Invisible Trajectories

writings: MOVING EMPIRE

This is the age of the moving city. Static elements in the new urban landscape have increasingly little value. Change occurs with almost no warning. Key components of the urban fabric move out while others move in and take their place. Agriculture leaves, dairies leave. Telecommunication infrastructure is hidden under newly paved roads and new freeways reach out to far-flung locations. New residential housing tracts are built, along with warehouses, office parks, and retail stores. The reconfiguration of the landscape is certainly nothing new, but the pace is now more frenzied.

Writer Joel Garreau was not thinking when he coined the term “edge city.” In his influential book, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, Garreau carelessly defined the new outer-urban form taking shape in our metropolitan regions. His term is flawed precisely because we are not dealing with edges. This isn’t about the crust of a pizza; it’s about the shape-shifting, amoebic region that has taken a temporary hold of our built environment. Garreau’s “edge city” assumes that a metropolitan area has an identifiable edge.

“City” is even a dubious term in this context. In the Inland Empire, the traditional city does not really exist. To focus on a city is to focus on permanence, stability and rootedness. In the 1980s, the Commission for a National Agenda was appointed by Jimmy Carter to study urban policy. “Cities,” the commission proclaimed in its report, “are not permanent” and “the policies which treated them as permanent are doomed to fail.” To look at an urban region now as a static entity is to revel in nostalgia.

Nor, in the Inland Empire, does the suburb exist. Nothing is “sub” to anything else. Everything is an equal part of low-density SoCal and its many cities that have merged to form one continuous built up area. Any exit on any freeway in the Inland Empire could be called a center. As mentioned above, the region is amoebic, growing and swallowing the seemingly dead space around it, always moving. The moving city—sometimes described as a “multi-centered metropolitan region”—has increasingly been defined by horizontal sprawl, its edges unclear and its shapelessness a given.

The Inland Empire is the quintessential moving region. It’s citizens, and ex-citizens, are fluid entities. Says a blogger identified only as Sherrie, “I moved out as soon as I could. As generally peaceful as it is, cities like Ontario & Chino Hills are on a rampage to cover any inch of open land with asphalt, an Applebees, a RiteAid, and a WalMart.” Another unnamed message-board poster echoes Sherri’s sentiment:

Whenever I drive through the Inland Empire I get so depressed looking at the endless power lines, tract homes, and sickening giant shopping centers. Good lord, it is like a nuclear bomb went off there. The air has an ethereal look to it, it almost looks fake like a bad dream. Apocalyptic for sure. Runaway. Runaway.

Roger Vincent of the Los Angeles Times proclaimed the Inland Empire as the place “where the L.A. dream has landed.” But assuming that it has landed here is to misunderstand how the I.E. functions. It might be best to say that numerous dreams are simultaneously in holding patterns. Some may stay; others will depart. Concrete walls will be put up and little plastic pools will be abandoned in favor of the more expensive in-the-ground types. Other residents will move with the changes in the global economy, heading on to Atlanta, Houston, or some other Sunbelt city.

Those seeking a defined, grounded culture will be frustrated by what they see in the Empire’s towns and cities. Many long for the sense of place that they believe was once found in the older pre-war urban neighborhoods. Unfortunately for them, this is the age of accelerated depreciation where owners can write-off the value of new strip-development within a period of seven years. Commercial buildings are planned for obsolescence, much like the current generation of computers, DVD-players and cellular phones.

The Inland Empire is an amoebic collective of moving cities. Recent redevelopment schemes have used eminent domain to force out those in the way of progress, and a new elite class is starting to move in with some vision of urban living on their minds. Dairies exit as the age of the temporary takes hold. People move about in the new blurred landscape, not noticing the dying strip malls that can no longer compete with the new retail project down the road. This is the new age, no time to get nostalgic about the way things were. If you don’t like it, you can always move.