Monday, April 30, 2012

Roadtown, a Western Fantasy

"Roadtown" was a Progressive futurist notion that Edgar Chambless came up with toward the beginning of the last century. He published a book in 1910, called "Roadtown" appropriately enough, that set forth his ideas about the linear City of the Future, and it apparently caused quite a stir, enough of one, in fact, to lead to much popular press. Nevertheless, January, 1914, issue of Sunset Magazine, published by the Southern Pacific Railroad, seems to be the last major press notice of Chambless's ideas for the Future. One of his plans at that time was to have a Roadtown exhibit at the Panama Pacific Exhibition the following year, but so far as I've been able to find out there is no record of any such exhibit.

Roadtown was intended to be a technological marvel and to use the latest technology of the era to improve the lives of citizens, city dwellers especially.

At the time, the City was considered to be the root of evil and the den of iniquity. I thought about this in connection with my mother's family's removal from Indianapolis and all its urban troubles -- including labor strikes and all that went with them -- to the very small and relatively isolated California town of Santa Maria in 1916. I tried to imgine what impelled them, and one of the obvious factors was the City itself. Indianapolis was a large, gritty industrial city at the time, and the lot of those on its economic margins (where I would say my mother's family lived) was not a particularly good one. When my mother's father was killed, life for her and her mother was made nearly impossible. There were few options available for young widows and orphans.

The lot of others was comparatively worse, and many poor City dwellers had no option to leave for California or anywhere else for that matter. They were tied to their sorry lot in life, and that was that. The United States may have been a Land of Opportunity, but it was Opportunity open to some, not all. The suffering of the poor was intrinsic to the Opportunities afforded to others. And the suffering of the poor in America's cities was intense and self-perpetuating.

One of the chief means social scientists imagined would alleviate the situation was to remove the City's population to the Country. Roadtown was seen as one of the ways to do that.

In essence, Roadtown is a version of a linear city that is built on top of the then prevalent interurban street railways.

Street railways were the principal public transportation method prior to the widespread adoption of the private automobile. In 1910, when Chambless published his Roadtown manifesto, there was little expectation that automobiles would ever become much more than vehicular toys for the rich; they were wildly expensive, unreliable, uncomfortable, dangerous, and so on. Outside the cities, roads were in deplorable condition. The commerce and sightseeing travel of the Nation was done by rail. For personal use, the bicycle was considered the most appropriate form of wheeled transport, and bicycling had become a popular national pastime.

So when Chambless -- a patent examiner -- came up with his Roadtown plan, the most up-to-date Futurist ideas did not necessarily include the Automobile as an important factor to consider. Not only was the need for them limited in 1910, their ultimate utility was questionable. Automobiles were on par with the then novel Aeroplanes. On the other hand, bicycles, interurban street railways and long distance trains were proven technology widely considered to be the most efficient and thus the most Progressive and useful transport systems for the Future.

Roadtown was conceived as a multi-layer, multi-mile long extension of the City along the interurban transit lines that had either already been developed or would be developed in the Future.

At the bottom, in a deep trench, was to be found the interurban express line, stopping maybe every five miles or so, that would deliver goods and people to and from the City cores from which Roadtowns would radiate. Above the Express lines would be the interurban local lines, stopping every hundred yards or so, to provide a means for goods and people to travel easily -- "effortlessly" -- within Roadtown itself along what were conceived of as silent running monorail lines, rolling on leathern tired wheels in futuristic, even somewhat streamlined cars that were something like this:

This test track was built and demonstrated in 1911 in the tideflats of Seattle, Washington. The rails were made of wood and track cost was estimated to be around $3,000 per mile. A bargain! The Seattle Times commented at the time that "the time may come when these wooden monorail lines, like high fences, will go straggling across country, carrying their burden of cars that will develop a speed of about 20 miles per hour." Like so many inventions, lack of financial backing prevented further development.

Above the local transit lines, and directly connected to the transit platforms via internal stairways, would be the residences of Roadtown citizens. In other words, the "front doors" of these residences would be on transit platforms, not on the street. In essence, there would be no streets, for all transportation would be along either the rail lines below ground or on the roofs of the attached dwellings above where there would be a Promenade -- open to the wafting breezes in the spring and summer, glassed in and steam heated in the winter -- where pedestrians, cyclists, and roller-skaters (using rubber-wheeled roller skates) could amble along the way, stop at leisure, and enjoy the bracing Country Air and rural sights as they chose.

The Roadtown dwellings would consist of five to seven rooms -- depending on family size and necessity -- two rooms deep and two stories high, built of precast (and we assume reinforced) cement (concrete), forms and materials for which would be rapidly and efficiently carried along the rail lines by construction trains and erected in a trice on a common plan. These attached dwellings would be between 21 and 33 feet wide. Approximately 1,000 dwellings would be found in each mile of Roadtown. Each dwelling would be provided, of course, with the latest equipment including electricity for lighting, gas for home heating and cooking, hot and cold running water, proper sewage, and telephony of many kinds which included applications that anticipated radio and possibly even television.

Each dwelling would be supplied with heat and refrigeration from central plants, carried in pipes below ground. In fact all utilities would be underground, easily accessible from below for inspection and repair as well as expansion when necessary through passages aligned with the rail platforms.

On either side of each dwelling would be the private plots of the residents, each the width of the dwelling and extending as far as the eye could see into the distance. Because not everyone would want to or be able to utilize such an abundance of land, arrangements would be made to limit the land-holdings of those who needed or wanted less, and expand the holdings of those who could utilize more for crops, though leisure and gardening purposes were by no means restricted or limited. The idea was to provide enough land for each household to enable it to grow sufficient produce (and if so desired, animals) for its own needs, and for those so inclined, to enable modest-scale intensive farming to produce surpluses for sale to those who weren't generally farm-folk by nature. Chambless seemed to recognize that not everyone who could benefit from Roadtown living had a green thumb.

Communal and cooperative ventures and endeavors were to take the place of the corporations and the trusts that dominated the economy in those days. On the domestic front, the drudgery of "women's work" in the kitchen and laundry particularly was to be eliminated through the utilization of central kitchens and laundries. Households would order their meals from the central kitchens which would prepare and deliver them at the appropriate times. Laundry would be sent out to be done in the central facilities -- which would of course include wet washing and dry cleaning -- to be returned when complete. Central vacuum systems would be installed so that all households would be free from dust and dirt, while automatic mechanisms would lift bedding into airing (and disinfecting) closets during the day and return it to the bedstead at night for restful and clean sleep.

Citizens would be able to work at home in low-impact industry, making necessary items for use or sale, while heavier industry could take place in factories set away from but convenient to Roadtowns. No factory or industry would be allowed to grow so large as to dominate the economy of any Roadtown or locality.

The Future, as seen by Chambless and the many Roadtown advocates is one of independence as well as community, of dignity and well as quirky eccentricity, of industry as well as abundant leisure and creativity, of freedom from drudgery, of education and entertainment, of innovation as well as preservation of tradition.

And yet, nothing quite like Roadtown has ever been undertaken, at least not on the scale Chambless envisioned it, nor for quite the purpose he had in mind.

Instead, the Garden City alternative has been almost universally adopted for suburban expansion of urban centers. Garden Cities essentially continue the endless grid of streets and surface, overhead or underground utilities that have been the hallmarks of Cities throughout history. The chief difference is that Garden Cities make the grids much larger than in the past, infilling the gridded sectors with curving streets.

The whole point of Roadtown is to get away from the street grid, eliminating it entirely.

And that still seems to be a bridge too far for even today's Futurists.

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