Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review: “The Geography of Nowhere”

Today is roughly the nine-month anniversary of this blog. With the gestation period complete, it’s time to introduce you to the really addictive stuff of urbanism. But the introduction comes with a note of caution. James Howard Kunstler is a marvelously entertaining author. However, his blend of eloquence, bluster, and self-righteousness can subvert weaker minds, leading them to become the bane of community meetings and dinner parties.

I’ll introduce you to Kunstler. Whether you choose to pursue him further is up to you. Choose wisely.

"The Geography of Nowhere" was Kunstler’s first work and remains his best known effort. It’s an extended diatribe about the recent pattern of American land use. It made Kunstler an immediate fixture in the urbanist world, although one who is treated much like a live grenade.

Kunstler begins "The Geography of Nowhere" at top speed and ramps up from there. He starts Chapter 1 by recounting the story of Judge Doom from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", the fictional character supposedly responsible for Los Angeles becoming engirded by freeways. Within a couple of paragraphs, Kunstler is quoting Lewis Mumford, the dean of American urban academicians in the first half of the 20th century.

And then, still on only his second page, Kunstler presents his thesis in the over-blown rhetoric of which he is a master:

"Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading – the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the ‘gourmet mansardic’ junk-food joints, the Orwellian office ‘parks’ featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chaingang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call ‘growth’."

Finding it hard to maintain that level of fire, the first part of the book is an uneven review of the history of how American land use came to its current state. However, Kunstler still manages to insert some zingers, such as the suggestion that the triumph of modern architecture was the direct result of Hitler’s preference for classical architecture. In Kunstler’s theory, the victors of World War II were forced to adopt modern architecture to avoid any connection to Nazism.

Another eye-opening moment is his claim that the long-time residential street width of 36 feet was chosen to provide sufficient space to clear the debris after a nuclear war.

The book wanders through a review of the urban histories of Detroit, Portland, and Los Angeles. Kunstler offers worthwhile and entertaining insights, but seems unsure of his path to a conclusion.

He begins to regain his footing when he reviews the places he calls "Capitals of Unreality". He notes the absurdity of people driving to Disney World, parking in over-sized lots, and then celebrating the car-free aura of Main Street USA.

He really gets rolling in his description of Woodstock, Vermont, portraying an economy based on the captains of industry arriving in luxury SUVs to shop for mementos of a time before industry or luxury SUVs held sway in Woodstock. The description induces both grins and grimaces.

Having restored his momentum and moving toward a grand finale, Kunstler offers his credentials for commenting on American land use.

"Born in 1948, I have lived my entire life in America’s high imperial moment. During this epoch of stupendous wealth and power, we have managed to ruin our greatest cities, throw away our small towns, and impose over the countryside a joyless junk habitat which we can no longer afford to support. Indulging in a fetish of commercialized individualism, we did away with the public realm, and with nothing left but private life in private homes and private cars, we wonder what happened to the spirit of community. We created a landscape of scary places and became a nation of scary people"

"The Geography of Nowhere" is the Long Island Iced Tea of urbanism. It can taste so good going down that you run the risk of over-imbibing and making a fool of yourself. But, excepting the occasional overstatement, Kunstler largely speaks the truth. An uncomfortable truth. Only you can make the decision whether you can handle the truth.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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