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Why Cities Need Localists

A lot of conservatives live in rural areas: amongst open, sprawling corn fields in the midwest, on the ranches and suburbs freckled throughout Texas, along Main Street in Idaho and Utah. They pride themselves on their small-town roots—and rightly so. There’s a beauty in small-town America that is worth preserving (and it increasingly needs preserving).

But there’s another urban side to the conservative story that gets overlooked all too often. As Susannah Black told us at this year’s Front Porch Republic conference, “You can be a good localist, pursuing the kind of human flourishing that localism seems to us to promote, and live in New York City.”

She added, “I’m aware that this may be a hard sell.”

Why is it such a hard sell? Why do conservatives feel so much suspicion and resentment toward cities?

Black thinks localists and conservatives look judgmentally on city dwellers’ lack of self-sufficiency and independence. Cities require us to “live without doing it yourself, whatever it is; and live subject to a cold bureaucracy–you can’t, after all, fight city hall.” But additionally, she thinks a lot of Christian conservatives see the cities as inherently corrupt: “Cities are Babylon, they’re dangerous.”

Matt Lewis discussed these conservative prejudices in a piece he wrote for The Weekearlier this year. He wrote of “rural favoritism” amongst Republicans and other conservative groups, stemming from both the religious assumptions mentioned by Black, and from a subconscious nod to the “noble savage” myths perpetuated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 19th century. To be closer to the land and to nature, Rousseau’s theory implies, is to be purer, more innocent and virtuous. Lewis adds, “As a boy growing up in rural western Maryland… it was instilled in me that country folks were God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth types and that big city folks weren’t.”

Additionally, it seems that conservatives feel wary of cities as “enemy territory,” because, statistically speaking, they have a more liberal populace. It could be that conservatives’ abandonment of the cities has only reinforced the sharp rural-urban, right-left dichotomies that we see today—although it could be that just living in a city makes one more liberal. It’s a bit of a chicken-egg problem, but it’s worth pondering. It does seem possible that, in deserting the city, conservatives have allowed it to become a more liberal landscape by their lack of voice and presence—because, at root, cities aren’t anti-conservative (at least, not inherently so). There are bad cities. But there are also good cities: places that need the human care and cultivation that stems from conservative living. As Black puts it,

It is not urbanism itself that is dehumanizing, it is a corruption of urbanism.  Good urbanism exists, and it invites a particular kind of activity that I want to describe as tinkering.  People who live well in cities tinker with their cities.  Not arbitrarily, but in a craftsmanlike way that takes account of the whole but attends to a part; respects the larger household that is the city and knows that the best way to serve it is to attend to the smaller household that you’ve got going on in an apartment on the Lower East Side. A kind of blend of Philip Bess and Jane Jacobs, is what we’re aiming at.  You know what the city is, and you are responsible for this particular corner of it; you act in good faith, whether the corner you are tinkering with is a vacant lot you’re trying to turn into a garden, or a political machine that you’re trying to reform.

Caring for your corner, making the world a better place, one square foot at a time: this is localism, and conservatism, at root. Supporting the foundations, heritage, and traditions that one has inherited. Using one’s talents and gifts to build a better street, a better neighborhood, a better town or city.

And indeed, to care for London or New York City or Washington, D.C., one must love the “innumerable little lanes and courts.” Black says, “it’s these intricate small alleys and bodegas that are the matrix of our truly human urban lives.” It is, one could say, the “little platoons” that make cities great. “The complexity of London’s and New York’s undistinguished neighborhoods that Dr. Johnson and Jane Jacobs described,  those back alleys off of Baker Street or Hudson Street, are places where human beings live and grow,” writes Black.

Tim Keller says cities are “intense reflections” of a place’s culture. Thus, in order to better a city, then, one has to influence its culture. And this can only happen by infiltrating, caring for, and “tinkering” with a city, for its good and the good of its citizens. To love a city is to help make it a better, and even a more “conservative” place—because when you love something, you work to conserve it. You help it flourish.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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