07 April 2008

The rise and fall of the city in America

Every now and then (somewhat more often in my case) most folks will sit down during the evening after a day's work and watch a classic film, say a movie from the 1940s or 50s. And more often than not they will see in their settings and backdrops a lively cacophony of urban life (Rear Window, anyone?), with businesses and residents teeming and inner city neighborhoods thriving with human activity and relatively safe and clean, even if the residents happened to be not so affluent.

There was no second thought given to all this during the era these films were produced. This was accepted as a normal way to live. There was no expectation that it would change in the future. After all, the future was supposed to be shiny and gleaming, and would bring forth great and wondrous things. Sure, young families were moving to those freshly built ranches and Cape Cod split levels in the new suburbs (thanks in no small part to war and Depression, i.e. State, induced housing shortages in the urban centers), but it was never imagined that the cities themselves were at any risk due to this.

Today, we observe the destroyed state of our ravaged urban centers, and cannot conceive or remember a time when this situation had ever been any other way.

I am not blaming suburbanization in itself for this. You may find this strange. After all, the State has done a large part, indeed the greater part, in constructing and supporting suburbia for the comfortable classes and increasingly, the less affluent dumb masses (say it five times fast) who buy into the so-called American Dream bullshit of owning a detached house with a white picket fence, a huge useless lawn you have to mow about twice a week in the summer, and a two car garage cluttered with lawn care shit. (Subprime nation, anyone?)

But the fact is that low density development patterns are more efficient for automobile travel, which is by far the dominant travel mode, as any city planner will readily acknowledge. Even inner urban areas have been largely reconstructed to reflect this. (Been downtown lately, to visit all the pleasant and attractive parking lots and garages?)

This does not excuse State activities; I submit that the same development patterns would have occurred without State intervention, just much more slowly, and the shape and form of the development would likely be very different, likely somewhat denser to be more cost efficient (similar to the 'town centers' you see sprouting up from the ruins of dead malls across the land, and coming soon to a city near you). After all, suburbanization has been going on ever since cities were founded.

Automobiles, despite all the State subsidies they receive, are still wondrous symbols of freedom. No people in history ever had the ability as the modern American to pick up and jet at will, without regard to timetable and the cattle herd of train, bus, or plane, voting with his feet if conditions in one place become intolerable enough or another location's attractions are sufficiently enticing. That's the great free market in action.

Petrol would not be so expensive if the Empire were not off engaged in high adventures in Mesopotamia. Peak oil is a sham, and if the theory has any merit you can thank the State for it, as usual. There is more oil sitting under New York State than anyone would care to admit, but try to crack open a well there and watch the enviro-wackos and their public counterparts in government go apeshit. (The first oil wells in the USA, by the way, were drilled in western Pennsylvania in the 1850s.) Shit, in my state we have no problems at all with making use of our bountiful natural resources for profit. We just plug away and drill wherever the oil or gas happens to be. Provides jobs and livelihoods for workers and their families. Doesn't mar the landscape whatsoever. Actually, refineries are beautiful structures, testaments to man's ingenuity and ability to create complex things.

Sorry, Jim Kunstler - while you are spot on regarding what's left of our economy and our broken financial system, I am never going to give up my car to satisfy your liberal conscience.

And there is beauty in the highway landscape and the freeway, just not of a kind we as a society largely appreciate as of today. Perhaps in the future.

No, the death of the city has different antecedents. And the clues we should be looking for are social, not physical in nature. Many of these have to do with, of course, that all purpose, constant villain and eternal enemy of mankind, the State.

Cities grow and change constantly, even though most urban planners today will not admit it. (Witness zoning codes if you don't believe me. A more idiotic example of attempting to freeze development in set State-desired patterns, or a more perverse method for baldly extorting revenue from businessmen as bribe money so that government may permit itself to change the code, cannot be conceived.) In a natural pattern that has been analyzed at the academic level, generally as neighborhoods grow and age, the types of residents who live there will evolve, from relatively affluent down through working class, to the end where the neighborhood is populated by the poor. Every ghetto in existence (except perhaps for certain neighborhoods in Southern cities to which Blacks were restricted before the end of formal housing discrimination) was at one time likely a fashionable neighborhood, or at least a onetime home for the middle class.

Manhattan's Lower East Side is a famous case in point. In the early 19th century it was a popular suburb for the affluent; by century's end it was a ghetto for penniless Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Yet it was not a 'ghetto' in the sense we think of today. Sure the people were poor, experienced hard times periodically, and the population was largely comprised of one ethnic group. Yet unemployment was not appreciably higher than anywhere else. Men (and women and even children - this was before child labor was outlawed) were expected to work. Values were preserved and enforced. Men were expected to marry the woman they intended to produce children with. Moochers and parasites were social outcasts, consigned to a place outside society. People helped each other when the situation demanded and there was much mutual support, but all this was viewed as temporary charity, to be reciprocated at a later date - quite literally the same as a creditor calling in a debt.

The narrow streets teemed with life and commerce - fruit peddlers, bakers, butchers, shopkeepers and merchants of every other stripe, horses and buggies, people moving to and fro. And remember that English was not their first language, either.

The entire intent was to make each individual responsible for himself. Since everyone was poor, and only had enough for himself, it could only be this way. There were no food stamps or WIC in Gilded Age America.

You will note where I am headed here. The current crop of underclass are poor, and are largely comprised of out-group ethnicities and races. But they no longer hold values which inculcate responsibility, or for that matter any values at all. They are the ultimate product of the total welfare State - a completely nihilistic, narcissistic breed of humankind, thinking only of himself and ways to maximize his benefits while minimizing, preferably eliminating (that is, transferring to others), any effort necessary to obtain them.

And these fine folk populate our poorer urban neighborhoods. And then we wonder why they are fast reverting to prairie grass, and left to the misrule of thugs and moral degenerates (that means you, Kwame).

No morals = no character = no interest in anything except the self = destruction of communities, cities, countries, entire societies.

Selfishness is generally a virtue, as Ayn Rand pointed out. When we attempt to maximize our gains in a free market environment, it tends to benefit others as a matter of course (as in entrepreneurship and trade). Both parties are made better off. But narcissistic selfishness of such a deep and sucking nature is completely destructive. This selfishness demands "Where's mah subsidy?" and does nothing to earn it. It drains wealth from society, and makes us poorer. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

This is the nature of the ghetto underclass, and of the State and the rest of the parasite class which it supports. Interesting that here, one cannot survive without the other.