Jim Kunstler writes in his seminal work “The Geography of Nowhere” about the people who vacation at Disney, fall in love with its “Main Street U.S.A.”, and then go “home and tear down half the old buildings downtown and pave them over for parking lots”. When I read that analysis for the first time I never suspected that I would later consider those visitors to be more enlightened than most Americans. Yes, there are those who vacation in Paris, or Tuscany, Provincetown, or Charleston, and then come home and, when asked to become involved in the political process opt for prioritizing cars over people, but worse yet are those who choose to vacation in sprawl, who voluntarily immerse themselves in a car centered experience for pleasure and pay a premium to do so. It strikes me that these people live in car centered neighborhoods and then vacation in car centered places like Arizona and Florida. In a kunstler.com “Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle” JHK tells a story in his own inimitable style of a visit to a “resort” in Arizona where going from his hotel room to the breakfast buffet required an automobile trip.
I’m not a big fan of air travel, but the payoff for a transatlantic trip to the old country for me is the opportunity to make vacation more than just a change in the places I drive to. I’ve spoken to thousands of students about the difference, especially for adolescents, between living in a car centered and a people centered built environment. While it may not say much for my skills as an educator I must admit that no student has ever listened to my perspectives and read the works I’ve assigned and written afterwards of a change in their perspective regarding horizontal development. On the other hand, nearly every student I’ve travelled with as part of class trips to Spain, Portugal, France, and Morocco has expressed following the experience that they prefer the type of urbanism they’ve experienced abroad.
But I don’t think they really understand exactly what it is that makes their experience in traditionally designed cities more satisfying.
It reminds me of explaining the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile on September 11th, 1973. No matter how much we read, watch, and discuss, in the end somehow the Soviet Union overthrew the democratically elected government of President Allende. It’s just too hard to comprehend, it causes too much cognitive dissonance to internalize the reality of American involvement. The same is true with Americans and the automobile. Even when presented with their own acknowledgement of the superiority of the European way of life in terms of its built environment and a straightforward analysis which shows that the primary difference involves the attitude toward the car, it is often too hard for many to see that the instrument they’ve been propagandized to believe liberates them actually enslaves them.