Sunday, May 8, 2016

On "The Geography of Nowhere" by James Howard Kunstler ***

James Howard Kunstler does not like sprawl. I was expecting a bit more social commentary early on--and throughout--but Kunstler starts off with history, much of it familiar to me now that I've read several book on the subject of city planning. His focus is the United States, however, so this time around the history is uniquely American.

We start with the Puritans. Their communities were organized along a different line. People were accorded property according to need (e.g., family size) and that was around a common area or field. In this sense, the organization seemed more in keeping with the feudal. But as the colonies began to show more independence, the royal crown took over, putting a stop to this kind of organization and deeding land out in a more modern way. Now, each person had his or her own parcel--and no common center or field was planned. This was the first American adventure into sprawl.

Next, Kunstler focuses on the scummy nature of nineteenth-century cities and the desire of those with money to leave the confines of them. Thus, estates were built outside towns, out in the country. (The country is scary; the city more so. What Americans loved was something in between.) Communities were forged out in these areas, planned even. And as the railroad made spreading out possible, more and more communities like these came online. The railroad, however, meant that these communities lacked a center other than sometimes the rail line itself. The focus was on shuffling people into the city for commerce, living out in the country for independent life. The middle class began to emulate these values, and as the car came online, sprawl multiplied.

Kunstler then takes on modernism in architecture, which he sees as being devoid of community concerns. The Bauhaus movement, among others, saw form as function and disavowed the use of onarmentation on buildings. All people were equal--and so were all buildings. Plain boxes was to be the order of the day. This thinking fit well with socialism, but its popularity in the United States came to be largely via the exporting of intellectuals from Europe during World War II (it helped popularity that Hitler and Stalin both rejected Bauhaus). The form was also cheap, which coincided well with business interests. And thus Le Corbusier's Radiant City--towers in a park--became the design mode for a generation, even though it didn't work. Robert Venturi came along and added flourishes to the box, taking modernism into postmodern irony (the flourishes are cool but it's still a box and means nothing). By this point in the book, I was feeling as if Kunstler likes nothing about America.

That feeling continued into the next chapter, when Kunstler undertook a history of the United States from the point of view of the car. By his contention, economic events from about 1920 on are all related to the car--and most of these have been for the negative. The 1920s, with mass production and growing availibity of the car meant an economic boom, as people bought vehicles and government installed roads, but by the 1930s, that market was saturated, and a Depression followed. (One could follow such a line of logic with just about any society-changing technological development--in my own lifetime, that would be the Internet. Indeed, the 1990s featured a boom that was followed by a bust in the 2000s but one that was not felt so badly until 2008, largely because of government intervention.) War took care of that capacity, both in terms of the need to make weaponry and in terms of the selling of excess materials overseas after the war. But by the 1970s, as America became dependent on foreign oil whose price was manipulated, the United States entered into dulldroms, not emerged from until lower gas prices caused by the end of coordinated efforts of OPEC in the 1980s.

This macro history is followed by a micro one, of Kunstler's adopted hometown, Saratoga Springs, New York. Oddly, he chose this town for himself, it being a wonderful small town, but he then goes on to mostly complain about it. Those complaints seem to have logic and purpose. The town's central business district lies mostly along Broadway. On the outskirts of town, Broadway is a sprawl of parking lots--car sales lots, fast-food places, and other low-density developments. No fan of walking through such areas myself, I can see why Kunstler doesn't like them, but by the same token, I find them somewhat intriguing places in a way. Certainly they were in Pasadena, California. Perhaps that's because they were accompanied by sidewalks. They are not so nice to walk along in Athens, Georgia, where sidewalks are a second thought in most communities. But his real angst starts when talking of the downtown area itself, largely boarded up or redone with parking lots. Old buildings with apartments atop businesses have been replaced with new ones that are single purpose. Meanwhile, a suburban mall hast taken away the various businesses. Except . . . I have been to Saratoga Springs. I have walked its streets. Broadway, as I remember it, in the early 1990s (during which Kunstler was also writing), was a street with lots of nice restaurants, some good used bookstores, and quite a few nonchain retail stores. Maybe that's what's left--"tourist" stuff--but it seemed like a nice downtown to me. I walked it everyday from our hotel to the convention center two miles away. Part of me feels like Kunstler just wants to complain, and that's not fun after a certain number of pages, especially when solutions aren't forthcoming and most of the statements boil down to, "Things used to be better than this."

Kunstler delves into some interesting subjects along the way that don't seem to have much direct connection to his screed against suburbanism. One of them is the history of American residential architecture, which he traces from its fancy for Georgian to Classical (with its attendant pillars) to Gothic to Victorian. While the Classical opened up porches to the outside, the Victorian opened up the whole house--and was also as concerned about the interior as the exterior. But alas, the modern world came along. Frank Lloyd Wright built Asian-inspired flat homes like nothing else before in America, homes that spread out and used too much land. Then Craftsman-type bungalows took over, able to be manufactured from premade components and premade plans and also enabling everyone to have homes. Interestingly, he takes a few swipes of building codes along the way, denoting how they can sometimes contribute to sprawl. In Saratoga Springs, rules regarding parking add to cement around buildings and lower density retail districts. Rules requiring front yards mean that houses can't be built right up to the street, even when its a new home built in a historic neighborhood of rowhouses. Rules regarding maximum height mean that the historic Victorian homes, if ever destroyed, can never be replaced with new ones of the same style since ironically new building codes won't allow homes that tall. Indeed, laws do sometimes make for stupid design choices.

Toward the end of the book, Kunstler takes a good turn, dispensing with so much complaining and looking at some examples of cities, good and bad and why. One chapter is on Schuylerville. It basically recounts the birth and death of a small town. Of course, Kunstler wants to blame it on the car, but I read the example as one of how cities serve a useful purpose for a time and then, if they fail to adapt appropriate or quickly enough, they eventually die. Schuylerville sprang up as a transportation center during the time of canal building in the United States. Being at convenient location for canals had much to do with its success as a transportation hub--and as a hub for a number of other industries that then sprang up around the canal. Eventually, railroads took on a role, and Schuylerville became a stop along the rail line as well, mixing both types of transport. But of course, the evil car came along and killed both industries and thus the town. However, while canals came to serve less of America, the railroad continues to, and as a center of other industries, Schuylerville arguably could have adjusted to better fit the various technological developments. That it didn't is a tragedy--one many other towns have faced. It's sad to read about the death of a town. And it's sad to watch such a death as well.

One of those cities that is currently having such problems is Detroit, which is profiled in the next chapter, along with Portland and Los Angeles. Kunstler takes Detroit to task for being too car centric (even as it was the heart of the car industry). Most interesting in his discussion is his account of the Renaissance Center, which he says was conceived all wrong. Rather than being focused on the street and people around downtown, it was centered on being secure (too few entrances, all the shopping/restaurants inside), and thus it fails to repopulate downtown. The same goes for the People Mover that the city created. It covers too little space--just the periphery of the central business district, or in other words, just the amount of land people could naturally walk to anyway.

Portland is Kunstler's ideal. He likes it because planners decided early on to go green and discourage overdevelopment. They placed moratoriums on building outside a certain zone. They encouraged manageable density (no high towers but also fewer single-family homes). They looked to refurbish older homes for the poor, rather than destroying them. They put in light rail. All of these things certainly would lend to a great city--and Portland's popularity among a certain progressive crowd proves it. I love Portland too, though it's been years since I've been there.

Kunstler has, as one would expect, horrible things to say about Los Angeles. There is much to dislike, I suppose. If one actually does have to drive it (at certain times of day especially), it is not much fun. But having grown up there, I find many of Kunstler's criticisms unwarranted. It is a spread-out city, but on a microscale it is actually more walkable than many other cities I've been too. Los Angeles has actual sidewalks, for example. If you can manage to live close to where you work, it's quite nice. And while Kunstler hates kitschy architecture, he misses the fact that that is actually part of L.A.'s charm. If the world were built as Kunstler wants it, every home would be in some established nineteenth-century style. Sorry. Buildings in the shape of hot dogs are fun. I love that crazy aspect about L.A. Is it too spread out? Yes, I'll agree: driving from the beach to Riverside without every leaving the city (two hours in light traffic) can be dreadful. But by the same token, the culture itself (including the car culture) makes the city one worth visiting. (And these days, the light rail actually can take you places too, if you wish to avoid driving.)

Next, Kunstler covers some imaginary places--Disney theme parks, Atlantic City, and Woodstock, Vermont. These are small towns as we would like them to be, and Kunstler largely complains about them. He hates the way the make kitsch out of what should be normal life. But really, the chapter didn't seem as if belonged in the book.

Finally, Kunstler turns to some solutions that he sees contemporary planners working on. One such example is Seaside, Florida, down in the Panama City Beach area. Kunstler's idealization of this place actually made me wince, because I'd read another book not long ago that was very critical of this place. In Kunstler's views, the planners have done things very well--legislating that buildings must be a certain height, color, style; building a downtown in a central location; making everything within walkable distance; not prioritizing parking. I think the writer who criticized Seaside just hated further development of the panhandle in general, no matter what. Kunstler talks of planners doing similar things on a larger scale, legislating mixed-use areas in cities (with businesses on the bottom, housing above; no front parking or lawns, etc.). And he talks of land trusts, which buy up land from farmers in order to keep the land rural.

While I agree actually agree that American society is too car dependent, and while I'd like to see towns that are more walkable, and while I've tried hard to live a life that caters to those values (it's much harder now, being married, and having to worry about not just me but other loved ones--and the rural and suburban preferences of my wife), Kunstler's text comes across as so negative that I actually ended up feeling as if I should cheer for sprawl. While I don't like much in the urban environment that has resulted from our car-dependent culture, I don't much care for the kind utopian nostalgia that Kunstler engages in throughout. There are reasons that we like our cars. Rather than bemoaning their existence, a better strategy would be to find better ways to work around them.

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