Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff

YESTERDAY’S TOMORROWS

“THE FUTURE,” SAID Arthur C. Clarke, “isn’t what it used to be.” This was a fitting comment from the science-fiction author of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, almost four decades ago in 1984, the Smithsonian Institution organized a traveling exhibit on this theme. 

Yesterday’s Tomorrow, by Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan, Summit Books and Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 1984.

Peggy A. Loar, Director, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, wrote in the book’s Foreward, “Our journey through the past includes visions of many outlandish, dangerous, or even silly predictions—or so it seems today. Yet in the 1980s, with babies conceived in vitro and a waiting list established by NASA for space shuttle cargo and passengers, futurists are still at work.”

The exhibit, Loar said, “is an invitation to learn about the future of the past and an encouragement, with precedent, to fantasize about what may come tomorrow.” 

Here are tidbits gleaned from this book. Also cited is an absolutely stunning documentary from 1939, complete with the music of my favorite composer.

Early Twentieth-Century Transport Vision. The safety bicycle, electric trolley, automobile, and airplane, the authors noted, “touched off the first wave of fanciful predictions of the ‘transportation of tomorrow.’ “

A Transport of the Future, Harry Grant Dart, Literary Digest, April 26, 1919. This and other images from Yesterday’s Tomorrows.

Wikipedia notes that “Harry Grant Dart, 1868–1938, was an American cartoonist and illustrator known for his futuristic and often aviation-oriented cartoons and comic strips.” I like the steampunk look (and impracticality) of his fanciful 1919 airship

Building Higher and Higher. Multilayered city development was seen as an inevitable consequence of steel building construction. 

Visionary City, William Robinson Leigh, 1908.

The authors wrote, “The towering, densely settled urban complex—the world Manhattanized—formed one major strain of the futuristic imagination around 1900. It was not, on the whole, a self-consciously utopian image, in the sense of a willed, perfected world; rather, it was to many the world that seemed inevitable (if not wholly desirable), the world that a laissez-faire economy and a democratic society would eventually create.”

A Greenbelt Option. “For a brief, idealistic moment in the 1930s,” the authors noted, “the vision of a self-contained, decentralized community of the future actually received the support of the United States government.” 

Greenbelt, Maryland, c. 1939.

A network of “Greenbelt towns” was envisioned by FDR’s Resettlement Administration. Three were actually built: Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio, near Cincinnati; and Greendale, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee.

Future Planning Principles and a Stunning Documentary. The authors wrote, “None of the completed communities fulfilled the promise of self-sufficiency, lacking both an industrial base and an agricultural plan. They did, however, attract a great deal of attention as laboratories of future planning principles. A brilliant documentary film, The City, commissioned by the American Institute of Planners, contrasted the squalid urban present with the luminous greenbelt future.” 

This moving documentary The City can be viewed on YouTube.

Music for this documentary comes from my favorite composer, Aaron Copland. The film celebrates the past, critiques the 1930s, and, at around the 22-minute point of its 31 minutes offers a suggestion for a greenbelt alternative. 

Yesterday’s Tomorrow’s authors wrote, “But by the time of the film’s premiere at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, as the first few units in the three towns were being completed, the Suburban Resettlement Division of Tugwell’s agency had been abolished by a Congress increasingly apathetic to Roosevelt’s social programs. The dream of new towns for tomorrow has resurfaced from time to time since since the 1930s, but never with the visionary optimism characteristic of the New Deal.” 

We’re still aspiring for this greenbelt future. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022    

2 comments on “YESTERDAY’S TOMORROWS

  1. Mike B
    April 24, 2022

    What we got was laissez-faire horizontally rather than vertically. And drive-until-you-qualify housing. In part, that was because it wasn’t entirely laissez-faire – the roads were public, while (for a long time) the transit remained private and couldn’t compete with autos and roads. So we got Orange County…with all of its good and bad points. BTW: interesting movie, thanks for that!

  2. jguenther5
    April 25, 2022

    Also, in the future, we hoped to fly to Mars or Venus and find squoggly humanoids in residence there. Alas, Mars is dry as a spoonful of chalk dust and Venus is hotter than a two-gigawon nuke. We are alone again.

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