Atlantic Cities

Ray Bradbury's Vision of the Dystopian City

Ray Bradbury's Vision of the Dystopian City
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In 1951, the late, great Ray Bradbury published a short story titled "The Pedestrian." In it, we encounter a character named Leonard Mead doing something very odd in his future society: walking. The year is 2053 and in his city of 3 million, the streets are quiet, "not unequal to walking through a graveyard." Foreshadowing themes that would later turn up in Bradbury's most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, we get the sense that Mead's fellow urbanites are busy watching TV. "Was that a murmur of laughter from within a moon-white house?" the protagonist asks as he passes the homes of his neighbors. 

But Mead loved to walk, even though "in ten years of walking by night or day, for thousands of miles, he had never met another person walking, not once in all that time." We quickly find out why:

He came to a cloverleaf intersection which stood silent where two main highways crossed the town. During the day it was a thunderous surge of cars, the gas stations open, a great insect rustling and a ceaseless jockeying for position as the scarabbeetles, a faint incense puttering from their exhausts, skimmed homeward to the far directions.

A lone car quickly approaches him. It's a police officer. It's a rare sight, we're told — there's only one police car left in the city where crime was "ebbing" — but so too is Mead. The police officer asks Mead:

"What are you doing out?"
 
"Walking," said Leonard Mead.
 
"Walking!"
 
"Just walking," he said simply, but his face felt cold.
 
"Walking, just walking, walking?"
 
"Yes, sir."
 
"Walking where? For what?"
 
"Walking for air. Walking to see."
 
"Your address!"
 
"Eleven South Saint James Street."
 
"And there is air in your house, you have an air conditioner, Mr. Mead?"
 
"Yes."
 
"And you have a viewing screen in your house to see with?"
 
"No."
 
"No?"
 
There was a crackling quiet that in itself was an accusation.
 
"Are you married, Mr. Mead?"
 
"No."
 
"Not married," said the police voice behind the fiery beam, The moon was high and clear among the stars and the houses were gray and silent.
 
"Nobody wanted me," said Leonard Mead with a smile.
 
"Don't speak unless you're spoken to!"
 
Leonard Mead waited in the cold night.
 
"Just walking, Mr. Mead?"
 
"Yes.""But you haven't explained for what purpose."
 
"I explained; for air, and to see, and just to walk."
 
"Have you done this often?"
 
"Every night for years."
 
The police car sat in the center of the street with its radio throat faintly humming.
 
"Well, Mr. Mead," it said.
 
"Is that all?" he asked politely.
 
"Yes," said the voice. "Here." There was a sigh, a pop. The back door of the police car sprang wide. "Get in."
When Bradbury was writing this story, America's view of cities was already moving away from one where you could walk to all the places you needed to go to one where the automobile was becoming supreme. Streetcar tracks were being torn out and more roads were built to accommodate cars. Mass construction of single family homes in suburbs had taken off. Bradbury, clearly, had reservations about this trajectory. He saw a future for the city that wasn't as rosy as the advertisements of his day made them out to be. He saw a future in which the automobile would disconnect us from humanity, where walking would be considered a crime.
 

While strides have been made in cities to become more walkable, pedestrian-friendly, and the like, much of America now lives in a society that treats lonely pedestrians like Leonard Mead. We've seen it in national news just this year, when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed after being seen as a threat because he was walking alone through a gated community. Or last year when Raquel Nelson, a 30-year-old mother, was convicted of vehicular homicide when her four-year-old son was hit by a car and killed during their attempt to cross a busy street. She faced more jail time than the driver who fled the scene. As David Goldberg of Transportation for America put it, this case “is emblematic of a bigger problem that exists in metro Atlanta and across the country. A case like this puts in stark relief the dangerous designs that exist out there in communities across the country." 

Bradbury couldn't have known to what extent his vision of the city would play out when he was writing this story in the 1950s, but not surprisingly he was spot on about the consequences of building cities around cars instead of people. 

RIP Ray Bradbury, the master of foresight. 

Tyler Falk is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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