I work in the movie “Office Space.” If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s basically the existential crisis of one man realizes that he’s another cog in a corporatist Rube Goldberg machine. He comes to work, laments the mundanity of his job, goes home. A nihilistic, albeit, realistic, interpretation of “Ground Hogs Day” if you will.
I find myself questioning my existence, day in, day out. Why am I here? What I’m supposed to do? How I can leave an impact in the world?
In my semi-descent into madness, I’ve found myself researching, browsing or simply putzing about every subject imaginable. Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about our new president, his rise to power and the populous movements that have been sweeping a lot of countries.
People are desperate to cling to something. They realize that their time on this earth is short and they want to pass on something worth defending—something that wouldn’t be a far cry from the childhood they had growing up.
What is worth defending? Or maybe we should ask what do we build to defend things? Nowadays, it’s firewalls and RFID locks, but once we built permanent structures to defend our places, like castles, fortresses and keeps.
On my journey through the internet, I stumbled across this picture:
This is Najac, France. It’s a town that never crested 3,000 souls at any point in the last two centuries. I found the picture on a subreddit called r/beamazed. It’s one of the highest upvoted posts of all time and I thought that was interesting. EDIT: Apparently its since been removed due to copyright, so the above picture is actually something close.
If you pop out to google maps this is the aerial view of Najac:
Except that’s not France, that’s Wisconsin, just East of La Crosse (French in name alone) in the Driftless Area. Here’s the actual aerial view:
Pretty crazy that we have arguably the same topography and same geographic beauty as Europe, yet we build such boring shit.
If you had a transplantation machine, you could easily move Najac right to Wisconsin (or Minnesota) and it would feel right at home. It would, undoubtedly, be the hottest tourist attraction in the tri-state area. Najac, Wisconsin, would literally make millions of dollars annually.
We don’t build places like Najac, though. We double down on row houses out by our new school.
Town Houses nowhere near the town!
This, I think, plays into the populist message we’re seeing in America. It isn’t, in my opinion, based on racism or idiocy or isolationism; it’s based on emptiness. People today feel so disconnected, so adrift in a sea of global information, that they are longing to attach to something. They want to feel like Americans—an elusive, but critical, part of their identity.
I think our built environment can help do this. They can help root people instead of isolate them. They can make neighbors out of enemies and help people find the common ground. They can be places worth defending. If you wanted to feel connected, truly in-tune, with your city and the history that built it, you would start with buildings. You would start with the things your ancestors left for you to take care of and left you to build on top of.
In Jane Jacobs “A Wealth of Nations,” she writes about visiting the familial Hamlet of Higgins, North Carolina. This was the height of the great depression and, to her surprise, even a rural village tucked away in the remoteness of Appalachia was impacted, but not for the reasons you might think. She recalls how the founders of the hamlet and their families held a variety of skills:
“spinning and weaving, loom construction, cabinetmaking, corn milling, house and water-mill construction, dairying, poultry and hog raising, gardening, whiskey distilling, hound breeding, molasses making from sorghum cane, basket weaving, biscuit baking, music making with violins …”
But these skills were not being put to use. An excerpt from this Atlantic article, summarizes what she found:
“Candles were a vanishing luxury. After the few remaining cows died, there would be no more milk or butter. One woman still remembered how to weave baskets, but she was close to death. When Robison suggested building the church with large stones from the creek, the community elders rebuked her. Over generations the townspeople had not only forgotten how to build with stone. They had lost the knowledge that such a thing was possible.”
This remote village no longer had the ability to sustain itself. The loss of wisdom, ostensibly, the loss of the skills that had given them an identity, had doomed this tiny town.
It’s skills like this, places built by hand, that feed people their identity. No one really wants to defend their slapped-together rambler built by GOODBUILDZ, LLC. They want to secure a shelter for their family and their “irreplaceable” possessions. However, places that craft identity are places like Najac, places that people rally to save, places that make you feel connected to something deeper. Places like we destroyed in the middle of the century.
Downtown Mankato, C. 1961
I changed the title for this article maybe three or four times. I knew the general idea of it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to call it. So, I went to Google. I typed in “not worth defending” and as fate would have it, the third image that popped up was this:
Jim Kunstler is probably one of my favorite people on the planet. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to him a few times and getting kinda drunk in his hotel room at CNU 22 in Buffalo, NY.
We have so many despondent people in the work force that would kill for someone to employ them to build Najac. People who would love to build a place that has meaning, that has character, that has something. In fact, in France, right now, there is a group of people working on restoring a medieval castle in the exact same fashion it would have been built hundreds of years ago. You can check them out here. It is purely a labor of love, no money, no fame, they just know its important to do. Here’s a picture I pulled off their Facebook page.
With all the talk of North Korea and Russia and nuclear annihilation, we have to ask ourselves if we would actually rally around America. Would we want to defend what we’ve built or do we want to defend the soft, consumerist lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves? Do we really want to make Prairie Winds and its subsequent housing the thing we pass on to our children? Or did we build it to be convenient for the parent? Is it for the here and now? Is it for the Happy Motoring culture we’ve created for ourselves?
There’s an emptiness that’s descending on America, and if we don’t address it, we’ll soon find ourselves consumed by it. Building Najac wouldn’t be a panacea, but it’d be a step in the right direction, a part of a new identity, a place worth defending.