Cul-de-Sacked

Urban ecologist James Howard Kunstler put himself in the vanguard of suburban sprawl critics with his 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere, which inveighed against isolated subdivisions and those big-box commercial clusters just down the highway. Kunstler’s timing was perfect, as he put into words what many Americans in the early 1990s were feeling about their man-made landscape. Particularly insightful was his commentary on the role of the car in ending habitable communities. So hostile were modern suburbs to pedestrians, wrote Kunstler, that “any adult between eighteen and sixty-five walking along one would instantly fall under the suspicion of being less than a good citizen.”

The broadsides against suburban America earned Kunstler a standing invitation with university audiences and generous allotments of ink in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, and Slate. His criticism— presciently published before such developments as Celebration, Florida, and the popularity of New Urbanism—also spawned a host of imitators, whose anti-sprawl treatises now lard the urban-planning section at Borders.

From such an auspicious start, Kunstler over the past eight years appears to have lost his intellectual compass, perhaps as a result of spinning around too many cul-de-sacs. Proof of the author’s nose-dive comes in his latest book, The City in Mind, a mishmash of history and planning critique of Paris, Atlanta, Mexico City, Berlin, Las Vegas, Rome, Boston, and London.

Whereas Kunstler once saw sprawl as a mere anomie-inducing national cancer, The City in Mind appears to hold it accountable for all the evil that comes among us. In his rambling chapter on Atlanta, for example, Kunstler cites a September 1999 news story from the Atlanta Journal-Record documenting the death of a three-year-old Gwinnett County boy who was struck by a car driven by a 14-year-old learning to drive. The incident, through Kunstler’s ideological lens, was not a tragic mishap that could happen anywhere, but more of an industrial accident: “Of course, everybody regrets the loss, but all—including the parents—are eager to forgive and get over the unhappy incident and get on with the next order of business: Real estate must be sold, development deals must be signed, the roads have to be widened to accommodate all the extra cars from the new subdivisions and their accessory strip malls.”

Digressions like the Gwinnett County case could only fit into a book titled as vaguely as The City in Mind. It sounds as if the author is using this 261-page bullhorn to spout off on any random thought that occurs to him. And that’s pretty much how it reads.

On its face, the book’s concept is plausible: Contrast the development of functional urban centers against those that generate nothing but smog and road rage. On further examination, though, there is no concept at work in the book. It starts with an exhaustive discussion of 19th-century Paris, with special emphasis on the municipal finance machinations of Parisian- makeover chief Georges Eugene Haussmann. Then it blasts present-day Atlanta, a repository of bad planning that Kunstler calls “such a mess that really nothing can be done to redeem it as a human habitat.”

By the time he circles around Mexico City, the author throws out all pretense of cohesion. Here, Kunstler recounts—blow by blow—the conquest of the Aztec civilization by the outnumbered retinue of conquistador Hernan Cortes. Check out this excerpt: “Half a year of delicate maneuvering ensued during which Cortes steadily advanced inland toward Tenochtitlan, gathering intelligence, receiving lavish gifts from Moctezuma and recruiting as allies a large force of Tlaxcaltecs, a nation who had been used by the Aztecs as a sort of human meat market for decades.”

What insight Kunstler hopes to add to five centuries of historical research—starting with the famed chronicles of Bernal Diaz de Castillo—is unclear. After all, he unearths no evidence that Moctezuma underfunded sidewalk construction or resisted moves to mix residential and commercial development. It’s not till the end of the chapter that Kunstler unveils his fascinating reason for delving into the conquest: “[I]t is the thesis of this chapter that the spirit of both the Inquisition and the Aztec Death Machine still haunt contemporary life in Mexico City.” Ah, to understand the present, we need to look at the past!

When Kunstler manages to leap back to the present, he presses essentially the same arguments of The Geography of Nowhere—namely, that we live in a “clueless” urban environment that spreads alienation and whose very survival depends on a perpetual supply of “cheap oil, cheap oil, cheap oil.”

That’s all fine and good. Where Kunstler veers off the road, however, is in pushing a snooty aesthetic determinism that will free us from the tyranny of soulless suburbia and dead architecture. To wit: “The blank walls and concrete planters of the modernist office buildings, the industrial facades of the muffler shops, the jive-plastic signature parapets of the fry-pits, will someday have to be replaced by buildings that regard the public realm respectfully, that speak to us in comprehensible vocabularies, rhythms, and syntaxes—not just abstractions, and certainly not in cartoons and illuminated verbiage—and that respect the hierarchies of scale that compose the built environment from the smallest detail of window proportions all the way up to the coherence of the region.”

Note to author: Americans care far more about their $11.99 oil changes and $5 burger-and-fries combos than they do about architectural syntaxes and hierarchies, whatever the hell they are. Perhaps the best proof of this mass preference is the boom town of Las Vegas, the object of endless, overwritten rants by Kunstler—not to mention more cogent criticism of practically every other urban critic in America today. Las Vegas has both the fastest-growing population and most hideous sprawl in the country. Kunstler calls development schemes in the city “appalling” and “outlandish” and takes pains to deplore the outsize scale of the Las Vegas Strip—critiques that raise questions about the author’s qualifications to analyze any American city. This place, after all, is Vegas, for chrissakes. That’s where America stores its cheesiest people, buildings, kitsch, whatever.

“Las Vegas is a world capital of foolish and absolutely incorrect notions about what it takes to reconcile human nature with the project of civilization,” writes Kunstler. Duh?

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