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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Kunstler on suburbs

I recently finished James Howard Kunstler's book The Long Emergency, and must soon return it to the library. I previous excerpted several paragraphs from the book about globalization; before I return it, I thought I'd share a couple of paragraphs on one of Kunstler's favorite obsessions (and mine), suburbia:
What one also saw in the America of the 1980s and 1990s was commoditization and conversion of public goods into private luxuries, the impoverishment of the civic realm, and, to put it bluntly, the rape of the landscape--a vast entropic enterprise that was the culminating phase of suburbia. The dirty secret of the American economy in the 1990s was that it was no longer about anything except the creation of suburban sprawl and the furnishing, accessorizing, and financing of it. It resembled the efficiency of cancer. Nothing else really mattered except building suburban houses, trading away the mortgages, selling the multiple cars needed by the inhabitants, upgrading the roads into commercial strip highways with all the necessary shopping infrastructure, and moving vast supplies of merchandise made in China for next to nothing to fill up those houses.

The economy of suburban sprawl was a systemic self-organizing response to the availability of inordinately cheap oil with ever-increasing entropy expressed in an ever-increasing variety of manifestations from the destruction of farmland to the decay of the cities, to widespread psychological depression, to the rash of school shooting sprees, to epidemic obesity. Americans didn't question the validity of the suburban sprawl economy. They accepted it at face value as the obvious logical outcome of their hopes and dreams and defended it viciously against criticism. They steadfastly ignored its salient characteristic: that it had no future either as an economy or as a living arrangement. Each further elaboration of the suburban system made it less likely to survive any change in conditions, most particularly any change in the equations of cheap oil.
(pp 222-3)

When I was in graduate architecture school at Illinois, I took an Illinois history class. My term paper was called, I think, "Interstate Highways and the Destruction of Chicago." I looked at census data which showed that the population of Chicago grew rapidly until the 1950s, when the major freeways were built in the city, and had been declining ever since. Even the inner ring of suburbs--Oak Park, Cicero, etc.--had been declining since 1960. Only the distant outer rings--Des Plaines, Schaumberg, Rosemont--were growing rapidly. I learned that the interstate highways destroyed more built-up area in Chicago than had the fire of 1871. There was an interesting photo from the mid 1950s showing the 400-foot wide path that had been cleared for the building of the Eisenhower Expressway. The destruction was more thorough and complete than anything you'll see from a tornado or hurricane. America had a vibrant, if far from perfect, urban environment in 1950, and consciously chose to abandon it in favor of the excessive-energy sprawl wasteland we have now.

There's a two-part documentary called The Sprawling of America which I watched a few years ago. It no longer seems to be available at the library, but it is online! Part one, Inner City Blues, focuses on the forces, including the Interstate Highway System, which aided and abetted sprawl. It features a fascinating and infuriating history of Detroit's "Black Bottom," a thriving African-American community which was obliterated to make way for I-75. Part two, Fat of the Land, studies sprawl in its modern context and shows how several regions are dealing with it. Both parts cover nationwide trends but are more focused on Michigan, since the documentary was made here. Highly recommended!