Sarah Palin in Context: The Real West is an Urban West

Sarah Palin knows how to hunt wolves. She can skin a moose. She lives way up there on America’s last frontier. So, we might think, here’s a national candidate who represents the “real” American West, not its Hollywood imitation.

That’s a tempting image, but it’s flat out wrong. Nancy Pelosi, fast-talking, hard-edged urbanite from San Francisco, is a much better stand-in for the real American West. So is the sister team of Loretta Sanchez and Linda Sanchez, who represent parts of Los Angeles County and Orange County in the U.S. Congress. Add to the list Washington State governor Christine Gregoire from the busy urban corridor along Puget Sound. And then there’s Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a New Yorker happily transplanted to Phoenix.

Many Americans like to imagine the West as a vast land of sagebrush and deserts, mountains and forests, cougars and caribou. Sure, it has plenty of landscapes to match the western movie image, but almost nobody lives in the empty West. For more than a century, the West has been the most urbanized part of the country. City people shaped its development in the nineteenth century, tilted the nation’s center of power westward in the twentieth century, and control the future of the region–and in large part the nation–in the twenty-first century.

That’s right: The West is the American region with the largest share of its population living in metropolitan areas (cities of 50,000 and the adjacent counties with close economic ties). The metropolitan percentage is higher from the Rockies westward than in the crowded Northeast or the Middle West with its constellation of aging industrial cities.

Eight of our twenty biggest metropolitan areas are located in the West. More than 80 percent of Californians, Coloradans, Arizonans, Nevadans, and even Texans live in large urban areas. In 2000, 28 percent of ALL Americans lived in the metro area of the nineteen western states.

The urban West is not new. The West was settled and developed outward from its gateway cities. In the pioneer century of the 1800s, Denver was essential to the development of Colorado. That city sent railroads, mining experts, and investment dollars into the Rockies. Its smelters and refineries processed the gold and silver ore then the railroads hauled it out of the mountains. Portland was the gateway to the great Columbia River valley of Oregon and Washington. San Francisco–remember Nancy Pelosi–guided the fate of California and Nevada. In the twentieth century, Seattle, Dallas, San Antonio, Albuquerque, and Phoenix played similar roles in their own parts of the West.

As early as 1890, the federal census recognized that “the urban element in the western division” was growing faster than rural population. That is the same census, by the way, that famously declared that there was no longer a discernable frontier line on the national map. The turning point was actually a decade earlier, when the census numbers showed that the level of urbanization of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific states had passed that of the older parts of the nation.

Even Sarah Palin’s Alaska has always been an urban frontier. Its founding city was the Russian capital at Sitka. Nome and Fairbanks served the needs of prospectors. Juneau housed territorial and state offices. By the start of the current century, almost two thirds of Alaskans lived in the metropolitan areas of Fairbanks and Anchorage, Palin’s home base as a suburban mayor. With more than 300,000 people, Anchorage is in the size range of Eugene, Oregon, Rockford, Illinois, or Tallahassee, Florida.

So don’t be fooled. Alaska is intriguing, but its center of gravity is a modern metropolis. It’s not quite as urban as California, but it’s on the way. If we want to find the real West, we need look for tree-lined streets in Austin, working class neighborhoods in Oakland, sprawling suburbs on the Colorado plains, and multi-ethnic communities in Los Angeles, perhaps ending with a latte at a Seattle Starbucks where we can power up our Windows-driven laptop to bang out an email message to an old acquaintance still living among the sagebrush and cougars.


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