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    Wrap-Up: The Geography of Nowhere

    May 24, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Okay, I’ll be honest: my shelf filled up. You see, I have this shelf which we all mentally label as “Current Reading.” The three serious readers in our family are free to stash their current reads upon this convenient shelf rather than putting them back into their proper spots in the library and then getting them back out again each and every time they want to read. This is especially helpful for E., who isn’t tall enough to reach every shelf {though I did try my best to keep the types of books he would read within the shelves he could access}.

    Well, the shelf filled up.

    I have a bad habit of reading many books at once, and I reached my limit. So, any book I’ve been “reading” for over a year has to go.

    One of these books is The Geography of Nowhere. Please don’t think it took me so long to read it because it was somehow lacking–no, I thoroughly enjoyed this read. I just get distracted. This is a personal flaw, for the most part, not a reflection of the books.

    So this weekend, I finished up, and I am happy to report that I have a copy of Home from Nowhere in my bedroom on the Future Reading shelf. {It is entirely possible that the presence of Home from Nowhere enticed me to finish Geography of Nowhere in the first place!}

    Ahem.

    With that said, I have a few parting objections thoughts on this work.

    1. Kunstler insists that charm is important. We tend to think it a trivial concept, but he explains that he uses the word

      to mean explicitly that which makes our physical surroundings worth caring about.

      I found that thought…charming. At the same time, I do wonder if he has it backwards. Kunstler seems to think that most citizens of our country don’t care very much about their surroundings {when we lived in LA County, we saw an inordinate amount of ugly} because it is not charming–meaning that if somebody somewhere would just build something attractive, people would care about it. But I also wonder if it is true that when we care about our surroundings, they become charming. They have that je ne sais quoi–that intangible quality we find attractive. There is a house in my neighborhood that I always say is my favorite house. It is utterly charming. But I live in a tract neighborhood–half the street is the exact same house. The reason this house stands heads above the rest is because somebody cared, and also had the resources {both inside herself and also monetarily} to show it. Charm, in my estimation, is more often evidence that someone cared in the first place than anything else.

    2. Kunstler lost me a little at the end. I think his critique was deserving and well-founded, but, like many authors of his day, he fails to have a thorough, coherent argument for why all of this has happened. He says, for instance, that community has been lost. He points fingers all over–at modernism, the invention/acceptance of the car, suburbia, urban sprawl, etcetera–but even through all of his historical tracings, I still come away not quite certain of why he thinks all of this has occurred.

      My guess is actually that secularism is at the root. {Though also, a fair amount of history simply carries us away with it, does it not?} So many times, Kunstler seemed to be pointing out that cities of various sizes, small towns, country farmers, zoning boards, and whatnot, chose short-term gain over long-term consequences. It is hard to imagine that many of them actually had overtly evil intent. What they lacked tended to be foresight {or, in some cases, any viable Option B}, which is a major symptom of secularism, being a completely present-tense culture. Kunstler did not use this example, but how many times have we heard of a Wal-Mart “destroying” a small town? What we fail to admit is that the town’s aldermen tend to invite these big stores, bending local tax and zoning laws to make them possible. And why? Because all they can see is the potential for tax dollars. This is secularism, the religion in which Today is the only day. A belief in tomorrow–which is bred of a belief in eternity–allows for that rare type of foresight from which towns and cities would benefit.

    3. Kunstler gets real hung-up on lot size. He believes in smaller lots, and he has a decent argument as far as it goes. However, as the proud owner of almost half an acre within the city limits, I think Kunstler fails to understand that some people feel connected to the land and want a plot of it for themselves. It is a natural and human response to the world. Kunstler makes this same mistake when he questions LA for building so many single-family dwellings. Yes, the traffic is horrible. Yes, a series of small, independent communities would have been preferable to “sprawl”, but at the end of the day, families want their privacy. If they can at all afford it, they don’t want to share a wall with a neighbor. They don’t want to worry, for instance, that their squalling newborn is keeping the family one wall over awake at night. LA built single-family homes because families like having their own property. The problem is really the city mentality–thinking we all need to live in the same place.

      This is probably a good place to say that something was missing in Kunstler’s treatment of farmland. I suppose I am just accustomed to reading authors with a more agrarian mindset. The more ideal towns he mentioned still didn’t seem to have a place in them for that “urban homesteading” which so many find appealing today–the idea of owning a piece of soil and developing it into something productive and healthy. Kunstler quoted Berry {hooray!} but missed a bit of his spirit. Farmland was referred to in such a way that there was no vision for actual resident farmers, which Berry promotes constantly and whole-heartedly.

    4. It was fascinating to read Kunstler’s account of different people who are trying to build new developments that possess actual…charm. What they find is that charm–being defined here as something which, in addition to being deserving of care, also promotes real community, including but not limited to a local economy–is illegal.

      The deeper truth…was that typical zoning laws not only failed to protect the landscape, they virtually mandated sprawl. To reproduce anything resembling a tradition New England village had become illegal, a violation of all codes, acreage requirements, setbacks, street widths, and laws insisting on the separation of uses. So, towns ended up splattered all over the countryside while the countryside completely lost its rural character. All you could build in present-day New England was Los Angeles.

      Near the end, Kunstler really explains that zoning laws have destroyed charm, for all practical purposes. So, obviously, he believes that the solution is…new and improved zoning laws. Ah, the planners of the world. The problem was not that someone tried to plan it, but that the wrong person–a person with bad taste or lacking in understanding–tried to plan it. But if the right experts just plan it for us, then we’ll be getting somewhere.

      Villages have propped up for millenia without much planning. What the people had in common was a shared culture, an interdependent economy, and a care for one another and for the future which expressed itself in architecture as “design”–only there wasn’t a ton of designing involved. I’m not saying I’m against all zoning laws entirely. I really don’t want to live next door to a factory, for instance. But this idea that the problem was zoning laws, which can only be fixed by more zoning laws is a little shortsighted, to my mind. I, for one, have encountered enough city bureaucrats to know better.

    5. Kunstler assumes that an oil shortage will eventually drive our culture away from the car. This may or may not be true. With so many advances in technology, I sort of doubt we’d give up the car so easily. I understand that Kunstler is uncomfortable with the impact of the car on community. I am, too, though not in the same way Kunstler is, I don’t think. But the idea that cars could easily become a thing of the past? I don’t completely buy it.

    I also have a collection of quotes, which I underlined for various reasons. Here is a sampling:

    The people who owned and operated these businesses took pride in their buildings and they took care of them. Many owned dwellings in the village as well. The value that their businesses accrued remained in town.

    And:

    By the standards of the day, the workers were well paid. The money they earned was spent mostly in town. The factories were owned locally. Their owners built impressive houses and lived locally. The money they spent, in turn, supported local tradesmen and local merchants. Part of the wealth that these mills generated was invested in public buildings. No state grants were involved and hence decisions made about public works were made locally, rather than by distant bureaucrats.

    One contributing factor to the charming villages and small towns of the past was that the rich and poor lived side-by-side in a shared economy, and the rich built the town up into a nice place to live, and because they spent their money in town, for the most part, it trickled down {to use the popular term} into the pockets of the merchants they purchased goods from and the contractors they hired for their projects. The rich were not living distantly, sucking the town dry of funds, while contributing nothing of value in return.

    Or, at least, that is how it once was. Enter today’s “global economy” and all that remains of many small towns {a couple convenience stores and rows of empty buildings}:

    The X and Y Corporations pay property taxes to operate their stores…and a percentage of the county sales tax they pay is returned to the village via a rather abstruse political formula. The stores also furnish a handful of minimum-wage jobs. but what they they contribute to the town is far less significant than what they take away: the chance for a local merchant to make a profit, to keep that profit in town, where it might be put to work locally, for instance, in the upkeep of a hundred-year-old shopfront building downtown, or a Greek Revival house on Pearl Street, or in the decent support of a family. But that profit does not stay in town. Instead, it is funneled directly into distant corporate coffers. The officers of the X and Y Corporations, who do not live [in town], have no vested interest in the upkeep of the…hundred-year-old shopfront buildings or the Greek Revival houses there…Their success is measured strictly by the tonnage…they manage to move off the shelves. The income they derive from their jobs is spent supporting and maintaining distant suburbs–and the cost of that is fantastic. The presence of convenience stores has eliminated many other local operations–the newsroom, several lunch counters, mom and pop groceries–which couldn’t compete in volume of sales….So no local businesses thrive and the old buildings fall increasingly into disrepair.

    Let me just say here that I grew up watching a small town “die.” I put that in quotes because it isn’t dead yet, and I think there is still hope for it. It didn’t die exactly for the reasons that Kunstler details in the above paragraph, but I think we’d be foolish to say that this didn’t contribute. When I was a little girl, I remember getting my piano recital dresses and new fancy shoes at Johnson’s Department Store, which went out of business before I became a teenager. Our friends owned the local pharmacy {which has since been replaced by a Rite Aid, and let me say that that pharmacy was in the family for many generations}. Small towns {or at least their leaders} do find reason to invite X and Y Corporation and drive their leading families–some of whom are their founding families {from generations past}–elsewhere.

    Kunstler explains some of the long-term effects of this behavior:

    The buildings that the X and Y Corporations put up express the companies’ attitudes perfectly. They are cinder-block sheds that have no relation to the local architecture. They do not respect the sidewalk edge of building fronts that lined Broad Street, but are set back behind parking lagoons. Their garish internally lighted plastic signs tower above the town’s rooflines, and the mercury-vapor lamps in their parking lots cast an unearthly pinkish-green glow far beyond the edge of their properties. What they contribute to the village visually is ugliness and discord. The people who design them and build them do not have to live with the consequences of their shabby and disruptive work.

    This describes a Rite Aid almost perfectly. I would note that Rite Aids have a very distinct look. The goal of the Rite Aid “architecture” is not to identify itself with the town or city it inhabits, but rather to identify itself with the brand, so that any member of any town will recognize it. This is helpful for branding purposes, but contributes to that loss of charm, because part of charm is that it is peculiar to the people and spirit of a place.

    I wanted to add so many other thoughtful quotes, but it is altogether too much. Kunstler’s analysis of Disneyland and Disney World, his take on what destroyed Detroit, his thoughts on Henry Ford’s quirky {carless!} project named Greenfield Village, and more are all worth a thoughtful treatment that I do not have time for.

    So I will leave off with one last quote:

    [A] community is not something you have, like a pizza. Nor is it something you can buy, as visitors to Disneyland and Williamsburg discover. It is a living organism based on a web of interdependencies–which is to say, a local economy. It expresses itself physically as connectedness, as buildings actively relating to one another, and to whatever public space exists, be it the street, or the courthouse square, or the village green.

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    2 Comments

  • Reply Rahime May 25, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Our city essentially mandates that new (residential or commercial) construction (including additions) be “charming.” When we did the addition on our house the city required that we exceed the maximum square-footage allotment for our lot in order to add an extra room that would make the house look “prettier” from the street. The roof-line is much lovelier than it would have been had we stayed within the regulated limits.

    Our neighbors have been trying to remodel their house for almost 2 years now. When they first showed us their plans, ‘Chung told them that they’d have a hard time passing it through the city planning office to get their permits b/c the house was to “ugly” (I think he said it more tactfully than that). They thought it’d be no problem b/c they were staying with the original style of the home. I think they’ve been back and forth 3 times already trying to get the plan through the city; each time it’s rejected because the plan doesn’t have enough street appeal.

    We’re having the opposite problem with a house we co-own with ‘Chung’s parents. It’s zoned for two residences, so ‘Chung’s mom wants to build one the property to take advantage of that (she’s Chinese, ya know…enough said). ‘Chung designed a lovely plan that maintained a large yard and courtyard between the main home and a small in-law home (1 br/1 bath). It would have looked nice from the street, kept a small-community feel, and enabled the residents to have a good-sized garden (for the area). The city refused the plans and essentially told us we’d have to build a monstrosity of a house which would not leave any land if we wanted to change it at all. Grrr.

  • Reply Anonymous May 25, 2010 at 4:01 am

    I think a lot of the community has been destroyed by too high of tax rates which make it very hard to own a home, and give it charm, make payments and allow a mother to stay home to not only nuture her chidren, but to nurture the community. Instead we hire a lot of government employees to tell us what is wrong with our children and why they can’t read and why we must plan our communities better.

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