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This book doesn't pretend to be the last word on cities. There are plenty of good books on the subject, which is as broad as civilization itself. But I wrote this one at a time when my own culture could not be more confused about the nature and meaning of cities and city life. My modest aim here is to redirect what has amounted in recent times to a pretty incoherent national discussion about how we live, to survey how history regards urban living arrangements in some very different periods and settings, and to discern what kinds of choices and predicaments the future may present to us.
America at the turn of the millennium is suffering the woeful consequences, largely unanticipated, of trying to become a drive-in utopia. The attempt took roughly eighty years, from the end of the First World War to the brink of global warming, oil depletion, and other epochal disorders hard upon us. This nation's massive suburban build-out was an orgy of misspent energy and material resources that squandered our national wealth and left us with an infrastructure of daily life that, left as is, has poor prospects in the new century. It is also hard to overstate the cultural destruction that was one of it chief side effects, especially the loss of knowledge, tradition, skill, custom, and vernacular wisdom in the art of city-making that was thrown into the dumpster of history in our effort to fulfill General Motors' World of Tomorrow.
The idea that city-making is an art rather than a product of statistical analysis or social service casework is largely the point of my opening chapter on Georges Eugène Haussmann's heroic renovation of Paris in the mid-1800s. Under the emperor Louis-Napoleon (an improved version of the original Bonaparte, his uncle), Haussmann made over Paris from a stinking and decrepitating rat-maze of slums into the epitome of everything we value about city life.
In the second chapter, about Atlanta, I try to demonstrate the folly of Edge City (so-called) as both a design model and a way of living. Edge City, a term coined by the writer Joel Garreau, was supposed to represent everything cutting-edge and ultramodern in the postindustrial evolution of cities. I essay to show how Atlanta took the urban model of car-crazy Los Angeles to its most ludicrous and, in my view, terminal stage. With Atlanta, you can forgo agonizing over the future, because the present doesn't even work there.
The third chapter takes us back roughly five hundred years to a unique event in history: the collision of two very strange but well-developed and dominant cultures so vastly different that they might have come from two separate planets. In 1519, a tiny Spanish expeditionary force under a brilliant rogue commander, Hernán Cortés, made contact with the death-enthralled empire of the Aztecs and conquered their gigantic, beautiful, sinister capital city, Tenochtitlán. The spirit of the Spanish Inquisition meets its match in Huitzilopochtli, voracious eater of still-beating Aztec hearts. I attempt to show how this astonishing chain of incidents resonates still in the culture of contemporary Mexico City, a prototype of hypertrophic "third-world" urbanism, plagued by a failed social contract, lawlessness, economic disorder, and a wrecked ecology.
Next I reflect upon the strange destiny of Berlin, a city whipsawed by the tragic enormities of twentieth-century politics. Above all, Berlin expresses the paradoxes of history: how Europe's best-educated people could succumb to political mania, moral suicide, and mass murder; how an urban organism can survive nearly total destruction and find itself fifty years later in better condition than the cities of its chief destroyer; how the politics of freedom and openness produced an architecture of despotism, and vice versa. And how the result of all these vicissitudes is a search for nothing grander than normality.
We turn next to Las Vegas, America's leading boom town at the turn of the millennium, a city built by gangsters for gangsters, based on the tragically foolish idea that it is possible to get something for nothing, and now weirdly mutating into a family vacation destination. I discuss the strange physical form of the city, an evolution of the most extreme cultural and technological developments in the past century, and argue that Las Vegas has reached the limits of its hypertrophic growth. Las Vegas may also reflect a condition more and more common throughout America as a whole: that ridicule is the unfortunate destiny of the ridiculous, trumping even the tragic view of history.
Rome is the backdrop for tracing the meaning of classicism as a set of ideas necessary for the continuing project of civilization. This chapter takes a long historical view, tracing the sources of the classical in Greece and Italy, its full flowering in the Roman Empire, the long and gruesome unlearning in the millennium following the fall of Rome, and the rescue of classicism in the Renaissance. Classicism was thrown away once again by the forces of modernism during the nervous breakdown of culture that the twentieth century represented, so the question is posed, can classicism now rescue us?
I chose to write about Boston because I think it has done more to prepare for the twenty-first century than most other American cities, and indeed it may be one of the few habitable cities left in America when the orgy of cheap oil draws to a close and it becomes necessary to conduct normal life and work in walkable neighborhoods connected by decent public transit. Boston had a hard time of it in the twentieth century, and the political legacy of that period still exerts a baneful influence. But the city is in the process of overcoming those other common disasters of the recent urban scene in this country: the tyranny of the automobile and the flight of the prospering classes. In the years ahead, I argue, Boston will demonstrate the value of city life to a culture that all but gave up on the idea.
Finally, I look to London as the origin in Anglo-American culture for the idea that country life is the antidote to the hopelessness of industrial urbanism. This idea, which has reached its fullest expression in contemporary America, begins with the English Landscape movement, and leads directly to the circumstance of London becoming the world's first great industrial city and therefore the first major world city to suffer the unanticipated consequences of advanced technological progress. In America, where we have inherited so many English ideas about landscape and place, the result in our time has been the notion that city life can be dispensed with altogether for a simulacrum of the rural. The idea culminates in the absurdities of our contemporary battles over "green space" and "open space," while our human ecologies namely our towns and cities remain devalued, depopulated, and decivilized.
Under the most favorable circumstances, it is apt to take at least a hundred years to clean up the mess we made of our nation, if we can do it at all and I stick to a point made in my previous book, Home from Nowhere, that life is tragic and there are no guaranteed rescues from the great blunders of history.
Don't get me wrong. I hope we do recover. I believe we have the knowledge and the resources to reorganize the physical arrangement of American life from a national automobile slum to a land full of places that are truly worth living in. Therefore, I stick to another central point of my previous book: that a land made up of places not worth caring about will sooner or later become a nation not worth defending (or a way of life not worth carrying on). All this begs the question of whether we have the will to reorganize our everyday environment. Personally, I believe the future will compel us to change our way of life, to give up the fiasco of suburbia and all its revolting accessories and recondense our living and working places into the traditional human habitats called cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
In the past eight years I traveled all over the United States (except Alaska) and got to see almost every city of any consequence in the lower forty-eight states. It was a shock to discover how far gone most of them are. Since I wrote about Detroit in The Geography of Nowhere (1993), wildflower meadows have sprouted where miles of slum row houses stood and I don't mean to say that this is necessarily an improvement, because it only means the hole at the center of Detroit's metropolitan doughnut has gotten larger and emptier instead of redeveloping. St. Louis is a virtual mummy's tomb between its empty downtown and the West End. Baltimore has become a flyblown carcass. Buffalo looks as if it suffered a prolonged aerial bombardment. A giant vacuum cleaner seems to have sucked the populations out of Memphis, Nashville, and Little Rock. Small towns in the Midwest are perhaps the most heartbreaking to see. I remember a spring afternoon I spent as the sole pedestrian in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin its commercial activity had all been shifted to an asteroid belt of highway strips and architectural garbage five miles outside town. Ditto Louisville; Dayton; Meridian, Mississippi; Billings, Montana; Macon, Georgia. And so on. The list is long and dreary, and it certainly prompts the casual observer to wonder if our future holds a civilized existence.
The concern about what happens to my own country underlies all the chapters in this book. Will it take an autocrat to repair American cities, as in the case of Napoleon III and Paris? How do culture and history support the social contract? Now that we've created our national automobile slum, what are its possible destinies? Can we find a way to reestablish a meaningful distinction between the urban and the rural? Can we make Beauty (capital B) matter again in our everyday world?
The chief byproduct of all this, for me, and as usual, has been the project of creating a book that will be compelling to read. Most of all, I believe readers want to commune with an intelligence congenial to their own, and if they learn a thing or two, or gain an insight, so much the better. So, apart from the momentous themes presented here, I wish you a ripping good read and even a few laughs as you consider these meditations on the urban condition.
Copyright © 2001 by James Howard Kunstler