Monday, March 26, 2012

Walking through Burlington, anti-growth advocate James Howard Kunstler offers a critique

From the Burlington Free Press

No-growth zealot James Kunstler tours the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington on Wednesday March 14, 2012.
On a walk through Burlington with author and environmental commentator James Howard Kunstler, there’s a lot to learn. Observe: ‘We suffer as a society from living in places that are not worth caring about.’ So how do we start to care? Kunstler has some ideas — and he promises change is coming, like it or not. 

Q: How to avoid a formulaic interview with a man whose gripe against suburbia is already the stuff of legend?

A: By getting out of the basement of the University of Vermont’s Waterman Building. The reasoning: By walking around Burlington, we might avoid cliches; we might stumble upon novelty; we might drift into free-ranging, free associations.

James Howard Kunstler, in town earlier this month for a speech, dressed down and sensibly for the occasion: a worn green jacket, gloves, grubby jeans and a baseball cap. His shoes defined him as an avid pedestrian.

What were we expecting — a messiah? An avenging angel?

Kunstler offered a disclaimer: He describes himself as a prose artist.

“I’m not an urban designer or a credentialed professional,” he began. “I’m just a guy who started out as a journalist and wrote a bunch of books. I have a role to play in my culture. I’m sort of a cultural observer.”

Kunstler agreed to share his observations with a fellow pedestrian and observer — this writer — along with Free Press Photographer Glenn Russell and professor Richard Watts, senior research analyst at the Transportation Research Center at the University of Vermont.

To break the ice, I steered the ensemble into a crowded parking lot behind Waterman. Kunstler obliged with a discussion about his abiding pet peeve: the automobile.

We walked in a northwesterly direction, threading our way between parked cars.
Joel Banner Baird: What do you make of all this?

James Howard Kunstler: (gesturing at the expanse of metal and marked asphalt) Well, the first thing to remember is that all this is not a conspiracy. Well — sometimes, every now and then it’s visible in actions like General Motors and Firestone Tires destroying the American trolley system. But generally, what you had was a consensus in America that we were going to do things a certain way. And we did.

So most of these things that we will see represent choices that our culture consciously made. Now, the catch is that sometimes societies make poor choices, and then they have to pay the price of that, and pay the consequences.

For better or worse, that’s sort of the situation that we face now: the consequences of whole sets of choices that we made about how we were going to live.

JBB: Sort of like the Romans and Phoenicians who needed a lot of wood, and denuded their hills of trees?

JHK: It seemed like a good idea at the time. A lot of things happen in history because they seem like a good idea at the time. Then you get used to it, and you carry it forward, and there are consequences. And maybe, looking through the rearview mirror, it wasn’t such a good idea. But it happened.

This whole dynamic of industrial development and all of its offshoots and accessories: These things happened chronologically very fast, compared to the way things happened and changed in the broader spectrum of human history.

JBB: Like weaponry, maybe? There have been some quantum leaps there.

JHK: Yeah, there have been some leaps. The whole enormous package of growing complexity and interlocked, mutually reinforcing, mutually dependent complex systems. These things arose with staggering speed, and the whole thing has been kind of improvised. So a lot of what you see looks and acts the way it does because we’ve been making it up as we go along, trying to do the best we could with what we had.

JBB: As always, it seems.

JHK: And it was working. It worked well enough that we had a stable society for the past 75 years — say, since the last Great Depression. Even given several wars and international conflict and political uproars of various kinds — this has been a fairly stable society. We weren’t invaded; we weren’t overrun by other people. We had some economic travails —

JBB: So we’re opportunists?

JHK: My point isn’t that we’re opportunists. It’s that this project that we embarked on about four generations ago, living the way we did, has appeared to be successful for a very long time. And it’s very hard for people to imagine that it might not continue to work OK. And that’s one of the things behind our failures to recognize our problems.

JBB: And because it’s happened very quickly?

JHK: You know, you’re in a society that hasn’t had enough time to reflect on what it does. It just kind of stumbles from one year, one election cycle, one generation to the next. Trying to keep its stuff going, without a whole lot consciousness about what the destination is.

JBB: Do you think it might be a question of leadership? There used to be elders who said stuff like, “If you plow this field too often and seed it with nothing but corn, you’re in trouble ...” I mean, humanity has tended, over the millennia, to rebound.

(The ramblers stop abruptly along South Williams Street. Remarkably, no cars — at least cars in motion — are in evidence. Nor are there any other pedestrians in the vicinity. The effect is unsettling.)

JHK: What we’re looking at is an urban neighborhood of a certain type. Me and my homies, the “new urbanists,” think in terms of typology and typological sets of things, because it’s a way of understanding what you’re dealing with and how they’re assembled and deployed on the landscape.

JBB: Okay —

JHK: What you see here is a fairly typical neighborhood that probably started off as single family homes — some of them are duplexes — and now have probably evolved into other things. Probably still some single-family homes, some apartments, and probably some semi-kind of student-slummy programming.

But that’s programming. That’s not the physical form — and one of the things that’s an important distinction to make because Americans uniformly are confused about this: There’s a difference between the physical form of something and the programming that’s been jammed into it. Because that changes over time.

(A large edifice draws his attention.)

That house was probably the house of a very substantial citizen at one point.

Now it may be the house of an old lady on social security with six college students living in it somewhere. That’s the programming.

JBB: So that’s the basis of form-based planning, for the most part?

JHK: No. Programming is not the basis of form-based planning.

JBB: I don’t mean programming, but the distinction between form and programming.

JHK: It’s not called “programming-based.”

JBB: Although you consider programming when you’re considering forms.

JHK: Yes. Because there are some implicit programming in physical forms. However, it’s the essence of adaptive re-use in buildings that they can have other programs — as these do, as buildings age.

(We pause along Hungerford Terrace.)

One of the obvious things about what we’re looking at now: I guess you could say households were organized very differently when these buildings were built. They had servants; 10 percent of the working population were servants in 1911. And you had multi-generations living together, a different disposition of work obligations in the household; who did what and who looked after children and how they did it.

Richard Watts: (gesturing at a stretch of Pearl Street) What do you think about these bump-outs?

JHK: Well, we need them because automobiles go too fast. And we drive incessantly. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t need bump-outs.

JBB: To what extent were these buildings built around ample resources — like fossil fuel?

JHK: One thing you could say is it they grew up at a time when we were starting to get very, very clever with things like home heating and plumbing. At the turn of the 19th-20th century we were starting to reach some peaks of excellence, where we really did it very well — after pretty much not having done it at all. We had an ample coal supply, and you started to get something like modern central heating, with radiators and stuff.

(Here Glenn Russell leaves the group briefly to photograph a bank of natural gas meters. The remaining ramblers watch him, mutely, then re-engage trains of thought.)

The other thing: We mostly built these kinds of houses in wood — and there’s an aspect of that that’s very problematical. One of the characters I studied when I was researching (my book) “Geography of Nowhere” — which was published in 1993 — was a character named Andrew Jackson Downing, who was an early figure in American architecture and urban planning and landscape design — basically, fields that had hardly emerged and differentiated themselves at that point. And Downing made the observation that wooden architecture in America was tragic.

JBB: Tragic? How?

JHK: Because it required so much maintenance. It fell apart so quickly and so completely without a huge amount of attention. So what you’re seeing in a lot of American towns is exactly that tragedy. That we’re now at a point where some of the great urban neighborhoods with great, old buildings, are un-maintainable. So you’re seeing a deterioration of the housing stock.

It was arrested briefly in the ’80s into the early 2000s, because there was so much money in the system — much of it generated by debt — for people to renovate houses. So you have a huge amount of renovation in that period, but that’s now coming to an end.

(The group pauses at a row of houses. A man and a woman are applying paint to a porch railing. Their progress is tentative, perhaps due to the intermittent, light rain.)

JHK: What you see now in neighborhoods like this is that a lot of buildings have been through a previous cycle of re-cladding with (poor) materials like asbestos, aluminum, vinyl. It really just covers up the deterioration of the original building — which is tragic, too.

JBB: Do you ever daydream about the way things ought to be, or how they could be?

JHK: Sure. And there are examples all over America of places that have been rescued.

JBB: I mean, if you were king here, how would you start?

(The comment prompts Kunstler to halt. We are at the corner of Loomis and North Union streets.)

JHK: Even if you’re king you can’t necessarily reorganize the whole economy.

JBB: No. But given a street like this, given a block — suppose you owned the whole block. What could you do that might actually serve as a model improvement?

JHK: (sighs) God. Well, what we generally do in America is make the cars too comfortable. And in this case, you only have parallel parking on one side of the street. If you had parallel parking on both sides of the street, these cars would have to go a lot slower because they’d have to be a lot more careful.

Glenn Russell: They had parallel parking here on both sides of the street until about 10 years ago.

JHK: Well, that was a bad decision.

JBB: And they put a bike lane in.

JHK: The net effect is that it makes the cars actually go faster. The bike lane probably had the unintended consequence of allowing the cars to go faster. People do not travel in cars at the speed limit, necessarily; they travel at the rate that they feel comfortable moving in.

JBB: So, narrowing the roadway is where you’d start.

(Kunstler halts again.)

JHK: I hasten to add that these are all traffic management issues, and they tend to overwhelm the urban design issues, generally. Because the car has overwhelmed the public realm. So any discussion of how we’re going to improve our towns and improve our streets necessarily ends up going into this cul-de-sac of car management, and we almost never get to the actual issues of urban design — some of which involve things like having a higher level of agreement over what materials are okay and what materials are not okay.

JBB: In cars?

JHK: No. In buildings. Things like: It’s not okay to put a chain-link fence up in a residential neighborhood. Chain-link fences are for prisons and dog-runs. They’re not for front yards. It’s not okay to put a stockade fence up. When all’s said and done, it’s probably not okay to do a lot of things. It would probably be a good thing if there was just more uniform agreement about excellence. About what is excellent and what is not excellent.

JBB: By appearance?

JHK: By appearance and function.

JBB: You mean more regulation?

JHK: Not regulation.

JBB: Consensus?

JHK: More cultural consensus about what was OK. But working against that is this idea of a very aggressive individualism in America, where you almost have to do everything different just to set yourself apart and say “I’m special. I’m me.” Whereas in other cultures, there are higher levels of agreement about standards of excellence. And that’s one of the reasons people go to Europe on vacation. Because that’s expressed visibly in European towns.

JBB: Have you traveled to Europe?

JHK: Oh yeah.

JBB: Just checking.

Richard Watts: (gesturing at a group of homes on Pearl Street) These houses are less desirable because of being near this major thoroughfare ... when they’re actually of the same quality of those other ones ...

JHK: Heavily used streets will degrade property values. There’s no question about it. But there’s also this effect in a college town — and this is a programming note — you see this in every major state university town: They tend to slumify the adjacent neighborhoods because, slowly but surely, what used to be single-family houses become student apartments, and students beat up the property, and the landlords kind of strip-mine the value out of them. I’ve seen this in Columbus (Ohio) and Ann Arbor (Michigan) and Berkeley (California) ) — you know, all the major state university towns are like that. (He looks around.) This doesn’t look too bad, compared to Columbus, Ohio. This is pretty good.

JBB: Aside from traveling to Europe, how are you going to get “Joe Schmoe” to vote for narrower streets and fewer cars?

JHK: You’re probably not. We are what we are at this point in history. But one of the most visible dynamics under way now is that you’re getting a much more hierarchical society than what we once were. There’s much more differentiation between people who are doing all right and people who are not.

JBB: What do you see as your role? Are you advocating for just a greater awareness of what’s gone wrong?

(Traffic noise on Pearl Street briefly makes conversation impossible.)

JHK: I think my basic position is in the many books I’ve written about these issues, and in my lectures, my blogs, my magazine articles, all that stuff: My basic position is that we suffer as a society from living in places that are not worth caring about. And we consciously make decisions that make the situation bad. And we could make it better. And we could live in places that were worth caring about — but we’re not doing it. Partly because we don’t know how to; partly because we’ve become accustomed to things the way they are. And partly out of political intransigence.

JBB: I was wondering about the momentum that’s keeping us going. Like suburbs. The waste. You see planners gradually trying to control sprawl, because it costs more to run pipes and sewer lines and fire trucks.

JHK: And those are just knuckle-headed econometric arguments, too. They’re not even quality arguments. They’re money arguments.

(He pauses to examine a building.)

Some of these houses were magnificent.

JBB: You know, I despair of a suburb ever becoming “sustainable” — and yes, I know that word is way over-used. But when you look at a suburb, I think the only thing that’s going to empty it out is when people can’t afford to get into town.

JHK: You’re quite right. And the point about the state of suburbia right now, is that the suburbs are truly tragic and hopeless. They have a very, very dim destiny. And most of America is not aware of that. But I think there’s a kind of subconscious apprehension that something ain’t right. And I think it’s creating a lot of anxiety in our culture. It’s one of many elements out there in the collective imagination that’s causing a lot of fear and anxiety.

JBB: have you ever lived in a suburb?

JHK: I lived on the north shore of Long Island in some of the first built suburbs in the early 1950s. Then my parents split up, and I moved to Manhattan with my mom. And I grew up in Manhattan. And I went to college in a small town, at one of the SUNY campuses. So I’m familiar with various modes of living in America. I’ve even lived in a country house now and again. A rural place.

JBB: Where do you live now?

JHK: I live at the edge of a village of about 4,000 people.

JBB: Greenwich, New York, right?

JHK: Although they pronounce it “Green Witch,” believe it or not. The football team’s called the Witches. But I only moved there four months ago. I spent over 30 years living in Saratoga Springs.

(Kunstler pauses. He is thinking, not looking at the buildings or the traffic.)

JHK: Suburbs. It’s a terrible dilemma for a society to be in: to have invested so much of its wealth in a living arrangement with no future. That’s the essence of the predicament.

JBB: How do you keep from getting depressed?

JHK: I’ll tell you exactly why: First of all, I lead a very happy life. I lead a purposeful life.

JBB: What’s your purpose?

JHK: My purpose is basically to be a prose artist. And I take it seriously, and I apply myself and I produce a lot of stuff. I’ve made choices that have worked for me about where I live and how I live. And maybe, by disposition, I’m not depressed or depressive. But my antennae are out. I sense things in my culture going on around me — not necessarily things that other people don’t sense, too. But for 40 years I’ve been working at articulating these things, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it — so that’s my job.

JBB: So that’s what keeps you going.

JHK: Oh, lots of things keep me going.

JBB: I see in your blog that you’re gardening.

JHK: Well it’s something I’m very enthusiastic about, something I’m interested in, and I get a lot of reward from it. And besides, it’s what Voltaire told us to do.

(The group considers a muddy patch of grass.)

JBB: What do you make of all these little lawns? I mean, do you think about the design of these things?

JHK: Again this is a matter of typology. Typologically, you get a certain kind of building in New England towns, and they behave a certain way. In this case, when these houses were built, there was an agreement or consensus that there will be a set-back. And one of the reasons was that it provided a certain amount of decorum for that kind of house. Plus it gives you a little bit of room to behold its magnificence. So there are sort of practical and aesthetic reasons for having established that.

JBB: True enough —

JHK: But typologically it’s expressed in the fact that this is a large wooden building of this particular type, and the build-to line is very similar going up the street. And there wasn’t necessarily a law, by the way, or a code at the time. It was a consensus. It was part of the cultural agreement of the time. Which was stronger than our cultural agreements about this.

JBB: So a strong cultural consensus can lead a culture astray, too.

JHK: Or it can be beneficial. You can get a consensus like, “We must kill all the Jews.” That’s not a very good consensus. But you can also get a consensus like, “We must raise the level of excellence in our everyday surroundings.” That would help us. We would need far less Prozac than we take now.

JBB: And we’re taking someone’s word for it, that the “excellence” is measurable?

JHK: Well, I think there are ways of establishing valid ideas about excellence without being arbitrary or despotic. There are certain constants, for example, just in sheer human neurology.

(A large truck lumbers by.)

JBB: Like noise?

JHK: Sure. And for example, in just design terms, there’s a reason why up until the 20th century, windows in buildings were mainly vertical.

JBB: For the structural integrity?

JHK: Yeah, it had to do with the tectonic requirements of architecture, of holding a building up. But it also produced some very interesting anthropomorphic effects. By that, I mean, they reflect our human-ness. Vertical windows express something about the human figure being upright, within the building.

JBB: Makes sense —

JHK: And being upright, for a human being, has more decorum than being horizontal — which means you’re either asleep, or having sex, or you’re dead. Now we have buildings that do not express human decorum. And even though it’s hard to articulate, I think that people sense the difference, even if they can’t really articulate.

(We reach the northern end of Church Street.)

JHK: Like that thing over there.

( Kunstler studies the Federal/Post Office Building at Elmwood Avenue and Pearl Street.)

JHK: You know, I would just bet you $100 that if you interviewed 100 people on the street, about whether that was a handsome building or an ugly building, at least three-quarters of them would say it’s an ugly building. They might not be able to tell you why. They might say something nebulous like “it’s modernistic.” They might not say that those horizontal bands of windows look weird, and it has no ornamentation; it expresses nothing; the heat and air-conditioning utilities are visible on the roof; the roofline expresses nothing. It’s a flat roof; it has no aspirations, it has nothing that aspires upward, like that (he points to Unitarian Universalist Church).

So there are all those qualities of buildings that we left behind. And we’re touching now on something that’s a little different, which is the ideology of the 20th century — 20th century modernist architecture in particular, which, one way or another, found its way to leaving beauty behind. And people suffer hugely from it. But they’re very strongly conditioned to keep their objections to themselves.

(The party ambles south and enters a trickle of pedestrian traffic that swells to a stream in the distance. Kunstler turns to his entourage.)

JHK: So. Here we are in the Church Street Mall. What do you think about this? What bugs you about it?

Glenn Russell: The ugliest fountain in the history of mankind.

JHK: Is that what that is? Well, what really makes it hideous is that they painted (the covers on the fountain) sky blue. So in the winter it looks especially bad. It has no artistry whatsoever.

JBB: Well, one thing I don’t like about this street is that if it were really designed for pedestrians, it would be narrower.

JHK: Well, yes, but, look, this was a normal city street. It’s not like you can move the buildings closer together.

JBB: Well, but if I were king, I would move them closer together.

JHK: But that ain’t gonna happen.

JBB: No.

JHK: And it didn’t happen. And it actually isn’t that bad without the cars on it. Look — there are elements of what you’re seeing that can be described as follows: Starting in the 1970s there was a revolt against the tyranny of the automobile in cities. And one of the results of it was the decision in a lot of places to have pedestrian malls. They were almost universally failures. Except for a couple of places.

JBB: Indoor malls?

JHK: No, street malls. You know, car-free street malls. Almost all of them were failures. There are only three of them that I know that succeeded, and they succeeded for demographic reasons: the Pearl Street mall in Boulder (Colorad); the Santa Monica (California) Third Street mall — and this. This is the least successful of those three.

The reason the Boulder mall was so successful was that it had an enormous, captive student population of pedestrians that were glad to come down and hang out. You have a captive population of pedestrians here, too, but it’s not nearly as large. So this has just never been completely successful.

It’s always been a little shabby — at least in the last 20 years that I’ve known it. By the way, is there a natural food store around here?

JBB: We can take a left at the next crosswalk. It’s just a block down. (The pace quickens.) So, what do you like about this place — aside from no cars?

JHK: Well, yeah, the fact that it’s car-free is agreeable — neurologically. It’s nice to get some respite from that despotic condition that we’re all hostages to, all the time. It’s mostly pretty well tenanted. The pavements aren’t bad. You know, they’re textured, and they have some pleasing geometry. The fact that the shops are at the same grade level as the pavement is a good thing — it makes it easy to get in and out of them and to see what’s in the windows.

Obviously it has seasonal disadvantages, because this is a part of the world where it gets cold and wet.

The main problem with this is that it just has too much competition from the automobile-dependent commerce outside of town. You know, that has been killing downtowns all over America for the last 50 years. And it’s still doing it, although its days are numbered, and most Americans don’t realize that.

Glenn Russell: How do you address the paradigm: People complain that they don’t come down here because they can’t find parking?

JHK: The way you address that is by understanding that the “happy motoring” paradigm — that its days are numbered.

JBB: What’s going to happen at the end of the “happy motoring” era?

JHK: There’s going to be a lot of disappointed people who will not understand why it came to an end. I think they’re going to express themselves politically and probably in ways that have nothing to do with it, but will be very destructive and damaging.

JBB: Like —

JHK: You know, they’ll elect some maniac who will promise to make things like they were in 2003, and he won’t be able to — or she won’t be able to — and then they’ll face another level of disappointment. But the nation is so hung up on automobile dependency that if you deprive them of that, they’re going to be in a lot of trouble, just logistically. It’s going to be almost impossible to use most of the habitats in America that have been constructed.

JBB: How soon do you see this happening?

JHK: I think we’re going to be in real trouble within five years.

JBB: Five years!

JHK: We’re going to be in trouble. It’s not going to be over.

(We ramble into City Market. The group and its focus splinter. Kunstler attends to a minor errand; someone else drifts into the cereal aisle. Five minutes later, the group re-assembles, outside.)

JBB: What are you going to talk about tonight (March 14)?

JHK: About how we’re not doing the things that really benefit us — like walkable communities and reviving the American passenger rail system. Instead, we’re intoxicated with technological fantasies about continuing to run our society the way we’re used to running it.

So, it really is about our unwillingness to make the kind of changes that we have to make. We really don’t want to change our behavior. We just want to change the fuel that’s running it. And even people who ought to know better are engaged in that exercise in futility. So, my campaign for the moment — I’m campaigning against the campaign to sustain the unsustainable, because that’s what American’s engaged in right now. We’ve made an unconscious decision to sustain the unsustainable — to try to, anyway.

JBB: Well, it’s the American way.

JHK: And it ain’t workin’ out. And it ain’t gonna work out. There are a lot of other things we can do, but we have to recognize that our behavior really can’t continue.

(The safari ends, as previously arranged, at the bustling intersection of Church and Main streets. The conversation veers, naturally enough, to motor vehicles.)

JBB: Well, you know what’s weird to me, is the extent to which advertising —

JHK: We’re committing suicide by advertising ...

JBB: Aside from hearing that a Prius is going to improve your karma — you see ads where everyone is just having a ball —

JHK: I think car advertising is much stranger than that. We went through a period some years ago where the car ads all took place in these scenes of utter desolation that looked like Martian landscapes. Why anyone would want to drive — or be — in a place like that is hard to understand.

JBB: Except that you get to drive fast.

JHK: Well, I suppose — and maybe the idea is that your impulse is to get out of there as quickly as possible. But why that was presented as an appealing milieu for people is hard to understand. I think what it shows, to some extent, our unconscious sense of the destruction that the car brings, and that car life brings.

JBB: I don’t know. I see it more as everyone’s dream-come-true: to have an open road, and flooring it.

JHK: Oh, there’s no question that the dream of the open road is still very potent. And it’s actually pretty understandable: It must have been wonderful, back in the days when America was not completely cluttered up with cars.

There were open roads that had become pretty good. Because, before about 1915, the roads in America were abysmal. They were very bad roads, especially in places like New England when you had a whole mud season where the roads were virtually impassible. Most people got around by train before then.

Then you get a period after the First World War, where all of the sudden you’re getting some pretty good roads around America, and there aren’t that many cars on them — and you get out there on them, and it’s actually pretty glorious.

But that’s not the case now.
(Kunstler hops into a car, out of the rain. He is chauffeured to his hotel room. Three hours later, he stirs up hundreds and hundreds of people who have come to hear him speak at Davis Hall.)

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