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Paranoia isn’t an argument

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You can really tell what the agenda behind this article is when author Joel Kotkin puts “white flight” in square quotes, implying that liberals made it up because of our irrational hatred of the suburbs. (Via Atrios, who points out that you aren’t exactly assaulting the suburbs when you pour hundreds of millions of dollars into propping up suburban home prices, so suburbanites who bought high don’t take a bath.) Except that the existence of white flight is not controversial, as Kotkin implies, or at least no more than evolutionary theory, which is to say not controversial to people who are open to evidence. It’s incredibly well-documented. His mouth-smacking about the suburbs becoming more diverse is misleading—inner suburbs, sure, but that’s simply creating another round of white flight as many white residents run to the exurbs, preferring two hour commutes, it seems, over living in racially diverse neighborhoods. If you truly value diversity, then the explosion of suburbia should be a concern to you. That’s not the same thing as suggesting everyone who lives in the suburbs is a racist, or that was their motivation. But the larger trends shouldn’t be ignored.

Obviously, Kotkin wants to avoid this question, because his cute little thesis about how the President is going to be punished by suburban voters for his supposed anti-suburban views is basically one click to the left of the arguments put forwards by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck that Barack Obama is a “racist” out to get white people. I have no idea if that’s his intention, but that’s the effect. And without a real willingness to grapple with these realities of white flight and racism that are part of suburban formations, a lot of Kotkin’s arguments don’t really make sense. Like this:

In addition, the president’s stimulus—with its $8 billion allocation for high-speed rail and proposed giant increases in mass transit—offers little to anyone who lives outside a handful of large metropolitan cores. Economics writer Robert Samuelson, among others, has denounced the high-speed rail idea as “a boondoggle” not well-suited to a huge, multi-centered country like the United States. Green job schemes also seem more suited to boost employment for university researchers and inner-city residents than middle-income suburbanites.

Except that some of the biggest beneficiaries of public transit by rail are the very suburbanites in middle American cities that Kotkin claims to fiercely defend. Austin is a medium-sized city, and its light rail is being stymied by some pretty nasty political forces, but if they ever let it work, then the main beneficiaries will be people who live in the suburbs and work in the city—the traditional suburbanite the Kotkin is slobbering all over in barely-concealed “Real American” style. In Dallas, it’s already working (and well) this way—giving suburbanites a break from endless amounts of traffic going to and from work. But I can see where Kotkin is skeptical that people will actually use this transit.

But ultimately it will be sticks and not carrots that planners hope to use to drive de-suburbanization. Perhaps the most significant will be new draconian controls over land use. Administration officials, particularly from the EPA, participated in the drafting of the recent “Moving Cooler” report, which suggested such policies as charging tolls on the Interstate Highway System, charging people to park in front of their homes, and steering some 90 percent of all future development into the most dense portions of already existing urban development.

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Of course, such policies have little or no chance of being passed by Congress. Too many representatives come from suburban or rural districts to back policies that would penalize a population that uses automobiles for upwards of 98 percent of their transportation and account for 95 percent of all work trips.

I’m not completely convinced that people drive because they love it, particularly the traffic-intensive driving that characterizes a suburban commute. But I’m sure that Kotkin is right and a lot of suburbanites will be dragged from their cars kicking and screaming, and it’s because their cars function like the gated communities and intense security systems and yes, culture of gun nuttery. Which is a not-a-little-racist paranoid view of a diversifying America as a crime-ridden wasteland they need to shield themselves from. But that said, it’s not doing suburbanites any favors to pander as hard as possible to the most paranoid, racist members. Especially not since gas prices are going to go up in the long term, whether we like it or not. Racism-tinged paranoia is a relative emotion, I suspect—if it saves you money to squelch it and get on a train to work, a whole lot of people will choose that. And then you have the other round of folks that live in the suburbs because that’s the American dream that’s been sold to them, and they haven’t even considered some of the uglier underpinnings. There are advantages that I won’t disagree with—the space being the big one. But I also think Rich Benjamin isn’t wrong in his book Searching for Whitopia to say that some of the language about suburbs being clean and quiet is loaded with prejudiced implications, though he’s quite generous is saying that white suburbanites often are well-intentioned enough not to understand what the implications of their paranoia about urban spaces are.

Kotkin assumes the environmentalists are looking at density-centric solutions to environmental problems because we hate suburbanites, a rather harsh judgment that doesn’t line up with any arguments from the evil liberal urban yuppie elite that I’ve heard. But that’s really his argument!

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The anti-suburban impulse is nothing new. Suburbs have rarely been popular among academics, planners, and the punditry. The suburbanite displeased “the professional planner and the intellectual defender of cosmopolitan culture,” noted sociologist Herbert Gans. The 1960s counterculture expanded this critique, viewing suburbia as one of many “tasteless travesties of mass society,” along with fast and processed food, plastics, and large cars. Suburban life represented the opposite of the cosmopolitan urban scene; one critic termed it “vulgaria.”

If we hate them so much—and I’ll grant you that a lot of urbanites, myself included, mock the hell out of Wal-Mart, SUVs, and other sundry suburban travesties against taste—why on fucking earth would we want them as neighbors? I suppose Kotkin believes we hate them so much we’ll ruin our own peace to bring them into our urban hellholes, but that’s not been my experience. On the contrary—the yuppie elite often spend their time fighting against encroachment of suburban culture. Every urban Austinite I knew joked about where the lines to the north and west were that you never crossed, because cultural experiences stopped there. I had a boss so hardcore he swore he never went north of 45th St. (If you live in Austin, you’ll get the joke.) Most urban horror stories involving the residents of suburbia involve two elements: 1) suburbanite comes into urban area and 2) throws a fit/acts like an ass because we don’t act like they do in the suburbs. Kotkin’s assumption that we’re so hateful to these folks that we want to frog march them in to our neighborhoods doesn’t pass the smell test. The reality is that more density isn’t desired by urbanites, either, because our housing prices are high enough, thank you very much.

No, greenies are behind density because it’s a good idea. And even Kotkin has to tip his hat to one strategy, which is to make some suburbs urban spaces of their own (without calling them that)—denser, more walkable. We don’t hate cars because we want the suburbanites to get out and mingle (though I suppose for many of them, confronting their fears might make them chill out); we worry that cars are an environmental hazard that has to be contained. We don’t applaud the Obama administration for seeking ways to improve dense urban areas because we want to steal from suburbanites; we’ve just never had many leaders who give two shits about the cities, and we’re excited that someone cares about taking care of us for once. Don’t we deserve some improvements? A lot of American cities are in a bad place because they’ve received so little investment. Obama’s ideas would improve urban spaces not to punish suburbanites, but because it’s the right thing to do. City dwellers are people, too.


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