James Howard Kunstler Finally Drags His Ass to Houston

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To anybody who has read so much as a page of his work, the fact that James Howard Kunstler has revealed on his blog that he is no fan of the city of Houston will come as absolutely no surprise.

To say that Kunstler is anti-oil and anti-car is an understatement on the order of saying that Jimi Hendrix was a pretty good little guitar picker or that Shaquille O’Neal has a spot of bother at the foul line.

Kunstler hates everything about our national addiction to petroleum. He hates that we are obese because of it, he loathes the smog and the pollution, and the over-reliance on seedy or downright dangerous overseas regimes we must cozy up to get our fix.

What’s more, he sees car culture and its effects in total in a way that most of us don’t. His 1994 book The Geography of Nowhere decried what cars have done to the American landscape – the suburbs with no sidewalks, the urban fabric-shredding interstates, and the endless tatty commercial suburban strips, dotted with lube joints, tire barns, gaudy car lots, gas stations, junkyards, garages, tacky car stereo emporia, acres of surface parking lots and towering parking garages.

Since The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler has moved on from urban planning to a role as a kind of prophet in the wilderness, preaching the gospel of Peak Oil. His last book The Long Emergency details what he sees as a slow international apocalypse as the oil wells run dry and the global economy melts down.

Every Monday, he posts further elaborations on that theme on his blog Clusterfuck Nation, and generally gets several hundred comments for each posting.

And apparently he’s done all that blogging and wrote both of those books without ever having visited Houston, an oversight akin to writing books on Islam without ever visiting Mecca.

At any rate, he was in town a couple of weeks ago for a Peak Oil conference, and here’s what he had to say about his stay here. At the risk of taking this post one analogy too far, to say Kunstler was not charmed with Houston is to say that Santa Anna slightly miscalculated the best time to take a siesta at San Jacinto.

“It is hard to imagine a more horrifying urban construct than this anti-city in the malarial swamps just off the Gulf of Mexico. And it is hard to conceive of a more desolate and depressing urban district, even of such an anti-city, than the utter wasteland around Houston’s convention center.”

Wait a bit, he’s just revving up…

“Luckily, we didn’t have to enter the convention center itself across the street -- a baleful megastructure the size of three aircraft carriers, adorned with massive air-conditioning ducts to counter Houston’s gym-sock-like climate. And when I say ‘street’ you understand we are talking about four or six-laners, with no curbside parking, which is the norm for this town. The effect is that every street behaves like an extension of the freeway at the expense of pedestrians – but pedestrians have been eliminated anyway because in ninety percent of Houston’s so-called downtown of glass towers there are no shops or restaurants at the ground-floor level, only blank walls, air-conditioning vents, parking ramps, and landscaping fantasias. We were informed that in parts of downtown there existed a network of air-conditioned underground corridors with shopping, but that everything in it closed at 7 p.m. when the last office workers straggled home. Anyway, none of it extended as far as the convention center. The rest of district was devoted to surface parking.”

He goes on to discuss how our lack of zoning is no better than strict zoning as a method of urban planning, eviscerate the aesthetics of the George R. Brown, and then moves on to a reading of the Chron.

“Oh, one final thing about Houston life per se. Judging by the local items in the daily newspaper, the so-called city enjoys a level of mayhem that makes Baghdad look like a Sussex garden party. Sample headlines: “10 Charged in Burglary Spree,” “Pit Bull Shot Dead After Pony Attack,” “Jury Gives Man Life in Carjacking Death,” “Two Killed in Home Invasion.” One particularly insane story told of a man who shot and stabbed a visiting friend who ‘dissed’ his dog. We didn’t see any of that action around the convention center's Hilton Americas, where the ASPO conference actually took place, but the news didn’t exactly make you want to venture out beyond the lobby. Anyway, you couldn’t buy a stick of gum within a mile walk of the place, and the thought of traipsing past all those surface parking lots in 90-degree heat was like an invitation to reenact the Bataan Death March.”

Where to begin? First off, we stamped out malaria a long time ago, you Yankee carpetbagger. And second…

Well, on second thought he pretty much nailed everything else. Except this: Dallas’s downtown is more depressing.

And that’s all that matters, I guess. – John Nova Lomax

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