Does The Midwest – Including Yankton – Have An ‘Amazing Appetite For Immersive Ugliness?’

Architecture can be inspiration.


This is a view of downtown Yankton circa 1903.

If you’ve traveled to the great cities of Europe or the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for example, I’m sure you’ve experienced the power architecture can have on the human mind.

Now, think about the architecture of Yankton.

What architecture in our small rural city inspires you?

If you have any answer at all, I’m going to guess you said one of five places — downtown Yankton, the Meridian Bridge, the Yankton Federal Prison Camp (which, of course, was formerly Yankton College), the Mead Building and the Bishop Marty Chapel.

What do all of these places have in common? They were built well before World War II and the Modern architectural styles that became popular in the post-war period, when the focus turned to new building materials, mass production and rapid construction.

The problem with much of the architecture built in the last 70 years — at least in the Midwest — is that it is geared toward automobiles and doesn’t inspire much awe among its inhabitants. It is mostly bland, insular and does not create a sense of place. More importantly, it does not create a sense of community.

With all of that said, it’s probably easy to understand why my mind became electric while hearing the following discussion take place between author, social critic, public speaker and blogger James Howard Kunstler and Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. This is not a complete transcription of the podcast but instead one that captures the points I found relevant.

James Howard Kunstler (JHK): I’m always amazed at the stupefying ugliness of Midwestern towns — especially as they have evolved after the second World War. You see remnants of some pretty good stuff at the old town centers. But, most of the time, it has been obliterated. It’s as though some of the worst tendencies of American culture are amplified in the Midwest — all the bad choices, all the short cuts, all the fakery. Especially the total absence of artistry in our surroundings. How do you account for that in the Midwest?

Chuck Marohn (CM): … I think the stunning thing about it is, we’re actually proud of it. … These are very good people, and they care about their places, but it’s a little bit bewildering.

JHK: It’s mystifying. Because I agree with you — I think, in many ways, they are good people. But they have this amazing appetite for that immersive ugliness that I tend to describe as entropy made visible.

CM: … We need people who travel more … Part of it is, you see the world around you. You compare — they’ve got a nicer Olive Garden than we do. Let’s put brick siding on the next one … You get that kind of introspection here.

JHK: That’s some pretty shallow introspection.

(James relates that the latest example of this Midwestern architectural malaise he witnessed was in Sioux Falls.)

JHK: It had about 1 1/2 blocks of old urban fabric surrounded by this gigantic supernova of crap. That’s normal.

(James goes on to say that, when he goes to Midwestern towns, he often searches for postcards with some sign of urban memory of what the town was originally. He notes that many communities were new after 1865 — Yankton was incorporated in 1861.)

JHK: You look at a historic photo of Sioux Falls in 1880, and you realize all of that stuff is less than 25 years old. Now it’s all gone, of course. Is there any cultural memory … of what was good?

Listen to the whole podcast here. Learn more about Strong Towns here.

Kunstler puts into words what I’ve felt about Sioux Falls and its charmless urban sprawl for a long time. (And considering all the advice Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether has had for Yankton of late — advice, for the record, with which I generally agree — I had to laugh at Kunstler pointing out that his adopted community also has plenty of work to do.)

I think we do have that cultural memory, though it grows more faint with every passing year. Unfortunately, we live in a state/region that does not put a lot of emphasis on preservation, so many of us have given up hope that these buildings can be preserved except in rare circumstances.

(Remember all the buildings of historical significance the State of South Dakota destroyed on the South Dakota Human Services Center campus in the last couple years? To say the efforts to find uses for those buildings were half hearted is being generous, and it is only through the heroic efforts of the Mead Building Committee, the Yankton County Historical Society and the friends of those entities that the Mead Building still has a shot at a future as a cultural center and museum. The Yankton County taxpayers gave the project a huge boost in 2014 with approval of a levy that will raise money for the Mead restoration and other historical projects in the county.)

As Onward Yankton, the City of Yankton and Yankton residents plan for the downtown and community-wide development, I think it is important for us to keep in mind this “cultural memory of what was good” and fight to preserve and recreate it whenever possible.

Yankton has the benefit of natural beauty — the Missouri River and the rolling hills that surround it — which many of our peers do not.

Let’s build on that and the historic architectural foundation that remains and not give in to the ease of the “immersive ugliness” that already occupies too much of our surroundings.

What community landscape will inspire us, will encourage us to walk and to congregate, and will help ourselves and visitors see that, while we don’t have a California climate, we have the warmth and richness of community that weather cannot rival?

3 thoughts on “Does The Midwest – Including Yankton – Have An ‘Amazing Appetite For Immersive Ugliness?’

  1. In reading these comments, I’m disappointed by the lack of cultural awareness displayed by Kunstler and Marohn.

    Had either of them read Sinclair Lewis, they would realize that the city/village centers that they praise *now*, were roundly criticized then, and on largely the same grounds–they were unartistic/unplanned/poorly built.

    Moreover, if either of them had meaningful experience with these small towns, they would realize that much of what was demolished in the ‘urban renewal’ era was poorly built and end-of-life. This urban fabric that looks so lovely in *retouched* and *tinted* postcards was, generally speaking, not built very well.

    Also, I object–vehemently–to this business of condemning and insulting, the things one does not understand and does not agree with.

    Finally, I would rephrase this notion that the ugly aspects of American culture are ‘amplified’ in the Midwest. One might find it more insightful to ask why the *veneer* that other areas impose on development is judged to be unnecessary/impractical in the Midwest.

    Is sprawl any less sprawlful when local zoning demands berms, more trees, and tombstone as opposed to pole-mounted signage? Sure it *looks* a bit better, but does it work better? No. Is it one whit less cynical? No. It’s lipstick on a pig.

    • Rich, all your points are well taken. I was just reading today about how the Eiffel Tower was greeted with a lot of criticism as being ugly, etc., in its early days. … Kunstler is a bit of a rabble rouser. I can’t say the things I heard him say about the Midwest were that out of line with what he’s said about many other parts of the country. I find his commentary useful in getting me to think more about where I live and the choices we make and the fact that it often times feels pointless to oppose these dominant thought processes. I know you are a champion of saving that which can and should be saved, and, in my experience with your fiery spirit, have found it inspiring.

      • Of course, on the one hand, there’s a general Midwestern suspicion of frippery, and the latent insecurity inherent in many decisions to build cheaply and/or sell-out for any outside investment. I understand that. That’s part of the culture here, and those who don’t understand the full breadth of the culture and history here should either withhold judgment or bite their tongues when Midwesterners condemn the worst aspects of other regions.

        Where I draw the distinction is when you have things like the HSC demolition. That was not some local manifestation of a broader regional/national trend (i.e. the growth of big box retailers or Midwestern preference for ‘big city’ businesses). That was a very specific, very deliberate and very irresponsible action undertaken by a cabal of hypocritical, unaccountable and incompetent stewards of the public trust.

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