Anti-growth author James Howard Kunstler has an overdeveloped sense of doom and gloom. But that doesn't mean he's on the wrong tract.

SUBURBAN SCRAWL

March 29, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- James Howard Kunstler is a prickly man with a pointy face who thinks the American dream of paradise in suburbia is collapsing, falling in upon the fantasy that supported it for more than a century and a half.

"The process is already beginning and it will continue for the next 50 years," he predicts. "Many of the residential suburbs of today will be the slums of tomorrow."

The fantasy upon which suburbia was built, Kunstler believes, lives in the singular desire of most Americans for an ideal "little house in the natural landscape," some place removed, unique, serene, rural.

That ideal has been pursued since the 1850s, but with particular frenzy in the years since the end of World War II, becoming the most immense demographic shift since the settling of the West. It has been so successfully realized that today many people across the United States are determined to halt it. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening is among them.

Like Kunstler, they, too, see the ugliness of sprawl as evidence of the dream gone sour.

Kunstler's books, "The Geography of Nowhere," and "Home from Nowhere," are full of intelligent argument and scornful language. So is his conversation. He dismisses with a certain unnecessary roughness those who fail to embrace his message.

His books may not be the most definitive works on the phenomenon they describe. But they radiate a splendid messianic heat.

They identify the mechanisms that make suburban sprawl possible, almost inevitable. These include zoning laws that discourage mixing generations and people of different economic power, a tax system that discourages improvement of property in cities, possibly the cheapest gasoline in the world, federal subsidies for roads and other suburban infrastructure, mortgage interest tax deductions that encourage people to buy and builders to build, and large arrogant houses ever farther removed from the old centers of population.

They are polemical books, written by a man offended by cheap, banal architecture -- and more. Kunstler is a street-corner prophet with sign: "The end is near!" Others may see suburban blight and denounce it as an aesthetic nightmare. Kunstler looks out and sees the death of civilization as we know it.

The prophet, in black suit, red and ivory tie and hip gold ring in his left ear, is at lunch in the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal. It is established: He hates suburbia. Between bites of a fish filet, he explains why.

It is "deleterious, insalubrious; it is damaging to our culture, to our aspirations, to our humanity." It is bankrupting the country economically and destroying the ecology.

And, he adds, "it is making people dreadfully lonely."

It is probable that these opinions put Kunstler at odds with most of his fellow Americans, who still idealize suburban life.

But that's not to say he's wrong.

"The problem with the little house in the natural landscape is that it is designed to exist in civil isolation," he says. "When you assemble them in a conglomeration of 300 on 150 acres, we give that another name. We call that a housing subdivision. We recognize there is a big difference between an authentic integral town and a fakey, inauthentic construct called a housing subdivision."

Yet people continue to choose such places to live. A drive any day north up Falls Road, west on Route 40 or north on I-95 proves that. New subdivisions, sticks and bricks and vinyl siding, continue to form and gobble up farmland. Mega-houses metastasize across fields where corn once grew. "Townehomes," row upon row of them, spring up in the fens. Old sprawl awakes to find itself encircled by new sprawl.

The inclination to suburbanize lies deep in the culture of America. For Kunstler it reflects what he calls an "historical antipathy for cities that arose simultaneously with industrialism and became pretty nasty places early in our history."

The first suburbs emerged the moment technology and economics made them possible. They were organized along railroad lines that pushed out beyond the city limits, or on extended street car routes closer in. Around Baltimore, they were places like Hamilton, Parkville and Ruxton.

But they were relatively few compared to what came after World War II.

"The mature automobile suburb that you get after 1950 is nothing more than an elaboration of the original impulse to create a Utopian pastoral antidote to the industrial city," he says.

White flight, Kunstler argues, is only one dimension of it, and wasn't even a factor in the earlier years. It became part of the motivational mix after large numbers of African-Americans migrated into the Northern cities from the South during the war to work in defense plants.

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