Don’t Fence Me In

March 5, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight essayist Anne Taylor Fleming looks at the disappearance of the Wild West.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I am western through and through. That’s what I tell my East Coast friends; that I am a child of the wide open spaces, conjuring up for them those vast vistas of open plains and Rocky Mountains, of beaches that go on forever, and lakes so cold and deep you shiver just to look at them.

Other places in the country, I say, with sweeping hyperbole, feel small by comparison, sooty, urban, claustrophobic. I say all this absolutely believing it, even though my home turf is none other than Los Angeles, as sooty and urban and densely packed city as any in the country.

But I hide this truth even from myself, remembering it as it was 40 years ago, just a palm-line playground of small towns that called themselves a city and a place of breath-taking beauty. I look at it now, I realize, through a nostalgic haze as thick as the smog, refusing to focus on the mini-malls and endless tract houses and clogged freeways. I live in denial because I cannot bear what happened here–what we let happen. As Joni Mitchell said, “He paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

JONI MITCHELL: (singing) He paved paradise, put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And the others who can’t accept the reality, plenty of them have absconded for other less damaged turf. They’ve gone North to Seattle and Portland and East to Las Vegas and Phoenix, Salt Lake, and Denver, carrying their dreams of what was, of cities without grime and gridlock, where you can raise your kids, of unspoiled mountain playgrounds where you can teach them to hike and ski and have a little reverence for nature.

That’s the dream, of course. But along with the dream, the immigrants have taken with them the seeds of destruction which are being sewn now all through the increasingly citified West.

The joke’s on us Westerners. Forget the wide open spaces, the horses cantering through unsullied sunsets, the 13 Western states are now “the” most urban regions of the country. Utah, Mecca for Mormons and skiers, and people looking for high-tech jobs, now has more city dwellers per capita than New York, and the air quality of the Salt Lake City region is worse than that of the metropolitan New York-New Jersey area.

Las Vegas, meanwhile, reads like L.A. boiled down to a glitzy, greedy essence. Once all theme park hotels and casinos, the city through the 90’s has been the fastest growing in the country, leaking out into the desert in tracks of shiny new homes studded with artificial lakes and thirsty golf courses. Las Vegas now has some of the worst air in the country and will be out of water in 10 years. Didn’t anybody listen? Didn’t they see what we had become, and what pains they’d have to take not to become one of LA’s sprawling offspring, or did greed just get the best of them, as it did us?

Las Vegas did make a temporary try, putting a moratorium on building in the early 90’s. But the builders squawked and the band went away. Let’s bogey. Let’s build. We’re on a roll. The market’s hot; employment’s high. Leave all the laments to the echo wimps, the wide open spaces belong to the entrepreneurial cowboys.

Only relatively small Portland, Oregon is trying to do it differently, drafting a really tough anti-sprawl law and making everyone live and work in a contained area so the great outdoors can be preserved for all. Portland is not talking about keeping people out, but, rather, keeping them in. Is anyone listening out there?

I think people are starting to listen, but they don’t know how to slow the juggernaut. But what you do pick up now, sometimes faintly, all through the West is a sense of chagrin and shame, a quiet but unmistakable refrain under all the banging and booming sounds of construction.

JONI MITCHELL: (singing) Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? We paved paradise, put up a parking lot.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.