Urban dreams

New Urbanism has had its share of critics. Some … have criticized New Urbanism because many new developments built along its principles occupy higher price points in the real estate market. They tend to be exclusive and unaffordable. The high prices, however, reflect the level of demand for such places. They are indeed attractive. And rare. The solution to that problem is to build more of them, not less.

My interest in walkable city neighborhoods is not merely theoretical. It’s also part of my experience. I have lived in such a neighborhood in Grand Rapids for the past 30 years. It goes by the name of Eastown. It’s an old streetcar suburb that was largely built out in the 1910s, before car ownership was widespread. People, primarily professionals in that day, would take the streetcar downtown to work, return, and walk home. Home may have been a single-family detached house. Or it may have been a duplex or apartment. Eastown contains a variety of residential options. The neighborhood had its own retail section that supplied residents with their daily and weekly needs within a comfortable walking distance.

Much has changed since then. A good number of buildings have been lost to parking lots. Some of the retail has moved out to big box stores on the edge of the city. But the community still has good bone structure, a fine network of connected streets. And many walkable destinations. Within a five-minute walk of my house lies a farmer’s market, a supermarket, three churches, two elementary schools, a civic theater, two coffee shops, a pizza parlor, a donut shop, three restaurants, two bakeries, a brewery, a park, a college, a creek, two used-book stores, a shoe store, a yoga studio, a massage therapist, two beauty salons, a gift shop, a gym, a butcher shop, a delicatessen, a post office, a bike shop, and a bus stop. My wife and I make do with one car, since I can ride my bike or moped to work in fair weather and take the bus in foul.

(Lee Hardy) I’d encourage you to click that link if only to note the two photos of what a human-scaled built environment looks like.

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“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Resilience

Today’s identity politics . . . teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.

But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens—power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence. . . .

There are two more paragraphs in this Wall Street Journal “Notable & Quotable” from Jonathan Haidt, the last sounding a hopeful note about America’s resilience.

I, too, see signs that the great ship of culture is swinging around on some of the issues that concern me, as, for instance, younger people begin re-populating our walkable cities, many of them choosing not to own an automobile.

There’s no government edict to depopulate the suburbs, and the fears (justified) of peak oil are abated. But as if by instinct, people are behaving as if they grok this little slice of fossil-fuel reality, whether or not they articulate it.

I suspect that some shift will happen, too, in America’s recent tendency toward secularization, though I can’t claim to know how the shift will come about, or just how the new landscape will appear.

No, God never promised that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against the Church anywhere, howsoever temporarily, but I doubt that America’s becoming so unfaithful that Africa must send missionaries with the Gospel any time soon. (To echo Jonathan Haidt, though, I have very low confidence in my optimism about this.)

But I am bearish on Evangelicalism (if you hadn’t noticed). Coincidentally (providentially?), Michael Gerson has some supporting commentary both for resilience in general but with specific bearishness on Evangelicalism:

It is sometimes assumed (including by me) that the presidency sets a moral tone for the nation, influencing what society considers normal and acceptable in a kind of trickle-down ethics. But the sexual harassment revolution emerged from society in spite of — or even in defiance of — a president who has boasted of exploiting women and who stands accused of harassing more than a dozen.

This is a reminder that the moral dynamics of a nation are complex, which should come as no surprise to conservatives (at least of the Burkean variety). This is a big country, capable of making up its own collective mind. Politics reaches only the light zone of a deep ocean. It is a sign of hope that moral and ethical standards can assert themselves largely unaided by political, entertainment and media leaders ….

[R]apid shifts in social norms should be encouraging to social reformers of various stripes. Attitudes and beliefs do not move on a linear trajectory. A period of lightning clarity can change the assumptions and direction of a culture.

I elided some comments about how the country is moving to a better place on sexual harassment, because of that I’m quite skeptical, for reasons I’ve mentioned in recent blogs. But Gerson has a big Evangelical fish to fry:

And where did this urgent assertion of moral principle come from? Not from the advocates of “family values.” On the contrary, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family (now under much better management), chose to side with GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama against his highly credible accusers. “I have been dismayed and troubled,” Dobson said, “about the way he and his wife Kayla have been personally attacked by the Washington establishment.”

It is as if Dobson set out to justify every feminist critique of the religious right. Instead of standing against injustice and exploitation — as the Christian gospel demands — Dobson sided with patriarchal oppression in the cause of political power. This is beyond hypocrisy. It is the solidarity of scary, judgmental old men. It is the ideology of white male dominance dressed up as religion.

This is how low some religious conservatives have sunk ….

Dobson isn’t just “religious.” He’s Evangelical. As is Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s angry son, a reliable voice in support of guys like Roy Moore. I know of at least one other Evangelical scandal that could explode, involving a substantially fraudulent CV of a prominent Evangelical apologist. I’m not sure why it hasn’t exploded yet.

Some places remain, though, where student are given lenses other than “power”:

Imagine a beautiful garden in the midst of a gray, industrial, bleak city. The city’s architecture is functional only, given totally to the making of money or to the most ephemeral, when not downright base, forms of entertainment. This city is all big box store and mega-super-cinema-plex. But the garden is lovely, lush, and inviting. It is full of beautiful growth and well-crafted stonework. It is a place for true recreation and joyful exercise. And it is ancient, passed down through generations of city-dwellers as a place of relief and regeneration.

What would you think of the generation that let that garden die?

What would you think of a people who intentionally destroyed it?

In short, the main reason Western civilization, with an emphasis on “Great Books,” deserves a prominent—indeed, the prominent—place in the curriculum of the Christian university is stewardship ….

(Benjamin Myers, The Christian University: Steward of Western Civilization) At Myers’ university, there’s a required 15 credits in Western Civilization. Bully for them! Myers:

Let us not cheapen the noble goal of exploring world cultures by pretending that three hours in Polynesian folklore is as good as fifteen hours in Western civilization, when we really just want to open up twelve more hours for the study of management or sports nutrition.

Remember the old quip—I think it was from William F. Buckley—that the problem with liberals (“progressives” probably would have been more apt) is they can’t begin to describe the utopia in which they’d finally be conservative because all at last was well?

I cannot overemphasize how important it is that universities and liberal arts colleges like Myers’ be left unmolested because those who would homogenize education and stamp out unfashionable truths are themselves unstable chasers-after ephemera and delusions. This has been my conviction for nearly 50 years.

Have you read A Canticle for Leibowitz, by the way?

Resilience. I like that hopeful word. It’s a nice balance to my usual doom and gloom.

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

 

Escape from ennui

[A]s James Baldwin put it, Americans were “afflicted by the world’s highest standard of living and what is probably the world’s most bewilderingly empty way of life.”

(Pankaj Mishra, America, From Exceptionalism to Nihilism) That quote was new to me, though the thought was not. My “standing advice” at the end of each blog episode includes these:

The consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness. Lord Jonathon Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain.

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to. W.H. Auden, 1966.

Then I also read this today:

While the news waves groan with stories about “America’s Opioid Epidemic” you may discern that there is little effort to actually understand what’s behind it, namely, the fact that life in the United States has become unspeakably depressing, empty, and purposeless for a large class of citizens.

… None of the news reports or “studies” done about opioid addiction will challenge or even mention the deadly logic of Wal Mart and operations like it that systematically destroyed local retail economies (and the lives entailed in them.) The news media would have you believe that we still value “bargain shopping” above all other social dynamics. In the end, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

(James Howard Kunstler)

But one of the odd blogs I find irresistible is Granola Shotgun. “Johnny” populates his blog with loads of photos and sparse commentary. Most recent:

At the end of my first year at university I was approached by an engineering student who asked if he could be my room mate next year. We didn’t know each other particularly well and didn’t have much in common, but he seemed harmless enough. I shrugged. Sure. We went our separate ways over the summer and in September he appeared at my door. After a few months of successfully sharing accommodations I asked him why he came to me when most guys in his situation would have gone in a very different direction. He explained.

The average college freshman tends to have an adolescent understanding of what a good independent life might be like. Young men are motivated by peculiar impulses and the siren song of the frat house calls. Beer. Parties. Girls. Sports cars. The prestige of hanging out with rich kids, athletes, and really popular older guys. He said that was usually a big mistake. The furniture is made of plastic milk crates. The place smells like a locker room. People eat ramen and cold day old pizza out of the box. They wear flip flops in the shower because no one has ever cleaned the bathroom. Ever. And when you bring a girl home there are a dozen bigger richer guys with fancier cars than you hovering around. You sit there trying to get your romance on with posters of naked women taped to the walls next to a collection of empty bottles. And you pay extra for all this… It’s just not a great situation.

Then he made a sweeping motion with his hand indicating our apartment. A pleasing mixture of antiques and modern pieces. Smells like lemons. When he brings a girl home I’m in the kitchen cooking brisket and home made bread. Soft lighting. Ella Fitzgerald is playing in the background. No competition. And it’s cheaper. For him, doing the unorthodox and socially uncomfortable thing was just… rational. [Yup. That sounds like an engineer’s approach to the world. Tipsy]

Back to Springfield. Steve [and Liz Shultis] took a version of the same strategy. He and his family live in a gracious four story French Second Empire mansion. The place is huge and everywhere you look there’s a level of detail and quality you can’t find in any home built today. There’s a legal apartment on the lower level that they use as a guest suite.  I looked up the address on a real estate listing site and he paid less for this house than many people spend on their cars. His family has a quality of life and a degree of financial freedom that none of his suburban piers (sic) can comprehend.

Most people load themselves up with massive amounts of debt in order to live the way they believe they’re supposed to. You wouldn’t want to put your kids in a substandard urban school with the wrong element. You wouldn’t want to buy a house that never appreciated in value. You wouldn’t want to have to explain to your friends, family, and co-workers that you live in a slum with poor black people and Puerto Ricans. And where do you park?! It’s so much “better” to soak yourself in debt to buy your way in to the thing you believe you can’t live without.

Pretty dry without the pictures, I’ll admit. But go check the original, The Springfield Strategy. That four story French Second Empire mansion is pretty amazing. Sample:

From their own blog, it appears that Steve & Liz (perhaps Steve and his ex) actually did raise children, now adults, in that urban environment, though the children are not visible or mentioned in Johnny’s story.

I don’t want to romanticize, let alone make a panacea of, a good, walkable and sociable living environment, but it appears (scroll on down the long page) that the urban dwellers of Springfield, Massachusetts may have escaped some aspects of the “bewilderingly empty way of life.”

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Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.