"The Geography Of Nowhere"

To what degree does commercial "development" today blot out the character of our cities and suburbs, and reduce them to mere loci of transaction? Doesn't a landscape of parking lots, super-malls, convenience stores, and highway strips destroy communal and civic life? Why do so many of us cavalierly refer to "urban blight" without ever doing anything about it? Is not ours an increasingly solipsistic world, in which more and more of us spend half our life in our car, cell phone pinched to ear, indifferent to everything around us?

The author and novelist James Kunstler explored these questions a decade ago in a work titled The Geography of Nowhere -- and, more recently, in his sequel Home From Nowhere. This is how he sees the modern American landscape:

"[The American highway] is now like television, violent and tawdry. The landscape it runs through is littered with cartoon buildings and commercial messages. We whiz by them at fifty-five miles an hour and forget them, because one convenience store looks like the next. They do not celebrate anything beyond their mechanistic ability to sell merchandise...There is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like noplace in particular."

"The extreme separation and dispersion of components that use to add up to a compact town, where everything was within a ten-minute walk, has left us with a public realm that is composed mainly of roads. And the only way to be in that public realm is to be in a car, often alone. The present arrangement has certainly done away with sacred places, places of casual public assembly, and places of repose. Otherwise, there remain only the shopping plazas, the supermarkets, and the malls. Now, American supermarkets are not designed to function like Parisian cafes. There is no seating, no table service. They do not encourage customers to linger. Yet some shoppers will spend as much time as their dignity affords haunting the supermarket aisles because it is practically the only place where they can be in the public realm and engage in some purposeful activity around other live human beings. Here they even stand the chance of running into someone they know. A suburbanite could stand on her front lawn for three hours on a weekday afternoon and never have a chance for a conversation...

"[T]he marketplace had always been a public space, part of the fabric of the town, usually at the heart of it, existing in continuity with the rest of town life. By the 1970s, when malls started to multiply across the land, the public realm had been pretty much eliminated from the American scene. Yet that hunger for public life remained. The mall commercialized the public realm, just as the insurance business commercialized fate. What had existed before in an organic state as Main Street, downtown shopping districts, town squares, hotel lobbies, public gardens, saloons, museums, churches, was now standardized, simplified, sanitized, packaged, and relocated on the suburban fringe in the form of a mall."