Now Live on Amazon. It may contain some typos. First I noticed that the park was in absolutely immaculate condition, in better shape than ever in my lifetime, going back to my s school days. The Bethesda Terrace beside the lake and the adjoining Great Mall with its once-decrepitating Naumberg bandshell were all fixed up.
Vanished original buildings such as the Dairy, designed by Olmsted and Vaux in the s and then lost to decay, had been meticulously reproduced. The epiphany part was when I realized that this miracle was altogether a product of the financialization of the US economy.
A Niagara of money had flowed into the tax-deductable mission of the Central Park Conservancy. It was a short leap from there to realize that over the past quarter-century every formerly skeezy neighborhood in Manhattan had undergone remarkable renovation: Well, all those hedge funders needed someplace to live, as did those who work in other well-paid but less-exalted professions: When I was a young man in the s, New York was on its ass.
The subway cars were so graffiti-splattered you could hardly find the doors or see out the windows. Times Square was like the place where Pinocchio grew donkey ears. Muggers lurked in the shadows of Bonwit Teller on 57 th and Fifth. These were the climax years of the post-war WW II diaspora to the suburbs. New York seemed done for. And meanwhile, of course, other American big cities were likewise whirling around the drain.
Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Even San Francisco was a dump in the cold, dark, pre-dawn years of the dot-com age when I lived there in On the other hand, sunbelt metroplexes such as Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, and Phoenix were booming back then, but not in a way that made any sense in traditional urban terms. They merely expressed the most exaggerated characteristics of suburban sprawl in new and horrifying ways: These weird new crypto-urban agglomerations had been hardly more than tank towns before , so even their worst car-dependent features and furnishings were pretty new, that is, not yet subjected to the ravages of time.
Which is to say they were typologically different from the older US cities like New York. In any case, getting back to my stroll across Central Park that spring morning, there was a second part to my low-grade epiphany — which was that I was here witnessing the absolute peak of a cycle in the life of New York; that from this point forward things would start falling apart again, and probably worse than the previous time in the s.
I shall elaborate on the shocking particulars of that presently, but first I must describe exactly what the financialization of the economy was about and why it is coming to a bad end. Contrary to the American religion of endless progress, the techno-industrial age is a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we are closer to the end of that chapter in human history than to the middle of it. By the s, the USA began to feel the bite of competition from other parts of the world that had rebuilt their industrial capacity following the debacle of World War II.
Our factories, which had not been bombed during the war, were old and worn out. Environmental consciousness produced stringent new regulation of dirty industries. Third World nations with rising populations offered ultra-cheap labor and lax regulation. Industrial production was replaced mainly by two activities. First, after being constrained by the oil crises of and , the suburban sprawl build-out resumed with vengeance in the s. Secondly, and connected with sprawl via the mortgage racket, was the expansion of the financial sector of the economy from five percent to over 40 percent.
The suburban sprawl part was easy to understand. It was the preferred template for property development, an emergent process over the decades. The local zoning and building codes had evolved to mandate that outcome by law.
The separation of uses became more extreme: The new laws for handicapped access had the unintended consequence of heavily discouraging buildings over one story. The tragic part was that suburban sprawl was a living arrangement with no future. The oil crises of the 70s had portended that, but both the zoning codes and the cultural conditioning over-rode that warning.
It was based on the formula: The role of banking in the economy was straightforward: That bit of mischief led to the crash of This chain of events entailed an unprecedented growth of debt at all levels of society household, corporate, government such that the obligations eventually outstripped any plausible prospect of repayment.
Something very sinister and largely unacknowledged lay behind it. And behind that was the fact that the world had run out of affordable petroleum. Quite a quandary, totally unacknowledged in the public discourse. It could be boiled down to a simple equation: I elaborate on these arcane matters because it is fundamental to understand that the root cause for the sputtering of economic growth is that the primary resource needed for creating it oil has exceeded our ability to pay for it — and despite all the wishful thinking, there is no alt-energy rescue remedy to replace it.
The result will be a collapse of our complex systems and a re-set of human activity to a lower and simpler level. How disorderly the process gets remains to be seen, and where it stops is as yet unknown. But it will have everything to do with how human life organizes itself on-the-ground, and therefore with the future of our cities.
One can state categorically that the colossal metroplex cities of today are going to have to contract, probably substantially. They have attained a scale that no plausible disposition of economy looking ahead can sustain.
This is contrary, by the way, to most of the reigning utopian or even dystopian fantasies which, any way you cut them, only presume An ever-greater scale of everything. This is what brought us all the renovated neighborhoods, the scores of new residential skyscrapers, the multiplication of museums and cultural venues, and the buffing up of Central Park.
It will be followed by a steep and harrowing descent into disinvestment. Apart from that unnerving prospect, it must be said that the recent rediscovery of city life in America, per se, was a positive thing, given the decades-long experiment with automobile suburbia.
Notice, though, that the revival of cosmopolitan life mainly took place in those cities connected by some degree to the financialized economy: It was also unfortunate that few small cities and towns benefited from the re-urbanization movement.
Most cities are located where they are because they occupy important geographical sites. New York has its excellent deep water harbor and the Hudson River estuary. These outstanding amenities were enhanced later with canal connections to the Great Lakes and the St. San Francisco and Boston, ditto great harbors. Detroit stands on a strategic river between two Great lakes. There are sure to be some kind of human settlements in these places as long as people are around, though they may be very different in scale and character from what we have known them to be.
Detroit will probably never again be the colossus it was in but something will occupy that stretch of river. On the other hand, the techno-industrial economy allowed cities to develop rapidly in places in that lacked outstanding natural features.
Places like Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, and much of Southern California may become uninhabitable without cheap air-conditioning-for-all, a viable automobile-based transport system, and the ability to produce food locally.
Orlando may decline out of sheer irrelevance when its theme park economy withers. Just about everything in our world is going to have to get smaller, finer, and also more local. The failure of suburbia is pretty plain to see, and its trajectory is not hard to understand. But do not assume that there will necessarily be a great demographic rush into the big cities as suburbia fails. The big cities will have enormous trouble with their aging infrastructure — the year-old water and sewer systems, the stupendous hierarchies of paved roads, the bridges, and tunnels, etc.
The American electric grid is decrepit and the estimate for fixing it alone runs greater than a trillion dollars. The cities will also have problems with the debt-based promises of support for public employees and dependent underclass populations. These places will have to contract around their old centers and their waterfronts, if they have them. The process will entail the loss of vast amounts of notional wealth represented in buildings and real estate.
It may provoke ethnic battles between groups fighting over who gets to occupy the districts that retain value. New York City and Chicago face an additional problem: Our society does not know it yet, but the skyscraper is already an obsolete building form, and for a reason generally unrecognized: They have no capacity for adaptive re-use.
The capital will not be there to renovate things at the giant scale at which they were originally built. It might seem to be a humble material, but it actually requires very long and sophisticated mining and manufacturing chains, and it may be assuming too much that these supply chains will continue to operate in the years ahead. The same can be said of steel beams and trusses, aluminum sashes, metallic and enamel claddings, plate glass, concrete block, cement, plastic or metal pipe, silicon gaskets, plywood, etc.
In short, these enormous buildings, now considered assets will quickly turn into liabilities. It can sound simple to "write an essay" at first, but when you get to the hard part of actually writing more than a few words, you realize actually how hard it is.
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Author’s note: This essay originally appeared in The Baffler web-zine July The following was my original submission draft. It may contain some typos. The Future of the City by James Howard Kunstler One spring day not so long ago, I had a low-grade epiphany walking across New York’s Central Park from my hotel on the more». When you live and learn in the heart of the city, there’s always something to do. Augsburg’s campus sits in the vibrant Cedar-Riverside neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis.