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Road Trip

   

      “We will not apologize for our way of life….”

     This unfortunate phrase from President Obama’s otherwise sturdy
inaugural address, echoed through my mind last week as I cruised the
suburban outlands of Montgomery, Alabama. All the usual commercial
furnishings of consumerist America hugged the flattish ochre and
dusty-green landscape of played-out cotton fields where thirty feet of
topsoil has washed away in the two hundred years since the mainly
English settlers shoved out the native Alabamu, Coosa, and Tallapoosa.
Along the low horizon, mall followed strip mall followed “lifestyle
center,” book-ending the “one house” failed subdivisions of otherwise
empty unsold lots in a cavalcade of floundering enterprise. It seemed
at times as if the terrain was a kind of sea-like expanse, and all the
retail boxes ghost ships drifting to oblivion.
     They say that the banks have stopped calling in their loans on the
commercial real estate, even though the owners of the malls and strip
malls have arrived firmly in default. Calling in the loans would only
pin another horrifying liability on the banks’ balance sheets. So all
parties join in a game of “pretend,” that nothing has really happened
to the fundamental equations of business life. Something similar goes
on at the next level down, where the tenants of the malls and strip
malls sink deeper into rent arrears every month, and the eviction
process is simply postponed, while the stores themselves put off paying
their vendors and suppliers – as the whole system, the whole way of
life, enters upon a circle-jerk of mutual denial in a last desperate
effort to forestall the mandates of reality .
     How long will these games go on? This is the primary question that
haunts the republic as we wait for new TARPS, and “bad banks,” economic
stimulus packages, infrastructure renewal roll-outs, and other policy
life-lines thrown out in guarded hopefulness to haul America out of a
ditch.
      The center of Montgomery was instructive, too. Not unlike any
other city in the USA (pop. about 200,000), the former main artery of
downtown commerce – Dexter Avenue, rolling out like a red carpet below
the state capitol hill, where Martin Luther King’s early career kicked
off in a modest red brick church, and where Rosa Parks famously refused
to move to the back of her bus – this “main street” presented a sad
sequence of empty shopfronts interrupted here and there by rather
creepy amateur murals depicting the cruelties of slavery, as if a
remonstrance to the politicos up the hill. Most of the buildings lining
the avenue still stood burdened by the clownish facade re-doos and
ghastly claddings of the 1950s, which had replaced the ordered
classical-vernacular decorum of the original 19th century frontages.
Once the malls had landed in the old cotton fields, and MLK moved on to
Atlanta, Dexter Avenue was just left to rot in the memory trunk.
        Here and there around the rest of the downtown, other weird
experiments in American post-war anti-urbanism presented themselves,
most notably a “building” designed to look like a small-scaled Death
Star, all black reflective glass, canted concrete and steel walls –
which turned out to belong to Morris Dees’ renowned Southern Poverty
Law Center — deployed directly across the street from the modest white
clapboard-with-green-shutters house once occupied by Jefferson Davis
after Richmond fell and the Confederate leadership skeedaddled further
south. There were a few recently-built government towers that looked
like Nascar trophies. But the rest of the downtown – the parts not
dedicated to surface parking – was the ubiquitous array of muffler
shops, or restaurants and churches that looked like muffler shops.
     With the city center thus nearly dead, and the asteroid belt of
malls and strips on their knees financially, this emblematic sunbelt
metro area finds itself in a pickle. Cotton being well-past decline,
and having wrecked the soil, the “new” economy of recent decades
dedicated itself to building car-dependent air-conditioned suburban
sprawl – the perceived perfect antidote to a previous economic order
based on serfdom, hook-worm, and inescapable heat. That now-not-so-new
economy of sprawl, in turn, has come to a screeching halt, as a cruel
destiny threw sand in the mechanisms of reliably cheap oil and
revolving credit, and the gears seized up. A mood of ominous watching
and waiting pervaded the city, but many of the movers-and-shakers had
pinned their hopes on the chance that Mr. Obama’s stimulus bill would
allow them to commence building a new freeway to the ocean on the
Florida panhandle.
     My journey continued on the Jesus-haunted blue highways, to that
selfsame place, Walton County, Florida, where some of the most famous
experiments in the New Urbanism were conducted beginning in the 1980s
with the new town of Seaside. I had been there many times over the
years, and I was called down to get a prize in the service of the
movement, but it was a little disconcerting to see how the build-out
had progressed.
     The Seaside experiment began very modestly as the idea for a
bohemian village of architects and artists in what was then an almost
empty quarter of piney woods owned by the St Joe timber company.
Seaside was designed so beautifully that it attracted the attention of
every thoracic surgeon and corporate lawyer between Nashville and New
Orleans, and pretty soon Seaside became the Riviera of the sunbelt’s
economic elite – and came in for gales of criticism for becoming that.
The newer houses and commercial structures grew ever grander, as a
Boomer generation status competition ramped up into the new millennium.
Several more, ever-grander New Urbanist towns sprouted along the
adjacent beaches, some of the most recent composed of immense mansions
embarrassing in their opulence. The outcome was a little scary,
especially now that the fortunes behind many of these mansions may be
threatened by the multiplying fiascos of finance and economy
overspreading the nation like a vicious plague.
     The New Urbanists had not set out to build monuments to
Yuppie-Boomer consumerism, but a peculiar destiny shoved them into that
role for a while – even while they toiled elsewhere around the nation
to reform town planning laws and generally provide an antidote to the
fatal cultural cancer of sprawl, that is, of a settlement pattern
guaranteed to comprehensively bankrupt our society. Anyway, the
collapse of the housing bubble has affected the New Urbanists’
business, too, and this may turn out to be a very good thing because
they can put aside the distractions of building very grand places to
sop up ill-gotten wealth and focus on the issues that Mr. Obama’s
people should have been paying attention to all along, namely, how are
we going to reform the way we live in this country and what will be the
physical manifestation of how we live in the decades to come.
     The New Urbanists have preached for years that conventional
suburbia would fail America in the long run, and that we’d have to
prepare for this failure by restoring traditional modes of occupying
the landscape. So far, the Obama team has not been willing to identify
the suburban system as the heart of our economic problem. They can’t
recognize it for what it truly is: a living arrangement with no future
– and an economic, ecological, and spiritual disaster. It is, of
course, the primary reason why we find ourselves in the deadly
predicament of importing over two-thirds of the oil we use every day.
       But then, more than half the population lives the suburban way
of life, with its deadly mortgage traps, its mandatory motoring, and
its civic disengagements. Nobody in power dares tell the truth: that we
can’t live this way anymore.
     But there are scores of places like Montgomery, Alabama, and
thousands of traditional main street small towns that are sitting out
there waiting to be re-activated. We need to do this much more than we
need to build new freeways to the beach. Suburbia is not going to be
abandoned overnight (even if it fails logistically and economically !)
but we have got to arrive at a consensus about rehabilitating our
forsaken small cities and small towns. The New Urbanists have gathered,
organized, and codified all the principle and methodology needed to
carry out this campaign. This should be their moment. Mr. Obama and his
team should get with the program.

____________________________________
My 2008 novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available in paperback  at all booksellers.

About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.

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