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The Old Regionalism vs. the New Cosmopolitan Hyper-Localism

When we talk about place, do we accept our region along with our neighborhood?
phoenix az

African-Americans, for understandable reasons, tend not to be “regional” people. And given their history, I can understand fully why a resident of South Phoenix might feel closer to Harlem or the South Side of Chicago than to the Valley of the Sun as a whole, for example. But apparently, increasingly, the rest of us are starting to think the same way. Marketers like Claritas Prizm have divided our population into 66 tribes with colorful names like Money and Brains, God’s Country, Big Sky Families, Boomtown Singles, and other such. And America’s Zip codes are classified by which is dominant.

What seems to be happening is that, say, the Money and Brains pockets of Southern California identify more with similar pockets in New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Dallas than they do with Southern California as a region; and the same all over the country. The one exception to this is when sports comes on TV; for the duration of the game, all the tribes of Eastern New England rally behind the Red Sox, all of Southeast Michigan behind the Detroit Tigers, and the Los Angeles Basin behind the Lakers.

(Sports team owners themselves are not that regionally loyal, often moving to whichever city will build them the nicest stadium at the expense of the public. Los Angeles Lakers? Los Angeles Trolley Dodgers? The only time there are any appreciable number of lakes in Los Angeles is during a severe El Nino, when the city gets national attention—and more than a little schadenfreude—for mudslides. And for most of the last half of the 20th century there was not a single trolley to dodge in the city. The explanation, of course, is that the Lakers were once in Minneapolis, a place richly endowed with lakes, and the Dodgers were in Brooklyn.)

Furthermore, members of these tribes change tribes when they marry, when they have kids, and when the kids move out of the house. I have noticed that in many parts of our society the apartheid between People With Kids and People Without Kids is radical; they live in different kinds of places, and they vote differently. Admittedly, when you have kids, you kind of go into what I call the “baby monastery” and have to do different things for the next 20 years than you used to, but to completely segregate yourself from People Without Kids—or for People Without Kids to segregate themselves from you—is sad.

There was a time when we had to deal with racial segregation in housing. Now, according to Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, we are beginning to see political segregation in housing neighborhoods! Conservatives don’t want to live in areas dominated by progressives, and vice versa. And the thing is, do we really know our neighbors? If anything, families with lots of kids in cul de sacs are more likely to know each other than people in a much more urban setting nowadays.

I have learned, reading Michael Lind’s Made in Texas, by the way, that the New Deal, usually thought of as a major centralizing force, was actually regionalist in its economics and culture. Industry in 1933 was concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest (and so were the financial elites), but it was to be dispersed nationally, so that the United States might eventually become a “federation of equal regions.” And “viewed from within the Northeast, the New Deal looks like a class war; but in the context of the map of the United States as a whole, it was what one historian has described as a ‘revolt of the provinces’.”

And much to the shock of today’s so-called liberals, the New Deal held forth the idea of moving the working class into sprawling suburbs, an ideal which was fulfilled after World War II. Lind tells us:

The New Deal modernists were decentralists who preferred small towns and civilized suburbs to crowded cities… . Today’s affluent urban liberals, with their quasi-religious environmentalism, the snobbish disdain for sprawl, and their nostalgia for the pedestrian and street-car cities of the pre-World War I era often support anti-suburbanization measures that would confine today’s black and brown poor to densely populated cities in which fewer and fewer people can afford single family homes.

I am not sure whether anti-suburban-intellectual prejudice started on the right or the left, but Lind informs us that the progressive New Deal elite did not hold what we now call “flyover country” in contempt. There were precursors of the modern affluent “progressive” contempt for Christians, social conservatives, and the less educated; but they were most clearly articulated by H.L. Mencken, who was no progressive, no liberal, but a secular anti-Christian conservative.

It was the day of cultural regionalism too, in visual art and literature. Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, the California plein air painters, and others in visual art; Sinclair Lewis and William Faulkner in literature; and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture. Now—though homes may have more brick away from the Pacific Coast, more stucco in California, and their backyards may be opaque in California and Arizona and transparent in the Midwest and East—suburbs tend to look, aside from vegetation, a lot alike.

When we talk about “place,” then, we need to be clear. Are we talking about our own immediate neighborhood, which we try to control for the sake of our “property values” and where we want the people to be rather like us, especially if we don’t know them; plus an archipelago of similar neighborhoods scattered all over the country? Or are we embracing our entire metropolitan area or region, including its Samarias as well as its Judeas, its leper colonies as well as its “clean” parts?