Has David Brooks Never Seen Chinatown?

The New York Times‘ David Brooks and the Washington Post‘s Kathleen Parker both show massive blindspots for the issues inherent to the suburban project. Because the two are arbiters of conventional wisdom, this is problematic.

The Los Angeles River. flickr user calwest

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To mark the 40th anniversary of the New York Times‘ Op-Ed page, house conservative David Brooks said something really silly. Writing about California’s current economic woes, Brooks trots out the usual suspects (civil employee unions and Prop 13), ignored one obvious culprit (voter referendums on spending) and instead set his targets on a new one: liberal anti-suburban activists. It’s Brooks’ opinion on suburbia’s role in California’s ascent (and descent) that seems a bit off. To wit:

The core of the state’s strength was in the suburbs. Between 1945 and 1950 alone, the San Fernando Valley doubled in population. In one 12-month period, between 1959 and 1960, Valley residents applied for 6,000 swimming pool permits.

Here, David Brooks shows the reader that he probably thinks Chinatown is about Chinatown. It’s not; it’s about Los Angeles’ Water Wars. Los Angeles robbed Owens Valley of their water to develop the San Fernando Valley. You see, the San Fernando Valley, nice as it sounds, was not some verdant paradise. It was a desert. So, when the New York Times‘ most noted conservative cites the pornography capital of the world’s massive number of swimming pools as an example of the core of the state strength, he’s sort of right on one level and tremendously wrong on another; the development of the suburbs in Southern California and the Bay Area were incredibly important for California’s prosperity, but he’s wrong to suggest that building swimming pools in what used to be a desert was a good thing. While building swimming pools in a desert can certainly drive prosperity for a few decades, there is a definite endgame there, which Brooks and others who think like him seem blissfully unaware of.

Not to be outdone, the Washington Post ran a column by Kathleen Parker this week, about how the real divide in America is not between Red State and Blue State, but between high-density living and low-density living. Kathleen has just moved to New York City, and without once saying “whatta town!’, she writes about how different The Big Apple is from her small South Carolina town. Here’s her beef with city life, which she parlays into a conversation about governmental regulation:

Nothing is simple when you have 8.4 million people living within 303 square miles. This seems obvious, but the daily impact of those statistics can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve experienced it. For every individual action, there are four typed, single-spaced pages of restrictions.

She cites building regulations against lighting birthday candles (which, frankly, seems made-up), and connects those to Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign against trans fats, which let to an outright ban on them in New York restaurants. Her cable guy was upset! “‘You can’t get a good doughnut in the city anymore,” he railed. “I have to drive to Jersey to get a decent doughnut.’” I’ll bet you a nickel that he went on to complain about tunnel traffic and MTA price hikes. Parker, new to New York, didn’t recognize that she was just hearing a New Yorker complain about the quotidian aspects of their life, and pining for a mythical past when the city was better for being worse. It’s what everyone does here. Perhaps she’s never seen Seinfeld?

But her big leap of faith is to try and connect her inability to light a birthday candle with why people from outside cities don’t like government regulation, and why people who live in cities love it. It’s worth pointing out here that her birthday candle issue is not a governmental one, but stems out of the fact that she probably lives in a fancy doorman building in Manhattan, and has therefore chosen to exchange the uncertainties and chaos of some random walk-up, non-guarded building for the luxuries and regulations of a building with an elevator and a very, very bored man who will sign for her packages. The birthday candle issue is not at all like Bloomberg’s anti-transfat campaign; if she moved next door, or across the street, she could light her “dadgum candle” all she wants. Really, the birthday candle rule is more similar to the covenants, conditions and restrictions that get placed on certain suburban homes, which transfer with sale. Nowadays, CCRs — and homeowner associations — regulate things like lawn upkeep, and the color of your mailbox, and how long you can keep your Christmas decorations up, and other boring, aesthetic aspects of suburban life. The idea is that this tyrannical structured maintenance will keep home prices up.

Of course CCRs have a sinister history, too. Early last century, they were used to keep blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews from buying homes in suburbia. In fact, I’d venture to guess that every home built in the San Fernando Valley initially had a race restrictive covenant on it; Los Angeles was billed to East Coast urbanites as a sort of white paradise. This was a private practice — and a popular one at that! — and would have continued had the Supreme Court not intervened, with the Shelley v. Kraemer decision (though the practice continued for a while afterward). The creation of suburbia was about control, not freedom. The freedom suburbia offered was freedom from the chaos of the city, and the undesirables of the city. The racist aspects of suburban life are no longer officially enforced, and suburbia has changed a great deal. But these self-imposed mechanisms of control live on, in the form of HOAs and CCRs. These have, of course, moved into cities, in the form of Business Improvement Districts, and perhaps anti-birthday candle rules.

In this sense, what Parker is experiencing is the corporatization and suburbanization of Manhattan, not some regulatory impulse that is part of what ‘city-dwellers’ normally deal with. It is becoming a controlled environment more in line with the principles of suburbia because, unfortunately, that’s what people want. It’s not because of governmental regulation. To conflate the two is quite dishonest, because they really are quite different.

Like David Brooks can’t see the inherent flaw with suburbia in California — the abuse of the environment — Parker can’t see that life outside cities can bring with it a different form of tyranny — a non-governmental one. This is important to point out, because these are the people who create the conventional wisdom surrounding important topics in society and politics these days, and I found their view on urban America troubling and dated.

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Tags: new york citylos angelesbuilt environment

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