I have to admit, I haven’t been following the dust-up between the First Thingers/ Pomocons and the Front Porchers all that closely. But I must say, that what I have read has been some pretty compelling stuff, and this post by Peter Lawler is right on the money when it comes to a smart critique of the larger localist philosophy. I think that for those cultural critics with a strong distaste for some aspects of modernity and individuality, localism can seem like a pretty good answer, because it seems to embody what community ought to be – what we’ve lost as we’ve modernized socially and technologically.
Lawler is right, though, local communities are often not in real life what we sometimes imagine them to be. And modern technology in many of its forms is very much a net gain for humanity.
Where I think I’ve started to draw the line is between “localism” and the concept of neighborhood. Neighborhoods are important no matter the size of the town or city. They can allow families and individuals to interact – or they can lay the groundwork for isolation. Probably the central critique that localists offer is that of the atomized individual (or individual family, I’d add. Many families find themselves cut off from their neighbors and communities.) But one does not need “localism” or a return to a rooted sense of place to achieve better communities and more connected neighborhoods.
I choose to live downtown in an apartment which is in very close quarters to several other apartments. Anywhere in this neighborhood, really, you’d be close to your neighbors, even if you had a house. The houses here are older and smaller and pressed up closer to one another. They are also quirkier, more colorful, with odd shapes and random additions, backyard garages, and low fences. Sidewalks line the streets. It is a quick walk to the library, numerous parks, and the central shopping and dining (and drinking) district. No other part of town is quite as vibrant, quite as lively, or nearly so perpetually busy. Indeed, all the establishments seem full whenever I visit them. The streets are busy with pedestrians. Musicians are often outside either pan-handling or playing official outdoor venues in the day. At night many of the bars are loud with the sound of local bands and drunk townies or college kids. And it’s only a short walk to the relatively quiet neighborhood I live in.
So I find myself wondering why it is that a town is built this way – that there is this one very vital, walking-friendly downtown area, and the rest of the city is built for cars and cars only. I think of the “hotel district” at the major intersection of two freeways – the entrance to town, as it were. Hotels form a semi-circle (with branches) in this one large area. There are over a dozen (maybe two) crowded together in a relatively dense space. And, as they are formed in a semi-circle, they have the potential to be connected quite easily by walking paths, and at their center I can imagine a sort of second downtown – shops, restaurants, bars. The tourists who rent the hotel rooms would surely stroll out from their comfortable caves, drawn like moths to a flame, in search of some entertainment, some dining, some place to stretch their legs.
And yet, at the center of all these hotels lies instead a massive parking lot, and at its center, like some Soviet cement behemoth, the town Wal*Mart.
This is not meant to be a screed against Wal*Mart, though. Think of it instead as a screed against wasted potential. Wal*Mart could have been placed elsewhere. But here, we could have had a really neat, really economically profitable, walkable area where our community could have mutually benefited – artisans, artists, restaurateurs, merchants – which would have taken the thing that is a hotel and made it not only a place for sleep but a destination in and of itself. Locals and outsiders would have mingled in a way that they only really do now at the hostels downtown. (I once lived in an apartment adjoining a hostel and thus met many Europeans and travelers and often had occasion to share drinks and stories with them. It was neat.)
Instead there are hotels with parking lots where people go to stay. Maybe they jaywalk and then trudge across the huge parking lot to one of the chain restaurants that shares the “shopping center” space with Wal*Mart. Maybe they order a pizza from Domino’s. They certainly don’t mingle with the locals or learn about our culture or see any of our artists’ paintings. They don’t think to themselves, “I’d really like to come back here some day and spend my money here again.” They think, “Thank God tomorrow we’re going to the Grand Canyon. This place is so boring.”
In any case, I’m not sure how best to achieve better neighborhoods. I’ve been to the big new suburban sprawls in Denver and Phoenix and Las Vegas, the cookie-cutter neighborhoods where sameness reigns supreme, and it feels much, much too sterile. Too planned. Too cut off. The older areas always seem more alive somehow. More…organic.
And is this because cities became too planned or because chains became too prominent or what? Is this the effect of zoning laws themselves or the lack of good zoning laws, or is there something in zoning itself – in the almost surgical concept – that works to undermine the very term neighborhood. Zoning, after all, is what took the shop off the corner. It took the “residential” and severed it from the “commercial” as though the two were somehow at odds or incompatible.
Maybe what we need is not new urbanism – a lovely idea, in and of itself, but tied in terrible ways to the planner, the zoning commission, the good and clever ideas of bureaucrats and elected officials – and rather an “unzoning” movement. As often as not these big projects like shopping centers and Wal*Marts are subsidized by local governments, can thumb their nose at zoning laws, and actually welcome those laws because they force new entrants and smaller competitors out of business.
Here Wal*Mart pushed heavily for zoning restrictions which prevented their big competitor Target from getting an entrance-way on the main street to the Target parking lot. We have tree laws here that most big businesses are somehow able to get around. (One savvy businessman actually hired illegal immigrants to go out one night and chop down all the trees on a lot he owned in order to get around the tree regulations which limit how many trees can be chopped down in the development of new real estate. He was caught.)
I’m not sure though. I think, in the end, what ends up happening when we put the future of our towns and cities into the control of a few very smart people is that we get very bad results. Or the good results, like many new urbanist projects, end up being far too expensive for the average home-buyer or renter to afford.