6. Kunstler (cont.)
When I came home from my sophomore year at college, I decided that I did not want to partake in the tradition of taking a car to get everywhere. This lasted a mere week. I quickly re-discovered why nobody ever chose to walk anywhere in my hometown: there are no sidewalks. On top of that, the nearest business to the house I grew up in is five miles away! The one time that I did walk to the nearest coffeehouse (which took over two hours), I felt as though I was seeing the area around my house for the first time. I am almost embarrassed to share this, but it was the first time in my then twenty years of life that I had ever seen most of the stretches of road while not zooming by them in a car.
I suppose every person who has ever gone on a road-trip has had an experience similar to this – the kind you have when you step out of your car at a rest-stop and look back and see the highway not as a black mass passing beneath your wheels, but instead as an object measured against the scale of a human body. The absurdity of what you see takes your breath away. Walking along the winding suburban streets two summers ago, beauty of the trees and forests that lined the sides of the road and the peacefulness in the space between them became visible to me for the first time. When a car would speed on by, I would suddenly be hit by a want to scream: “Stop it! Why are you moving so fast!” But it only took looking back on any other time I’d ever made that journey to remember.
What Kunstler so clearly articulates in his book, and specifically in the quote I have included above, is that the majority of people in America are no longer aware of the unconscious unease they feel in the lives that they are living. Having grown up in what Kunstler refers to as “America’s Man-Made Landscape”, many people have never experienced life in a community where natural connections can be made and in which human beings are able to share and exist with one another in a, for lack of a better word, human way. As I plan on heading out on a road-trip around America again over the course of the next year, I suppose it is a place like this that I am looking for.
[photo taken by me - my mother hula hooping at a rest step along I-70 in june 2009]
Portland really is an exciting town. It dances around the decades as you see a group of kids in flannel with devil locks, pumping dimes into a pinball machine and sipping water out of a kleen kanteen. You can order beer in movie theaters, pay five dollars for great shows and fish for salmon. It’s filled with young people - artists, environmentalists and students - who all share similar tastes in music and style.
As an environmentalist and student of urban planning, I consider Portland a monumental success. But as a New Yorker, I can’t help to notice one weird thing about it: there are no people of color.
I think that Kunstler romanticizes the city a bit too much. Aside from being a little too generous about the weather, he does not discuss the demographic makeup of the city as well as one should in his type of analysis. He describes the neighborhood of Albina as “racially mixed,” (203) which again, is very generous description of the area. The reason Kunstler may think that Albina is racially mixed is that it is the only neighborhood you’ll find any black, hispanic or south asian families. Kunstler fails to discuss how Portland is one of America’s most homogenous cities. According to a 2008 census, white residents make up 79% of Portland’s population. While Kunstler discusses land-use policies such as the Urban Growth Boundary, he neglects to mention half a century of legislation and zoning that makes Portland the white-bread town it is.
After four years living in Portland, my sister is finally ready to come back. When I asked her why, she told me that she could not find a single hip hop show in town. I think that we should celebrate Portland’s for its bold policies in environmental protection and zoning. But Portland still lacks some of the fundamental qualities that makes a city like New York - despite its crass skyline - a city of the world.
The real problem in Schuylerville wasn’t industrialization, though—it was the collapse of local business. When the Boston and Maine rail service left Schuylerville, and Interstate 87 missed the town by 10 miles, traffic that kept the local stores, restaurants, and motels in business dried up, and so did the town’s economy. Kunstler describes the fate of the city as typical—the ever-encroaching “national economy” ate up any locality that once existed in the town, leaving only big business and government grants to take care of feeding and housing the residents today. Neither of these entities, according to Kunstler, cares enough to make the city hospitable. And so Schuylerville, as it once was –communal, thriving, and locally functional—has ceased to exist.
The result, says Kunstler, is a city in total disarray. “The people who live here are losing ground steadily and drastically. Their institutions have failed them,” he says (Kunstler, 183). He describes broken homes, teenage pregnancy, drug use, and other behavior he claims we only expect in “inner-city ghettos” (Kunstler, 183). As I was reading this account, it seemed like an extreme case to me. It seemed even more unlikely when I went online to read about Schuylerville today, and found their website filled with thriving local history, and an impressive list of non-Wal-Marty businesses. Granted, Kunstler hates the “Revolutionary War angle” that could make “America one big theme park,” but at least there’s more there than the locked-up shell of a chain grocery store, which is basically the picture Kunstler paints. Then I went to their school’s website, which definitely displays more community support and nurturing environments than Kunstler’s lonely prefab youth center. Finally, the website where I got my image—this blog talks about how the recent repaving of several streets in Schuylerville has really spruced everything up.
So it seems like things might be turning around these days for ol’ Schuylerville. But I still believe in the essence of what Kunstler says in this chapter, even if he did lay it on kind of thick. For one thing, the gas station in my picture is not locally owned—it’s run by the Cumberland Farms company. And Kunstler’s idea—that economy creates community, which creates a nice place to live—isn’t completely unique. I was reminded in this chapter of Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, a book written in 1979 about the narcissistic mindset of Americans in the latter half of the 20th century (and how we got that way). Lasch’s book is filled with pitfalls and weird ideas, certainly, but the one thing I always agreed with whole-heartedly was his argument that the economy in America has become too specialized and too national, destroying local communities and man’s ability to perform several tasks he relies on daily (like farming, building, etc.). Most of us wouldn’t know how to grow our own food, and according to Lasch, this affects our ability to contribute in an immediate way to the community we live in—we can’t see our neighbors benefiting daily from the food we worked to grown, and therefore they become more distant to us.
But this chapter also stuck with me because it reminded of my old stomping grounds, Austin, Texas. Austin is home to the famous “Keep Austin Weird” slogan, which was developed by the Austin Independent Business Alliance in order to promote local businesses. It seems to have worked pretty well in Austin (because we really like weird stuff there) and the slogan has been used by several other cities trying to hold on to local business as well (Kunstler’s praised Portland being one of them)! So the fight to keep small business is a serious one when trying to create a real and lasting sense of place—and it shows how much an economy can change something as seemingly unchangeable as a historic town. Stay weird, ya’ll!
To begin, Kunstler points out some of the features that he believes bring on nausea and depression. He complains that one of these is “the ubiquity of other people’s taillights and bumpers always in your face” (208). Los Angeles is famous for its traffic. Everyone knows to avoid the 405 and 101 between the hours of four and seven on any weekday, and Kunstler loves to point this out. He fails to mention that traffic can be a gift. For my four years of high school my commute was about 25 minutes in the morning and could be anywhere between 40 minutes to an hour in the afternoon to get home. Instead of being angered and frustrated by this, I began to view my car as a home away from home. I would take different routes home every day to ensure less boredom. More than that, I viewed my time alone in the car as a positive thing, time for me to think about the day. Kunstler is also extremely narrow-minded when he points out the frustrations of travel in Los Angeles. Yes, traffic can at times make you want to scream, but I’ve had similar experiences in New York City, when the subway takes forever to come or it is nearly impossible to hail a cab.
Kunstler also believes that Los Angelenos created a new kind of architecture. He claims, “Here was a new relationship between things in the human habitat: crud on the outside and a jewelbox inside” (210). He uses examples of the most exclusive restaurants opening in office buildings lobbies. One of my favorite sushi restaurants for special occasions is located in a strip mall on Santa Monica Boulevard, sandwiched between a beauty supply store and a Coffee Bean. Inside, however, the restaurant is classic and elegant and really enjoyable to be in. Kunstler hates on this idea that the outside of a place doesn’t match the inside, but I find it fresh and exciting. It’s sort of like the idea of a speakeasy. Everyone who goes to these places goes there because they are “in the know”, not because they drove past and were intrigued. For me, this aspect makes the experience a little more special.
When it comes to Los Angeles, Kunstler is a pessimist who loves to point out all these negative things. But to me, many of his complaints are actually the characteristics that create the charm of Los Angeles.
Many of my fellow classmates spent the trip consuming the contraband they had snuck with them on the plane and trying to pass as twenty-one year olds so they could forget their parents had sent them to reconnect with their inner child before going off to college. My own experience of Disney World consisted of walking around with my art teacher and a small group of friends laughing at the cartoon versions of bad architecture, and at the real bad architecture (sorry, Michael Graves).
Disney World embodies many of the polemic thoughts Kunstler has about the rest of America. To start, it is a perfect example of what Kunstler refers to as Americans being “as addicted to illusion as they were to cheap petroleum”(169). Kunstler says that Disney “pretends so hard to be wholesome”(226) and that we follow this grand illusion because it makes us feel better about our lives in the places we call home. But behind this façade is an exploitative commercial scheme to ring visitors of their money. Kunstler gives examples, from Disney Dollars taken home as souvenirs and never spent, to Mickey Mouse ears that children “feel naked and ashamed”(224) without to show what a ruthless trap Disney World actually is. I really felt this trap through Kunstler’s point that Mainstreet USA opens half an hour before the rest of the park, so visitors are literally trapped in the pleasant little fake town of souvenir shops. This feeling of being corralled was something that I noticed while in the park, but reading Kunstler has magnified the feeling in retrospect.
So why are adults addicted to the illusion of Disney World? If they are not interested for their own sake, then maybe for the sake of their children. But Kunstler gives examples of children throwing fits and being bored by lines to dispute this claim as well. Disney World is constructed in the same artificial way of many American towns, just with a little more pastel and many more creepy life-sized cartoon characters- it seems to be a sterilized caricature of our everyday life.
This past August I went with my brother, sister and mom to Portland, Oregon for a week long visit. Having never been before, we were inspired by all the good things we had been told about the city. The first thing that stuck us was the friendliness of the cab driver who took us from the airport to the hotel. Next, the weather. We were coming from humid, 90 degree days on the east coast, and there, in the dead of summer, the air was light and rarely surpassed 75 degrees. When we arrived at our hotel in downtown Portland we were a bit surprised by the lack of pedestrians. The streets we nearly empty save for quite a few vagrants who, I realized, were there for the near-perfect climate.
The next day there were a few more people out; as the week passed, it was clear that downtown was not the most popular area. But that was because it housed the majority of the city’s office buildings. To the north was the Pearl District, a seemingly younger, and more up-and-coming area, full of boutiques and diverse restaurants. Also enjoyable were the Hawthorne and Alberta districts, across the river to the west.
As the week passed, I remained content, enjoying the overwhelming number of food carts, Powell’s books, the greenery, and the weather. It was certainly not what I expected–I had never spent much time in the west, and was used to the more frenetic pace of the north eastern cities–but nevertheless, I grew to appreciate it. Still, despite how pleasant my time there was, I don’t think I was fully fulfilled. Kunstler comments on its favorable zoning code, requiring buildings “to have display windows at street level” and to be “built out to the sidewalk,” two qualities which from earlier chapters we know are very important to Kunstler’s idea of good civic planning. Likewise, the Urban Growth Boundary, past governor, Tom McCall, and mayor, Neil Goldschmidt, helped to instill such civic-minded things as the electric street car, an unobstructed waterfront, and parks (to name a few) and keep out what Kunstler dreads most, suburban sprawl.
To Kunstler, Portland, Oregon is a good place. And I agree. However, I argue that it can’t be seen as the exemplary American city. Although culturally diverse, Portland did seem lacking in some regard. That is not to say it is doing anything wrong, rather, it is just not all encompassing (granted, my time there may have been to short to pass any judgement). I guess it just seemed a bit placid, which, don’t get me wrong, can be idyllic. Nevertheless, being less of an opponent to Modernism than Kunstler, I do enjoy the occasional austere, yet striking buildings of van der Rohe, Johnson, Saarinen and the like. Function aside (I know, that sounds ignorant), I think such boastful buildings, when made in good taste, can often signify a place of rich intellect and artistry. I think this is what concerned me a bit about Portland: it seemed so casual, it’s architecture struck me neither as impressive nor displeasing, but rather sort of unimaginative, and its streets just seemed a little desolate at times. In other words, it seemed quite happy with its current state, and rightfully so, but it didn’t appear to be pushing the envelope. Of course, it seems that New York has all that Portland lacks, yet I do not want to use it as an example, for it too may not be exemplary. Rather, I will look at Savannah, Georgia.
I visited Savannah for the first time this past winter break. I was there for a disappointingly short amount of time, one night and about a half of a day. Still, it left a terrific impression on me. When I arrived in the late evening, the streets were still quite lively, filled with a diverse bunch of people. The following morning and afternoon I spent walking, trying to fit in as much of the city as I could within my time constraints. The parks, as Kunstler mentions early in the book, are tranquil and alluring. The streets are filled with people, professionals and students alike. The architecture is gorgeous, mostly victorian, gothic, and greek revival, and hence, quite close to the ground, comparatively speaking. Savannah College of Art and Design provides the city with a home base for the arts and perhaps stands in place of Modernist architecture as a visible example of the city’s art patronage.
I thoroughly enjoyed Portland. I question not its status as a good place, for surely it is one, but rather it being the closest thing to a perfect American city. To me, Savannah seemed to have it right: the landscape is beautiful, the city is well-planned, clean, and the culture seemed more liminal, closer to the edge of what’s to come.
In the suburbs I
I learned to drive
And you told me we'd never survive
Grab your mother's keys we're leavin'
-The Suburbs, Arcade Fire
Although Los Angeles can't really be considered a suburb it is undoubtedly a sprawling metropolis spawned in an age of transportation. The hour commute to work made living secluded in the hills or up the coast at the beach possible. In his book The Geography of Nowhere Kunstler describes Los Angeles in his chapter Three Cities “For in LA they have built a metropolitan system so physically enormous and so enormously susceptible to sudden ruin”(207). He goes on to talk about one of the more fascinating aspects of LA's aesthetic saying the cities landscape or “long views uplifted the spirit” while the “it's the short views in LA that bring on melancholia” (207). The long views being the Hollywood sign, the vast Pacific ocean, the hills and the twinkling lights and the short views being the monotonous block architecture, freeways, and streetscape. There had to be something to get away from it all. The escape became hiding in the Range Rover as you sat in bumper to bumper traffic and as the “Angelene landscape became more clotted with cars, oil rigs, and absurd commercial architecture, and the inside of buildings became more important than the outside”(210).
While Kunstler is quick to criticize the Los Angeles asthetic I disagree because these so called flaws are what give the city its character. It wouldn't be “better” if it were designed ideally, it is unique. His main focus about LA is not its appearance but what lies beneath: the destructive mindset. I will certainly agree with Kunstler on the unsustainable design of the city. Kunstler even goes on to say LA is irresponsibly naïve. Kunster changes the dial on his LA rental car in hopes of hearing some news about the invasion of Kuwait yet finds nothing “Their complete obliviousness to a world situation that threatened their way of life seemed to exemplify what is wrong with their city and their vaunted culture” (207). One physical manifestation of this mindset is the oil rigs literally in downtown LA. “The pumps nodded next to grammar schools, in orange groves, in vacant lots, between office blocks, out by the beach, in back yards”(209). I find urban drilling to be an a perfect juxtaposition of producers and consumers. Many, like those at Beverly Hills High School where a fully operational rig pumps which pumps hundreds of barrels of crude oil every day, have quite an opposition. Veneco Oil, which owns and operates this and many other “discrete” urban drilling sites that tap into the Beverly Hills Oil Field are criticized and have even had multiple lawsuits against them from conserned parents of students at Beverly Hills High School. While this may be a valid health concern it is these very parents who are demanding the oil. LA is the biggest purchaser of gas guzzling Range Rovers, BMWs and one of the biggest consumers of gasoline in the world. The school also gets hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties each year from Veneco. The old notion of “Not in my backyard” is a problem with the LA mentality which would prefer “out of site out of mind”.
Kunstler discusses Walt Disney World in his chapter called capitals of unreality. He discusses how Walt Disney World has an aura of dread underlying the attractions. He goes over an average trip to disney, what it is like getting there, spending a day there, getting on the rides. However he makes everything seem horrible and contaminated about the park, like Walt Disney World is like a cheeseburger, it tastes good but is horrible for your body. Walt Disney world may look picture perfect but to Kunster, it is filled with fakeness and morbidity.
I have to say I am somewhat annoyed at Kunstler’s judgements on Walt Disney World. Maybe it is because I have a very strong attachment to the parks. I have been there about a dozen times in my life, two times in the last year alone. So I will be first to admit that I have a very personal connection to Walt Disney World. The theme park is definitely a capital of unreality but why is that a bad thing? The whole idea is the MAGIC of disney, being there is supposed to be like a dream, (as the tagline to the themepark says, where all your dreams come true).
Also even though the rides and everything are fun, I do think it makes a big difference who you are with. I picture going there with my family, and everyone is happy and having fun because there is something there for everyone and every age. But being with your loved ones is definitely what brings out the magic in disney. I wonder if Kunstler just went by himself, a man with a frown and a notepad being shoved around and only concentrating on the negative, like the 80 degree weather or the overweight people driving around on electric wheelchairs. As he writes about Walt Disney world he wrote nothing about the good experiences that make the park worthwhile, but talks about the negative aspects of the unreality. I feel like throwing him on Splash Mountain with my little cousin, maybe that will bring out the magic in him.
There are some points that Kunstler brings up that are very true, and I know that I tend to turn a blind eye to them while I am there. A bunch of the rides have a sick and twisted side and definitely have a weird theme of death and mayhem. The tower of terror still terrifies me to this day. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride also got in trouble recently for
I agree with him that Walt Disney World does seem to have an underlying theme of morbidity, but I think it is also approaching the theme that you cannot have the bad without appreciating the good. Every ride tells a story, and tell me a good story that you heard recently that one of the characters did not die in? One of the theme parks main attractions, Fantasmic is a light show that spends a solid ten minutes on all of the villans and horrible scenes but then shows them all being destroyed by love and the imagination and such. Yes it has its morbid part but then it shows the happiness, and I am ashamed to say that I tear up almost every time at the end, and I start to believe in my dreams. So yes Walt Disney world may be very unrealistic and a classic example of the corporate pirates in America that Kunstler is fascinated with. But without places like this give happiness and love to families across America, and Kunstler in my opinion is just choosing to look at the bad and closing himself off to the magic of disney.
What is perhaps most poignant about this section of the book is Kunstler’s point that the joke is on us. He writes: “If the ordinary house of our time seems like a joke, remember that it expresses the spirit of our age. The question, then, is : what kind of joke represents the spirit of our age? And then answer is: a joke on ourselves” (166). He uses the example of the ridiculous lawn ornaments that people place in their yards that result in the homeowner’s surpassing of “his own humorous intentions. This is what comes of living in houses without dignity” (167). Kunstler reminds us a page later that “if nothing is sacred, then everything is profane” which is why most American houses lack charm. Charm, the essential ingredient, is missing and this is why we no longer have places worth caring about. Finally, he suggests that Americans in the postwar era preferred living in a fantasy: “They preferred lies. And the biggest lie of all was that the place they lived was home” (169).
But there are greater implications for creating places worth caring about. Kunstler shows a direct relationship between the decline in a successful community--which also means a successful economy--and the moral degradation of a place. It is not surprising that with the economic decline in his old town of Schuylerville came a rise in crime, the breakup of families, increases in teen pregnancy, and the like. Kunstler blames this on the growing national economy and the decline of a local one: "What happened to Schuylerville..typifies the fate of farm and factory towns throughout upstate New York, parts of New England, and the Midwest: as our national economy became more gigantic, local economies ceased to matter. And with that they ceased to be communities in the most meaningful sense, though people and buildings remained" (180).
Kunstler’s descriptions and reactions to Disney World and Atlantic City seem to echo in individual ways in the city of Las Vegas. Las Vegas seems to take the worst of both worlds and combine them to create its own identity as the “capital of unreality” (217).
The main purpose of Las Vegas has become the pursuit of making money, both for visitors and resident businesses. What Kunstler attributes to Atlantic City in its ambition and folly is equally attributed to Las Vegas. Where Atlantic City may be a Notre Dame for gamblers, Las Vegas serves as a Vatican for those members of the “religion based on the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing” (232). What sets Vegas above Atlantic City is the caliber of worshipers who flock to it and by association elevate its status as the ultimate adult playground with its “wicked promises of endless fun” (231). Where you get more welfare hangers-on and suburban troglodytes who seek the sustenance of cheap drinks and spine-tingling slot machine bells in Atlantic City, you get more shipping-tycoons and captains of industry seeking an oasis respite from the endless international odysseys of their Cessna Citations and Falcon 7X’s. As Kunstler puts it, Vegas may be “out in the middle of nowhere” (233), but its visitors tend to “stick around for a few nights” (233) more, mainly due to the more polished nature and brighter sense of promise it preaches.
What Disney does for the children who line its hollow streets and adorn hats of its countless idols, Vegas does for its patrons, in its own way. It creates a sense of belonging and unity in terms all adults identify with: money. Kunstler talks about a fantasy place having its own currency:
“you can trade your U.S. currency for Disney Dollars ‘ good for dining and merchandise’ all over the Magic Kingdom and its dependencies. This supposedly enhances the illusion of being in a special land” (218)
Kunstler’s not wrong here. What Disney perfects, and what Vegas adopts, is this sense of branding the identity of the “place” with the sense of belonging and promised happiness intrinsic in the establishment. There are no “Vegas Dollars” but there are “chips” for each respective casino and they carry a value that can be acquired with any currency and exchanged in countless ways for fun activities.
Poker, Blackjack, Roulette, Craps – there are many signature games, wrapped in the identity of Vegas, that serve to welcome you to the club. One must exchange outside money for inside money to participate, and when one is successful, her acquires more inside money that can be used for further fun. It’s a system of revolving good times that constantly keeps visitors feeling a yearning to remain.
Kunstler also talks about the physical elements of Disney World and how they help transport visitors to a “Magic Kingdom”. The “false fronts” (220), as he calls them, are designed to “add to [the] charm” of the place and create a sense of “feel and fit of things” (221). What a child sees in the towering pink palace and adorned, life-sized teacups of the Magic Kingdom, an adult sees in the Olympic-sized “Greek” swimming pools and gilded “Forum” shopping arcades of Caesar’s Palace.
Vegas is a place of over 30 individual, mini Disney Worlds. The Venetian, Caesar’s Palace, The MGM Grand, The Wynn, The Luxor, Treasure Island, New York-New York, The Paris Hotel, just to name a few; each using the same cookie-cutter techniques of branding and idealizing to attract reality exiles and keep them in a world of fantasy.
The Luxor is its own little slice of Egypt, complete with a sphinx and obelisk to complement the obtrusive Black Pyramid that serves as the main hotel unit. A visitor can be photographed with “Egyptians” in authentic looking garb on “realistic” looking backgrounds. Depending on where one finds himself, he may forget altogether that, while he is in the desert, there is no Nile river nearby, only a man-made half-pipe transporting the city’s sewage from the streets to water treatment facilities outside the Strip.
The Paris Hotel lays similar claims – you can be transported to the city of love. There’s a “real” Eifel Tower and the lobby is decorated in a mixture of true Baroque and Louis XVI style. The concierge (a French word, of course) lounge is “Le Rendezvous” (for a fee) offering “breath-taking views” of the Eifel Tower and there’s even an opening planned for a “Chateau Nightclub” sure to make you feel like French Royalty, because after all, “everything’s sexier in Paris”.
As Kunstler would point out, these constructs serve to “emphasize the illusion of one’s taking a journey to a strange land” (219) where happiness awaits you and the real world or decaying America is a distant memory.
I agree with Kunstler in that he ultimately argues that these places like this for children and the adult versions like Las Vegas have sprung up due to the “crisis of place in America” (217). He points out the irony that society constructs places to serve as escapes from reality, when the same principals, intentions, and motives are responsible for the void of place that we so desperately seek rescue from in most of America. Kunstler points it out best in his discussion of Disney World’s “Main Street USA”. Where patrons of the park flood the facades of small town shops and enjoy the “well-proportioned streets” (220), they are ultimately drawn back to the “massive volumes of cheap merchandise” (220) that frankly guides the endless array of suburban sprawl that most of them probably fled from in the first place. In Vegas, adults seek escape and recreation in a place focused on the consumption, unrealistic acquisition, and false sense of happiness rooted in money, when most Americans already spend most of theirs in that pursuit. The only difference is they don’t have flashing lights, sounding chimes, and bejeweled performers around when they’re doing it back in “reality”.
At one point towards the end of the chapter, Kunstler touches on current building codes and zoning regulations; these rules make it difficult to build houses in the older architectural styles that strongly evoke the sense of home or community we so often look for in our personal dwellings and surroundings. He explains:
There are a great many fine examples of “Victorian” houses in Saratoga. These are the houses that wear the little brass plaques from the town historical society. These are the houses that tourists still come to see and enjoy, the houses that the community treasures, that give the town its character, its charm, that make the place worth caring about. (170)
This particular passage reminds me of a small town in South Jersey about ten minutes away from my high school. Europeans first settled in Haddonfield, New Jersey, about 300 years ago. The main street and those branching from it are lined with stores and houses of different sizes and styles that show the town’s age. In fact, Haddonfield contains many of the different house styles Kunstler mentions in the chapter.
When traveling through Haddonfield, one definitely gets a sense of the past and a sense of community. Walking down the main street, Kings Highway, is nothing like walking through the halls of the nearby Cherry Hill Mall, especially because of the friendly, small-town atmosphere the mall clearly lacks. The unique shops lining the street and overall personable locals inevitably call to mind the charm about which Kunstler writes (168).
But it is the combination of all of these things – the many houses of various architectural styles and sizes, the main street crowded with friendly people and lined with a variety of small shops – that enables this small-town charm. As Kunstler suggests, it is likely that without one of these components, the whole atmosphere of the place would change.
His point is even further proven for me when I think about my neighbor’s Victorian-style house. I live in a rural part of New Jersey in a wooded development set far back from the road. Our neighborhood is relatively new, but even despite this fact, I feel like it would be difficult to create a sense of community similar to the one that can be found in Haddonfield.
The only thing that separates our house from our neighbor’s is a couple hundred feet and some trees, but that Victorian-style house, along with all of the others in my neighborhood, seem to be a world away. In my development, at least, it seems that it doesn’t matter what type of house you have or what that particular architectural style may call to mind for you. It’s true that a house can become one’s home over time, but whether or not one’s neighborhood can eventually grow into a cohesive, supportive community without some kind of glue is a different story.
Cottage Residences begins with Downing explaining his philosophy on home architecture. “As the first object of a dwelling is to afford a shelter to man, the first principle belonging to architecture grows out of this primary necessity and it is called the principle of Fitness or usefulness. After this man naturally desires to give some distinctive character to his own habitation to mark its superiority to those devoted to animals. This gives rise to the principle of Expression of Purpose. Finally the love of the beautiful inherent in all finer natures and its exhibition in certain acknowledged forms has created the principle of the expression of Style. In other words all these principles may be regarded as sources of beauty in domestic architecture. Fitness being the beauty of utility. Expression of purpose the beauty of propriety and Expression of Style the beauty of form and sentiment which is the highest in the scale” (Downing, 10). Kuntsler would agree to some of the benefits of Downing’s architectural philosophies (i.e. utility, practicality). But, beyond that, the outcome of the influential Cottage Residences ironically led to mass-produced cookie cutter houses.
In the rush to buy home, the “product”, the beauty and style Downing described merely became a template for mass selling of similar houses. Kuntsler argues that this, in turn, led to a lack of community. “The most influential model for the new postwar suburbia remained Downing’s ideal of the villa in the country, which had no pretenses of being part of a ‘city’ of any kind” (p. 165). Thus, Downing too, falls into the category of aiding the creation of what Kuntsler considers evil suburbia. Kuntsler continues, “The places they stand are just different versions of no-where, because these houses exist in no specific relation to anything except the road and the power cable” (p. 166). What Downing created as a pioneer in the architectural scene at the time ironically became contradictory to his intentions in the homes he crafted. As he describes in his book, unity with nature and beauty of form were highly important in the housing patterns he and Davis created. With the growing industrial middle class and the mass production of the housing market, Downing’s homes were used as rubrics for the production of cookie-cutter suburbia.
“Yet the Disney order is no accidental by-product. Rather, it is a designed-in feature that provides–to the eye that is looking for it, but not to the casual visitor –an exemplar of modern private corporate policing. Along with the rest of the scenery of which it forms a discreet part, it too is recognizable as a design for the future. We invite you to come with us on a guided tour of this modern police facility in which discipline and control are, like many of the characters one sees about, in costume.”
In the chapter “Capitals of Unreality,” Kunstler describes the phenomena of Walt Disney’s Disneyland and Disney World, those whose environments–much like the place described by Shearing and Stenning– of “innocence and fun finally cannot conceal the aura of dread that underlie [their] attractions.” Much like shopping malls and cities such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Disney World is constructed as a magical getaway from modern suburban sprawl, private space masquerading as public space. Because it is actually private space, Disney World is an excellent place for behavior to be controlled and policed in the ways both Shearing and Stenning and Kunstler describe. On page 219 of The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler describes a hypothetical day of fun on the 28,000 acres of Disney World. As opposed to being a conventional public realm, the behaviors and movements of patrons are closely monitored––beginning with a ferryboat ride across an artificial lake into the park. “This will be the first of many crow-control experiences–and resulting lines–that add to Disney World’s air of fascism.” (Kunstler, 219)
As a child, I always loved flying down to Orlando and going to Disney Land with my parents and older brother. But despite my love for Disney (or maybe because of it), I am very interested in the sinister ghosts and ghouls that Kunstler found in all of the things that most people find pleasing about Disney World: rampant images of death and destruction (pirates ravishing women and "jungle" cannibals feasting on New Worlders, making an astute but morbid speculation that we may soon have a Disney Land that toon-ifies Blood-Crip gang wars) and ravenous consumerism. Even the image I posted, of Disney World’s Main Street USA done up in all garish colors for the holiday season, takes on a startling sinister look after a reading of Kunstler. The existence of Disney’s cartoon version of a “Main Street” is unpleasant in that it seems to imply that we modern Americans no longer need Main Streets in our own suburban neighborhoods, that we favor corporate gigantism over human contact, and that “a big corporation [like Disney’s] could make a better Main Street than a bunch of rubes in a small town.” (221)
Kunstler is obsessed with hating cars. After breaking down the way in which cars essentially created and then ruined the city of Detroit he speaks briefly about Greenfield Village, a town outside of Detroit, built by Henry ford as a monument to the pastoral town of America's past.
He describes the town as idyllic, with gardens, a village green, a main street with small businesses, and an generally slowed pace. Kunstler also reiterates many times the lack of cars in the village. In these respects, it has the very ingredients of American townscape that is so rarely in existence today and we for a second wonder, wait, is this a place Kuntsler actually likes?
No. In typical fashion, he attacks. He points out the many flaws of this place - the fact that it costs money to enter, exists as a restoration of something that never truly existed, and is ultimately a tourist attraction - and then finishes the section with the line, "[Greenfield Village] makes me ashamed of our civilization."
Doing a bit more research on Greenfield Village, I couldn't agree more with Kuntsler. Not only is Greenfield village ironic in that it was created by Henry Ford and stands for everything that he destroyed with his industry, but in the fact that it has fabricated a history that never really existed in its place. It is an amalgamation of symbols of our past placed together to be celebrated in an economically viable way. The illusion of history seduces us here, but in my opinion, Greenfield village is no better an example of American townscape than Disneyland.
Visiting Greenfield Village is described on its website as being "like stepping into an 80 acre time machine." "You can ride in a genuine model T or ride a train with a 19th century steam engine." This place is a veritable museum. It is a hyperreality, and mostly, a tourist attraction. It is a town with hours and admission prices, which in and of itself makes it...not a town.
And while Greenfield Village may look idyllic and beautiful and recall the American townscape of our past through symbols it lacks the real connections, the real local economy, the true idea of home that a town is created on the basis of and thrives on. It is a place made in order to be visited, not a place carved out by generations of social processes.
Nestled in foothills of Rocky Mountains the town of Boulder is home to almost 30,000 college students. Many residents live on University Hill, where pedestrians are often on sidewalks walking past local businesses on small narrow streets lined with parallel-parked cars. Because it is possible to live in Boulder without a car, resident homes and commercial spaces can be found on the same block. Typically, low-income college kids live in five- seven bedroom old Victorian houses, just within blocks of huge stone single-family homes. Geographically, Boulder is only an hour away from expansive mountain ranges that provide the opportunity for great skiing and snowboarding. By Kunstler’s standards, Boulder Colorado is a good place.
While Boulder has adopted policies to control urban expansion, such as ordnances limiting building heights and tax increases for development in open space, much of the town’s atmosphere has not been designed solely by city planners. The type of charm Kunstler describes in Portland is found in Boulder partly because of the University of Colorado and the students who inhabit the places surrounding the campus (Boulder is considered a “college town”). Most students don’t have cars, hints a need for mixed-use spaces where stores are easily assessable on foot. Many live on a budget and are therefore willing to reside in old homes with many roommates. The sense of community in Boulder is astounding due to the university culture in the town. Along with general intellectual life, there is a strong presence of environmental and social consciousness.
Something interesting about the city of Portland is its ability to maintain the small town feel, (which Boulder, population 97,385,has captured), while existing as a large city (population: 537,081). While the city of Portland benefits from an urban growth boundary, cities that grow in urban commercial fashions are often places where people also like to be (note high populations in metropolitan cities). Perhaps Kunstler’s definition of Portland as a good place that currently exists in America is related to his nostalgia for his own college town in Brockport NY, which he also describes as an ideal place (14).
"City of Boulder Community Data." Resident Information. City of Boulder, Feb 28, 2011. Web. 28 Feb 2011. <http://www.bouldercolorado.gov/>.
"U.S. Census Bureau." State & County QuickFacts. Census Bureau, 2009. Web. 28 Feb 2011. <http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/08/0807850.htmlhttp://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/08/0807850.html>.