Lost in the wastelands of modern America

Geography of Nowhere

Prince Charles accused them of being artless, mediocre and contemptuous of public opinion. The old joke was that they had inflicted more damage on London than the Luftwaffe, but it wasn’t funny and nobody was laughing.

‘They’ are the post-war urban planners and ‘they’ have a lot to answer for. But the bumbling British versions are as nothing compared to American counterparts reinforced by ludicrous zoning restrictions and lunatic laws.

It’s why the simplest of tasks here almost always require a journey by car. It’s why strip malls brutalize the landscape, appalling ‘architecture’ abounds and attempts to escape become an engine of urban sprawl.

Try buying a loaf in the suburbs, or looking for a corner shop that sells fresh fruit and veg. Honestly, don’t bother. It’s a fool’s errand. The closest you’ll get is non-food at the nearest gas station.

More than 20 years ago author James Howard Kunstler poured his rage onto the page about the state of America’s “crudscape”in his book The Geography of Nowhere and in the intervening years not much has changed.

His withering invective is a delight to read. He’s beyond grumpy. This is a crimson-faced man ranting in foam-flecked, spittle-spraying fury as he pours contempt onto anyone and everyone who has contributed to the monstrous blight

Here’s a sample: “Eighty per cent of everything built in America has been built in the last 50 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 chain gang 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”.

It wouldn’t be much of a book if it was just a rant, though. Kunstler takes a scholarly stroll through 400 years of New World development, points out features of special interest, changes that could, and should, be made and makes a delightful, spiteful, opinionated companion along the way.

As he explains, the rise and demise of America’s man-made landscape has all the usual venal underpinnings you’d expect, but the book also includes some of the well-meant but subsequently disastrous efforts to create idyllic surroundings.

As far back as the 1950s economist JK Galbraith was suggesting that the US had become a nation that tolerated “private affluence and public squalor” and there are echoes of this throughout Kunstler’s assessment.

Civic pride has been supplanted, individual rights have trumped wider public benefits and coherent communities have been ghettoized by wealth apartheid.

Kunstler reserves most of his bile for the effects the car has wrought on everyday life and the landscape, but there’s plenty left for the automobile’s “master builder,” Robert Moses, who favored the car over public transit at every opportunity.

When he wrote the book in 1994, Kunstler thought rising gas prices and environmental concerns would force the US to rethink its ideas about urban planning and community. Not so. Fracking will keep the wheels turning for a long while yet.  And while our heads are buried in the tar sands the temperature keeps on rising.


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