Posted: March 14th, 2022
NYC and California post-WW2
Let us imagine what it would be like to immigrate to the United States in 1953. We are coming across the Atlantic from Europe, the ship would still be coming around the lower end of Long Island (better known as “Brooklyn”) and Manhattan Island to arrive at Ellis Island. (Until 1954, Ellis Island was the standard arrival point for incoming immigrants.)
If we were extremely far-sighted we could see all the way up the East River, to the Triboro Bridge, built by Robert Moses as part of his large-scale reshaping of New York City’s roadways, intended to accommodate automobiles in the city. Since we’re imagining this, let’s also imagine we have x-ray vision, like Superman. If we could see below the water as we sailed up past Brooklyn, we would see underneath our ship the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which had been completed in 1950. Again, this is intended to change automobile traffic patterns.
The ship that we are sailing on is part of a technology that is on its way out. The Battery Tunnel takes the place of the Brooklyn Ferry, in place since the 19th century, and indicates that already the Brooklyn Bridge is insufficient to accommodate the increased use of automobiles after World War 2. Looking overhead from our ship, we can see the technology that will be taking the place of ships: the airplane. Transatlantic flights are already taking place in 1953, but they are largely an elite mode of transportation: in the next decade or so, the phrase “jet set” will be coined, to denote people who are wealthy enough to enjoy constant air travel to far-flung destinations. As immigrants, we are still taking an ocean liner — although as we come around Brooklyn on the southern end of Long Island, we can see the jets landing at Idlewild Airport. (It is not yet JFK Airport: in 1953, JFK hasn’t been elected President yet.)
Looking under the water at the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel or up the river at the Triboro Bridge, we can also see another example of transportation technologies shifting. Robert Moses has designed these river-crossings for the automobile: he did not design them for the locomotive, or any other form of mass-transit. Then again, Jane Jacobs could tell you that Robert Moses isn’t particularly interested in the lives of ordinary people. His designs for these roads and bridges and tunnels are too narrow to permit large scale automobile commuting. Robert Moses wants to make automobile traffic more convenient for an elite: the sort of people who can afford an automobile and a house in one of the outer boroughs even while working in Manhattan.
As a new immigrant to this strange country, we are not part of the elite. We are looking to take part in the common culture of an urban working class. In 1953, there still is an urban working class: New York City has manufacturing jobs and thriving local culture, as Jane Jacobs can tell you. There are public spaces in the city, which may be enjoyed by all: Central Park or the various museums in Manhattan are hardly limited to the economic elite. There is also large-scale community social and entertainment life, such as baseball at Dodgers Stadium in Brooklyn. The Dodgers are still in Brooklyn in 1953 — and the Giants are still in New York. In 1957, both baseball teams would relocate to California.
In some important sense, by imagining ourselves as immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1953, we can better understand the rapid social change that was occurring in America in this time period. 1953 falls after the largest waves of European immigration to America: the tenement slums of yesteryear are largely gone. Car culture has led to suburbanization — we might even say that all of the country is headed in the direction of the Dodgers and Giants, toward a more Californian model of social existence, dependent upon cars and freeways and suburbanized tract housing. New York has housing like this in the outer boroughs, and stretches into suburbs outside the city, in New Jersey and further on Long Island.
California is on the western Pacific Ocean coast of the continental United States. The southern border of the state touches Mexico, and the desert climate of the American southwest. The northern border of California stretches into the rainy redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest, with Oregon to the north. The length of the California coastline was estimated by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1975 to be roughly 840 miles: by purpose of comparison, the distance from the southernmost to northernmost points on the island of Great Britain (Lands End to John O’Groats) is about 874 miles. In other words, California is almost precisely as long, north to south, as the island of Great Britain. But California (with approx. 164,000 square miles) takes up nearly twice as much space as the island of Great Britain (with approx. 81,000 square miles).
A plane ride from New York City to Los Angeles currently takes about 5 hours and 45 minutes. (Of course, there is a time zone difference of 3 hours between the two, so flying to LA from NYC “lasts” for 2 hours 45 minutes, but flying to NYC from LA “lasts” for 8 hours 45 minutes.) The driving distance is estimated at somewhere between 2400 to 2800 miles: it would take something like 45 hours to drive without stopping.
The growth of Los Angeles is a 20th century phenomenon, according to U.S. Census data. In 1910 it is not even one of the top ten most populous cities in the U.S.A. In 1920, it is the tenth most populous city. In 1930, it has jumped to being the fifth largest city, and remains at fifth in 1940. In 1950 it is America’s fourth largest city. In 1960, 1970 and 1980 it stands as the third largest city. Only in 1990 does it come in second place to NYC, where it has remained until the present day. It is no accident that these dates correspond with the rapid growth of Hollywood and the entertainment and mass communication industries in the 20th century. Los Angeles is a particularly good location for outdoor filming, though: it seldom rains (only a few days a year) and by and large the climate is warm, sunny, and pleasant (as Angelenos never stop reminding New Yorkers). It has the benefit of being essentially a desert climate, while still situated on the Pacific ocean which softens the harsher effects of a desert clime: this means that the air remains largely cloudless (although not smogless) while temperatures become chilly at night. Nonetheless, the susceptibility of Los Angeles to wildfires, mudslides and earthquakes indicates that there are some tradeoffs for having nice weather all the time.
But there is more to California than Hollywood: San Diego, the second most populous area in the state, has a large military and defense presence. San Jose and San Francisco are third and fourth in terms of size. San Francisco was a major shipping port throughout the 19th century, and the two cities remain the urban centers of the “Silicon Valley” high tech industries. The northern part of California is different in many ways from Los Angeles, however. The climate becomes more like the rainy misty Pacific northwest, and agriculture and timber become more important to the economy. Northern California is the world’s largest producer of almonds; Southern California produces nuts of an altogether different sort.
Los Angeles and New York are similar in a way that is familiar to metropolitan areas that depended upon old methods of transportation: they are both situated on the coasts, and their locations afford natural harbors to some degree. NYC is better for shipping, due to the confluence of rivers flowing to the Atlantic, and the presence of large barrier islands protecting its harbors. But in both cases, urban expansion runs up against natural barriers: in the case of NYC, the city is built on islands, so expansion is limited by space. In California, expansion is limited by surrounding mountains, and also by the relative scarcity of water.
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