The Bilbao Effect Without Buildings

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Contemporary urban planners talk of the “Bilbao-effect,” suggesting that works of cutting-edge architecture can drive tourists to cities simply through their remarkable appearance, signifying that a city is cool, creative, and design- aware. Quartzsite is like the Bilbao effect, except there are no buildings. Instead there are motorhomes. In retrospect, the development of this self-sufficient beast, capable of hauling a family and enough food and water to sustain it long distances seems almost inevitable.

Mobility has always been a determining aspect of American life. In his 1896 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner, the founder of American Studies, observes that until his day United States history had been the product of westward expansion. The presence of the frontier was not just a geopolitical factor. On the contrary, Turner suggested that it made Americans fundamentally different from Europeans. No matter how rapidly cities on the Atlantic coast expanded, he argued, Americans could find a “perennial rebirth” on the frontier, “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” On the frontier, Turner wrote,

The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes from him the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and the Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion.

Although the settler eventually transformed the frontier, he too had been transformed. But, Turner concluded, according to the United States Census bureau, the frontier had finally been closed in the 1880s. An epochal shift in the American psyche would follow.

Without the frontier, Americans would have to turn elsewhere. President Teddy Roosevelt urged the country to look for a frontier overseas and began a century-long project of empire building. As the continent was tamed and wild game began to disappear from the American diet, a new regard for wilderness and wildlife emerged. Animal imagery proliferated, but wildlife was now domesticated. The fearsome grizzly bear, commonly perceived as a threat to settlers, was replaced in the public imagination by the cute teddy bear, named for Roosevelt after the great sportsman refused to kill an old injured bear that his attendants had lassoed. Roosevelt, an advocate of “the strenuous life,” was also instrumental in expanding the National Park system, setting aside land to remain wilderness in perpetuity, simulating the frontier and thereby allowing Americans to renew themselves as they had before. But if the frontier was a place of production, the perpetual wilderness of the national park is a place of consumption. Nothing can be produced there except the renewal of Americans through recreation.

With the development of the motor car and the national park system, city dwellers flocked to the countryside for recreation. After Henry Ford built the Model T, his “car for the great multitude,” large numbers of individuals fled the city on a regular basis in search of the newly domesticated “nature,” now freed of grizzly bears, native Americans, and other threats to urban people. Ford himself believed that the Model T’s principle use would be to enable families to enjoy the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open space. Auto camping grew rapidly after World War I. By 1922, the New York Times estimated that of 10.8 million cars, 5 million were in use for camping. Soon “auto-tents” and trailers designed to fit the Model T would be available. At first, campers would simply park in empty fields or by the side of the road, but this led to confrontations with angry rural townsfolk, who saw their lives under threat not only from declining profitability but also from these nascent exurbanites who they feared would one day colonize the countryside. In response, campgrounds or “trailer parks” sprang up to provide campers with clearly defined places to stay while on the road. Although campers sought nature and escape from a fixed community, they also enjoyed sharing this experience with their brethren. Unlike the metropolis, trailer parks were places of relative homogeneity”—campers were generally middle class whites”—so campers were able to tolerate living in remarkably close quarters. During the Depression and Second World War, however, camper trailers acquired a stigma, coming to be used as temporary shelters to be inhabited while their inhabitants worked transient jobs.

By the affluent era of the 1950s, however, Americans once again desired to travel the country in self-sufficient “land yachts,” untethered by hotels, inns, or motor courts but the old campers were increasingly unsuitable. Not only did they have the unpleasant connotation of transient housing to overcome, as the sizes of homes grew in suburbia, earlier campers seemed small and cramped. The solution was to integrate the automobile and the trailer, creating the continuous unit now known as the “motorhome” or “Recreational Vehicle.” This new kind of vehicle was generally much larger than the campers of old and it would permit other activities to take place while the unit was being driven. Moreover, in doing away with the automobile or truck hauling the camper, the motorhome is clearly a vehicle that cannot be employed for traditional forms of work. You cannot drive your motorhome to a workplace: it exists purely for a lifestyle of leisure and consumption. Outfitted with the latest high technology gadgets such as televisions, tape players, and washing machines, the motorhome echoed the suburban lifestyle.

With the exception of a period during the energy crisis of the 1970s, motorhomes have continued to rise in popularity ever since. Today one in ten American vehicle-owning households owns an RV. Owning a motorhome is a significant commitment demanding time, resources, determination, and willingness to join a community. Proper maintenance requires specialized skill and attention and a devotion to one’s vehicle. Knowing where to park one’s motorhome, the best campgrounds, motorhome-friendly towns, and so on leads motorhome dwellers to befriend each other, forming an informal continent- wide network. Motorhome dwellers often gather together in rallies. The biggest such gathering is Quartzsite.

Since the 1960s, Quartzsite has grown through word-of-mouth in the vast network of motorhome dwellers. Many invite friends to camp with them or attend clubs that they are members of. Others, not so well-connected, come to Quartzsite to see what the fuss is about.