If the Devil created an anti-city, a place where people would feel least human, Atlanta would surely be that place — despite the prayerful babble of tongues emanating from the evangelical roller rinks at every freeway off-ramp. One might think: Los Angeles, but that city at least came up with the amenity of valet parking, mostly lacking in Atlanta, where the suffocating heat slows the journey of blood from heart to brain.
My homeys, the New Urbanists, held their annual meeting at the “downtown” Hilton there this past week — a most mysterious selection, perhaps due to an x-treme discount on room rates in a time of austerity. The New Urbanists first came together about twenty years ago as a campaign to reform the tragic fiasco of suburbia. By taking this on they were often labeled as enemies of the American Way Of Life and Christian Decency, but they are a valiant band. I’d guess that architects composed about two-thirds of the org and the rest included developers, planning officials, a few college professors and journalists. They were all out of the mainstream, especially of architecture, whose stock-in-trade had become the emperors new clothes.
The basic idea behind the New Urbanism was that the quality and character of the places where we spend our lives matters, and that the surrender of the entire American landscape to Happy Motoring was an historic aberration that had to be corrected if the USA was going to continue as a viable project. Among other things, they noticed that if people live in places that aren’t worth caring about, sooner or later they end up being a nation not worth defending — and this is on top of the daily personal punishments suffered by hundreds of millions of people dwelling in a geography of nowhere.
At the time they first got going, the idea of peak oil barely existed outside a small circle of geologists, so the battles were fought mostly on other grounds. They were up against a lot. The collective American identity was invested in the idea of the suburban utopia, and the sheer dollar investments in the infrastructure of it all — everything from the interstate highways to the housing subdivisions to the strip malls — was so massive that nobody wanted to think about changing it. What’s more, a massive system had evolved for delivering what came to be labeled as suburban sprawl, especially the laws that regulated land-use, so that in most places in the USA it was illegal to build anything else but sprawl.
The New Urbanists were fiercely opposed, usually for stupid reasons by stupid people, but also by the mandarin architecture establishment, especially in the grad schools, where mysticism supported a set of theological rackets in the service of celebrity cults divorced from the public nature of things that get built. In the local planning boards, the New Urbanists were accused of being communists; in the ivory towers they were accused of being slaves to worn-out traditions — like walking from home to work. They certainly proved one principle of the human condition: that even the best ideas will generate opposition.
The New Urbanists had to work within this system. They had to find allies among developers who aspired to create better places, and they had to get under the hood of regulatory system to rewrite the laws in thousands of municipalities. They got a lot of projects built, new neighborhoods and even whole new towns. Many of these places came out beautifully. Some of them were badly compromised in the fight to get them built. Some of them were rip-offs that amounted to little more than the usual suburban schlock with a little window-dressing.
It’s a bitter irony that the most ambitious New Urbanist projects were made possible within the context of the housing bubble economy. For about a decade money seemed to grow on trees. Most of that money went into conventional suburban crapola and a small percentage of it went into New Urbanist projects, but when the bubble burst, it crushed all the players, regardless of the ultimate social value of what they produced.
I heard a lot of stories during the meeting in Atlanta last week but one really stood out. It was about the money and revealed a lot about what is going on in our banking system these days. A New Urbanist developer had gotten a small project going for a traditional neighborhood. Despite the global financial clusterfuck, the developer was able to meet the payments of his commercial loan. But the FDIC sent bank examiners around America and they told the small regional banks that if they had more than twenty percent of their loans in commercial real estate (CRE) they would be put out of business. The banks were ordered to reduce their loads of CRE by calling in the loans and liquidating the assets. Ironically, the banks only called in their “performing” loans, the ones that were being regularly paid off, because they were ignoring and even concealing the ones that weren’t being paid.
The developer in question had his loan called in when the FDIC descended on his bank. He couldn’t pay off the $3 million in one lump, of course. The FDIC’s agents are going to seize and sell off his project if he can’t get it refinanced in short order. He can’t get it refinanced because there is now such a shortage of capital in the banking system that no one can get a loan for anything. Also, since it is now well-known that the bank failed, the vultures are circling above his project hoping to buy it for a discount, so even the few private investors who have money won’t throw him a lifeline. By the way, the FDIC agents told him they are doing this because they now expect that virtually all commercial real estate loans in the USA will fail in the months ahead. Pretty scary story, huh? And he was one of the good guys.
I suppose it was a tragic thing that the New Urbanists made themselves hostage to the same banking system that was behind suburban sprawl. Apart from the personal stories of misfortune among them, the movement is still alive. In fact, they have emerged the victors in the long contest over how America will build itself, because it is now self-evident that suburban sprawl is an epic failure. Whether Americans like it or not, whether their identity is tied up in the suburban fantasy or not, we are faced with circumstances that now compel us to live differently.
Among other things, the most forward-looking leaders in the New Urbanist movement now recognize that we have to reorganize the landscape for local food production, because industrial agriculture will be one of the prime victims of our oil predicament. The successful places in the future will be places that have a meaningful relationship with growing food close to home. The crisis in agriculture is looming right now — with world grain reserves at their lowest level ever recorded in modern times — and when it really does hit, the harvestmen of famine and death will be in the front ranks of it.
This eighteenth Congress of the New Urbanism was held in the shadow of a banking system in extreme crisis and an epic ecological catastrophe brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. The three crisis of capital, energy, and global ecology will now determine what we do, not the polls or the marketing analyses or the whims of “consumers.” The great achievement of the New Urbanists was not the projects they built during the final orgasm of the cheap energy orgy. It was the knowledge they retrieved from the dumpster of history. We really do know where to go from here. Whether the people of the USA have the will to take themselves there now is another issue.
Also in the background of this Congress was the bizarre organism of Atlanta, which represents in so many ways the beh
avior that can’t continue in this country if we are going to remain civilized. A prankish destiny put us in the worst place at the worst time and the next time we meet America is going to be a different country.
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.