|A Small American City: The Essay|
The following is an excerpt from the concluding chapter of The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler…the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl (New Society Publishers, 2011), written by Duncan Crary. The book is based on a podcast series of the same title, hosted and produced by Crary from 2008 – 2012. This essay served as the genesis of A Small American City podcast, and is read aloud by its author during the pilot episode.
“It takes the silence of a town like Troy to stir the mind.” — Richard Selzer, Down From Troy
TEN YEARS AGO I moved to Troy, New York, a small American city of exactly the type urban polemicist James Howard Kunstler sees prospering in the energy realities of the future. There’s no denying that the place is struggling now, and has been for the better half of a century. But I am confident that its many underutilized features will be valued once again as events unfold. These assets include: a tight network of walkable streets and blocks; a major inland water route; access to passenger rail; and an abrupt transition to nearby farmlands, with few suburban intrusions. For the most part, my life here even resembles the kind of scaled-down existence that Jim envisions for people of the future.
All of this has served as a great backdrop and Petri dish for our ongoing conversations about urbanism and what he calls The Long Emergency. But I am not in Troy living the way I am out of any concerns or preparations for a post-peak oil world. I am here because I want to be here — now — and because I find it deeply rewarding to be in this place, in spite of its long-festering state. Life is charming for me here, in and amongst the residue of nineteenth-century industrial wealth. Even on my tight income, I never find myself locked out from any luxuries, although it helps that I’m easily amused and fairly modest in my tastes. My neighborhood is my living room, office, playground and marketplace, and I seldom need or even desire to leave.
But I am not in Troy living the way I am out of any concerns or preparations for a post-peak oil world. I am here because I want to be here — now — and because I find it deeply rewarding to be in this place
My days are punctuated by design with dozens of inefficient chores, which wind me around the blocks — in and out of the stores and offices — far more times than logic or practicality demand. I make these trips on foot for the simple pleasure of being immersed in a beautifully designed urban fabric, and for the inevitable encounters with friends, neighbors and clients along the way. Why buy groceries in bulk when I can walk to the co-op and chat with the clerks each morning? Evenings I often spend bouncing on foot from one pub to the next, where I am always in the company of good friends or gregarious strangers. No need to call or text first before setting out — I know I’ll never be alone, unless I chose to be.
At the moment I still own a car, but rarely ever use it except to drive to Saratoga to talk with Jim about suburban sprawl and fossil fuel depletion. The irony of that does not elude me. I do take the occasional road trip. More often I’ll ride the train to New York City or Burlington. I enjoy being in nature as much as any other “outdoorsman.” But even the places for those activities can be reached here without car. There are plenty of swimming holes, canoe launches, campsites, bike paths and hiking trails along the periphery of town. I visit them often.
All of this might lead one to surmise that I am ignorant of or antagonistic toward the world at large. But I have seen and lived in other parts of it. I imagine I will again. For now, I find great satisfaction in the daily rhythms of life within this small sphere.
All of this might lead one to surmise that I am ignorant of or antagonistic toward the world at large. But I have seen and lived in other parts of it. I imagine I will again. For now, I find great satisfaction in the daily rhythms of life within this small sphere. And it’s exciting to see the place gradually shake off its atrophy. Our city leaders are incrementally repairing and replacing the missing teeth along our streets, correcting mistakes from a less thoughtful era. There are fits and starts and temper tantrums along the way. I’m sure there will be more. Overall, though, these efforts are progressing, and I’m pleased to witness them from the front row.
And I’m not deluded — we still have a long way to go before the place can be described as bustling. There are many more empty buildings and vacant lots yet to be occupied by businesses or residents. Our public image needs improving, too. The suburbanites still hold wildly exaggerated notions about the crime, the bad schools and the lack of parking in our allegedly narrow streets. But even they are starting to poke around more frequently, for our farmers’ markets, our bar scene and our festivals. At this point, they still need to be bribed with gimmicks and special events in order to arrive in large numbers. It is funny, however, how the most popular of these festivals are centered on walking, shopping and dining in our quaint downtown. After all, these late-night Fridays and weekend fairs are really just dressed-up versions of what people normally do every weekend with a healthy city: use it. It’s baffling that people need a contrived invitation to come visit, and the situation used to frustrate me, until Kunstler helped calm my impatience by describing these activities as “American society rehearsing for the era to come,” when we will once again walk, shop and revel in the places where we live and work. That gives me a lot of hope.
I choose to stay because the place speaks to me and I am haunted by thoughts that these trends could be reversed — that these buildings and cities and elegant means of moving between them could be resurrected.
I really do find much to be optimistic about in Jim’s forecast, in spite of his reputation for being a “doomer.” I feel indebted to him for that because it’s often difficult for me to stay positive about the direction we’re moving as a culture. As an upstate New Yorker, I am constantly reminded by our grand rotting cities that better days are behind us. Our landscape is littered with crumbling edifices and weed-choked manufacturing centers. Our pre-automobile transit systems are buried under tarmac, or rusting out in the rain-soaked sun, or lost in the woods. When I come across these visible reminders of abandoned enterprise, I find it hard to imagine that I am descended from the same people who created them. The people of my time, for the most part, have little affection for our historic infrastructure and dwelling places, preferring to sprawl out into the ChemLawn hinterlands instead. They choose particleboard and plastic over brick and stone. They prefer asphalt to Belgian block. They favor parking lots and driveways over walkable neighborhoods and public transit. They find corporate-controlled transactions more convenient than independent commerce. And so on.
Economically, the region has been bust for generations. Many of our most talented young minds flee after school for employment in Manhattan, Boston or the Sun Belt. This has been the backdrop of my life. Yet I choose to stay because the place speaks to me and I am haunted by thoughts that these trends could be reversed — that these buildings and cities and elegant means of moving between them could be resurrected. I often fantasize that I could have lived here in the earlier, car-free and lively days. But talking with Jim over the years has given me reason to hope that I may see some form of that world return in my lifetime. What else can I say other than I am so very grateful to have been shown that glimpse of a more satisfying future?
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Next Essay: Achilles’ Choice
Ten years after the fall of Troy, the victorious Greek hero Odysseus has still not returned to his native Ithaca. A band of rowdy suitors, believing Odysseus to be dead, has overrun his palace, courting his faithful -- though weakening -- wife, Penelope, and going through his stock of food. With permission from Zeus, the goddess Athena, Odysseus' greatest immortal ally, appears in disguise and urges Odysseus' son Telemachus to seek news of his father at Pylos and Sparta. However, the suitors, led by Antinous, plan to ambush him upon his return.
As Telemachus tracks Odysseus' trail through stories from his old comrades-in-arms, Athena arranges for the release of Odysseus from the island of the beautiful goddess Calypso, whose prisoner and lover he has been for the last eight years. Odysseus sets sail on a makeshift raft, but the sea god Poseidon, whose wrath Odysseus incurred earlier in his adventures by blinding Poseidon's son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, conjures up a storm. With Athena's help, Odysseus reaches the Phaeacians. Their princess, Nausicaa, who has a crush on the handsome warrior, opens the palace to the stranger. Odysseus withholds his identity for as long as he can until finally, at the Phaeacians' request, he tells the story of his adventures.
Odysseus relates how, following the Trojan War, his men suffered more losses at the hands of the Kikones, then were nearly tempted to stay on the island of the drug-addled Lotus Eaters. Next, the Cyclops Polyphemus devoured many of Odysseus' men before an ingenious plan of Odysseus' allowed the rest to escape -- but not before Odysseus revealed his name to Polyphemus and thus started his personal war with Poseidon. The wind god Ailos then provided Odysseus with a bag of winds to aid his return home, but the crew greedily opened the bag and sent the ship to the land of the giant, man-eating Laistrygonians, where they again barely escaped.
On their next stop, the goddess Circe tricked Odysseus' men and turned them into pigs. With the help of the god Hermes, Odysseus defied her spell and metamorphosed the pigs back into men. They stayed on her island for a year in the lap of luxury, with Odysseus as her lover, before moving on and resisting the temptations of the seductive and dangerous Sirens, navigating between the sea monster Scylla and the whirlpools of Charybdis, and plumbing the depths of Hades to receive a prophecy from the blind seer Tiresias. Resting on the island of Helios, Odysseus' men disobeyed his orders not to touch the oxen. At sea, Zeus punished them and all but Odysseus died in a storm. It was then that Odysseus reached Calypso's island.
Odysseus finishes his story, and the Phaeacians hospitably give him gifts and ferry him home on a ship. Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar and instructs him to seek out his old swineherd, Eumaeus; she will recall Telemachus from his own travels. With Athena's help, Telemachus avoids the suitors' ambush and reunites with his father, who reveals his identity only to his son and swineherd. He devises a plan to overthrow the suitors with their help.
In disguise as a beggar, Odysseus investigates his palace. The suitors and a few of his old servants generally treat him rudely as Odysseus sizes up the loyalty of Penelope and his other servants. Penelope, who notes the resemblance between the beggar and her presumably dead husband, proposes a contest: she will, at last, marry the suitor who can string Odysseus' great bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axe heads.
Only Odysseus can pull off the feat. Bow in hand, he shoots and kills the suitor Antinous and reveals his identity. With Telemachus, Eumaeus, and his goatherd Philoitios at his side, Odysseus leads the massacre of the suitors, aided only at the end by Athena. Odysseus lovingly reunites with Penelope, his knowledge of their bed that he built the proof that overcomes her skepticism that he is an impostor. Outside of town, Odysseus visits his ailing father, Laertes, but an army of the suitors' relatives quickly finds them. With the encouragement of a disguised Athena, Laertes strikes down the ringleader, Antinous' father. Before the battle can progress any further, Athena, on command from Zeus, orders peace between the two sides.