How cliché it has become to note suburbia with disdain. But what do we do about it? The mass exodus from our urban centers since the 1950s has left our cities gutted and strangled. This flight combined with the proliferation of single-use zoning laws, lop-sided property taxes and the spread of the “big box” retailer has created what novelist Tom Robbins called “suburbs without urbs.” While traveling around Kennesaw, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta) in late 1999 with a friend who’d just returned from four years of college, I noted how she kept pointing out rude structures and freeways, saying, “That wasn’t here, that wasn’t here, that’s new, that, too…” The five fastest growing counties in the country at the time were right around Atlanta. Everyone who’s returned to a city of any size after a hiatus as such has a similar story.
James Howard Kunstler has more such stories than most. He’s made it his business to document the ills of suburban sprawl, completely whacked zoning laws, and the politics of urban development, as well as the people who are doing things right. Starting with 1993’s Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler has given voice to something most of us never knew needed to speak.
Roy Christopher: What initially drove you to write about our country’s ever increasing suburban plight?
James Howard Kunstler: I observed the goddamned mess that we were making out of our landscape and townscapes and it occurred to me that this represented a significant problem for the future of our nation. Twenty-five years ago I was working ago as a newspaper reporter out of a brand new Modernist box office building on a spanking new suburban highway strip of malls, carwashes and muffler shops. I thought, “whoa, this shit is frightening. What are the implications?” Twenty years later, I started writing these books.
RC: I recently visited my parents who live in the Southeastern corner of Alabama, near the so-called “Circle City” of Dothan. The urban planners of Dothan built a circular bypass around Dothan (hence the name) — the Ross Clark Circle. Downtown businesses subsequently either perished or moved to the perimeter freeway (now ensconced in stripmalls, quick-lube joints, multi-acre parking lots and service roads and riddled by traffic lights – no longer much of a “bypass” in any sense of the word). My father and I engaged in many a heated debate about how bad things in Dothan were and how Enterprise (a local smaller town where I went to high school and where my parents spend much of their time) was quickly headed into exactly the same condition, the local planners having recently completed a circle around its perimeter.
How should the converted get the general populous (the unconverted and/or unaware) to understand and care about their civic environment?
JHK: I gave a speech in Birmignham, Alabama, three weeks ago, in which I suggested that we needed better reasons for defending our nation than just bargain shopping and fast food. Some guy got up during Q and A and denounced me, saying that to him (and, he implied, other folks in Birmingham) America was all about being able to choose whether to shop at the Walmart or the Kmart. Well, apart from the banality of that idea of patriotism, there is a whole argument to be advanced that the chain stores have exterminate local merchants — that is, put your neighbors out of business. And these neighbors, this merchant class that used to be present in every town big and small, comprised a big part of the middle class that took care of our civic institutions. Translation: the little league team used to be financed by Joe’s Hardware Store; now you have to get a grant from the state to cover the cost. In short, we are oblivious to the collateral costs of the choices me have made, and we are disgracing ourselves in the way we justify the destruction of our culture.
RC: Many authors (in my recent reading) who cultivate in fields tangential to yours (e.g. Neil Postman, Theodore Roszak, Kalle Lasn, and even Buckminster Fuller) focus on the evolution of technology’s effects on our times (television, computers, cars, etc.). Your position on cars is evident, but what’s your take on these developments in the context of urban design, civic life and our sense of community?
JHK: Well, we’ve turned our nation into a National Automobile Slum, from sea to shining sea. Parking Lot Nation. The greatest effect, apart from all the economic hazards and the logistical inconveniences of compulsory motoring, is that we’ve created 10,000 places that are not worth caring about. Imagine the corrosive effect of that on our national psychology. How soon before we become a land not worth defending? Anyway, I think we are generating so much anxiety and depression in our crummy everyday environments that there is not enough Prozac in the world to relieve it.
RC: What’s your opinion of the “culture jamming” and other movements aimed at reclaiming public space (e.g. critical mass, etc.)?
JHK: Critical Mass and other anti-car movements have been interesting symptoms of the widespread distress caused by these ghastly environments. They are mostly carried out by young men, who, in other cultures that are even more distressed, are throwing bombs and engaging in political violence, so the movements you mention are pretty mild stuff. As America melts down in the years ahead, mild stuff like “Critical Mass” may mutate into real bad civil disorder.
RC: Do you have any projects on the horizon?
JHK: My next book will be about the perils this nation faces in the next couple of decades, especially the disruptions we face when the cheap oil fiesta comes to its inevitable end. We are sleepwalking — even after 9 / 11 — into a whole range of problems, from the unwinding of our overly abstract financial system to the demise of our manufacturing capibility, to the end of the so-called “global economy” (a temporary set of business relations made possible by cheap oil), to climate change and epidemic disease. These will all synergize to create enormous problems in the world and compel us to live differently here in the USA.