Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Tale of Two Very, Very Different Cities

I've lately been listening to the KunstlerCast, a podcast about "the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl," featuring James Howard Kunstler. If you don't know Kunstler, he's a sort of one-man media empire of urbanist criticism of American cities and culture. I think his criticisms of suburban sprawl are generally spot-on, and while I'm sympathetic to his predictions about peak oil and the imminent (or nascent) decline and demise of the "happy motoring" culture that has characterized the US (and, increasingly, the world) over the past 60 years or so, I tend to find his predictions a bit horologically over-aggressive. (For instance, in a recent blog post he anticipated "that the current mood of public paralysis will dissolve in a blur of blood and spittle sometime between Memorial Day and July Fourth, even with Nascar in full swing, and the mushrooming ranks of the unemployed lost in raptures of engine noise and fried cornmeal. It doesn't take too many determined, pissed-off people to create a lot of mischief in a complex society." Watch your clocks - we've barely a month before the uprising begins.) But for my money, the somewhat overwrought pronouncements of doom are more than compensated for by the skill and undiluted vim with which he writes.

Anyways, the KunstlerCast has done a couple of episodes recently which have cleverly employed Google Street View. One was a Virtual Walking Tour of Paris. You can follow along with an embedded Street View player as Kunstler and Duncan Crary talk about what makes Paris such a pleasurable city to visit or to live in.

And, for a happy contrast, they also did an episode in which they toured Detroit. Poor, poor Detroit.

Detroit has been really done in by the decline of the auto industry in the US, of course. But it's also been a victim of clueless leadership, segregation, race riots, suburbanization, and the prioritization of the automobile over the human being in urban design. Now there are entire city blocks, even neighborhoods, once teeming, where most of the buildings are simply gone - razed by demolition crews or burned down (arson being a popular pastime in the Motor City). It's a city that's dying.

Anyway, it's a clever use of Street View, and if nothing else, Kunstler is an expert diagnostician; he does an excellent job of explaining, in detail, what is alienating and depressing about the project of suburban development in the US - and, for that matter, what is pleasant and ennobling about well-constructed cities like Paris.


Duncan Crary said...

Thank you very much for this post. I've been trying to spread the word about this use of Google Streetview and podcasting. I think it can be a very effective tool for talking about cities.

--Duncan (from the KunstlerCast)

Chachy said...

Thank you, Duncan, for your great work on the podcast! It never fails to entertain.

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