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Friday, May 29, 2020

The Invaluable Inefficiency of Neighborhoods

[This is a shortened version of my recent Mittelpolitanism post, up on the Strong Towns website.]

The death of suburbia has been predicted many times, and yet suburban development endures. Will the current pandemic finally make the difference? Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn suggested it might a month ago, for two reasons.

First, in the wake of the economic wreckage of COVID-19, governments may just be too broke to handle the fiscal liabilities and infrastructure costs of suburbia—and when those costs are more immediately felt by residents, they'll leave. He pointed out that “the North American development pattern is built with an assumption of permanent affluence”—something that the economic consequences of the current pandemic may finally disabuse many people of.

Second, even if the suburban experiment doesn’t economically collapse, he suggested it may do so because the closures and restrictions necessary to keep people alive have made suburban limitations manifest as never before. "Those of us living in cities can hear the birds instead of car horns,” Chuck wrote. “The air seems cleaner. The city, more human." So we may see a critical mass of people pushing against cities sacrificing their urban neighborhoods for the sake of enabling suburban commuter ease.

Both of these speculations could be countered, of course. In the first case, will the economic devastation of COVID-19 really be sufficiently devastating, and does anyone actually want it to be? Even setting aside the unfortunately enduring appeal of having one's own (heavily subsidized and mortgaged) castle on a cul-de-sac, the suburbs are central to school district competition, socio-economic sorting, and what David Imbroscio has called the logic of "liberal expansionism," the linkage of suburban development with the push for ever-greater regional investment in a city, whether corporate or governmental. With all that in place, isn’t it likely that the means to keep suburban costs steady will somehow be found, absent a truly total economic collapse? (Note the Republican support in Congress for a second round of pandemic-related stimulus, this one focused, predictably, on infrastructure projects which historically have primarily served suburban commuters.)

As for the second case, will the mere experience of a healthier urban environment with fewer cars really lead people to decide against them? That's a change much longed for by anyone who worries about either the environmental health or the cultural strength of where they live—but when you place it against the delight of record low gasoline prices, and rates of infection which make urban density quite reasonably seem as something to fear, I'm not sure how much I would count on it.

During a Eutopia Workshop discussion organized by the good folks at Solidarity Hall, Chuck suggested that, whatever our speculations of a post-suburban future, the pandemic is going to force nearly every American city or town into one of two camps. Cities that take what he labeled "option 1" would be those who dare not contemplate real economic collapse, and thus will instead insist that residents be provided with every economic opportunity for continuing suburban and auto-centric ways of life, no matter what. As for "option 2," that would be the cities which do what is necessary to adapt to the reality of suburban costs in the face of the economic recession we are almost certainly facing—including doing the work to build up those civic strengths which will enable their residents to follow through on what the restrictions we have been operating under have hopefully allowed most of us to recognize.

What might those civic strengths be? In a word, they’re neighborhoods.

Note that “neighborhoods” are not necessarily “communities.” Community feeling and friendships can obviously exist among neighbors, but they don’t have to: what really matters to a neighborhood is proximity. Neighbors, because they live nearby each other, end up creating public spaces that can be mutually shared, and forming (both with and sometimes against one another) routines around and in the midst of those public spaces which bring richness to ordinary patterns of life. As Nancy Rosenblum wrote in her superb book, Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, neighbors exemplify “weak ties.” Neighbors regard each other as "decent folk" (or at least aspire to, and commiserate with other decent folk in the neighborhood about those bad neighbors who choose to not so aspire). They show reciprocity, speak out when necessary, but also abide by the rule "live and let live." Hence, the neighborhood is a place conceived in light of at least a degree of pluralism, mobility, and anonymity, with proximity being the essential bond: 

To moral philosophers committed to more demanding expressions of mutual respect or principled toleration, live and let live falls short. To disparage it is a mistake, however...."Weak ties" based on infrequent interactions are...[themselves a] critical resource....[O]rganizations where neighbors develop the capacity for collective action are key...a close cousin to the...rudimentary cooperation in countering people who flaunt reasonable expectations for "for what anyone would do, here" (pp. 113, 139-140).

Understanding the central role in distinguishing between different cities, and especially between different city approaches to dealing with the pandemic crisis, is crucial. In a small community of friends, of people committed to a shared (but more often than not also quite exclusive) faith or ethos or way of life, encouraging people in recognizing that which Chuck pointed out, and supporting one another economically in making the adaptations he suspects may be mostly unavoidable, would presumably go much more smoothly than it likely will in the pluralistic cities which 80% of Americans live in. The Strong Towns aim, as I understand it, is to nudge the urban environments we have to greater sustainability, and thus greater local empowerment, within which a whole host of particular communities can play their organic role. To the extent that we can build up the "weak ties" of our neighborhoods, build up their shared spaces and the trust they inculcate, build up the opportunities they provide for people to see the costs and opportunities of collective life directly, the more likely option 2 will become.

A central part of that building involves the "social infrastructure" that Elias Crim, the director of Solidarity Hall, wrote in his response to Chuck's presentation. He discussed the "traditional economy of cooperation," which has parallels in various distributist, socialist, and communalist institutional forms—none of which are particularly efficient, at least not from a market perspective. They allow for overlapping and conflicting responsibilities, tradition-bound forms of interaction and service, complicated collective decision-making practices, pricing mechanisms and welfare policies that reflect localized information, and more—all of which will make for economic forms which are more resilient when disasters occur, but in the meantime do not maximize efficient results.

What does this have to do with neighborhoods? In a sense, everything—because in many ways, the weak ties of neighborhood associational life and routines are the very definition of "inefficient." Marc Dunkelman, in his book The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, makes this his central thesis: that the routine, repetitive, inefficient, and overlapping encounters and social constructs which emerge from ordinary proximity with other people form a desperately important “middle ring” of casual trust and mutual support. Quoting Jane Jacobs’s line about neighborhoods being "valuably inefficient," he draws upon the work of Sean Safford to consider two different Rust Best cities—Youngstown, Ohio, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. In the latter, “neighbors attended a variety of different colleges and worked in different mills. They were congregants at different churches and regulars at different bars.....[This] random intersection of individuals from different pockets of society spurred big new ideas—even when they appeared to waste resources. Regions focused too exclusively on efficiency may have been able to produce more with less, but...[faced] an insufficient capacity to adapt to new circumstances" (pp. 171-172, 176).

If the current pandemic demands anything, it is certainly the "capacity to adapt to new circumstances." So as economic suffering and new realizations open up the possibility for a truly post-suburban future, however minimally, with such possibilities confronting all sorts of contrary pressures along the way, a focus on "weak," neighborly ties is crucial, as whatever transition may be in the offing may well depend upon those distinctive civic resources. What should such a focus look like? Much like some of the principles which Strong Towns has laid out in their Local Leader's Toolkit. In particular, for the enriching proximity of neighborhoods to function, the people living there:

*Need to have some basic food and housing security, especially at this time of economic insecurity and pandemic fear; they’re start hoarding, or pillaging, or simply leave otherwise.

*Need open spaces and alternatives for getting around; without them, the assumption that all their interactions should be conducted over a distance via the automobile will seem, whatever else their experiences with stay-at-home orders might be telling them.

*Don’t need invasive regulations interfering with their commercial and residential adaptations; the “live and let live” aspect of effective neighboring is never more important than when families shelter relatives, students, or co-workers during a time of lockdown, or start new businesses from their garages to replace lost income.

*Need, most of all, the cash to address those immediate local needs—the potholes in the street, the lack of bike racks at the grocery store, the vouchers for the bus ride to the farmers market or cross-town hub—which will reward the “decent folk” of a neighborhood for the work they’re doing in their places.

Not every town or city is an Allentown; every place has its unique social architecture. But wherever we live--which means, at present, wherever we are sheltering in place, wondering what comes next, and, quite possibly, relying upon our church and work communities, our family and friends, and our neighbors to get through the day--there are neighborhoods which need our help. Those overlapping, inefficient, weak ties between all of us, living next door or down the block from one another, are important for getting our places to make the beneficial shifts away from suburbia which this terrible pandemic makes possible. We should all find a good place nearby us to start.

The Coronavirus and County Authority

[This is a slightly updated and extended column of mine which ran in The Wichita Eagle on May 14, 2020; I'm late in getting it copied to here.]

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve gotten used to waiting on, listening to, and then either criticizing or thanking our elected leaders much more than usual. The reasons for this are obvious: during a public emergency we all, like it or not, depend upon those with governing authority who impose restrictions, provide support, and make decisions regarding public health.

What many Kansas have discovered, however, is that such authority isn’t always located where they thought it was. A lot of it, in fact, lies in the hands of Kansas’ 105 county commissions, probably the most often overlooked of all the state’s governing institutions.

To be fair, the same can be said for counties all across the United States. It’s common, in the political science literature, for scholars to admit that our knowledge of how county commissions make public decisions is sorely lacking. There’s no good reason for this, of course: County commissions adhere to the same public meeting requirements as other governing bodies. And yet, unlike the contentious fights that occur in city halls or the grandstanding that takes place in state legislatures--to say nothing of the constant attention focused on Washington D.C.--the day-to-day administrative work of counties often goes unnoticed by scholars and the media alike. Until, that is, a pandemic forces commissioners directly into the spotlight.

With few exceptions it is American counties, not cities, which have the ground-level responsibility for collecting data on health, overseeing the distribution of welfare, conducting the electoral business of democracy, and much more. But since county lines were historically drawn by state governments, dividing up their rural space without attention to the urban communities that later grew within them, it’s not unusual for those who seek and win county elections, and the officials they subsequently appoint, to become disconnected from the contentious, pluralistic reality they oversee.

There are, of course, plenty of contrary examples. In Johnson County, Public Health Director Sanmi Areola and his team have fought to communicate clearly across a complicated metropolitan area with many rival jurisdictions, as they have addressed Governor Kelly’s stay-at-home orders. In Shawnee County, the commission has mostly responded to County Health Officer Gianfranco Pezzino concerns positively, even contemplating, in the face of worrisome infection numbers, an unpopular extension of local lock-down orders as he recommends.

Still, examples of the occasional disconnect between Kansas citizens and those who run our counties aren’t hard to find. It’s not just a commissioner in Riley County attributing Manhattan’s low COVID-19 numbers to its lack of Chinese residents or commissioners in Sedgwick County joking about needing to talk more about the pandemic to justify the money they’ve received from the federal government. It’s simply the fact that in counties across Kansas, from Finney to Leavenworth, it has too often been the commissioners themselves criticizing state--or even their own county--health experts, playing to business or suburban communities that appear unaware of or unconcerned about what is happening in the downtown hospitals they depend upon. (It is worth noting that in 103 of Kansas's 105 counties, matters of public health are solely the province of county-level officials; only in Douglas County--with the city of Lawrence--and Cowley County--with the city of Winfield--are public health decisions made by a body that is jointly staffed and supervised by both the county and its primary urban area.)

The very shape of political institutions help form the beliefs of those who work within them. Consequently, as Kansas attempts to rebuild a new normal beyond the pandemic, thinking more seriously about home rule and the way cities, counties, and the state share governing authority should be near the top of every elected official’s list.

Star Trek, The Original Series, Season 2: The Second Binge

Season 2
Well, here's the next set. Once again, like Season 1, we watched them all the way through in original broadcast order. Season 2 of Star Trek isn't as strong as the first, but it has fine moments all the same. Just as before, no summaries here; just a grade and a few sentences explanation

Amok Time: A
Tightly plotted, with an impressive seriousness in the dialogue and performances (i.e., no sniggers about Vulcans and pon farr), McCoy is actually a smart, quick-thinking doctor, and the ritual makes sense instead of seeming needlessly Orientalist. Justly praised, and a great start to the season.

Who Mourns for Adonis?: B-
A pretty well-scripted effort, with good stuff for Uhura, Scotty, Chekov, and others to do, and a fun "Chariot of the Gods"-style story idea to boot, but not particularly well-executed.

The Changeling: C+
Oh wow: it's the first draft of Star Trek: The Motion Picture! Only not as good, because of plot conventions about how advanced computers worked that must have seemed goofy even in 1968. And really, there was no way to investigate Nomad's power, to learn from it?

Mirror, Mirror: A
A smart, fun episode; a great introduction to the Mirror University in Trek. The characterizations are delightful: Captain Kirk is quick-thinking and persuasively commanding, Uhura and Sulu are having a blast, and even "the Captain's woman" maintains her dignity, mostly.

The Apple: C-
If you ignore the colonialist mindset, I guess it's not that bad; our youngest daughter Kristen kind of liked it, but that may just have been the dragon cave. The actors playing the villagers were really committed, you have to say that.

The Doomsday Machine: A
A terrific script, with smart action, tension-filled performances, with Commodore Decker providing some real drama and pathos. One of the very best of the whole series.

Catspaw: C-
A Halloween episode! Nothing really original here--super-powerful and strange aliens studying humans get seduced by our emotions and sensuality, like always. What could have been fun was undermined by horribly cheap effects.

I, Mudd: D+
I don't know why anyone likes Mudd; is it just that there aren't any other recurring characters in all of The Original Series to cheer for? Anyway, another weak and deeply sexist episode, without much charm to help you look past it.

Metamorphosis: C-
What could have made for a really decent sci-fi episode--a genuinely alien creature falls in love with a human, who is repulsed by the idea once it is revealed to him--is undermined by an easy dodge in the direction of, and a shrugging acceptance of, heteronormativity and a little racism in the end, despite hints in at least one scene that the Enterprise crew was better than all that. Oh well

Journey to Babel: B+
Fun stuff--Spock's family, alien spies, and suicide missions. Sexist as always, but not annoyingly so.

Friday's Child: C+
A kind of confusingly structured episode. It's best understood, I think, if you just once again imagine the Federation (and this time the Klingons too) as a group of 19th-century imperialists trying to understand and bribe the primitives they want to colonize. Some fun stuff with McCoy though.

The Deadly Years: D
I feel like I've seen this one episode more than any others, and thus I have a weird fondness for it, but man, the ageism is terrible.

Obsession: B-
Not a great episode, but a basically nice sci-fi tale about a weird monster and an obsessed captain. Kirk's focus and the others' response to it is better and more believable than it was in "Conscience of a King" from Season 1.

Wolf in the Fold: C
Jack the Ripper as a space ghost! A crazy, goofball idea, carried off with more than the usual amount of sexism (women getting killed right and left, and did they actually bring Scotty to the planet just to get him laid?), but I guess it's okay fun all the same.

The Trouble with Tribbles: A
A great comic episode; probably their greatest. But it would have been better if Cyrano Jones have been played by Harry Mudd. Why not give him a decent episode to appear in for once?

The Gamesters of Triskelion: C-
Too goofy to dislike too much, but man, what was going on Uhura and Lars? Hey look, an Andorian! And man, Kirk can play the ladies. His gambling of the Enterprise itself is way out of character, but whatever.

A Piece of the Action: A
Totally hammy, and totally fun. I really should go through the episodes and count how many times the Enterprise's mission basically involves finding a lost landing party, or fixing what some earlier landing party did wrong, or rescuing the planet from a landing party gone crazy or bad.

The Immunity Syndrome: B
A cool straight-up sci-fi episode, with far-out space weirdness threatening the Enterprise. How much better this would have been with better special effects! Plus, it has some wonderful interplay between Spock and McCoy.

A Private Little War: B-
This is a frustrating episode, because watching it with any open-mindedness makes it clear what a fabulous story they had here. Unfortunately, they dressed it up with a lot of unnecessary hamminess from the "witch," and failed to make clear the obvious critique of Kirk's and the Federation's mindset, as was present in the dialogue of the characters (I think this episode has the only honest to goodness debate between officers on the bridge). The mix of sex and violence as social corruptions makes the episode particularly heavy, and you wonder if there was supposed to be a parallel between the doctor treating Spock and the witch treating Kirk. Anyway, it has potential, but never comes together.

Return to Tomorrow: C+
A predictable and somewhat boring set-up--godlike super-beings again?--but once they've possessed the crews' bodies, you've got a cool sci-fi premise, with strange beings with unknown motivations wrecking havoc. Kirk's big speech about the purpose of space exploration is oddly out of place, and there's too much of the usual Star Trek romance, though admittedly serving a somewhat different purpose here.

Patterns of Force: A-
How many of the problems some may have with this episode are a function of the fact that we think the lessons of Nazism are different than what was apparently believed by television scriptwriters in California the late 1960s? Anyway, a thoughtful episode, a good bit of sci-fi plugged into the utterly lame economies of the television budgets of the time.

By Any Other Name: B-
Some straight up moralistic sci-fi, with some nice touches to capture the alienness of the Kalvens. But with a lame, completely anti-climactic ending.

The Omega Glory: D+
Yet another parallel Earth, and this is the worst from the entire series, I think. Not because of the acting--crazy Captain Tracey is actually kind of great--but the fight scenes and general plotting are filled with inconsistencies, bad cuts, and stuff that just doesn't make sense. And that ending? Oh man, that's just wingnut stuff there.

The Ultimate Computer: B
Talking the master computer to death, again--a trope that will never die! But while the automation vs. humanity plot points are pedantic, this one shows inklings of AI all the way back in the late 1960s, so I give them some credit there. And the character of Daystrom is genuinely compelling.

Bread and Circuses: A
Once again, a parallel Earth, but this one makes up for "The Omega Glory"; it's really the best conceived and delivered parallel story from the whole story. Lot's of efficient details make the typical Star Trek cheapness seem plausible ("Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development"!), and it manages to cram in some genuine satire as well as some dark and very adult uses of sexuality (is Marcus mocking Captain Merick because he's weak-willed, or because he's gay?). I know some don't care for the explicit--and rather reverent--mention of Christianity at the end, but I adored it, and still do.

Assignment: Earth: B-
Hey, Gary Seven is Doctor Who! Or at least has what looks like a sonic screwdriver. Anyway this is a manifestly half-done episode (why did Roberta even show up in the apartment?). I can't imagine it would have been a good television in its own right, but I give them points for trying, and for truly launching Terri Garr's career.