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21 April 2010

Book Review: The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape

The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape
by James Howard Kunstler

A rant. Pure and simple. But a rant with which I, mostly, agree.

Kunstler demonizes our history of development in America in a very readable, if sarcastic and snarky, prose. Written 15 years ago, the complaints are still with us today; why does America feel so ... so ... wrong?

Of course, if you don't feel like America is "wrong," you'll hate this book. But Kunstler is operating on his strong feeling that it IS wrong. And will continue to be until we start building on a human scale, rather than on a scale based on the automobile. In the 1960s, Lewis Mumford said of "development" in America; "the end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set."

And this is what's wrong. And it is because of our history. America was founded without an aristocracy to support the arts and architecture. It also was founded on the concept of freedom to take the land; manifest destiny. Endless land, so why the hell should we cram together in a city?

At first, this worked out ok because transportation possibilities required things to be central; rivers, canals, railroads. There were towns with centers and then outlying farms. Then industry arrived and factories started to make our cities undesirable. Then elevators arrived and our buildings got taller and taller. And slums spread. And the rich took flight and the cities started to die. Kunstler writes, "In America, with its superabundance of cheap land, simple property laws, social mobility, mania for profit, zest for practical invention, and Bible-drunk sense of history, the yearning to escape industrialism expressed itself as a renewed search for Eden. America reinvented that paradise, described so briefly and vaguely in the book of Genesis, called it Suburbia, and put it up for sale."

Early suburbia were attempts to return to Arcadia. And during the railroad/horse/carriage era, this worked for a while, but then the car came along and made Arcadia Suburbia, with all the gardens, lawns and turrets, multiply at a rate that they became stage sets rather than bucolic settings. Some people lost faith in Arcadia and embraced Modernism, which, according to Kunstler, was just as bad, because Modernism "dedicated itself to the worship of machines, to sweeping away all architectural history, all romantic impulses, and to jamming all human inspiration into a plain box."

Modernism became prominent with the help of Stalin and Hitler, who both loved traditional architecture and ornament and neoclassicism. Therefore, in the land of the free, there would be no whiff of Fascism or Nazism or Communism and, therefore, no neoclassicism.

So American space began to be less about forms and more about symbols. Communication. Advertising. Vast developments of decorated cinderblock sheds connected by miles and miles of soulless concrete passageways and fronted by acres of asphalt for the parking of those machines that enabled one to travel the miles required of our new landscape.  Then postmodernists started ironically referencing nature attached to the concrete paradise; plywood butterflies on garage doors, rusticated facades, fake windows. "Here, you nation of morons, is another inevitably banal, cheap concrete box, of the only type your sordid civilization allows, topped by some cheap and foolish ornament worthy of your TV-addled brains."

And it happened because America became so enamored of the automobile. Kunstler writes, "There was nothing like it before in history: a machine that promised liberation from the daily bondage of place. And in a free country like the United States, with the unrestricted right to travel, a vast geographical territory to spread out into, and a nation tradition of picking up and moving whenever life at home became intolerable, the automobile came as a blessing. In the early years of motoring, hardly anyone understood the automobile's potential for devastation - not just of the landscape, or the air, but of culture in general." The car would simply make it easier to live in either the city or the country. No one expected it to alter the arrangement of things in both places. But Ford made the car supremely affordable and city planning boards were dominated by realtors, car dealers and others with interest in making the world a better place for cars, not humans. The car, or, rather, the combustible engine, made life better for the farmer but it also, in Kunstler's words, "destroyed farming as a culture (agriculture) - that is, as a body of knowledge and traditional practices - and turned it into another form of industrial production, with ruinous consequences." The farmer turned to machines but machines cost money, so they also turned to mortgages. And without horses, there was no manure, so farmers had to buy fertilizer. And as farming changed from crop diversification to monoculture, they had to purchase pesticides. And soon it was too much for the individual farmer. Agriculture was dead. Agribusiness was born. And now all we eat is corn.

But that's another story. Or is it?

Meanwhile, city planners were betting the bank on the automobile culture and building miles upon miles of concrete for use by individual automobiles. No mass transit was developed in conjunction because the entire industry was controlled by one man, Robert Moses, and he thought mass transit was a bottomless pit. "Mass transit does not produce profit. It is a social good, but a financial loser."

So highways cut through cities. Suddenly impervious walls of concrete made it impossible to get from one place to another on foot. America began to dance to the tune of the automobile and, as a result, lost its sense of human scale. And lost its soul.

In the midst of this was the depression, which created the FHA, which created the financing schemes that favored suburbia over urbia. FHA would guarantee loans for houses that were new, outside dense cities. It red-lined much of our inner cities; drew an imaginary line around dying neighborhoods and said, "Don't even think of buying here because this part of town is heading down the tubes and we don't back losers." Another knife in the dying back of urban life.

Then World War II came and when it went, Levitt made housing even more affordable. Kunstler writes, "Classes of citizens formerly shut out of suburban home ownership could now join the migration ... The American Dream of a cottage on its own sacred plot of earth was finally the only economically rational choice ... but this was less a dream than a cruel parody. The place where the dream house stood - a subdivision of many other identical dream houses - was neither the country nor the city. It was noplace. If anything, it combined the worst social elements of the city and country and none of the best elements. As in the real country, everything was spread out and hard to get to without a car. There were no cultural institutions. And yet like the city, the suburb afforded no escape from other people into nature; except for some totemic trees and shrubs, nature had been obliterated by the relentless blocks full of houses."

But people moved there and the infrastructure supported the moves; in 1956 Congress approved the Interstate Highway Act, which saved the economy from recession and called for 41,000 miles of new expressways, 90% paid-for-by-the-federal-government. The highways then created more patchwork "development," which created more highways ... and on and on.

Then it was 1973 and the Arab oil embargo, for a brief, shining moment, made America rethink the oil-hungry system of life it had built. The country entered a stagflation. Jimmy Carter made his famous malaise speech, chiding America for its stupidity. Kunstler writes, "Carter told Americans the truth and they hated him for it. He declared the 'moral equivalent of war' on our oil addiction, and diagnosed the nation's spiritual condition as a 'malaise,' suggesting, in his Sunday school manner, that the nation had better gird its loins and start to behave less foolishly concerning petroleum. The nation responded by tossing Mr. Carter out of office and replaced him with a movie actor who promised to restore the Great Enterprise to all its former glory, whatever the costs."

And Reagan got lucky. Really lucky. The oil cartel fell apart and failed to keep prices jacked up. Poorer nations got in the act and undercut prices even further and oil became cheap again. So all the ideas of investing in alternative energy were dropped. We were still a great, sprawled, oil-hungry nation and would continue to be so. Oil will always be cheap and available. Right?

So we continued to develop our idea of paradise; roads, parking lots and buildings designed for ease of auto access. Kunstler writes, "Travel is now incessant and inconsequential ... The road is now like television, violent and tawdry. The landscape it runs through is littered with cartoon buildings and commercial messages. We whiz by them at fifty-five miles an hour and forget them, because one convenience store looks like the next. They do not celebrate anything beyond their mechanistic ability to sell merchandise. We don't want to remember them. We did not savor the approach and we were not rewarded upon reaching our destination, and it will be the same next time, and every time. There is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like noplace in particular."

Our buildings relate poorly to other buildings and don't create a sense of community. Our towns go and go and go and go and you can't do anything without turning the ignition on your car and driving for ten minutes. The failure to own a car is "tantamount to a failure in citizenship, and our present transportation system is as much a monoculture as our way of housing or farming." Our national economy has become so gigantic that local economies cease to matter. And when local economies fail, local communities fail. So instead of a main street we have far-flung houses, a Wal-Mart and the Kum-and-Go. Regional planning is viewed as unAmerican; you can't tell me what to do with MY land. Public realm ceased to exist; everything was private. Cars, fences, large yards, all designed to ignore the neighbors right next to you. If you want a public realm, you have TV (and, now, reality TV). We leave work, drive out of the parking garages after spending an entire day in a cubicle staring at a computer, drive home surrounded by other people but entirely alone, drive into our attached garages and sit down in our TV rooms and stare at another glowing screen until it is time for bed. Then we get up the next morning and do it again. Is that really the American dream?

Kunstler writes in his book-ending Credo;

"We will have to replace a destructive economy of mindless expansion with one that consciously respects earthy limits and human scale. To begin doing that, we'll have to reevaluate some sacred ideas about ourselves. We'll have to give up our fetish for extreme individualism and rediscover public life. In doing so, we will surely rediscover public manners and some notion of the common good. We will have to tell people, in some instances, what they can and cannot do with their land. We will have to downscale our gigantic enterprises and institutions - corporations, governments, banks, schools, hospitals, markets, farms - and learn to live locally, hence responsibly. We will have to drive less and create public transportation that people want to use. We will have to produce less garbage (including pollution) and consume less fossil fuel. We will have to reacquire the lost art of civic planning and redesign our rules for building. If we can do these things, we may be able to recreate a nation of places worth caring about, places of enduring quality and memorable character."