- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Free Press (July 26, 1994)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0671888250
- ISBN-13: 978-0671888251
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 169 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #187,687 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape
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From Publishers Weekly
In this inconsistent but provocative analysis, Kunstler ( Blood Solstice ), a novelist and journalist, mixes memoir, historical essay and reporting to condemn the car-dependent suburbanization of America. Kunstler, who writes ably, casts a very wide net: he finds the roots of American individualism in pre-colonial property ownership, decries the abstracting influence of modernism on city architecture and slams road-builder Robert Moses to support his contention that suburbia is a social environment without soul. He offers an intriguing history of the decline of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., his hometown, describes trips to failing Detroit and well-planned Portland, Ore., and dissects "capitals of unreality" like Disney World and Atlantic City. His worthy but sketchily described solutions--a sustainable economy, better neighborhood development and preservation of the countryside--could, however, each merit a book.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
In this spirited, irreverent critique, Kunstler spares none of the culprits that have conspired in the name of the American Dream to turn the U.S. landscape from a haven of the civic ideal into a nightmare of crass commercial production and consumption. Kunstler strips the bark off the utopian social engineering promoted by the machine-worshiping Modern movement of Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright and skewers the intellectual camps (e.g., Venturi) that have thrived on making academic glory of the consumer wasteland. With the fervor of an investigative reporter and in the vernacular of a tabloid journalist, Kunstler exposes the insidious "car lobby" and gives case studies of landscapes as diverse as Detroit, Atlantic City, and Seaside, Florida, to illustrate both the woes and hopeful notes. The ideas in this book are not new (Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte Jr. were bemoaning the loss of civic life a quarter-century ago), but Kunstler gives their case an urgent, popular voice. An eminently relevant and important book; highly recommended.
- Thomas P.R. Nugent, New York
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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As a prophet, Kunstler makes sense. Not just on a superficial level, though when he writes about how the skyrocketing oil prices (of the '70s, mind you; this book is 15 years old) are about to cause the implosion of suburbia, he's writing no more than what you read on the front page of today's New York Times. He saw it and got it right. Also his visceral reaction to ugly buildings, to pompous architects of our unuseful and unlovely cityscape, to highway scars and stupid civic planning. It's a "Howl" that still works, because much of our built landscape is still hideous, and will remain so for many lifetimes. I live in a city and state where the horrors he describes are starting to retreat, but "Geography of Nowhere" could do us a great service by making sure the retreat continues, and still faster. I don't hold it against him that he never heard of the "new urbanism" and never saw transit hubs, multi-use dwellings, successful downtown core revitalizations, carpool lanes, green buildings, urban infill, and (most significantly) the Internet come to pass. Jeremiah never saw Zion, either.
Two things in this book are harder to take. One, a reflexive anti-suburb, anti-middle-class snobbery that keeps Kunstler from seeing the vast majority of his fellow citizens as having desires and values every bit as meaningful as his own -- and of having needs different from, but not inferior to, his. Suburbs grew because people hated crime, overcrowding, filth, lightless dwellings and stunted horizons in the established cities (and what made those cities sacred? Should everyone feel guilty because Detroit died, or did Detroit lose its reason for existing?). Wanting more room in a healthier environment is not only universal but commendable. It's fatuous, it's adolescent, to whine about "the suburbs" -- they are, after all, cities themselves, just newer and in many cases more justifiable cities than the ones from which they sprang. If the automobile created most of them, many exist for their own sakes now. They have both the jobs and the homes -- the economic raison d'etre that Kunstler identifies as crucial to the life of a community. Take away one's prejudice for certain traditional patterns of urban life, and you realize that anti-suburb bias is, like the endlessly unspooling freeway of mid-century, an outdated idea.
The other problem is a lack of ideas. Again, if Kunstler is a prophet, these aren't serious sins. It's a prophet's job to goad and to warn, not to rewrite the building code. But in a crucial way he can't see the city for the buildings. It's too easy to mock flaking vinyl siding in a dead Northeastern mill town, to shake a fist at the lit-all-night convenience store that ruined the harmony of a moribund Main Street. That vinyl siding didn't kill the town -- economic obsolescence did. Mourn the village if you want, but dreaming of long-gone grand hotels and bandstands and furniture workshops won't bring it back to life, or bring its lifeblood back from India, China, or wherever it's flowed. A prophet really committed to his message would need to say that yea, and verily, that genteel way of life is gone and not to be retrieved by a few deep porches or walkable sidewalks. I like Frank Capra, too. But this isn't 1946.
And occasionally a sneer gets in the way of fact. Kunstler is miffed that Woodstock, Vermont, though picture-perfect, is a "fake" burg because it lives off tourism. Someone should point out to him that tourism is a real economy, too, just like the water-driven industries and barge transshipping, manufacture (not exactly clean in those halcyon 1920s, but never mind), mining and milling (oh yes, quite traditional occupations of the vanished small town, and also quite destructive), and small farming (often inefficient and a very poor living)of the places he remembers. It's an exchange of goods and services for money, i.e., an economy. In fact, tourism can be a very good economy because of its power to preserve scenery and buildings, clean air, and public peace. But Kunstler is too busy frowning at the stereotypical, pale "middle class" souvenir shoppers, in their shiny new Jeeps (today he'd say Hummers), to notice that Woodstock, Vermont, has pretty much got it made.
The author plays reporter by parachuting into Disney World and Atlantic City, but the less said about these feints the better. These are second-rate Rolling Stone articles. Could have been closer to first-rate if he'd explored more of what Disney wanted to do with EPCOT and did to in Celebration, Fla., and might have found something of genuine interest to readers of this book. He doesn't get past Main Street USA, other than noting that it seems to be Disney visitors' favorite spot. He gets a cynical riff out of this. He harpoons a few more white, unsophisticated suburbanites. Kunstler instead could have seen in Main Street USA the germ of the residential-over-retail developments clustering around transit nodes in today's big cities. Maybe Walt was a bit more practical about the past than Kunstler understands. If you're going to take on Disney, you should at least get back the price of admission.
I miss streetcars and civic identity, too. I wish every home were a craftsman bungalow or a trim midrise, that all the street trees met in the middle, and that my job was a brisk stroll down the lane. (I also love googie roadside architecture, which Kunstler loathes, presumably out of dislike for civic whimsy.) But it's not that way, and in most of the country never was -- and even where it was, it was highly unlikely to last. Mill towns, and barge-canal towns, and cities where the factories lost their reason to survive decades ago, will need more than porches and friendly shop windows to bring themselves back to life. I don't think Kunstler lifted himself far enough out his nostalgia, his sorrow and his prophecy to lead the way forward out of the geography of nowhere.
Most of the problems associated with oil are problems associated with cars, and cars are the focus of J. H. Kunstler's book. Published in the early 90s, The Geography of Nowhere describes the impact of automobiles on the development of the U.S. Apparently, things started to go south during the Depression, when people were driven out of cities by poverty and the diminishing quality of life in the tenements. Fueling the flight to the suburbs were New Deal programs to build roads and cheap houses. In the ensuing decades the American landscape was built to serve cars rather than people, and that is what Kunstler is angry about. His main criticisms are:
1) A lot of the architecture, both residential and commerical, is very ugly. Buildings are constructed quickly and cheaply, and without regard to their surroundings. After all, what's the point of worrying about your surroundings if people are just going to drive directly to their destination? On this point, Kunstler is angry and sarcastic, though often funny. However, his tone is unfortunate, because ugliness is ultimately a matter of opinion, and I would bet that most people would say they are quite happy living in their suburban boxes. Kunstler argues that people are happy this way because they don't know any better, and he's probably right, but as far as I know there is no good way to force people to appreciate beauty.
2) When you step back from the individual buildings, and look at the organization of towns and cities, things start to look really grim. Here Kunstler's got a good point. Throughout most of America, the landscape is zoned into residential and commercial districts, which are separated by long stretches of four-lane roads. The residential zones are further divided by income (and to a lesser extent, by race and ethnicity), impeding the development of anything like a genuine community. The result is a weird mix of intolerance and paranoia that pervades the culture of what has historically been a relatively progressive nation.
3) At an even larger scale, the impact of cars on the nation and on the world seems absolutely dire. The Geography of Nowhere was written before car companies had figured out how to trick yuppies into buying pick-up trucks, and by now there is a broad scientific consensus that the Earth's climate is getting warmer as a result of human activities. Yet people continue to buy bigger and bigger SUVs, and to drive them longer distances to get to work or to buy their microwaveable burritos. It's like a hideous inversion of the idea of public transportation, in which every individual drives his or her own bus to work. Here it's not merely a matter of personal preference -- it's only possible for an individual to drive an SUV if other people subsidize the cost of cheap oil and environmental degradation. In all likelihood these other people haven't been born yet.
Ultimately, someone has to make decisions about the development of towns and cities, and there's no reason in a democratic society why these decisions have to be based on short-term economic interests. Although most suburbanites are probably not miserable in their surroundings, I doubt if anyone would consider their dependence on cars to be ideal. The Geography of Nowhere is a good way to start thinking about kicking the habit.