I’m sure we’ve all seen Back to the Future. Indeed, it’s one of my favorite trilogies of all time. One of the reasons for that is it’s treatment of the city through time.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movies, the characters are time travelers whose situations keep getting them stranded in the wrong year. The range of the movies stretches from 1885-2015, with the Doc and Marty visiting 1885, 1955, 1985, 1985 Alternate, and 2015. All of the events take place in the fictional Hill Valley, California, a small town, presumably on the edge of a metropolitan area (at least by 1985).
Marty McFly in 2015 with his hoverboard
If you look carefully at scenes from Hill Valley in 1955 (“they’ve really cleaned this place up”), you can see how vibrant the town square is. By 1985, they’ve paved over the square itself for parking and most of the businesses are run down. The bench on which Marty and Jennifer sit near the beginning of the film (#1) advertises that Zales is ‘now in Twin Pines Mall’. In 1955, it was on the square. By 2015, however, Hill Valley’s downtown is experiencing a renaissance. The shops are occupied, there is a little cutrification (Cafe 80s, the Antique Shop), but it appears vibrant. The square is now a reflecting pool for the Courthouse and houses an underground shopping mall.
1985 (top) 1955 (bottom) courthouse square with the clock tower in the background; from flickr user misterbiscuit
It is certainly interesting to the town transform. We see the prototypical 1950s town square through the eyes of a child of the baby boomers. A kid growing up in the 1980s, who has no idea of what his town used to be. While his parents’ generation hung out at Lou’s Diner on the square and frequently walked or biked home, Marty’s generation presumably hangs out at the Mall and have a much greater attachment to their cars (hence the drag races).
And even the costs of sprawl are noted. We discover after Marty makes it back to 1955 for the first time, that in 1985 Doc is living in his garage. If you read the newspapers framed on the walls, you’ll note that Doctor Brown sold the Brown estate to developers, presumably to finance the Delorean. That explains why in 1985, Marty leaves the Doc’s place, and steps right into the parking lot of a Burger King. The typical suburban strip is visible in the background.
2015 Hill Valley streetscape; from flickr user john85
But what is most interesting is the movies’ prediction of the future, only 30 years distant from the movie-present, 2015 is drawing nearer. And it seems that the writers predicted gentrification and reurbanization. While I don’t think we’ll have flying cars within the next 7 years, it’s not too far-fetched to see the continuing tide of revitalization in our urban areas (including small towns).