Imagined Frontiers: Contemporary America and Beyond

Imagined Frontiers: Contemporary America and Beyond

by Carl Abbott


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We live near the edge—whether in a settlement at the core of the Rockies, a gated community tucked into the wilds of the Santa Monica Mountains, a silicon culture emerging in the suburbs, or, in the future, homesteading on a terraformed Mars. In Imagined Frontiers, urban historian and popular culture scholar Carl Abbott looks at the work of American artists who have used novels, film, television, maps, and occasionally even performance art to explore these frontiers—the metropolitan frontier of suburban development, the classic continental frontier of American settlement, and the yet unrealized frontiers beyond Earth.

Focusing on writers and artists working during the past half-century, an era of global economic and social reach, Abbott describes the dialogue between historians and social scientists seeking to understand these frontier places and the artists reimagining them in written and visual fictions. This book offers perspectives on such well-known authors as T. C. Boyle and John Updike and on such familiar movies and television shows as Falling Down and The Sopranos. By putting The Rockford Files and the cult favorite Firefly in conversation with popular fiction writers Robert Heinlein and Stephen King and literary novelists Peter Matthiessen and Leslie Marmon Silko, Abbott interweaves the disparate subjects of western history, urban planning, and science fiction in a single volume.

Abbott combines all-new essays with others previously published but substantially revised to integrate western and urban history, literary analysis, and American studies scholarship in a uniquely compelling analysis of the frontier in popular culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806148366
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/10/2015
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Carl Abbott is Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University in Oregon. He is the author of numerous books on urban history and development, including How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America and Portland in Three Centuries: The People and the Place.

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Imagined Frontiers

Contemporary America and Beyond

By Carl Abbott


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5240-0


Real Estate and Race

Imagining the Second Circuit of Capital in Sunbelt Cities

Kyra Menaker-Mossbacher is a whiz at selling real estate on the west side of Los Angeles. Working out of her Lexus and a Woodland Hills office, she's the "undisputed volume leader at Mike Bender Realty, Inc." Real estate is her life (apart from husband, son, cat, and Dandie Dinmont terriers). She knows how to put the best light on lowball offers, how to charm buyers out of sudden jitters, and how to "keep the avenues open" with former clients (31, 36).

At the same moment in fictional time, Frank Dominic is cooking up plans to remake Albuquerque. Land developers have been buying up parcels in Old Town and low-lying barrio properties near the Rio Grande. Dominic is a banker and deal maker with mayoral ambitions who has a scheme to help these real estate speculations pay off by diverting the river through a set of newly dug canals in imitation of San Antonio. There will be tourists, casinos, and entertainment. Look out, Las Vegas!

Two decades earlier, Ladd Devine the Third had floated a similar plan to transform disused farmland in northern New Mexico into the Miracle Valley Recreation Area. After inheriting untilled grazing and farm land from his grandfather, who bought it from Hispano farmers at bargain-basement prices in the 1930s, he has been profiting from tourism with the Dancing Trout dude ranch. Now he hopes that a planned Indian Creek Dam will allow the "abandoned and apparently worthless land" to transmute into "a ritzy subdivision molded around an exotic and very green golf course" (23).

Most impressive of all is Leah Blue, wife of a mafia boss transplanted from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to Tucson. Leah is into every dimension of real estate. Her starting capital is a reward for putting up with the cross-country move after Max Blue is nearly killed by an assassin and decides to downsize operations to a simple killer-for-hire business. Leah buys and sells and gets a rush that is almost like sex when she outsmarts a broker. She knows that "the real estate market in Tucson and southern Arizona was wide open, ripe for development" like San Diego and Palm Springs. She canvasses neighborhoods on the edge of town, "leaving her business cards in case large parcels of desert became available" (359, 361). She has a scheme for developing a desert Venice every bit as audacious as Frank Dominic's and as large in acreage as Ladd Devine's Miracle Valley.

Four Sunbelt Novels

Each of these characters — Kyra, Frank, Ladd, Leah — figures in a novel set in the contemporary Sunbelt Southwest. The books, in order of publication, are John Nichols, The Milagro Beanfield War (1974) for Ladd Devine; Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (1991) for Leah Blue; Rudolfo Anaya, Alburquerque (1992) for Frank Dominic; and T. Coraghessan Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain (1995) for Kyra Mossbacher. The central role of real estate as both a background feature and plot element — its culturally embedded valuation, buying, selling, development, and protection — offers an entryway for understanding how important and influential writers have imagined and delineated one of North America's most rapidly changing regions.

The four books range from a near best seller (Tortilla Curtain) and a cult favorite (Milagro Beanfield War) to semipopular fiction (Alburquerque) with limited sales and self-consciously experimental fiction (Almanac of the Dead). The Tortilla Curtain and Alburquerque are tightly structured as traditional well-made novels, focusing on limited sets of protagonists who interact through rising action and find themselves in a conflict that resolves with a decisive ending. The Milagro Beanfield War is a community picaresque with adventures and misadventures observed over the shoulders of multiple characters, a few of whom may not actually exist. The two New Mexico books are also comedies in the formal sense of stories that end with at least partial restoration of social balance and harmony (The Milagro Beanfield War is also uproariously funny). The Tortilla Curtain, in contrast, follows the classic trajectory of tragedy. Its characters act with good intentions but, flawed by stubbornness or moral blindness and buffeted by circumstance, move inexorably toward disaster. Almanac of the Dead is harder to categorize. It is a sprawling, multivocal amalgam with enough story lines for half a dozen more compact novels, causing reviewers for standard sources like Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal to throw up their hands in confusion. Silko introduces and drops characters as her needs change, flips among half a dozen settings, and shifts tone from down-and-dirty realism to something akin to the semi-fantastic imagination of Latin American fiction. The modern West, she implies, is too complex and too unformed to sit still for a traditional novelistic portrait.

Critics have most commonly approached these books with an eye to tensions and conflicts around race and ethnicity, for each author places Anglo-Americans in confrontation and conflict with people of color and their communities — Hispano farmers, Mexican Americans, Indians, Mexican immigrants. Anaya and Nichols depict long-rooted natives, whether urbanites or country people, who respond to the intrusive demands of Anglo-American society to remake specific places in the interests of monetary profit. Boyle sees two migratory peoples (educated Anglos and Mexican workers) colliding in Southern California. Both have claims to the same landscape that may be equal in right but are unequal in power. Silko casts the widest net as she depicts all of western America, from southern Mexico to Alaska, as a single Indian Country, whose future is weighed down by European Americans in both Mexico and the United States and where multiple Indian peoples, Mexican American proletarians, and African Americans are potential allies for a utopian apocalypse.

Within this broad framework, it is striking that each novelist places land at the center of the racial conflict. These are not stories that hinge on the problems of love across racial barriers. They are not about traditional class conflict and labor organizing. They do not try to explore the ways in which the natural resources of western North America have been developed and misused. They are not about heroic individuals seeking self-realization and redemption in the wild. In short, the authors are not rewriting Ramona or The Grapes of Wrath, nor are they crafting fictions in parallel to Angle of Repose or Sometimes a Great Notion. Race and ethnicity are certainly obvious and vital factors in the history and future of the Southwest, but the dimension of land and landscape suggests an additional way to read these fictions, viewing them not so much as "western" or "frontier" stories of conquest and resistance but as Sunbelt stories — stories in which the particular processes of late twentieth-century growth are central.

In this reading, a central goal of the books is to unmask the processes through which Anglo-Americans have asserted and established claims to the land. The attention to real estate makes visible what was previously concealed or invisible (the "invisible hand" of the market). The process of land conversion — the political deals and financial arrangements that underlie the development of the visible, physical metroscape — is front and center in the novels in the midsized cities of Tucson and Albuquerque and the ritzy side of megametropolis Los Angeles. The same factors are also at work in efforts to incorporate Milagro into the recreation hinterland of Denver, Dallas, and Albuquerque.

In using narratives to describe, embody, and make visible the pathways through which capital accumulates in real estate, these novels offer insight into the social and political dynamics of the modern southwestern Sunbelt. In particular, they highlight ways in which Anglo-Americans continue to act as if western North America is terra nullius, land without prior ownership that is open for the taking. The action in all four stories is driven, at least in part, by the efforts of indigenous peoples to assert or reassert their own claims. The authors thus make visible the morally tottery foundation for the "white politics" that dominated the twentieth-century Southwest, whether as regional development policies of the New Deal regime or the laissez-faire policies of southwestern conservatism.

The Second Circuit of Capital

Spanning the different settings, plots, and styles of writing is a concern with the differences between land as place and commodity — another way to phrase the effects of running land through the real estate development machine. In each case, the complex trajectories of economic development, cultural adaptation, and demographic change are condensed and represented as land development. The wheeler-dealers in Alburquerque (using Anaya's spelling to differentiate the fictionalized city from the real place) want to evict residents in the long-established barrio to construct tourist attractions. Ladd Devine wants to see a golf course and condominiums on land that was once a part of the agricultural base of the Milagro villagers. Kyra Mossbacher sells houses in subdivisions that encroach farther and farther along chaparral-clad ridges, paving over the natural landscape that provides the raw material that her nature-writer husband mines for magazine columns. Leah Blue plans to use legal maneuvers to appropriate Indian water rights in order to adorn fantasy subdivisions. In every case, a landscape that might well be understood as an ecological whole is commoditized for nonproductive or marginally productive uses.

It is useful here to utilize the idea of a "second circuit of capital" as introduced by sociologist Henri Lefebvre in La Révolution urbaine (1970) and La Production de l'espace (1974). When capitalist production matures, according to traditional Marxism, opportunities for profitable industrial production fall as a result of overproduction, increased competition, resource depletion, and workforce unionization. Owners of capital seek to restore profits by extracting additional surplus value from labor, leading to more and more intense conflict between workers and owners. Alternatively, however, capital can flow from industrial production (the first circuit of capital) into the built environment of housing, commercial space, and physical infrastructure (anything from freeways to golf courses). This creation of monetary value in real estate has its own dynamics of finance and its own logic of booms and busts and, therefore, constitutes a distinct, second circuit for capital circulation and accumulation. In addition, capital can also move into education, scientific research, and health care to constitute a third circuit that feeds back into the primary industrial sector through innovation, product development, and increases in the productivity of labor.

The second circuit of capital depends on the availability of surplus capital whose owners are seeking profitable investments, but money does not "flow" of its own accord. The second circuit requires an elaborate system of financial institutions to assemble and redistribute investment funds. It also depends on government facilitation. The state works to stabilize the financial system, fund certain types of real estate investment such as transportation and utility infrastructure, and direct capital in particular directions (as through urban redevelopment programs). It may also be enlisted in corrupt alliances in which government authority favors particular interests (as Leah Blue well knows). Finally, it depends on the real estate development and sales industries themselves to keep capital in motion by continually offering up new products and opportunities for investment.

In this analysis, the second circuit is the most sterile and least productive. Development of real estate does help to maintain the industrial sector by housing its activities and workers. It also provides the systems of physical circulation that make necessary connections between producers and consumers. However, projects in the second circuit do not put labor to work in the long haul, nor do they lead directly to technological change and industrial revitalization. Real estate capital can transform places like a New Mexico village or a California canyon rim into a marketable commodity, but it has little ability to add permanently to productive capacity.

Real estate development is also "faddish." Cities such as Houston or Las Vegas gain reputations as "hot" investment opportunities and attract real estate investment beyond the absorptive capacity of the local economy. As Joe Feagin argues, "Development and finance capitalists frequently make decisions about urban development which are irrational from a tough cost-accounting, profit-making approach. ... There is a social psychological dimension to capital investments flowing into the secondary circuit." Feagin's comments about Houston have fictional counterparts in Frank Dominic; in Charlie Crocker, the self-deluding Atlanta office tower entrepreneur who is center stage in Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full; or in the urban renewal schemers who hope to benefit from the abandonment of entire Saint Louis neighborhoods in Jonathan Franzen's The Twenty-Seventh City.

All the writers under scrutiny tell stories that we can analyze in terms of the second circuit. They find it appropriate to contrast a natural, traditional, and sometimes spiritual connection to the landscape with artificial, profit-driven development. They also see the developments themselves as embodiments of fads and fashions — stoking a taste for conspicuous leisure, for conspicuous water consumption in the desert, for conspicuously gated enclave communities. Indeed, the real estate developers and sales people who populate these Southwest stories are themselves aware that they are dealers in fantasies and perhaps even scams. In contrast, the indigenous characters are more closely connected in community and more "in tune" with the land. Mysticism and mystery lie on one side of the economic and cultural divide. Markets lie on the other.

The idea of challenged authenticity places the Southwest in double juxtaposition to the rest of the United States. At the end of one axis are the gritty cities of the Rustbelt, which are "real" places that may be economically depressed and physically squalid but are no longer weighted down by myths of the future. Their residents know to cut through any illusions that may mask the exercise of power. In contrast, the Anglo-American cities of the Southwest are commonly regarded as rootless, shallow, superficial. After all, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard traveled to Los Angeles in search of stage-set society (simulacra and simulation in his jargon), not to Akron or Allentown.

At the end of another axis is the Sunbelt Southeast. Because black and white southerners arrived at the same time, neither group have prior rights to the land (neither is more authentic than the other). Members of each, nevertheless, have moral relationships to the land that are shaped and burdened by centuries of shared history (contrast the heritage of slavery and sharecropping with the dubious ideology of the Southern Fugitives and other romantic regionalists). In the Southwest, the indigenous folk are not only visibly present but also stand in obvious and troubling contrast to the waves of Anglo newcomers. In Tucson and Albuquerque and Los Angeles, indigenous people are "authentically" present to challenge superficiality by participating in the politics of development and shaping what our authors hope may be more equitable futures.

Capital and Community in Four Imagined Communities

Across variations in style and tone, we find some common elements among the four novels. Indigenous characters in various ways have rooted or "authentic" connections to the land. The forces of Sunbelt change, as represented by the real estate sector, are never the good guys. They are variously venal in The Milagro Beanfield War, vacuous in The Tortilla Curtain, mildly villainous in Alburquerque, and vulturine in Almanac of the Dead.


Excerpted from Imagined Frontiers by Carl Abbott. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction: Places on the Edge,
Part I. Jack London Imagines the Suburban Frontier,
1. Real Estate and Race: Imagining the Second Circuit of Capital in Sunbelt Cities,
2. Imagining Portland's Urban Growth Boundary: Planning Regulation as Cultural Icon, with Joy Margheim,
3. Jim Rockford or Tony Soprano: Coastal Contrasts in American Suburbia,
4. On the Sidewalks of Los Angeles,
Part II. Continental Refuge,
5. West by Southeast: Peter Matthiessen's Florida Trilogy as Western Fiction,
6. Cascadian Dreams: Imagining a Region over Four Decades,
7. Rocky Mountain Refuge: Constructing "Colorado" in Science Fiction,
8. The Light on the Horizon: Imagining the Death of American Cities,
Part III. Planetary Pioneering,
9. Firefly, Westerns, and the American West,
10. Homesteading on the Extraterrestrial Frontier,
11. Falling into History: The Imagined Wests of Kim Stanley Robinson,

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