Monday, February 1, 2010
The Paranoid Suburbanite
If you'll pardon a brief foray into urban policy, did you see that article linked to at the Times about Obama's "War Against Suburbia"? The author, Joel Kotkin, constructs an argument that goes something like, "Many of Obama's advisors are from Chicago" plus "Obama is putting money into high-speed rail" plus "Obama cares about urban schools" equals Obama is declaring war on Suburbia. And since everyone--EVERYONE--wants to live in the suburbs, they are going to turn on Obama and he will lose horribly his next election.
Never mind that a great deal of Obama's support of mass transit is for projects designed to ease the commute of the average suburbanite. Or that an important reason many leave for suburbs is because they are being priced out of the urban core, not because they necessarily want to. Or that the very idea of "suburbs" as a homogenous entity is laughable, a point Kotkin inadverdently makes himself in pointing out their increasing diversity. Heck, a lot of people these days move to suburbs because they are diverse, closer to work, and more, dare I say, urban!
And the flip side of the coin, as many commenters on the article point out, is that the government puts an enormous amount of funding into subsidizing home ownership. And in many cases, even in the deepest depths of cities, the kind of urban density Kotkin is being imposed on freedom-loving citizens is actually illegal. As Atrios is fond of pointing out, the dense residential neighborhoods of a city like Philadelphia could never be built today--there are too many zoning requirements that require parking garages and such. That's why attractive urban residential areas are so pricey--the housing stock is limited by law. If any kind of war is being fought in this country, it's against those of us who would like to be able to take the bus to work and walk to the grocery store. Instead, we end up with neighborhoods like the one pictured above. That's the "neighborhood" around my Trader Joe's down here in Virginia--a forest of lamp-posts and empty lots as far as the eye can see.
The author, Joel Kotkin, is just kind of a wanna-be policy wonk with no policy and no wonk, but he does give give voice to a certain paranoid strain in American politics. Actually, here's where I can make the connection to some of my academic work. In the United States, at least, success political discourse is all about trying to find an imaginary category to which your audience can imagine themselves belonging, and then constructing that category as simultaneously universal and under attack. In our contemporary scene, that category is the "middle-class", to which we all invariably belong and for which every single politician in this country pledges to be working. Other variations include "families" (everyone fights for American families!) or in the not so distant past, "white people"; a little further back then that, white Protestant men. Kotkin is trying very hard to make "suburbanite" a similar universal-but-marginalized category.
What's actually hilarious is that I then learned that Kotkin also has this theory about what he calls "Gentry liberalism." Apparently it was "so hot a year ago"--seriously those are his words--but now it is in its death throes. If I only had known at the time that I was at the head of a hot political movement!