NEB&W Guide to the Geography Of Nowhere

From NEB&W Railroad Heritage Website
Jump to: navigation, search
Scenery, Structures & Details - Introduction
Scenery, Structures & Details Table of Contents

In Vol. I of our Scenery, Structures & Details, I had mentioned this book, Geography Of Nowhere, by James Kunstler (Touchstone Books, Rockefeller Center, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, NY, NY 10020), but I hadn't yet read it. Since then, I have.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Kunstler's premise is how in America we have allowed the love of cars to dominate our world in how things have been developed. Then when we are unhappy with the results, we are unaware of what has happened. "Nowhere" in the title refers to the post-War development of suburban developments, strip malls, fast food outlets, etc. which all look the same across the country, and there no longer is any sense of being in a particular spot.

Now I have tried not to make this guide reflect any political viewpoint (although I'm sure my biases have crept in). Modelers are somewhat hypercritical in that we love to model rundown depressing "Tobacco Rows" that we wouldn't be caught dead living in. My promoting Kunstler's book is not to say he is right (although I do agree with him in most cases), but that he did make me realize even more how radically different our world is today than it was back in steam-era days. We are not merely exchanging black engines with big wheels for shiny boxy diesels, and grain hoppers for box cars. (Because if that is the trap we fall into, then we will forget to educate our hobby as to what the steam era is all about.)

Good Cars, Bad Cars

Kunstler doesn't blame the change simply on cars, but on how in America they were treated. He pointed out that how radically different a 12 lane freeway in America is, compared to a Parisian boulevard. In Paris, the lanes are divided by trees and other ways to make it user-friendly by pedestrians on the sidewalks. As a result, the sidewalks are jammed with sidewalk cafes. Think of setting up a sidewalk cafe right next to an American freeway.

Kunstler pointed out that perhaps the reason that Euro-Disney has been such a flop in that Europeans don't need to go out their way to find such a nostalgic recreation of a former way of life, as they still live it.


Kunstler showed the long history of suburban development, from the wooded park like developments of the rich, when the spread of railroads made it possible to live "in the country" but commute daily to work, to the wholesale flight of the middle-class after WWII, the result of the widespread availability of automobiles.

The early suburbs developed the concept of zoning laws, which I understand New York City enacted the nation's first zoning law in 1911. Up until then, if you wanted to build a smelly packing plant on your property right next door to the Vanderbilt mansion, you could.

Kunstler pointed out that developments were zoned with a minimum lot size, and all-residential. Thus if you need to run out for a loaf of bread or a quart of milk, you can't just walk down to the corner store, as the nearest store is located outside the development. So you have to drive.

Also, the Victorian city was made up of the typical store on the first floor and living quarters above. This meant that the cost of the business operation was lowered by the rental income, or more likely, the grocer and his family lived upstairs. In this second scenario, the store was owner-occupied.

Zoning prohibits residential units built on top of commercial. That combined with the minimum lot size means that the business has to be very success, which often results in only chain stores being able to finance the start-up costs. Chain stores are not owner-occupied, and the owner probably doesn't live in the neighborhood or even the state. Thus we have moved from a nation of small shopkeepers to minimum wage service workers with a relatively few wealthy absentee management.

And the chain stores have little civic pride in the local neighborhood, so even the design of the building is kept as simple and cheap as possible. So again, the Victorian world of ostentatious individually gingerbreaded commercial buildings is replaced with a few towering boxlike glass edifices in the downtown and miles and miles of highway strip mall corrugated metal Butler-building boxes.

Kunstler raises the paradox that in his own nearby city of Saratoga, a major reason the tourists flock there is the charm of the remaining Victorian downtown, yet the local zoning laws in effect prohibit the construction of preciously that type of building.

Thomas Hine, in his book Populuxe (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY), discusses the decade from 1954 to 1964. He raises another reason for suburbanization. From 1947 to '57, the Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance and Veterans Administration mortgage guarantees jointly financed from just under 40 percent to over 50 percent of all the houses sold every year, thus having a major impact on the entire new-housing market. Both the FHA and VA ignored the cities while promoting the suburbs.

The federal government, according to Hine, actively pursued this policy, for national defense reasons. The destruction of almost the entire Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, the air raids and bombings of British and German cities, and Hirosoma and Nagasaki, combined with the threat of the Soviet Union's atomic arsenal, made the leaders in Washington desiring to disperse our population. This decision was not discussed openly, and suburbia was seen as getting far enough away from ground zero by the families who moved there.

However, the concept of suburbanization as a strategic concept is so revolutionary that I have to take a very big step backwards to put it into perspective.

In the movie, Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant and the two children are walking in an open field when they spot a herd of small dinosaurs across the way. Grant remarks they are reeling just like a flock of birds in flight trying to evade a predator (just before they realize the dinos are heading toward them). This made me think about why animals group together.

If you remember your geometry, the circumference of a circle in the two times the radius times pi, but the area is pi times the radius squared. Thus if you double the radius of the circle, the circumference is also doubled, but the area is four times as great. If you make the circle 10 times as big, the perimeter is also 10 times bigger, but the area is 100 times as big.

Now imagine you are a buffalo out on the range, surrounded by hungry wolves. You are safer if you stand next to three other buffalo, as you are exposed on only one side. If you stand with 100 buffalo, you are even safer, especially if you are inside the circle. The vulnerable calves can be put inside and the bulls stand guard at the edge.

What did wagon trains do when attacked? They "circled the wagons" with the vulnerable people inside and the less vulnerable wagons forming the rim.

This is such an overriding feature of animal survival, that I am willing to bet that the first multicellular animals arose from the idea of "safety in number".

Linguistics makes a big fuss over the specific and unique name given to a grouping of animals, whether it be a pride of lions, a school of fish, or a gaggle of geese. What do you call a similar large herd of humans? A tribe? No, I'll call them "a city". Cities were originally the outgrowth of castles and forts.

Now aerial bombing changes everything. Even if wolves acquired wings and could swoop down on a herd of buffalo, they still would pick off a single animal at a time. While the herding would not help in the defense, it wouldn't hurt, either. But a bomb is radically different. It destroys not a single animal or human, but everything within that range. So aerial bombing changed a fundamental defense strategy of life dating back to the beginning.

However, it should be recognized that there is an instinctive need for humans to congregate, not as intense as say the sex and food drives, but certainly strong. The strongest punishment in prison is solitary confinement. Do you think that, say, each buffalo out on the range were busy with a side rule (they can't get batteries for their calculators), determining circumferences as a conscious thought. I think not. If they have any thoughts on the matter, it's probably "I wonder what's going on over there. Look at Elsie, making cow eyes at that young bull. I better go check. Hey, guys, don't leave without me."

Today, we have isolated from each other by metal and chrome bubbles when outside, and live in houses isolated by moats of green grass. For many people, our contact with other people is via TV (perhaps TV as a substitute was a major reason that allowed these radical changes to take place so unnoticed.) However, while you hear the latest gossip from Regis and Kathie Lee, from news shows, and keep up with Kramer's life, nobody in TV land look into the camera and asks YOU what's going in your life. Why, in most cases, it's as if they are unaware of your presence. Thus you in effect are "shunned" as effectively as any wrongdoer in Amish society.

Now, the internet may change this. Thus we get human interaction whenever we want it, without limits to the size of our neighborhood, or time of day, which may give us a richer social life than ever thought possible. Or maybe this won't be enough, that humans need to touch, even if it just shaking hands. This argument is outside the scope of this book. The point is, no matter what happens in the future, the steam-era past is radically different from the more recent past.

The first suburbs depended on a nearby rail station, where the housewife could drop off the commuting husband so she could have use the car. As local passenger service dried up, and developments began to spread far from such rail links, a second car became necessary. (Carpooling is essentially a mass transportation system of up to 6 people, with all its disadvantages, such as fixed schedule, but only one "train" a day, with all the disadvantages of a cramped car ride. No wonder it is so little utilized.) With the elimination of sidewalks and pedestrian travel, and centralized schools set out in the country, the mother becomes almost a full-time chauffeur for the children. Thus all the time saved by the development of labor saving appliances in the household has been shifted to driving duties. But on the other hand, these appliances and especially the second car, cost so much that the housewife is often forced to go to work to pay for them.

Urban Decay

The city that the middle-class was running away from the kind of no-man's land with constant gang warfare like the land between the French and the Germans during WWI. The city even as late as the early '60's was a vibrant place, of too many people, perhaps, not scary desolate graffiti-covered abandoned buildings. I think that America is kind of like the business person who longs for the two-week vacation to "get away from it all" all year long, only to discover halfway through he's totally bored and can't wait to get back. Only in America's case, the firm closed its doors during the vacation, and there is no way to go back. During a vacation, of course, you don't forget what life was like. America's "vacation" was more like two decades. If the cities had simply disappeared during this period, maybe we would have remembered them fondly. Instead, they gradually went downhill, slow enough for society to forget what they were like.

Modelers today who create images of urban settings with everything broken, rusted, mangled, etc. are not recreating the Depression-era city at all, they are creating their view of a contemporary city in 1930's "drag". The acceptance of this as "realistic" only means how much we have forgotten what a steam-era city was. If we don't realize the starting point, we don't appreciate just how radical have been the changes that have taken place in our cities and society in general since dieselization.

When I worked for New York State at an office building less than a mile from downtown, I met a surprisingly number of people who had worked there for years, and during that entire time they had not been downtown once, as if it was some place to avoid at all costs. In the movie Adventures In Baby-sitting, a baby-sitter and her charge of children wind up with car trouble (I forget how they got in the car in the first place), and have to get off the freeway at, horrors, downtown!

But it isn't just the physical state of the city that has changed. When cities like Troy gutted their public transportation system by ripping out the trolleys around WWII, they felt that autos could take up the slack. Unfortunately, autos require parking, more than can be provided by street parking. Thus for the first time, when buildings were torn down, they weren't replaced by new taller buildings, they were converted to parking lots. The other way parking is dealt with, not conscientiously, is that stores go out of business or relocate away from downtown, leaving empty buildings, and decreasing overall demand for parking. Thus the density of the retail outlets begins to approach that of suburbia. THIS MEANS IT CEASES TO BE PRACTICAL TO SHOP ON FOOT AS THE STORES ARE SPACED SO FAR APART. And if you need a car to shop, why go downtown?

Just as residential units over stores helps defray the cost of the business, it also helps defray the rent costs. Meanwhile, suburban housing requires significantly more property, and greater costs to provide utilities. So housing costs soar and the bottom drops out of low-cost housing, including the elimination of SRO's (single room occupancy, the so-called "flop houses"), and our cities are filled with homeless. They in turn, by their pandering or just their presence, scare off more of the middle class from coming downtown.

Every so often, a local government makes a halfhearted attempt to "vitalize" the downtown, to clean up the graffiti, create more parking, etc. They entirely miss the point that a vital downtown doesn't require government cleaning and repainting if there were strong businesses there. What needs to be done is eliminate downtown parking, maybe even close off some of the streets, and put in a light rail system. The reason this isn't done is that even a few miles cost so much (highways cost just as much, but their costs are never openly discussed and debated). But a single line doesn't do much, and few politicians are courageous enough to go for the long haul, way beyond the next election. (They in turn would argue the public is at fault for wanting low cost overnight solutions.)


Kunstler pointed out what's so wrong with malls. As private property, they don't have the civic outlets, the churches, government buildings, offices, ethnic community centers, etc. As private property, they have regular hours. And you need a car to get there.

So what do you when you drive to a mall? You park and go inside and stroll down a car-free "street", spending as much time as window shopping and people watching as you used to be able to do in the former vital downtowns.

Also, such major attractions such as Disneyland don't allow cars inside. Visitors stroll up and down a recreated Victorian main street. Thus this type of shopping experience in either a mall or a theme park (the latter one doesn't go to, for the shopping itself) shows that steam-era downtowns are not passé because people don't want to shop that way. The problem is that they were allowed to change to make that type of experience no longer work.

You Can't Go Home Again

In the 1970's, there was a short-lived TV show, Supertrain. At the time RMC discussed the filming of the series, including a large scale model of a contemporary railroad yard which included a steam loco. The article pointed out that apparently the public hadn't realized yet that steam locos had totally disappeared from the scene. At about the same time there was Petticoat Junction and its spin-off, Green Acres, where the "Hooterville Cannonball" on an unspecified railroad still provided local passenger service. It was pulled by Hollywood's favorite engine, Sierra No. 3, a 4-6-0. Again, we modelers know there were no backwoods pockets of such classic forms of branch-line railroading, as popularized by Lucius Beebe's Mixed Train Daily (written in 1947). Yes, steam engines are still run, but only as tourist lines, with a great deal of work to keep each engine under steam, and not as a leftover railroad that just hasn't kept up with the times.

I just was reading a fictional but modern-day story about a parish priest in a small North Carolina village, a sort of "Mayberry, R.F.D." with all its folksy charm. The village hadn't been spoiled by shopping malls, but still had an intact downtown, with an array of stores from grocery to hardware, where the owner-operator knew your name. The priest had a car, but didn't need to drive, as everything, including the hospital, was just a couple of minutes walk from the rectory.

Well, I got news for you. I can't state this as definitely as I can for steam railroading, but such quaint villages no longer exist. (OK, maybe in some totally desolate areas of the country.) There may be many villages that boast of having no supermarket or Wal-Mart or Home Depot, but I bet most people there still drive however miles to do the majority of their shopping. Whatever local stores still exist provide the marginal items, milk and bread at higher prices, etc., and struggle to survive.

The sad part of this is not just the evaporation of our heritage, as it is with steam locos. It is that most people would consider such a small-town life-style as an ideal (or maybe yearn for its urban counterpart, of neighborhoods with stoop-visitation get-togethers). Yet they aren't aware of how their own living practices have destroyed this. Everyone wants this version of America, as long as they can shop at the big chain stores.

I am trying my best not to let this book become a partisan "call-to-action", to get you so whipped up that like the bra-burnings of the '70's, we all go out and set fire to our autos. I'm sure my own viewpoint is coming through as to where I stand. Kunstler had written a follow-up book, which I haven't seen yet, Back From Nowhere, where I expect he tells of new developments in urban planning that are correcting some of society's excesses. Dan Toth had said that in the Chicago area, they are upgrading the commuter service and restoring historical stations for use as stations. Light rail is proving to be a success in many communities.

The point is that just as we may see a resurgence in railroading, it will never be the same. In the case of railroading, electronics will forever replace the labor-intensive practices of yore. Should by the greatest stretch of imagination, advances in steam engineering make the ACE 2000 a viable competitor to diesels, they will never look and act like "choo-choos". Any my point in this chapter is simply to say there is a chasm between the world of classic railroading/classic town life, no matter what tomorrow brings.

When I wrote our '92 catalog (from which the '94 Guide was developed), I used the term "steam-era" in the way that most of you probably understand it. While the first diesels were c. 1926, and steam lingers on tourist lines, steam-era railroading refers to say the '30's and '40's. One can mean the '20's and earlier, but then we start to modify the term, such as "c. 1920's" or something.

Cynthia Fitzgerald was our shop manager at the time and quizzed me about the term. As her background was not in the hobby, its meaning wasn't clear. She suggested a more broad-based term. Ever since then I've struggled to define the era.

When we use the term to the general public, "steam-era" can mean from the 1750's, of James Watt's invention through about 1900. Most industries were no longer powered by steam. It is locos we are implying. Yet if we say "steam-powered railroading", it focuses only on railroads. Part of what we have to demonstrate is how important railroads once were to the whole of society. We can't call it the "Railroad Age" because certainly railroads are still in use.

"Steam-era" focuses too much on just the front of the train. Not only has the engine changed, but the whole style of railroading, too.

In writing the article for the Nov. '97 MR, on the club's 50th anniversary, I was stuck by how Troy had changed so little between the 1870's and 1950's, yet since then has had a major upheaval. The term I've come up with is "Downtown Era".

Yes, there were downtowns back in medieval times, although then they were called the "market". It was the rise of the railroads, including the horse railroads and the electric street railroads, that made the "downtown" such a viable place, not just on "market day". Restaurants, vaudeville theaters (which became movie theaters), department stores, office buildings, all depended on a high enough concentration of people. This didn't happen until late in the 19th century.

On the other hand, while the trolleys mainly were ripped out during the 1930's, their effect was not manifest until the mid-'50's. The downtown was subsequently abandoned, to become the "inner city", neglected, empty, desolate. Now people go the malls for activity instead of downtown. But this happened starting after steam locos had pretty much gone and continued for the next decade or two. Thus the way of life that modelers imply with "steam-era" continued during the first generation of diesels.