There is a marvelous moment in the hit movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that sums up our present national predicament very nicely. The story is set in Los Angeles in 1947. The scene is a dreary warehouse, headquarters of the villain, Judge Doom, a cartoon character masquerading as a human being. The hallucinatory plot hinges on Judge Doom's evil scheme to sell off the city's streetcar system and to create just such a futuristic car-crazed society as Americans actually live and work in today.
"It's a construction plan of epic proportions," he intones. "They're calling it [portentous pause] a freeway! Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena! I see a place where people get on and off the freeway, off and on, off and on, all day and all night....I see a street of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food, tire salons, automobile dealerships, and wonderful, wonderful billboards as far as the eye can see. My god, it'll be beautiful!"
In short order, Judge Doom is unmasked for the nonhuman scoundrel he is, dissolved by a blast of caustic chemical, and flushed into the Los Angeles sewer system, while the rest of the cute little cartoon creatures hippity-hop happily into the artificial sunset.
"That lamebrain freeway idea could only be cooked up by a 'toon," comments the movie's gumshoe hero, Eddie Valiant, afterward.
The audience sadly knows better. In the real world, Judge Doom's vision has prevailed and we are stuck with it. Yet the movie's central metaphor -- that our civilization has been undone by an evil cartoon ethos -- could not be more pertinent, for more and more we appear to be a nation of overfed clowns living in a hostile cartoon environment.
Thirty years ago, Lewis Mumford said of post-World II development, "the end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set." The whole wicked, sprawling, megalopolitan mess, he gloomily predicted, would completely demoralize mankind and lead to nuclear holocaust.
It hasn't come to that, but what Mumford deplored was just the beginning of a process that, instead of blowing up the world, has nearly wrecked the human habitat in America. Ever-busy, ever-building, ever-in-motion, ever-throwing-out the old for the new, we have hardly paused to think about what we are so busy building, and what we have thrown away. Meanwhile, the everyday landscape becomes more nightmarish and unmanageable each year. For many, the word development itself has become a dirty word.
Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty 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 chaingang 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."
The newspaper headlines may shout about global warming, extinctions of living species, the devastation of rain forests, and other worldwide catastrophes, but Americans evince a striking complacency when it comes to their everyday environment and the growing calamity that it represents.
I had a hunch that many other people find their surroundings as distressing as I do my own, yet I sensed too that they lack the vocabulary to understand what is wrong with the places they ought to know best. That is why I wrote this book.
The sentimental view of anything is apt to be ridiculous, but I feel that I have been unusually sensitive to the issue of place since I was a little boy. Before I was old enough to vote, I had lived in a classic postwar suburb, in the nation's greatest city, and in several classic small towns, and along the way I acquired strong impressions about each of these places.
One September day in 1954 my father and mother and I drove twenty miles east out of New York City in our Studebaker on the Northern State Parkway to meet the movers at our new house "in the country," as my mother would refer forever to any place where you cannot walk out your front door and hail a taxi. Until that time, Long Island had been one of the most beautiful places in the United States, and our house was one small reason it would not remain that way much longer.
It was in a "development" called Northwood. The name had only a casual relation to geography. Indeed, it was north of many things -- the parkway, the land of Dixie, the Tropic of Capricorn -- but the wood part was spurious since the tract occupied a set of former farm fields, and among the spanking new houses not a tree stood over ten feet tall or as thick around as my father's thumb. The houses, with a few exceptions, were identical boxy split-levels, clad in asphalt shingles of various colors, with two windows above a gaping garage door, affording the facades an aspect of slack-jawed cretinism. Our house was an exception. The developers, I'm told, had started out with different models before they settled on the split-levels, which were absolutely the latest thing and sold like hotcakes.
Our house was a ranch clad in natural cedar shingles. It had a front porch too narrow to put furniture on and shutters that didn't close or conform to the dimensions of the windows. It sported no other decorative elaborations beside an iron carriage lamp on the front lawn that was intended to evoke ye olde post road days, or something like that. What it lacked in exterior grandeur, it made up in comfort inside. The three bedrooms were ample. We had baths galore for a family of three, a kitchen loaded with electric wonders, wall-to-wall carpeting throughout, and a real fireplace in the living room. The place cost about $25,000.
Our quarter-acre lot lay at the edge of the development. Behind our treeless back yard stood what appeared to my six-year-old eyes to be an endless forest like the wilderness where Davey Crockett slew bears. In fact, it was the 480-acre estate of Clarence Hungerford Mackay, president and major stockholder of the Postal Telegraph Cable Company -- the precursor of Western Union. Mackay was long gone by the 1950s, his heirs and assigns scattered to the winds, and "Harbor Hill," as his property had been named, was in a sad state of abandonment and decay. It took me and my little friends some time to penetrate its glades and dells, for there was much news on the airwaves that fall about the exploits of George Metesky, New York City's "Mad Bomber," and we had a notion that the old estate was his hideout.
A lacework of gravel carriage drives overgrown by dogwood and rhododendron criss-crossed the property. At its heart stood the old mansion. I don't recall its style -- Shingle? Queen Anne? Railroad Romanesque ? But it was much larger than any Northwood house. Juvenile delinquents had lit fires inside, and not necessarily in the fireplaces. Yet for its shattered glass, musty odors, and bird droppings, the mansion projected tremendous charm and mystery. Even in ruin, it felt much more authentic than our own snug, carpeted homes, and I know we regarded it as a sort of sacred place, as palpably a place apart from our familiar world. We certainly spent a lot of time there.
One week in the spring of 1956, the bulldozers appeared in the great woods behind our house. Soon they had dug a storm sump the size of Lake Ronkonkoma back there, a big ocher gash surrounded by chainlink fencing. In the months that followed, the trees crashed down, the mansion was demolished, new houses went up, and Clarence Hungerford Mackay's 480 acres was turned into another development called -- what else? -- Country Estates!
A year later my parents landed in divorce court, and I moved into Manhattan with my mother. On the whole I did not like the city at first. My mother enrolled me in an organized after-school play group to keep me out of trouble. Our group made its headquarters in a little meadow near the Ramble in Central Park where we played softball and "kick the can." Unlike the wilderness of Clarence Mackay's estate, the park seemed cluttered with bothersome adults, strolling lovers, nannies pushing prams, winos -- everyone but George Metesky. By and by, I made city friends. We played in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, because it was a block away from my elementary school at 82nd and Madison. This was in the days before art became just another form of show biz, and on weekday afternoons the great halls of the Met were practically deserted. My other chief recreation was throwing objects off the terrace of a friend's fifteenth-story penthouse apartment -- snowballs, water balloons, cantaloupes -- but the less said about this the better.
Summers I was sent away to a boys' camp in New Hampshire, where I got my first glimpse of what real American towns were like. From age twelve up, we were trucked one night a week into the town of Lebanon (pop. 8000) where we had the choice of attending a teen street dance or going to see a movie at the old opera house. There was a third, unofficial, option, which was to just wander around town.
Lebanon had a traditional New England layout. A two-acre square occupied the center of town. Within it stood a bandshell and a great many towering elms. Around the square stood various civic buildings of agreeable scale -- the library, the town hall, the opera house -- whose dignified facades lent Lebanon an aura of stability and consequence. At the west end of the square lay a commercial district of narrow shoplined streets wending downhill to a mill district. Here I bought fishing lures and the latest baseball magazines.
Off the square's east end stood the town's best residential streets, lined with substantial-looking houses mainly of nineteenth-century vintage. They were set rather close together, and lacked front lawns, but they seemed the better for that. Instead, the capacious porches nearly met the sidewalks. Big trees lined the streets and their branches made a graceful canopy over it like the vaults inside a church. In the soft purple twilight with the porch lamps glowing, and the sights and sounds of family life within, these quiet residential streets made quite an impression on me.
I was charmed and amazed to discover that life could be physically arranged the way it was in Lebanon, New Hampshire. As I thought about it, I realized that a town like Lebanon was what a place like Northwood could only pretend to be: that Northwood, lacking any center, lacking any shops or public buildings, lacking places of work or of play, lacking anything except the treeless streets of nearly identical houses set on the useless front lawns, was in some essential way a mockery of what Lebanon really was.
As a teenager I visited my old suburban chums back on Long Island from time to time and I did not envy their lot in life. By puberty, they had entered a kind of coma. There was so little for them to do in Northwood, and hardly any worthwhile destination reachable by bike or foot, for now all the surrounding territory was composed of similar one-dimensional housing developments punctuated at intervals by equally boring shopping plazas. Since they had no public gathering places, teens congregated in furtive little holes -- bedrooms and basements -- to smoke pot and imitate the rock and roll bands who played on the radio. Otherwise, teen life there was reduced to waiting for that transforming moment of becoming a licensed driver.
The state college I went off to in 1966 was located in a small town of 5000 in remote western New York state. To a city kid, Brockport was deeply provincial, the kind of place where the best restaurant served red wine on the rocks. Yet I enjoyed it hugely. At a time when small towns all over America were dying, little Brockport remained relatively robust. Its little Main Street had a full complement of shops, eating places, and, of course, drinking establishments, for this was back in the days when eighteen-year-olds could buy liquor. There was an old single-screen movie theater downtown with an Art Deco facade and a marquee edged in neon lights.
The reason for the town's healthy condition was obvious: the college. It furnished jobs and a huge volume of customers for Main Street's businesses. It gave the place some intellectual life -- totally absent in neighboring burgs where all the lesser institutions of culture had been replaced by television. The students enlivened the town by their sheer numbers. Many of them had come from boring one-dimensional suburbs like Northwood, and they appreciated what life in a real town had to offer. It was scaled to people, not cars. It had the variety that comes from a mixed-use community. Its amenities lay close at hand. It offered ready access to genuine countryside, mostly farms and apple orchards.
We loved our off-campus apartments in the nineteenth-century houses on tree-lined streets or above the shops in the business blocks downtown. We loved rubbing elbows on the streets, meeting friends as we walked or biked to class. We loved the peace and quiet of a small town at night. The campus itself -- a miserable island of androidal modernistic brick boxes set in an ocean of parking -- was quite secondary to the experience of life in the town.
I suppose that my experiences in suburb, city, and town left me biased in favor of town life -- at least insofar as what America had to offer in my time. That bias is probably apparent in the chapters ahead. But all places in America suffered terribly from the way we chose to arrange things in our postwar world. Cities, towns, and countryside were ravaged equally, as were the lesser orders of things within them-neighborhoods, buildings, streets, farms -- and there is scant refuge from the disorders that ensued.
The process of destruction that is the subject of this book is so poorly understood that there are few words to even describe it. Suburbia. Sprawl. Overdevelopment. Conurbation (Mumford's term). Megalopolis. A professor at Penn State dubbed it the "galactic metropolis." It is where most American children grow up. It is where most economic activity takes place. Indeed, I will make the argument that this process of destruction, and the realm that it spawned, largely became our economy. Much of it occupies what was until recently rural land -- destroying, incidentally, such age-old social arrangements as the distinction between city life and country life. To me, it is a landscape of scary places, the geography of nowhere, that has simply ceased to be a credible human habitat. This book is an attempt to discover how and why it happened, and what we might do about it.
Copyright © 1993 by James Howard Kunstler