Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes
The Geography of Nowhere was published in 1993, but it would still be a newsworthy contribution to our understanding of current North American society if it were published here in 2007. Putting it in other words, James Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere was way ahead of its time, and remains an insightful assessment of what is wrong with most American (and, I would argue, Canadian) "communities".
Perennially cheap oil has driven developers and planners over the past few decades to build spread-out, vehicle-centric monocultures in which citizens are typically unable to safely and comfortably walk from home to a store to buy a loaf of bread. Notwithstanding this sorry state of affairs, the average citizen unconsciously accepts this horrendous way of life that, as Kunstler puts it, demands that vehicle ownership be a condition of citizenship.
We have been collectively oblivious to the increasing costs of maintaining sprawl, and it is now to the point where entire suburban subdivisions could be abandoned once cheap oil disappears. I live in such a suburb, north of Toronto, and I can easily picture much of this area becoming a valueless slum within two generations. In fact, video footage of my hometown of Richmond Hill is featured in the documentary The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream, in which James Kunstler is a keynote spokesperson.
It was particularly gratifying to read three sections of the book that validated views and conclusions that I made years ago:
The first section addresses the "Renaissance Center" in downtown Detroit, which Kunstler describes as having been a financial and social disaster from day one. I lived two miles from the "Ren Cen" between 1979 and 1981, which were the promising early years for the five-tower complex. With great expectations, I visited the Ren Cen several times, with friends. We took the tunnel bus under the Detroit River from Windsor, and tried to enter the building on foot. As Kunstler describes well, it is really difficult to walk into the building... pedestrians need to negotiate ramps designed for fast vehicular egress. It was always unnerving walking to and from the complex.
Once inside the Ren Cen, we would usually head up to the revolving bar and restaurant on the top floor of the tallest tower. Patrons had to pay an admission fee to ride the elevator to the top, and there was often a lineup to board the elevator. Once up in the bar, you needed to buy drinks at a rate that kept the servers happy; they were conscious of "loiterers" nursing one drink just to stay up there and enjoy the view. A public space this was NOT! I clearly recall getting into an argument with a server who announced that I wasn't buying enough drinks, and that I had better order another round, or leave. I left, never to return.
After my last visit, I heard an hilarious yet telling news report of enterprising locals coming in to the Ren Cen from off the street and taking the five feet tall potted plants that were in the corridors for decorative purposes (i.e. the plants were property of the Ren Cen), and selling them to passers-by for $50 each!
The second section of the book that validated my own long-held beliefs deals with theme parks, and with Disney in particular. Kunstler hits the nail on the head when he speaks of "Disney World's air of fascism". Even before reading this book, I concluded that the managers of theme parks, with their technology of crowd control (often bordering on manipulation), which now includes fingerprinting, should be hired as consultants should our federal government decide to implement a totalitarian state.
In fairness, I have not been to any Disney facility; I have boycotted them, and would not visit even if you paid me. On the other hand, I have "experienced" Busch Gardens in Florida, and Cedar Point in Ohio; when in these places, it is clear that you are not supposed to think for yourself. These "experiences" are the antithesis of spontaneity: you are to move where they tell you, when they tell you. I found these "experiences" to be mind numbing, stultifying and pointless.
The third section describes the City of Los Angeles. I have visited LA a number of times. Only my first visit was a voluntary vacation trip; all subsequent visits were for business or for family functions. To get the most out of LA, you need lots of money, a motor vehicle, and patience to endure profound traffic jams. Clearly, this prescription is not sustainable. I recall trying to drive six miles to Dodger Stadium on a weeknight to see a baseball game. I allowed two hours to get there, and had to abandon my plans after 90 minutes, because to that point I'd driven only two miles.
Kunstler serves up hopeful examples of good urban planning with his descriptions of Portland, Oregon and Seaside, Florida. In both of these communities, planners actually thought about and gave weight to the needs, values and interests of the human beings that would live there, and thankfully ascribed less importance to the fossil fuel-guzzling vehicles that might otherwise dominate with their resource-hungry predilections. For the most part, however, the might and desires of developers continue to trump city councils, planning departments and the aspirations of the average citizen.
In summary, I am grateful for Kunstler having written this book, because he makes me realize that I am not alone in thinking that we have created, and are now living in and getting used to, a toxic, unsustainable and increasingly inhuman field of unfulfillable dreams.
I highly recommend both The Geography of Nowhere, as well as Kunstler's later work, The Long Emergency. Both books deliver a refreshing yet sobering truth that blow away the deceit, lies and artifice within which most of us allow ourselves to float along from day to day, here in the "developed world".
Copyright © 2008 Bruce Rhodes. All rights reserved.