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Eyes on the Skies

I often walk my dog over to a neighborhood called Haddon Hill, which looms over Lake Merritt from the East. It’s a nice neighborhood, with a lot of pretty streets, well-kept properties, and a bit of local history (Henry J. Kaiser, for example, had a large home built for himself which still stands at the corner of Haddon and Hillgirt). It took me a while to notice that there’s another reason why the neighborhood is good for walking: there are no telephone poles or overhead wires. In an area of about 8 or 10 square blocks, all that infrastructure which often clutters our urban and suburban skies are submerged, except for the occasional streetlight. Here is a shot looking one direction from the “dividing line”:


And here is a photo shot from the same location facing the other way:

High Wire

The neighboring streets, which have wires criss-crossing them every few dozen feet, are still very nice, but once you notice the visual clutter, it starts to seem more offensive. A bit closer to my apartment, here’s a view toward the palm trees of 9th Avenue, which used to form an allee on John “Borax” Smith’s estate. It could be a nice view of a hillside and some trees, if it weren’t for all the obstructions:

A Good View Spoiled

I wonder whether anyone has ever studied possible correlations between visual pollution like that, and home values, or crime rates, or residents’ peace of mind. Remarkable research done by a group at the University of Illinois has shown that the presence of greenery in public housing projects is correlated with lower crime, stronger communities, and reduced stress. Could the same be true for all the poles and wires breaking up our views of the skies? When telephone poles were being erected around the country in 1880’s, some locals would cut them down. In 1889 The New York Times ran an article with the headline “War on Telephone Poles,” a title which was borrowed for a recent Harper’s article on the subject (unfortunately, I cannot read it since my subscription to Harper’s lapsed years ago). We laugh at those NIMBYs and luddites now, but were the late-nineteenth century technophobes onto something?

Of all the offensive things that have been done to the American landscape, urban telephone poles and the wires sprouting from them are surely among the least awful, but we’ve become so inured to the depredation of public space that we hardly even notice its features anymore. One of my commenters recently remarked about the dramatic contrast in Los Angeles between its impoverished public sphere and the sumptuous private spaces there. LA is worse than a lot of cities in that regard, but the disconnect exists all over, and blocking our sightlines with a tangle of wires probably doesn’t help.