Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective (Part 5)

This is the fifth in a series on the Back To The Future franchise as seen by a city planning nerd. Frame grabs are copyright Universal Pictures and are used here on the basis of fair use, for commentary purposes.

We left off
with a quick look at Hill Valley's downtown, and specifically its central Courthouse Square, in five different time periods. The Courthouse Square, more than any other single location in the franchise, is our anchor--it's what tells us what year we're in, and what is going on in that period.

Our first introduction to downtown is in 1985, when Marty cruises through on his little four-wheeled death wish on his way to school. Growing up in the suburbs, I was--well, whatever the opposite of "streetwise" is, with a relatively blind eye to the poverty and decrepitude of the inner city
. So I never really noticed, until years later, just how crappy and run-down Hill Valley 1985 is.

How crappy and run-down? If you've arrived at this blog, chances are you've seen the movies at least once and you know the story. So rather than rehashing it, maybe the best way to describe the change in Hill Valley over three decades is to imagine an alternate version of Back To The Future--one in which a teenager from 1955 is accidentally whisked thirty years into the future:

Our guy knows the Courthouse Square as a public green, occupied by people who to all appearances are there by choice. Pedestrian paths crisscross the green, providing shortcuts to well-dressed adults and comparatively well-behaved minors on their way to and from their various no-doubt-wholesome engagements. The streets around the square are lined with a variety of businesses--a travel agent, a stationery store, a record store, two movie theatres, a corner cafe and several others.


When he arrives in 1985, he is shocked to discover that the Courthouse Square has been paved to make a parking lot:


Surprisingly, given the 1980's shall-we-say muscular approach to foreign affairs, even the war memorial...


... has been torn out to make room to park one more Buick.


Our naïf from 1955 might conclude that, for all the talk about honouring the sacrifices of its soldiers, his country is more fixated on keeping its cars running--indeed, that the former talk is usually just a pretext for the latter. (And since this is 1985, not 2015, he could say so without being hauled off to Guantanamo to be pounded in the ass by the Taliban for the rest of his life.)

As for the businesses, they've been replaced by marginal operations including an occult bookstore, a bail bondsman, payday loan joint, and a shop dedicated to the sale of, um, adult accessories.


The travel agent is still there, oddly enough. Maybe it thrives because anyone who finds themselves in downtown Hill Valley is overcome by the urge to get out of town, fast.

Not everything has changed, of course. For instance, the movie theatre...


... is still there, albeit with different programming and slightly more talented actors.


A running joke in the original movie was that everyone in 1955 thought Marty was a sailor because of his "life preserver." I expect that our guy from the fifties would observe that half of downtown Hill Valley's business is now dedicated to sex industries and conclude that the entire town has been taken over by sailors on leave. Hopefully someone will clue him in before he passes the window where a dozen women in skintight costumes wave at every passing male, lest he misread their intentions...


Not that the entire town has been given over to marginality, sleaze and Spandex. The other movie theatre from 1955...


... is now a church, albeit of the evangelical thunder-and-tarnation variety.


(Spoiler alert: Just as the B-movie actor from 1955 is President in 1985, in the sequel our guy goes to 2015 and finds that every single candidate for the Republican nomination got his or her start preaching at that church!)

If our guy sticks around 1985 for awhile, he'll learn that suburbia has sucked the life out of downtown, to the point that no one lives there anymore. But this is not quite true:


All in all, our guy from 1955 will notice a pretty drastic change. It's summed up rather nicely by the sign, which in 1955 promotes Hill Valley as "A Nice Place To Live..."


But at bare minimum a town's motto has to be something people can say with a straight face, and if you can't say something nice...


...best say nothing at all.

As I've suggested earlier, BTTF is a remarkable piece of storytelling, not least because it makes us believe that Marty really, really wants to get back to this decrepitating shithole. But it sets a bit of a challenge for the sequel. Having established that Hill Valley is basically Frank Capra's Pottersville, we need to come up with an alternative so bad it makes this place worth saving.

Stay tuned...



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