What's a City To You?
America is a nation of tiny cities
I came across an urbanist the other day whose Twitter bio includes the line, “I cringe when you talk about ‘good schools’ or ‘neighborhood character.’”
I know exactly what she means; those are well-worn phrases that often serve as dog whistles or coded language to basically mean “rich and white.” That doesn’t mean everyone who uses them means them that way, but many do, and I can attest to that. What she most certainly does not mean is that parents should not be concerned as to whether the schools their children go to are good; she is taking issue with a very narrow idea of what “good” means.
But not everybody is fluent in these debates, in the discourse that goes on on the internet, and the way that people will often say things that they don’t mean quite literally. Kind of like “ban cars.”
This inspired me to relay a fictional conversation.
“Hey Joe, look at this lady who wants our kids to go to bad schools to stick it to them for being white. It’s this CRT stuff I was just reading about.”
“Yeah, Frank, that’s just like how Obama tried to destroy the suburbs by seeding them with poor black people. Aren’t you paying attention?”
“Oh yeah, I remember that! And now they want to force these ‘road diets’ on us because they hate cars. They want to lock us in one of those ugly pastel apartment blocks!”
“It’s like Agenda 21 says, pack and stack! If you want to leave your pod, you can ride your bike to go pick up your fair trade bug burger!”
I regret that I am able to write this. But I regret even more that it is a conversation that has almost certainly occurred.
All of this is maddeningly disconnected from anything urbanists, housing advocates, or transportation reformers want. It’s an object lesson in how social media isn’t real life, and in how rightwing media weaponize or decontextualize little bits and pieces of rhetoric to paint entire areas of public policy as radical and un-American.
To be clear, I’m not blaming the woman who cringes at hearing “good schools” for these beliefs on the right. And while I’m blaming (some) rightwing media outlets, this isn’t really about them either.
Rather, it’s about the bigger issue of getting past seeing urbanism as a culture war issue at all—and understanding that by making it one, we’ve gone off the rails, and robbed ourselves of the ability to think clearly about the kind of build environment that would serve us all well. “Safe streets, more housing, and useful public transit are bad because liberals like them” is a position that some people take, largely, I think, because they’re abstracting these things out of the real world. Once you see them as practical, on-the-ground questions, all of this resentment and nonsense just kind of evaporates.
There are some people who will not be convinced. To prove that, and to also prove that I’m not exaggerating with that fictional conversation, take a look at this cartoon that made the Twitter rounds a few weeks ago:
I’m sad to say I recognize very quickly what they’re referring to; mostly LGBT and COVID stuff. But what the heck is “shrinking cities” doing in there? What it’s doing in there, I suppose, is referencing the idea that “city people” are the ones driving all of this, or maybe just that they’re also bad. This is loony stuff in this cartoon, especially in this combination, but there are really people who see an apartment building and make this sort of word association. There’s the guy who I showed a picture of a large apartment building from the 19th century in a small town in the Shenandoah Valley, who scoffed, “Yeah, well how did they vote?” (Actually, that town voted for Trump!)
I don’t think most people think this way; I’m pretty sure of that. But nonetheless they might absorb some of this stuff by osmosis. What they might do is effectively outsource their thinking on these issues, to the extent that they think about them at all, to whatever sources they listen to on other issues they care more about.
If you don’t care about, or have never heard about, urbanism/road diets/mixed-use walkable neighborhoods/etc., and you watch Fox News, maybe your “views” on those things will just be the views of whoever on Fox happens to mention them, almost always put through an ideological wringer.
I likened this once, here at this newsletter, to how Republican politicians with no interest in foreign policy have customarily outsourced their “thinking” on foreign policy to the neoconservatives, not because they’re necessarily neoconservatives but because those are the people who have the highest profile in the center-right foreign policy world:
I’m charitable, and I suspect, or like to think, that there are a fair number of what I like to call “natural NIMBYs.” These are not people who organize opposition or show up to public hearings. They just like their community or neighborhood or town, and have a pretty unobjectionable, non-ideological preference for it to remain as it is, or change slowly. Had I not somehow gotten interested in this cluster of issues, and become convinced of their importance, I would have been a “natural NIMBY” too.
So, that headline. My hypothesis here is this: NIMBYism is to suburbanites as neoconservatism is to Republicans. Probably most Republicans, whether elected officials or voters, take a “muscular” view on foreign policy, and adopt views on China or Iran or Venezuela or Russia based on what they hear from pundits or politicians or think tanks they trust. And those messages tend to skew neoconservative, or, if we’re being a little less precise, hawkish. Yes, the people in the think tanks believe what they’re saying, or are at least committed to it. But how many GOP voters who would identify themselves as Iran hawks actually know anything about foreign policy vis a vis Iran? Same for any country, really.
In other words, a lot of Republicans who don’t know much of anything about foreign policy, and don’t particularly care about it, adopt neoconservatism not because they believe it, or even because they understand it, but because it’s there and it doesn’t feel like there’s much of an alternative. It’s easy to outsource your views on an uninteresting policy area to a group or disposition that seems legitimate, mainstream, or dominant. A hawkish foreign policy is “natural” for Republicans, mostly for reasons that don’t have to do with having studied and chosen it.
So my sense is that the same dynamic is often at work in terms of suburbanites and NIMBYism.
I know that there are NIMBYs and adjacent folks, both liberals and conservatives, who give this stuff a second look and think about differently, because, as noted, I basically was one! It’s not that I ever decided I was a NIMBY. I just learned and absorbed that of course you oppose new housing and new development. Who would want that? That’s how it goes.
Take a look at this tweet that a fellow YIMBY wrote last month:
She’s to my left, but she said she was more of a small-town person, not thinking of towns as urbanism. I loved seeing this, because that’s one of the core points I keep coming back to. Here’s the piece in question, my first feature story for Strong Towns, on the small-town/small-city urbanism of Staunton, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. It’s titled “‘Urbanism’ Isn’t Synonymous with ‘Big City.’”
You’ll hear about the “citiots” and fears that a place will become “Manhattanized,” or you’ll hear cities talked about as if they’re exotic places inhabited by different kinds of people. Liberals. But take, say, Brooklyn. It’s much bigger, and much more crowded, than any small town, obviously. And culturally it’s likely very different. But take a typical Brooklyn street, take a typical small-town Main Street, strip away the identifying details, and try distinguishing them.
You quite often can’t, because in many ways, they’re the same thing. This really matters. Land use and the design of the places we inhabit matters. One person commented on Staunton, arguing that I was missing the mark; it was faith and family that made Staunton great, not its built environment. Why not both?
Before the era of skyscrapers and the dominance of the automobile, at least, a city was a town that grew very big, and a town was a tiny city. The difference was of degree, not kind. There was still a cultural divide between “city people” and “country people,” but the even country people had their own downtowns, street grids, and transit systems.
That’s the point I keep coming back to. And these are the questions I keep asking to skeptics of urbanism:
How can you hate, or think you hate, the city when you like to visit your local Main Street for a stroll or for ice cream?
What is that setting and that built environment to you, if it isn’t urban?
Modern mixed-use developments are not quite the same, but why would you vociferously oppose building in a way that resembles these small-town environments almost all of us like?
A lot of small towns are really fossilized cities. Look at my hometown of Flemington (once again). It had transportation: a train station. It had a hotel. It had Main Street supermarkets, pharmacies, hardware stores. It had agriculture (peaches) and manufacturing (pottery and glass.)
Today, it has none of that. It mostly has restaurants and fancy shopping, mostly for people who drive into town. A suburban economy now exists in the old urban form, but back then, in its glory days—the days the local NIMBYs pine for—Flemington was a tiny city. Are those NIMBYs urbanists without knowing it? I kind of like to think so. It reminds me of a viral tweet I saw back at Christmastime, about how all the sappy Hallmark movies feature people coming home to classic small towns, and never to the soulless sprawling suburbia that most of us live in.
Why? We do we not broadly learn and understand how much of America’s history is urban history? How many of our gutted, or boutique-ified, small towns are former cities? How did any of this come to be associated with COVID or masks or what the definition of man and woman are or bugs or pods or communism? How, how, how?
If you’re reading this, you likely agree with me, but if you don’t—especially if you don’t!—help me understand. Leave a comment!
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