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Remarks to the Cities of the Future Conference

Sacramento, December 1999

       (slightly edited to eliminate repetition)

      . . . the sad truth of the matter is that the United States is increasingly composed of thousands of places that are not worth caring about. The ultimate result will be a nation and a way of life that is not worth caring about or defending! 
      I wrote my last two books about the mess that we have made — and continue to make, gleefully, relentlessly — out of America’s everyday environment:  the gruesome highway strips with their franchise fry pits, the carwash kingdoms, and parking lagoons, the endless new housing subdivisions cut off from all meaningful civic amenity, drenched in purposelessness, monotony, and repressed rage, the former cornfields and meadows filled with redundant discount boxes, the whole extravagant, doom-laden spectacle of “suburban development” that has become the most visible expression of our 90’s miracle economy. I maintain that we are creating enormous problems for ourselves with these things. We’ve surely had a lot of trouble talking about it and even identifying the problems to form the basis of a coherent discussion. 
      The term “suburban sprawl” has become the default label of choice. I actually have another label, which I believe is more accurate: the national automobile slum. It’s more precise. It informs you, for instance, that the parking lots of Beverly Hills are not anymore gratifying places to be than the parking lots of Camden, New Jersey. And that’s what we’re becoming: a United Parking Lot of America, from sea to shining to sea. 
      In my first book on this subject, The Geography of Nowhere, I asserted that this living arrangement which Americans now think of as “normal” — the national automobile slum — is economically catastrophic, socially toxic, ecologically suicidal, and spiritually degrading to a degree where not only is nothing sacred but everything is profane. This is the process, incidentally, by which schools become free-fire zones. 
      In my second book, I proposed that if we are going to get Home From Nowhere we will have to change our behavior. I believe economic and political forces are underway that are going to require us to change our behavior whether we like living in the national automobile slum or not. I believe these forces will require us to re-condense the life our nation into civically coherent towns and cities. We will be fortunate if we pay attention to the danger signals because the difficult enterprise of carrying on a civilization will not possible without places worth caring about and worth being in. 
      What is suburbia, by the way? Simple. The supposed antidote to life in the horrible industrial city: country life. Nature! Unfortunately, the relentless expansion and duplication of car-dependent suburbia has turned it into an everyday environment every bit as bad as the industrial city from which it was supposed to be an escape and a cure. Nature is present only in the berm between the K-mart and the Wal-mart. Suburbia has become a cartoon of country life, an abstraction of it, in many cases a mockery of it. Living in an abstraction ends up being very disappointing, very unfulfiling, and I think this is one of the great unexpressed agonies of our time — that Americans are suffering horribly from living in this cartoon environment, the mockery of country life. What’s more, suburbia becomes more abstract and more cartoonish and more unrewarding every day as creeps over the landscape and destroys everything in its path.
      Now, we have some choices before us. Paths we can take in the face of this gathering calamity of our human ecology. We’re already trying one tactic: denial. We’re deep into it. We’re still pretending that the national automobile slum is “a great place for kids.” I don’t know how many more school massacres it will take to get us to even re-examine this notion. Surely the adults who are sitting in gridlock for hours every week in places like Atlanta and San Jose and the DC Beltway must be starting to wonder if there might be a more rewarding way to spend a human lifetime. 
      Another choice is to have a party. That’s what we’re doing this year. Buying things on credit we don’t have money to buy, building more redunant, throwaway big box stores on the highway strip, day-trading in a stock market that only goes up and never goes down, taking out 125-percent home equity loans that will never be repaid, re-packaging our debt, rolling over unpaid interest, munching on cheez doodles and drinking Diet Pepsi as we motor down the highway in the new Winnebago Mega-lux at a dollar-fifty a gallon. This can only go on so long — even Alan Greenspan knows that. 
      Another choice we can make is to fight desperately to preserve the status quo, no matter what forces are arrayed to induce us to change. There is a cottage industry in conservative think tank intellectuals — lately joined by mainstream media heavyweights such as George Will of the Washington Post and Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution — who are determined to prove that suburban sprawl — that is, the national automobile slum — was ordained by Alexander Hamilton and God Almighty as the best possible setting for democracy — and that speaking against this way of life is unpatriotic. Their main argument goes like this: Americans seem to like suburban sprawl, therefore the national automobile slum must be the best possible living arrangement. Americans, being free to choose, choose the national automobile slum. Therefore it must be the quintessential formal expression of personal freedom and democracy. And so on. To me, these arguments are self-evidently dumb. 
      Yet another choice we have is to recognize that we are heading down a path that has no future — but, personally, I believe it will take a shock to our system to even permit us to see that choice. And those shocks will soon be felt. The party is going to end. The stock market will demonstrate its capacity to go down and not come back up. The 125 percent “dream loans” will be called in. Suburban real estate of all types will lose so much value that people’s heads will spin. The re-po man will knock on the door, we will be lucky will to escape the destructive delusional politics that almost always accompanies major economic shocks of the kind of are certain to endure. We are going to need a new American living arrangement in the 21st century. We are going to need real towns and real cities and a real public realm that rewards our spirits and informs us what it means to be human.
      This thing I refer to as “the public realm” is the part of our everyday world that belongs to everybody. The public realm is the dwelling place of civic life and of civic responsibility. The public realm is the physical manifestation of the common good, and when we degrade the public realm by turning it into a national automobile slum, by turning it into half a million places not worth caring about, we are degrading our ability to think about the common good or to act in the public interest — either personally or as groups incorporated into communities, towns, counties, states, and finally a nation. 
      The public realm must be worth caring about. It must be worthy of our affection. And we have to make it so, as a deliberate act of culture and politics. If it can’t do this, we may lose our ability to be a nation. We stand to lose those things we cherish most: our beautiful land and the institutions of our democratic republic. 
      The seventh annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism was held in Milwaukee this year, where CNU board member John Norquist is mayor. Most of the major sessions were held in the Pabst Theater, a restored symphony hall of considerable magnificence. It was fascinating and a little distracting sitting in that theater, surrounded by rich decorations and fantastic workmanship, and a complex vocabulary of architectural symbolism, all dramatically lighted and draped and painted and gilded — because you just knew deep in your soul that these were things that our culture is no longer capable of creating from scratch. If we were capable, there would be new versions of these things, not just the ones left from our grandparents’ generation. But they’re not there. In fact, it’s common knowledge among architects and urban designers that the reason the historic preservation movement is so desperate to salvage and rehab every crumb of existing old building is because we’re convinced that we can no longer produce anything good in new construction. This a pretty tragic situation. 
      This condition has an analog in the political paralysis of NIMBYism. Nobody wants anything new in their backyard. We’ve had fifty years of new things and they’ve all made our daily life worse. We don’t want a new tract house subdivision next to the one we’re stuck in; we don’t want a backyard like our backyard in our backyard; we don’t want a new office park that looks like the Mother Ship from the X-files landing across the road, thank you; we don’t want another Hannibal Lecter Middle School in our backyard. 
      When the guys in the yellow hard-hats appear in the meadow across the road, twenty people immediately call their lawyers. We don’t want anything new. We have no faith in our ability to produce new things that are worthy of our spirits. We have no faith in the ability of our culture to deliver the future. What could be more tragic than that. Think about it. There was a time in American history when people were delighted to get new buildings in town. They couldn’t wait for the scaffolding to come off the new courthouse. They couldn’t wait for the new library, or a new street of new houses, or a new downtown commercial building, because they understood that these new things would make their communities better and their lives richer. They were even delighted when the local millionaire built his new mansion because it served as a public ornament as well as an object of private luxury. They had faith in their ability to bring themselves the future. 
      We need that kind of faith We need to do better. The future is going to demand that we do better. We need faith in our ability to bring ourselves a future worth living in. And we will not regain this faith until we give up the national automobile slum and all its atrocious accessories and furnishings and turn all that energy and investment into once again creating real towns and cities worth living in. 
      The Congress for the New Urbanism began in 1993 as a determined effort to do just that. The New Urbanism movement originated with an extraordinary group of self-confident, progressive, energetic men and women who declared that America had the ability to restore its civic armature. The influence of this movement can be seen all over the United States now. (The CNU is based in San Francisco, by the way.) 
      The CNU declares that the public realm matters. That it must be honored and embellished with the vocabularies of architecture in order to endow it with meaning. The CNU proposes that if we can repair the physical fabric of our everyday world many of the damaged and abandoned institutions of our civic life may follow into restoration. 
      The New Urbanist movement recognizes that we have been living through an abnormal period of cultural amnesia that is now coming to an end. We are ready to reconnect the past and the future in order to live in a hopeful present. 
      Every now and then America is seized by the power a great idea and provoked to action because of it. 1776 was one: let’s be free from colonial exploitation! liberty! Independence! We acted on that. 
      1783, another great idea seized us: a constitution that would spell out the terms of a democratic republic, the armature for government of laws. Wow. 
      1820 to 1860, another great idea seized our attention: abolish slavery. After a long struggle, a frustrating debate, years of compromise and irresolution, we finally acted on this idea and the result was a terrible, bloody, ennobling convulsion of righteousness, the civil war. 
      1893, the birth of the City Beautiful movement a cultural change that swept across the United States, galvanizing leaders in politics and the arts with the power of an idea: that Americans deserved to live in better towns and cities. This was a time in the history of our young country when we knew the difference between wishing and doing, between dreaming and acting on our dreams. The most impressive thing about the City Beautiful movement was how much it accomplished, and what a rich legacy it left for future generations — the great civic monuments of our country: the campus of UC at Berkeley, the great museums of the Washington DC Mall, the Coply Square library in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the San Francisco city hall. The list is very long. The political and cultural leaders of that time not only dreamed great dreams, but they performed great deeds. 
      The 1960s, another powerful idea presented itself: social justice, the unfinished business of the civil war, civil rights, equality before the law, fought over in the streets and the lunch-counters and in the theaters of government and finally enacted into federal legislation. 
      Now another great idea is presenting itself: Americans deserve to live in better places than the national automobile slum. The reconstruction of American towns and cities requires a new consensus that we are capable of making a better everyday world than the junk-scape of the last fifty years — a consensus that we deserve a better world to live and work in than the national automobile slum. We’re going to have to bring a special dedication and a new rigor to the task of restoring civic life in our nation — both materially and spiritually.
      I don’t know what it will take for us to find our way out of the suburban wilderness. We’re pretty lost right now, pretty deep in the make-believe woods. For many reasons it may be hard for Americans to imagine a city life or even town life that is spiritually rewarding. There is so much in our history and especially in our current behavior that rebukes everything that cities and towns seem to stand for. But human beings are social organisms. Most people actually like other people and seek to be them, and need to be with them in places worth being in, places of memorable quality and character. We need an everyday world that is that is worthy of our affection, that is worthy of our aspirations, that is worthy of what is best in the human spirit, not what is worst, most antisocial, most parnoid, selfish, or destructive. . . .. I urge you to join us in the Congress for the New Urbanism on the front lines of this struggle. Cheers, blessings, and good luck!

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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