That Was Then, This is Now

Guest Post by Jim Kunstler

I was in Buffalo, New York, over the weekend at the annual conclave of New Urbanists — a movement started in the 1990s to rescue American towns and cities. The scale of desolation of that city is not as spectacular or vast as Detroit’s, but the visible symptoms of the illness are the same. One of the events was a bicycle tour of Buffalo’s neglected East Side, where maybe 80 percent of the houses are gone and the few that remain stand amid spring wildflower meadows and the human density per acre appears too low even for successful drug-selling.

The old economy is gone and is replaced now by a “social services economy,” meaning government checks, SNAP cards, and purposelessness. There were zero signs of commerce there block after block, not even a place to buy potato chips. So, as it works out, the few remaining denizens of this place must spend half their waking hours journeying to a food store. How they make that journey is hard to tell. There were almost no cars anywhere nor buses to be seen. Before long surely the people will all be gone, too, ending a chapter in American urban history.

At one edge of the East Side neighborhood stood the hulking, gigantic remnants of the Larkin soap company, a haunted brick behemoth plangent with silence, ailanthus trees sprouting from the parapets and birds nesting in the gigantic, rusted ventilation fans. The administration building of this deeply paternalistic company was famously designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, completed in 1906, and demolished in 1950 — a blink of an eye. It is considered the architect’s lost masterpiece. The site became a parking lot and now is just an empty asphalt pad with mulleins and sumacs spiking up in the pavement.

At its height of success a hundred years ago, the Larkin Company provided a stupendous bounty of social support services for its 4,500 employees: a dental office at nominal prices, dedicated rooms at local hospitals, an on-premises branch of the city library, subsidized night school classes, gyms, lounges, sports clubs, a credit union, insurance plans, and more. The people could ride streetcars all over the “Electric City,” as Buffalo styled itself because of its fortunate proximity to the bonanza of hydro power from Niagara Falls.

A hundred years ago, Buffalo was widely regarded as the city of the future. The boon of electrification made it the Silicon Valley of its day. It was among the top ten US cities in population and wealth. It’s steel industry was second to Pittsburgh and for a while it was second to Detroit in cars. Now, nobody seems to know what Buffalo might become, if anything. It will be especially interesting when the suburban matrix around it enters its own inevitable cycle of abandonment.

I’m convinced that the Great Lakes region will be at the center of an internally-focused North American economy when the hallucination of oil-powered globalism dissolves. Places like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit will have a new life, but not at the scale of the twentieth century. On this bike tour the other day, I rode awhile beside a woman who spends all her spare time photographing industrial ruins. She was serenely adamant that the world will never see anything like that era and its artifacts again. I tend to agree. We cannot grok the stupendous specialness of the past century, and certainly not the fact that it is bygone for good.

When people use the term “post-industrial” these days, they don’t really mean it, and, more mysteriously, they don’t know that they don’t mean it. They expect complex, organized, high-powered industry to still be here, only in a new form. They almost always seem to imply (or so I infer) that we can remain “modern” by moving beyond the old smoke and clanking machinery into a nirvana of computer-printed reality. I doubt that we can maintain the complex supply chains of our dwindling material resources and run all those computer operations — even if we can still manage to get some electricity from Niagara Falls.

In my forthcoming novel A History of the Future (third installment of the World Made By Hand series), two of my characters journey to Buffalo a couple of decades from now. They find a town with its back turned to abandoned monuments of the industrial age. All the action is on the Lake Erie waterfront where trade is conducted by sailing ships at the scale of Sixteenth century, but with an identifiable American gloss. I’d be surprised if one in a thousand educated people in this country (including the New Urbanists) can take that vision seriously. But do you suppose that the executives of an enterprise like the Larkin Company in 1915 would have ever imagined the desolation of Buffalo a mere 99 years later?


Coming in August
World Made By Hand 3

My local indie booksellers… Battenkill Books … or Northshire Books
or Amazon

13 thoughts on “That Was Then, This is Now”

  1. Hey Jim Kunstler….let’s tear it all down and build a NASCAR track….I bet you could find some places to buy chips and beer then .

  2. Frank and Theresa Bellissimo in 1939 bought a restaurant at the foot of Main street in Buffalo, New York which was near the Buffalo River so they called it the Anchor Bar.

    The fine establishment where Buffalo Wings were invented.

    Thank you, Buffalo, NY! I am eternally grateful. You gave mankind one of the best Superfoods ever. It was nice knowing you.

  3. He never seems to understand it was liberal, leftist Obama loving Jack ASSES like him that caused many of the problems in Buffalo .This is one thing I find most detestable about liberals. They never learn anything from history. After they and their ideology have ruined one city or state they just move to the next .This liberal leftist socialism ruins economy after economy but they never learn or they just don’t care .

  4. “When people use the term “post-industrial” these days, they don’t really mean it, and, more mysteriously, they don’t know that they don’t mean it. They expect complex, organized, high-powered industry to still be here, only in a new form.”

    I’m reading “The Windup Girl” which is about a post-oil world where calories are regulated and measured as energy and kinetic springs and mastodons are used as power sources. Just started the book but that second sentence above reminded me of it. It won lots of sci-fi fiction awards.


  5. “The old economy is gone and is replaced now by a “social services economy,” meaning government checks, SNAP cards, and purposelessness.”

    The Larkin company he mentions, and many others existed when we had capitalism; that being production and re-investment of productive assets. Capitalists could afford to hire people, support families, provide healthcare, and all boat rose to a better standard of living. Then came the Federal Reserve and taxation, with government take over of everything. Not surprisingly, the depression followed, and a dollar is now worth 5 cents.

    And what we have now is socialism, and money printing and debt. We ship $600 billion out of the country every year so SNAP and EBT recipients can shop at Wal Mart. Amazingly enough, these foreign countries still take our worthless currency, although most have quit loaning us money and buying our IOU’s. The USSA is $17.5 trillion in debt, and we piss away almost $1 trillion a year for 100 million people on welfare and 10 million on disability who can’t be bothered to work for a living. Socialism make everyone equally poor, except the oligarchs, who are raking in the money in the rigged, fake Fed liquidity gambling houses on Wall Street. Socialism turns human beings into blood-sucking parasites, and Kunstler and his merry band of liberals voted Obama into office twice, completing the destruction of this country, and the post-American era. Kunst probably won’t be around to see the utter collapse and destruction that is headed our way, and if he thinks things are bleak now, it’s going to get a whole lot worse.

  6. I read “A World Made by Hand” awhile back. Not bad for a post-apocalyptic novel. Didn’t know that Kunstler – THAT Kunstler – wrote it. Just didn’t put 2 and 2 together. In retrospect, it is glaringly obvious.

    He might be an Obongo nut sack licker, but the story is a decent one. But, he does tend to take pot shots and liberties with religious folks. In WMBH, the religious folks are kinda creepy, even though they are industrious, resourceful and tend to improve their surroundings instead of just letting everything degrade and fall to pieces… He also tends to hate capitalism – in WMBH, there is a local landowner who does his level best to hold on to the tech that we take for granted…. electric power generation, refrigeration, etc. Of course, by doing so he “exploits the workers”, etc. Of course, he is the ONLY one doing anything to make folks’ lives easier and yes, he does charge for the things he produces – boo hoo, the poor folks either can’t afford the stuff or are “overcharged”… another guy ramrods a crew that goes out and disassembles ruined buildings for resources – nails, screws, windows, metal, bricks, etc. He, of course, is a dirtbag who “overcharges” for the things he resells (even though there is nothing that says other folks cannot do the same thing he is doing – reclaiming resources – and give the “bad guy” some competition. Just the fact that this guy runs the risks, employs people and resells reclaimed resources is enough to make him a “bad guy”… of course, the ‘bad guys’ make their own ammo or reclaim abandoned stuff, so they are a power in the area.. again, boo hoo).

    There’s parts of the book that are pretty damn good. Kunstler might suck Obongo’s dick, but he can write. It’s interesting enough.

    On another note, I served a couple years with a guy who hailed from Buffalo. He always said it was a hole. In fact, when I was “short” he hinted that he knew certain “people” in Buffalo who would pay well for a guy with my talents… I politely refused. Always wondered what would have happened if I took him up on that…

  7. Overall I really like Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural designs.

    Here’s the Larkin Soap Factories then:


    And the Larkin Administration Building then:


    The Larkin Building was designed in 1904 by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1906 for the Larkin Soap Company of Buffalo, New York. The five story dark red brick building used pink tinted mortar and utilized steel frame construction. It was noted for many innovations, including air conditioning, stained glass windows, built-in desk furniture, and suspended toilet bowls. Though this was an office building, it still caught the essence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s type of architecture. Sculptor Richard Bock provided ornamentation for the building. – wikipedia


    “…the monumental Larkin Administration Building came down in 1950, the Buffalo Evening News reported on the difficult demolition process and remarked, “It was built to stand forever.” Today, only one pier remains—a mere splinter of Frank Lloyd Wright’s innovative office structure, his first-ever commercial commission.”

    The Larkin Factory/Warehouse


  8. I too find that JHK is much easier to take as a novelist than he is as a social critic. In his fiction there is a much more libertarian bent than he allows himself to take in the blog.

    The second novel is pretty good too, and I’ll probably read the new one. I think it’s entertaining, albeit not necessarily too reality based. Heroes and villains, and a little magic thrown in.


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