Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias It was fortunate that urban planner and author James Kunstler spoke after people had finished eating at the April 6 banquet of the Chamber/Vermillion Development Company.

Had his speech been presented before the food was served, many plates may have been left untouched.

Kunstler has this knack of making you lose your appetite.

America, it seems to him, is such a crappy place to live.

Not just the big cities, with their problems of crime, traffic snarls, pollution and urban decay.

Every region of the nation, in Kunstler's view, is garbage, built by us, the keepers of today's throw-away society.

"The Midwest is especially heartbreaking, because there are so many fine cities and towns that were just recklessly thrown away," he said.

World War II may have been fought in Europe, he added. "But today, our cities look like the war was fought in America."

The good ol' days were at about the turn of the century, Kunstler said. That's when America constructed buildings and urban centers and parks and housing that were beautiful and worth caring about.

Today's America, Kunstler maintains, is made up of a mess of gruesome highway strips, franchise burger pits, car wash kingdoms, parking zoos and endless housing subdivisions.

Today's suburbs, he added, are "cut off from all meaningful specific amenity and are drenched in purposeless and monotony and depression and anxiety and repressed rage."

It's probably fair to assume that much of what Kunstler said Thursday fell on deaf ears. Let's face it � he didn't bring the community a very cheery message.

But what was even more disturbing was how this presumably intelligent man seemed to be so out of touch with his audience.

If he thinks today's suburbs are cut off from specific amenities, he should have grown up in South Dakota in the '40s, '50s or '60s.

It was an era when farm families drank the same foul, untreated well water served to their livestock. The boomer generation on many South Dakota farms grew up in the same small (and overcrowded) farmhouses that their fathers or mothers were born in during the Great Depression.

Monotony? Let's talk about no central air conditioning, no plush carpeting, no cable television, and in some cases, no indoor plumbing.

Anxiety? To keep their old houses warm in the winter, it wasn't uncommon for farm families to stack bales of straw around their homes' exterior walls.

Repressed rage? Wake up at 5 a.m. to find the pipes are frozen, or the power lines are down, or the cattle have broken through the fence or the well has failed.

Depression? Experience another day when the Good Lord responds with a "No" to your prayers for rain despite the fact that the fields are shriveling. Watch the sparkle leave your father's eyes as he surveys what's left of a bumper crop after hail tore it to shreds.

During the post World War II era, similar challenges were faced by townsfolk, I'm sure. How did we all meet those challenges? We didn't sink money into grandiose highways or schools or courthouses.

Why? This is South Dakota � the land of infinite variety and few economic resources. Had we invested in our roads and buildings and off-ramps and other basic architecture using Kunstler's vision, would life really be better?

In the 1960s, would this state been able to afford to vaccinate as many children for polio? Would there have been money left to begin working on the development of rural water systems or better phone and electrical services or agricultural research?

Kunstler claims that today's Americans are living in denial. That's why he says the problems he harps about are never solved. He wants us to get on a path of civic revival.

It's too bad he couldn't have seen South Dakota 40 years ago. The state has improved, through a process of slow, sure evolution, since then. Our home may not be perfect, but it certainly isn't garbage.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>