June 23, 2004: Last week, the righteous gathered at my town hall. Did the holy
rollers come to denounce dances at the local high school? Or
liquor stores that stay open on Sunday? Nope. The target was
broader. It was the very environment surrounding them. One from
which many of them hail. Suburbia. Where green lawns and shaded
streets mask Hell on earth. The guest preacher was James
Howard Kunstler, whose book "The Geography of Nowhere" is New Urban scripture.
New Urbanists believe that in the second half of the 20th Century
Americans sinfully spurned cities for suburbia. Aided in their
wicked flight by the demon "Kar". They also believe government,
via public policy and spending, should carrot and stick sinners
back into urban living. The event at my town hall was sponsored
by a local peace group and along with Kunstler, featured a film
about depleted oil reserves in the Mid-East. A leaflet for the
gathering referenced rising gas prices and was headlined: "Is
This The End of Suburbia?" Hope obviously springs that the order
of the first 2 words can soon be reversed.
Before proceeding I should explain I'm relatively new to the
land of highways, shopping malls and the kind of back yards bar
crawlers don't mistake for bathrooms. Suburbia only swallowed me
a few years back. For decades I crossed myself whenever I saw
a barbecue grill not balanced on a fire escape. And when I read
Kunstler's "Geography" I knew he'd nailed the soul killing,
dehumanizing nature of suburbia. But now, after driving many
highways, some lost and some jam packed, and after checking out
countless strip malls and mighty malls, and after hob nobbing
with Americanus Suburbanus, I'm here to deliver the good news.
Humanity thrives in the belly of the beast!
While I do miss the drug dealers in my old nabe, particularly
the ones who hid their guns in the withered shrubs around my
building, I've found my new neighbors to be just as vivid and
idiosyncratic. Albeit in different ways. It's heartening to
discover their SUVs haven't sucked their souls. Perhaps I was
too fearful of the spiritual threat of the gas guzzling thunder
lizards. After all, the dealers drove SUVs too. And their
essence remained intact.
But sometimes, when I sit on the porch and watch the joggers,
kids on bikes and old people out for strolls with equally old
dogs, I shudder to think how sedentary and unhealthy demon Kar
has made suburbanites. Take me for instance. Kar now carries me
to my favorite supermarket. A local outlet of a vile mega chain.
It's several miles away and features a large stock and low
prices. In urban days I shopped at another store with similar
advantages. It too was several miles away. But then I walked or
used public transportation. How I miss those bracing hikes
through rough terrain with arms full of grocery bags. Made more
exciting by the chance that the bottom of a bag might drop out.
Who knew what might explode on the sidewalk and mingle with the
existing impasto? A quart of milk? A jar of jam?
Public transportation was another adventure in exercise. Folded
yoga-like into a bus seat with a bouquet of celery under my nose
and a sack of spuds between my feet. Or swaying bag laden in
the aisle, hanging on by a pinky. Trying not to toss a container
of sour cream into the lap of the beefy guy with the scars who
was telling the world what he told his stinkin' parole officer.
But back to good news on the dead soul front. Despite the fact
that the architecture of suburbia is infernally isolating, I've
actually seen suburbanites get personal with their neighbors.
They share info about their lives and joke with each other. They
even do things together. That they behave not at all like the
alienated ships passing in the night depicted by Kunstler and
other New Urbanists, is a testimonial to the resilience of the
human spirit. Of course it could just be Body Snatcher pretense
put on for my benefit. (Note to self: check basement. Mr.
Brickmeyer returned the lawn mower today and could have placed
a pod in the washer. If so, set cycle on permanent press.)
Anyway, even if such exchanges are genuine it's more convenient
when personal information can be shared through walls or
airshafts. Or shouted under bedroom windows in the middle of the
night. When people have time to give it their full attention.
Nowadays most New Urbanists grudgingly admit older suburbs show
signs of human life. Houses are closer together and public
transportation still connects many older suburbs to urban
downtowns. With enough social planning and public spending, older
suburbs could become vital extensions of the cities waves of Old
Urbanists fled. But what about the far flung urban sprawl of
McMansion sub-divisions? Those hermetic semi circles gobbling up
the farmland some thoughtless farmers are eager to sell?
Thankfully, government can buy that land with public money and
hold it in public trust. In the future, when trams or cunningly
retro street cars criss cross the countryside, the New Urbanized
public will be allowed to go look at it.
To me McMansions seem ugly. And shaky lending practices have
financed too many of them. Somewhere down the line taxpayers will
probably pick up a major bill for the McMansion version of the
housing bubble. A few payments have already come due. But folks
who buy McMansions seem to find them aesthetically pleasing. Just
as people who buy cheek-by-jowl row houses in urban neighborhoods
seem to like their choices. Taxpayers have given many of these
homeowners a hand as well. With purchases and renovations. As
to lending practices, entire urban neighborhoods have been
decimated by rings of mortgage flippers and re-fi home repair
crooks utilizing housing programs and loan advantages promoted
by the gospel of New Urbanism.
Yikes! That last line sounds so anti New Urban. Maybe Brickmeyer
put a pod in the basement when he borrowed the mower-- not when
he returned it! More indicators I've been podified: when I saw
the announcement of the suburban death wish meeting at my town
hall I laughed. At first. Then I started thinking like an
obstructionist suburban Kulak. Hardening my heart against an
enlightened social vision. Telling myself that if gas becomes
unaffordable I'll ride a horse to my favorite characterless,
white bread strip mall. The one with an Oriental grocery store
and the what-not shop run by a gay couple who live in a trailer
out back. And how if New Urban push turns to shove, I'd have to
ride that same horse around the suburban highways and sub-
divisions and up to the doors of single family homes. Hollering
the Redcoats are coming, the Redcoats are coming.
Talk about exercise.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
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