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US Geography Beyond Musty Maps

By Brad Knickerbocker. Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor staff writer in AshlandOre. / January 17, 1995



Grady CLAY'S ``Real Places: An Unconventional Guide to America's Generic Landscape'' is built on the premise that geography at its most interesting is human history, and that history can be told quite fully in terms of geography.

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In this readable and surprisingly compelling book, Clay proves that geography in the right hands is far more than musty static maps and charts. The former urban-affairs editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and editor of Landscape Architect magazine, Clay has spent years on what he calls ``a series of jaunts and organized toots'' around North America, using a cross-section method to study a wide sampling of cities, towns, and regions.

In the process of his work as journalist and public-radio commentator, he has assembled some 5,000 generic place names. In ``Real Places,'' he's organized 124 of these into three categories: ``The Center'' (generally downtown areas), ``The Front'' (a ``wide belt of dynamic tension ... where the energies of the city and the country mix, merge, and compete''), and ``Out There'' where ``urban attitudes, values, and practices come up against ancient opponents.''

Some are old (``courthouse square''), some are new (``drug scene''). Some connote value (``the good address''), others a lack of value (``national sacrifice zone''). Some are specific (``porno district,'' ``hurricane path''). Others indicate an idea (``presence'') or are more whimsical (``lulu,'' for locally unwanted land uses).

The point is that these kinds of places exist everywhere, and that observing them as dynamic details in the continent's cultural geography is a way of seeing how American society has evolved over two centuries. And, more importantly, where things are headed as the population grows and fans out from older urban centers.

Included here are many nuggets of insight and illumination. Among these are the best nutshell descriptions I have read of the decline of fisheries and the depletion of Western water sources. Clay also is a great gatherer of sources. Not many writers could, without strain, quote New York columnist Jimmy Breslin and 5th-century cleric Father Maximus of Turin on the same page.

Americans are a people on the move. Whether it's historic migrations to the West in the 19th century, from South to North after World War II, or to the Sunbelt and Northwest more recently, we always seem to be ``lighting out for the territory,'' as Huck Finn put it. In the process, we change the landscape and we ourselves are changed. We see it in political unease, trouble in the workplace, strains on the family, environmental degradation.

``Old limits fall, new borders appear in the shape of boundaries, limits, lines, fences, markers, zones, and turf,'' Clay writes. ``Pressures and tensions swirl ... and the line between The Center and Out There grows more permeable as populations and their mobility expand. It is here ... that modern society's ability or failure to manage its own environment is daily put on exhibit.''

Grady Clay warns about the dangers of population growth and unwise development, but he is no ``preservationist'' (in the way that word is used as a pejorative for radical environmentalists). Studying the dynamic of cultural geography, he argues convincingly, is a way of acting on these problems. ``Once we learn to look at the world this way,'' he concludes, ``there is no chaos, nothing is wholly foreign, and we are never lost.''