Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fallout over the DC progressive coalition

I have been meaning to write about the fallout about the "progressive coalition" in DC based on how Councilmember Tommy Wells was "deposed" as the chair of the DC Council Transportation Committee, and how the Council went along meekly on a 12-1 vote. This was discussed in articles in the media and in the blogosphere, especially in entries from Greater Greater Washington.

The problems in DC politics are not unlike the problems of progressive politics in student government at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s, when I was involved in student government.

There was seemingly a "progressive" coalition between African-Americans and left/progressive whites that "ran" student government for a time. But it turned out that this coalition was misleading. African-Americans joined in with the left because progressives had an affirmative action agenda. But when the concept of "hate speech" codes came to the fore, the progressives, committed to free speech, were abandoned by the African-American members of the coalition, because they wanted strictures on speech if it meant restrictions and penalties for racist/hate speech.

This is not unlike the division of interests present in DC today, and discussed in Howard Gillette's Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning and the Failure of Urban Policy in DC, which distinguishes two different agendas, one committed to social justice and the other focused on quality of life, placemaking, and "beauty" in the built environment.

While Gillette attributes the focus on built environment to the federal interest and control of the city, I think this dichotomy of agendas can be extended as a way to understand the local political and economic agenda as opposed to the relationship of the local government to the federal government.

This split over placemaking versus social justice is mirrored in the City Council, in part because there isn't an all encompassing vision of what the city should be. And I think it was captured very well in two paragraphs from the piece "The Selling of Walmart: How the world's biggest retailer won over D.C." in the Washington City Paper:

Looked at one way, Walmart’s cakewalk is an illustration of D.C.’s southern nature: Trusting of big business, grateful for investment, deeply skeptical of unions. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., often a big labor backer, has been Walmart’s biggest cheerleader. And in Ward 4, Councilmember Muriel Bowser doesn’t think organized labor should get any special deference. “Dues-paying members are concerned that Walmart will drive down wages, and they won’t be able to negotiate for as much,” she says. “So that’s as self-interested an argument as any.” It may be true. But setting up consumers and workers as two different interests is classic anti-union boilerplate, and not the sort of argument Walmart’s cadres usually hear in northern cities.

Looked at in another way, however, it’s just more evidence of D.C.’s division along the lines of race and class. Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist who helped found Walmart Watch, notes that the people most disposed to think about Walmart’s global labor practices are less inclined to get involved at the city level. “The sort of cognoscenti that would have been and is engaged in this Walmart opposition intellectually as liberal activists hasn’t translated here in the same way, because Walmart hasn’t said we’re going to put the stores in Spring Valley,” Sefl says, referring to the rich, leafy Ward 3 neighborhood. “Walmart would say, this was purely economics, and they’re siting their stores where it makes sense to be. It still means they bypass that often white opposition.”

I found it very interesting that in the New York Times piece "Washington, D.C., Loses Black Majority," that small business people on H Street criticized a new resident/white agenda in favor of streetcars as anti-black anti-small business, but didn't criticize the city's leading politicians, all African-American, for their hardcore embrace of Walmart entering the city, even though the greatest negative impact is likely to be felt by small businesses.

When it comes to local politics in DC, it's not unlike what happened at UM. The coalition is fine when one side does most of the "compromising" and breaks apart when people stop being willing to compromise on what become key issues, be they transit or ethics.

The recognition that the "coalition" has been built more on the foundation of one side acquiescing to the demands of the other was alluded to in a quote by Marshall Brown, father of City Council Chairman Kwame Brown, during the recent special election campaign, as reported in "Pondering meaning of changing D.C. demographics" from the Washington Post:

Marshall Brown, a longtime D.C. campaign strategist whose son Kwame is the council chairman, worries that the shift in population will result in a racially polarized electorate. “The longtime white population, the people who got involved in statehood, civil rights and environmental causes, thought of this as a black city,” said Brown, who is black. “But the new white voters aren’t involved like that. They want doggie parks and bike lanes. The result is a lot of tension.

“The new people believe more in their dogs than they do in people. They go into their little cafes, go out and throw their snowballs. This is not the District I knew. There’s no relationship with the black community; they don’t connect at church, they don’t go to the same cafes, they don’t volunteer in the neighborhood school, and a lot of longtime black residents feel threatened.”

The problem is further accentuated because the "progressive coalition" is split within itself, comprised of long time residents who believe in good government, and newer residents more concerned about quality of life and urban living. The problem is that the younger and older generations don't have the same beliefs about what constitutes "progressive" in terms of quality of life.

I have argued that partly this is because older residents, once hip young urban pioneers, came to the fore when the city was shrinking in population, when people and businesses with choices preferred to live or locate their businesses in the suburbs. In response, neighborhood activists focused on stabilizing their neighborhoods, with historic preservation being one of the primary tools assisting them in this quest.

But because most people in the US are imprinted with an understanding of a land use planning paradigm that is suburban--single use districts, separated by great distances, connected by a mobility network focused on enabling the automobile, and automobiles being necessary to get around--it's fair to say that at least a preponderance of the city's older activists are more comfortable with suburban rather than urban land use planning paradigms, even if they argue otherwise. Although, since many proposals for new development are flawed, seemingly opposition is over other issues.

(One of the better elucidations of what makes "urban" development urban is the discussion in Trans-Formation: Recreating Transit-Oriented Neighborhood Centers in DC: Design Handbook, a now out-of-print publication from the DC Office of Planning, first published in 2002.)

Meanwhile, even if at times misguided, younger activists are more comfortable with and in favor of more decidedly urban land use paradigms, focused on sustainable transportation (walking, biking, and transit), mixed use development, etc.

It is a fact that the winner of the DC City Council special election was outpolled by "progressive" candidates, it's just that there were so many candidates in the election that the vote was split. As the demographics of the city continue to change, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

But clearly what is needed is a good definition of what a "progressive urban political agenda" means, in all its dimensions.

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