Watching footage of Los Angeles’s streets at night, despite the caché of their claim as the birthplace of film noir, it is hard not to ask: Why would anyone choose to live this way? Without walking? I have considered as much while trying, often failing, to walk around in the town I live in—Tucson, Arizona, where five decades of car-centered development has resulted in mind-boggling sprawl and a valley of a million inhabitants that, even in daylight, often feels like a ghost town.
In Tucson many streets have no sidewalks at all, and when I go on walks I often find myself dodging cars, forced to walk in the road itself even when traffic is significant. Streetlights, too, are so rare in some neighborhoods that people wear headlamps to take their dogs out at night. Streets tend to be wide, boulevard-like, convenient for cars but lacking crosswalks and walk signals. Worse is the extraordinary absence of shade, though the sun beats down hard some 275 days a year and the temperature can top 100 degrees for three or four months on end.
I have complained of the absence of trees along the sidewalks, which often means the difference between a pleasant walk and a brutal walk, and I’ve heard people respond with the nugget that trees can’t grow here. This is entirely untrue, as they could see if they looked around. There are species that grow fine in this desert—palo verde, mesquite, and a couple others. It’s just that no one has ever planted shade trees next to the sidewalks. Buildings too could cast shadows into the street but instead are set far back, behind yards and parking lots. So to take a break from writing I surf the web and stew in my juices instead of going outside and getting them flowing and the ideas moving and the feelings freed up. The process is frustrated when walking is impossible.
As I stew, thinking about obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and anxiety, I wonder why indeed anyone would choose this. Perhaps noir itself offers the best answer: Humans are flawed, and our flaws sometimes constitute our undoing.