The Los Angeles River

April 11, 2016

“The Los Angeles River today is like a scar on the landscape, a faint reminder of what it used to be.”*

Wait. Los Angeles has a river? Get out of town!lariver6

In fact, you’ve probably all seen it, in movies or on TV. That concrete raceway that regularly hosts filmed car chases. Yes. That Los Angeles River.

“By 1960, the federal government had created the fifty-nine-mile storm drain that is still flatteringly called the Los Angeles River.”

In this semi-arid, desert-like location in the American southwest, a, if not mighty, a persistent, let’s call it, river once did flow. Don’t think of the Mississippi or St. Lawrence. The Los Angeles River (and its tributaries and neighbouring county counterparts) provided enough water to help establish and sustain settlements, going well back into the pre-Columbian era. The city itself owes its original location, called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula by the 16th-century Spanish colonizers, to the river.

The history of the city’s development and its relationship with the rivers running through it offers up a fascinating testament to systematic bungling based on the primacy of self-interest over collective action. lariver5Within about a century of the official establishment of Los Angeles, the eponymous river was near depleted to the point of uselessness in sustaining the communities around it by largely unregulated over-use. When it flooded, which it did regularly and without any discernible pattern, the river was seen more as a menace than a vital element.

If you think political calculation, regional antagonism and mistrust of expert opinion are all part of some modern outcropping of a damaged, corrupt system, don’t despair. They all seem to have been part of the process long before any of our apathy and disillusionment took hold. In the battle to contain and constrain the damaging aspects of the Los Angeles River, possible solutions were routinely ignored and derided. Collective efforts to deal with flood control were undermined by hyper-local and personal interests.

“There was little coordination of effort, and much of the works was in direct conflict. Neighbors became enemies. Farmers were occasionally forced to guard their levees with rifles.”lariver

“Flood protection work at Los Angeles, while more effective than the piecemeal efforts attempted elsewhere, also proved the futility of using a localized approach to combat what was essentially a regional problem.”

Funding the necessary infrastructure through ballot initiatives to contend with the flooding also served as a source of dissension, a very modern sounding problem.

“The chief obstacle to reaching consensus on a flood control bill was a difference in opinion on the way the work should be funded. Some favored he creation of assessment districts, which would tax only those in areas where works was to be done. This method was favored by the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, not surprisingly, since city taxpayers had already spent considerable money on the construction of levees and were understandably reluctant to spend more to help outlying districts do what they had already done. Others, however, preferred a uniform assessment for all taxpayers throughout the flood-prone area.”

And expert opinions? We don’t need no stinkin’ expert opinions. lariver3We go with our gut, my own personal observation and anecdotal evidence.

“Many of those interviewed who had witnessed the great floods of decades past, however, expressed skepticism that such floods could be prevented and that the rivers could be controlled. One man, who had ridden in a rowboat from Long Beach to Wilmington when the river had overflowed, said, “I have seen some pretty good ones, and if you can tell me how you can put a body of water nearly two miles wide…into an eighty foot channel and only six or eight feet deep, then that beats me.”

“Former California Governor H.F. Gage, who lived beside the San Gabriel River, said, “It’s all rubbish what they propose to do. The people should take care of the river.”

“A man from  the road department was down here. [He] had a lot of expensive ideas, but [they were] principally hot air. lariver2The supervisors can find ways of appropriating money for entertaining a lot of people…but try to do something for the citizens of the county who deserve attention, who are poor and need some help – that is out of the question.”

“But the way the proposition is being handled only makes salaries for some engineers.”

Of course, sacrificing the idea of the greater good at the altar of private interests also played a part in the history of the Los Angeles River.

“Even in 1915, the high price of real estate in Southern California inhibited flood control planning. Because the Los Angeles River was no considered a navigable stream, most of its channel was privately owned and, therefore, had to be purchased before work could be done. The cost of land along the river south of Los Angeles precluded engineers from giving the river a wide berth…The confining of the river into a relatively narrow channel would increase the velocity and erosive power of floodwaters, which meant hat levees would need extra protection…The price of real estate, officials said, also made the construction of a reservoir impractical at the only site on the coastal plain where the development of a large reservoir was physically possible…”

A history that is being revisited in much the same manner again these days.

Fifty years after the river was paved over in what seemed like a final act of the drama, a possible renewal and transformation has emerged as a hot topic. lariver4“The revitalization of LA’s neglected riverfront has gone from social-justice crusade to money-soaked land grab,” Richard Kreitner wrote in The Nation last month. What started as a truly grassroots, community-based movement way back in the mid-80s has become a pitched cultural and socio-economic battle, another stark drawing of lines between the public good and private interests. It’s as if whenever it comes down to water in this city, the specter of Chinatown is evoked.

When it was revealed that starchitect Frank Gehry and his firm had been quietly brought on to draw up plans to transform the river, the normally well-regarded, progressive mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, defended that decision as an attempt to “elevate this [river revitalization] so the civic elite of L.A. realizes this is not a hobby of the activists but one of the grand projects of our time.” ‘The hobby of activsts’. You can’t get much more condescending than that without actually trying. lariverbookAnd, unsurprisingly, once the “elite” get involved, questions of money making and conflict of interest inevitably follow.

How’s that saying go? You can never step into the same river twice, loosely paraphrased. The river may be different. The players involved may have all changed. The politics, though, sound eerily familiar, timeless almost.


(* All quotes from the very enjoyable and informative book by Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death and Possible Rebirth).

all wetly submitted by Cityslikr

Book Club XIV

December 22, 2015

It’s odd reading John Jerome’s 1972 book, The Death of the Automobile, and knowing that nearly 50 years later no such thing has happened, not even close. deathoftheautomobileJerome never lived to see it. He died in 2002. There’s no reason to think the death of the car will happen in my lifetime.

The Death of the Automobile is like reading a murder mystery novel where you know the eponymous victim is still alive and well at the end, barely a scratch on him.

The confident prediction of the automobile’s demise Jerome makes throughout the book is based on what should be firm grounds: the eventual rational decision made by consumers. Cars are expensive, to own, to operate, to facilitate, to design a society around. Eventually, Jerome assumed, there’d be a critical mass of people realizing all that and insisting on fundamental changes in mobility.

“We stopped building roads to places,” he writes. “We began building roads for automobiles.”

It is a view that is really only gaining traction in some places here in North America now, more than 4 decades after Jerome expressed it. And that may be overly optimistic on my part. corinthianleatherHere in Toronto, where the conversation about car-dependency is long overdue, capital spending on road works is projected to surpass that of public transit building. In 2015!

The death of the automobile indeed.

Jerome misread the public’s attachment to their cars and the industry’s ability to persuade them of that attachment. Watch a car commercial now and see exactly how it’s done. Freedom, open roads, the thrill of the ride. No congestion. No roadside breakdowns and repair bills. No horrific high speed collisions. Just fun, fun, fun, until her daddy takes the T-bird away. The loss of which would be truly catastrophic.

This underestimation on Jerome’s part is notable since he was something of an automotive insider. A non-fiction author and journalist, he wrote for such car oriented publications as Sports Car Digest and Car and Driver where he eventually became managing editor. deathoftheautomobile1Jerome even went on to a job as an advertising copywriter where he worked on car campaigns.

But Jerome wrote confidently that what he rationally saw as the private automobile’s destructive nature on people, the environment, cities, everyone else would too, sooner rather than later. You can fool some of the people, some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people, all of the time. Eventually, the gig would be up.

It turns out people are more resistant to change than John Jerome figured. Cars got a lot safer to drive than when he was writing the book. The carnage on the roads he was witnessing, due mostly in his view to manufacturer aversion to safety measures, much like that of cigarette makers, if you promote new and improved safety features, you’re tacitly admitting your product was unsafe to begin with, dropped significantly. Traffic deaths in the U.S. hit their peak the year The Death of the Automobile was published, at over 54,000. In 2013, 41 years later, that number sat at just under 33,000 despite a population increase of over 100 million and a doubling of vehicle miles travelled.

Safety for you and your family has now become a selling feature. Bigger vehicles provide more protection. deathoftheautomobile3Technological gadgetry enhances a driver’s navigational abilities. It’s not just luxury on sale anymore. It’s an oasis of calm in the turbulent and troubled seas of modern life.

Driving has become more entrenched since Jerome’s book was published. “The car makes the suburb possible,” he wrote and that’s still true today. Suburban population growth continued to explode through the last 3 decades of the 20th-century, outpacing that of the inner city, urban areas until very recently. Driving remains the only real option in many of these areas. You can’t not drive. Otherwise, you can’t get anywhere.

It is really this aspect of car-dependency and its unsustainability that has changed the conversation ever so slightly.

Nowhere does the sense of the destructiveness of automobiles grip harder than in the cities. “I can tell you one thing, the cities are finished,” said the elder Henry Ford, back in the twenties. Possibly he had in mind a gentler automotive effect, but he was a prophet indeed when he uttered those words. Stewart Alsop used the same quote to head a deeply pessimistic Newsweek column [1971], in which he ran through the elements which spell doom to the cities in the near future.

Jerome was writing during a time when the future of cities did really seem bleak. Not just the ruinous trajectories of the industrial, Midwest rust belt places epitomized by Detroit but back then even New York City sat on the brink of bankruptcy. deathoftheautomobile2“Go to hell!” the president of the United States flipped the Big Apple off.

Yet, we continued to urbanize, and the clash with the cult of the car intensified, slowly for sure, too slow for many, but it is intensifying. The mistakes of the past are now staring us right in the face, affecting our daily lives. Those concerns Jerome had back in the 70s are now front and centre in the city building conversations we’re having. Little by little, bit by bit, the supremacy of private vehicle use is being challenged.

It can be a little dispiriting to read The Death of the Automobile and realize that we’ve been aware of the incompatibility of people and cars for a couple generations now, that they operate at cross-purposes. But Jerome is such a solid writer with an extensive insider knowledge of the industry – Did you know that one of the Ford Company’s biggest and best sellers, the Mustang, was originally just an extras decked out Ford Falcon? Same body, same design, just a flashier image. – the book is a great read. deathrace2000We as a society may have taken longer to see the things Jerome was seeing but, it does appear that we’re getting to that point now, ready to have that conversation about, if not the death of the automobile, the severe containment of it as the primary… a-hem, a-hem… driver of the way we go about getting about our lives.

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr

The Death Of The Automobile — Part 5

December 13, 2015


(I know, I know. I said the last excerpt would be the final excerpt but as I finished up John Jerome’s 1972 book, The Death Of the Automobile, seemed like its last segment would be the best last excerpt here.

It’s fun to look back from your perch, 40+ years on, to assess how predictions worked out. No one’s going to get it exactly right. That’s not possible.

Jerome clearly underestimated just how stuck on cars we were. ‘Gadgets’ have continued to captivate us (Heated steering wheels anyone?). Car makers did eventually respond to safety concerns about their products. Road death numbers dropped significantly, certainly on a per capita basis. And, oh my, was he soft on our tax tolerance.

Ultimately, a pattern, once firmly in place, is incredibly difficult to change. Jerome, I think (and here’s my prediction) wasn’t incorrect in thinking our car dependence would be eventually broken. He just got the timeline wrong. Automobile use hasn’t yet become ‘unbearable’ although, in some places, it feels like the moment’s incredibly close.)


*  *  *


The Death of the Trip

The force that will finally finish off the automobile as the basis of our transportation system still lies unrevealed in the future, of course, and I have few clues to its identity, although some educated guesses are possible. It could well be a ponderous technological overcomplexity that will drive prices totally out of reach, forcing the private citizen, already staggered by the Nader Tax, to reevaluate his own transportation needs in new terms. More conventional taxation is due to increase markedly in the immediate future. We will surely recognize, shortly, that the automobile was responsible for the total decline of public transportation, and represents one of the few remaining sources of revenue substantial enough to pay for bringing that institution back to functioning life. European gasoline prices are boosted by taxation to circa sixty cents a gallon (and public transit is uniformly excellent). Japan taxes engine size so severely that over-180-cubic-inch engines add 40 percent to the cost of a car in taxes alone.

The automobile seems to represent an endless source of revenue generation, a role that could contribute to its own demise. The foreign nations are behind us in automobile-centered problems because they taxed early, limiting the growth of private automobiles. It seems likely that we will soon find it necessary to attempt to tax ourselves back away from the problem. The solution sounds a bit elitist for our democratic blood, but it fits our style better than anything so drastic as the outright ban that probably represents a more desirable solution. Use-taxes for city streets sound unreasonable? The parking bandits in New York City are already getting seventy-five dollars a month and up, which is exactly the same mechanism except for where the money goes, what it accomplishes.

Changing consumer habits may be enough to revise radically our patterns of automobile ownership and use, if not to wipe out the machine entirely. One such change Alvin Toffler calls “rentalism.” Many city residents are finding they can avoid car ownership entirely, simply renting when the extended need arises. The savings in out-of-pocket expense, on a long-term basis, is immense. An interesting side effect of the rental phenomenon, originally surfacing in the computer industry, is that it dumps squarely back on the manufacturer the problem of product longevity and serviceability. There is absolutely no need for the customer to put up with any kind of unsatisfactory original condition or service when he can simply turn in the product and rent another for the same cost. Rental-car owners will be less inclined to sucker for psychological trimming, keenly interested in reliability, and absolutely immune to the emotionality of product loyalty. The effect could even bring back product engineering.

For the foreseeable future, the likelihood that the automobile will simply be replaced by some other new transportation technology seems dim indeed. We’ve had our fingers burned on not a few new technologies in the past, and can be expected to move slowly and suspiciously toward a commitment to a new gadget on a scale that will represent a total replacement of our hundred million vehicles.

We already have, however, the technology to supplant most of the automobile’s function – and have it manufactured, distributed, installed, paid for. Personal communication can and perhaps will supplant the automobile eventually, not by superior performance of the automobile’s function, but by diverting us away from that function. In the face of the clearly insurmountable problems that an ever-expanding automobile population presents, our futurists are beginning to see that it is mobility itself – that simple original notion that we so quickly mastered and then went on to other things – that is the enemy. The range of spokesmen who are mulling over the idea in public print is remarkably wide. Sociologist Paul Goodman perhaps represents the reputable anti-establishment extreme: “The first question about transportation is not private cars and highways versus public transportation, but why the trip altogether. I have not heard this question asked either in Congress or in City Hall. Why must the workman live so far from his job? Could that be remedied? Why do I travel 2,000 miles to give a lecture for an hour…?

For the other side of the abyss between anti- and pro-establishment forces, nobody could be a better spokesman than the director of research for General Motors, Paul Chenea: “When you stop to think of how much traveling you do which you wouldn’t really do if you could accomplish the job some other way. Just think of how much travel you could avoid if you could look at a guy when you talk to him on the telephone. I’m not really convinced that everybody’s got to go everywhere all the time. There must be a better way than this…”

When the director of research for the largest transportation company in the world says perhaps we shouldn’t move around so much, it is mobility itself that is clearly identified as the culprit. Dr. Chenea will be joined in the near future by what will amount to a world-wide chorus – the same kind of swelling organ tones of piousness and moral exhortation that have unfortunately characterized a great deal of the environmental protection movement. Don’t go, the voices will say. Stop. Consider alternatives. Stay home. Phone instead of going. (The phone service shows signs of collapsing already. We have yet to discover the communication equivalent of exhaust emissions, but it is hardly cynical to suggest that we probably will.) Okay, we are a buzzing, jittery, flighty human race; maybe we can spin off some portion of those jitters in increased – dare we hope for improved? – communication. Talk, don’t drive.

Visual phones, access to data banks and computers, transmission via phone of graphic materials – these will increase slightly the effectiveness of electronic rather than mechanical travel. As we have created a new class of the technologically unemployable in the recent past, we might well profit by creating a class of professionally unmobile in the future. It is unlikely that such a sea change in American custom will spring lightly from the public-spiritedness of the citizenry. During one of New York’s subway strikes, Mayor Lindsay issued a public plea that all Manhattan workers not “absolutely essential” please stay home; the result was an historic traffic jam, as every citizen rushed to the office by car to prove his indispensability.

Neither new gadgets nor new social economic classes are sufficient, really, to break the pattern. Nor will we give up our cars for moralistic reasons, no matter who or what would thereby be saved. It has been suggested that the automobile must be abandoned if we are to survive. Yes, of course – just as we must stop having wars in order to avoid killing so many people. We will not exhort ourselves out of the automotive trap any more successfully than we stopped highway crashes with moral imperatives. No appeal to our reasonableness or our humanity will finally demobilize us.

The automobile will die when its use becomes unbearable. It would be comforting to end on a positive note, to suggest some new attraction that will pull us from our cars by increasing human possibilities, but we’ve run out of room – and, perhaps, time – for that. When the moment comes – as it will, as surely as tomorrow’s polluted dawn – when movement threatens, when to go carries a greater psychic cost than to stay, then we will stop. The automobile has made a powerful beginning in the creation of an environment in which such a threat is integral. Every day new elements click into place: the risk, the cost, the delay, the bother, the crowding and congestion. The rage. When the destination diminishes as the task of getting there grows, when the endless prospect of unrelieved blight conquers the remaining vistas, when no conceivable place holds any hope of being different from any other – when all of America becomes Woodward Avenue – then we will stay home. What new toys – surrogate sports cars – will fill our time is beyond imagining. But there will be time to fill, a great deal of it, when none of it is spent in automobiles.

One possibility lies waiting in the wings for our discovery, if we have the wit to seek it out. When Alan S. Boyd became the first Secretary of Transportation, one of his first official acts was to decorate his new chambers. On one wall, he hung a large photomural: it showed a pair of well-shod feet. It’s a transportation solution that hasn’t had a great deal of technological support in recent years, but it might be the salvation of us yet.

Franconia, N.H., January, 1972.


excerptly submitted by Cityslikr

The Death Of The Automobile — Part 4

December 9, 2015


(OK, OK. Last excerpt, with a Book Club review coming soon. As I said earlier, back in the late-60s and early-70s, I think the book’s author, John Jerome, might’ve underestimated the auto industry’s hold on so many facets of North American life — the economy, culturally, how we designed neighbourhoods and cities — and overestimated our rational response to the adverse effects on our lives that car dependence had. 40+ years on, private vehicle use still rules, bowed for sure but unbroken.

I thought this segment was pertinent in light of the recent VW corporate fuck. Profits before people. What’s good for the auto industry isn’t good for the country or planet. Plus ça change… etc., etc.)

 *  *  *


The Desperate Men

It is not that these men don’t like the cars they build; they simply are not particularly interested in them. Cars are not, to them, engineering or even styling achievements; they are units of inventory. It is not that these men don’t understand their market. They perhaps understand it too well, to the extent its vagaries and whimsicalities can be known. They understand the bulk nature of the need, the base upon which they can rely, and, dismissing that, they focus in compulsively on the manipulable fringe, the margin where reputations are made and lost. In so doing they come to know as much as can be known about the market, and nothing of the people, of the nation that makes it up. It is not that these are evil men. They are aggressive, achievement-oriented, enormously competitive. And they are, in a pressure-ridden industry, desperate.

The desperation is endemic, fixed, irreducible; it flows naturally out of the multi-million-dollar fractions of percentage points, out of billions of capital investment risking idleness at the slightest waver in the economic construct. An ore train is an hour late to the mill, and 6000 workers go idle 700 miles away, at $4.50 an hour (and up) per man. A day’s wildcat strike and $60 million a day in gross receipts is irrevocably – in the eyes of the industry – lost.

The desperation surfaced early in the industry; it is well-documented in such curiosities as the celebrated exchange between Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., President of General Motors, and Lammot du Pont, President of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, in 1929, on the subject of safety glass. The invention was established, proven, making its way into American car windshields. Du Pont produced it, and was pushing its adoption from the comfortable position of making a profit on a demonstrably humanitarian product. He wanted GM to adopt the new glass immediately.

No, said Sloan, not yet; although “non-shatterable glass is bound to come,” GM was not to lead the way in making driving safer. To do so would “materially offset our profits.” General Motors leadership in the area would pull the competition into the same expense: “Our gain would be a purely temporary one and the net result would be that both competition and ourselves would have reduced the return on our capital and the public would have obtained still more value per dollar expended.” (Emphasis supplied. — by the author, not us…except for this part… these are our italics.)

Although the correspondence in question didn’t surface until 1952, other exposures and embarrassments kept the industry leaders blushing. From Charles F. “Boss” Kettering’s “It isn’t that we build such bad cars, it’s that they are such lousy customers,” to “Engine Charlie” Wilson’s infamous misquote, “What’s good for GM is good for the country,”* the leaders of the industry have demonstrated a consistent inability to conceal the industry’s own greed.

The accepted public stance of the industry is one of lip service to social responsibility. Internally, however, the mood is compounded of private agony at the business’ uncertainties, and vituperation at any interference with the ongoing profitability of the enterprise. Pressure builds; the manufacturers ricochet between the disasters of business downturns and the heady but nervous triumphs of the years of maximum production and matching sales. The captains who guide the industry are drawn wire-thin by the pressure. Slips are made; private intent becomes public outrage.

The most recent, most eloquent example is the case of James M. Roche. Roche was elevated to the presidency of General Motors in 1962, and ascended to the chairmanship in 1967. He led the corporation through more than half of the golden decade-and-a-half, presiding over the largest corporation in the world during the most profitable years in that corporation’s history. It is a bit difficult to grasp the size of General Motors and the size of its profits:

Its annual revenue is greater than that of any foreign government except the United Kingdom and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and greater, as well, than the gross national product of Brazil or Sweden. In 1965 GM’s sales of $20.7 billion “exceeded the combined general revenues of the state and local governments of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, and the six New England states.” This figures out to $2.3 million per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (by 1969 it was $2.8 million). On the same hourly basis, its profit after taxes was $242,649.

Although a corporation presidency may be the most limited sort of monarchy, it was to a kind of kingship that Roche was named in 1962. His position in automotive history is secure, but not for his leadership. His reign will not be remembered for the size of its profits, nor for any of the products with which it flooded the American scene. James Roche will go down in the history of the industry as the man who was at the helm when the corporation hired private detectives to look for scandal in the private life of Ralph Nader. Roche was the man who was asked for, and made a public apology to Nader and to the U.S. Senate.

And if there was man-of-the-decade in the car business, a single figure who symbolizes the significance of the automotive sixties, it was Roche’s nemesis, Nader. No creative financier, no imaginative salesman, certainly no brilliant automotive designer emerged as the central figure of the automobile’s most prolific decade. The most important figure was not a member of the industry at all, but its most persistent critic. Ralph Nader discovered, with his book and its response – and with his subsequent leadership as the guiding intelligence behind the rise of consumer advocacy – a broad vein of public rage against the automobile industry and all it stood for. Nader forecast accurately, if perhaps inadvertently, the death of the automobile. He and he alone breached the insulation of Detroit.


(* What Wilson actually said was, “For years I have thought that what was good for the country was for General Motors, and vice versa.” The press leaped on the “vice versa” and there was no Spiro Agnew around to defend GM’s good name at the time.)

excerptly submitted by Cityslikr

The Death Of The Automobile — Part 3

December 1, 2015


In another excerpt — albeit a much shorter one — from the book, The Death Of The Automobile, author John Jerome wondered if, twenty-five years on, our car obsession would force us to rethink the auto-centric transportation choices we’d been making for the previous twenty-five years. The book was written in the early-70s. Taking us to the mid-90s. That would be twenty years ago. Arguably, very little had changed in the 90s and not whole lot has changed since then. Private vehicle use still sits atop the hierarchy of our transportation system. We’re still having the same arguments about what, if anything, we should do to deal with that. It seems Mr. Jerome underestimated the kind of death grip cars have on our imaginations.


*  *  *

A more rational approach would have us think about transportation problems a little less apocalyptically. Twenty-five years of experience in living and coping with irreducible congestion would seem to remove the urgency from our road-building plans. It isn’t going to get any better as long as we have automobiles as the sole basis of our transportation system, and twenty-five years of experience has pushed us to no cleverer solution than to build more roads to hold more cars that we’ve built and bought. But twenty-five years have kept the pressure on; maybe with another twenty-five under our belts, we will begin to think of new ways to go. Or maybe we won’t go at all. On examination, the latter course seems much more probable. The question seems to be whether we will choose that course or be forced into it.

auto(matically) submitted by Cityslikr

The Death Of The Automobile — Part 2

November 27, 2015


(With this morning’s news of yet another pedestrian hit and killed by a vehicle, that’s what now, 4 in the past 4 days?, we excerpt another passage from John Jerome’s 1972 book, The Death of the Automobile. “Accidents” like this are simply the natural outcome of a transportation system and hierarchy perverted by the relentless product push of the automotive industry. An industry… a-hem, a-hem… driven by whimsical business practices and dependent on what Jerome calls a ‘captive market’.)


*  *  *

The Smugness of Abundance, and Vice Versa

There are men in Detroit whose sensibilities are not blunted to the anguish of the country, men sensitive enough to recognize the reasons for their own insularity and humble enough to seek external, non-automobile-industry assistance in understanding the public who buy their cars. The very best help is sought: psychologists, motivational researchers, men whose scientifically sound research methods yield computer-quantifiable results, as well as men to whom public accolade gives credit for certifiable wisdom. The purpose of the seeking is additional profit, of course, and no great amount of money is spent on these pundits – nothing like the sums invested in a new rear-fender shape, for instance. But wisdom is sometimes sought. Even the advertising agencies – high-priced agglomerations of professionals trained to gauge public taste – are consulted. The industry gets a lot of advice, not all of it worthless. That it chooses so consistently to ignore the advice it purchases is not, in view of recent history, entirely surprising. It sought the advice that generated the compacts, in 1960 – but it misunderstood the advice it got (it often does), and turned an intelligent marketing gambit into a short-lived defensive reaction. Somewhere the industry must have gotten the advice that it could ignore pollution and safety for a long, long time.

A great deal of the industry’s imperviousness to advice undoubtedly comes from the sales figures. Against the insubstantialities of external market advice, the industry can point to the reality of 7 million passenger cars sold, on average, every year since 1955. If we are so insulated and unresponsive to public needs, the industry seems justified in saying, why are we so rich?

Given the traditional public faith in the sovereignty of the free market, the argument is tough to refute. We bought ‘em, we must love ‘em. Perhaps Detroit does give the people what they want, as the industry is so fond of saying. If the numbers are to be believed. One might even go so far as to assume, as Detroit has assumed, that the industry has some kind of magic taste-indicator – the stylists claim to live five years ahead of the desires of the great unwashed – and can therefore unerringly fashion machinery and sheet metal to match that taste.

A number of counterindications, however, undercut the industry’s self-proclaimed position as ultimate arbiter of public taste. The infallibility of that taste produced “up” years – upward rising scales curves – in only a little more than half of the model years of the golden era. Of course sales successes are always triumphs of judgment and perspicacity, but slippages are the result of “the economy” – or strikes. That 7-million-car average hides wild fluctuations of sales totals – a drop of 47 percent between 1955 and 1958, of more than 25 percent between 1968 and 1970 – despite the best efforts of the industry’s planners to gear for consistent production figures. The sales charts do mirror the major economic indicators, although no one seems quite willing to say whether car sales push or are pulled by those indicators. At any rate, if the economy is responsible for the plunges of the sales curve, it seems quite likely that the sales peaks are also a result of national economic health, rather than the product of specific design responses by the industry to the public’s ineffable aesthetic needs.

Imported car sales also seem pegged to more stable indices. The imports began to come into this country in statistically significant numbers before the beginning of the golden era; Detroit said it would begin to worry about the imports in the, heh heh, unlikely event the little bugs (“shitboxes” is the almost universal familiar term among Detroit’s forward thinkers) ever got 3 percent of the market. The little bugs did. Detroit revised its worry point upwards to 6 percent; the imports surpassed it. By 1959 the foreign cars were getting 10 percent of the market while Detroit sales were sagging badly. Detroit counterpunched in 1960 with the compacts (in the works since about 1957) and scored, and foreign-car dealerships throughout the land began closing their doors. But with two or three years out for retrenchment (and for some makes, badly needed redesign to fit American driving habits), the little cars began slowly and steadily chomping off those percentage points again. In 1971 import sales peaked out a just below 20 percent of the market; Nixonomics thereupon scrambled the picture so badly that the future of imported cars sales in this country is virtually unreadable, but no less a seer than Henry Ford II has estimated that the imports will hold a steady 15 percent for the foreseeable future.

The imports are, by and large, “rational” cars, predicated on economy, functionality, simplicity (sports cars excepted, of course). Their manufacturers have not engaged in styling wars, attempting to anticipate in sheet metal the fickleness of American tastes. In fact the import manufacturers haven’t worried much about “giving the public what it wants”; they’ve simply produced as many cars as they could, to their own standards, and in the case of the more successful makes in which a high level of quality is clearly present – Volkswagen, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz – they’ve sold all the cars they could spare for the American market. Meanwhile the domestic small cars – counterpunch number two against the Old Country menace – seem to be succeeding primarily in taking percentage points of market share away from their own big brothers.

The compacts eventually died because they were not profitable enough as “economy” cars, and so Detroit loaded them with extras and let them balloon in size. The new domestic small cars are clearly less profitable than the old compacts, and their chief function so far seems to be to reduce the sales for domestic big cars. It is little wonder that the moguls are crying poor about profitability these days. It is little wonder also that the industry looks askance at the outside advice; everyone told them they had to stem the foreign invasion, but nobody told them how to do it and continue to make money.

In the final analysis there is, as ex-Department of Transportation aide John Burby has pointed out, a market for about 8 million new cars a year in the U.S., come what may. The figure will expand gradually with population growth until the detrimental aspects of car ownership outweigh the service it provides. “Market” isn’t precisely the term – “rate of consumption” might be more accurate. That “market” is virtually captive. Our motorized miles per year mean that 86 percent of our travelers use private cars, for 79 percent of the trips (by number) that are taken. Commercial airlines absorb another 13 percent of the trips, leaving a full 8 percent for all of the other transportation systems in the U.S. to grow rich over – and expand to the point that they can relieve us of the necessity of pouring our personal wealth into private automobiles. No less than 82 percent of our commuting workers use automobiles to go to and from work; the same percentage of our families now own automobiles. Sixty percent of our poverty-level Americans “own” cars, as do 25 percent of the under-$1000-per-year population (The figure must include a lot of teen-agers). The statistics roll on and on; they are the Automobile Manufacturers Association’s own, published annually in a paperback horror story of overconcentration of an industry.

It is pointless to try to convince ourselves otherwise: we have a single transportation system in this country, pure and simple, with a couple of curious small-time competitors in the form of airplanes and railroads. We have a population pushing 210 million, and we throw away more than 7 million cars a year. The manufacturers – those fellows who defend every tasteless and wasteful gimcrack tagged onto the cars in the effort to stimulate sagging public enthusiasms with the justification that they are giving the public what it wants, nay, demands – know their market so well that in 1970, 25 percent of it slipped away they know not where, and their miniaturized competitors from across the seas stole away almost 20 percent of what was left.

We can, perhaps, be thankful. If the industry really did know how to give the public what it wants – rather than simply grinding out units of production to stuff into the gaping hole of otherwise unfilled transportation needs – our nation might be even more desperately unbalanced in its transportation network, its economic centricity, its misplaced social priorities, than it already is.

excerptly submitted by Cityslikr

The Death Of The Automobile — Part 1

November 25, 2015


Our Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, alerted us to the presence of this book written by John Jerome way back in 1972. Jerome had been an advertising copywriter working on car ads as well as a journalist, writing for such pro-automotive magazines as Sports Car Digest and Car and Driver.

I’m only halfway through The Death Of The Automobile, so don’t know if Jerome was being overly-optimistic with the title or if there’s something else at work. Certainly, more than 40 years on, such a predicted demise must be considered greatly exaggerated. His take on the city of Detroit, on the other hand, comes across as grimly prescient.

This particular passage caught my attention for its portrayal of the destructive, divisive force the car industry has played both economically and societally. In what I guess might be considered some sad, sad irony, Woodward Avenue, the street at the centre of the following excerpt, has been the site of a pitched battled between entrenched interests, fighting over the proposed building of rapid transit right through the heart of the Motor City.


Or maybe more, read `em and weep.



*  *  *


To say that Detroit is the most American of cities is to be both mordantly accurate and balefully pessimistic about the future of cities in this country. Detroit is where the awful ugliness of urban life first began to be visible. From labor strife to racial disaster to polluted unlivability, Detroit has been the honor guard, the advance men, setting up the territory, for the urban crisis.

Detroit is buried in a flat sump of American midlands, just above the grossly polluted Lake Erie (polluted primarily by Detroit, with a little help from Toledo, Cleveland, and Akron). It sprawls for uncounted miles and yet is almost impossibly congested. It is ringed, gouged, sectioned by freeways, most of them sunken in greasy, claustrophobia-inducing moats – freeways which despite frantic construction programs seem to hang ten years behind the mass of traffic volume. The city’s murder rate has zoomed off-scale in recent years, its drug problems rival New York’s, its police still maintain that car theft – in the Motor City – is the most significant crime. Two of the most severe and destructive racial uprisings in the U.S. in the twentieth century took place in Detroit, and racial ghettos – black impaction – now absorb most of the city proper. To the south the city is bordered by the Detroit River and somnolent Canada. On the east is Lake St. Clair and the enclave of the Old Money, the foundation fortunes in the Detroit industrial empire, Grosse Point. On the west is Ford’s-town, Dearborn, symbol to the rest of the unreconstructed U.S. of militant antiblack bigotry, best personified by its colour perennial mayor, Orville Hubbard.

It is to the north – “out Woodward” – that Detroit limns the shape of the American sixties. Woodward Avenue begins at the river, downtown Detroit, amidst broad plazas and shiny office buildings constructed two decades ago in a downtown urban renewal scheme. If the downtown area seems airy and well ordered, it is closely ringed by ghetto and crumbling freeway; if it seems limited, somehow too small for a city of nearly two million, it is because little of Detroit’s reason for being – GM, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors – is located there.

Woodward Avenue points…out. String-straight to the northwest, it penetrates the ring of urban renewal within a few blocks of the deepest heart of the city, and immediately enters territory still marred by the warlike ruins of the 1967 racial rebellion. Woodward splits the campus of Wayne State University, which, like so many urban universities, is also tightly surrounded by ghetto. The Avenue connects downtown Detroit with the General Motors Building and its ancillary office complex, a strange collection of 1930’s-style buildings more than three miles from Detroit’s “city”. The GM complex is also encircled by ghetto, very close to the center of the 1967 riot’s white-hot violence. Three of four miles of ghetto-strip line the broad expanse of Woodward beyond the GM complex; with meat-cleaver abruptness, the American Dream begins.

Parks. Golf courses. Churches. Eighteen miles of intermittent commercial strip, interspersed with woodsy suburb and public parks. The architecture, the décor of the commercial strip, rapidly escalate in both expense and garishness to the north, from filling station to fast-food franchise house to sporting-goods store. Carpet shops and tire-recappers, soft-ice-cream stands and pizza parlors. Used-car lot after used-car lot. And to the sides, beyond the borders of the thundering commuter traffic of Woodward, lies suburban Detroit, in rapidly rising economic brackets. The flatland countryside was early divided, in the Midwest tradition, into neat squares; thus Eight Mile Road, Twelve Mile Road – numerical demarcation lines of the class of the neighborhood – butt up against the northwest arrow that is Woodward. The suburbs line up: Ferndale, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge, Huntington Woods, Berkley, Royal Oak, and finally, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. Management country.

(Woodward goes on. As U.S. Route 10 it splits Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, up the lower peninsula, toward the big Hemingway woods. Another Country. Big trout, clear streams, lakes, misty coniferous forest, half-breeds and subsistence loggers. A long way from Detroit, physically as well as psychically. There is aching symbolism in the way Woodward points toward all that, another kind of life.)

Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, and Grosse Point – in rising order of exclusiveness – are the suburbs where automobile industry management resides. Birmingham is an imitation New England village, spotless white wood facades on expensive small shops, a couple substantial modern department stores. Surrounding the village are concentric rings of progressively more expensive suburban homes, three-car garages and carefully protected maple trees, winding streets. The contours of the terrain have been religiously preserved, to relieve the rigid block-organization of more citied suburbs. It is affluent, snobbish, resolutely white. As Birmingham melts into Bloomfield Hills to the north, all pretense of town or village disappears, along with any democratic notions about inconspicuousness in the act of consumption: Bloomfield Hills is rich. It is countryside, one hundred-acre estates, the horsy set, country clubs and finishing schools. Tone. Memberships in upstate gun clubs, ski trips to Europe. Very carefully constructed to be as un-Detroitish as physically possible, a soft, rich antidote to the pain of the city.

Grosse Point is richer. The automobile industry rewards its captains very well. (The position of chairman of General Motors is carefully maintained as the highest-paid salaried job in the U.S. In a normal golden-era year, with bonuses, its occupant would gross over half a million dollars. In 1969 James Roche received $655,000.) Grosse Point is where the supercaptains live, men who no longer run automobile companies but who run the economy instead, whose principal occupation could perhaps best be described as moving their money about, in order that it might grow. Women here, too – mostly widows of men who formed, founded, managed, inflated and deflated, and often simply sold out the car companies. A musty rich town of stone mansions and walled estates, fortunes seventy-five and one hundred years old – as compared with fifteen and twenty-five years in the other two managerial suburbs. Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills are relatively new, and thus are substantially buffered by other, cheaper middle-class white suburbs which have grown out from Detroit. Grosse Point is old enough that the city has grown around it with the squalor of the explosive urban Detroit ghetto.

The females who reside at this level of purest capitalistic entrepreneurship are exceptions rather than rules, attaining their positions through longevity rather than business careers. Below that level the society of the auto-makers is exclusively male. (The closest a woman ever got to a position in industry management was when Mary Wells’s advertising agency, Wells, Rich, Greene, took over the American Motors account.) The males of the administrative-managerial class inhabit these three suburbs, their wives and children live their lives there, but the men inhabit. They put in legendarily long hours, choosing to compete not just with other corporations, not just within the palace intrigues of their own corporate politics, but even over such minutiae as who will be first at his desk in the morning, last to leave. It is an industry custom freighted with significance. (Might as well come early and leave late; the traffic jams made possible by the bounty of their production make standard commuting hours impossible for industry leaders anyway.)

Come early, go late, whisk through the city as quickly as possible. Duck home with relief to the splendidly affluent, total insulation of the suburbs. These men often fight their way into the industry from external purviews – the industry record for tight-family, father-son successions is not good, Semon Knudsens and Henry Fords to the contrary – but once inside, it is the industry life. They work, play, lunch, vacation in the industry. They belong to the same country clubs, hunt clubs, garden clubs, luncheon clubs. They attend Detroit’s society affairs in each other’s company, frequently sharing automobiles (which are often chauffeur driven). They meet in sterile but plush executive dining rooms for lunch, in the various administrative office buildings of the major manufacturers – or, if they want alcohol in a strangely puritan industry, they meet at the Detroit Club, the Athletic Club, the London Chop House. (To eat with the same faces, in the same places, year after year…) When they travel, they fly – and are met at airports by regional managers delivering the most carefully prepared, sparkling new examples of their own product. They tunnel through the masses on the freeways, to work and home, insulated. Spinning up broad Woodward Avenue, they traverse a serial representation of the American angst: squalid ghetto, tawdry commercial-strip jungle, splintered campus, fire-bombed whitey furniture stores and glittering drive-in teen-age hangouts in the same eighteen-mile stretch. What must these men think about America while they pass through it? Soot-blackened, smoke-billowing public-transit buses competing for commuting space with chrome-plated supercars, art nouveau hot rods, sports cars, motorcycles, hitchhiking hippies, as well as executive limousines. The whole arteriosclerotic urban sprawl and its commuter tangle, twice a day, and the men who make it insulated from it, air-conditioned out of contact, dreaming of sales campaigns for ever quieter, ever more insulative dreamboats, at whatever cost.

The public stance of the industry becomes automatic, built in. It comes with the territory. It sees Vietnam as defense contracts for its distant corporate divisions, as draft cells that squelch the Youth Market. It sees racial unrest as a demarcating force that cordons off sections of the city no longer safe to travel, as a vague terror that somehow enervates governance of the city, as irritating pressure from do-gooders such as the Fair Employment Practices Commission to force expensive, wasteful, risky new hiring policies. It sees the crisis of the cities as short-sighted failure on the part of government to build enough new streets and roads. It sees ecological disaster first as a scare campaign to play on the fears of the weakhearted; later as another uncomfortable pressure from the federal government intended to crimp free enterprise; still later, finally, as a whole new bonanza market, endless profitability to be gained, albeit at the distasteful cost of learning new technologies. (Profit on the waste-making, and then profit on the waste-removal; and the government is even doing the selling!) It sees automobile safety as the exclusive responsibility of its customers – and the police. It sees poverty as laziness, youth rebellion as slack discipline, the erosion of institutions as encroaching communism. It looks at these eruptions on the fair epidermis of society only in search of places to insert the lance of profit. Prick them just right, and they might somehow yield up another fraction of a percentage point of market share.

cut and pastely submitted by Cityslikr