localism vs neighborhood-ism

Nashville Altstadt 1I 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.

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13 thoughts on “localism vs neighborhood-ism

  1. I realize that this is a response to a much bigger, complex debate going on, but, nonetheless, I sometimes feel, and this is one of those times, that you’re egging me to write something in reply. It may just be my insanely large ego and desire to be too wordy and self-indulgent, though. Anyhow, I reckon I’ll be posting something later today now. A lot of stuff to chew on here — mostly good, of course.

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    • I look forward to your response, Nathan. And actually, I did have a few of our discussions in mind when I was writing this – so it is maybe no surprise that you might think I was “egging” you on to write something. Then again, now that your identity as a mental case has been revealed, I should perhaps reconsider everything you’ve ever written….

      Cheers!

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  2. I think the type of place you describe E.D., with a cookie cutter and fairly homogenous periphery and a more diverse, interesting and artsy center is a fairly common part of the American landscape. It’s certainly the case here in Louisville, though ours resembles more of a half-circle with the Ohio River defining our northen border. While these vibrant city centers are important places for all the reasons you mentioned (tourism, arts, interaction of different individuals) and they serve their purpose by preserving older architecture, I do not believe they are necessarily the most important parts of our cities.

    I must admit that most of my thinking on this subject has been shaped by Joel Kotkin who I consider a near-genius in the realm of rural, suburban and urban studies. His research seems to indicate that while cities and country are important, suburbs are where all the growth takes place. They are also the places where the majority of our people choose to live. So how can they play a more FPR-inspired role in our communities? By functioning as a bridge between city and country. They offer employment for the part-time farmer, a market for their products and a place for their kids to move to if they work in the city and still want to be close to the land they grew up on. They also put us that much closer to the rural, for those of us who need it like we need air. That’s the role the suburbs play in my life. Looking in the other direction, I am close to the rural areas of my youth and close to the woods that bring me peace. I’m also close to the restaurants, the galleries and the wi-fi connections that broaden my cultural horizons. In my experience, those in the rural trust the suburban dwellers a lot more than those in the cities. I don’t know if the city dwellers feel the same, as I often wonder if they hold contempt for my choice to live among chain stores and strip malls.

    Nevertheless, it’s the middle places that often get overlooked in the debates between extremes. Localism verses post modernism forgets the suburbanism that bridges the two.

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    • I see what you mean, Mike. But I have to believe that a better suburnanism can exist – one not reliant on driving. One with mixed zoning so that I can walk to a nearby market or a restaurant down the street. I think we’ve focused too much on cutting off the residential from the places we work. We’ve planned it this way because we think that’s what people want, and because it’s cheap, and because it’s effective in a car culture. But we might be facing the end of the car culture. We might be realizing that culturally we aren’t making bridges so much as fences.

      But of course this is my opinion – and we should all be free to choose. I don’t so much advocate the end of suburbia, though – just the end of this kind of suburbia.

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      • This is a great discussion. I’d like to introduce some history too. The movement to the suburbs accelerated when the big federally financed highways started to be built. People of modest means could not have a city place and a country place, but with the highways, they could commute from their jobs to the cities and have leafy green yards for their families. But I am with E.D. that the time is approaching when we all really should be living close to our jobs, not an hour-long commute away. Or we should be able to use rapid transit to go in both directions, into and out of the city. Cities offer vibrancy, creativity, energy, support for cultural, educational, medical institutions, varied retail, investment, just about anything good we can want. Sadly for many of their residents, the best the city has to offer is not available to them, and corruption, crime, and neglect are far too prevalent. Suburban residents are learning that they are not insulated from those aspects they think of as city problems, and city residents need to be able to travel more readily to jobs in the suburbs. I also think that as a society and for the environment, we have to stop spreading our residences across all the land, or there won’t be rural refuges left for man nor beast. We would be better off with denser concentrations (to a point of course!) of people and jobs and businesses. Redeveloping inner cities and inner suburbs can do some of that and take the pressure of growth and development off the fringe.

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  3. What about the rural? They depend on cars just as much, if not more, than the suburban. If you’re suggesting that cars create some kind of barrier that can only be broken down by getting out of them I would agree. But yet even in the most car-heavy places on earth (NYC, LA, etc) culture is flourishing. If you’re talking about polution, then obviously we just need to work harder on the Mr.Fusion.

    Another possibility to answer your concern is the planned community movement, which is really pressing the ‘bridge’ between city and country angle with thoughtful construction that creates a town-within-a-town on the edge of the suburbs and providing a link between the urban and rural. I would cite this article for more info.

    http://www.newgeography.com/content/00685-are-farms-suburban-future

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  4. We often talk about the whole “cookie cutter” aspects of suburbia. But it’s not all that clear to me that there was all that much diversity before. Sure, Joe’s Diner had some quirks, maybe. And was different from Charlie’s Diner in really profound ways. But as far as I can tell, “diners” are really quite similar. Which is why they have come to occupy their own genre.

    Are they more interesting than 1000 identical Burger Kings. I guess so. But… people don’t like interesting. Or, huge swaths of people don’t. I mentioned it before, but my wife couldn’t care less about the special way Joe’s Diner makes its fries, or they way Charlie braises his pork chops. She wants consistency. No surprises. Which is what America is really, really good at providing. And which has a lot of merits. Why not celebrate it? Isn’t it as much of an achievment, culturally, as the perfection of prosciutto ham?

    I am not like my wife. I like the diners and al lthat. But as for travel at hotels… I want nothing interesting at all. I want to get in and get out. And seriously… how many people travelling to Sacramento for business are really chanping at the bit to see how the oil painters in Modesto are getting along? I suspect it’s a small minority.

    I guess this points to a general lack of interest on my part, and is not a pretty picture. But I suspect there are lots like me. Although I feel superior because at least I feel bad about it.

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    • You’re on to something here. If I’m traveling for work, I never want any surprises.

      I guess it’s a matter of whether we want to optimize our towns for traveling through or for living in. We could evaluate the world through the eyes of a truck driver or salesman high on caffeine at 3AM, just wanting to power through until the reach the comforts and joys of home. But once he reaches home, should his neighborhood in turn be designed for the comfort of those passing through it?

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  5. Sam,

    I agree with a lot of what you say. When I travel I like to try interesting spots when I have time, but when you’ve got kids or you’re in a hurry sometimes it’s nice to see a familiar menu, or a Borders that has all the same things you can get at home. So there’s definitely something to be said for dependability/predictability.

    I was out west a few weeks ago and after having some real hit or miss for a couple of days i have never been so happy to see a Denny’s.

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