Road Trip

“We will not apologize for our way of life….”

This unfortunate phrase from President Obama’s otherwise sturdy inaugural address, echoed through my mind last week as I cruised the suburban outlands of Montgomery, Alabama. All the usual commercial furnishings of consumerist America hugged the flattish ochre and dusty-green landscape of played-out cotton fields where thirty feet of topsoil has washed away in the two hundred years since the mainly English settlers shoved out the native Alabamu, Coosa, and Tallapoosa. Along the low horizon, mall followed strip mall followed “lifestyle center,” book-ending the “one house” failed subdivisions of otherwise empty unsold lots in a cavalcade of floundering enterprise. It seemed at times as if the terrain was a kind of sea-like expanse, and all the retail boxes ghost ships drifting to oblivion.

They say that the banks have stopped calling in their loans on the commercial real estate, even though the owners of the malls and strip malls have arrived firmly in default. Calling in the loans would only pin another horrifying liability on the banks’ balance sheets. So all parties join in a game of “pretend,” that nothing has really happened to the fundamental equations of business life. Something similar goes on at the next level down, where the tenants of the malls and strip malls sink deeper into rent arrears every month, and the eviction process is simply postponed, while the stores themselves put off paying their vendors and suppliers – as the whole system, the whole way of life, enters upon a circle of mutual denial in a last desperate effort to forestall the mandates of reality.

How long will these games go on? This is the primary question that haunts the republic as we wait for new TARPS, and “bad banks,” economic stimulus packages, infrastructure renewal roll-outs, and other policy life-lines thrown out in guarded hopefulness to haul America out of a ditch.

The center of Montgomery was instructive, too. Not unlike any other city in the USA (pop. about 200,000), the former main artery of downtown commerce – Dexter Avenue, rolling out like a red carpet below the state capitol hill, where Martin Luther King’s early career kicked off in a modest red brick church, and where Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of her bus – this “main street” presented a sad sequence of empty shopfronts interrupted here and there by rather creepy amateur murals depicting the cruelties of slavery, as if a remonstrance to the politicos up the hill. Most of the buildings lining the avenue still stood burdened by the clownish facade re-doos and ghastly claddings of the 1950s, which had replaced the ordered classical-vernacular decorum of the original 19th century frontages. Once the malls had landed in the old cotton fields, and MLK moved on to Atlanta, Dexter Avenue was just left to rot in the memory trunk.

Here and there around the rest of the downtown, other weird experiments in American post-war anti-urbanism presented themselves, most notably a “building” designed to look like a small-scaled Death Star, all black reflective glass, canted concrete and steel walls – which turned out to belong to Morris Dees’ renowned Southern Poverty Law Center — deployed directly across the street from the modest white clapboard-with-green-shutters house once occupied by Jefferson Davis after Richmond fell and the Confederate leadership skeedaddled further south. There were a few recently-built government towers that looked like Nascar trophies. But the rest of the downtown – the parts not dedicated to surface parking – was the ubiquitous array of muffler shops, or restaurants and churches that looked like muffler shops.

With the city center thus nearly dead, and the asteroid belt of malls and strips on their knees financially, this emblematic sunbelt metro area finds itself in a pickle. Cotton being well-past decline, and having wrecked the soil, the “new” economy of recent decades dedicated itself to building car-dependent air-conditioned suburban sprawl – the perceived perfect antidote to a previous economic order based on serfdom, hook-worm, and inescapable heat. That now-not-so-new economy of sprawl, in turn, has come to a screeching halt, as a cruel destiny threw sand in the mechanisms of reliably cheap oil and revolving credit, and the gears seized up. A mood of ominous watching and waiting pervaded the city, but many of the movers-and-shakers had pinned their hopes on the chance that Mr. Obama’s stimulus bill would allow them to commence building a new freeway to the ocean on the Florida panhandle.

My journey continued on the Jesus-haunted blue highways, to that selfsame place, Walton County, Florida, where some of the most famous experiments in the New Urbanism were conducted beginning in the 1980s with the new town of Seaside. I had been there many times over the years, and I was called down to get a prize in the service of the movement, but it was a little disconcerting to see how the build-out had progressed.

The Seaside experiment began very modestly as the idea for a bohemian village of architects and artists in what was then an almost empty quarter of piney woods owned by the St. Joe timber company. Seaside was designed so beautifully that it attracted the attention of every thoracic surgeon and corporate lawyer between Nashville and New Orleans, and pretty soon Seaside became the Riviera of the sunbelt’s economic elite – and came in for gales of criticism for becoming that. The newer houses and commercial structures grew ever grander, as a Boomer generation status competition ramped up into the new millennium. Several more, ever-grander New Urbanist towns sprouted along the adjacent beaches, some of the most recent composed of immense mansions embarrassing in their opulence. The outcome was a little scary, especially now that the fortunes behind many of these mansions may be threatened by the multiplying fiascos of finance and economy overspreading the nation like a vicious plague.

The New Urbanists had not set out to build monuments to Yuppie-Boomer consumerism, but a peculiar destiny shoved them into that role for a while – even while they toiled elsewhere around the nation to reform town planning laws and generally provide an antidote to the fatal cultural cancer of sprawl, that is, of a settlement pattern guaranteed to comprehensively bankrupt our society. Anyway, the collapse of the housing bubble has affected the New Urbanists’ business, too, and this may turn out to be a very good thing because they can put aside the distractions of building very grand places to sop up ill-gotten wealth and focus on the issues that Mr. Obama’s people should have been paying attention to all along, namely, how are we going to reform the way we live in this country and what will be the physical manifestation of how we live in the decades to come.

The New Urbanists have preached for years that conventional suburbia would fail America in the long run, and that we’d have to prepare for this failure by restoring traditional modes of occupying the landscape. So far, the Obama team has not been willing to identify the suburban system as the heart of our economic problem. They can’t recognize it for what it truly is: a living arrangement with no future – and an economic, ecological, and spiritual disaster. It is, of course, the primary reason why we find ourselves in the deadly predicament of importing over two-thirds of the oil we use every day.

But then, more than half the population lives the suburban way of life, with its deadly mortgage traps, its mandatory motoring, and its civic disengagements. Nobody in power dares tell the truth: that we can’t live this way anymore.

But there are scores of places like Montgomery, Alabama, and thousands of traditional main street small towns that are sitting out there waiting to be re-activated. We need to do this much more than we need to build new freeways to the beach. Suburbia is not going to be abandoned overnight (even if it fails logistically and economically!) but we have got to arrive at a consensus about rehabilitating our forsaken small cities and small towns. The New Urbanists have gathered, organized, and codified all the principle and methodology needed to carry out this campaign. This should be their moment. Mr. Obama and his team should get with the program.