The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition


Review by Philip Langdon


January/February 2002

Issue Date:

Tue, 2002-01-01

Page Number:


By James Howard Kunstler

Free Press, 2002, 261 pp, $25.

It’s said that there are two types of people: those who see the glass half-full and those who see it half-empty. And then there is the inimitable James Howard Kunstler, who swears that not only is the glass half empty, the contents are rapidly evaporating, and we’re going to perish from dehydration.

Kunstler, pessimist extraordinaire, traveled much of the Western world recently, and he’s brought back vivid tales of eight cities, at least three of which are in his view going straight to hell. If you thought contemporary Los Angeles looked grimly dystopian in Mike Davis’s 1990 City of Quartz, wait till you encounter Mexico City in Kunstler’s The City in Mind. The Mexican capital — second- or third-largest urban agglomeration on the planet, with perhaps 30 million humans stewing in contaminated air at 7,350 feet, sucking water out of the aquifers so voraciously that the ground is sinking, and employing police who amount to racketeers with badges — is a shambles.

That Mexico City is a mess is not news, but Kunstler digs far beyond the obvious signs of decay that conventional reporters content themselves with cataloging. In a breathtaking leap of imagination, he links the city’s abysmal condition to the culture of the Aztecs, those ravenous organizers of human sacrifice, and to the bizarre collision of the superstition-obsessed Native Americans and the rogue explorer Cortés, who sailed into the Gulf of Mexico at the exact moment when the Aztecs were expecting the prince/god Quetzalcoatl to arrive and usher in a new age.

As all but the newest recruits to New Urbanism know, Kunstler is a writer of extraordinary force — angry, comic, eloquent, and never afraid to go against the grain. One of his great gifts is an ability to connect a city’s current troubles to its history, its culture, and above all, its irrationality. Whether Kunstler’s apocalyptic perspective is justified or overblown readers can decide for themselves, but no one can deny how packed with provocative insights the writing is.

Having provided a penetrating vision of cities throughout the US in his 1996 book Home from Nowhere, Kunstler here presents chapters on Paris, Rome, London, and Berlin as well as Mexico City, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Boston. Like Swift and Voltaire, Kunstler feasts on human foolishness. Thus we get an utterly devastating chapter on the “utopia of clowns,” Las
Vegas, a city deserving of Kunst-ler’s recurrent verdict: “We are a wicked people who deserve to be punished.”

The destiny of Las Vegas is bright, says Kunstler, “in the same sense that a thermonuclear explosion is bright.” He argues that urban systems have “tipping points” after which an accumulation of bad decisions results in rapid deterioration. Las Vegas has reached its tipping point. The city should have been built in the North African fashion, with courtyard dwellings clustered together against the 105-degree heat. Instead, the desert metropolis opted for resource-devouring detached houses, an orgy of lawn sprinkling, and ever more mammoth, indifferently constructed “gaming” complexes, leaving itself “vulnerable to political, economic, and social changes that are bearing down upon us with all the inexorable force of history.”

Blunting the edge city concept
A decade ago journalist Joel Garreau wrote quite hopefully about the prospects of America’s “edge cities” — suburban clumps of office buildings, shopping malls, and other real estate speculations created without benefit of urban planning. Kunstler neatly pricks Garreau’s bubble. In a trenchant chapter, he marshals evidence that a region notoriously composed of low-density suburban development and uncoordinated edge cities — the 10-county disaster known as metro Atlanta — is already failing, wholly unprepared for the traffic that sprawl of this magnitude generates. Like Las Vegas, Atlanta represents a tipping point.

The opening chapter of The City in Mind tells how Baron Haussmann and Emperor Louis-Napoleon remade Paris from a rat’s nest into the city that, more than any other spot on earth, is equated with urban sophistication. Until Haussmann’s project got under way a century and a half ago, Paris was “the most notoriously vile big city in Europe: dark, unsanitary, foul-smelling, dilapidated, disease-ridden, and impossible to get around in,” Kunstler recounts. Paris possessed no allure. Its topography was flat, its river unimpressive, its climate less than wonderful. Only through the art of city-building, with close attention to proportions, materials, and details, did Paris become sublime.

If North Americans had their wits about them, they would set about learning from Paris, Kunstler makes clear. “The great ordering systems of the street walls, the balconies, the mansard roofs, the ubiquitous white limestone facades of the buildings, the precision of the tree plantings, all induce a tremendous sense of satisfaction that you are finally in a human habitat that completely makes sense — especially coming from chaotic America where everything is provisional, and most of that is worse than mediocre, from our lousy urbanism to the plywood butterflies screwed over a neighbor’s garage door down the street.”

Even as Kunstler admires the best cities, he never glosses over their failings. This tough-mindedness is evident in his chapter on Boston, the city he identifies — accurately, in my estimation — as “America’s most habitable big city in the first quarter of the new century.” He demonstrates that despite the destructiveness of architect-planners like the incorrigibly wrongheaded I.M. Pei, Boston conserved most of its amazing historical legacy — the Back Bay, the South End, and other gems. Great, says Kunstler, but the current “Big Dig” is monstrously ill-conceived. Why spend billions of dollars to put the intrusive Central Artery underground and then devote the land on top of it to “green space”? he asks.

Boston ought to be extending the magnificent built pattern of the city, not falling for the cliched idea that “green space,” an all too abstract notion, is the answer to every community’s need.
The City in Mind is not a how-to manual. It does not lay out a series of 10 easy steps — or even 20 complicated steps — for making a derelict city shine. Readers will have to form their own conclusions about how to apply the lessons implicit in Kunstler’s diagnoses. Chapters tend to end abruptly, without much summing up. But that’s all right. This book is a communion with a quirky, energetic, wide-ranging mind as much as it is a guide toward urban regeneration.

“America at the turn of the millennium is suffering the woeful consequences, largely unanticipated, of trying to become a drive-in utopia,” Kunstler says. This book reveals the obtuseness of that long effort and helps us imagine alternatives worth pursuing.

Philip Langdon, in New Haven, Connecticut, is author of A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb.

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