The Magazine

Where Was I?

The loss of distinction in the end of community

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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If ever a topic was born familiar, this book would qualify. The paradox is easily explained. The title of this collection of essays embodies a truth that would have been undeniable before the age of technology swept over us. At the obvious level, there is the eternal human need for familiar settings in which we feel rooted, our own “briar patch,” recalling Br’er Rabbit’s crafty escape from the clutches of Br’er Fox. Or, at a loftier level, what Edmund Burke called “little platoons”:

To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of all public affections .  .  . the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of our country and to mankind.

The fading distinctiveness of American places offers contributors of every specialty material to chew on here. The collection ranges from the fancied dangers of global positioning satellites to the vanity of highway building—that is, from the obvious to the eccentric. It originated at a 2010 colloquium at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy.  

The coordinates of spacial identity are, in principle, obvious—a complex web of kin and kind: family, education, ancestry, race (in its less toxic sense), and spoken accents—before Valley Girl patois blotted regional phonetics. (Once, on a visit to Canada years ago, my mother drew a crowd in a hotel lobby when she asked directions in the liquid accents of central Georgia. It was a scene unimaginable today.) Television and “globalism” might have been expected, meanwhile, to acquaint even the untraveled with unfamiliar ways of speech or the beauty of manicured landscapes, as in rural England. 

But so far, the trend is perverse. As an accompaniment of our fabled mobility (it is said that 30 million Americans change residence yearly), we move much too fast, and too frequently, to pause to savor landscapes or avoid disfiguring clutter. Every American city worthy of the name (or pretense) boasts an “international” airport, approached by a sprawl of jerry-built joints so stereotyped that if you came upon it blindfolded you could hardly distinguish Baltimore from Buffalo, or Charlotte from Kalamazoo. Even guidebooks and souvenir postcards, one essayist suggests, offer dull pristine perceptions of great spectacles such as the Grand Canyon. 

Walker Percy once wrote that “the thing is no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard: it is rather that which has already been formulated—by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon. .  .  . If it looks just like the postcard, [the tourist] is pleased; he might even say, ‘Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard.’ ” 

In any discussion of place, towns and cities—what they look like and how we fit into them—are paramount. Half a century ago, a novice critic of “urban renewal,” Jane Jacobs, published her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It is much mentioned here. Jacobs was alarmed by the wanton surgery being performed on organic and functioning city neighborhoods. After a wave of scornful dismissal from the urban planners she targeted, the book proved her to be a prophetess, a Cassandra of the city, and quickly became a classic. Urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s was a well-intended form of social engineering that too often failed to take account of the hidden virtues of city neighborhoods. 

This writer, inspired in part by Jacobs’s eye-opening book, once described a typical sterilization of urban landscape which he had personally witnessed. 

Another cityscape .  .  . is Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 1940s when I was a boy growing up nearby. Often on Saturday my parents would drive into the city to shop, to see movies, to visit friends and relatives. Our route passed through the eastern reaches of the city, then as now a mainly black community. Colorful masses of people, many in Saturday finery, spilled from the shops into the sidewalks and .  .  . into the streets, celebrating the week’s end. A white family felt no fear, no sense of distance, in their midst. But it was not much more than a decade later that this teeming cityscape .  .  . was designated a “slum” and for the very best of civic reasons subjected to “clearance” and “renewal.” What had been a rich and varied scene .  .  . was transformed into a planned scene of green spaces, new buildings, and busy auto arteries. But in the process the rich life had vanished .  .  . [and] some sort of antiseptic blight had been produced. Streets were deserted and a vague apprehension seemed to hang in the air.

An abiding concern and another foe of civic integrity is rootlessness, so often the consequence of displacement. Simone Weil identified it years ago: “The French mystic,” wrote Russell Jacoby, “devoted a book to the subject, The Need for Roots (1949). She saw the ‘disease of uprootedness’ as an ailment of the modern age.” Whether it is nostalgia for homely landmarks or a state of spirit once known as accidie, “uprootedness” is a price that America pays for the social dynamism we cherish—the dynamism that Frederick Jackson Turner celebrated in extolling the frontier as the defining engine of American peculiarity. 

But it is a running theme of these essays that we pay a price for the latest mechanism with the care and feeding of automobiles. At a certain tipping point, traffic overwhelms highway expansion, requiring ever more frantic efforts to keep up, exemplified by episodes of road rage on the choked commuter routes that are estimated to cost drivers a week’s worth of time every year. Drive south from Washington in the early morning on Interstate 95—surely among the most hated interstates of all—and witness a congestion stretching halfway to Fredericksburg, 40 miles away. It is merely one of many.

The sum and substance of Why Place Matters is the idea that, while Jane Jacobs and other prophets of the perils of displacement have taught us to be wary of facile nostrums, there are always complications. They are the domestic counterparts of foreign venturers, high-minded and eager but sometimes oblivious to the difficulties that exist where strange customs and unfamiliar histories lurk. We are perennially surprised to find ourselves bereft of community spirit, “bowling alone,” with old ties to “little platoons” frayed. Like a patient in the doctor’s office, we can readily identify the complaints, the aches and pains of a dynamic age. The diagnosis is often obvious. But the prognosis and cure need work, and lots of it.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.