My Hometown and Its Fate
I was in my hometown, New York City, over the weekend. Everybody, it seemed, was outside swarming in the streets and the parks in perfect strolling weather. The magnolias and dogwoods were bursting. Anything highlighted in gold leaf was all burnished up. The city's sparkling physical condition was due of course to the spectacular flow-rate of money pouring through Wall Street the past twenty years -- notwithstanding the big burp of 2008.
New York has not been in better shape in my lifetime -- even the former bad districts like the Bowery were buffed up -- but it was hard not to brood on its destiny. You could read the blocks of buildings like a chronological chart. They reflected the very sudden dynamism of this nation, the in-pouring of the continent's stupendous wealth in a very short span of decades turning Manhattan island into an urban colossus that, by 1920, stunned even the city-dwelling intellectuals of Europe.
The city exploded vertically in a very few decades when Thomas Edison's combined engineering-and-business genius made it possible to deliver electricity to every block. We'd spent the period just after the Civil War putting up limestone palaces and brick heaps as grand as the ones in Paris and London (and about the same size), and then from about 1890-on we tore them all down when the elevator made it possible to rent hundreds of apartments or office suites on the same real-estate "footprint" where there used to be only dozens of rentable units.
You could read the history of our energy resources in the buildings, too. Until about the 1920s, the buildings were heated with coal. The bulk and inconvenience of coal was mitigated by hordes of low-paid immigrants who could wrangle the stuff into basements and shovel it into furnaces in rotating work-shifts. This made it possible in, say 1908, to run a building with over a hundred apartments in it. My mother and father grew up in 20-story buildings like this.
After World War One, when battleship engines had been successfully converted from coal to oil, the furnaces of big buildings in the city followed that trend. Oil was much easier than coal to deal with, to deliver, store, and use. You just ran a hose from a truck to a tank in the basement. You didn't need a triple shift of Ukrainians to keep the boilers going. You didn't need a hundred ashcans in the alley to store cinders. This removed one of the practical limits on how big buildings could be. So by the 1920s, you got a blossoming of skyscrapers including the most awesome in the world -- the Chrysler building, the Empire State Building, objects of the sheerest amazement to people who had been born by candlelight in one-horse towns.
We would have built more things like these two extravaganzas except for the crisis of capital we call the depression -- suddenly there was no money! -- and then the Second World War happened. When that was over, New York City resumed growing upward. Only now a new fashion-code was in force: Modernism, which dictated that ornament was out, sheer, sleek surfaces were in, and the tops of the buildings had to be flat. This ushered in the era of glass boxes. After a while, it was hard to tell one from another and there wasn't much really special about any of them. Even the most canonical glass box, the Seagram building (1958) was celebrated as much for its vacant plaza fronting Park Avenue than for the brownish glass building itself. Streets like Sixth Avenue became vertigo-inducing gulches of identical glass boxes, derided everywhere except the architecture schools.
One of the dark secrets of the Modernist movement was that doing away with ornament and making flat roofs ideologically mandatory allowed corporate America to build huge buildings much more cheaply, and the huge gain in rentable floor space was an additional boon. Before long, the glass box tower could be identified with all the worst despotic features of corporate life -- presenting a blank Darth Vadarish face to the street, concealing schemes to con the public, or pollute the air and water, or pimp for the military-industrial complex.
Another thing happened after the Second World War. We were able to swap out oil furnaces in our mega-structures for natural gas. Gas was even more convenient than oil. You didn't need a truck to show up twice a month to refill the tank. Instead, a city-wide network of gas pipes distributed it continually all over town and all you had to do was open the valve. Heating a giant building now took no thought, let alone work.
Skyscraper building seemed to reach an end-point with the construction of the ill-fated Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (1970), followed by more than a decade of oil embargoes, economic disruption, supernaturally high interest rates, and political uncertainty. This was also the era when New York City hit the skids economically. Crime went off the charts. Squeegee men ran a shakedown racket on the bridge ramps. Graffiti erupted everywhere like scrofula. The town was broke and President Gerald Ford famously told the city council to "drop dead" (at least according to The New York Post). It seemed hopeless.
But by the mid 1980s, the Alaskan oil fields and North Sea took the leverage away from OPEC and the price of oil started sinking until it reached a low point of $11-a-barrel at the turn of the 21st century and, if nothing else, the suburban sprawl economy popped with its treasure trove of securitizable real estate. America might have off-loaded its greasy old industrial economy, but Wall Street was just ramping up a new trade in all kinds of "derivative" securities that created "money" out of thin air, seemingly from nothing but bundles of promises to pay back loans -- producing windfalls of bonuses for the magicians who designed these operations -- and the new riches were eventually expressed in what I believe will be seen as the city's climactic final boom in vertical real estate.
In recent years, cranes could be seen all over Manhattan hoisting up shiny new condo towers and office buildings. Suddenly we have a problem. Apart from the sheer fiasco of real estate finance that has spread through the economy like gangrene, there is the whole issue of what happens to an urban organism crammed with so many gigantic towers. What we see in New York today in the masonry-and-glass canyons seems normal, inevitable, permanent. Personally I think it is an extreme freak of history with a tragic fate.
There is a popular argument these days -- voiced memorably by New Yorker Magazine writer David Owen -- that Manhattan is the "greenest" living arrangement conceivable because you can stuff so many people onto towers on tiny pieces of land. This is an illusion, though it has come to be the prevailing notion in elite circles. The skyscraper is already a thing of the past. We just don't know it yet (the same way we don't know that Happy Motoring is near its end). Even if the shale-gas boom keeps heating prices affordable a while longer, we face a set of problems that will make the giant skyscraper city obsolete quickly. The hardware of the US electric grid is decrepit. We are short of capital. Capital is going to grow even more scarce.
The recession-depression-whatever-you-want-to-call-it that we're now in is going to be a long, gruesome slog, perhaps an abiding condition ushering in a new dark age. Without an ever-increasing supply of energy resources, the operations of compounding capital growth cease. This much is already self-evident, despite the dazzling accounting tricks of the big banks, the Federal Reserve, and the government agencies that abet them.
Probably the biggest reason that the age of the skyscraper city is over is the likelihood that we will not be able to renovate these buildings -- especially the newest ones with the glitziest systems made of the highest-tech materials, even the ones that style themselves "green." We're not going to have the capital to renovate these buildings and we are certain to not have the modular fabricated materials to get the job done. These are buildings that have only one generation of life in them. They will not be adaptively re-used, and when they fail we will not know what to do about them. Of course, they may not all fail at the same time, but at least incrementally they will all eventually lose their utility and their value. They will no longer be assets, they'll be liabilities.
The city looks great at this moment of history because of the tsunami of money that washed over it for a couple of decades. But this is the turning point. From here forward fewer things will get fixed every month. After a while it will show. We'll get back to conditions like the 1970s rather quickly, but the process won't stop there. A few centuries from now, the memory of today's normality will seem like the most exotic wonder that the human race ever produced. But most of it will be gone.
A sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, will be published in September 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Press. The title is The Witch of Hebron.
For a complete list of books by James Howard Kunstler and purchase links, click here.