Our Dismal Cities

American cities are dismal. The majority of American small towns have become dismal. Of course, those two types of places represent America as it developed before World War Two, and their current state must be understood as one of abandonment and dereliction. The newer suburban subdivisions are dismal, too, in their own unique way, as are the commercial highway strips, the malls, the office parks, and the rest of the autocentric equipment of the human habitat. Their architechtural shortcomings aside, these places are dismal because the public realm that binds them together is degraded, incoherent, ugly, and meaningless. In case the term public realm seems vague or mystifying, I shall attempt to define it with some precision.

The public realm is the connective tissue of our everyday world. It is made up of those pieces of terrain left between the private holdings. It exists in the form of streets, highways, town squares, parks, and even parking lots. It includes rural or wilderness landscape: stretches of the seacoast, national forests, most lakes and rivers, and even the sky. The true public realm then, for the sake of this argument, is that portion of our everyday world which belongs to everybody and to which everybody ought to have equal access most of the time. The public realm is therefore a set of real places possessing physical form.

The public realm in America became so atrocious in the postwar decades that the Disney corporation was able to create an artificial substitute and successfully sell it as a commodity. That's what Disney World is really about. In France, where the public realm possesses a pretty high standard of design quality and is carefully maintained as well, there is much less need for artificial substitutes, so few people feel compelled to go to EuroDisney. The design quality of everything at EuroDisney is about five notches beneath that of the most mediocre French street corner.

The design quality of Disney World in Orlando, on the other hand, is about 1.5 notches better than the average american suburban shopping mall or housing subdivision --- so Americans love it. Forget about how cheap-looking the benches and lampposts might be --- we don't even have sidewalks in most of suburbia (and besides, nobody walks there anyway) --- so any benches and lampposts seem swell. Americans love Disney World, above all, because it is uncontaminated by cars, except for a few antique vehicles kept around as stage props. By and large, they do not know that is the reason they love Disney World. Americans are amazingly unconscious of how destructive the automobile has been to their everyday world.

Main Street USA is America's obsolete model for development --- we stopped assembling towns this way after 1945. Altogether it was a pretty good development pattern. It produced places that people loved deeply. That is the reason Main Street persists in our cultural memory. Many people still alive remember the years before World War Two, and what it felt like to live in integral towns modeled on this pattern. Physical remnants of the pattern still stand in parts of the country for people to see, though the majority of Americans have moved into the new model habitat called Suburban Sprawl.

For all it apparent success, Suburban Sprawl sorely lacks many things that make live worth living, particularly civic amenities, which Main Street offered in spades. Deep down, many Americans are dissatisfied with suburbia --- though they have trouble understanding what's missing --- which explains their nostalgia for the earlier model. Their dissatisfaction is literally a dis-ease. They feel vaguely and generally un-well where they are. Nostalgia in its original sense means homesickness. Americans essay to cure their homesickness with costly visits to Disney World. The crude, ineffective palliatives they get their in the form of brass bands and choo-choo train rides leave them more homesick and more baffled as to the nature of their disease than when they arrived --- like selling chocolate bars to someone suffering from scurvy --- and pathetically, of course, they must return afterward to the very places that induce the disease of homesickness.

Americans' optimism about technology was neatly summarized in the 1939 World's Fair at Flushing Meadows in New York City, where the most popular exhibition was General Motor's "World of Tomorrow," featuring an enormous model of a "City of the Future," complete with elevated freeways and high-rises là Le Corbusier. None of the unpleasant consequences of these innovations were anticipated by yesterday's futurists --- for instance, what it might feel like to live or work in a tower next to a twelve-lane expressway, or what it might do to the neighborhood.

The World's Fair had barely shut its doors when Germany started another major war that left Europe a smoldering wreck again, only much worse this time, with a radioactive Japan thrown in for good measure. The atomic bomb can be viewed as an elegant technological solution to a political problem --- the problem being Japan's failure to recognize her own defeat. For all the anxiety it aroused, the bomb left us highly impressed with our ability to get things done. Our confidence and pride in technology, and especially in winning World War Two so decisively, was now undermined by a pervasive unease about the apocalyptic danger that technology posed. A feeling of having lost control over it saturates the pop culture of the fifties, from movies about radioactive giant ants to the lore of backyard bomb shelters.

Under these anxiety-provoking conditions, America re-embarked on the path to Utopia General Motors had so brightly presented back in 1939, before Hitler and Japan so rudely interrupted us. Perhaps tragically, we succeeded in building it. American know-how delivered the complete package right down to the elevated urban freeways and the high-rise housing projects, along with a million-score little cabins in the woods outside our soon-to-be-decrepit Cities of Tomorrow.

We've been living in this auto-utopia ever since. We've added to it, and elaborated it, with few public misgivings, despite the fact that it is impoverishing us and literally driving us crazy. Anybody who travels back and forth across the Atlantic has to be impressed with the difference between European cities and ours, which make it appear as though World War Two actually took place in Detroit and Washington rather than Berlin and Rotterdam. We barely endure the endless gridlock of suburbia, and wonder what is so deeply unfulfilling about the American Dream. And having thrown away much of the past to attain it, our disconnection from other elements of human culture is nearly complete. We've gone beyond the idea that the future will not be as good as the past. Judging by our behaviour, we just don't believe in the future, period.

We ought to know how to assemble a human habitat of high quality that equitably allows citizens of all classes to get around in a dignified, comfortable, even pleasurable manner, that gives children and old people equal access to society's civic institutions, that produces safe neighborhoods for the well-off and the less well-off, that promotes a sense of belonging to a community, that honors what is beautiful, and which doesn't destroy its rural and agricultural surroundings. This habitat comes down to us from history in the form of villages, towns, and cities. The suburban sprawl model that has temporarily replaced these forms must be understood to be an aberration, an extreme and abnormal condition, as cancer is an abnormal condition in the tissues of the human body.

The original benefits of automobiles were thought to be convenience, freedom of mobility, and comfort. The first two things vanished entirely under the regime of compulsory commuting. What is left of comfort amounts to little more than air-conditioned imprisonment. I believe that our utter dependence on the automobile must and will come to an end. Society can no longer afford the cultural phenomenon of mandatory mass car ownership. Whatever cars might run in the future, we will have to use fewer of them and less often. We are going to need places that are worth dwelling in, from which we won't feel compelled to escape every moment we are not working. These are precisely the kinds of villages, towns, and cities I propose, and I will spell out the particulars of their design in later chapters.

I believe that we Americans have managed to go beyond driving ourselves crazy with cars. There is a moral and spiritual dimension to these problems that we are unable to reckon. We have the knowledge to do the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing. The inescapable conclusion is that our behavior is wicked, and that we are liable to pay a heavy price for our wickedness by losing things we love.

--- James Howard Kunstler
©1996, Touchstone Books

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