It Doesn't Have To Be For You
Thoughts on the "philosophy of urbanism"
I think a lot about what you might call “urbanist consciousness” or “urbanist philosophy.” As in, is there a particular viewpoint that goes along with urban living or having lots of close neighbors? Not in the sense of an ideology—though I think it can look like that to people outside—but more like an outlook.
When I think about this, I think of something Maryland urbanist Dan Reed said once, if I remember correctly on Twitter, about some Silver Spring old-guard folks who were upset about a Popeyes opening in town, of all things. “Not everything has to be for you.” You don’t like Popeyes? Don’t go. Some people do; let them go. Live and let live.
I think about that because that particular way of putting it—not everything has to be for you—is profound. This is distinct from “the world doesn’t revolve around you,” and it’s also distinct from “whatever floats your boat.” It’s more about learning not to see other people’s preferences as attacks on your own. Simple, but hard.
When people say “Nobody likes X!” or “Who is going to live in Y?” what they almost always mean is “I don’t like X and Y, therefore nobody must.” Preferences take on this sort of moral content; people who like different things are dumb or wrong. They are against what you love, not for what they love. We think of “I like cats”/“Why do you hate dogs?!” as an internet thing, but it’s also emblematic of fights over development and change.
I like to try to identify the logical jumps people make in these discussions about urbanism, growth, development, neighborhood change, etc. One such fallacy is that people equal cars; another is that the things the people on the other side of the question want must be bad.
And that idea—not everything has to be for you—reveals another fallacy. Many people seem to interpret their dislike of a thing as a revelation about that thing, not merely their own personal preference. You don’t understand that you’re pronouncing an opinion on a thing; you think your feelings about that thing are telling you something objective about it. Once you realize you’re doing that, everything looks different.
I know Dan Reed, and we were talking about this kind of thing once. He told me a little anecdote, about walking into a Salvadoran pupusa joint. It wasn’t his culture, his cuisine, or his language. But the vibe of the place—informal, friendly, bustling, full of kids and families and regulars—was instantly familiar to him, and reminded him of very different places his family used to go. Like the same substance was here, in a different vessel.
Increasingly, I think a good analogy for urbanism, broadly understood, is a kind of secular transubstantiation: that appearances can be separated from, and distinct from, substances. You can look past the thing and see what it contains. You can see community and family under the form of Salvadoran pupusas. Or whatever other form that human universal takes. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I think I basically used to think that simply thinking or feeling something was evidence that it was true. I never thought it about in those terms, and of course I would have known it was a silly idea if you put it to me this way. But I think I basically thought it was true.
One of the things about living in a diverse, densely populated area is you realize that there’s room for all different kinds of preferences. When a place grows, it can contain multitudes. There’s this idea that cities are all the same; that they’re kind of elitist and boring and culturally flat. Living here in Northern Virginia, I feel like the opposite is true. There are things I like and don’t like, places I like to go and places I don’t like to go. But there’s so much.
I guess to some people, especially in places that have been largely the same for a long time, simply being open to change feels like an imposed ideology. It feels like a kind of disloyalty to the essence of the place. As if there is a “real” version of the place somewhere, metaphysically, that is more real than what it actually is on the ground, according to the actual people who live in it.
Growing up on the outskirts of a small town in a rural-exurban area, I know that comfort of returning to a place that hasn’t changed in decades. I know the feeling of trepidation when something appears or disappears.
But it’s the flow of life, the heartbeat of a living place. And if I don’t like it? I don’t have to. If it’s there, it’s for somebody.
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