Reading the latest demographic data from the U. S. Census Bureau reminds me why I so miss the late Hal Rothman, a brilliant historian of the American West who died in 2007 from ALS. He would have loved knowing that his adopted state of Nevada—he taught at UNLV for 15 years and loved every minute of it—has experienced the largest population jump of any in the union over the last decade.
Yet immediately after absorbing that striking data, he would have dashed off a sharply worded critique for New West or High Country News or the Las Vegas Sun that placed this boom into the larger context of the Silver State’s hostile politics, depressed economy and the yawning gap between its rich and poor. Growth for its own sake was nothing to brag about, he would have argued, an argument that is as key to his incisive study of Las Vegas, “Neon Metropolis” (2002) as it is to his posthumously (and just) published history, The Making of Modern Nevada (2010).
The same could be said for the West in general; its boom comes with an implicit bust. The census reveals, for instance, that the region’s population continues to grow at a double-digit rate. Although the increase between 2000 and 2010 is not as steep as it has been—in 1950 the uptick was 40.4 percent, in 1970 it was 24.1 percent, and in 1990 it was 22.3 percent; and although the past decade’s rise of 13.8 percent is the lowest in a century, the figure remains impressive and troubling.
It is the only region in the country that has grown so consistently for so long, yet suffers from all the attendant problems that such swift change brings.
Among the nation’s fastest growing states, in addition to Nevada, are Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Texas and Arizona. And essential to their sustained surge is an intensifying urbanization. In 1950, Los Angeles was the only city west of the Mississippi among the top 10 of the nation’s largest. Six others have joined it over the past 30 years, including Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas, Phoenix, San Diego and San Jose. These Sunbelt metropolises, by spinning out new work and people, also have boosted the economies and populations of a network of secondary and tertiary cities: 19 of the fastest growing 25 are in the West. From Austin and Tucson to Denver, or Portland to Salt Lake City the regional pattern of growth has been profound. Currently, one-third of all Americans live west of the Mississippi River; By 2030, demographers predict, one-half will do so.
That all roads appear to head west is predicated on the postwar construction of the U. S. interstate system. These highways closely tracked the routes of 19th-century intercontinental railroads, and have powered the regional economy, tied its mega cities together and facilitated the flow of an autocentric people. They have come west looking for work and weather, rest and recreation and, until the early 21st century, benefited from cheap energy to fuel their cars and run their air conditioners, plentiful water at a minimal cost, cheap food and even cheaper housing: a magnetic combination that pulled ever more Americans west.
Joining this rush were many of the very historians who have been most engaged with probing the contours of the region’s dramatic and disturbing transformations. Often born and trained in the east and or mid-west, they followed the sun to universities whose enrollments rose in conjunction with the larger population. Spikes in state educational budgets and in institutional endowments, new campuses, well-funded laboratories and libraries, all located in a boom-town atmosphere were heady inducements. Certainly Hal, who hailed from the East Coast, thought he had won the jackpot when he arrived in Las Vegas in 1992.
Like his peers elsewhere, Hal brought to his analysis of the West a fresh perspective that helped him see patterns in regional development that might have been more difficult for the native born to discern. He later would rail against “carpetbaggers,” those “hip intellectuals and grandstanding writers” who came to Sin City to write about its venality. All these “outside observers see is a reflection of themselves,” he snarled, and their “renditions sound forced and stale to locals.” But even as he adopted the language of an aggrieved insider, a reflection of his deepening affection for the place he now called home, Hal also wrote penetratingly about its foibles, faults and fears.
To celebrate his creative energy, a group of Hal’s friends and colleagues contributed to a collection of essays that honors his insights into some of the central tensions that have defined the modern West. “Cities and Nature in the American West” (2010) probes the intersection of environmental, urban and Western history.
The chronological coverage and geographical sweep of its chapters is wide–from the mid-19th century to the present; from the Mississippi to the Pacific, from New Orleans to Seattle to Honolulu, encompassing as well the valleys of Napa, Silicon and Yosemite. Providing a close analysis of the complex processes by which the urban West has shaped and been shaped by its sustaining environment, “Cities and Nature” dissects too how habitats human and natural have grown together, or overrun one another, leading to changes in each that have been unexpected, seemingly inexplicable or just plain ordinary. Regional battles over energy and water, like the cultural representations embodied in pitching a tent, planting wildflowers, or selling the Great Outdoors; the vagaries of municipal politics and the challenges of environmental injustice, like the pleasures of urban frolic, are some of the entangled realities that this anthology explores.
As the Census Bureau’s latest figures suggest, these diverse storylines and environmental pressures will continue to define regional life. They will also remain integral to the difficult narrative that Hal Rothman believed best explained the contemporary West’s urban aspirations and social anxieties.
Char Miller is W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, Claremont CA, and editor of Cities and Nature in the American West, from which this article is abstracted.