“Reviving Our Sense of Place, Our Priorities of Localism, Agrarianism, and Self-government”, Part I

As I noted in my post-script to the introduction to my senior essay, E.D. Kain presents a superb, indeed “Front Porch Republic-worthy” piece, “Redefining Prosperity,” an essay so ambitious, loaded, and impressive that I’ll refrain from even attempting to reply as deeply as I had hoped, leaving part of the task to the able Mr. Larison— whose masterly, but still incomplete, response includes references to Prof. Deneen, Prof. Bacevich, and George Grant — and to those whose many thoughtful replies comprise the comment box.

Echoing a point that I, following Larison, made, Mr Kain offers a well-aimed jab at individualism that I cannot abstain from repeating:

Individualism leads to the growth of the State because individualism denies the need for community and family; it abandons such antiquated notions as God and tradition and favors reason and wealth over history and modesty. In the end, however, individualism inevitably falls short; reason inevitably contradicts itself. A nation of individuals is inherently chaotic, and will gravitate, sometimes consciously, oftentimes not, toward a bigger and stronger and more all-encompassing State.

Do read the entire damn post, please.

Hereunder, I offer my reply, limiting myself to addressing the latter portion of Mr. Kain’s essay, where he begins to consider solutions to the serious cultural-moral-social-political-economic disease of individualism.

What the conservative movement doesn’t realize is that to shrink government we must first find a way to transform our communities. We must find a way to undermine this vision of the individual above all else, and tap into that lost art of solidarity. We must abandon our illusions for realities, and our culture of entitlement for one of virtue and accountability. […] This is a cultural challenge even more than a political one, though where the one leaves off and the other begins is hard to say.


Can we ever revive our sense of place, our priorities of localism, agrarianism, and self-government?

It is not, I think, a question of if, but how: Though usually a bitter pessimist, I remain convinced that we can rebuild our communities, and, thence, greater society — if we want to. (By which I mean not that we shouldn’t seek to rebuild “society,” but that perhaps society is best rebuilt not by working upward from A to Z, but by rebuilding every A.) The answer lies in New Urbanism.

However, the answer, I think, lies not with the New Urbanists. First, though their commitment, usually, to community is undeniable and unabashed, most New Urbanists tend to be left-leaning. Doubtless, we should not fear aligning with them when we share common ground — as no less formidable men than Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul have contended about leftists, more broadly; however, my experience has revealed that a number of them — or at least of planners, more broadly (I should be cautious not to suggest that all planners are New Urbanists, or that all New Urbanists are planners.) believe that “social planning”, often in the form of attempting to integrate outsiders (e.g. immigrants) into communities, is a worthwhile task.

Although we should be welcoming, we must be wary. The presence of foreign elements in our communities threatens the very nature of our communities as we need to perceive them: that is, as people who share roots in place and culture. It’s analgous to planting invasive species in an ecosystem where they do not belong. You might have the most beautiful flower to add to your garden, but not being part of the environment naturally, it disrupts the natural cycles of the place, perhaps poisoning an unwitting animal that happens to nibble, growing sufficiently large to prevent other plants from receiving enough sunlight, or requiring more nutrients than the soil can provide for it and the native plants. If and when outside elements can be integrated smoothly, organically, and over an appropriately long period of time into the community, all the better for the sustainability thereof. But “facilitating democratic participation,” which coerces integration in much the same way that busing did during the slow, agonizing end of segregation — which is to say in a manner wholly destructive of community in the name of a sense of equality that is risible —, is both unsustainable and a political anathema.

Of even more serious concern is the delusional optimism, from which I’ve suffered oftenly, of New Urbanism. We simply cannot create community: No matter how walkable our neighborhoods are, now matter how many front porches and other community-enabling features we include, no matter what other steps we take, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that this alone guarantees community. In my Community Planning Studio this semester, we’re studying Broadway Overlook, a HOPE VI mixed-income development in Baltimore. Imperfectly as it was designed (no porches, no real integration of the owners and the subsidize renters, lack of sufficient public space), it marks a wonderful, aesthetically pleasing (if not somewhat sterile and artificial in its quasi-cookie-cutter design — or planning (Eww!)) departure from the typical example of public housing. Most of the residents feel little more — sometimes even less — sense of community than when they resided in a rat-and-bug infested high-rise. They have a hard-working, but divisive, president of the tenants’ council and in-house community organization, but community is still hard to detect; crime and other concerns, as well as dissastisfaction with the property manager, and countless other problems, hamper the goal of “creating community.” Community takes effort, it takes time, and it takes the proper cultural and political attitudes.

And therein lies perhaps the most serious drawback of the New Urbanists. However “communitarian” they be, ultimately, most, like most Americans, are communitarians wholly within the liberal tradition. The underlying acceptance of the State, of the tension between individual and collective, impedes the community-first philosophy necessary for New Urbanism to accomplish both its own purported goals and the goals discussed herein.

Thus, what we need is a conservative, truly localist and communitarian New Urbanism, one founded on the belief that the locality — place — is a priori superior and sovereign, rather than a subdivision of the whole. The whole, in our New Urbanism, must proceed from the parts. In short, it must be an “Anti-Federalist” and Distributist — a Jeffersonian? — New Urbanism.

Part II.


3 Responses

  1. […] “Reviving Our Sense of Place, Our Priorities of Localism, Agrarianism, and Self-government”, Part II Posted on 8 March 2009 by nathancontramundi Why, then, a “Jeffersonian” New Urbanism? […]

  2. […] hinders them. At this point, they fall asleep at the wheel, so to speak. Viva Distributism! Long live the […]

  3. […] not togetherness.  This is one reason why I think Nathan Origer is right on the money with his two part manifesto on a “new” new urbanism built less upon the ideals of […]

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