by James Howard Kunstler
Everything we love and care about in this world is subject to the tragedy of eventually being lost to us, including our very selves. The easy response to this terrible condition is to create a world of things that are not worth caring about. That is precisely what we have done in the United States. That is why the suburban housing subdivisions are so sickening in their banal, endless replication. They deny and confute the tragic nature of life because they are places not worth caring about. … In the heartland, mobile home parks are commonly referred to as “tornado bait.” Nobody could say that about an Italian hill town and get a laugh, not even an American.
The problems of the cities are not going to be relieved unless the middle class and the wealthy return to live there. For the moment, these classes are off in suburbia, inhabiting those “little cabins in the woods” grouped together in the subdivisions as a symbolic antidote to the city. They will not return to the cities unless a couple of conditions obtain. One is the economic failure of the suburban equation, a likely event. A second condition is whether the cities themselves can be made habitable.
Anyone who travels back and forth across the Atlantic has to be impressed with the difference between European cities and ours, which make it appear as though World War Two actually took place in Detroit and Washington rather than Berlin and Rotterdam.
Notice that there are no magazines in America called Neighborhood Living, or Towns Beautiful. What would we show? The supermarket parking lots of Beverly Hills are just as depressing as those in any lumpenprole subdivision town outside Scranton, Pennsylvania.
While I believe we have entered a kind of slow-motion cultural meltdown due largely to our living habits, many ordinary Americans wouldn’t agree. They don’t perceive a crisis. … Economic forces are underway that will require us to live differently. The only question in my mind is whether the fabric of society will be torn apart in the process.
We have the knowledge to do the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing. The inescapable conclusion is that our behavior is wicked, and that we are liable to pay a heavy price for our wickedness by losing things we love, including our beautiful country and our democratic republic.
By TIM WHITMIRE
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Three years after he published “The Geography of Nowhere,” a bitter screed against modern American planning and urban design, James Howard Kunstler is back with advice on how to get “Home From Nowhere.” Kunstler’s latest book, in stores this month, continues his crusade against America’s automobile-dependent “suburban crudscapes” of “one … office park after another, pod-upon-pod of income-targeted houseburgers, strip after numbing strip of chain stores, fry pits and multiplexes.”
The suburbs that have blanketed the United States in the decades since World War II not only are irredeemably ugly, Kunstler argues, but have shredded the fabric of American life and are slowly bankrupting the nation.
“We’ve been engaged in a process for two generations of degrading the public realm of our towns and our cities and our neighborhoods,” Kunstler said in a recent interview. “The damage now is so tremendous that there’s really some doubt we can continue to be a civilized society.”
A Manhattan native, the 47-year-old Kunstler now lives in Saratoga Springs, where he writes novels and nonfiction.
Kunstler said he has followed planning and urban design issues since he first worked as a reporter in Albany in the early 1970s. After leaving journalism for 10 years to write novels, he returned in the late 1980s, focusing primarily on land use. “The Geography of Nowhere” emerged from that work.
Kunstler blames America’s decline and sprawl on the nation’s slavish devotion to the automobile and a planning establishment that designed an expensive national infrastructure around the car.
The average new car now costs $20,000 and about $6,100 a year to keep on the road. But those sums don’t begin to cover the massive indirect costs of an auto-based culture, Kunstler says.
He estimates the costs of driving that motorists and truckers don’t bear directly — road construction and maintenance, car accidents, air and noise pollution, productivity lost in traffic — at about $300 billion per year. Most of that, he says, “is fobbed off in the form of government debt onto generations as yet unlicensed to drive.”
Few realize that the trashy and alienating environment that resulted from the nation’s post-World War II migration to the suburbs is to blame for many of the country’s current social and economic woes, Kunstler said.
“The civic life lost in this process could not be reconstituted in the suburbs, because proximity was made illegal” by zoning laws that mandated large lots, acres of parking and wide, car-friendly streets, he writes.
But he sees hope.
“Ordinary Americans are beginning to make connections between these things,” he said. “They’re beginning to realize, `Oh, there’s a connection between the fact that I’m spending two hours a day being the family chauffeur and the fact that my kid is painting his head purple.’ ”
Though the link between driving the kids to soccer practice and adolescent alienation may seem tenuous, Kunstler’s impassioned prose and his explanation of suburbia’s historical context show that this quintessentially “normal” American way of life is in fact quite abnormal.
In “Home From Nowhere,” Kunstler advocates a return to traditional modes of city and town planning that has been labeled the “New Urbanism.” And he casts his eye about America, critiquing cities’ attempts to remake themselves.
Providence, R.I., wins praise for its efforts to attract artists and young people to live in abandoned office buildings in its downtown district. Cleveland gets a raspberry for dropping a mindless suburban strip mall into a depressed neighborhood and touting it as urban redevelopment — “a recipe for a new Dark Age,” Kunstler writes.
He also re-evaluates his hometown of Manhattan, 30 years after he fled for college in upstate New York. “For all its present difficulties,” he writes, “I believe New York will endure even when other American cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix implode, because New York’s physical armature is so sturdy, and because it depends so little on cars.”
The compact, neighborhood-centered development found in much of New York is the solution to our suburbia-induced woes, according to Kunstler, who argues that zoning laws should be changed to help develop half-mile-square, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods accessible by public transit.
Such design would revive the small town Main Street of yesteryear and replicate features that have made urban neighborhoods like Washington’s Georgetown, Boston’s Beacon Hill, San Francisco’s Pacific Heights and New York’s Greenwich Village some of the nation’s most desirable places to live, Kunstler
Without such radical changes, the nation is headed for economic and social disaster as oil reserves dwindle and the suburban lifestyle becomes increasingly untenable, Kunstler predicted.
“Extreme automobile dependency is at the bottom of a lot of economic problems for Americans,” he said. “We are going to create a grievance-laden class of people who are going to express themselves politically in an irrational way, like by electing people who make Pat Buchanan look like St. Francis of Asissi.”
Though he sees a solution in the New Urbanism, Kunstler said it may be too late. He draws parallels between America today and Weimar Germany in the years before economic instability and social insecurity allowed the Nazis to come to power.
“There’s not necessarily a happy ending to this,” he said.