Wisdom on a forecourt

The Gas Station in America
March 31, 1995

When I was in Belfast in 1984, lapping up the tension as only a tourist can, I stayed in a flat right next to the Royal Ulster Constabulary base in the Queens Road. It had a 30-foot high perimeter fence made of timber, like a colonial stockade, which was topped with coils of razor wire, like No Man's Land. Right across the road was an Esso station where my host did all his shopping. I mean all of it - meat, socks, toys for the kids, bulbs for the window box. I thought at the time that these were two weird buildings. The police station and the gas station. I thought that the Troubles had distorted life so much that domesticity had become adventurous.

There could be a book called The Police Station in Ulster. It could cover the geography of the six counties, the history of colonialism, the nature of anti-terrorist tactics and give lessons in urban form. Now here is a book, called The Gas Station in America, in which we learn that the gas station store is so commonplace as to be historical; we learn about the regional geography of the United States, the history of retailing, the nature of petroleum industry strategy, and we get lessons in urban form as well. We also learn that Esso means SO which means Standard Oil. You would think, from the title, that this would be a big glossy, with huge colour photos of Edward Hopper situations. It is not. This is serious investigate work, and it is seriously inter-disciplinary.

Ever since I had school-age children I have dwelt on the illegitimacy of their curricula. English, maths, geography, science, all studied in clumsy isolation from each other. It makes me yawn as much as it does my son. When he tells me he hates history, my jaw hits the ground: the Armada! The Crusades! When he says he hates English, I fall off my chair - what about Hazlitt? And when he hates geography, I drag him out to the top of the hill and point at the clouds and the buildings on the horizon and give him a clip round the ear. The co-authors of this gas station project are a historian and a geographer - they know about academic specialisation. Their chapter headings are disarmingly to the point - "Marketing Strategy in the Petroleum Industry", "Corporate Territoriality", "Gas Station Design", "Gas Stations as Features in the Urban Landscape" - but the effect of the understanding they bring to the study is far greater. It is like that Steve Reich musical device where, out of the diligent toil of two pianists playing the same thing just out of synch, there arises the most delicate set of harmonics, notes not played but issuing out of collisions of sound waves. With The Gas Station in America, the harmonic is the subject of landscape, a subject so grand that it is left off school curricula. It is just too difficult to trivialise.

Landscape has to be studied through exemplary sites, because the earth is nowhere the same as itself. It has to be studied with a prior position, of which childhood passions are the best indicators. It has to be studied with a flexible sense of focus, to override one's curriculum-refracted perceptions. John A. Jackle and Keith A. Sculle, the authors, acknowledge all this. They know what they are doing. Gas stations are a means to an end. "Landscape may be the most important cultural product of our age since landscapes structure life both physically and metaphorically,'' they say in their preface. As a European, whose regional ideas have always been vigorously geological, I found the account of Standard Oil's commercial regionalisation of the US fascinating. The break up of the SO monopoly in 1911 coincided with the first moves to create the Federal Reserve Bank, another curiously regional outfit. There is a study of the binary city of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (the authors are Illinoisans) using gas stations as the medium. There is plenty more. There are beautiful pictures of the non-place Breezewood, Pa., a hamlet of gas stations, fast food outlets and motels that has grown like mould round the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Route 30. Stein said there was no there in Oakland. Breezewood is so nowhere it's gorgeous. Talk about J. B. Jackson's Landscape Three!

The book is written in American preposition-free English. It is so congested, that if you read it aloud, you get a mouth full of tongue. Never mind: the authors are so clear about their motives and positions, in the midst of their hugely inter-curricula research, that you overcome this funny taste quickly. It is a valuable addition to landscape studies, and a fine book.

Paul Shepheard is researching landscape themes, assisted by a grant from the Graham Foundation for advanced studies in fine art.

The Gas Station in America

Author - John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle
ISBN - 0 8018 4723 0
Publisher - The Johns Hopkins University Press
Price - $32.95
Pages - 2pp

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