never afford their own cars and hence would remain locked in the slums. Today, the poor are still locked in the slums of cities and run-down neighborhoods. They might have a car but if they do, it is usually very old and in very poor condition. Their upward mobility is close to zero.

Ingersoll's editorial isn't that long. I repeat it here verbatim:


"One of the most interesting phases of speculation called up by the motor movement relates to its probable effect on land values and distribution of population.


 In the aggregate the constant tendency of land values is to increase as population increases, and there is no reason to believe that this tendency, now very strong in this country, will be checked for some time to come. Every mechanical improvement introduced adds to land values, which may be considered as the capitalized value of civilization.


 But while the general tendency to increase will in all human probability remain unchanged, local changes are bound to result from the general introduction of motor vehicles as the have resulted from the introduction of other improvements in locomotion.


The trolley car has opened the suburban property, and by connecting rural towns has made populous streets where before were farmers' houses.


The bicycle has had a similar effect upon land values, pushing the line of possible residence near business centers further out, and hence making such outlying sites more desirable and more valuable.


The slight depreciation which these new agencies of locomotion have caused in the case of land devoted to industries injuriously affected by them is but a sign of the stimulating effect in other directions. The bicycle and the trolley depressed the prices of certain grades of horses and this has undoubtedly depressed the values of some lands devoted to raising such grade of horses, though this depression is apt to be quickly relieved by putting the land to more profitable uses.


Country hotel sites have in many sections been given additional value from the fact that they are frequented by bicycle riders seeking rest and refreshments on their outings.


The general adoption of the motor vehicle will intensify these tendencies. It will make suburbs easier of access, improve the trade of country hotels in many places, and still further depress the business of horse-raising. Much of the land now used for horse-raising and growing horse feed will in process of time find other uses more in harmony with the trend of progress.


The establishing of new factories will stimulate the growth of population locally, as has been observed in the case of the bicycle industry, but there is not the slightest hope that the motor vehicle will relieve the congestion of cities; for the congested districts are inhabited by the very poor, who cannot afford to buy a vehicle of any kind."


Note: The Horseless Age remains in publication today but its name was changed around World War I to Automotive Industries. You can read all the early volumes of the magazines on Google Books.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Our Futurama

The lines formed as soon as the gates opened. It was the premier attraction. People were willing to wait for hours in the hot summer sun to see it. Many saw it multiple times during their visits. When they finally got into the building and entered one of the moving cars, the magic began.

Exhibit Building. Note the lines.
I might be talking about the iconic ride, Spaceship Earth, the geodesic-like sphere at Epcot in Disney World.  It is the the ride that most captivates people in our modern-day version of a permanent "world's fair".  But I am writing about General Motor's Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Futurama was the single most popular attraction at the fair by a large margin. People would wait for hours in the long snaking lines that wound up a curved ramp to finally enter the building through a deep-red slit in a towering wall. Huge letters, "G" and "M", defined the edges of the opening. Once inside, visitors would seat themselves in one of moving modules called "carry-go-rounds" that formed an endless loop slowly moving past the perimeter of the exhibit. Music and narration would emanate from a speaker in the back of each module, exquisitely timed to what the passengers were viewing.

Futurama was industrial and stage designer Norman Bel Geddes vision of what the United States would look like in the future of 1960. His vision was conveyed in a massive, 36,000 square-foot model of a city and countryside of that distant time 21 years in the future. The model contained over half a million individually-fabricated structures, a million trees, and fifty thousand vehicles.  Viewers were, in essence, flying over the landscape at a low altitude and witnessing what they might look forward to in the years ahead.
Model city. The tall buildings are actually about four feet in height.

The central theme of Futurama was that a network of better roads and superhighways would provide for a transformation of the nation. The current dirty and congested cities and clogged local highways would be replaced by cities that were clean and accessible by multilane, limited-access highways.  People would be able to live in green communities outside of the city and drive to work on modern roadways with higher speeds, better safety, and a minimum of congestion.

The Last Intersection 
The last scene in this futuristic vision of 1960 was of a city intersection with multilevel roads and modernistic buildings. When the visitor left the carry-go-round and walked through the exit doors, they found themselves in a full-sized version of the same intersection they had seen in the model. The illusion must have been startling. Perhaps most startling of all was that the vision, in fact, came true. The superhighways that Norman Bel Geddes portrayed became our interstate highways and toll roads. The green spaces where people lived away from the cities became our suburbs. We might not have quite gotten there by 1960 but most of us finally did.  And has it been the utopian vision described in Futurama?  We would, of course, say no. But we are not the same people who looked at it from afar and saw it in sharp contrast to their own world of 1939.

We don't have world's fairs in this country any more. The last one was held in 1984 in New Orleans and it declared bankruptcy halfway through its six-month run. Maybe because of television and computer imagery we can no longer related to the seemingly-quaint idea of a physical model of the future.  Dioramas to portray the world to come are expensive to build and go out of date quickly. Even Spaceship Earth at Epcot requires constant updating on what its vision of the future of communications looks like.  But let's just imagine for a moment that we could hire someone like a Norman Bel Geddes of 2012 to build a Futurama of 2035. What would it look like?  Would we see a better world ahead, as Futurama did, or would we see something much more worrisome?

I think we have become more cynical about the promise of technology.  At least we no longer believe in the illusion that it can solve all our problems. More often that not, we see technology as creating as many problems as it removes.  The internet and its attendant privacy issues are just the latest example of the duality of every new technology.  It might be easy to fall into envying the untroubled vision of technology portrayed in the 1939 World's Fair but these people were not naive, either. They saw their world being torn apart by the beginnings of World War II. They didn't know yet about atomic bombs but they saw - correctly - a horrific conflict ahead. Yet most people interviewed at the fair were optimistic about the longer-term future of the country. The American Way promised a brighter future for themselves and their children.  We might be tempted to disagree with them in our own times.

They say that hope dies last. I don't think we are anywhere near the end of hope but I do think we are facing some tremendous challenges in the coming decades and we have only just begun to see them looming ahead of us.  I would suggest that we build a new Futurama that would be a marker to help us get a better fix on the future.  I, for one, would even volunteer to help pay for it. And I would certainly stand in line for a few hours to see it.

Note: General Motors produced a film about Futurama, entitled "New Horizons". You can watch it on YouTube below. It runs about 23 minutes but is worth the time.