James Howard Kunstler: "America, Think Downscale!"

“People cannot stand too much reality.”

— Carl Jung

Baltimore, MD – James Howard Kunstler, controversial author and civic gadfly, was the keynote Humanities Symposium speaker on Feb. 20, 2007, at Loyola College. For years, he has been raising unholy cain about the decline of our major cities, and the strip-mallization of our once-unspoiled countrysides. He has also played the role of Cassandra, in warning about the potential harmful effects to the economy from the national addiction to fast-fading cheap oil. Kunstler intertwined the two subjects throughout his talk. His provocative lecture took place in the McManus theatre before a large, mostly student, audience.

Kunstler’s one hour-plus presentation varied from being funny, cynical, and downright depressing to being outright sarcastic. He used the words “piece of crap” a lot in describing the dismal architectural situation he found, on an aesthetic level, in so many U.S. cities, towns and in suburbia. He also utilized a slide show to make some of his more telling points. Kunstler said that U.S. oil production “peaked in the 1970s,” and that suddenly America was “importing” roughly a third of its oil. World oil production had peaked earlier, somewhere “in the 1960s.” The U.S. was importing a lot oil from Mexico, too, but he said that its main producing field has also “peaked.” In his book, “The Long Emergence,” Kunstler predicted that the age of the cheap oil economy is quickly passing, and that “globalism…will fizzle out.” One of its victims will be “suburbia.” Another victim, he added, and this brought cheers from the audience, will be that “warehouse on wheels–Wal-Mart.”

In one slide, Kunstler showed a picture of a typical street found in many suburbs. It showed automobiles riding on it, shopping strip-malls and assorted fast food joints, all set back off the highway, with large parking lots in front. It even had a water tower in it, with a “smiling face” painted on it. This is what our mania “for the automobile” has given our society, he emphasized. In another book, “The Geography of Nowhere,” he detailed how the powerful lobbies for the Automobile, Highway and Oil Industries had worked to destroy the streetcars that once filled our city streets. These same wirepullers then used the government to push the interstate highway system on the country. It was the automobile that enabled people to move out of the cities to suburbia. Kunstler wrote: “Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built since the end of WWII.” Now, America’s joyride with the automobile “is over,” he insisted, and suburbia will soon become “untenable.” Any “wishful thinking” about alternate energy solutions, “something for nothing,” and a belief in the “magic of technology” won’t solve the coming crisis. [1] All of that he said is like thinking you’re going to get rich by “winning the lottery.” America has to begin to think: “downscale!” Kunstler urged the country to immediately start revitalizing its railroad system, which he said was once the “envy of the world,” but presently resembles the antiquated system in place in “Bulgaria!”

I could identify with much of what Kunstler had to say. I grew up in the post-WWII era where a ride on a streetcar was not only cheap, but a pleasure. This was before the advent of the so-called “Urban Renewal Movement,” which ripped much of the soul out of downtown Baltimore; the emergence of the ugly mega-malls; the construction of the Beltway (I-695) around the city; and the building of the Interstate Highway System. Then, you could take an automobile drive from Baltimore, south to Annapolis, on old Ritchie Highway (Rt. 2). It was like traveling through an ancient forest, with trees lining both sides of the road. Today, you can mark your progress south, on that same road, by checking out the names on the different strip-malls, whose signs glare out at you like some primeval beasts. Before you crossed the bridge over the Severn River, which led to Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, there was a scenic overpass, with a spectacular view of the city and of the U.S. Naval Academy which hugs the southern shore of the Severn. The overpass is still there. But, Annapolis is fast becoming, like so many other colonial era jewels, another victim of urban sprawl.

Kunstler showed some slides of a few buildings that were erected in Troy, New York, in the early 20th century, late 19th century period, before there were any complicated code regulations on the law books. Back then, he said: “Developers didn’t dare put up a building that was ugly. It wouldn’t be tolerated by their peers…These buildings were generous to the public spirit, generous to the public realm. They gave you something to look at and some beauty to participate in.” He then contrasted those sterling efforts with a slide revealing two separate buildings which were recently constructed in Saratoga Springs, NY, (his present home town). They were subjected to a strict “multilayered building code.” He described the final product, as a “crummy senior citizens’ home, which is identical with a [building for] luxury housing for tourists.”

Kunstler said a key problem with respect to architecture is that there isn’t any room for “standards of excellence” in many of the “review design” codes, like a “criteria for what’s good and what’s not good.” As a result, he emphasized, it [the code] can’t produce “anything of quality.” He struck many of these same themes in, “The Geography of Nowhere.” In that tome, he complained about how “typical zoning laws not only failed to protect the landscape, they virtually mandated sprawl…He also warned about the continuing loss of farm land in the country. For example, in the book, he said the state of Vermont, “between 1950 and 1990, had lost 90 percent of its farms, roughly 20,000 down to 2,000.” He further wrote: “I’m not optimistic that government could intervene in the reallocation of land for farming.”

There was a time, too, when an unrepentant urbanite, like myself, looked forward, especially on a Sunday afternoon, taking a drive out in the countryside to check out the rolling hills of Maryland and its fine parks. For me, that usually meant heading north up towards the Pennsylvania line, along roads which now parallel the Interstate. Today, I-95, one of the most popular byways north, on any given day can easily become a parking lot, particularly, if there is any work being done on it, or if there even a minor fender bender accident along the way. In the summertime, with all the holiday traffic added to I-95, it is even worse. The I-95 corridor, above its I-695 intersection, has also experienced rapid development. A recent study showed that about 165,000 vehicles travel the span daily, up to the Delaware line, and that if nothing is done soon to improve the “existing road network,” serious problems lie ahead for all who will need to use it. [2]

One structure that Kunstler absolutely didn’t like was located in Baltimore. It’s a building, which is part of the Baltimore City Community College. It fronts on Lombard Street, near the Inner Harbor. On the slide showing the property, Kunstler placed the caption: “Mrs. Vader, can Darth come out and play?” He further joked: “There isn’t enough prozac in the world to make people feel okay about going in there.” He said he heard that they are talking about “getting rid of it,” even though it’s “only about 23 years old.” Kunstler said, that showed how much “people care about it. It is not okay to put up buildings that are unworthy of our affection.” Another photo revealed a bland, soulless edifice that was opposite a hotel in Baltimore, where the author had stayed last year. His caption for that one read: “Baltimore–Street of Death!” He called it a “rewarding experience going up the street there. What’s your reward? You get blasted with the exhaust [fumes] from the ventilation [vents].” One of the author’s main points in “The Geography of Nowhere,” is how the sterile-looking buildings, and their harsh settings, in the downtown areas of many of our major cities reflect images of “alienation and violence.”

Not too long ago, I was flying into Thurgood Marshall International Airport, (BWI), and I recall looking out the window as we got closer to landing–BWI is about 15 miles directly south of Baltimore–and seeing all of these bright lights. It was like I was glazing down on a huge Christmas garden, with thousands of little houses in it, all them lit up to the high heavens. I was actually gazing at northern Anne Arundel County, which in my youth was mostly a pristine area. It fronts partly on the waters and the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, where some city folks in the post-WWII era, then had summer cottages. I could also see the endless automobile traffic weaving its way in and out of the sprawling subdivisions and along the main highways feeding into them. The congestion was awful. I thought to myself: “What a mess!”

As for alternate fuels or energy procedures, Kunstler wrote: “No combination…will even permit us to operate a substantial fraction of the systems we currently run…We are in trouble.” In summing up, he said: “We are going to have to reorganize [in our society] as a whole vast system of local networks of economic interdependence…It’s a tremendous task…Dealing with these things,[however], will give you hope.” [3]


[1]. http://www.culturechange.org/fall_of_
For an essay on reliable alternate energy sources,
See http://egj.lib.uidaho.edu/egj09/youngqu1.html

[2]. http://www.mdtransportationauthority.com/mdta/servlet/

[3]. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3THGpS85ps