Friday, May 17, 2013

Some Summertime (and Hopefully Sabbatical-Worthy) Speculations on Cities

That's Wichita, KS, right there, the city which has been our family's home since 2006 and will, quite possibly, remain our home until Melissa and I shuffle off to a better world. It's a nice picture (overlooking Central Riverside Park in the bend of the Arkansas River) of a nice city. It has many qualities that we like very much (as well as more than a few that we don't). My question: does it have a political theory? Or, really, can it?

I've lately been fascinated by the "City Meditations" which Alan Jacobs has been posting on his blog, especially the most recent one. He talks about the move his family will soon be making, leaving Wheaton, IL, a 50,000-person town which is, as he admits, "just part of the great conurbation of Chicagoland," and moving to Waco, TX, a city of 125,000 people (around 235,000 in the whole metro area) that is, because of its location in south-central Texas, truly a "stand-alone" city. For Alan, this is an invitation to continue to reflect upon why people move to cities, and why they move away from them; what cities have meant throughout history, particularly Christian history; and in what way our concerns about freedom, virtue, opportunity, and community are shaped by our urban (and rural, and suburban) landscapes--and soundscapes too. I hope he continues his reflections throughout the move this summer and beyond, because lately I've been wondering about such issues as well, particularly in regards to how they intersect with the lived reality of places like Waco. Or, for that matter, with places like Wichita--population 380,000 (630,000 in the metro area), and hours away from any remotely comparable cities in Oklahoma or on the Kansas/Missouri border. Or how about the city I grew up in--Spokane, WA, population 209,000, 474,000 metro (though I grew up primarily on a quasi-ranch/farm on the rural-suburban outskirts of the city), and similarly a long drive away from any other sizable metro unit? I was trained in political theory and philosophy, and while I've long since branched out into general political science and American government and constitutional law and everything else, simply due to the realities of teaching at Friends University, when I look forward to some kind of serious research project that I could work on and which might genuinely add something to the unaccountably vast and varied body of knowledge out there I think in terms of theory. And given my political and psychological predilections for thinking about communitarianism, localism, socialism, populism, and democracy, it was perhaps inevitable that after a while I began to ask to myself--what can I say, really, in a theoretical and normative sense, about where I live?

This isn't, I think, a purely academic question. The literature on cities as the vanguards or birthplaces of basic liberal and cosmopolitan insights and practices--pluralism, tolerance, individual rights, civil society, economic specialization, political freedom, trade--is vast. But so is the literature on the qualities and virtues of rural and small town life--participatory democracy, communitarian solidarity, self-governance, authenticity, agrarianism, long-term sustainability. It really isn't at all difficult to express cities and country life, with their various marginal cases, by way of a couple of broad types: city life is liberal and individualistic and fast-paced and consumption-based and filled with opportunity and risk; country life is conservative and socially restrictive and leisurely-paced and land-based and filled with attachment and "satisficing." Neither type is fully accurate, of course, but they have their theoretical uses. Do mid-sized cities have a similar use? If only to help us think about environmental and economic and civic and moral problems, so as to give us as human beings--social creatures that we are--a handle on the difficult problem of tipping points: when is a city too small, or too large, to be able to legitimately associate itself with this or that particular end? I don't know. I don't know if it might be that, throughout history, the mid-sized city (which, in my mind, is some combination of: 1) geographic isolation (which itself is a technology-dependent judgment), and 2) a population from 100,000 to 500,000 people--but what do I really know about it?) has actually filled some important, unstated, conceptual hole in our social imagination. Then again, maybe there isn't anything at all unique or worth particular respect when it comes to the mid-sized city--maybe, in terms of their public amenities and urban problems and environmental costs and economic opportunities, they're just communities stuck midway between either growing/bloating to some sufficient/too-big size, or shrinking/reducing to a more-reasonable/less-productive scale. And, of course, constitutional matters--local empowerment, federal arrangements, and all the rest, come into play here as well. Perhaps a mid-sized city, unlike huge metropolises, can be managed in a way so as to cultivate the sort of practices associated with small town environments, or perhaps they can be developed so as to attract, unlike rural areas, the sort of investments and opportunities that normally require a significant critical mass of people. Or perhaps both such possibilities are pointless goals, utterly inappropriate to the average city which is neither large nor small enough.

So as this summer finally and truly begins for me--my last, thank goodness, faculty meeting  of the semester was yesterday--my thoughts are turning to what I might be able to learn over the next couple of months. I've been promoted to full professor, and can apply for a sabbatical now. Lacking the sort of international connections or high-profile academic cred which might get me invites to one university or another, my most likely candidate for a sabbatical project is something I can do right here, in places like Wichita (or Waco, which I could visit, or Spokane, where my parents will still provide me with a place to sleep). I have a stack of books on my desk--Jane Jacobs, Alan Ehrenhalt, Edward Glaeser, Robert Wuthnow, and many others--who I hope might be able to give me the intellectual tools to begin to ask the sort of research questions which could get this project off the ground (and convince the sabbatical committee that it's a project worth giving me time off for). Maybe nothing will come of it, or maybe some other research opportunity will turn out to be more plausible and appealing. But for now, along with all my other reading, and being out and a part of Wichita this summer (go Wichita River Festival!) I think I'm going to keep reading Alan closely, and see what I can learn from him. Hopefully, his meditations will help along my own.


Alan Jacobs said...

It's so great to see this, Russell! — and to see that my own inchoate thoughts-in-progress have helped to spark some thoughts of your own. I really do think these are important ideas you're exploring, or beginning to explore.

As I get older I think more and more frequently of the late Bernard Williams's claim that "We suffer from a poverty of concepts." In focusing so much of our critical attention on the ideal types of The Urban and The Rural — the country-and-city dichotomy that goes back at least to the Epic of Gilgamesh, that is, as far back as anything cultural goes — we accept an impoverished analytical vocabulary. This can be seen in the vacuity of the notion of "suburbia": we attribute that vacuity to people who live in suburbs when the real emptiness is in our own concepts. All those gradations of cultural experience and practice left unacknowledged! We can and should do better.

Tim Lacy said...

I'm going to risk being impertinent with the following.

What of some recent histories that tries to break down the rural-urban dichotomy---works written since the 1970s: Cronon's *Nature's Metropolis*, Kenneth Jackson's *Crabgrass Frontier*, maybe something by Kathleen Conzen, Sam Bass Warner, Jr., or any number of articles on urban politics from the *Journal of Urban History*. Or maybe you want to go back to Lewis Mumford for the big thinking, long view? Finally, the H-Urban listserv is great for inquiries.

All of these books and authors take a big view of urban/suburban/community history---asking deep questions and trying to get at the core of what it means to live, work, and think in "cities."

That's it. I apologize if these suggestions seem impertinent.

Sincerely, Tim

Russell Arben Fox said...


Not impertinent at all! Those are exactly the sort of recommendations and ideas that I'd hoped this post would generate. I'm actually familiar with Crabgrass Fronteir, but the rest of those authors and titles are new to me (Lewis Mumford I'm aware of, but I don't think I've ever read anything by him, or struggled with any of this ideas). And the idea of getting in touch with some historians like yourself who could help me take the "big view" sounds very appealing. So thanks very much!

Tim Lacy said...

I'm no urban historian (I'm more of a cultural/intellectual/history of edu type), but I studied in a history dept. (Loyola Chicago) that is/was great for urban cultural history. My graduate work inculcated a love for Chicago history generally. But I'm from rural western Missouri, so I still think about small town and rural history. I once wrote a graduate paper on James C. Malin, an historian of the plains and grasslands. Donald Worster is The Historian in that area these days.