Narratives regarding the built environment of the post–World War II United States often emphasize the effects of clearance and the repercussions of urban, or suburban, “renewal.” In Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape, Francesca Russello Ammon directs our attention to the act of clearance itself, both in the United States and abroad, focusing on the companies that benefited from demolition, the writers and artists who depicted changes on the land, and the machines that carried out the process.
Ammon's protagonist in this story is the bulldozer: a powerful, relentless piece of motorized metal whose blades carved into untrammeled nature and plowed into existing urban landscapes, providing a sense of “progress” in the American imagination while exacting a staggering toll on the environment—and the mind. Friendly, smiling bulldozers may have graced the pages of several popular postwar children's books, but Ammon reminds us that the reality of demolition and clearance was not exactly the stuff of quiet bedtime reading. A wartime image of a menacing army of crawler tractors outfitted with bulldozer blades awaiting shipment to the Pacific battlefront greets the reader on Ammon's dust jacket and in the first chapter. A chilling photograph of young Presbyterian minister Bruce Klunder lying motionless after being crushed by a bulldozer during a 1964 protest against school segregation in Cleveland, Ohio, marks the book's concluding section. With some exceptions, the machines of modern renewal appear here as destructive, divisive, discriminatory, and demonic.
They did not always seem so. Ammon tells a story that also underscores the pride Americans felt regarding the nation's engineering know-how and its ability to produce machines that could maneuver deftly through crumbling cities and across inhospitable landscapes, just as they did abroad during the war. She demonstrates that both the technology and the lessons of the battlefield were transferred to the American postwar landscape and sparked the meteoric rise of heavy equipment manufacturers, of which Caterpillar and International Harvester were most prominent. Together with the eradication of the natural landscape for highway construction and suburban development, Ammon suggests, a widespread “culture of clearance” pervaded federal policy, colored the attitudes of local governments, and spurred construction equipment manufacturing in the postwar years. In this respect, the bulldozer moved effortlessly from the battlefield abroad into the greenfield at home, both physically and in the American imagination. It also created a cultural backlash.
Ammon divides her study into three principal sections: “Bulldozers at War,” “Bulldozers at Work,” and “Bulldozers of the Mind.” The book is more thematic than chronological, although the two chapters in the first section focus on wartime developments; these chapters together make a significant contribution to the literature on the twentieth-century built environment. Bulldozers are generally overlooked as key players in a war effort. When the machinery of war is invoked, the discussion typically turns to fighter planes, battleships, tanks, and artillery, not to the slow-moving vehicles used to prepare sites for battle and remove debris in its aftermath. When the American postwar years are the subject of urban and architectural studies, attention most often turns to gleaming (and usually completed) high-rises, expressways, and sprawling bedroom communities (as well as the allegedly homogeneous communities they helped facilitate), not to the massive effort required to finish these projects, the machines that paved the way, or the cultural responses to this sweeping phenomenon.
Ammon's narrative is thus refreshing in that it directs us instead to little- or lesser-known politicians, workers, manufacturers, and artists who provided on-the-ground responses to developments that are too often examined from a bird's-eye view. Rather than rehashing the historiographical ground of postwar automobile-driven sprawl in Southern California, for example, chapter 3 is perhaps most illuminating for its account of Weldon Field—an Orange County mechanic who attached a special implement to his crawler tractor to uproot fruit trees to clear land for subdivisions. Readers learn, too, about the emergence, and widespread popularity, of equipment-operating schools, where students spent several weeks learning to operate heavy machinery before they were unleashed to wield those machines on the landscape. In chapter 4, Ammon reveals the exploits of Dick Lee, mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, from 1954 to 1970, who manipulated the visual record for political ends; she also details the everyday machinations of a handful of New Haven contractors, wrecking companies, and union workers who operated the machinery that sliced through the city's heart. Ammon's account of the day-to-day process of demolition in New Haven unearths the complexities, race relations, and dangers involved in urban clearance. To see only a cleared or rebuilt urban landscape, her narrative subtly indicates, is to overlook much of the story.
To provide a wider perspective, Ammon delves into a variety of primary materials, from company reports and contractors’ correspondence to highway engineers’ oral histories, toy manufacturers’ catalogues, and artists’ accounts. This array of sources both supports and limits the narrative. For example, through a close examination of records from the New Haven Redevelopment Agency, Ammon demonstrates in meticulous detail how demolition progressed in that northeastern city in the 1950s; at the same time, her adherence to a small handful of case studies hinders the reader's ability to make connections to a larger historical picture—at least concerning the bulldozer. Is one to assume that the happenings in New Haven were similar to events in New York, New Brunswick, or New Orleans? Should artist Gordon Matta-Clark's “building cuts” be understood as acts of protest against modern machinery, or were they political commentaries on racial discrimination in New York City? Were they about machinery at all?
Elsewhere, Ammon's desire to provide context for the ubiquity of the bulldozer in postwar demolition and clearance generates broad summaries of fairly well-worn discussions, such as the implementation of the Interstate Highway System and the rise of historic preservation policy in the United States. It is arguably more compelling, albeit depressing, to read an Ohio highway engineer's account of his department's actions as progress, despite his recognition of the damage inflicted on property and personal lives, than it is to sift through details of federal highway acts and the bureaucracy necessary to realize them.
Yet Ammon's archival work also uncovers some heretofore little-known people and circumstances involved in postwar demolition and clearance. In the section “Bulldozers of the Mind,” for example, she outlines the contribution of children's book authors and toy makers who transformed machinery into symbols of cultural progress. She also discusses a number of environmentally inclined authors, artists, and designers who, subtly or explicitly, provided alternatives to those progress narratives. Although readers are likely familiar with authors such as Virginia Lee Burton and Edward Abbey and artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, they may be less familiar with toy makers Charles and Fred Doepke or the community-oriented efforts of landscape architect Karl Linn. Ammon acknowledges that the relatively inaccessible sculptures created by environmental artists like Smithson and Heizer remained within the sphere of high art, and that they probably had little direct impact on the course of postwar redevelopment. Yet her narrative highlights the role of the bulldozer—along with the crane and the wrecking ball—in the production of their art. That Ammon ultimately reveals the bulldozer as one piece of machinery among many in the story of the postwar transformation of the landscape is of little consequence; after all, “bulldozers of the mind” refers to a widespread cultural sensibility about machines digging trenches, eroding landforms, and otherwise altering, or terrorizing, the environment.
The psychological terror of clearance could be particularly threatening, as Ammon indicates by featuring Mischa Richter's May 1971 New Yorker cover in her concluding essay. In Richter's drawing, a ferocious power shovel equipped with twelve enormous teeth hovers threateningly over a diminutive white knight bearing a lance. We may feel hopeful that the knight is a modern-day Saint George arriving to slay the shovel, but such an outcome seems unlikely. The image's appearance on the cover of a popular magazine indicates shifting attitudes toward practices of demolition and clearance in the late twentieth century, and by including it as a full-page reproduction in her conclusion, Ammon further illuminates the power of visual culture—not only how images were deployed in the past but also how they may be seen and used in the present. The film stills, photographs, advertisements, and cartoons that Ammon features are accompanied by incisive, extensive interpretations of the imagery as viewed through the critical eye of a film critic or art historian. Ammon supplies captions, but they are superfluous; the images and textual discourse alone are enough to make Bulldozer a welcome contribution to architectural and urban scholarship. By providing much more, Ammon helps us recognize the prominent role of the bulldozer in postwar U.S. culture—and the American cultural imagination.