From the old west, we have learned an iconic model for the homesteader – simple, hardy families far from their communities of origin, scraping a living together through hard work in an alien, unforgiving and empty landscape. In the process, they created civilization in the wilderness. These homesteaders came to embody essential American values such as thrift, toughness, stoicism and self-sufficiency.
The myth created around this archetype – and make no mistake, it is a myth – obscures a set of more interesting facts that are potentially valuable as we explore (exploit?) the possibilities of shrinking cities. What are the facts that the myth obscures?
The first is that people simply moved to the frontier for abstract notions of freedom and liberty. People moved to the frontier mostly for economic reasons – they wanted to make a decent living and decided the dangers, when weighed against the opportunities, were worth it. They were often escaping limited options in other countries or in established American urban areas, including racial and class discrimination against Eastern Europeans, the Irish and people from the Mediterranean countries in Europe. This is in addition to African Americans and poor whites from the Appalachian regions of the Northeast.
The second myth is the myth of the uninhabited landscape. Like every other area on the American continent, the west had been inhabited for centuries by Native Americans whose social and community structures were well-adapted to their environment. The sense of an alien landscape can be attributed to the common practice of European settlers applying habits of living developed in other places to the western landscape. The source of my discomfort is that the current conversation about shrinking cities mirrors some elements of the Manifest Destiny/Homesteader myth. A partial list includes:
• The discussion of “abandoned neighborhoods” that are still inhabited by long-time residents, residents who, often with no support from institutional structures, have made radical adaptations in their lifestyle in order to remain in their communities. • The planned consolidation of remaining residents in dense communities whose borders and locations are determined by governmental and institutional organizations, not people in the community.
• The previous two intellectual constructions are paired with plans to demolish large numbers of pre-existing structures and create new use zones in the now-abandoned areas. These are to be parks (wilderness), urban agriculture (farms) and, in plans such as the Detroit plan, “opportunity areas” where large parcels would be made available for future development. • The discussion of existing populations as groups that need to be re-educated and trained to fit into the new, greener city. This is while acknowledging the unique skill sets already extant in these communities, both job and survival skills.
• The published plans reveal dependence, both stated and inferred, on getting new people to move to the area. These people are supposed to be different from the people who live there now. They may be called high-tech workers or the creative class. Just as often, these people are referred to – with admiration – as “urban homesteaders.”
I believe that the danger lies in not fully recognizing that the plans proposed will create winners and losers, and that it is very possible that the winners will have greater social and class affiliations with the professionals making the plans than the existing population. If the Homesteader Myth creeps into the discussion without be recognized and debunked, all that has been accomplished is the inversion of Manifest Destiny: noble suburbanites will be occupying the unsettled wildernesses of our distressed urban cities, struggling stoically to bring civilization to the natives in the form of green infrastructure, free WiFi and 24-hour coffee bars.
Any useful conversation about this issue will reveal a larger truth to all groups: that all interest groups and their various resources are being employed by planners, designers and policy makers toward the larger goal of stabilizing major urban centers; that this is happening because these centers represent agglomerations of financial, cultural, infrastructural, institutional and social capital that our country can ill afford to lose; and that everyone is going to have to make sacrifices to accomplish this goal.