Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rust and Sun

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (April 07 2008)

My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.

Last week I sojourned in two parts of the country that might have been separate nations: Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, and Austin, Texas.

Misfortune hit Wilkes Barre hard twice in recent history. The first time was one day in 1959 when coal miners working a vein under the Susquehanna River made an error in judgment and poked a hole up through the river bed, flooding miles of interconnected mineshafts under half the county. For days after that, workers threw in every kind of material at hand to close up the hole in the river bottom - gravel, boulders, parts of old buildings, whole trucks - but nothing availed until the mines drank up all the river water they could hold. That was the end of the anthracite industry in Wilkes Barre. More than 30,000 miners lost their paychecks forever.

The second calamity was Hurricane Agnes in 1972, which strayed inland and lingered viciously in the folded hills of the Susquehanna watershed. This time the river flowed over its banks and drowned the city center. Something like sixty percent of the pre-WW2 architectural fabric went for a swim, a lot of it very grand stuff. Federal disaster aid completed the job. It paid to bulldoze the flood damaged buildings and replace them with the sort of awful concrete boxes (and lollipop street lamps) that expressed perfectly the bureaucratic loathing for the very idea of city life and almost guaranteed a failure to recover both economically and psychologically.

The city remains in poor shape, with those bad newer buildings (now aging badly), and the "missing teeth" of more recent demolitions, and a sagging population base. But I liked the young professionals I met there who are working to revive this very damaged place. They were intelligent, and cheerful despite the difficulty of their task. They clearly loved their town. They were free to move elsewhere, had even been to college elsewhere, but had returned to their old city in the valley to make a stand. And they had worked tirelessly to actually get a few good new things built.

A few days later, I flew off to Austin, Texas, to check in on the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism (the CNU) an organization of architects, town planners, and developers who have been working heroically for two decades to counter the death spiral of suburbia with a more sustainable vision of the human habitat. Each year the CNU moves its national meet-up to a different city so the members can see what's really going on around the country.

For all of its reputation as a lively place, Austin's city center didn't add up to much. Of course, there was the famous Sixth Street strip of music joints, which in recent years has morphed into a perpetual party scene in the mold of Bourbon Street in New Orleans - except in the case of Austin, the buildings themselves are little more than packing crates with bars and bandstands, while the side streets are adorned with rows of port-a-johns reeking in the impressive heat of the Texas spring.

The rest of the city center is emblematic of all the blunders that poorly-trained municipal planners have imposed all over America - overscaled office towers set back from the street behind meaningless landscaping fantasias, blocks of buildings that present blank walls to streets, and along one weird block, an extremely narrow sidewalk with new street trees planted right in the center, making it impossible for two people to walk together side-by-side. Here and there new condominium towers stood, with cafes on the ground floor, and a number of additional ones were under construction, which was well and good - except they were gigantic towers. I'm not keen on towers. They deform the urban fabric and they will certainly lose functionality as we leave behind the fossil fuel age. There were plenty of vacant lots, too, between the state capitol dome and Lake Austin. The downtown streets were all six-laners, of course, many of them one-way, which prompted the motorists to drive as if they were on an expressway.

The convention center itself was a thing built to such a pharoanic scale that Rameses the Great might have commissioned it for his villa in Easthampton. It was a quarter-mile walk from the front of the ballroom to the coffee set-up in the rear - and this was one of the smaller ballrooms. The larger ones were occupied by some kind of intramural sports association convention full of people wearing sideways hats and weird, calf-length athletic shorts. The Sunbelt is all about sports, where the social aggression seething below the surface has been channeled.

All this was hardly the fault of the New Urbanists, who came there mostly to look and learn, and continue the process of refining their agenda for the years ahead. More and more they are coming to recognize the discontinuities we face in the form of peak oil and climate change. On these points, the leadership may be even more radically active than the membership. The ideas from meetings they held in Austin about how to meet these problems will continue to radiate through the country. They are probably the only group of professionals in America that I know of - including the professional environmentalists - who have a coherent vision of how America might physically arrange daily life in the terrible aftermath of the fossil fuel fiasco. Their ideas have the power to galvanize our otherwise lame political debates of the season. Nobody else in America is really thinking about what we'll do when the cardboard signs appear on the convenience store pump racks saying "out of gas ..."

Austin is exactly the kind of place in America that will get into trouble when that happens. It'll have to find something else to do with itself besides hosting drinking contests on Sixth Street every weekend night for visiting motorists. Much smaller Wilkes Barre, too, will struggle to find its way, but the one thing it surely isn't burdened with is an outsized sense of its own wonderfulness. How will these different regions of the nation find a common purpose as we slide into the long emergency? How will our political candidates find the language to articulate our predicament? They might start by listening to the New Urbanists.

Bill Totten


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