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Remarks by James Howard Kunstler to the Florida AIA

Orlando, August, 1998

    One hundred years ago, a cultural movement swept across the United States, galvanizing leaders in politics and the arts with the power of an idea. That movement was the City Beautiful movement, and its animating idea was 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 political and cultural leaders of that time not only dreamed great dreams, but they performed great deeds.
    Here’s what happened: the eleven-minute history of US cities:
    About the same that the Constitution was ratified, the Industrial Revolution began in America. Its effects multiplied very rapidly. American towns and cities grew in tandem with the Industrial Revolution through the 19th century. American cities were creatures of industrialism and all of its obnoxious procedures — the factories, the noise, the soot, the smells, the smoke, the poison waste products, the congested tenement neighborhoods of the factory workers, and so forth. Remember, industrialism was a new thing. It had never existed before. And it caused a tremendous disruption of traditional patterns of life. 
    American towns and cities, therefore, rapidly became places that were not very nice. The factories grew larger and larger, the dirt and smoke and noise and smells got worse and worse.
    One of the products of the industrial revolution, of course, was the railroad. Railroads really got underway in the full-scale commercial sense in the 1850s. The railroad made a daily escape from the city possible for the well-off. The first railroad suburbs in America were established in the late1850s. The idea behind them was to create colonies of individual country villas in a manicured park-like setting — which was itself set within the greater rural landscape of farms and forests. The rural landscape was otherwise still intact. There were no Wal-Marts back then. All the necessities of life still came from the city or the town.
    This must have been a glorious way to live. Imagine it’s 1881. You leave the office on Wabash in the heart of vibrant Chicago, hop on a train in a handsome, dignified station full of well-behaved people, and thirty minutes you’re whisked away to magnificent house surrounded by deep, cool porches, nestled in a lovely, tranquil, rural setting with not a single trace of industrial hubbub — no crowds, no machines, no stinking gutters, no noise, and, course, no highways, no strip malls, no muffler shops, no parking lots. Just the flowers and the trees. Perhaps one cow and a dozen chickens. Heavenly. It was truly idyllic. This was the experience of those who lived in Olmsted’s Riverside development 10 miles west of the Loop, and places like it after the Civil War.
    For all its shortcomings, though, the city itself was still valued. It was very much still the center of culture in America. The good things of life emanated from there: the arts, theater, education, fine clothing, manners, the friendly society of other people. There were true urban classes of people, city people, for whom the rural life, especially the farming life, represented life in the mud. 
    While it was a lovely choice in a particular time and place, not everybody wanted to move to the railroad suburbs. 
    Many of those people who elected to stay in the cities, lived happily therein fine houses, with ready access to the exciting amenities of civilized life. They still believed in the idea of the town and the city as the dwelling place for civilization, and they were determined to remain a part of it.
    The lucky ones, perhaps, were fortunate enough to visit the country in the summer, to go to the Adirondacks, or the seashore. And it was still real country, with many people leading rural lives at rural occupations there. Real farms with real farmers. Real fisherman There was a clear distinction between the urban and the rural, the town and the country — and the ways of life these places represented.
    But the problems of industrialism continued to multiply, the scale of factories grew ever larger, and this was a terrific challenge to those who believed in city life.
    Nearing the turn of the century, American leaders began to apprehend that the United States had changed in the years after the Civil War. Seemingly overnight, our country had become a great world power, perhaps even as mighty as England and France, at least in economic terms. This was a really startling idea for Americans, who were used to feeling like the new kid on the block. In the 1890s, the United States looked in the mirror and suddenly found itself grown up.
    And as more and more educated Americans crossed the ocean and spent time in Europe they realized that we had indeed become the equal of these other nations. Except in one important respect: our cities were no match fort heirs. We had few historic buildings of any distinction. Our public places were skimpy and mean. With a few exceptions, like Washington, DC, our streets ran in monotonous grids, not designed for beauty, or glory, or spiritual gratification, but only for expediting building lot sales and development. 
    London and Paris and Rome had many wonderful buildings and public places accumulated over centuries of continuous living culture. There were the remnants of classical antiquity, The Piazza Navona, Michaelangelo’s Campodoglio, St. James Square, the Place de Vosges, and so forth. Places that were works of art, beloved in the collective memory of the people. America was different. There was no medieval Detroit. There was no Renaissance Cleveland. History was in short supply in the US, and the monuments of history and culture were nearly nonexistent.
    Returning from their schooling in Paris and Rome, the American architects of100 years ago boldly declared that the United States should have cities worthy of our new status as a great power in the world. They were taken seriously. The 19th century was a great age for Architecture in America. The profession was respected. Not like today where architects are considered, at best, a necessary evil and, at worst, sociopathic obscurantists bent on making normal people as miserable as possible. A hundred years ago, architects enjoyed the greatest esteem as both artists and technicians. So, when they spoke, people listened. And when they acted, when they undertook heroic deeds of place-making and building, people looked on with wonder and admiration.
    And this is what happened in America of the 1890s. Our cultural leaders agreed that we had to create cities and towns worthy of a great nation. This project was carried forward in the spirit of a great patriotic movement. It started with a show: the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, at which the great architects and civic designers of that day — Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, Stanford White, and many others, demonstrated how wonderful public places could be created by using the vocabulary of neoclassical architecture and the grammar of French formal civic design — how to arrange the beautiful buildings to define space in a way that is humanly rewarding.
    Before long, the movement became a competitive craze across the nation. Towns and cities tried to out-do one another in fabulous buildings and public places. Every town had to have its new neoclassical courthouse, and perhaps even a civic square to go with it. Every town built a magnificent new library. The great college campuses were laid out. Every new bank, post office, and firehouse was endowed with a richly expressive, dignified facade. It was an exuberant, confident era. Many of our most beloved public places and public buildings owe their existence to the city beautiful movement: the San Francisco Civic Center, 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 list is very long and it includes innumerable less famous town halls, courthouses, schools, theaters, and squares.
    It’s especially interesting, I think, to consider that the very worst buildings of our time — the federal courthouses, the schools, the libraries, were the greatest buildings of that period, our great-grandfather’s day.
    The City Beautiful movement lasted about twenty five years. You can date it with some precision. Because something else happened to America. In 1907,Henry Ford produced the first Model-T car. At the height of this “American Renaissance,” as the City Beautiful movement is sometimes called. In 1913, he devised the assembly line method of production. So the automobile age was launched! But its career was briefly interrupted by the First World War –America entered the war in 1917 and it was over late in 1918. 
    It’s hard to overstate the demoralizing effect that World War I had on western civilization. You can read about in my book “The Geography of Nowhere,” in the chapter titled “Yesterday’s Tomorrow.” But to put it very simply, World War I was like a nervous breakdown for the technologically advanced nations. Europe was more physically damaged than we were. But the war changed American life, too, psychologically. One thing it put an end to was the optimism of the City Beautiful movement — the perhaps naive belief that the 20th Century, with all it’s miraculous scientific advances, was going to be a paradise on earth.
    And so, after WW I, all the energy and money and intelligence that had gone into the City Beautiful movement was suddenly redirected to the frantic project of retrofitting American cities for the automobile. In a remarkably, short time, this project made our towns and cities more unpleasant than they had ever been before. And it was phenomenally expensive to do this. Thousands of miles of streets had to be paved. Traffic signals had to be installed. Bridges had to be improved. Police were suddenly overwhelmed with the problems of traffic management.
    During the 1920s we also embarked on the project of the automobile suburb. The car democratized suburbia for all but the lowest classes of Americans. So now, the very lifeblood of the city, the middle class, was checking out of the city, taking their tax revenues with them and accelerating the dis-investment in our cities.
    This project of transforming American life by, for, and of the car was largely responsible for the boom of the 1920s. Like any evolutionary event, it possessed certain self-limiting characteristics — in this case, the economic limits of saturated markets. As we now know, the stock market crashed in 1929, the country entered the Great Depression, and the hardest hit industry was the building trades. Almost nothing got built during the 1930sin America — except public works projects having to do with automobile infrastructure: namely, highways, bridges, and tunnels.
    Meanwhile, though the nation was economically moribund, there was a lot of fantasizing going on about the automobile utopia of the future. The public imagination was still all fired up with the romance of scientific progress –cars, aviation, rocketry, x-rays, radio, labor-saving gadgets — all these wonderful innovations that continued, despite the Depression. So the idea of a bright, shining future, and the perfectibility of man, was still very much alive in the movies, and the Tom Swift books, and the popular science magazines. Even fascist politics was an expression of this — that’s why it seemed so dangerous — because it offered a dramatic, futuristic political re-ordering of society.
    And, of course, part of this fevered collective dream of the future involved reimagining the place where people would live: the city. Frank Lloyd Wright has his version, Broadacre City. Broadacre City is basically the San Fernando Valley — with all the unintended consequences left out. [Explain]There’s a somewhat different version from Europe, Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. And General Motor’s had it’s version, the Futurama, which it presented with great fanfare at the New York World’s Fair of 1938. It was all there: the12-lane elevated urban freeways running through the mathematically rigorous skyscraper towers. It was exactly how Houston and Miami turned out fifty years later.
    However, before American could actualize these late 1930’s fantasies, we got into World War Two. That basically occupied the entire 1940s. With all the after-effects of demobilizing the army, and turning the tank factories back into car factories, it was roughly 1950 when America was “normal” again.
    Now, during this long period — 20 years of the Great Depression through the Second World War — almost nothing new had been built, and very little was fixed up, either. Our towns and cities just sat there and rotted, like an old sofa that gets put out on the porch of the fraternity house.
    So, by the early 1950s, there is one image of the American city: Ralph Kramden’s apartment. You know, that dismal, dark, dingy, dreary under-furnished little tenement with the fire escape outside the kitchen window –not a green thing in sight. That summed up Americans’ feelings about city life. And they wholeheartedly rejected it. Feh! Forget about it! We’re out of here! Levittown here we come!
    It also happened — because of a lot of government subsidies, like federal mortgage guarantees and loans for veterans, et cetera — that ordinary people could get a house in the suburbs for a lower monthly payment than Ralph Kramden’s apartment. So the economic incentive settled the matter. There was no longer any question of where people would choose to live.
    The project of suburbia, begun in the 1920s, was resumed with a vengeance in the 50s — to make up for all those frustrating years of depression and war –all that pent-up demand for new stuff — and from the 50s on, everybody in America who possibly could move to the suburbs, did move to the suburbs — a process that continues to this day. We never looked back.
    Today, that negative image of the city has changed, but only a little. We still think of Ralph Kramden’s apartment — but now Snoop Doggy Dog is living there, having a party with Puff Daddy, and people are shooting in the window at them. It’s not a pretty picture.
    What was it that we were looking for in Suburbia? The antidote to life in the industrial town or city! Which is country life! That’s the whole idea behind suburbia. The trouble is that it was no longer really country life in any meaningful sense. It had become a cartoon of life in the country. Justas the average suburban house became a lame cartoon of a ranch house or a farmhouse — the little wagon wheel out front, the fake shutters, and so forth. 
    And this, of course, has been the great tragedy of the suburbs. It’s a fake. It’s a fake version of country living. It’s so far from being the real thing that it’s literally sickening to be there, to be a part of the fraud. Everybody senses it, but nobody knows how to describe it 
    Suburbia has all the spread-outness of the country, but none of the rural amenities — nature comes only in the form of the lawn, the juniper shrub in the bark-mulch bed, and the berm between the K-mart and the housing development. Suburbia is the country de-natured. Suburbia has all the congestion of the city and none of the social excitement, none of the cultural amenity. Suburbia has luxurious family rooms with wall-sized TVs and plenty of bathrooms per inhabitant. But the public space is impoverished — nowhere for teenagers to hang out except the parking lot in front of the Dunkin Donuts. 
    It’s a raw deal for everybody. It makes people lonely and crazy, and then it makes them feel bad about that because it’s supposed to be the American Dream– it’s supposed to make us happy, and if it doesn’t, well, there must be something wrong with us.
    What was promised to be the American Dream has turned out to be the National Automobile Slum. The United Parking Lot of America, from sea to shining sea. The automobile suburb is an experiment that’s failed. We ought to simply declare this to be the new reality of the 21st century, and get on with the job of creating a human habitat that is worth caring about and worth living in.
    You cannot overstate how important this task is, precisely because the quality that so many places in America share today is that they have become places that are not worth caring about. And sooner or later a country full of places that are not worth caring about will become a nation that is not worth defending.
    I believe if we are going to get ourselves Home From Nowhere that we have pay attention to what we’ve been doing and change our behavior. The future is telling us very clearly that we will have to live differently in the years ahead. Economic and political forces are underway that will require us to live differently — whether we love suburbia or not.
    Our behavior reflects the agony of our everyday world. And it operates as a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop: the worse it gets, the worse we act, and the worse we act, the worse it gets, and so on, ever downward.
    The agony of this process shows in our high rate of criminal misbehavior. It shows in the practice of self-medication that we call “drug abuse.” It shows in the phenomenon of road rage. It shows in the hateful sado-masochism of our popular culture — from Bruce Willis movies — which are about people hurting other people — to the violent, grandiose fantasies of MTV. The agony of our debased human ecology shows in our incompetent parenting and child abuse. It’s expressed by the alienated children who fire on their school-mates with automatic weapons. The discontinuities, ugliness, and meaninglessness of our material surroundings thunders through our culture.
    We have to do better. We have to create a whole lot of self-reinforcing positive feedback loops — reasons for people to love and respect one another, to love and honor their towns, villages, and neighborhoods, reasons to have faith in their own culture.
    I’m sure you’ve all heard of the phenomenon of NIMBYism — Not In My Back Yard ism. Every time a new building is proposed absolutely anywhere in America, you can guarantee that somebody or some group, will file a lawsuit against it. Nobody wants anything new. Well, sure. Every new thing we’ve gotten over the last 50 years has made our lives worse: the new housing development down the road, the new strip mall, the highway improvements that turn a two-lane road into a six-laner, the corporate office that looks like the mother ship from a UFO movie. The new school that looks like an insecticide factory. The new motel that looks like a medium security prison. The new mall with a parking lot the size of Rhode Island. We don’t want anymore of this. And isn’t it understandable? Look at the misery these things have produced. It’s perfectly reasonable — given our experience over the past half-century. You see the guys with the yellow hard-hat out in the cow-pasture and, by reflex, you reach for the phone and call your lawyer.
    But believe it or not, there was a time in America when people were delighted to get new buildings in their towns. They couldn’t wait for the new library, or a new street of new houses, or a new downtown building, because they understood that these new things would make their communities better and their lives better. They would have new civic ornaments, richer lives. They had faith in the ability of their own culture to deliver the future. 
    The reverse of that is precisely what is behind the strange phenomenon of NIMBYism in America today. We have no faith in the ability of our culture to deliver the future. What could be more tragic than that? And this, too, of course, becomes another self-reinforcing negative feedback loop. The less confidence we have in the future, the less we construct a world that has the capacity to endure, or to reward us spiritually, and the more this erodes our faith in the future. . . and so on.
    Now, as a technical matter, it’s important to understand that this system is not running by accident. The national automobile slum is produced an array of cultural habits, customs, rules, and laws. 
    For instance, there is the very precise set of rules called zoning. Zoning is the manual of instructions for assembling suburban sprawl. We act as though zoning were a system of civic design. We’ve brainwashed ourselves into thinking they’re exactly the same thing. But they’re not.
    Zoning is a crude classification system. It classifies a limited number of human activities, and it is obsessed with separating all those activities as much as possible. Zoning is based on abstractions, not particulars. Zoning is completely unconcerned with the question of beauty and the nourishment of the human spirit. Zoning produces suburban sprawl — an abstraction of a place to live, a cartoon of a human habitat.
    Real civic design seeks to integrate our daily activities in order to endow our lives with rich and satisfying experiences. Real civic art is concerned with particulars and details, not with abstractions. Real civic art is deeply concerned with the question of beauty and with the nourishment of the human spirit. Real civic art produces real places that are worth caring about.
    The cultural inertia that supports the national automobile slum also comes from other quarters.


  • From the banks, that will only make loans of types of development that can be bundled and re-sold as commodities, namely mortgages on suburban tract houses and strip malls.     
  • From the construction industry, that doesn’t want to stray from the their comfortable, profitable formula of “blow and go” development.     
  • From the federal mortgage policy officials who can’t rewrite the regulations that subsidize suburban sprawl and neglect existing towns and cities.     
  • From the car industry, and all its wicked vassals, including the state DOTs.

    This cultural inertia is proving very difficult to overcome — even in the face of a great idea: that Americans deserve to live in better places.
    The reconstruction of American cities and towns, and the restoration of healthy civic life, requires that we reform our system for designing and assembling the places where we live and work. It requires a restoration of common purpose among free and self-confident human beings, not cultural cowards and political crybabies. 
    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.
    Fortunately, we have fifty centuries of human culture to use a reference in this task of restoration and rediscovery. We don’t need a $100 million government research grant to figure out how to emulate the successes of history.
    Now, we’ve come a long way from the City Beautiful Movement to this point. One hundred years. And interestingly, 1993 was the first meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, in Alexandria, Virginia — 100 years after the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
    The New Urbanism originated with an extraordinary group of self-confident, progressive, energetic men and women who declared that America had the ability to restore itself. And after less than five years, the influence of this movement can be seen all over the United States.
    I’m proud to be a member of the Congress for the new Urbanism, the CNU. I think the New Urbanist movement is one of the most hopeful movements on the national scene. 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 extraordinarily 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.
    For many reasons it may be hard for Americans to imagine a city life that is spiritually rewarding. There is so much in our history and especially in our current behavior that rebukes everything that cities 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 paranoid, most destructive.
    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 woods.
    Life is tragic. This is not a Hollywood movie with a guaranteed happy ending. We’re not entitled to survive our follies simply because we’re Americans. Life is tragic and history is merciless, and history won’t she a tear if we pound our civilization down a rathole.
    We’re going to have to bring a special dedication and a new rigor to the task of restoring civic life and city life in our nation — both materially and spiritually — or we are liable to lose the things we value most: our beautiful country and the institutions of our democratic republic
    To anyone who’s depressed by what I’ve said today I urge you to take comfort in this parting thought: Remember the old Soviet Union? Well, one bright morning in June of 1991, an astounding majority of bureaucrats in the Soviet Government — people with the deepest personal stake in the system — all woke up and got the same idea. And the idea was this: Our economic system is an experiment that has failed, and we’re going to get rid of it. And they did. They accomplished this without fax machines, without computer networks, without a free press, without the right of public assembly, without even a reliable telephone system. Imagine that!
    Something similar is going to happen here. One fine June morning in1998, all the city planners, and zoning board members, and architects, and even the lowly traffic engineers, and the students and the professors and the soccer moms and the commuters are going to wake up and say suburban sprawl is an experiment that has failed and we’re not going to build anymore of it. We’re going to create beautiful towns and cities here in America instead, with gorgeous countryside in between these beautiful towns and cities.
    And on this incredible day we’re going to have fax machines, and the internet, and AOL, and a free press and a reliable phone system — and the word of this revolution is going to crackle across the country in a matter of minutes. And from that day forward we can become again what we once were: a land full of places worth caring about in a nation worth defending.

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 the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

8 Responses to “Remarks by James Howard Kunstler to the Florida AIA”

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  1. 12. No One Forced Americans to Drive – The Antiplanner - July 23, 2019

    […] “Imagine it’s 1881,” says Kunstler. “You leave the office on Wabash in the heart of vibrant Chicago, hop on a train in a handsome, dignified station full of well-behaved people, and in thirty minutes you’re whisked away to a magnificent house surrounded by deep, cool porches, nestled in a lovely, tranquil, rural setting with not a single trace of industrial hubbub.” He believes that was a “glorious way to live.” […]