Postcard from Wasilla

Sara Robinson

Jonathan Raban, writing in the London Review of Books, gives us a keen insight into what happens when you let conservatives build cities:

Present-day Wasilla is Palin’s lasting monument. It sits in a broad alluvial valley, puddled with lakes, boxed in on three sides by sawtoothed Jurassic mountains, and fringed with woods of spruce and birch. Visitors usually aim their cameras at the town’s natural surroundings, for Wasilla itself – quite unlike its rival and contemporary in the valley, Palmer, 11 miles to the east – is a centreless, sprawling ribbon of deregulated development along a four-lane highway, backed on both sides by subdivisions occupied by trailer-homes, cabins, tract-housing and ranch-style bungalows, most built since 1990. It’s a generic Western settlement, and one sees Wasillas in every state this side of the 100th meridian: the same competing gas stations, fast-food outlets, strip malls and ‘big box’ stores like Wal-Mart, Target, Fred Meyer and Home Depot, each with a vast parking lot out front, on which human figures scuttle with their shopping trolleys like coloured ants, robbed of their proper scale….

Wasilla is what inevitably happens when there are no codes, no civic oversight, no planning, when the only governing principle in a community is a naive and superstitious trust in the benevolent authority of the free market. Palin’s view of aesthetics was nicely highlighted in 1996, a few months before she ran for mayor, when a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News happened to light on her in an excited crowd of five hundred women queuing up in the Anchorage J.C. Penney’s, waiting to snag the autograph of Ivana Trump, who was in town to hawk her eponymous line of scent. “‘We want to see Ivana,’ Palin said, who admittedly smells like a salmon for a large part of the summer, ‘because we are so desperate in Alaska for any semblance of glamour and culture.’” The blot on the Alaskan landscape that is Wasilla is the natural consequence of a mindset that mistakes Ivana Trump for culture.

Wasilla is what happens when the culture of planning curdles. James Howard Kunstler, in his best book ever, called the results “The geography of nowhere.”

We’re turning all of America into one big Nowhere, one conservative mayor of nowhere and one ill-conceived bridge to nowhere at a time.

Comments