A call to arms against chaotic development
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
Kunstler also delivers a speech every year on the state of the city to his fellow citizens. He writes a free monthly newsletter, "Civitas." That was the forum he used to rail against a proposed CVS drugstore until the company agreed to upgrade from a one-story box to a two-story building with windows and a brick façade that is in harmony with the neighboring architecture.
"My first impression was that he was a counterproductive loose cannon," says Jeffrey Pfeil, a local developer. "But he brought it to people's attention that the CVS design was inappropriate. He gets people to think, 'Hey, this is a neat community we live in. We don't have to settle for second-best here architecturally.' "
To expedite the approval for a mixed-use development, Kunstler bounced early plans off his friend Andres Duany, a founding father of the Congress of New Urbanism and principal in the architectural firm that is building the well-known New Urbanist community of Seaside, Fla.
Kunstler's career path has been long and winding. He got terrible grades at the elite public school he attended in New York City, but he cultivated his own tastes on solitary excursions to the movies and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "It was a good cultural education," he says, "but not guided."
As a theater major at the State University of New York at Brockport in "the apple country" upstate, he developed a gift for impersonations. Today in conversation he can morph suddenly, for dramatic effect, into a Scottish Highlander, a little old lady, or an obtuse real estate developer.
He later worked for a string of newspapers in upstate New York and then for Rolling Stone, before quitting to write novels full time. In 1976, he settled in Saratoga, supplementing his income with odd jobs. In 1987, he started writing about land development issues for The New York Times Magazine, a series which led to a book proposal for "The Geography of Nowhere."
Today, he gets at least one letter from a stranger every day and responds personally to all of them, usually within 24 hours. "It's a gratifying thing to have your ideas taken seriously," he says, mindful that he has no formal training in architecture. "It makes you feel like you've accomplished something in the world."