Paranoid Anti-Urbanism as an Election Gambit

I had heard of Stanley Kurtz’s new book in the course of some research on Fulton County secession, and aside from a morbid curiosity about what evil lurks in the brains of the professional right-wing punditariat, had little professional interest. The subtitle gives away the trick: “How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.” In fact, quite the opposite is true. American suburbia is a spatial transfer of resources out of cities, through public and private agency, on a scale unprecedented in history. This notwithstanding, Kurtz’s tale opportunistically marshals several disparate threads of right-wing thought (anti-urbanism, Objectivist distrust of the public sector verging on political autism, automobile transportation as a fundamental human right, decision processes based on reflexive spite against the preferences of imagined liberal elites, and fear of imaginary United Nations conspiracies. Oh, and not-really-cryptoracism). If you had forgotten, the cover reminds you that Obama’s black!). Ben Adler’s smackdown review on Next American City summarizes all of this quite well.

If you read Next American City, you probably think you are reasonably well-informed on the major urban policy issues of the day. You poor sap! You’ve been deceived. It turns out, according to Stanley Kurtz — a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center — that President Obama has a plan to massively overhaul the nation’s cities and suburbs. It’s all right there, if you just connect the wildly disparate dots.

Adler’s not kidding about the wildy disparate dots, and rather than quote after quote after quote, I’ll just recommend that you go and read the whole thing. OK, one more quote:

Kurtz uses nothing but pure assertion to rebut the understanding — widely accepted by experts — that America’s landscape reflects 60 years of encouraging suburban sprawl through tax, zoning and transportation policies that favor building roads and parking, buying new homes, and segregating uses over mass transit, density and renting.

After reading and thinking about Adler’s rebuttal, though, I realize that it’s important to explore the roots of this kind of argument a bit more, not because it’s a logical argument, or one supported by evidence, or one with principles of fairness on its side. It’s important to understand because it represents the ways that cultural politics have and will continue to shape our metropolitan areas. In other words, the interesting puzzle is not to show why Kurtz’s argument is objectively nonsensical, but to show how and why it continues to make such potent subjective sense.

In part of his tome exerpted at the National Review (linked so you can see that this is for real), Kurtz identifies the boogeyman of regionalism. Thinkers like David Rusk and other New Regionalists stand in for an elitist plot to substitute regional authority for local government, and ultimately herd Americans into dystopian apartment blocks built by the United Nations.

Yes, people really think this. People who have their opinions widely reported. It’s even part of the 2012 Republican Platform to decry the Obama Administration’s alleged plan of

“replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”

Nutty? Unfortunately mostly to a small community of academics and other reality-based life forms! But Kurtz’s conspiratorial rantings tap into a broad based-common sense.

Understanding the rhetorical potency of Kurtz’s argument requires understanding how he leverages two fallacies rooted in ahistoricism in his discussion of “the suburbs.” First, Kurtz is ignoring the way that suburbs grew in relationship to central cities. In making this historical elision, Kurtz portrays suburbs as outcomes of choice and preference, and the concentration of wealth and privilege in elite suburbs as natural and praiseworthy outcomes of preferences in the marketplace. There’s a kernel of truth this view, which is best expressed here, though even this account elides the way that the desirability of suburbanization in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a relational idea (a “bourgeois utopia”) formed in distinction to the wretched conditions of immigrant slums in New York and other large American cities, rather than an innate, trans-historical human desire to live in a suburban environment (see here to the contrary). It also ignores the role of government policy in subsidizing this lifestyle and environment. Regionalism, viewed through this market fallacy, is an illegitimate attempt to take from people who have built equity wealth in suburban real estate and give to people who don’t deserve it. This trope is pernicious enough, and works as a rhetorical puzzle piece that dovetails nicely with other pieces like racism,  trickle-down economics, and the demonization of public employees.

Now, historically speaking, it’s nonsensical to think of suburbs outside of a regional context. The first residential suburbs (and, to be clear, these are the kinds of suburbs that Kurtz imagines are threatened by Obama’s schemes–affluent residential areas of single-family homes) were residential outposts connected to city centers by streetcar lines. While people lived there, they depended on the cities for work, for commerce, and for the cultural and economic substance of their lives. While the built environment of these suburbs was different, and the people living there certainly preferred the semirural setting of the suburbs (and had the means to act on their preferences), no one thought of the suburbs as spaces entirely separate from the city; both proximity and selective connections to city centers defined suburban life. Further, access to city services like water and sewers influenced many suburban communities to annex to larger cities in the 1800s and early 1900s (see Jon Teaford’s classic work on this subject). Indeed, in places like Los Angeles, streetcar lines licensed by downtown municipal governments enriched the Huntington family only partly through fares: the political apparatus of municipal franchises allowed them to route streetcar lines through their speculative land holdings and subdivide them to increase their fortune (see this account by Henry Friedricks).

Technological, political, and cultural barriers to suburban independence have gradually fallen, and today many pundits imagine suburban space as untethered to old central cities. Suburban cities operate their own utilities and services; corporate offices and retail and shipping facilities have moved outward to cheap, developable land, and the daily life of a resident of an affluent suburb may include less frequent contact with the big city than ever before. But the infrastructure that makes this autonomy possible is quite dependent on urban centrality–road networks were built around concentrations of people, business went where the money was, and even the infrastructure of telecommunication, the stuff that supposedly obviates the need for “technoburbs” to connect to cities at all, was built around central nodes that followed patterns of urban concentration. Most often, central city taxpayers funded the expansion of this infrastructure, and, as Richardson Dilworth has shown, the intellectual capital of civil engineers and builders developed building big-city sewers and roads was then sold at a discount to growing suburbs.

Cities, in other words, provided the laboratories and paid for the research that produced the technology of living together. If Kurtz wanted to start an honest tally of debits and credits on his ledger, he might find a different answer to the question of who owes whom.

But Kurtz isn’t interested in an honest discussion of regionalism, a disinterest betrayed by the second fallacious part of his argument. Kurtz defines “suburbs” as places filled with people he likes (white, affluent, straight, and right of center) and imagines the landscape they inhabit as threatened. This is an argument about suburbs that exist in Kurtz’s imagination, rather than in America, where suburbs have always been varied. They have been poor as well as wealthy, racially diverse and peopled by minorities as well as homogenous and white, and have departed from the picket fence ideal far more often than they have conformed to it.

This has been true since the dawn of suburbanization, and it’s true today (For further reading, start here, and continue with now-classic studies by Andy Wiese and Becky Nicolaides). As Manuel Pastor and other New Regionalists demonstrate, many suburban municipalities fit the demographic profile of “inner city” areas. They have high unemployment, low levels of educational achievement, large minority populations, and deteriorating infrastructure. In fact, many of these suburbs have seen their own form of white flight. Today, the greatest numbers of poor Americans live not in cities, but in suburbs. Not only are many of these suburban cities impoverished, their political autonomy leaves them isolated as small governments attempting to address big problems, and the suburban poor face daunting challenges in physical mobility that impede their social mobility in ways that the poor in large cities don’t face–the typical cost of owning an automobile in America is almost $9,000 a year, according to AAA (an organization with little incentive to promote alternatives).

This suburbia that is excluded from Kurtz’s vision is, in fact, the part of the country that needs regionalism the most. New regionalists provide ample evidence that integrated development strategies can help produce both expansion and greater equity. Yet this win-win strategy remains an extremely tough sell, in part because of the distorted and deceptive view of suburban victimization painted by Kurtz and generations of suburban politicians, who have eagerly capitalized on the racial motivations of white flight and the development of a distinctly suburban identity and political culture, as well as the sense of upward mobility conveyed by suburbanization, to create a zero-sum metropolitics both in institutions and in culture. Residents of poorer suburbs aren’t conditioned to think of themselves as beneficiaries from greater regionalism.

I should note that I’ve been particularly concerned with historicizing the New Regionalist critique of metropolitics, because, while the argument for win-win development they advance is compelling, as social scientists many New Regionalists greatly underestimate the historical tenacity and path-dependency of zero-sum, antagonistic thinking. I’ve published work on this problem here, and will have a piece coming out soon in the Journal of Urban History exploring a case study in Southern California.

In the meantime, beware the conspiracy to destroy the suburbs; the fact that there’s no evidence for it just means Obama’s covering his tracks carefully.

4 comments on “Paranoid Anti-Urbanism as an Election Gambit

  1. unknwnartst says:

    I love your outlook on suburban America! Keep it up!

    I’m looking to build my community of bloggers and would love to interact with you in the future. I truly enjoy your opinion and look forward to reading your posts in the future.

  2. […] black-led governments, from Atlanta and Fulton County to the Obama Administration are conspiring to rob the suburbs to pay for the cities. On “the internets” I’m told that “the kids” refer to this as […]

  3. […] addresses the neoliberal moment of Obama’s (mostly notional) urban policy, the ongoing neocon culture war against cities, and of course, secession […]

  4. […] wrote here a couple of years ago about a book published by Stanley Kurtz called Spreading the Wealth: How […]

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