Anti-Urbanists?

There is a book out about them written by an anti-suburbanist, reviewed by City Journal, and as a happy cul-de-sac resident, the review is on the mark.

An excerpt.

The American political Left is now heavily associated with cities, but it wasn’t always so. Proto-Democrat Thomas Jefferson once claimed that the “mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores to the strength of the human body.” William Jennings Bryan and prairie populists criticized cities as thrones of parasitic capitalism and exploitation. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal explicitly focused on rural concerns; where it did address urban concerns, it often provided an incentive for people to move out of the city. The National Industrial Recovery Act, the Resettlement Administration, and most importantly, the Federal Housing Administration, set the framework for the American suburban boom, with mortgage guarantees encouraging single-family home acquisition and tilting the field of housing purchase forever since in favor of buyers and against renters.

One merit of Steve Conn’s Americans Against the City is a frank accounting of this past. Conn is understandably hostile to policies that explicitly favor the rural or suburban over the urban. The Interstate Highway system, he argues with ample justification, ruined countless urban neighborhoods in the name of progress. Large-scale urban renewal did the same. But while Conn doesn’t hesitate to eviscerate the architects of the highway system wholesale, he’s repeatedly eager to offer at least partial excuses for the tremendous missteps of the urban renewal crowd. Why? Because they possessed the twin left-wing graces of compassion and a willingness to spend public money. He grades on a curve; good intentions count in his book. 

Conn outlines both left- and right-wing critiques of various urban renewal policies, but weights them differently. Left-wing criticisms are deemed undeniably true, while right-wing views—even those Conn generally agrees with, such as Martin Anderson’s The Federal Bulldozer—are dismissed as being anti-government. It’s a grating pattern, repeated throughout; Conn wants us to remember the good intentions behind a failed program, while reminding us of the bad faith of the failed program’s critics.

Anti-urban government policies undoubtedly contributed to urban decline in the late-twentieth century. City dwellers flocked to federally underwritten homes in suburbs connected by federally constructed roads. Sprawling Sunbelt cities looked nothing like their predecessors on the East Coast. Those who moved there, as Conn rightly notes, were often small government conservatives suspicious of government spending. Largely absent from Conn’s narrative of the growth of suburban and Sunbelt America, however, is mention of the crime, dysfunction, and high costs that drove people out of the cities in the first place. Conn views cities as powerless vessels, tossed asunder by waves of national scale….

Trouble is, Conn hates the suburbs so much he can’t bring himself so much as to acknowledge their benefits. Movement from the cities to the suburbs wasn’t driven simply by tail-finned, Goldwaterite selfishness. Compared with a life of urban renewal, school busing, crime, and crushing taxation, life in a cul-de-sac offered far more real community to millions of Americans. Whatever you think of them, the suburbs have clearly satisfied the hopes and wishes of many Americans more effectively than cities have over the last half-century.

Retrieved June 12, 2015 from http://www.city-journal.org/2015/bc0612ap.html

 

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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