Thursday, April 19, 2007


Some of my vacation reading arrived early. (I requested a few books from the library, expecting they'd take a couple of days to appear--sometime by the end of this week, and then Julie could pick them up whenever she went in next week. She was handed two out of three a few hours after I placed the request online.) Maybe a month or two ago I finally got a disc that had been on my Netflix list for quite some time--The End of Suburbia. It's a documentary that turned out to have much more to do with peak oil than with suburbia as such. (The connection is obvious, but I still think the title a bit misleading.) I took note of the contributors who seemed to have written more about the architecture/urban planning side of things and looked up their books online. In particular, I was interested to read a couple of books by James Howard Kunstler--The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere. As luck would have it, I got them in reverse order, but so far it doesn't seem like too much of a handicap.

As you might guess, the first book lays out the problem; the second focuses more on possible solutions. The author can be a bit repetitive at times, but he's usually entertaining to read, so aside from my usual impatience (almost regardless of what I'm reading), I don't object too much to the length. The gist of his argument is that suburbia is an unnatural and antisocial environment, ultimately unsustainable and unfit for human existence. It was made possible by our obsession with cars, and it will inevitably die out as fuel is used up. (The second book was written in 1996, before G. W. Bush, before the current Iraq war, before $3/gal. gasoline, which makes his points all the more interesting.) We've created a society in which it is almost impossible not to commute in some fashion, in which home, work, and basic services are generally far removed from each other, in which civic life is dead, because it has nowhere to reside. We live our isolated existences, find no real joy in our surroundings, in a cold, dead, ugly world.

He doesn't seem to be particularly religious, but he has a lot to say about beauty and dignity, and how we've sacrificed both. Reading this book makes me think of the austere functionality of many Evangelical churches. (I'm thinking especially of a large church I pass every day on the way to work--recently built at I have no idea what astronomical cost--which looks from the outside like a warehouse.) I don't know if Kunstler would think onion domes are inherently beautiful, but I have to believe he'd appreciate the effort of Orthodox churches to transform their external world (not necessarily at the expense of the spiritual, either).

It also makes me sad. I wouldn't go so far as to say "depressed," but it's heading in that direction. I've mentioned before the link between my attraction to Orthodoxy and my desire for rootedness, community, and locality. I realize the irony, of course, that in America Orthodox churches are still few and far between, so that often attending one means a lot of driving. Circumstantially, it's the one advantage I can see to becoming Catholic, that in most places throughout the U. S. you don't have to go very far to find the nearest Catholic parish. Of course, one answer is to move closer (assuming you can do that without at the same time moving further away from work), but here my complicated life gets even more complicated, in that Julie and I would have different priorities as to which church we should approach.

We also have different priorities on this whole issue of proximity. Personally, I would sacrifice size of dwelling, safety of neighborhood, quality of schools, and overall environmental appeal to live where I could walk or take a reasonable bus ride to work and church. That's not to say that I'd want to live in abject squalor (squalor, yes; abject, no) or a neighborhood with daily shootings, but the point is I'm willing to make sacrifices in those areas. She wants the white picket fence, two cars, and ideal schools, even if it means living 30-40 miles away from the most promising jobs, with no public transit. Unfortunately, our modern world hasn't left us too many compromise options. Kunstler talks about the need for mixed zoning, where businesses and affordable housing are in close proximity--basically, viable towns and cities on the model that worked for centuries. But until such things actually happen, we're left with hard choices.

The other angle on all this is learning to be content in whatever circumstances. It may be that I just need to avoid reading this kind of material, because it articulates an ideal but one that I'm mostly going to long for without actively pursuing. That can get unhealthy pretty quickly. Kunstler may have a lot of valid points to make, but his vision is about human solutions. The beauty of Orthodoxy is that it has room for both the soaring cathedral and the humble monastic cell. It is the Church of kings and catacombs. Perhaps someday God will give me more than one icon on my wall and the occasional service every couple of weeks. But he can change my life without those things as well.


Jim Nee said...

"The gist of his argument is that suburbia is an unnatural and antisocial environment, ultimately unsustainable and unfit for human existence. It was made possible by our obsession with cars, and it will inevitably die out as fuel is used up. "

Wow... I really agree with him. Your hometown is the perfect example of said 'unnatural and antisocial' environment.

Roland said...

This environment we abhor did not arise by accident - it is actually the ideal of modernism! It flows logically from a fundamentalist commitment to individual freedom.

Unnatural is good because it helps to free us from the demands, both physical and spiritual, of our human nature. Antisocial is good because it helps to free us from the demands of family, neighbor, and community. We are then free for the life of meaningless self-indulgence promised to us by Madison Avenue.

Trevor said...

Well, I'm glad to see I'm not the only one making these connections :-) Jim, I assume by "hometown," you mean where I live right now. I've been thinking about this quite a bit. Columbia, MD, is, if anything, the antithesis of what this book is advocating. Yes, it has tried to structure itself so that homes are clustered within walking distance of stores and restaurants (village centers), but it hides them in hard-to-find plazas. It does spare you the unsightly parking lot by the road, but the effect of it all is to create the illusion of one, vast suburb, with no messy businesses. Yes, it's nice to have a grocery store and a few restaurants in close proximity, but from what I can tell, most people still drive most of the time. In fact, I see very few people who appear to be walking back from any kind of shopping. The walking paths encourage walking for leisure or exercise, but that's about it. And forget about working near home--Columbia is clearly a joint suburb of Baltimore and Washington. There are a few office buildings at the town center, and I suppose those fortunate enough to work there could take the bus if they wanted to, but most of us drive long distances to jobs elsewhere, aside from the handful who take commuter buses.

They do the same thing with churches that they do with stores--hide them away, enforce bland design, try to pretend they don't exist. I've heard from multiple sources that they don't allow crosses on the outside of church buildings, and the external design of the newly built St. Matthew's Orthodox Church is quite neutral by Orthodox standards. They've had to construct a false dome inside, I'm guessing because it was the most they were allowed to do.

Roland, I didn't go all the way to making your points explicitly, but they were definitely what I was thinking about and most of the reason that I thought it was worth writing here about this book. Your last sentence reminds me of the argument that I've seen (I can't remember now exactly where) about tradition. Now that we've been "freed" from the traditional constraints of monarchy, family, and organized religion, we can exist as individuals. We're "free" to be economic units--consumers and workers at the disposal of a commercial system. These traditional entities that used to form a protective, defining wall around us have been stripped away, and as individuals we're much easier to manipulate. Mostly, we just let these things happen. But when the system gets too oppressive, what do we do? We try to re-capture collective identity through political parties, labor unions, consumer groups, etc. They never quite seem to do the trick, but when push comes to shove, we all recognize how powerless individualism makes us.

Jim Nee said...

Your last comment was intriguing because I stands so staunchly in the face of what we *think* individualism does. We think "my iPod", "my burger, my way", etc. all empower us, when really it's quite the opposite. When a person is has only himself as a reference point, he is the most poor and weak of any creature anywhere.

Trevor said...

But of course, you need that burger because the commercial on TV told you; you need that iPod because of the chip Apple has planted in your brain that makes you buy only their products. (Oh, wait--the technology is already structured to force you into that anyway; no further manipulation required :-) As individuals without any traditional grounding, we so easily accept the lies of marketing, which wants to define us so that we are most commercially useful.

Incidentally, I noticed that Columbia may actually be turning a corner. Last year, they received a New Urbanist award for their revised master plan. It's supposed to convert the current town center dramatically. The mall would be replaced by multi-use neighborhoods, public transit would be improved, etc. I suspect a lot of the impetus comes simply from the desire to continue growth in the area, and New Urbanism is picking up enough steam that it looks like a viable alternative. In any case, it sounds to me like a positive direction, assuming it doesn't get ripped to shreds on its way to implementation.

Jim Nee said...

It's amazing that you know that about Colunbia. Not only do I not know anything about the long term plans of our area, but I wouldn't even know where to look for them!

Trevor said...

While I guess I could claim omniscience in this area, it's really just the usual happenstance of Web surfing. In the chapter of the book where he talks about what New Urbanism consists of, he identifies an organization that laid down most of the guidelines. I went looking for their Web site, and thought maybe I could identify some places nearby where this stuff is being implemented. I saw they had an awards section, which looked promising. As I was scanning through the list, I saw the one about Columbia, which included a link to the site for the project.

Incidentally, there was an older award given to the State of MD for its regional plan, which tries to curb sprawl by setting standards that run along the lines of New Urbanism. It's by no means fool-proof, but it probably helps provide some incentive for communities to head in that direction.

I read the first book over the weekend, and I guess for anyone who wants to economize on time, I'd recommend reading them in reverse order. By the time you get through the second book, you can breeze through the first one pretty quickly. Now I can get back to Orthodox reading :-)