In The Crying of Lot 49—Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 satire of suburbia and its discontents—Oedipa Maas looks down “onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop” and is reminded of her first peek inside a transistor radio. “The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had.” Sprawl was a relatively limited phenomenon then; today it is omnipresent, and epiphanies about it are hard to come by. Nevertheless, Yale professor Dolores Hayden has, with a pinch of Pynchon, written A Field Guide to Sprawl in hopes of prompting a re-examination of what freeway subsidies, commercial-property-tax waivers, and exclusionary developments have wrought. By pairing the aerial photography of Jim Wark with her own devil’s dictionary of 51 terms—from “alligator” (a failed subdivision) to “zoomburb” (think Sun City, Arizona)—Hayden makes an often depressing and wonkish subject lively and provocative. Some of her terms are clever, like “privatopia” (gated community), while others feel a bit tired, but no matter.
In the end, it is Wark’s bird’s-eye view that allows one to see anew what has been festering all around us. By book’s end, the reader, much like Ms. Maas, cannot help but imagine that sprawl is no accident, but a vast conspiracy of banality.