US Geography beyond Musty Maps

Article excerpt

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.

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. …


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