Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Power Lines: Explorations and Implications

I recently reviewed Andrew Needham’s magisterial Power Lines:  Phonenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest.  You can read my review here if you haven’t already.  It’s clear I like the book a lot.  There are some things, as with any book, that I think bear further exploration. These are issues that are related to the book that were either tangential to Needham’s project or he wasn’t able to cover.   I’ll tackle those in the first half of this piece.  There are also some implications about writing 60s history which I believe deserving pondering.  Those are in the second half.   If you are interested in both narrow questions and broad read both halves.  If you are more interested in the broader questions, skip down.  This isn’t really a continuation of the review, rather thus are questions and thoughts that the book raised for me that I think deserve wider discussion. 


Given how much Needham did right in the book, it seems petty to critique him for not including things (after all, history is the process of leaving things out).  However, there are two side issues that I thought are worth exploring more fully.  The power in the title of the book refers to electricity, which was essential to Phoenix’s growth.  However, a second kind of power was also essential to Phoenix’s growth, gasoline.  Automobility, as Virginia Scharff calls it, was absolutely essential to enabling Phoenix’s growth.  Without cars, and highways to drive them on, Phoenicians could neither create the sprawl that defines their city nor transport to market via truck the many goods produced there We know that highways, like energy infrastructure, tend to disproportionately affect poor and minority areas.  Power lines often follow the rights of way of roadways. .  It would be fascinating to map the growth of the highway system over the growth of the electrical grid.  Would we find similar colonial geographies or different ones?  And what would that mean? 

Roads are one way of looking at power, but as any of my HS students will tell you, my favorite category of analysis is gender.  Phoenix’s relationship to it’s energy periphery is especially ripe for a gendered analysis of space.  In this case, the domestic Cold War ideals that Phoenix boosters marketed involved the classic “Homeward Bound” formulation made famous by Elaine Tyler May.  Women controlled the house, men controlled the workplace.  As, Needham points out, Phoenicians put their own spin on this by having outdoor spaces as part of the home.  Booster materials included stories of men coming home to swim in their home pools at lunch time and women doing cooking on outdoor shaded patios. 

The rise of gendered wage work in the energy sector on and adjacent to the Navajo reservation also had profoundly deep impacts on Navajo constructions of gender.  Traditionally, most Navajo wealth in the form of sheep was owned by women.  Family incomes were sometimes supplemented by men’s raiding activities.   After the American conquest, raiding income was replaced by railroad wage work and silversmithing income.  Some Navajo men also turned to cattle-raising as a away to develop their own incomes.   Railroad wage work was seasonal and pulled men away from the reservation, generally at times when their labor wasn’t needed.  Did the rise of gendered wage work near the reservation change gender politics on the rez?  Much of the Navajo resistance to energy development seems to have been led by women (although this is impressionistic on my part).  Is it true, and if so why?    To what extent was the modernization discourse that Needham describes gendered?  There are hints of this in the text but, Needham doesn’t have the space to explore them.


So where does this book position us for thinking about the wider history of the US in the 1950s-1970s.  One of the things that Power Lines re-taught me was the centrality of space and place in the Civil Rights era.  If you read this book with Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis  on Detroit and then turn your lens south, you can’t help but understand how much of the Civil Rights movement was about spatial contestations.  Lunch counters, schools, hotels, and other targets of desegregation weren’t just about economic opportunity or contract theory, they were physical spaces and meaningful places.  It took black bodies physically occupying them to make integration a reality.  In most of my adult life, I’ve understood Civil Rights as primarily being about economics (equality of opportunity, the right to buy a house, access to jobs, etc.).  Maybe this is my individual failing, but I can’t help but think that the resegregation of American public education is due, in part, to a focus on thinking of Civil Rights in contractual terms rather than spatial terms.  I’ve been reminded of this by many folks, of course, (including Patricia A.Williams), but Needham reminded me of this link again.  It’s one of the reasons why stop and frisk and the ridiculous policing for profit in Ferguson and other St. Louis suburbs are such flash points.  Space was - and remains - the issue.  And we forget that at our own peril.   

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