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A liberal-progressive abstraction: Caring for the little guy

By Thomas E. Brewton
web posted November 15, 2010

Anthony Paletta's review of Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York describes urban renewal's human costs.

Liberal-progressives are fond of grand, sweeping state-planning projects, conceived in abstraction by academic theorists.  Their preference is for betting the house on one roll of the dice, for example, with Obamacare.  No incremental, careful tests for them.

Still, so-called urban renewal projects, though on a smaller scale, command liberal-progressive planners' attention.  Why miss an opportunity to destroy a neighborhood and wipe out a few thousand local businesses?

Such depredations can be imposed in the name of "caring," for an abstraction known as "the people."   Because "the people" is an abstraction, misery inflicted in real life is not on the radar screen of liberal-progressive academics.  In Nancy Pelosi's assessment, people will learn to love the works of Big Brother after they've been exposed to them long enough and after Democrat/Socialist political orators have explained why they really love Big Brother.

The late Jane Jacobs, ironically regarded as a liberal-progressive until late in her life, was a voice of sanity against Big Brother's urban planning.  She and Adam Smith were reading from the same page.

She was most noted for her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which refuted the pretensions of liberal-progressive city planners.

In the works of both Jane Jacobs and Adam Smith, individualistic spontaneity, exercised incrementally, over many generations, is understood to be the wellspring of all of human society's effective and enduring institutions.

Jacobs wrote her book while living as a mother with children in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.  It grew out of her successful opposition to the intention of New York City's master urban planner Robert Moses to bulldoze an expressway through the middle of the Village's most pleasant parts.  This would have displaced approximately 10,000 residents and demolished a huge swath of historic buildings.

From her successful opposition came a fundamental new perspective on urban planning: local residents, when allowed the freedom to do so, will create more livable and more effective neighborhoods than any master plan conceived by we-know-better-than-you liberals.  Moreover, such neighborhoods can more effectively adjust, bit by bit, over time as new conditions arise.

She noted, for example, that the typical residential development pattern prescribed by liberal urban planners – mammoth high-rise apartment buildings clustered around small parks and walkways – looked wonderful to outside observers, but became snake-pits of crime and family disintegration in practice. 

Greenwich Village had developed over a couple of centuries as a high-density neighborhood with low rise apartments and mixed-use commercial space.  There were always autos in the streets and pedestrians on the sidewalks as a deterrent to crime.  Block by block, people knew each other and could keep an eye on the neighborhood.  Such a neighborhood is additionally more interesting and pleasurable than the sterility of patches of grass and concrete benches overshadowed by buildings of 10 stories or more.

Greenwich Village was created by the unplanned spontaneity of thousands of individuals experimenting over the decades, keeping what worked and dropping what didn't.  In contrast, with urban planners it's the whole thing at one shot; there is no adjustment mechanism, no opportunity for trial and error.  Urban planning is the same mentality, on a smaller scale, that animated the Soviet Union: override opponents by government fiat. ESR

Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. His weblog is The View from 1776Z. Email comments to viewfrom1776@thomasbrewton.com.

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