Fixing a Place

You have to love a place–not an idealized Place–before you can fix it.

Those who follow the sometimes heated arguments of online publications like Front Porch Republic, First Things, and Humane Pursuits will know there’s been a back-and-forth of late about whether FPR types are unrealistic (and maybe even totalitarian) in their dreams for family farms and organic produce. You can get up to speed by reading this, this, and this; or by reading James Banks’s Humane Pursuits entry into the fray here

I want to add a few thoughts to Banks’s contribution, because I think he touched on two points that are crucial for Average Joes who wish they lived in a stronger community. The first is the importance of structure, and the second is the difference between community as an ideal and real communities in terms of how we approach them. Both are deeply tied into my story in a city that is the antithesis of FPR’s ideal.

Structure

Banks, citing Mark Signorelli at FPR, mentions Florence’s requirement that all its roofs have red terracotta tiling. To Signorelli, this was a good thing. To Banks, it’s a violation of freedom of conscience, or it would be if anyone in Florence really wanted his roof a different color.

This relates to a fascinating but little-discussed distinction from days gone by. Back when Florence made that law, or back when the American Constitution was being put together, there was a distinction between national laws and local laws. I don’t mean a legal distinction (which of course still exists), but a philosophical or moral distinction that affected how people thought about things.

If George Washington had tried to get an early session of Congress to pass a law mandating red roofs across the nation—or even if Thomas Jefferson had tried to do it in Virginia—there would have been an uproar. But local communities imposed these kinds of restrictions every day. They still do, because as anybody who has studied neighborhood law can tell you, places where people live in close proximity to each other are lousy places for individualistic social policies. That second story I want to build might block my neighbor’s view, and that fence I want to put up at the edge of my yard might cause car accidents because people can’t see around the corner.

The Founders took this for granted. As Joe Postell from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has pointed out in his research, local governments back then would have been considered totalitarian by modern conservatives applying their usual national standard of limited government, or modern liberals applying their modern standard of freedom of expression. But back then, people had an idea that structure was important to a community—that in order for a local community to function well, it had to have some shared values, values that played out in everything from manners to the physical environment of the city. And it’s precisely the working out of those values (sometimes through law, sometimes through custom) that makes a place unique. Chicago recently made decisions to let people build pretty much anything pretty much anywhere…Boston has preferred to heavily regulate construction on its severely limited space. New York has opted for the verticality of tall office buildings…Washington, D.C. has opted for a horizontal city. The American Founders, as Postell argues, were anything but laissez-faire in this respect.

The point is this: what a city values will (partly through its democratically elected leaders) affect how the city is built, and what kinds of behavior are encouraged or discouraged (or required or outlawed). Since values shape structures (physical and behavioral), and structures exist to maintain values for future generations, a city will by its very nature be a mostly continuous cycle of the two.

For normal people, this plays out in ways they probably don’t notice day to day unless they are dissatisfied with them. My city, Colorado Springs, has long valued independence, privacy, and material convenience. As a result, it’s very spread out, with space for each family to have a big home and its own yard, in clusters of houses centered around big-box shopping areas the size of Disneyland. (I’ve written about this at more length in “United We Shop.”) All of that is unquestionably an expression of the city’s common values over the past couple decades; something I know for a fact by the conversations I’ve had with people and the decisions the city council has made.

A Real Community

This if course raises the question: what if I don’t like my city’s values? This isn’t a hypothetical question for me—I do disagree with my city’s values. Part of the reason the Founders didn’t mind localities expressing their unique features through manners and laws (besides the fact that they’d done so for all of history) was that if you didn’t like a city’s values, you could move.

But perhaps that’s not possible at a given time, or not convenient. It’s not for me. A number of things come into play here.

On the large-scale level, we have the natural law factor—when people live in places that fight against their natural social inclinations, they often do aspire to community as an ideal. And cities built in silly, unsustainable ways that go against human nature sooner or later feel the consequences. In my case, the city council has realized that a lot of its zoning decisions in affording people that ostentatious independence are very expensive to maintain. Its downtown area isn’t a draw for companies and young people, which is hurting the local economy. And a lot of the young people who are here dislike being so disconnected from a community. This is what FPR often gets right; there are some things for which humans are just hard-wired.

Also on the large-scale level, we have this thing called democracy. In it, you vote for the people who represent your values and your desires for the city, and if you get enough people to vote for them, they get into power and make changes you want to see happen. (You also have to get involved in local politics yourself and talk with those yucky people who don’t have a degree in philosophy or value a good syrah.)

But social change is slow (and that’s a good thing). On the small-scale level, I have to live in Colorado Springs right now (rather than later when we’ve fixed all the problems), and I may not be able to vote in the good people any time soon. So what do I do?

And this is where I agree with Banks: people like me have a choice between pining for community (the ideal), or making a choice to live in a real community and deal with its imperfections in context. For a while, I was doing the former; making what I think Banks would term the “FPR choice.” I enthusiastically criticized the Springs to anyone who would listen. I moaned every time I saw the big box stores or the dead downtown. I wrote blog posts blasting the suburbs as an inhumane way of life. I pined for the days in college or a brief period I spent in a kind of co-op, where (contrary to Banks’ assumption) I really did live with people who made a choice to live “in community” as an ideal, and even used the term. Frankly, I think doing all this is pretty common for educated people my age, and it’s not all bad–after all, sometimes it’s hard for people to have a vision of an alternative unless someone paints the picture for them.

But I’m still here. I eventually decided not to make the FPR choice. Buying organic, turning a suburb into a beautiful Italian town square, and finding a sort of monastery to live in weren’t the answer (turns out real places don’t change as fast as my desktop background). I had to get out and make friends with real people who lived in the same setting I did. I had to learn to appreciate the good things about the city (although my wife had to tell me that a lot of times before I got it). I had to plug in to my specific community in the ways it offered. Sometimes I had to have dinner with people I didn’t like, or talk local politics with people I didn’t respect, or get involved with charitable organizations that weren’t sexy.

In short, I had to learn to love a place and its people, and work to improve them in the small ways that were partly consistent with their character and partly designed to improve that character. Banks put it beautifully: “[The beloved things in a city were] not loved because they were common; they were common because they were loved.” Colorado Springs will never be covered with gorgeous red terracotta tiling. But at this point in time, it’s my home—it’s not a place in which to tread water till I get to live in Small Town, Tennessee. If I ever do live in such a place, it’ll have problems too. I have to work with the ones in front of me.

This story doesn’t have a blissfully happy ending, at least not yet. But there is a community here—both a small “c” community in the friends I’ve made, and a large “C” community that is the city itself. The structures that shape this city matter, and I doubt I’ll ever stop working to change them. But I am a citizen, not a philosopher. I don’t work to improve the city in order to make it become my ideal of Community. I do it for the community.

10 Comments

  • Avatar
    January 25, 2012

    Joe Carter

    Excellent article. You’ve touched on the reason why I vehemently disagree (or so it appears) with the FPR clan. You’re approach requires that people get involved in the slow, democratic (and maybe even futile) process of changing their communities to conform to the values they cherish. That is, in my opinion, the way that is should be done.

    The impression I get from FPR (which they’ve tended to enforce) is that undemocratic coercion to change a community to fit the values they cherish is just fine, as long as the right people (i.e., Porchers) are doing the coercing. That’s why I think their preferred option is totalitarian but utopian (since no one is going to put up with it).

    Now I suspect that most Porchers would actually agree with you (and me) that moral suasion and democratic processes are actually the best (if not only) way to change a community. But since making such an admission would be giving in to liberalism/modernity/etc., they don’t say so openly.

  • Brian Brown
    January 25, 2012

    Brian Brown

    Do you think they even think that far ahead? For all the flak FPR tends to get from more pragmatic minds, I sometimes wonder if we’re asking more of them than they ever meant to provide–asking them to be Reagan and Buckley when all they’re trying to be is Kirk (providing vision and values rather than prescriptions and policies). Granted, the consistently superior tone often struck there hurts their cause if they do indeed have such a limited objective, because it sounds like they think they’ve got it all figured out. But really, they have a much stronger sense of how they want things to be than they do how they want to get there, and it’s the first of the two things they set out to write about anyway. Am I off?

  • Peter S.
    January 25, 2012

    Peter S.

    I imagine most Porchers are actually postmodern conservatives like you, Brian, who in their philosophy take the long (utopian?) view but in practice are committed to their communities. Also, most of them are academics, so they might be forgiven for thinking the world looks a bit like a lecture hall.

  • Peter S.
    January 25, 2012

    Peter S.

    I may be engaging with ideas beyond my intellectual ken, but I don’t see the necessary connection between “moral suasion and democratic processes” and liberalism/modernity. “The slow, democratic . . . process of changing their communities” seems to me a very conservative and not necessarily modernistic approach.

  • Avatar
    January 25, 2012

    Anna S.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Brian. They reminded me of an older article on how more than half the challenge is loving where you are (even if that place is the suburbs): http://www.scriptoriumdaily.com/2010/08/02/anywhere-but-the-suburbs/

  • Avatar
    January 25, 2012

    Joe Carter

    You’re probably right. I think Peter S. hits on why that is in his comment below: “Also, most of them are academics, so they might be forgiven for thinking the world looks a bit like a lecture hall.”

  • Bryan Wandel
    January 26, 2012

    Bryan Wandel

    I wonder if the use of aesthetics for the sake of utopian cultural critcism is actually a symptom of decadence. I mean, can we stake a difference here between conservative, the preservation of the good, and decadent, the detached aesthetic criticism of those who have given up on other modes of moral treatment?

    Because I agree and I don’t agree. I understand the FPR insistence on values that have, by now, been completely surpassed, or at least overlooked. But I also sense in that attitude a certain, “Ah yes, now I have the answer to what’s wrong with the world.”

    Thoughts?

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