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Suburbs of Last Resort: Vitality and Ruin on the Edges of San Francisco Bay

Peter Ekman, University of California, Berkeley, Mellon Fellow 2016–2017, Spring

This spring, I undertook the first stages of adapting my dissertation for publication as a book. Principally, I took on the problem of disentangling two conceptual threads. One called forth a visually rich history of suburbanization in Northern California between 1880 and 1940—a kind of sidelong prehistory of the postwar suburb—with special attention to the morphology of industrial landscapes composed along the brackish Carquinez Strait. These chapters found their counterpoint in an intellectual history of American urbanism across the long twentieth century, detailing how planners and others speculated on, and then attempted to give form to, the underlying animacy of landscape as an accomplice in everyday life and work—a strain of vitalist environmental thinking that intensified in California in the early twentieth century and motivated both the design and the eventual critique (as “formless”) of these suburbs. Along the way, I adapted one chapter into a freestanding journal article on abortive federally led experiments in town planning at Clyde and Mare Island, California, during the First World War, and gave a conference paper on landscape, temporality, and the writing of urban history at the Harvard–MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies between 1959 and 1975.