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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 1 -- DECEMBER 2001/JANUARY 2002
 

Jim Kunstler -- New Urbanist and Spokesman for the Angst of the American Soul

By Karen O'Keefe

"I generally paint from life."

Thank goodness for us when writer, painter, speaker and new urbanist James Howard Kunstler was 8 years old, he was plucked from an idyllic, three-year suburban sojourn filled with Lionel trains, 1-acre yards, woods and bikes, and thunked down by the tragedy of divorce into the heart of Manhattan.

It was tough on the little guy, to be sure. He had a single parent, a sinister elevator operator whom he imagined to be a child murderer, and a world of concrete in place of grassy suburban fields.

But things weren't all bad. He also had a new school, PS 6, where the kids were allowed to leave -- and roam -- at lunchtime. A block from school, he discovered the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was, says Kunstler, one of the greatest things about the school's location.

"I had the liberty of the city at a very early age," he says. "I spent a lot of time in the ... Museum ... as a 9-, 10-, and 11-year-old-kid."

Kunstler reveled in the city. He took himself to the movies. He bought hot dogs from street vendors.

In 10th grade, he transferred to the prestigious High School of Music & Art. "I wasn't interested in high school. I was into art - painting and drawing" he says.

"It was a good school, but very far from where I lived. I had an hour-long, depressing bus-ride through the slums every day."

Some of it was great, some of it was difficult, but it is clear from his work that all of those childhood expressions are still part of Kunstler.

Today Kunstler, 53, is still into art. He's into painting. He's into drawing. He's into writing.

In fact, he's a true artist, so he's got that ability to look beneath the surface, gaze into the heart of whatever he finds there, and then bring that vision to us.

*******

It is not unusual to feel good these days when a subdivision developer plants a tree. Even if it's just one tree.

There is often a sense of communal satisfaction when a strip center developer promises the neighborhood a raised road shoulder to at least partially "mask" the painful frontage.

People celebrate when the city forces the local McDonald's to move its tawdry plastic playground from the store's visible front to the store's less visible back.

In America, many people view these events as "progress."

Kunstler, the author, would view them as irrelevant shams. He writes in "The Geography of Nowhere" (Simon & Schuster, 1994) and "Home From Nowhere" (Simon & Schuster, 1996) that the physical fabric of America is pathologically devoid of integrity. "I set out to write a book about why America is so ugly and dysfunctional because I was tired of living in a place that was ugly and dysfunctional," he says.

Suburban housing subdivisions are sickening in their endless, banal replication, he writes. A strip mall "is, in absolutely all its details, a perfect piece of junk. It is the anti-place."

As a self-described "citizen observer," Kunstler is deeply disturbed -- and angered -- by his percipient vision of the misery and depression of the American people, wherever they live.

"Who wouldn't be angry about the condition of American cities and the miserable environments of suburbia that were supposed to replace them?" he asks.

Kunstler is author of many magazine articles and columns in addition to his books. He also maintains a website (www.kunstler.com).

He is an empathetic master writer, always combining brilliant intellect, dissident humor and righteous anger to press his case for change. In prose and pictures, Kunstler alternately rails, ridicules and discusses with placid, devastating lucidity his belief that the world's wealthiest nation is a "clown civilization" filled with unhappy people.

Kunstler's Americans suffer beneath their clown clothes and grotesque clown smiles. Malnourished by a diet of junk food, they live and work in clown buildings, drive clown-mobiles, and occupy recreational time with canned, trivial entertainment.

"A land full of places that are not worth caring about, will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending," worries Kunstler in "Geography." He believes a lot of people share his feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that make up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work.

In "Home," Kunstler has more evidence that he has tapped straight into deep toxic waters of an American malaise that at last can no longer be denied. He urges raising standards "with respect to our ordinary surroundings."

Kunstler's solutions -- impossible to encapsulate here -- include multi-use zoning districts, car-free urban cores, tax revisions, design, new urbanism, and "a return to charm, sanity and grace."

People do relate to Kunstler's message. His books are widely read. He has no formal training in architecture or the related fields that have become his milieu, yet Kunstler is in demand as a speaker in both academic and professional circles.

But it is ordinary people, the non-professional, non-professorial you's and me's out there that Kunstler says he is most driven to reach. "My aim is the common consensus," he writes in "Home."

"If we repair the physical fabric of our everyday world, we may regain affection for the places we live and work and ... some of our desired social aims might naturally follow."

Kunstler's new book, "The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition" (Free Press/Simon & Schuster) arrives in bookstores this month.

"It is meant to be fun to read," he says. "All the chapters, for one reason or other have a connection to the question of how we live in America."

The book's format is a series of essays or "commentaries" (a Kunstler specialty familiar to those who visit his website). This means the book will be irresistible to two groups: those of us with short attention spans and/or only short snatches of time in which to read, and the serious reader.

Kunstler is a genius raconteur. Given his insight, his humor, and the fact that he says there's quite a bit of history tale-telling woven throughout, "The City in Mind" has bestseller potential.

"It is not meant to be a comprehensive look at all cities of all times in the world," says Kunstler. "Instead, it is more of a sideways meditation on history and contemporary culture."

The commentaries, which touch on a wide range of topics, focus on several cities that interest Kunstler -- including Atlanta, Berlin, Las Vegas, London, Mexico City, Paris and Rome.

*******

Kunstler predicts transition to a healthier America in the post-suburban world will be tough. "We've invested a huge amount of national wealth in the infrastructure of suburbia -- the whole grisly panorama. There will be political problems from Americans who believe they are still entitled to suburban life ... including the 3,000-mile Caesar salad."

It's hard not to feel some anxiety about Kunstler's predicted "fight over the table scraps of the 20th century." But, once you read and you listen and you really get his message ...

"I have plenty of hope for the future, but I expect our nation to go through some hardship before things get better," says Kunstler. Knowing things will get better, it doesn't really seem like it will be all that hard to swallow.