Suburbia Bites: A pre-millennium interview with James Kunstler

Nowhere man James Kunstler dreams of a “decent, honorable public realm”

There’s no need to attend community gatherings if you can meet all the great minds you want over the Internet. No reason to see live music, theater or dance when you can access recordings over radio and television cable boxes. No reason to stop and smell the roses if there are enough planted in the car window-view along the morning drive.

It’s ghoulish to think that society could be slipping from a civilization into a fiberoptic network. But, with service roads and La-Z-Boy chairs serving as the new avenues for window-shopping, it’s hardly the stuff of science fiction.

If there’s a revolution that James Kunstler would like to see, it would be one that brought people a renewed sense of community—not through guilt-tripping, moralizing government debates, but through the alteration of the physical space they dwell in.

His most recent book, The Geography of Nowhere, paints a broad-stroked history of America’s buildings and communities, their development and ensuing malaise. Because of the technological booms of the 20th century, he asserts, America’s cities have been built to accommodate cars, not people. Not to mention that housing, alongside cheap appliances and Yugos, is built to become disposable.

“We drive around and look at all this cartoon architecture and other junk that we’ve smeared all over the landscape and we register it as ‘ugliness.’ This ugliness is the surface expression of our deeper problems, problems that go to the issue of our national character. The highway strip is not just a sequence of eyesores. The pattern it represents is also economically catastrophic, and ecological calamity, socially devastating and spiritually degrading,” he told a packed room at the Ohio Arts Council’s annual conference on Sept. 27 (1995).

In front of civic and arts leaders from around town, he asserted that zoning and tax laws should be thrown out the window. The move towards isolationism instead of community, he warned, will eventually bankrupt society if not reversed. He dissolved the myths that suburbia is the optimum dwelling for community-minded folks or for children to grow up in. Most of today’s suburban neighborhoods, he pointed out, aren’t built to foster human contact with anyone but our own families and the technology we possess.

“Let’s stop kidding ourselves that suburbia is great for kids, because it isn’t for kids more than seven years old. Kids over seven need more than a safe place to ride bikes. They need eating establishments, shops, theaters, museums—they need a decent, honorable public realm to hang out in. And they need access to all of these things without our assistance.

“They don’t have that right now. Their public realm is television. The only adults they see on a daily basis are Beavis and Butthead,” he says.

In 1996, Kunstler will release a sequel, From Nowhere to Someplace, which will present models and solutions for the decay of America’s cities. In it, Columbus will be examined for its model and problem communities.

“Columbus has some really good urban neighborhoods that are great models for building a place that people will really care about. German Village is such a wonderful place,” he says. “There’s only one reason that you have to be really wealthy to live in German Village, and that’s because the rules and regulations for building things everywhere else in this county don’t permit you to build stuff like that. The traffic engineers say the streets have to be the width of county highways and the curb radii have to allow turns at 50 miles per hour, so you can’t recreate any of the physical relationship you get in German Village.”

Neighborhoods like Bexley, Kunstler notes, are more successful at mixing houses successfully, so that different classes of people can obtain the same community resources. In his utopian vision, there are businesses that have apartments above them for younger or working-class families, in place of the ugly, gray strip mall. Buildings are created to last and to please the eyes of the people who live around them.

“One of the great problems we have in the everyday world of America is the failure of connectivity. We have very poor connectivity between different events and different income groups. In 1900, in Columbus, Ohio, you had a much more integral city, you have rich people living relatively close to poor people. Poor people could walk up their streets and see something to aspire to. They could use their resources of their city equitably. Poor people were able to get from their neighborhoods to museums with as much ease as their neighbors could. Now, a poor person only sees the houses of the rich on television. They never see them in real life because they’re out in New Albany on a golf course.”

The old Ohio Penitentiary is “a better building than any junior high school in Columbus built after 1965,” he asserts. And the average junior high “looks like an insecticide factory.”

The Columbus Convention Center “is damaging to the public realm,” he says, because it “sends the message that the outside doesn’t matter.” Because the center was built without storefront, it doesn’t promote pedestrian traffic.

“What would they be giving up? Twenty feet of space all along the front? There’s no reason for that except this egomaniac architect wants to make a stage set that looks like the place where Doctor Caligari went to medical school,” he says.

Just up the street, though, Kunstler says, in the Short North, people are getting the best of the public and private spheres.

“The people in the Short North are getting something that the people don’t get out in Dublin—they get a public realm that goes with their house. They get civic life, which occurs in the public realm. If they want to meet strangers, they go to the coffee shop 100 yards away from the door. They don’t hop in their cars and go to some lonely fern bar in a strip mall. In the suburbs, you wind up with a magnificent private environment and an impoverished civic life.”

Despite the bleak picture of a consuming car culture that Kunstler paints, he is convinced that there is hope for a new America. If taxes were shifted, so that underutilized spaces like parking lots paid more while buildings paid less, it would be a substantial step toward a solution. Likewise, the corporations in industrial complexes should pay taxes to the communities they reside next to.

He points to a burgeoning movement called the New Urbanism as a source of hope, a reversion, in some sense, to the way America built itself before the onset of automobiles. He also insists that there is a pragmatic revolution at hand: people want to care more about where they live, so architects, traffic engineers and city planners will have to follow suit, eventually.

“Remember that creaky, old incompetent machine called the Soviet Union? One bright morning in June of 1991, 60,500,604 citizens woke up with the same idea in their head: ‘Our economic system is an experiment that has failed, and we’re going to get rid of it.’ And they did it without fax machines, and without a reliable telephone system, and without freedom of assembly, and without freedom of the press,” he says.

“One bright morning in June of 1997, all the zoning board members are going to wake up and they’re going to realize that suburbia is an experiment that’s failed, and we’re going to stop building it. From that day forward, we are going to become, once again, what we once were: a nation of places worth caring about in a land that is truly worth defending.”

This story was originally published in the Columbus Guardian in October, 1995.

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