Hill Valley, California, Wednesday October 21, 2015: Marty, Doc Brown, and Jennifer arrive in the future in the epic second part of the Back to the Future franchise. Much has been made about the technological predictions the movie got right. But what about the form of the city?
The trilogy is set in the fictional Hill Valley, a small California town. And because the Doc has invented a time machine, the viewer gets to see the town in 1955, 1985, 2015, and 1885. And the transformation is amazing.
In the 1955 version of Hill Valley, life in the town is centered on the bucolic courthouse square. A diner, garage, and other shops front on a grassy park. Sidewalks are busy with a variety of people from different walks of life. Leafy streets surround the town center, and we see Hill Valley residents walking and biking around.
But by 1985, downtown Hill Valley has been transformed. The courthouse square has literally been paved and is used as a parking lot. One of the two downtown movie theaters has become a pornographic theater, the other is a church. A bench notes that Zales (on the square in 1955) is “now in Twin Pines Mall.”
Instead of the leafy streets, which presumably are still there, we see Marty’s neighborhood, built two miles outside of town. It’s a typical suburban cul-de-sac, and lacks the fine-grained detail of the older neighborhoods. We also see Marty skateboarding along a commercial arterial lined with fast food establishments. Clearly, the synergy in 1985 Hill Valley has moved away from the downtown and out to the suburban fringe around town.
The decline of American city was pronounced by the mid-1980s. The shift from the more pedestrian and community-focused small town of the 1950s to the auto-oriented suburb and the urban decay would have been readily visible to movie goers when the film debuted in 1985. Perhaps it is a bit more pronounced for effect in the movie, but the transition is telling.
In 2015, Hill Valley has transformed once again. Now the town has been refocused on the center. The courthouse has been repurposed into a posh urban shopping center. Replacing the parking lot, the square is now a pond, where we discover hoverboards don’t work. The Essex movie theater has transitioned from being pornographic to being holographic (the shark still looks fake).
Once again, the courthouse square appears to be the center of civic life in Hill Valley (though the community still hasn’t gotten around to fixing the clock tower).
And the suburban fringe, once desirable, has become a slum. Marty is excited to learn he lives in Hilldale, the nicest quarter of Hill Valley in 1985. But as we learn, like many of the once-nice suburban neighborhoods in real life, Hilldale hasn’t withstood the test of time well.
Twenty-six years ago, when Back to the Future Part II came out, the reinvestment in central cities wasn’t even on the horizon in most places. But today, the urbanist revolution is underway even in auto-dominant sunbelt cities like Dallas and Atlanta.
Whether the filmmakers actually anticipated this change is unknown. I suspect that they were just trying to create a Hill Valley that was diametrically opposite the 1985 Hill Valley. And that meant having a vibrant center.
Regardless of their intentions, the film series does an excellent job of capturing sixty years of urban change, from the traditional format beginning to change in 1955 to a low point in 1985 and finally to a resurgence in 2015.