This morning’s episode of This American Life was rather coincidentally timed for me. It focuses on a county in Alabama in which a quarter of adults receive disability benefits and features an interview with a sympathetic town doctor who views his patients’ alleged disabilities from an economic perspective as much as from a medical one. The coincidence is that I had just finished watching the first season of the CW series Hart of Dixie on Netflix. Hart of Dixie stars Rachel Bilson as Zoe Hart, a young doctor from New York who moves to the fictional southern Alabama town of Bluebell. In the show, she must contend with snakebites and falling farm equipment. But This American Life reveals what she would be doing in the real world: trying to assess whether her patients’ back pain, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes render them eligible for government assistance.
Critiques of low-brow entertainment such as Hart of Dixie tend to focus on the realism (or lack thereof) in the characters’ personal lives. Escapist TV drama isn’t designed to make you think about the reality of health care in small-town America. But it seems likely that the portrayals of health care that we see in the media can affect our view of health care in the real world, and this has serious consequences when it comes to policy-making.
This, of course, got me thinking about Hart of Dixie’s portrayal of transportation and built environment. One thing that immediately struck me is that everybody walks in Bluebell. There are cars as well, to be sure, but walking seems to be ubiquitous. But where are these people walking from, and where are they walking to? Is the town really set up in such a way that there would be as high a ratio of walkers to drivers as is portrayed? And does such a place really exist?
The pilot episode of Hart of Dixie was shot on location in Wilmington, NC, and the built environment actually looks like a real place in the American South. The first scene in the town has a car pull into a diagonal parking space, the same kind that line the side of Fairhope Avenue in Fairhope, AL, which is the closest real-world proxy to Bluebell that I could find. The episode features two scenes where Zoe is walking with her mother through the town. The first has them walking from a pastry shop to a park full of dancing belles. It would be interesting to hear from somebody with knowledge of Wilmington how far apart these two locations are actually located! The second walk is completely devoid of locational context, yet it reinforces the idea that Bluebell is a place where people walk.
The rest of the series is shot on a Hollywood lot, which looks like no real town I’ve ever seen (apologies to those for whom Stars Hollow is real). While you do see parked and driving cars in the new sanitized Bluebell, it’s hardly at the density of any real southern town. So evidently, just about everybody in the town is walking, but where do they all live? There’s no indication that Bluebell has anywhere near the density that all the people engaging in endearingly quirky small-town activities in the town center would have walked there. And this is the portrayal of the perfect American town: lots of people enjoying a vibrant outdoor space, but they are there by magic.
This contrast between fantasy and reality should come as no surprise, but it is pervasive in entertainment and has proved paralyzing when it comes to making actual improvements to our cities and towns. As hard as it is to believe sometimes, people actually like vibrant, walkable, human-scale urban spaces. Tourists flock to old-world traditional city centers. Many amusement parks are built in a similar manner. And Bluebell, Alabama, is supposed to suck you in and make you want to live there. But it’s only that way because it hides the thing that prevents real towns from being like Bluebell: automobile infrastructure. And this is not just limited to trashy TV. In an interview, the lead developer of the new SimCity game admits that the game features unrealistically little parking: had they made the game require a realistic amount, the game would be boring because so much of your city would be covered in asphalt! In a game that is meant to simulate existing patterns of urban development, this is very telling.
In the fantasy world that the entertainment industry has created, we can have the perfect little town that everybody wants: big houses, big yards, cars if you want them, but it’s so nice that you’ll just walk around everywhere. In reality, we have a choice. You can have the infrastructure for everybody to own a house with two cars in the driveway and in the process make your town completely unsuitable for people traveling on foot, or you can design with people in mind, and let the costs of automobile use be absorbed by those who choose to use an automobile. The first option, which we as a society have chosen, has sold a large swath of the country into economic slavery, working to pay off their car and their house that they need to survive in this environment. I envision a different world, where people can have efficient private spaces, safe and welcoming public spaces, and no need for their own vehicle to get where they need to go. We can have the perfect little town, but Bluebell isn’t it.