The Death And Life Of Society

by Matthew Cornetta

"Engrandecerás a tu pueblo no elevando los tejados de sus viviendas, sino las almas de sus habitantes."   --Epicteto.

(You shall greaten your society, not by elevating the roofs of its houses, but by elevating the soul of its people.)

Thirty-five years ago in her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote: Today everyone who values cities is disturbed by automobiles.... Traffic arteries, along with parking lots, gas stations and drive-ins, are powerful and insistent instruments of city destruction. To accommodate them, city streets are broken down into loose sprawls, incoherent and vacuous for anyone afoot. Downtowns and other neighborhoods that are marvels of close grained intricacy and compact mutual support are casually disemboweled. Landmarks are crumbled or are so sundered from their contexts in city life as to become irrelevant trivialities. City character is blurred until every place becomes more like every other place, all adding up to No place. And in the areas most defeated, uses that cannot stand functionally alone—shopping malls, or residences, or places of public assembly, or centers of work—are severed from one another. But we blame automobiles for too much.... Indeed, we blame automobiles for too much. In the same way, we blame guns and we blame the traffic and we blame everything but ourselves. The destruction of urban character to which Jane Jacobs refers runs more rampant today than it ever has and it is a function of low civic and moral character—it is a function of the attitude that says: "Screw the streets, my front lawn still looks good!" And what a dangerous attitude!—an attitude tied up in consumerism, gadgetry, and so-called progress—an attitude that leaves millions upon millions living in nightmarish neighborhoods. And this is not only a problem in giant urban areas such as Los Angeles and New York, on the contrary, it has permeated the secondary cities all throughout the country. Why, just a short while ago in the May issue of "Minneapolis St. Paul" James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, is quoted writing: The figure of 1.5 million new homes under construction ought to send chills up the spine of a reflective person, because these housing starts do not represent real towns or coherent communities. Rather, they mostly stand for tract development in far-flung suburbs and isolated split levels in cornfields, pastures and woods..... They will relate poorly to things around them, eat up more countryside and increase the public’s fiscal burden..... ....The future will require us to build better places, or the future will belong to societies that better respect human needs and human limits, societies not of consumers but of citizens, who live in places worthy of their affection.

Both Kunstler and Jacobs are driving at the same point—that is—Our society has a great and vital responsibility to create towns, villages, and municipalities which will function to serve and enlighten humans and not to hinder and alienate them. Indeed Society is the key here. Improvements never shall be realized by merely assigning blame to faulty government or greedy corporations. No, the solution is not in politics or money (which are only tools) it is in ourselves--in our own feelings, in our own responsibilities as citizens to look and learn and see and hear... Have you ever noticed how some cities and towns leave you cold? Have you ever traveled through town after town and only been left with the gray imprint of ugliness? Then again, haven’t you also been left warm by visits to other places? What is it that makes some cities and towns (societies) successes and others failures? Jane Jacobs argues that diversity is the major ingredient that makes a city successful, i.e. diversity of: businesses, restaurants, ages, peoples, modes of travel, etc. But where are those particular neighborhoods? Indeed, they are everyday fewer and farther between, all seemingly going the way of extinction. And with them goes society as we used to know it. Consequently, as this new society grows up without the nurturing influences of diverse and vigorous neighborhoods, it discovers each day that it has lost the trade, has lost the eye for the beautiful, and most importantly, it discovers that it has lost the will to sustain the diversity that a healthy community needs. This will being lost, what do we now will for? We seem to prefer specialization. We prefer huge, blocky gray and sterile malls for shopping. Then we prefer huge, blocky brown and sterile developments for residence, oh and yes, in order to guide us from where we live to where we buy, we especially prefer large swaths of treeless oil-spilled roadways passing through the depressing terrain of unimaginative convenience stores, gas stations, and all night neon zones that serve something only distantly related to food. We willingly give ourselves up to ever-larger corporations (and so we help the corporations to become ever-larger) and conglomerates, to networks and vertical integration—yes we buy a Big Mac in Eau Claire Wisconsin because some advertising wizard on Madison Avenue in New York pushes a button and tells us to.

Though that may be an amazing feat of marketing and communication it says little for community; it says little for the better way of giving our patronage to businesses because we know and respect the people who work there. But this is pure nostalgic nonsense that I am writing because I have already seen that we prefer to trade quaint streets and warm hellos for gargantuan, warehoused, alienating, gray—what Jane Jacobs liked to call, "the gray blight of dullness." And then with all these preferences of ours, every place indeed becomes Noplace. Everybody goes to different places to do the same things, and no longer do we see people doing different things in the same place. Still, we can rationalize it away because it is all cheaper and more convenient, and the more we get used to stuffing our faces with it, the less we begin to miss being completely raped of culture. Personally, I am everyday walking in a deeper fog. I do not comprehend our society—and this is rather distressing because it is the society into which I was born. For me and those who might agree with me, the future is also distressing—oh, there will be wealth and prosperity, and there will be new generations, new inventions, etc.. But where goes our culture? Where goes our tradition? Where goes our anchor? Where are we drifting then? And, for that matter, as free willed humans why do we choose to drift instead of navigate? Such a society in drift—everyday denuding itself of its principles—such a society that does not know itself—that only defines things in terms of location, price, two for one, hour of close, instantly, and instantaneous—such a society in such an identity crisis is not a society at all, but instead has transformed into what Kunstler warned against in his book—"A great unrelated mass of consumers." And this is what we want isn’t it?--- Cheaper cars, cheaper houses, cheaper food, cheaper clothes, cheaper music, cheaper schools etc... It is all a matter of priority-- and consumerism has been the number one priority since the end of World War II. Still, (But don’t get me wrong, I am not overly confident) there might be a ray of hope. As a student of history, I know that it only takes one maverick generation to change the course of society, and in our case, to bring our society back to life. And all this generation needs to learn is a simple and old thing, respect—self-respect, respect for environs, respect for the past, respect for the streets on the other side of town, respect for others, and respect for trades, and rough hands, and sturdy tables, respect for a small storefront and a small proprietor, respect for six o’clock in the morning and for a street lined with linden trees, of elms, or poplars or anything besides high tension wires—most of all, respect for diversity—The Very Thing That Made This Country Succeed...... Only respect, and it shouldn’t be too hard because that’s what everybody seems to want—respect—so it should follow that as human beings we should all want to give some before we get some-- or doesn’t that follow?