McMarching Through Georgia

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by James Kunstler

My travels last week took me to small college town in Georgia and into the heart of Vermont, and the contrasts were instructive. To protect some sensibilities, I call the Georgia town "Peachville." There are lots of places like it down in Dixie, and they all suffer from similar problems. Peachville's surrender to the tyranny of the automobile is total. For a region whose people like to yap about "defending freedom," their own capitulation to the car is complete. Practically every street in this town of 40,000 has been turned into a multi-lane mini-freeway. If you wanted to walk, or needed to walk -- and a number of faculty members at the college where I spoke said they did -- then your experience would be frightening and miserable because there are so few sidewalks, and the distances between things is scaled to cars, not people.

The quality of the buildings was another striking thing. The remnants of Peachville's little main street downtown was composed mostly of one-story buildings so ugly that they seemed to be missing some essential DNA. They were mean little brick boxes lacking any ornament, denoting an utter disregard for the public realm of the street. Along a couple of blocks, the town officials had recently carried out a "street upgrade program," meaning they added a center median with trees in a few places, but the buildings themselves are so weak and homely that no amount of tarting up the streetscape will make much difference.

All the town's recent wealth had gone into the construction of a franchise strip along the street connecting Peachville with a nearby interstate. Here were all the anonymous chain restaurants and familiar chain stores, and the four-laner was unencumbered with any frivolous decor like medians or sidewalks. This was the stuff they were really proud of. Of course, it is an infrastructure for daily living that has no future in an energy-scarcer world -- along with all the new McHouse subdivisions outside of town -- and yet this is the stuff that they identify with "freedom" and "progress." It will be hard for them to let go of it.

I had dinner that night in a little independent "authentic down-home" eatery across the street from an abandoned 1970s-vintage drive-in bank. Everything inside was made of plastic, and of absolutely the cheapest kind. The walls were adorned with signs or discolored cardboard prints in warped frames. There were two fluorescent light fixtures over our table that made the food look yellowish-purple. The food was like something you might be served in a state penitentiary.

I have some theories about southern culture -- I'm entitled to have them, and even express them, whether you like it or not. This is a region that was miserably poor until very recently. All the material progress, the new wealth of the Sunbelt, has been acquired rapidly over the last thirty years or so, and it has been delivered in the form of corporate products: tilt-up buildings, hamburgers, Ford pickup trucks, manufactured "homes," and cornucopia chain stores overflowing with plastic goodies. Building all this stuff and hitching employment rides with these ventures has dragged the cracker class out of the extremest poverty. Nearly universal air conditioning has also changed the picture, giving folks a reason to make an effort to do anything after the sun rises above the windowsills.

The reason their authentic down-home eateries are so bad is because for two hundred years they had a miserable diet of cornmeal, sugar, and pork fat, and a miserable concept of cuisine for presenting it. The reason the decor is so bad is because until fairly recently they lined the walls of their houses with newspapers and sat on benches. Electricity from the TVA also arrived relatively late in the game, and the finer points of interior illumination have not yet developed there. A restaurant dining room in Georgia is lighted the same way as a used car lot.

The sad fact is that the final blowout of the cheap oil age has been the foundation of the Sunbelt's prosperity. The whole nation is afflicted with the cancer of suburban sprawl, but down there it is invested with the highest values. It is their truth and beauty. To a certain extent, their former poverty embarrasses them and they want to forget about it, not celebrate it.

They seem to have no plans for coping with a daily life that is not based on cheap oil. They even resent the suggestion that they might have to. They will keep sending a disproportionate number of their young people into the military to help with the current project of securing future oil supplies by attempting to pacify the Middle East. Sooner or later that project will come to grief and the people of Georgia will have to make other arrangements like everybody else. But the process may be extremely traumatic for a people who have not allowed themselves to imagine a future different from the present.

I was in Vermont, two days later. I had dinner in the Bobcat Cafe on Main Street in Bristol. The place was full, the lighting was mellow, the furnishings were wood, the napkins were cloth, and the menu was composed of things other than cornmeal, sugar, and pork. Vermont, by the way, is also a mostly rural place that had been relatively poor for a hundred years before the 1960s. The customers in the Bobcat Cafe seemed to include all ranks of local society. I noticed one particular man sitting at the bar eating dinner on his own.

He was wearing work clothes. The back bar he faced while eating, where all the bottles stood, was a magnificent piece of 19th century carving. It represented an effort to create some beauty. It was lighted softly and carefully. It gave the guy something to look at while he ate his dinner and drank his beer, some beautiful forms to contemplate while his mind wandered among perhaps more mundane concerns. In Peachville Georgia, nobody would have ever thought of creating such a thing in the first place.

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