Escaping from elsewhere: culture in America's 'amenities cities'

From the pinnacle of the Space Needle - still towering over the former 1962 World's Fair grounds - you can see why Seattle continues to grow. To the south rises Mt. Rainier. To the west stretches Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. To the east lies Lake Washington. Moderate in climate, Seattle is also modest in scale: David Brewster, editor of a local newspaper called The Weekly, calls it ''a hard city to leave.''

A thousand miles away, the city of Phoenix sprawls out beneath the ninth-story windows of Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt's office. Its palm-lined streets scented by orange blossoms also draw newcomers: it grew by 55 percent over the last decade. Here jobs are plentiful, unemployment low, housing abundant, and the cost of living surprisingly inexpensive. ''People like to live out here,'' says Governor Babbitt - where ''out'' (although he doesn't elaborate) seems to mean outdoors, out of reach of Washington, D.C., and out of the scramble of the older, more northern regions.

According to the demographics, these are the cities of America's future. The nation's population is sifting from the frost-belt cities to the warmth and light of the West and South. So it seemed worth asking, during visits to both cities recently, what makes them tick? What are the benefits and what the perils of America's migration to what Mr. Brewster calls the ''amenities cities''?

One hesitates to generalize too broadly, but let me hazard some tentative conclusions. The flow, as population-watchers note, arises from both a push and a pull.Pushing, from the north, is the relative harshness of the weather and the problem of a blighted and potholed infrastructure. Add to that the decaying heavy industries, concern over job security, a fear of crime and the suspicion of strangers it breeds, and a perceived breakup of family values, and you pretty much have the reasons people give for leaving. Also at work is a view that the older cities are clinging to a past no longer relevant - and are looking to a topheavy federal government for funds to preserve their old ways of life.

The pull, in many ways, is the opposite of these. Historically, says Governor Babbitt, ''the prevailing view in Phoenix was, 'If it's federal money, we don't want it.' '' Historically, too, as David Brewster explains, ''the West is a place where you go to be alone,'' out of reach of a meddling government. Perhaps from that sense of freedom comes the openness that makes waitresses kind and bus drivers pleasant. There seems less need for defense - against bitter weather, or excessive costs, or aggressive social behavior. Arizonans talk fondly about their relaxed life style. Mr. Brewster waxes eloquent about ''mist and oyster-light and absence of shadows'' and a ''benign presence of nature which softens personalities.'' On the surface, then, that push-pull seems to produce a recipe for contentment. Why, then, do you find - as I found, here and there in each city - people who desperately want to get out?

Their frustration arises from one thing: a lack of cultural and intellectual life. Even as I write this, I can hear the voice of protest arising. ''But the Seattle Symphony,'' it yowls, ''and all those galleries in Phoenix . . . and, and, and!'' But the voice of frustration explains that those structures of culture, admirable as they are, are not the point. What matters is the texture of thought that addresses cultural, artistic, and intellectual issues in daily conversation. To a small minority there is a sadness approaching despair at a lack of the voices of reasoned debate, profound thought, and cultural vision that show up so naturally in dinner-table conversations elsewhere in this country.

Mr. Brewster puts the question sharply. Is existence in an amenities city, he asks, ''a full life?'' Or is it ''just a hedonism that is ultimately dissatisfying to the soul?''

That, it seems, is the central question. As people move ''out'' to these cities, do they leave behind not only the superficial grime of the older ones but the deeper roots of culture as well? In the sunlight of a pleasant life style, do they shift into a kind of intellectual neutral? Have they come for the wrong reasons - more to escape from elsewhere than to create a full life?

I raise the questions not because I believe the charges they imply to be valid - I haven't spent enough time in these cities to know - but because Westerners themselves are raising them. That is a very good sign. There is plenty of vigor in these cities, plenty of intelligence capable of engaging new ideas. As that happens, these cities will find their own voices. It is their last, much-needed step on the way to being the centers of the nation's future - rather than simply other places to live.

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