Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Landscape Of Despair: How Our Cities And Towns Are Killing Us | The Daily Caller

Posted by M. C. on October 8, 2019

James Howard Kunstler

Editor’s note: This piece is part of American Renewal, a new policy and opinion project by the Daily Caller News Foundation. Read a mission statement here, and see the landing page and all the articles here.

The incoherence of the debate in the public arena becomes especially stark whenever a mass murder ignites the news wires — which is dismayingly often these days. But the understandable wish to make sense of these horrifying acts, and how our society seems to provoke them, leads to walls of mystification, psychobabble, and the dogmas du jour of the activist class. Some maniac guns down twenty people in a shopping mall, the news media lights up for a week of inconclusive hand-wringing, and then the discussion subsides back into uncomfortable, confounded silence, until the next maniac comes onstage to gun down as many total strangers as possible in his desperate bid for catharsis, and we go through the motions again, along with the pitiful ceremony of setting up the candles and teddy-bears at the crime scene.

By the way, I say “his” because overwhelmingly these spectacle shooters are men, often but not always young men under twenty-five (one recent exception being Tashfeen Malik  who, with her husband Rizwan Farook, shot up a San Bernardino, CA, social services agency in 2015). Something is going desperately wrong with the development of young men in this land. Many of the forces at work are pretty obvious. But what is uniformly overlooked about the current scene is the physical arrangement of daily life on the American landscape, how it affects us in unreckoned ways, and what a tragic fiasco it has become.

I refer to the everyday human habitat known as suburbia, the matrix of single-family home subdivisions, arterial highways and freeways, chain stores, junk food dispensaries, and the ubiquitous wilderness of free parking — the last of these implying just one insidious side-effect of this template for living: mandatory motoring. Though a variety of economic interests were served richly by the colossal project of building suburbia, and took full advantage of its perversities, no claque of evil geniuses cooked up the idea in a lab. It was an emergent phenomenon, the coming together of many historical forces, innovations, and opportunities. The emergence of suburbia comports with my New Theory of History, which states that things happen because they seem like a good idea at the time. The trouble is, circumstances change and what at one time seemed like a good idea turns into a debacle of unintended consequences in another time — which is where we are now.

While many Americans deplore suburbia in a general way — including many who live in it — its actual dynamics are poorly articulated in the public arena. Interestingly, one of suburbia’s biggest defects is the impoverishment of public space, and with it the degradation of the very public arena where ideas are exchanged and vetted for value.  Most public space in America is devoted simply to the movement and storage of cars. The highway is a hostile environment for humans and few people seek camaraderie or stimulation in the parking lots. The ambiguous leftover scraps of land, like the woodsy berm between the Walmart and the Best Buy, have no civic value. (That’s where kids go to drink malt-liquor.) Everything else is private space, including the shopping mall, by the way, where you can be arrested for making a speech, or just wearing a T-shirt with a provocative message. Public space per se has been relegated insidiously to TV and the Internet, and neither of these are an adequate replacement for real-live social relations with other human beings in a real place worth caring about.

I know from experience that the public’s attempt to understand all this can be laughably dim. If you show a slide of some schlocky boulevard of strip-malls to an audience in a town hall — as I have done many times — and ask them what’s wrong with this picture, you’ll probably get this answer: “It all looks exactly the same!” That is quite true, of course. The strip malls outside Syracuse, NY, look just like the strip malls outside Baton Rouge, LA, or Seattle, WA, except for the shrubs that decorate the parking lot. But sameness alone is not exactly the problem.

A lot of good places around the world look the same. The casual traveler might say that the hill towns of Tuscany all look the same— just so much stucco and red tile — and they do. But nobody complains about it. They pay a lot to visit those little towns. The grand boulevards and avenues of Paris might look the same, too, but nobody comes home from vacation there griping about it. The reason is that these places are composed and assembled as uniformities of excellence. The things in them (buildings and streets) and relationships between them are high quality, designed with conscious and deliberate artistry. The suburban environments of America are endless replications of low quality buildings, devoid of artistry, in poorly arranged relationships with each other on the landscape. Note, the strip mall highways in the ritzy suburbs are not any better than the ones in the crummy suburbs. You get the same one-story tilt-up buildings, the same wastelands of parking and the same six-laner that connects it all…

We’re entering a new age of greatly reduced expectations and activities brought about by resource and capital scarcity. The colossal matrix of suburbia itself has three plausible destinies, none of them mutually exclusive: slums, salvage, and ruins. The furnishings and accessories of suburbia are already in trouble. The mortgage train-wreck of 2008 signaled the beginning of the end of single-family home suburbia. (The young generation, locked into the college loan repayment treadmill, may never be able to buy a house.) The collapse of “brick-and-mortar” retail is the next shoe to drop. Ultimately, Internet retail will follow, since it is based on the absurd proposition that every item bought in this land must make a long journey by truck to its destination. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Eventually, new systems of downscaled regional and local commerce will self-reorganize emergently. The next mall will be your old Main Street.

All of this will redound to the issue of how children develop into adults, and especially young men. Every impediment has been placed in the way of their healthy development, and at an increasing pace in this century. The disorders of economy have subjected them to the grossest devaluation in political ideology. Manhood itself, as a general proposition, has been reframed as a shady enterprise. It has been a disgusting exercise in bad faith, but like other, older social hysterias, it will pass and we will look back in wonder and nausea that so many went along with it.

Be seeing you

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