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The City in Mind: Meditations on the Urban Condition

The City in Mind: Meditations on the Urban Condition

by James Howard Kunstler
In The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler declared suburbia "a tragic landscape of cartoon architecture, junked cities, and ravaged countryside" and put himself at the heart of a fierce debate over how we will live in twenty-first century America. Now, Kunstler turns his wickedly mordant and astute eye on urban life both in America and across the world


In The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler declared suburbia "a tragic landscape of cartoon architecture, junked cities, and ravaged countryside" and put himself at the heart of a fierce debate over how we will live in twenty-first century America. Now, Kunstler turns his wickedly mordant and astute eye on urban life both in America and across the world. From classical Rome to the "gigantic hairball" of contemporary Atlanta, he offers a far-reaching discourse on the history and current state of urban life.

The City in Mind tells the story of urban design and how the architectural makeup of a city directly influences its culture as well as its success. From the ingenious architectural design of Louis-Napoleon's renovation of Paris to the bloody collision of cultures that occurred when Cortés conquered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, from the grandiose architectural schemes of Hitler and Albert Speer to the meanings behind the ludicrous spectacle of Las Vegas, Kunstler opens up a new dialogue on the development and effects of urban construction. In his investigations, he discovers American communities in the Sunbelt and Southwest alienated from each other and themselves, Northeastern cities caught between their initial civic construction and our current car-obsessed society, and a disparate Europe with its mix of pre-industrial creativity, and war-marked reminders of the twentieth century.

Expanding on ideas first discussed in Jane Jacobs' seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Kunstler looks to Europe to discover what is constant and enduring in cities at their greatest, and at the same time, how a city's design can be directly linked to its decline. In these dazzling excursions he finds the reasons that America got lost in its suburban wilderness and locates the pathways in culture that might lead to a civic revival here. Kunstler's examination of these cities is at once a concise history of their urban lives and a detailed criticism of how those histories have either aided or hindered the social and civil progress of the cities' occupants. By turns dramatic and wildly comic, and always authoritative, The City in Mind, is an exceptional glimpse into the urban condition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Author and urban gadfly Kunstler (Home from Nowhere; Geography of Nowhere) has graduated from the nowheresville of previous titles to a punchy new study of eight cities in as many chapters: Paris, Atlanta, Mexico City, Berlin, Las Vegas, Rome, Boston, and London. Outspoken and straining for an aphoristic style, Kunstler lacks the overt humanistic impulses of urban studies writers like Jane Jacobs or Lewis Mumford. Instead, he favors snappy observations such as "If Las Vegas truly is our city of the future, then we might as well all cut our throats tomorrow." Kunstler tosses off insults to icons like the distinguished architect I.M. Pei: "Few architects have done as much wholesome damage to any city as the partners I.M. Pei and Harry Cobb did in Boston." He also dips into the unconsciously funny during a stroll through London's Hampstead Heath in which he turns out to be possibly the only urban scholar unaware of its gay cruising grounds, or what Kunstler calls "this somewhat sordid destination." While there are more serious reflections here, the book's generally ill temper is most likely to please readers who want a Don Ricklesian poke-and-prod version of urban affairs. And one is also left wondering what the "urban condition" might be in more easterly world cities. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Cities are good. Suburbs are bad. Paris is good. Las Vegas is bad. Boston? Stay tuned. Kunstler, a vociferous, highly opinionated critic of the urban landscape, takes an uncompromisingly hard look at how eight cities (Paris, Atlanta, Mexico City, Berlin, Las Vegas, Rome, Boston, and London), either through inspired ideas or chaotic greed, became sublime expressions of the human spirit or of gigantic monstrosities and perversion. The subtitle is appropriate, for the author makes little attempt to be systematic or comprehensive in his discussions. Although he never raises the analysis above the level of a popular magazine article, his writing is admittedly bold and thought-provoking throughout. One can learn a great deal about Louis Napoleon's renovation of Paris, Hitler's and Albert Speer's megalomaniac architectural plans for Berlin, Bugsy Segal's "setting the tone" for Las Vegas, and more. The real charm of the book, however, is not Kunstler's rambles through each city's historical and geographical spaces but his plea for a more human-focused urban landscape. For public libraries. Glenn Masuchika, Rockwell Collins Information Ctr., Cedar Rapids, IA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A connoisseur's romp through cities good and bad, all judged by the author. Kunstler is a potent enemy of modernism. Armed with a wicked style and absolute confidence in his worldview-"Surely even educated people are weary of being on the cutting edge all the time"-he adds this collection of short, interlinked essays to his growing series (Home from Nowhere, 1996) on what makes or breaks an urban space. Throughout these pieces, he promotes classic architecture and planning as the alternative to the car-centric, glass-box-skyscraper-dotted, suburb-dominated city. He considers Paris to be the best place in the world because it was planned for people, not cars: Its buildings are the right height, its streets just wide enough. Best of all, reforms to its infrastructure in the 19th century demolished the worst of the past and embraced the best of the present. Kunstler is no preservationist, nor does he think parks are the solution to every urban woe. In discussing what Boston should do with the open land created after a highway running through the city is sunk underground, he dismisses talk of an enormous greensward, arguing that the park solution is based on the English-born assumption that cities are inherently flawed and thus must be made to resemble nature. Instead, he proposes erecting more buildings, increasing density, but only if those buildings are of the proper height and style (i.e., no more hulking towers). Kunstler engagingly blasts urban planners in cities like Atlanta, where it takes half an hour to drive to the supermarket. His critical eye is sharp because he shares with his subjects-like Georges Haussmann and Frederick Law Olmstead-the will to create an ideal city, wheretransportation flows easily and people of different classes mingle congenially. That enthusiasm, along with a uniquely acerbic tone, shines through these pages. A salutary treatise for architects, mayors, and laypeople.

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Free Press
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6.62(w) x 9.64(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


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 themid-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

Meet the Author

James Howard Kunstler is the author of eight novels. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and an editor for Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Sunday Magazine. He lives in upstate New York.

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