The Strip: An American Place by Richard P. Horwitz

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This book examines the people and landscape associated with businesses located along a highway access road near exit 242 on I-80 in Coraville, Iowa between 1978 and 1982. The author spent time with employees of several strip businesses and provides a visual portrayal of the strip in photographs by Karin E. Becker, interviews with workers, and his impressions of what might be learned from the strip.

This book fills what might be considered a faceless, banal, automobile-oriented retail strip with stories of the people who work there and their efforts to adjust to changing customer demands. The author's main strength is his careful attention to worker statements and detailed examination of their work procedures, environment, and relationships.

In form, the strip is dominated by a jumble of signs vying for motorist attention among a tangle of access roads to motorist-oriented businesses such as motels, gas stations, restaurants, and bars. Different social groups interpret the strip differently, however. Residents of Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa and yet another claimant to the title, "Athens of the Midwest" (p. 34), see the strip as a tacky, overcommercialized blight. Strip businesses owners and members of the Coraville chamber of commerce see the strip as a source of earnings, jobs for the community, needed services for visitors and residents, and a source of pride (they dub it "The Hub of Hospitality").

The bulk of this book examines employees at particular strip businesses. The author shows how the employees of the Carousel Inn work together to make a living for themselves. The tactics employees of the Carousel Inn use seem to revolve around petty politics and the rejecting or relishing of work tasks based on their mood for that day. The maintenance men work independently, unsupervised, and keep mice as pets in the maintenance room. The maids who wish to clean the rooms as soon as possible view the guests staying in the rooms as a hindrance, and the maids are outraged when guests want to sleep in the rooms in the morning. The management staff quits and changes jobs often as their management styles bristle against the workers' eccentricities or when they tire of providing and enforcing a consistent set of rules.

The author also examines Diamond Mil's bar as an example of an independently-run enterprise. The owner, Mil, runs the place according to her tastes, concern about legal pressure on her customers to not drink and drive, and impressions of what her customers might want. Her focus seems to be on enforcing the social system of the bar with her as the dominant personality. She makes business decisions based on this social system of the bar, which seems to be its principal attraction. (Corresponding to what Oldenburg calls a "Third Place").

In contrast to these independent businesses, the author observes that the national franchise chains (e.g., McDonald's) use a rational system of work and management tasks. McDonald's uses a customer-focused approach in which the employees serve customer needs and provide food that the customer sees as a value. Although photos of McDonald's workers doing tasks and interacting with customers are included, no interviews with them are presented.

The author notes that rational work methods make profits and please customers. The downside, Horwitz implies, is that workers feel regimentation, although the author gave no interviews of workers from McDonald's or any examples of workers from "rationalized" businesses or any statement by anyone supporting this claim. Horwitz seems to imply, without proof, that consistent work rules and consistent customer-focused management practices are in themselves dehumanizing.

Horwitz comes to some conclusions about the strip in terms of his implied tension between independent and franchise business work styles. "While trade increases in scale and productivity, people are driven apart from each other and themselves." (p. 179) "For consumers it is a petty annoyance" (p. 179). However, Horwitz does not provide extensive customer interviews nor any explanation of how customers might be "annoyed" by businesses that provide more desirable products and services.

In my reading of this book, I could see that the strip evolves as businesses and workers try to earn a living from property and capital and at the same time cope with their personalities and changing moods. They work within the public policy (land use, tax, wage, zoning, etc.) and infrastructure (highway, utilities, etc.) to earn money. Ultimately, it is the voters in the area who set the public policy through elected representatives, and it is the customers who choose which business will thrive and which will become less profitable and disappear.

This book touches on the physical form of the strip in terms of its visual appearance, but this book examines this form no further. Supporters of the strip in Coraville feel a need to "beautify" the area and plant flowers. But what is notable is the complete lack of articulation of how public policies set the form of the strip and how the lack of any pedestrian-oriented services or any connective urban fabric to nearby Iowa city or anywhere might be established. It is as if the strip is an abstract line--the very name "strip" suggests this--and the individual businesses are merely pods upon it. Through zoning and highway engineering, the maximum amount of automobile traffic gets exposed to these businesses, and this is the underlying imperative of the strip, but this is not addressed at all in this book. Of course, as a food and lodging service area for an interstate highway, automobile accommodation is doubtless the priority, but perhaps public policy could be made which accommodates a superior aesthetic and fosters a mixed-use and multi-modal transportation exchange.

Incidentally, the "Old" strip, US 6, parallels a rail line. This fact is not examined in the book. What if passenger rail would bring conventioneers or visitors to the area and serve to jump-start public space and pedestrian and multi modal transit interchanges and pathways?

Also the author mentions Mil commuting more than 56 km to work at her bar. The author mentions nothing about any residences on the strip or any articulation of why residences there might not make sense for employees, owners, or customers who wish to live nearby.

It may be that the very tackiness of the strip itself preserves exactly the kind of jumbled, petty competition that workers at Diamond Mil's and the Carousel Inn may feel is best for their survival. Likewise, corporate-owned business owners who have optimized themselves well to the highway strip template might be loathe to change a formula that is profitable and which may even keep their independent competitors off-balance. Customers who want predictable quality and low prices may appreciate the tackiness of the strip as a visual indicator that the businesses there will be unpretentious and cheap.

This book goes a long way to show that the form of strip development is not set or maintained by faceless corporations, but rather voters and customers, and that the strip's tackiness may be self-sustaining as a means to keep its adapted business models intact and its underlying causes camouflaged.

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