The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition by James Howard Kunstler

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Posted 2005-04-19

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

The strength of this book is its tour of the urban history, cultural geography, and architecture in eight cities. The main point is that the twentieth century city has often been terribly brutal to people--unnecessarily--through ignorance of history and human needs.

The chapters highlight the lessons each city can teach. Paris' rehabilitation under Haussmann created a hierarchy of scale for the streets that today supports a fine-grained urban form. Atlanta's agglomeration of edge cities sucks the life out of public space leading to sterile and sometimes dangerous places like Underground Atlanta. Mexico City's political corruption intertwines with infrastructure corruption leading to near-anarchy. The reunification of Germany challenges Berlin to reknit its urban fabric that ironically is less devastated from bombing during WWII than the devastation many US cities suffered from post-war urban renewal. Las Vegas' artificial environment seems very cruel to its millions of yearly visitors and ultimately unsustainable. Rome's classical architecture can show how building forms can orient people through structural hierarchies. Boston's Big Dig may reverse the many blunders brought about through emphasis on highways, but the political machines of the city and misguided believers in open space may not allow a diverse, urban form to emerge. London's Dickensian slums gave rise to anti-urban feelings that echo to this day and drove the growth of English garden cities, ideas which ironically today devastate urban forms through their false dichotomy that views density as bad and a spread-out mish-mash of automobile-centered open space as the ideal.

These chapters have some interesting metaphors operating among them. The beating human hearts that the Aztecs fed by the tens of thousands to a stone god to keep their universe in motion (p. 87) are like the hearts of the tens of thousands of commuters who daily ride on freeways never wide or fast enough to keep the edge cities afloat. Haussmann's human-scale touch on the urban form of Paris came out of squalor and filth not unlike the bombed-out devastation of Baltimore, St. Louis, or Detroit, hinting that these places too could re-knit their urban fabric. Boston's Southie politicians keep a dependent underclass as political pawns as much as Mexico City's corrupt officials use police and peasants to prop up their regimes.

The energy of this book often comes from the tone of barely-contained outrage. For example, when Kunstler visits Montana, citizens there see the rehabilitation of downtown Missoula as a false dichotomy between growth and anti-growth, between a desire for unfettered building and desire for open space in the middle of a town. It is this kind of false dichotomy that drives Kunstler nuts and fuels his tone of frustration throughout the book. My favorite of his takes on architecture: Boston's Government Center federal building looks like the "provincial headquarters for the Soviet Ministry of mines" (p. 205) and a communist hotel in former East Berlin seems "an institute for training circus clowns" (p. 116).

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