Monday, September 21, 2009

James Howard Kunstler, Original Sin

The suburban project was not a conspiracy by the likes of Robert Moses, Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, and President Eisenhower to produce a living arrangement with no future. It was the emergent, self-organizing result of special circumstances in a particular time and place: post World War Two America, with an immense supply of cheap oil, cheap land, and the industrial capacity to churn out all the necessary components for a car-dependent development pattern. Suburbia was spawned out of a couple of persistent themes in American cultural history: 1.) that cities and city life were no good; 2.) and that the romance of settling the wilderness could be reenacted, at great profit, in all that space beyond the towns and cities. It would be silly to deny the appeal of this arrangement at its inception. By the end of WW II, city life in the popular imagination was reduced to one potently awful image: Ralph Kramden's apartment in "The Honeymooners" TV show.

There had to be something better than that. Suburbia was engineered as the antidote to the Kramden's apartment: country-living-for-everybody. The evacuation of the cities to the new outlands proceeded as relentlessly as the landings at Normandy. It wasn't until the program was well underway that the self-destructive essence of it became obvious -- that every new housing subdivision killed the original rural character of the land, with the result that suburban life quickly became a cartoon of country living in a cartoon of a country house in a cartoon of the country. With additional layer-on-layer of, first, the shopping in the form of highway strips, then malls, along with the office "parks," these places elaborated themselves into a kind of cancer-of-the-landscape, a chronic and expensive condition that Americans had no choice but to live with, because of the monumental investments they had already made in it. The discontents it produced lent it to psychological depression and dark humor, just as chronic illness does. But we were stuck with it.

Meanwhile, all the machinery of culture and politics made it impossible to construct anything differently. The exquisitely fine-tuned planning-and-zoning codes generated by the thousands of town boards mandated a suburban outcome everywhere -- with plenty of help from the DOT traffic engineers, the fire marshals, and the even the mandarins of academia who trained all these professionals. As a natural consequence of all this, the disinvestment in cities -- especially the older cities of the industrial heartland -- continued remorsely until it seemed as if the Second World War had taken place in St. Louis and Cleveland.

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