A leading voice in the urbanist movement, Kunstler is the featured speaker Friday for the Cincinnati Preservation Association's Annual Fall Forum. The author of The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Kunstler last week gave an interview via e-mail.
What are his impressions of contemporary Cincinnati?
"It's been a few years since I was in town," Kunstler says, "and the old stadium was just being demolished last I was there. I can say that the University of Cincinnati campus is one of the most androidal and horrifying abortions of mis-scaling and auto-philia in the U.S. today. I was in the architecture school building, by Peter Eisenman. Talk about the German Expressionists! It was like being in a set for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a 1920s horror movie about mental illness.
"The Gehry building is another instance of doing everything possible to confound our expectations about city life in the service of presumed 'genius,' rather than a contribution to a beloved context. In short, the campus is one of the most miserable places in America.
"Hyde Park, on the other hand, is a lovely traditional place that is worth caring about. I've stayed with friends there."
In his book The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler wrote, "Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last 50 years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading." So how does Cincinnati fit into the geography?
"Las Vegas and Atlanta are extreme cases," Kunstler says.
"Both places are basically screwed. They have no future as they are currently organized. Cincinnati is more typical, perhaps a little more fortunate. It enjoys a favorable location on a major waterway. Its historical core is fairly intact, though in rough shape. I don't think we are going to replay the late 19th- and 20th-century experience of the colossal industrial city. I think all U.S. cities are going to shrink to some degree, perhaps a lot. Some, like St. Louis and Detroit, are already cored like apples now.
"The question is how devalued is all the outer fabric going to become when the cheap oil fiesta is over, as it soon will be. I think the post-1950 suburbs are going to lose value and usefulness very, very rapidly. There will be a tremendous need to re-condense American life into towns, cities and neighborhoods. It is liable to be a very messy process.
"For one thing, property owners in the suburbs will go to extreme lengths to preserve their supposed 'entitlements,' whether the world lets them or not. This is to say, there is going to be a fierce battle against reality itself, followed by a kind of fight over the table scraps of the 20th century.
"Americans may even elect maniacs to preserve an unpreservable status quo. In my view, the future will compel us to re-scale practically everything in daily life, from the way we get our food to the distances we move between things. The 21st century will be about staying in place, not about mobility. Therefore, we better make sure the places we live in are worth being in."
That's where the urbanist movement comes in.
"The New Urbanists have played a heroic role in retrieving huge amounts of lost knowledge that were willfully thrown in the garbage in our attempt to become a drive-in utopia," Kunstler says. "The movement is a campaign to prepare America to live in more sustainable and more rewarding environments. Their work will prove to be tremendously important years from now, though these days they meet great opposition from the sprawl cheerleaders."
But all urbanists are not created equal, according to Kunstler's construct. Too many are limited by prevailing social and political thought.
"The culture of political correctness, among other things, has made us a stupendously dishonest society," he says. "The PC gang often assails me on issues such as gentrification. I'm in favor of it because I'm in favor of the regular repair of urban neighborhoods. The PC gang has been hugely dishonest on race, too. The academic urbanists are more or less paralyzed by their need to pander to the poverty pimps. This is a residue of late 20th-century Marxism, which infected my generation of intellectuals on campus in the '60s.
"The hardcore suburbanites, on the other hand, are extremely sensitive to criticism about their chosen mode of existence. It's the American Dream, after all. They are going to defend that way of life long after historical circumstances make it impossible to carry on."
Kunstler's Web site (www.kunstler.com) includes a snap shot of the Wal-Mart smiley face with the caption, "Sometimes it's appropriate, even patriotic, to be ashamed of your country." Has Kunstler been labeled anti-American?
"I'm anti many aspects of contemporary American life," he says. "I believe we've become a nation of complacent, overweight crybabies and that we are headed for deep trouble due to ways of behavior that have become 'normal' -- such as our extreme car dependence, our love of big-box discount commerce at the expense of local networks of economic interdependence, our institutionalized hatred of truth and our increasing hubris.
"We are on a very dangerous path as a nation -- particularly where issues like dependence on foreign oil and suburban life are concerned -- and the level of denial about it is very high. My criticisms therefore often sound 'anti-American.' "
The Cincinnati Preservation Association presents James Howard Kunstler at noon Friday at the Hall of Mirrors in the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza. Luncheon tickets are $30. For reservations, call 513-721-4506.