Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle

Comment on current events by the author of The Long Emergency

by Jim Kunstler

Away and back (June 19 2006)

Forgive me for starting at the end (of my West Coast excursion), but it's the most amusing part. So, they load us on United 302 (Chicago to Albany) and we push back from the jetway, and about ten minutes later I notice that we are taxiing past the "C" Concourse again, that is, we've circled around the whole airport. Okay, well, O'Hare is a weird operation.

So I sink back into the newsprint fog of the fifth newspaper I've read that day and after another ten minutes I notice we're rolling past the "C" Concourse yet again. It's also real hot in the plane because it's ninety degrees outside and the AC isn't running too well. The other passengers are getting grousy.

So, we finally stop driving around the fucking airport and apparently get on line for takeoff. Only it looks like a staggeringly long line, going forward and around the corner and up the tarmac, forever. "Kcccchhhhhhh", static over the PA as the pilot gets on the microphone. "Uh, folks ..". (Whenever they start with that patronizing salutation, you know you're in for the business.) "Uh, folks, it seems to be rush hour out here. They've got us at about, oh, twenty-five or thirty for takeoff ..". Groans up and down the aisle. "... and we'll give you an update as soon as we have more information, Kccchhhhhhhhh."

Okay, we're already a half an hour late for takeoff, and everybody's roasting in the cabin. I'm thinking, the pilot said, "It's rush hour out here". Wait a minute. I don't get it. Rush hour? Like a whole bunch of planes just showed up at O'Hare unscheduled? Coming and going? Nobody was informed about it ahead of time? They're all ... surprised? Like there's some kind of airplane freeway ramp out there feeding onto O'Hare, and for some reason a whole lot of planes just appeared? And now the runways are clogged with planes that nobody expected or knew about ...?

I mention this because this is the kind of mendacious bullshit that Americans are subjected to constantly. No wonder we can't think about public affairs anymore.

Okay, so I spent nine days on the West Coast, starting in Los Angeles, Pasadena, actually. Let's just say that part of the United States is absolutely hopeless. It consists largely of a roadway hierarchy and whatever's left is apportioned to valet parking. It has no future. The poor oblivious denizens of the place don't question their predicament. The whole sordid scene is, well, tragic, and I'm sorry, but let's pass over it for now.

So, eventually I got up to Seattle, which is trying to be a city, like a real twentieth century city - did I say twentieth? Well, there's the problem, right there. They're lining the avenues with condo skyscrapers. Big mistake. Skyscrapers are not going to be cool in the twenty-first century as we run into problems with the electricity supply. Oh, well. The other problem with Seattle is this: the topography is really demoralizing. The hills are so steep that I got shin splints from walking around the place for one day. Now, if the people who lived there and run the place had any sense, they would have cable cars or some damn thing traversing the hills every ten blocks. Then, you could walk the contours comfortably and get up the elevations okay.

But they don't do that. They probably had them ninety years ago (and, in fact, I saw framed photos of Seattle's cable cars in the Town Hall auditorium lobby where I gave a blab, so I know for a fact they did). But apparently they forgot how to do that. So now, obviously, everybody brings their car downtown because it's impossible to walk around comfortably, even if you're in shape, and Seattle has become one of the worst traffic clusterfucks in the nation.

Eventually I got up to Vancouver on Amtrak - a very comfortable ride along the shore of Puget Sound past flocks of eagles and all kinds of natural beauty - and when I went through customs at the Vancouver central station, I was pulled aside and directed into a grim little room with a female interogation officer. I had a New York DWAI traffic conviction (* see below) dating from 1997, and did I know that this made me undesirable for entry into that fortress of rectitude, Canada? Well, gosh, no ... Then the lady officer said - I swear she did - that she could prevent me from entering if she had been in a bad mood. But instead, she gave me printed instructions for how to apply to the Canadian consulate back home for a document proving I had been rehabilitated (from a misdemeanor). It was interesting to note that Canadian border policy depends on the particular mood of individual customs officers.

Vancouver is a very appealing site for a city, but it is in the process of being utterly pranged (as they like to say) by massive hyper-mega-overdevelopment. And anyway, circumstances had me more-or-less house-sitting an old college friend's home way up in the hills of suburban West Vancouver, where it required fifty dollars in cab fares to get something to eat. Enough said.

I took a spectacular ferry ride, on an extravagantly comfortable (and cheap: $8.50 Canadian) vessel over to little Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, on the big island out in the Pacific. Victoria, too, was on its way toward a good self-pranging, but there is a visible residue of the pre-pranged city that is scaled comfortably and possesses great natural beauty. I met a lot of nice people there, and they didn't seem disturbed that nine years ago I had incurred a misdemeanor conviction for DWAI.

The rest was that torturous return journey home via O'Hare, which I already told you about. One final note, however, to the hotel chains of North America: please lose those fucking twenty-pound duvets you're putting on all the beds. They're too heavy. They're too hot, even with the AC on. I hardly slept the whole time I was away. No wonder I'm cranky.

* Driving While Ability Impaired - in New York, a lesser charge than Driving While Intoxicated (DWI)

Riding the Rails (June 12 2006)

After sitting on airplanes for two days, like a mummy in a casket, I took the Amtrak train from Bellingham, Washington, down to Seattle. It was an extravagant relief from harsh inanities of aviation. The train cars were new, clean and luxurious, very unlike the beat-up rolling stock on my usual Hudson River line (Albany to New York City). The seats were better than first-class airplane seats. There was a cafe car serving up hot beverages. The conductors were cheerful, as if they actually liked what they were doing.

The view out the (clean) windows was supernaturally beautiful. Loveliness everywhere. The tracks ran along Puget Sound most of the way. Dark fir-covered mountains spilled down to rocky bays where, here and there, people were digging - for clams, I supposed. I saw three bald eagles along the way. Also scores of some kind of stately, long-necked wading bird with a vivid black-and-white blaze on its cheeks. At other times we passed through farm fields and orchards. White and pink foxgloves grew wild along tracks most of the way along with yellow broom and phlox.

As we got closer to Seattle, you saw more people in the bays, clamming, running their dogs, hugging their girlfriends. Almost all of them waved at the train as we passed, as if to say, "Notice how glad we are to be here!"

When the train got to the station in downtown Seattle, it just stopped and we got off, without ceremony or painful delay. There was no standing around waiting to be squeezed out of tube, the way they unload an airplane. I caught a taxi outside the station door, and five minutes later I was at my hotel.

This line along the Pacific Northwest corridor is one of very few extant passenger rail lines in the whole USA. There is only one train a day each way between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada and back - on which Bellingham is a stop. The people in charge would probably just as soon not even run those trains.

But why Americans do not demand to have railroad service all over the nation is one of the abiding mysteries of these crack-up years. What a pleasure it was to travel on that train yesterday. What an amenity it would be if people could travel that way between Cleveland and Columbus, or Atlanta and Birmingham, or Dallas to Denver, or Albany and Boston. What a drag it is struggling to get to the airport, getting processed through like a piece of meat in a grinder, and then struggling off to your destination once you land twenty or thirty miles outside the city you've traveled to - not to mention the alternative insanity of driving a car three hundred miles, or more, whenever you have to go somewhere in this moronic republic.

What We Choose (June 5 2006)

The New Urbanists met for their annual confab in Providence over the weekend and I was there among them, as I have been for thirteen years, because there is no other organization in America that is doing more to remediate the fiasco of suburbia - or, as I call it, the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. I have been telling college lecture audiences for a while now that pretty soon the only urbanism will be the New Urbanism. I am not being facetious.

This movement has been broadly misunderstood over the past decade, especially by some of the major morons in the mainstream media, such as David Brooks and John Tierney of The New York Times, who repeatedly make the fatuous argument that suburbia must be okay because Americans overwhelmingly choose to live in it. Well, that's nice. The trouble, though David and John, is that suburbia is coming off the menu. In a world of $70 oil and upward, suburbia is a dish that can no longer be served up in America's economic kitchen. Someone should inform the waiters.

The New Urbanists were first among the entire architecture-and-planning establishment to volunteer to help in the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and they have received nothing but scorn and ingratitude for proposing that the Gulf Coast towns be redeveloped as something other than parking lots with casinos, or that FEMA learn how to deliver a well-designed small cottage instead of a trailer to people who have lost their homes. The minions of the elite architecture schools, lead by Reed Kroloff of Tulane University, have been especially dismissive, proposing instead architectural exercises in irony and High Art - just what people living in tents with no plumbing need.

The New Urbanists are the only group I know of who offer a comprehensive set of intelligent responses to the awful challenges we face in a looming mega crisis of the environment. Assuming that the human race wants to carry on, and to do so under civilized conditions, we are going to need collective dwelling places, civic habitations. It has yet to be determined what scale will be possible, and exactly what kind of energy will be available to us for running them. But the signs so far indicate that the scale will have to be much more modest than what we are currently used to, and the quality will have to be much higher.

The New Urbanists performed an extremely valuable service to this society over the past decade. They dove back into the dumpster of history and retrieved the knowledge needed for the design and assembly of real civic environments - knowledge that had been thrown away gleefully by the traffic engineers and municipal Babbitts in the delirious years of building the easy motoring utopia.

One day soon, America will wake up from its infotainment-fueled sleepwalk and start desperately looking for answers to the predicament it finds itself in. A lot of that will revolve around the basic question of where we live, and how things in it are arranged. When that wake-up occurs, the New Urbanists will be ready, reliable, confident, and congenial as always - something like our country used to be.

Bill Totten


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