It's probably safe to say that more than a few of us here on SSP lit the urbanist fires in our bellies when we discovered the works of James Howard Kunstler -- particularly The Geography of Nowhere
and Home from Nowhere
At least I did. I remember reading these books for the first time and thinking that at last, here was someone who understood and who could articulate all these thoughts and feelings I had about the nature of communities, including my own. At last, here was someone who could explain not only that things were very wrong with modern American civilization, but why they were wrong.
And then I put the books away for a few years, read them again, put them away again. Here I am now slowly working my way through Geography of Nowhere
for the third time.
However, I'm finding that Kunstler's observations don't necessarily age well. It's apparent in the books but more so on his website, www.kunstler.com
, with its "Eyesore of the Month" section. What I find is that I'm tending to find Kunstler shrill, nostalgic for Victorian small-town life to the point of fetish, dismissive of the silliness that has always coursed through popular culture, and perhaps a bit too
gleeful about the oncoming collapse of modern society should the oil supply run out before alternative energies are found.
I get the feeling, in fact, that Mr. Kunstler would be very upset if an energy source were found to supplant oil.
Needless to say, it's starting to irritate me when I'm reading along and find myself thinking that the fads and obsessions of the middle class have always tended toward the vapid and pointless -- that wasn't a trend that just started with the onset of postwar suburbia. If you don't believe me, just take a look at some of the truly idiotic song lyrics and plots of novels published in the 1800's or the 1910's, '20's, or 30's. Trust me -- they weren't all Dickens and Fitzgerald.
It's begun to bother me to visit "Eyesore of the Month" and see Kunstler working himself into a lather over someone's display of Easter decorations
in a front window, or about the fact that there's a tattoo parlor
on Main Street. It bothers me that it would seem that Mr. Kunstler takes a dim view of the invention of the elevator. He is quite critical of skyscrapers in general, and seems to think that the only good community is an 1890's farming town. For an urbanist, in fact, James Howard Kunstler now comes across as strikingly anti-urban in his mindset. That's not to say that small towns can't display good urbanity, but...
Come to think of it, that's something else that's really getting under my skin -- willful omission. If you scroll through the various eyesores of the month, you'll see diatribes against New York's High Line Park
, innovative skyscrapers
, tall buildings
in general, modern art
in general, modern architecture
in general. What I'm seeing is that the author I once regarded as the arbiter of good urbanity has become a tantrum-throwing shrew deeply upset that the world won't fit into the box he wants to put it in.
Does he still have salient points? Of course. A lot of modern architecture is total shit, as is a lot of modern art. A lot of decisions are being made now that don't take the future into enough account. However, it's possible to take any philosophy too far, and as I reread these books, it's increasingly clear to me that James Howard Kunstler has done just that. There's a world beyond 1890's small-town Victoriana, but he doesn't want to see it. There is a place for cars in the bigger scheme of transportation, but he doesn't want to see that either. There is room for the new in art and architecture, so long as appreciation of the new isn't exalted into its own fetish, but there's no room for that knowledge in Kunstler's world view.
All in all, I think these books and their author have not aged well at all. What do you all say out there?