"I'm in favor of gentrification," he declares. "If you're against gentrification, you're saying, well, we don't want the well-off to come up and fix up this property in the city. Are you simply going to say, the well-off have no business fixing up urban property at all? Are they morally restricted to living somewhere else? Where is that somewhere else? The suburbs? Because that's were they are."
Kunstler believes in an ordered universe full of hidden patterns and rhythms that civilizations render visible by producing lasting, well-proportioned architecture. "Neurologically, people have a need to feel oriented," he says, "to know where they are, not just in terms of a compass and not just in terms of geography, but in terms of their culture and history. To be informed about where they're coming from and to have some glimpse towards a hopeful future."
In sapping our sensitivity to this grace, the suburbs are not merely ugly, he says, but a blight on the whole culture. He argues the United States has become "a clown civilization" and "a wicked people that deserve to be punished," the wealthiest nation, but tragically, the unhappiest.
Even before Sept.11, he was raising the alarm about dependence on a foreign energy supply controlled by unstable political regimes.
"The quality of life of European cities and towns of almost any size make life in America look not just like a joke, but a sick joke, a horror movie," he says. "But I'd rather stay involved and do what I can to make this a better place than move to the south of France and enjoy the good life."
The city of Kunstler's affection is Saratoga Springs, a spa town in upstate New York where Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Whitneys once flocked to bathe in the mineral waters. Mayor Ken Klotz calls Kunstler the premier gadfly in the scene of today's local politics.
"Jim abrasively expressed his dismay several years ago that the city didn't have design standards for buildings," says Mr. Klotz. At Kunstler's prodding, the planning board established new standards, requiring buildings on Main Street to be three stories tall, for instance.