Traveling the United States has, among other things, gently tutored me that the residents of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., pronounce their town’s name WILKS-bree, not Wilks-BAR; that the good citizens of Vermont call their capital MontPEELyer, not MontepeLEER, and that that lovely town in southern California is called LaHOYA even though it’s spelled La Jolla. These are nuggets of everyday wisdom that book learning can seldom impart, but that being on the spot can teach one in a hurry.
Alas, traveling the U.S. also reveals a dismaying transformation that’s more obvious year by year: What was once a nation of kaleidoscopic architectural variety is slowly being turned into a homogeneous landscape stretching from coast to coast — one in which freeways and boulevards, suburbs and downtowns all look more or less like their counterparts everywhere else.
As a nation founded on individualism, it’s a sad trend, especially since it’s being furthered by a number of forces we usually think of as positive.
One is our ever-increasing speed of travel and communication. Among the earliest such milestones was rail travel, whose speed and convenience profoundly shrank the nation during the latter half of the 19th century, linking city, farm and suburb. Our familiar standard time zones — an attempt to rationalize train schedules nationwide — are one enduring legacy of this period.
A generation later, the rise of the automobile set off even more dramatic changes, culminating in the construction of the interstate highway system after World War II. And as American cities were brought closer, regional distinctions became more blurred. The interstates also hastened the rise of standardized architecture, beginning with off-the-shelf designs of gasoline stations, hamburger joints and motels. Suburban shopping centers were next, anchored first by large chain department stores and later by the ubiquitous big-box outlets.
Now the last bastions of regional distinction, the downtown cores, are succumbing to the same brand of monotony. In city after city, shopping streets are lined almost exclusively with the usual suspects — the Gaps, Barnes & Nobles, Banana Republics, and the other overfamiliar retail chains — bringing on a rather queasy sense of deja vu. Is this Portland, Ore., or Portland, Maine?
Civic design-review boards, who fancy themselves the guardians of the built environment, have only helped increase urban banality by promoting the idea that there are “right” and “wrong” styles of architecture for such settings. At the moment, traditionalism is the reflexively “right” style, and those eerily similar shopping streets with their happy applique storefronts are as much a product of modern planning ideals as they are of chain-store commercialism.
Lastly, for all its positive effects in networking America, the very universality of the Internet is ironically helping dissolve what few traces of regional idiosyncrasy remain. What a loss it will be if the brilliantly uneven patchwork quilt that is America is allowed to fade into a monotone devoid of the offbeat or the unexpected — a nation whose cities have been Wal-Marted, Old Navied and Starbucked, networked and new-urbanized into lookalike places, set apart by little more than signposts reading “Welcome to Wilkes-Barre,” or Montpelier, or La Jolla, or your town.