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April 02, 2008

Nikos and James

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

New American City interviews a couple of MBlowhard faves, James Howard Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros.

The article has me thinking about cars, cities, and suburbs ... I'm no knee-jerk enemy of cars, and there's much about life in New York City that can irk me -- cramped spaces, obnoxious people, frantic pace, etc. But I really, really adore having most of what I need and want on a day-to-day basis available to me within walking distance. It feels civilized. To gloat for a sec: Within ten blocks of our apartment we can find grocery stores, delis, yoga and Gyro studios, shops of all kinds, movie theaters and theater-theaters, art galleries ... My office is three miles from where I live, and I walk to work nearly every morning. It's really lovely having all this walking built into my day. I haven't owned a car in 30 years.

When I visit the rest of the country, I often find much there to envy and enjoy. But not the driving. I hate the way so much of life in 99% of the U.S. is organized around cars. If you say "Hey, let's go out!," what that usually means is, "Let's go to the garage, get in the car, spend time in traffic, park in another garage, then get out." Doing the chores usually means driving through traffic from one parking lot to another parking lot. Walking? Well, that usually doesn't just happen, as it does in New York City. It's usually something you need to make special time for.

James Kunstler blogs here, and has a website here. Nikos Salingaros' website is here. If you haven't read the 2Blowhards interview with Nikos already, go to the top of this blog, click on "Interviews," and enjoy a very stimulating discussion.

Oh, I just noticed something entertaining. Ah, those open-minded architectural progressives ...

What are your own feelings and tastes where cities, cars, walking, and the 'burbs are concerned?



posted by Michael at April 2, 2008


I grew up in the suburbs and absolutely loved the town that I was raised in. But, initally out of laziness, I was drawn to urban areas.

Lazy, because, like you said, if you need to buy some onions, well, open the door, walk two blocks, buy onion, return.

But something that I find fascinating about America and it's "Car Culture" is that it rarely translates into "Anti-Walkable Culture".

Case(s) in Point: It seems that every new New Urbanist neighborhood that gets built can not maintain "affordable" housing because of too MUCH demand.

As far as I can tell, the oldest New Urb places like Seaside and Kentlands maintain great property values.

Many architects want to build them (regardless of what the professors teach), many people want to buy them and so few exist.

Whenever you see a market problem like that you just know that Evil is involved.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 2, 2008 3:45 PM

I grew up on a farm, lived in downtown Philly and in DC for a few years, and now live in a town of 26,000 surrounded by farmland. My unhappiest moments were when I lived in the city, and had to walk everywhere, and had my comings and goings dictated by bus and subway/metro schedules and locations. Walking several blocks from home to go to work or to go to the store did not feel civilized in the least. Living in an apartment surrounded by other apartments, using mass transit, etc. all felt too communal and anti-human to me. When I lived in urban areas, I constantly looked forward to leaving them.

Posted by: Jason on April 2, 2008 4:16 PM

I've lived my whole life in Southern California. I don't hate cars, but I could do without 'em. I went to NYC for the first time last December and loved it. The first day there, I walked about 7 miles. I could do that everyday.

Alas, my last name is not Rockefeller or Vanderbilt, so I won't be moving there anytime soon.

Posted by: Bryan on April 2, 2008 4:23 PM

I don't live in a city, but in a dense suburb where it's possible to get basically everywhere on foot. It's wonderful - I've gotten to the point where I won't drive to the market even when I have to carry home several bags full of very heavy groceries. I imagine I wouldn't enjoy it quite as much if I were walking down smelly city streets on crowded sidewalks, but even that would be better than sitting in a car.

PS. The best part about giving up cars is what it does to your sense of time. I don't notice the fact that going to the store to pick up a gallon of milk takes 20 minutes - the joy's in the journey.

Posted by: John on April 2, 2008 5:59 PM

A lot of Americans, and I'm one of them, love the bubble of privacy the car gives them -- you're out in the world, moving through it, taking it in, from the vantage of your own living room. Of course, I'm not talking about those who have to do a long daily commute. That's a dreary chore. But for those of us who can be in town in 10 minutes and then shoot over to another part of town and then back home through the countryside...well, that's freedom. A different freedom than walking freedom, a different kind of movement. And this is coming from a guy, who, like Malamud's characters, has the Manhattan street grid imprinted in his very soul.

Posted by: ricpic on April 2, 2008 9:35 PM

First, a slight "digression" to discuss the contents of the article that was originally linked to in your post:

Although I sometimes agree with Kunstler, Salingaros and, I suppose, the "New American City" (a publication that I'm not that familiar with), I think it's very interesting (and also very informative and useful) to note where these three writers appear to disagree (mistakenly so, in my opinion) with Jane Jacobs.

New American City interviewer says:

"Going back to Mumford, one of his criticisms of Jane Jacobs’ 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' was that she blamed urban planners for the problems of American cities without addressing larger, more destructive forces at work."

In my opinion, it is Mumford and the orthodox (conventionally "liberal") urban planning worldview (which the New American City writer seems, ultimately, to buy into) that leaves unaddressed and unexamined the true larger forces at work in cities (and the world). Although to be fair to Mumford, it should be pointed out that while Jacobs did indeed discuss in "Death and Life" the larger forces at work, it ws really with her subsequent books (e.g., the Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, etc.) that she discussed these larger forces in greater depth.

Jim Kunstler says:

"Well, this is an interesting question for me, because I went up to Toronto and interviewed Jane jacobs at length in the last couple of years of her life, and I found it very had to direct her attention to the issue of the suburban fiasco per se. she just kept on deflecting my questions ab out it."

Judging from my readings of the Kunstler interviews, Jacobs disagreed with where Kunstler was trying to lead her, and it seemed to me that Kunstler just didn't "get" what Jacobs was trying to tell him.

Nikos Salingaros says:

"Oh, we learn the most fundamental things about human scale. We so-called civilized or more technological people have lost the human scale. And if we only learned that single thing it would transform our cities overnight."

I'm not that familiar with Salingaros, so I may not be characterizing his statements in this article accurately. But if I remember correctly from skimming past statements by him, his idea of human scale excludes the skyscraper -- which I think is a mistake, as it is what makes the Manhattan experience (getting back to the question about cars, diversity, choice, walkability, etc.) feasible. It all well and good to praise "density" but, as Jacobs points out about Mumford, the densities that he actually advocated (and which Salingaros may also be advocating) do not really generate the diversity, choice, walkability that people actually cherish. They are more likely to produce, instead, the boring (and not truly walkable) neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn (and new urbanist communities).

By the way, looking at the New American City's Board of Advisors, I see a number of pro-Mumford / anti-Jacobs (although they would most likely try to deny it) orthodox urban planners there.

- - - - - - - -

As I've mentioned in the past, I've never learned how to drive. Living in Manhattan since my late teenage years, I've never really had to.

We had a car when I was growing up in the Bronx and Queens, and I cherish my memories of being driven around the metropolitan area by car when I was a kid (and seeing many things I would never get to see from a bus or a train). Occasionally, I miss the opportunity to tool around the metro area (and other metro areas) in a car (independently, that is, without a "chauffeur"). But for everyday living, as opposed to an occassional vacation, it's hard for me to imagine tolerating a "drive everywhere" environment.

Two additional brief comments:

When I was about twelve, I went to stay with my uncle and his family, who were living at the White Sands Missle Range base in New Mexico (basically a suburban community at the edge of the desert). His house was just down the road from the church we attended (maybe ten or fifteen houses) -- you could plainly see the church at the end of the street -- but on Sundays we would still hop in the car and drive to church!

After living in Manhattan for a few years, I took a taxicab ride for the first time in a long while, and I suddenly realized that I hadn't been in an autombile -- any automobile -- for a good many months (maybe even a few years)! It was such a strange sensation -- I had "forgotten" what it was like to be driven around in a car!

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 2, 2008 11:50 PM

I grew up in the suburbs and HATED it. Also, I often got taken to stay with rural family members in the summer, which I DESPISE.

Now I live in my country's second-largest city, don't even have a driver's license, can walk to anything I can think of wanting and can take a train or plane to anywhere 18 hours a day.

Definitly city for me.

Of course, different peope do have different views, and good for them. Freedom of movement is a glorious sorting mechanism.

Posted by: Nanani on April 3, 2008 7:13 AM


This is a genuine "Stuff White People Like" post! Congratulations!

I lived in NYC for 15 years, right on 23rd and 9th. It was great. Now I commute in New Jersey. I'm discovering that I love Jersey.

Jersey's suburbs have everything going that you talk about. Within a 5 minute drive of the Karaoke Queen's house in suburban Jersey, you can find everything you mention. We often walk, but most people prefer not to.

The area of NYC that I lived in became progressively more tiresome as it turned exclusively into a gay ghetto. It was a more mixed neighborhood when I moved in.

I drive a ton of miles, not just commuting in Jersey, but because I split my time between the metropolitan area and upstate New York. I drive over 30,000 miles a year to work, to gigs, and to my home. It's tough, but I prefer the mobility because I experience such a variety of environments, and such a variety of people.

NYC hasn't just become a gay ghetto... it's become an intellectual ghetto. I think that you know this. It has become increasingly untrue that the city is a haven for free spirits and intellectual mavericks. In my last five years in the city, particularly in the multimedia business, the people I encountered were depressingly predictable... obsessive Bush haters, 60s radical leftovers, artsy outragers, etc. Isn't the very point of Stuff White People Like that the hipster has become a tiresome conformist?

I'm finding Jersey refreshing. Political conformity is not an issue. In fact, most people don't give a shit. Jersey has a substantial gay community, but it is not ideological. And I'm very surprised to discover that the media business is thriving in Jersey. It just has a different orientation than the media biz in Manhattan. The media biz in north Jersey is centered around the Meadowlands and, thus, has a concentration on sports and other all-American themes. The media biz in central Jersey is focus on the pharmaceutical and chemical businesses.

One of the aspects of the media biz that I found most annoying in Manhattan was this: in the ad agencies, design firms and media factories people make their living (and usually a very good one) feeding at the trough of corporate America. Over the past 20 years, it has become increasingly fashionable for these people to pretend to hate corporate America and to pretend that they'd prefer to live in the great People's Republic. It is an understatement to say that I find this posing repellant.

I still spend time in Manhattan. My bands play there from time to time. I love it. The intellectual leftist ghetto aspect of Manhattan, however, has become a bore.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 3, 2008 9:26 AM

You know who thinks and talks about cars and stuff like it's some kind of religion? People who live in cities. The rest of us just drive where we have to, bike where we can, and walk when we want to. It's possible to do all three, every day of the year.

I can't believe you like Mr. Scoldy Apocalypto Kunstler. That guys' been wrong 100x more than he's been right. I mean, have we run out of oil yet, Jimmy? No. We're not going to, either. Someone that wrong needs booting to the curb.

Posted by: Scott on April 3, 2008 11:50 PM

ST -- It is a pretty white posting, isn't it? I don't like the intellectual-ghetto feeling in much of the city either, especially these days. Am I wrong, or has it really become more monotonous and rigid than it once was? Still, those easy city opportunities for walking are something I do adore ...

Scott -- I'm not being clear, I guess. It's the way walking is built into city life that's fun for me. Even on days when I don't set out to take a walk, I still wind up walking a mile or two just in the normal course of things. I like that, as I like not worrying about traffic or parking. And when I'm visiting people in the rest of the country I'm a little horrified at how rare the opportunities for walking are. People often spend entire days without doing much more leg-stretching than going out to get in the car. Fine with me if it suits them, of course, but not to my taste. Drives me nuts, actually.

As for Kunstler, it's more the journey than the destination. It's easy to imagine, say, enjoying a sermon by a fire-and-brimstone preacher, no? You may suspect that the world won't end next Saturday but still enjoy the show and maybe even think that some of his points are pretty good. Same for me with Kunstler. His writing is beyond-vivid -- peerless, really. I don't know anyone who has ever written so boldly about neighborhoods and buildings. He's got an amazing gift for making what he describes and rants about stand out in big relief. Anyway, compare his writing about buildings and neighborhoods to the architecture criticism that you get in the conventional press and you'll see how pallid, by-the-numbers, and academic the usual thing is (and how ballsy, verve-y and enlightening he is). That's a real writing achievement. Kunstler's writing about buildings and neighborhoods is sort of like great writing about rock and roll -- Lester Bangs, for instance. You don't read Lester Bangs admiring his ultimate point -- he was probably a lunatic so far as ultimate points went. (Most of us are.) You read him digging his vibe, his excitement, the juiciness of his language, and what he's saying at the moment. He really makes you hear and sense things more vividly than you usually do. Same with Kunstler.

As for Peak Oil and the world as we know it falling apart next year ... Well, beats me. I notice that gasoline has gotten mighty expensive. But I'm hopeful myself that the apocalypse will hold off for another four or five decades.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 4, 2008 11:41 AM

Kunstler is utterly wrong about peak oil, because he just can't seem to think economically. But...he's not wrong about everything, and he shows more understanding of how the automobile has wrecked America's small towns than anyone else I've read. Note: not cities (though the car has done enormous damage to them, too), but small towns. When Kunstler does one of his ripstorming sermons (I can't call them "talks"), the pictures he shows of utterly degraded small town landscapes is really heartbreaking. He understands and conveys better than anyone the emotional devastation modern American car-scapes wreak.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 4, 2008 12:48 PM

I have tremendous respect for both Salingaros and Kunstler but they together just after 9/11 wrote an article that skyscrapers would essentially die when infact since 9/11 we have seen the biggest skyscraper boom ever. I think the problem is not so much skyscrapers and tall buildings but in breaking down skyscrapers through massing, distinguished exterior elements (the base, shaft and top/capital) and details/ornament much like the skyscrapers from 1900 to 1935. The Municipal Building and Woolworth Buildings are great examples of massive and tall structures that respond to human scale. Salingaros in particular with his architectural theories has a lot to contribute in humanizing skyscrapers.

While I'm not shocked that the architectural bookstore doesnt carry the Salingaros book, I am shocked that they have the gaul to say they dont carry the book because of their bias and intolerance.

Posted by: John on April 5, 2008 12:27 PM

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