Suicide By Strip Mall

The Daily Reckoning – Weekend Edition
July 14-15, 2007
Baltimore, Maryland
by James Howard Kunstler


New Urbanists from all over the land – and as far away as Australia – converged in Philadelphia in May to sort out their gains and losses for the year against the background of a nation punch drunk on “liquidity” and free-floating dread. The city of Philadelphia looked perkier than anyone could remember – at least the square mile emanating in a quadrant roughly southeast from William Penn’s statue atop city hall to the burnished alleys of 18th century Society Hill. At lunch hour Rittenhouse Square was full of young cubicle critters seeking air and light, and six hours later the bars were doing a brisk business in twelve-dollar martinis.

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) was formed in 1993 by a cadre of revolutionary architects who had decided that enough was enough with a nation bent on committing suicide by strip mall. From the start, their mission was bold, coherent, and heroic: to present a clear alternative to the mindless devouring juggernaut of suburbia.

Also from the start, they were accused of being “elitists,” “un-American,” “enemies-of-art-and-free-expression,” “snooty enablers of white yuppie separatists,” “footlings of the Neo-cons,” and “sentimental saps” – all for suggesting that perhaps human beings might benefit from living in places worth caring about.

The New Urbanists became known mostly for the real estate ventures that were produced in their name – first the iconic “new town” Seaside, Florida, and then scores of other projects based on what they called the Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND). Some of these projects were badly compromised by the zoning boards who ruled on their details. Some were wannabes and co-opted rip-offs. Some, like Vincent Graham’s I’On project in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, achieved high levels of artistry despite the obstacles thrown up by the mental defectives who opposed them.

The New Urbanists were equally active in the existing cities, leading in the adaptive re-use of industrial ruins, brownfields, and whole districts that had been written off as hopeless beyond the pale. Figures like Mark Nikita and Dorian Moore, who worked in the rough context of downtown Detroit, and Ray Gindroz of Pittsburgh who pioneered the conversion of reviled and decrepit public housing all over the country into places where a human spirit might rediscover itself.

The greatest achievement of the New Urbanists in these years was not the long list of TNDs or the urban interventions that saved whole districts, but in the retrieval of knowledge and principle that had been thrown away by a hapless and craven officialdom of planning – abetted by the mandarin ideologues who ruled the university architecture schools, and who were dedicated above all to defending the antisocial prerogatives of their jive-narcissism. Despite all that, the New Urbanists worked doggedly to reconstruct a body of culture (i.e. urban design). They processed it in a series of brilliantly clear manuals like the Transect and the Smart Code, and gave everyone from the carpenters to the bankers a lexicon for understanding the difference between plain crap and stuff with a plausible future.

The New Urbanists came on the scene just as the final exuberant phase of the cheap oil fiesta was getting underway – meaning the climactic phase of American suburban expansion. They positioned themselves as a minority opposition to the “conventional” developers who utterly dominated the landscape. The things that were built under the New Urbanist name represented probably less than two percent of everything built since 1990. The work they did occurred as a valiant swimming against the tide – or, more specifically, against a huge blast of reeking, toxic entropy.

The final blowout of cheap oil is now ending, and the suburban juggernaut is entering its death throes. It wasn’t slain by the New Urbanists, but they will be the last ones standing – just as the little warm-blooded mammals were the last creatures standing when the dinosaurs expired in the warm Cretaceous mud. The focus of their work will certainly have to change. There will be no more suburban subdivisions (or the accessories and furnishings of them – the strip malls, Big Box pods, and fried-food out-parcels), and the TND will emerge not as a counterpoint to all that crap, but as the template for a redefined type of village or town scaled to the new realities of available energy.

We will be inhabiting the terrain differently from now on. Whatever intact farmland remains will have to be reserved for feeding ourselves, and the “countryside” that has been regarded as having only scenic or recreational value for so many decades, will have to be both productive and carefully tended by human hands. Our big cities will certainly shrink, contract, and the fortunate ones will redevelop and re-densify at their old cores and around their waterfronts. The part of Philadelphia that we were in last weekend may be about as big as a sustainable city can get – minus the skyscrapers, which, alas, will be obsolete.

The demographic shift to come will be a shocking reversal of what has been going on since the start of the industrial revolution. The small towns and small cities of America -the places that have moldered in desolation and squalor for decades – will be coming back to life, surrounded by an agricultural landscape shaped by human attention.

What we’ll need in this process will be the most valuable things that the New Urbanists recovered along the way: the knowledge required to create a human dwelling place with a future. That was really the extent of their ambitions all along. But it was too straightforward for a twisted culture to understand. In a few years, even the mental defectives and the professional jive-narcissists will understand where we’ve been and where we are going.

James Howard Kunstler
for The Daily Reckoning

— The Daily Reckoning Book of the Week —

The Long Emergency
by James Howard Kunstler

The indictment of suburbia and the car culture that the author presented in The Geography of Nowhere turns apocalyptic in this vigorous, if overwrought, jeremiad. Kunstler notes signs that global oil production has peaked and will soon dwindle, and argues in an eye opening analysis that alternative energy sources cannot fill the gap, especially in transportation. The result will be a Dark Age in which “the center does not hold” and “all bets are off about civilization’s future.”


THIS WEEK in THE DAILY RECKONING: Don’t worry if you didn’t have time to read through every issue of The DR this week – we have them all catalogued for you, below…

Billion-Dollar Protectionist Measures                      07/13/07
by Bill Bonner

“What’s wrong with these terrorists? We don’t know. As near as we can tell, they’re the most dangerous enemy that doesn’t really threaten us. But billions of dollars and countless hours are spent trying to protect us from them.”

Mortgage Backed Temptation                                     07/12/07
by Bill Bonner

“Now you can get a mortgage, apparently, over the Internet. Lender and borrower never meet. And then, of course, Wall Street created a whole industry…to take these mortgages and turn them into new and titillating products.”

Fed Flounders as U.S. Dollar Drowns                         07/11/07
by Bill Bonner

“Three years or so ago, we suggested that the dollar would go to $1.50 per euro. The buck promptly went up – making a fool of us. But even the world’s luckiest currency cannot escape the fundamental laws of economics forever.”

Real Estate’s Harsh Realities                                       07/10/07
by Bill Bonner

“When you need to make a monthly mortgage payment, there is not much fantasy or romance to it. It is real. When you don’t have the money, it is even more real…which is to say, the experience is more intense and more memorable.”

Fire Up the Printing Press                                           07/09/07
by Bill Bonner

“Soon, the whole world has money galore – green money with dead presidents, blue money with pictures of cathedral windows, purple money with a portrait of Adam Smith on it. Our own wallet is a veritable art gallery of currencies!”


FLOTSAM AND JETSAM: The news has been abuzz with the recent execution of a Chinese official who is the scapegoat for the horrific quality controls in Chinese products… everything from killer toothpaste to lead-painted toy trains. Kevin Kerr explores…

Tastes Like Chicken – I Mean Cardboard
by Kevin Kerr

All of these recently recalled products shouldn’t be stamped “Made in China” – they should be stamped “Made in Hell.”

Now comes word from the news services that in one part of China some of the street vendors have been selling some kind of roll not made out of flour or wheat, but of cardboard – yup, cardboard with a little meat flavor, just like Mom used to make. Sure makes me want to fly over to Beijing for the Olympics and head out to the concession stand.

It’s like a form of consumer roulette right now. This is nothing new. I mean the void between restrictions on U.S. manufacture and Chinese production is cavernous. My cousin’s husband is an engineer at a company in Minneapolis that builds robots. Needless to say, much of the company’s work has been outsourced to cardboard-eating China. He is the first to admit that the products cost far less to make, and initially even look good and work well. The problem is the longer-term quality controls and the customer service. Stated simply, they’re terrible.

Meanwhile, nothing is safe. The traditional American icons like Radio Flyer wagons — you know, almost every kid had one, at least when I was little — those wagons are now made in China at a fraction of the cost. Look at almost anything you buy today: It will almost certainly be stamped with or have a sticker saying, “Made in China.” It should have another sticker: “It May Kill You.”

This is no joke: The list of poisoned consumer goods is lengthy. Medicine contaminated with diethylene glycol (antifreeze) passed off as glycerin. Gluten spiked with melamine that poisoned so many of our dogs and cats. Toxic fish contaminated with banned antibiotics and chemicals. Juice with unsafe color additives, tainted seasoning on snacks. Pork tainted with clenbuterol, a banned feed additive.

Most frightening of all, at least to this new parent, is that toy trains made in China have been found contaminated with lead paint. We all know children put everything in their mouths – everything. It’s scary.

This is a story that isn’t going to die anytime soon, and you can bet Byron and I will look for ways to invest and take advantage of it – heck, maybe hospital stocks.

Editor’s Note: Kevin Kerr is the editor of two highly successful and acclaimed financial advisory newsletters, Resource Trader Alert and Outstanding Investments. A veteran commodities trader, Kevin uses his irreplaceable experience to advise his readers on a variety of commodities investments on a daily basis. Widely considered one of the nation’s top commodities gurus, Kevin’s expert opinions are routinely featured in the country’s premier media outlets.

The Daily Reckoning