Power lines: Urban space, energy development and the making of the modern Southwest

Todd Andrew Needham
Dept. of History, University of Michigan
August, 2006


"Power Lines: Urban Space, Energy Development, and the Making of the Modern Southwest" explores the social and environmental transformation of the postwar Southwest and the resulting disputes between urban boosters, federal officials, Native Americans, and environmental activists. The dissertation focuses on the infrastructure built to provide the burgeoning populations of Phoenix, Los Angeles, and other Southwestern cities with electricity. This infrastructure allowed metropolitan boosters in the Southwest to attract Cold War defense manufacturing and to build a new suburban landscape even as industrialization on Indian lands provided electricity for those landscapes. Tracing the transition of electrical generation from a dispersed geography relying on local resources to a centralized geography utilizing primarily coal from Navajo land, "Power Lines" demonstrates the increasing centrality of Indian lands and labor to the metropolitan Southwest.

Paying close attention to these networks reveals the far-reaching changes caused by postwar metropolitan growth. "Power Lines" challenges understandings of urban space that neglect the material resources that allow cities to "live." As the nation's cities and suburbs became increasingly energy-intensive, electrical utilities reached deep into the metropolitan periphery, transforming landscapes hundreds of miles from city centers into urban space. The construction of the new "geography of power" in the Southwest also reflects the impact of growth liberalism on postwar growth, as federal money funded suburban, manufacturing, and infrastructure developments. This pursuit of growth produced new political struggles, both as the development of energy resources conflicted with emerging environmentalist sensibilities and as American Indians increasingly resented the industrialization of their land for the benefit of others. By the 1970s, the simultaneous pursuit and criticism of growth came to define the modern Southwest. The dissertation examines a variety of sources from actors throughout the Southwest---the papers of Phoenix's boosters, federal officials, environmental leaders, and Navajo politicians; newspapers from Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Window Rock; the records of electric utilities, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Navajo Tribal Council---emphasizing that the modern Southwest was made not only in metropolitan centers but in the actions of those throughout the region and the nation.