Road to Ruin: A Sufjan Stevens-Inspired Soundtrack to Bad Urban Planning

Becoming the favorite banjo-playing Episcopalian geography expert and Halloween costume inspiration of NPR listeners apparently wasn’t ambitious enough for Sufjan Stevens. Today at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival—whose lineup also includes firebrand harpist Zeena Parkins— Stevens will present “The BQE,” a symphonic testament to that fount of poetic inspiration, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. But why stop there? In what follows, I’ll list some of my own favorite urban planning disasters, with accompanying theme music for each.

As a fan of absurdly overconceived projects, I’m glad to see Brooklyn-based Stevens providing a soundtrack to one of his borough’s least-loved eyesores. The traffic-clogged BQE is a soul-numbing, neighborhood-dividing monument to master planner Robert Moses’ unchecked ego. But since it exposes the tension that comes with having a sense of place, it seems like an ideal subject for Stevens. Maybe his take on Moses will even surpass Alex Timbers’ surreal play “Boozy,” which portrayed Moses’ arch-nemesis—urban gadfly and community activist Jane Jacobs, a hero of mine—as a femme fatale time traveler who stalks Moses with an angry gang of rolling pin-wielding housewives.

Sufjan Stevens’ mannered chamber-folk divides the indie world into Sufists who hail his genius, and anti-Sufists who want to slap him silly. He’s too clever by half and could use an editor, as on The Avalanche. But I’d challenge the haters to write a song as moving as “Casimir Pulaski Day” or a rocker as fierce as “In the Words of the Governor,” Stevens’ Polvo-meets-White Stripes barnburner featured in The Believer’s summer 2007 CD compilation. The preview snippet of “BQE” below doesn’t suggest Stevens is the new Steve Reich, but I’ll give the piece a chance. Did I mention that “BQE” has hula-hoopers?

After the click-through, I’ll provide music for some equally soul-numbing missteps in urban planning. If you have your own stretch of paradise that’s been paved for a parking lot, tell us about it, and give us some music to get through the madness.

Sufjan Stevens, “In the Words of the Governor”:

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Sufjan Stevens, “BQE, Part 6″:

Here’s my list:

• Cabrini-Green, Chicago

Swiss architect Le Corbusier got nowhere with his 1925 Plan Voisin for Paris, which would have replaced the Marais district with the sorts of anonymous towers Jacques Tati later spoofed his absurdist masterpiece, Playtime. But stateside, his disciples tried an approach just as depersonalized in the name of slum clearance and “urban renewal.” The prison-like towers and frightening “open spaces” in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green came to symbolize all that was wrong with a generation of ill-conceived public housing. Most of the towers have since been demolished and replaced.

Theme Song: Kanye West, “Jesus Walks”: “I walk through the valley of the Chi where death is/ Top floor the view alone will leave you breathless.”

• The Streetcar Suicides, Nationwide

At a time when few Americans drove, GM President Alfred Sloan remarked that “if we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars.” By 1946, a mysterious holding company, National City Lines–run by GM with a little help from its friends at Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Firestone, and Mack Truck–controlled streetcar operations in dozens of American cities from New York to Los Angeles. They had an interesting business model for the streetcar operations: dismantle them. If that sounds like a cartoon, it’s because it later became one; the plot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is loosely modeled on this national disgrace.

Theme Song: Pretenders, “My City Was Gone”: “There were no train stations/ There was no downtown.” Yes, this is the song that unintentionally made Rush Limbaugh an animal rights activist. You’ll have to excuse the Norwegian video.

• Embarcadero Freeway, San Francisco

It shouldn’t take a natural disaster to achieve good urban planning, but that’s what happened with San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway. In the car-obsessed 1950s, plans were laid to build a drab double-decker freeway darkening the views of one of the world’s most stunning urban skylines. After years of discussion about whether, and how, to remove the hated freeway, the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake did the job in about 15 seconds. Traffic congestion decreased, and an attractive promenade now graces the waterfront.

Theme Song: Jesse Fuller, “San Francisco Bay Blues”: Don’t miss the kazoo solo.

• The Big Dig, Boston

The Red Sox have avenged the Bambino twice, the Patriots seem unstoppable, New England is beautiful in the fall, and Mission of Burma is back and better than ever. What could Boston possibly have to complain about? Maybe one thing: the Big Dig. Conceived as an earnest attempt to replace the antiquated Central Artery and provide airport access, the tunneling project took years longer and billions of dollars more than anticipated. More recently, the project has faced chronic leaks and collapsing roof sections caused, in part, by a contractor’s concealed use of defective concrete.

Theme Song: Talking Heads, “Don’t Worry About the Government”: “Some civil servants are just like my loved ones.”

• Diablo Canyon, San Luis Obispo County, California

The sleepy Central Coast of California is home to the charming medium-sized college town of San Luis Obispo, and nearby, scenic beaches that support a thriving surf culture and vendors of kites, taffy and driftwood sculptures. The area also sits on several earthquake fault lines, including the San Andreas fault. I know what you are thinking: what a wonderful location for a nuclear power plant!

Theme Song: Postal Service, “We Will Become Silhouettes”: “The news reports recommend that we stay indoors.”

• Long Beach Freeway, Southern California

What will $1.5 billion buy in Southern California these days? In the case of the proposed Long Beach freeway extension, it would almost buy a road that would destroy hundreds of homes and businesses, displace thousands of people, cut through six historic districts, and probably worsen air quality. And you’d still sit in traffic during rush hour.

Theme Song: Guy Clark, “LA Freeway”: “If I can just get off of this LA Freeway/ Without getting killed or caught.”

• Newhall Ranch, Northern Los Angeles County

With its chronic fires, mudslides, and scarce and risky water sources accompanying its parade of malls and subdivisions, it’s obvious what Southern California needs the least: another Orange County north of Los Angeles. Yet Newhall Ranch would place a master-planned mega-community on the banks of the environmentally challenged Santa Clara River, with more sprawl to follow. Urban critic Mike Davis has noted that the project’s advertising evokes nostalgia of Southern California’s pre-World War II communities, even though Newhall would remove the “last authentic landscape” in that tradition “in order to build its suburban simulation.”

Theme Song: Kinks, “Shangri-La”: “You need not worry, you need not care/ You can’t go anywhere.”

Alternate theme song: Modest Mouse, “Novocaine Stain“: “More housing developments go up/ Named after the things they replace/ So welcome to Minnow Brook/ And welcome to Shady Space.”

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