“In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whim and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object and go mad in its pursuit…[not] recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity…”– Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds(1841, 1852)
Perhaps ironically, Mackay foretold the “madness” that gripped the South less than two decades later. With the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, and his promise of abolishing slavery in the US territories, the South’s landed gentry were spun into a frenzy. The end of the “three-fifths rule” would undermine their “populist” grip on national power (Chernow, p. 628). Their fragile “honor” was insulted. They threw down the gauntlet and seceded from the union. The confrontation was to become no less than a manifestation of what in the country’s founding would be, as once described by theatre critic Michael Billington in his review of Hamilton, the battle between “…Jefferson’s vision of America as an agrarian paradise and Hamilton’s as one of urban entrepreneurship.”
This is the kind of madness that W. J. Cash describes in his seminal work, The Mind of the South(1941). While many now might argue that the book’s content is dated – that the South has moved beyond its themes of racism and tribalism– its relevance remains peculiarly persistent and stubbornly intact. One need not look any further than the recent opinion piece by Rev. Joseph Darby in The Post & Courier, “Charleston’s Slavery Apology Was Right But the ‘Lost Cause’ Myth Remains.” Darby evocatively provides a generally accepted perspective of the subtle racism that continues in the city (as well as throughout the South). Following the piece at the digital edition was one particularly racist-tinged comment claiming Darby’s view as a “false narrative.”
Debunking the claim of a “false narrative” is broadly embedded in The Mind of the South. Fundamental to Cash’s theme is destroying the ‘myth’ that the Old South was displaced by a New South – that the “Old South” was destroyed by the Civil War and swept away both socially and mentally. The paternalistic model and, by extension, the protection of the “honorable” women of the South (“Wives,” “Sisters,” “Mothers,” “Daughters,” is the inscription on the four sides of the Women of the Confederacy monument at the Mississippi State Capital) meant that whites could justify slavery as a duty whereby blacks were ‘looked after,’ like children.
Bertram-Wyatt Brown, in his preface to the 50thanniversary edition, summarizes Cash’s description of how the Southerner’s opposition extended to all whites: “…Throughout Southern history, …whites have found fundamental meaning in the drive for power, pride, and prestige rather than in the acquisition of money for itself alone. Pursuit of these aims led them to assume that hierarchy among white over African Americans was beneficial to public order and community prosperity…Most whites espoused the alleged advantages of slavery and Jim Crow subjugation as part of what they believed was God’s grand design…In the eyes of the white, rich and poor alike, [any dissent by] outside critics [such as, Yankees with their newspapers, magazines, and books]…[stigmatizes] slaveholders, ordinary folk, and their descendants…”.
The notions of the Southern “tribe” were set and continually reinforced as the 19thcentury gave way to the 20th and, now, 21stcenturies. This atmosphere of the romanticized New/Old South is portrayed in Spike Lee’s recent film BlacKKKlansman, set in the early 1970s. The film relies on snippets of familiar footage to undermine a nostalgic conception of the South, including: the resurrection of white ‘protectors’ in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation(1915); the ‘wounded’ South sequence from Gone with the Wind(1939); and recent footage from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. This “white” tribalism goes beyond cultural touchstones, and has become structurally and discretely embedded in culture across the U.S.
While there remains much to do to improve the opportunities for African Americans in the South, more recognition is now being given to their historic contributions in the cultural development of the region, particularly in Charleston – the significance of slave communities at plantation sites such as McLeod and Magnolia; recognition of African American furniture makers (here and here); and acknowledgement of the skilled carpenters and masons who built the historic fabric of cities (here).
Unfortunately, these skills have not translated into wealth or upward mobility among African Americans, especially men (here). In fact, homes, land, and real estate development have often been purchased or sold at the expense of African American communities, either by limiting individuals’ access to land, their ability to purchase homes or other real estate, or using legal loopholes and title disputes to force families to give up long held land by extended family members and heirs (see Center for Heirs Property Preservation). This legacy persists; and, the structure of real estate development at the expense of communities underappreciated and lying in the path of growth continues to sacrifice the future of these individuals and families.
A Little More Tribal Background
In 1956, rather than harvest the remaining coastal pine trees that represented his family’s stake in Hilton Head Island, Charles Fraser, a recent Yale law school graduate at the time, asked his father to “sell” him their interest in the property. By 1957, he had subdivided lots and offered them for sale in “Sea Pines Plantation,” a private resort that was one of the earliest “gated” communities in the U.S. (Hidden Hills in Los Angeles was first in 1951).
Fraser’s insights into land development reflected several post-WWII trends – automobile travel, expanded tourism, and lower density suburban land use patterns. The private, gated enclave also corresponded to the rise of battles over integration in the South, particularly in South Carolina.
Since the pivotal year of 1948 – when the nation’s first civil rights legislation was signed by Harry Truman; and, Strom Thurmond ran for President as a member of the States Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) – resistance to the national call for integration was mounting. The 1956 South Carolina General Assembly spent so much time trying to circumvent integration that it was dubbed the “Segregation Session;” and, Strom Thurmond (yes, that Strom Thurmond) issued a “Declaration of Southern Principles” declaring that the Southern states would “resist integration by any lawful means.” (Edgar, p 527-529). The fact that Fraser called his development a “plantation” cannot be mere coincidence.
Where Things Stand Now
In 2012, community resident George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, a teenager visiting relatives in a multi-ethnic gated enclave near Orlando (here and here). Zimmerman was charged with murder but acquitted, claiming self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. In a followup op-ed for the New York Times, Rich Benjamin, author of Searching forWhitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, wrote: “Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders.”
Planned communities, developments, and prescriptive zoning ordinances – coupled now with embedded banking and investor requirements, market studies, and real estate appraisals that rely on similar “comparables” – often characterize a kind of “Master” planning that has become more likely to cater to these “tribal” tendencies. These approaches have become endemic, creating templates that exacerbate this insidious problem.
Considering an overhaul of the development system may be more productive than attempting to tweak models to be more transparent or inclusive. Governmental action must re-focus on establishing needs and opportunities. Privatization of the development process to provide for affordability has been a dismal failure in every city and state in the US. The crisis in “affordable” houses or apartments available to rent or purchase (where individuals or families do not spend more than 30% of their income on rent or mortgage) is pronounced in every city and county in the U.S. (here).
This gap, which conservative politicians and “Tea Partiers” have promoted as solvable through market-based approaches, has only expanded exponentially since the 1980s, when the prevailing thinking was to allow privatization to take over what had been the purview of government to provide a social “safety net.” At this stage, much of U.S. private development has failed our country, devastated rich farmland near urban centers, and compromised basic virtues of community building. It should not be made easier. It is time to reconsider, in their entirety, current models for private development with its reliance on the circular logic of past development models and invented pro-formas. A different kind of development approach is in order and the past offers some insight.
What Might Have Been
An alternative is hinted at in Nathan Heller’s New Yorker article “Private Dreams and Public Ideals” (“Tribes” is the title in the print edition – here). While the article refers to one of the earliest examples of adaptive reuse of historic buildings in an urban setting (1962), its optimistic and open approach invites scrutiny and critique of our current homogenous state of market-driven urban design and development.
It is a fascinating read, and neatly couples two opposing faces of urban planning – what the historian Alison Isenburg referred to as “public-spirited private stewardship – that had a brief, satisfying moment in the mid-1960s. Until market forces drove the narrative and drove out the public. Just as the economist Yanis Varoufakis – in his 2013 Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism – speaks to the need to balance experiential values with exchange values, we must begin to reassess the importance of intangibles within our communities and their development in order to preserve and enhance a quality of life that can be enjoyed by all.
That isn’t to say that markets are not important. However, it is helpful to step back for a moment and get a sense of alternative approaches to development that might address some of today’s challenges to livability – such as how to cultivate locally-owned businesses, provide more affordable homes, and create more ways to connect people to work and leisure activities. Consider what might happen if there was a process more aligned with “community trust planning,” such as the approach that shaped Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco’s initial foray into urban redevelopment.
Heller notes that the re-use of the factories of the Ghirardelli chocolate company started with the peoplein the surrounding neighborhood. These artists, property managers, activists, and others were horrified by the historic building’s proposed demolition, and persuaded a local shipping “scion” to buy the area.
This approach was not one that would follow planning principles laid out a decade earlier by Fraser at Hilton Head – where a plan is devised that is framed by the developer’s pre-conceptions of land use and laden with restrictions intent on providing soothing optics and uniformity. Nor would it proceed with the heavy-handed urban strategies of Robert Moses by using widespread demolition to “renew” urban areas along with road and “freeway” construction to arrogantly plow through undesirable neighborhoods to connect suburbs to city centers (until, that is, he encountered Jane Jacobs in New York’s Greenwich Village). As a side note: The relatively “successful” late-in-life consultancy of Moses matched him with cities and resulted in extensive road-building that bifurcated minority communities and outlines waterfronts across the US. Cities still suffer from these decisions and, in many cases, are attempting to undo the ill effects of these decisions.
In the case of San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, owner William M. Roth reached into the community for insights from real-estate brokers, landscape architects, and preservationists. An initial architectural plan was drawn up as the first of several drafts by several different firms who tweaked and polished and burnished the approach. This “messy pluralism” resulted in a durable, engaging model that continues to be successful.
Many advocates for more affordable housing have attempted to incentivize, beg, and cajole developers to fulfill a growing, widespread need that reaches to the point of absurdity here in the US. Politicians and their benefactors have argued for years that market forces can fulfill this need if we merely acquiesce to market-based approaches for land use and development. That’s how markets work – right?
But the housing deficit has only grown since the trend lines for public investment started to decline during the Reagan administration of the 1980s. A global re-think is needed where creating community places is not solely driven by a commodity or exchange kind of thinking; but, rather incorporates civic-minded concerns. This is, as Heller notes, “…a totemic battle between civic virtues and a growing sphere of private power and experience…” far removed from considerations of the public. It is time for us to acknowledge and empower our communities to displace the commodification of place, and recognize the value of day to day experience within diverse and vibrant neighborhoods and downtowns. As Varoufakis notes in his reference to Oscar Wilde: “…a cynical person is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”
Time to shake off the commodification of everything!