Monday, March 30, 2009

Tombstone - A Small Town

Small towns have long served as the model for urban development in the United States. Suburbia is certainly more closely modeled after the small town than the city. Aside from the vastly different scale on which suburbs operate, there are remarkably many similarities. The feeling of security derived from isolation, the lush greenery intertwined with the built environment, the total reliance on personal--not public--transit and the necessity of knowing your neighbors business are all shared characteristics of suburbs and small towns. I have made the claim before that suburbs--like small town--are resource based, and when that resource dries up, the town--or suburb--dies. In a suburb, the resource being harvested is the innovation of a neighboring city. The suburb supplies regimented workers to perform mundane (typically corporate) tasks. The small town is no different. Small towns spring up around valuable resources. In southern Arizona, the entire life cycle of the small town is on display.

Without vegetation to cover the traces, dead and dying downs dot the landscape, as do the sources of their former glory. Vast quantities of minerals were extracted from deep beneath the earth as the scarred mountains can attest.But when the minerals run out, there is nothing left to maintain a population that is fundamentally unsustainable. A community that must import virtually all of their goods and has little time to develop alternative economies after the mines run out.

We did find some telling and amazing places in this back corner of the country, and this post will be the first on our adventures there. Without minerals to export and little production capacity due to water scarcity, a clever town would turn to tourism to prop up the economy. We visited Tombstone, the little town that is home to the famous clash between the Earp and Clanton families. Tombstone is a fascinating place because the form of the old main drag was carefully preserved. The vast expanse of the street was entirely closed to traffic, making this one of the largest pedestrian malls in the country and certainly the largest we saw on our trip.In seeing Tombstone, it becomes remarkably clear how significant an influence planners had in the development of even the smallest frontier towns. The street is wide enough to accommodate teams of wagons and riders. Pedestrians are granted a wooden sidewalk, complete with a wide awning to keep away the intense sunlight. Even in the dead of winter though, only a few people ventured into the street, the rest kept on the sidewalks. The total sense of enclosure provided by the arcade is incredibly comfortable and is much preferable to the vulnerability offered by the street.This town, kept alive for a time by holding the county seat and then later by playing host to tourists interested in some of America's rowdier history seems like it will fall off the map one day soon. While many champion tourism as a sustainable industry, I suspect that a prolonged economic downturn will drive this whole town out of business. As we headed out of town looking for something a bit more desolate, I wondered if the modern day residents of Tombstone all lived in the square street grid around the historic district. As we rounded a corner, the sight above came into view.

The suburb is generally the fraud of a city, emulating a small town on an massive. In Tombstone, the small town itself is the lie; the suburb on its edge is the truth.


  1. Very interesting. Interesting to note that first planned city in the USA, New Haven, was designed as a perfect square grid the size of a walking radius. From the center, it takes no more than a few minutes to walk to the edge. However in contrast to many small towns (and like many larger cities), the center held strong and continues to grow in value significantly, whereas areas of the city that were once suburbs have gone through a major decline. This proves that cities need a spiritual and economic anchor, otherwise they collapse. Many small towns lack such an anchor, and have become irrelevant.

  2. The problem with places like New Haven is that they do not foster healthy growth. While I agree with you that cities and small towns need some sort of economic engine to support imports, focusing that engine in one place is unnecessary.

    Often times, the economic engines of small towns are incredibly distributed, like farms and forests. With industrial cities, it is rarely desirable to locate all production facilities in close proximity, it causes intense transportation problems.

    In any case, the biggest lesson of a place like New Haven may be that competitive advantage of suburban development doesn't tend to outlast its novelty. There is something inherently better about older forms of development, though that doesn't make them perfect.

    The hope is that we'll be able to foster a new kind of development that is more sustainable and longer lasting so that we can leave something helpful to our progeny.