As I was preparing to proctor this year’s PSAT with a colleague she shared a story with me about being among the first students to take the MCAS exam over two decades ago. It brought to mind the fact that I was not only already teaching at that point, but my daughters were attending school and I was on the parent advisory committee at their school when it happened. The local newspaper came out with a series of articles on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System of examinations the primary theme of which was “Urban Schools Suck”.
Because I was motivated to believe that my decision, as a parent and an educator, to send my own children to an urban public school was not tantamount to abuse and neglect I did hours of research and number crunching and demonstrated that the MCAS exams did little more than rank schools by which had the most kids on free and reduced lunch.
At the same time I was barraged by friends with comments about the dangers of living downtown. A few specific events which were ubiquitous on local TV and print media started me down the path which two decades later became Rational Urbanism. The first was the arrest of Louis Lent, a man who confessed to being responsible for numerous child abductions and murders. He abducted more than one child while each was riding a bicycle alone on suburban and rural roadways, but was caught when trying to abduct a girl on her way to school in downtown Pittsfield. The second was the terrible story of a young teacher, whose sister was a student in one of my classes, who was abducted and murdered while working her second job as a retail clerk at a small shop in a suburban strip mall.
What I saw, because I was looking for it and wanted to find it, was a pattern of stranger danger possibly being greater in suburban and rural locations. It was years later that papers began to be published in peer reviewed academic journals which supported the hypothesis which I had formulated to support my decision to raise my family in an urban environment.
To be clear, on both issues I got the right answer not because my reasoning was better but because I was motivated to use my reasoning to find what turned out to be an answer which was correct. These experiences along with being the host of a talk radio show every weekend gave me some insight into reasoning at a time when I dearly wanted to avoid being outed as “wrong” on whatever subject in a very public medium. I began to distinguish in a very conscious way the difference between what I wanted to be true and what the evidence seemed to point to as true. All the time. I got to know myself much better, for good or for ill, but I also had to let go of some ideas which I had dearly wanted to be true.
At the top of the list are things like coming to grips with death being the end. Full stop. Or that the right will prevail. Or that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. Or that I’m a likable person outside of a high school classroom.
The stark realities I work very hard to obligate myself to live with make me very sensitive to the inability of others to do what I try to do regarding my preferred beliefs. The past few weeks have provided me with even more grist for that mill. Here in the northeast we had a traditional Nor’easter which, apparently, underwent “bombogenesis” and became a “superstorm”. Thousands and thousands were without power in this region for days. Schools were cancelled.
Our lights never even flickered and Luna was upset to find all of the schools open and unharmed. As usual. I can’t recall a single power outage here; tornadoes, remnants of hurricanes, blizzards, and now bombogenesis; never been without utilities once in their wake for even a split second.
A few weeks ago in California power was cut off, on purpose, to hundreds of thousands of customers for days in order to avoid a repeat of last year’s fire storms which destroyed entire rural communities. From what I could see in the press urban neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco, like mine here in downtown Springfield with underground utilities, had experienced business as usual.
With all of that as a backdrop I hear two genial, sober, and responsible men discuss in a public forum the idea of finding community and creating a resilient life in what they describe as a sick culture (I agree). To give them their due, they do discuss “staying put” as a possibility; creating a checklist of your various forms of capital, and seeing if what you have corresponds to what you desire. All very useful. All very much designed to accommodate the individual, or the family, in its focus to help people discover what it is that brings them the most happiness.
But I’ve read what these guys have written for years, I’ve even met one of them. I remember the look of panic that came across Chris Martenson’s face when I told him that I not only lived in Springfield, (“Oh, there are some nice neighborhoods there.”) but in the urban core of Springfield (“…………………………….”).
I get it, he sees hordes of marauding “those people” eating my liver without Fava beans or Chianti. And maybe that will happen. If so I hope I’m dead before even the antipasto is served.
But right on cue, when these two begin to discuss what to do if moving is part of what needs to be done in order for you, whoever you are, to find your bliss, the examples are 100% anti urban. People are looking to get away from places where there is no “security and safety”; no mention of how safe and secure you might feel if your access to the grid is cut off. “I need access to natural beauty. I really am sick and tired of living in a concrete jungle and urban grime. I’ve got to figure some way to have access to natural beauty, for instance.”
What I realize is that these are the same guys who made up reasons to not live in walkable places 30 years ago. They moved their families to the suburbs, they lived empty lives devoid of community, by their own admission(!), and now their solution is to recreate suburbia but as an intentional community! Keep in mind these guys are free marketers, with a belief that what we are seeing now as “horrible consequences” is because of a perversion of the market. But what they are recommending as a solution is abandoning the “free market” that establishes a community and creating a command and control community.
At the same time their claim, in the end, is that community is the most important thing…but they don’t want to be the “tax donkeys” who pay for it! Tax donkeys. They’re the victims. The White suburbanites who abandoned the productive places to live an auto-oriented life (in two ways, car centered and self centered) and suck society’s productivity out to pay for their unproductive lifestyle now want to move on and recreate it elsewhere because the bill is coming due. All in the name of community!
And this idea that beauty is to be found only in nature! Fuck you! Like humans aren’t part of nature, like we haven’t arranged places by thoughtfully combining our artistic sensibilities with elements of natural beauty to create the most amazing places on earth. Sorry, I have seen streetscapes and manmade parks that are more beautiful than any wild landscape. If you disagree, bully for you, but I’d sit and wonder at the beauty and complexity of any number of manmade spaces far longer than I would at any forest or mountain range, and my senses are no less developed than yours, no less attuned to the idea of the aesthetic. Take your biophilia and shove it up your ass.
Some people might want to run away from where they live and start over. Awesome. But not every manmade landscape is a grimy concrete jungle. Just because you, or your parents, left a beautiful manmade place to live in a horrible, soulless post war industrially manufactured suburban subdivision doesn’t mean that every city is ugly and valueless. And it may well be that people have created and lived in cities for thousands of years because there is a survival value in them as well. Hmm, there’s something to contemplate. Maybe running away “to nature”, even as a survival strategy, isn’t such a good idea.
I’ve been through a half a dozen natural disasters right here in this very urban, very poor neighborhood, and in every instance we’ve been the rescuers, not the rescuees, we’ve always been the lifeboats, never the Titanic. There could always be a twist ending I suppose, but ask yourself, is that really what is most likely, or is that just what you want to have happen?