The Geography of Nowhere

In The Geography of Nowhere, James Kunstler takes the subjects of urban planning, the American Dream, and cars, crafting from them a surprisingly witty, irreverent, and at times cantakerous assault on the state of place in modern society. These are topics, mind you, for which Kunstler is able to marshal no small amount of vitriol. What’s more, he covers impressive ground, beginning with the dawn of cities, surveying architectural trends, moving through the advent of the automobile, and watching, painfully, as small towns fall under the knife of what passes for Progress. TGoN is surprisingly informative, the body of its wisdom consisting both of curious anecdotal bits that, by themselves, do not do much good but are still fascinating trivia, and also far-reaching revelations that strike at the heart of the matter. (Like, for instance, the significance of housing starts to smart development.)

If you think the modern American suburb is high art, yearn for the day in which public transportation is abolished, and see nothing wrong with a landscape that is nothing more than a few permutations of cookie-cutter stores and fast-food restaurants and parking lots, Geography of Nowhere will doubtless strike your forehead with the force of a freight train; whether or not this will be out of the horror of realization or horror of heresy, I couldn’t say.

Kunstler spares no pain in making his point, and is at times wickedly sarcastic, though he does take pause from time to time to make a genuine, reasoned plea. Nonetheless, it’s the sarcastic bits that are the most brilliantly funny, and that give a certain bite to the book that might otherwise be lacking. E.g.:

“A free-standing brown anodized aluminum plinth topped by the company’s characteristic logo occupies an otherwise useless grassy median between the parking lot and the street—another little noplace. Presumably this is necessary because without the sign, visitors would not know whether the building was the county department of social services, a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, a minimum security prison, or a place of lodging.” (p. 139)

See what I mean?

Kunstler wanders around, intellectually (taking on the architecture of public buildings, administration of public works, and philosophy of living centers) and literally (he visits, in one instance, Henry Ford’s ‘Greenfield Village’ in Dearborn, MI, asking everyone what they like about the place and trying, to no avail, to get them to admit that part of it is the lack of cars).

Kunstler writes well, and writes with an obvious passion for the subject that goes far above and beyond mere interest. The Geography of Nowhere is a compelling read, and one that I’d recommend to almost anybody. It’s highly relevant, certainly, and unlikely to become any less relevant as time presses onward.

If anything, it’s going to become more critical.