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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Geography of Somehwere Nice



The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler probably had more of an effect on me than any book I have ever read. This effect can be measured by my choices of living environments. I moved in constant search of livable cities, from suburban Washington D.C., to Miami, then to Seattle, and now Valencia, Spain. This book has shaped my own writing as well and I hope to publish a novel that is centered on the American suburban landscape some time soon. The problem in America is that few people know anything other than the strip mall model of urban-suburban architecture. However, when presented with what seems like an attack on their lifestyle, they become defensive and refuse to even consider an alternative. Too many people have accepted a life in which the automobile is responsible for effecting 100% of their transportation needs (in my current model car use represents 0%). I don’t think these people are making a choice, I don’t think they ever felt they had a choice. We have allowed the exigencies of Chili’s® parking requirements to dictate our urban planning with no voice given to the citizens. I feel that the need for a healthy and social living environment is the single most important factor in defining our happiness.

I have found Valencia to be about as close to urban perfection as I could ever imagine urban perfection to be. The city has good public transportation as well as a fantastic network of bike trails in and around the city (as well as having wonderful weather almost year-round for cycling). Almost every urban block in Valencia is like an island capable of sustaining life for those citizen castaways who call it home. My apartment is less than one block away from a major supermarket, a green grocer, a half a dozen bars and restaurants, a shoe repair shop, a tailor, several hair dressers, a tobacconist, a pharmacy, a bakery, and a pizza take-out joint—among a few other businesses. Why anyone who lives in Valencia drives a car is beyond my capacity for understanding.

My local bar—or I should say my favorite bar—serves as the collective living room for my little neighborhood. People shuffle in and out all day long to have their needs met, whatever those needs may be. The bar/cafĂ© is where people come together throughout the day and throughout the week to meet with friends, to connect with other people when they are alone, to quietly sit and read a book or loudly scream during an exciting football match. And my little bar is only one of literally thousands around Valencia that serve this same purpose. I shudder to think of the isolationism and solitude of the life most suburbanites lead as they drive home from work, enter their garages, and then raise up the castle drawbridge and spend the rest of their day with no contact with other people in a sort of Unibomber existence.