Introduction: Pioneers, Frontiers, and the Twenty-first Century

THE CONTROVERSIAL ASSUMPTION undergirding this book is that Americans basically are pretty smart cookies who generally know what they're doing.

Lord knows, we have sorely tested that premise over the last four centuries. But it is further assumed that this good sense is especially evident when Americans cussedly march off in precisely the opposite directions from those toward which our elders and betters have been aiming us. At such times of apparently rampant perversity, this thinking goes, the correct response is not to throw up one's hands and decry Americans as fools. It is to echo Gandhi when he said, "There go my people; I must rush to catch up with them, for I am their leader."

It is just such a period that is the subject of this book. Individual Americans today are once again inventing a brand-new future-the biggest change in a hundred years in how we build the cities that are the cornerstones, capstones, and, sometimes, millstones of our civilization. As usual, it's all ad hoc: we're making this up as we go along.

That is the importance of engaging in a little anticipatory archeology-figuring out what, exactly, we are doing, and why. For the one thing Americans demonstrably have done better than any other culture in history-for centuries-is handle chaos and change, and invent the future. Americans are part of a wildly individualistic, determined culture that may or may not know how to resolve dilemmas, but that does attack obstacles-compulsively and reflexively. Americans believe, endearingly and in spite of all evidence, that for every problem, there is a solution. Responding to a challenge by doing nothing is not our long suit. There is little more foreign to an American ear than evil accepted. "What will be, will be" is no more from our language than the phrase "It is God's will." Fatalism is outside our repertoire. Once Americans have chosen a future, it is open to being molded and shaped, but anyone merely standing in its way is inviting a trampling.

Sooner or later Americans usually clean up their new order and get it something quite close to right-no matter how terrifying it appears at the beginning. But as a participant in the creation of one Edge City put it, "Go a little easy on these guys. When they started, they didn't know that what they were doing was possible."

In all cases, it's quite a show.

Although this book is entitled Edge City, it is only marginally about asphalt and steel. Its central concern is a fraction of a lifetime still in progress. During this historical blink of an eye, we Americans decided to change just about all our routines of working, playing, and living. We created vast new urban job centers in places that only thirty years before had been residential suburbs or even corn stubble. By capturing Americans making the most literally concrete decisions possible, I hope we can achieve a critical understanding of what our real values are-who we are, how we got that way, and where we're headed.

This book is the product of thousands of interviews and hundreds of thousands of miles logged over the last decade. It started with The Nine Nations of North America, my previous exercise in trying to figure out how America works, really. During the reporting that led up to that book, and in its aftermath, I became acquainted with large chunks of our very diverse continent. In the early 1980s, then, when I began to see high-rise buildings erupt near my home in outlying Virginia far from the old downtown of the District of Columbia, I knew instantly what I was looking at. This basically was Houston.

Less clear to me was why or how this could be. Or should be. For my first reaction to the phenomenon I would later dub Edge City was to feel threatened. I had always believed that there were only two sensible ways to live-in a yeasty urban neighborhood reminiscent of a Dickens-style nineteenth-century city, or a remote, leafy glade that recalled Thoreau's nineteenth-century walden Pond. If that made me a nineteenth-century man, so be it. I never could understand why anybody would want anything in between.

This new world being built along the washington Beltway, however, was not only "in between." It was "in between" triumphant. It seemed insane to me. It was a challenge to everything that I had been taught: that what this world needed was More Planning; that cars were inherently Evil and our attachment to them Inexplicable; that suburbia was morally wrong—primarily a product of white Flight; and that if Americans perversely continued to live the way they have for generation after generation, it couldn't be because they liked it; it must be because They Had No Choice. I even thought that cities were built by Master Architects.

Ah, yes. Live and learn.

Every man is a product of his environment, and mine was the newsroom of the washington Post. Thus, when I decided to "get to the bottom of this," in the back of my mind was the notion that if l could find out who was "doing this to us," it might be possible to get the SOBs indicted. Were not, after all, Edge Cities a clear and present danger to western civilization?

What I found when I dug into the story was a tale far more rich and complex. It was by turns inspiring, discouraging, heartwarming, and frustrating. It was, of course, summed up in the wisdom of Pogo. I have met the enemy. And he is us.

That is why there is so much "edge" in Edge City. It is a psychological location—a state of mind—even more than a physical place:

* This new world is the cutting edge—of how cities are being created worldwide.
* This upheaval is occurring physically on the edge—of the urban landscape.
* The rules that govern its creation involve a search for edge—for advantage.
* And right now, at least, Edge City puts people on edge. It can give them the creeps.

Edge City is hardly a theoretical work. I am a reporter, not a critic. The characters in this book are real. And characters they are. They genuinely are the sons of the pioneers—endowed with the unfettered human spirit, with all that is both uplifting and despair-causing in that. The thirsts they slake are those of Everyman; their hungers universal. That is the global importance of grasping Edge City—why those who do not will lose power, money, and influence. American traits and American landscapes have been imitated by other nations not so much because they are American but because so much of modern history arrives in the United States first. Americans, after all, are still those humans most commonly in possession of that rare, potent, and dangerous combination: the power, money, and opportunity to do whatever they think best.

This is why I take these Edge Cities seriously. It is also why you will find that this book metamorphoses as it moves. The first half is devoted to what make Edge Cities tick. In the beginning chapters you will find me exploring how these places operate, on their own terms. In so doing, I marvel at how ingenious Edge Cities are, and at how successfully they manage to deliver just about anything quantifiable-like jobs and wealth. In so doing, I pay tribute to the infinitely fecund imaginations of the people who created them.

Progressively, however, chapter by chapter, I systematically try to cast my net ever more wide. As the book advances, you will continue to find yourself meeting Americans creating a brand-new world. But the farther toward the back of the book you are, the more you will find them grappling with ever more wonderful and profound questions—about identity, and community, and civilization, and soul, and all the other attributes of the good life for which we yearn. For that is the most interesting and challenging task of really penetrating our latest attempt at Utopia. And of trying to gauge how far along we are.

At the end of my travels, I remained guardedly optimistic, but by no means tranquil. For it is an enormous challenge we have handed ourselves, to find the future in our deepest desires, and to achieve that future through wisdom.

That, ultimately, is why the book ends with the chapter about the land. That, in more ways than one, is where I found bedrock. That, I came to think, is the real limit beyond which we cannot go. If the rise of Edge Cities is genuinely a turning point in our history—one at least as dramatic as the upheaval of 150 years ago that ushered in the age of the Machine—then the place for us to seize the opportunity is with our relationship to the land.

Only, I came to believe, if we come to see it all as sacred—the land on which we build as sacred as the land we leave untouched—will we break through to higher ground and reunite our fragmented universe. That is precisely how and where we can help save our world.

Chapter 1 »
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