Thursday, September 10, 2009

Can You Be A Liberal If You're Also A NIMBY? Um, No.

posted by chicago pop



One of the more curious dimensions of Hyde Park politics is the prominence of a certain strain of old-school Liberalism in combination with a militant variety of Not-In-My-Backyard-ism, or NIMBY-ism.

At first glance, the two traits don't really go together, and there is a sense that they are not bound by any particular logic. They simply coexist in a certain generation's consciousness, in Hyde Park and in other urban places across the country.

But such juxtapositions have a way of becoming contradictions as circumstances change. And all it has taken to bring these two traits into open contradiction is one circumstance in particular: global climate change. It's the equivalent, in terms of ideological watersheds, of Khruschev's 1953 speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party denouncing Stalin's Reign of Terror: it was hard to be Stalinist after that. Less dramatically, one might point to being a Southern Democrat after passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964; it was hard thereafter for many southerners to remain in the Democratic Party. Ideologies are intellectual coalitions, and if not updated, they fall apart.

So it is with old-school Liberalism and climate change. The environmental movement has many sources, and many of them (but not all) have been aligned with the American Left and the Democratic Party since the 1960s. This is the heritage that is so well established in Hyde Park. Refracted through the neighborhood's particular experience of Urban Renewal, with the latter's post-war faith in grand technocratic solutions to complicated social problems, the environmental consciousness of the time was steeped in distinctly anti-urban attitudes.

It could make sense, therefore, to be for civil rights, desegregation, unions, and withdrawal from Vietnam, while also wanting the built environment around you to be like a cross between Haight-Ashbury and Harper Avenue: low-slung, two-story commercial districts with quaint gingerbread Victorians along the back streets. One could fight each and every proposed mid-rise or in-fill project secure in the conviction that one was fighting the good fight against City Hall, just as one had done with civil rights and every other Big Project sponsored by Big Capital.

It turns out, however, that this particular type of urban model, and the militant resistance to making it more dense, may be fatal to the planet.

And that's a decidedly un-Liberal possibility.

We've seen this play out in any number of Hyde Park neighborhood controversies over developments, both real and hypothetical. The old-school mentality finds its voice with airy references to "viewsheds," a sometimes uncritical fondness for "open space," and a phobia for tall buildings. Traffic will be horrible, children will be run over, and pollution will kill us all -- when, in fact, just the opposite will most likely be true.

This train of reflection was triggered by a recent essay in a Bay Area newspaper ("You're Not an Environmentalist if You're Also a NIMBY," Robert Gammon, East Bay Express, July 1, 2009). Given the Bay Area's Liberal credentials, it's worth quoting the piece as a sign of the contradiction between earlier Liberal environmentalism and its uneasy NIMBY partner.

Global warming is changing far more than just the climate. It's altering the way environmentalists view development. For years, city dwellers who consider themselves to be eco-conscious have used environmental laws and arcane zoning rules to block new home construction, especially apartments and condominiums. In the inner East Bay, liberals have justified their actions by railing against gentrification and portraying developers as profiteers. But the lack of urban growth in Berkeley and in parts of Oakland during the past few decades also has contributed to suburban sprawl and long commutes. And all those freeways choked with cars are now the single biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the region.


There are always contradictions in any particular political agenda, right, left or other. But it is hard to argue that climate change has not emerged as a political priority that trumps anything else one might care to identify as part of the Liberal portfolio, at least as understood in Hyde Park. Labor? Nope. Racism? Unfortunately not. Feminism. Still secondary. That nice suburban feel with the open spaces left over from Urban Renewal? Definitely, categorically, Not.

Referencing the East Bay again:

[F]or the inner East Bay to grow the way it should, it will have to overcome the region's well-developed not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sensibilities. In Berkeley and North Oakland, in particular, liberals who view themselves as environmentalists have been blocking dense housing developments for decades. They have complained about traffic, overcrowding, and the potential destruction of neighborhood character. But among those who are paying attention to the causes of global warming, there is a growing realization that no-growth activists have to step back and look at the bigger picture. Climate change has forced a paradigm shift in the environmental movement. If you live in an urban area, you can't call yourself an "environmentalist" and continue to act like a NIMBY by blocking new housing.


This all sounds very familiar. And in truth, it has started to change, even here in immobile Hyde Park. An older generation is passing from the scene, one for whom complaints about "traffic, overcrowding, and the potential destruction of neighborhood character" were right and honorable reflexes in their day. They are also now in full contradiction with what needs to happen in order for Liberal -- or any other -- ideology to adjust to a new reality, so that there is at least some chance of slowing down what might be the greatest shock humanity has faced in its short time on earth.

A final quote from the author, Robert Gammon:

[P]eople who ... consider themselves to be liberal environmentalists ... need to finally start thinking globally and acting locally. The coming global warming crisis demands that they do more than just eat organic, install solar panels, or buy a Prius. They also need to realize that dense development will make their neighborhoods and their cities better — not worse.


The realization is starting to sink in here in Hyde Park -- though it has taken some doing. But it can't be encouraged enough.

30 comments:

Richard Gill said...

The faux-liberal NIMBYs will show their true colors when they start spouting the line that global warming isn't caused by human activity, or that global warming really isn't happening. Anything to preserve that "viewshed."

Elizabeth Fama said...

Uh, Libertarian here (me), speaking up for density. I'm conservative enough that I wouldn't even say that global warming is the main reason to support density. Diversity, neighborliness, community vitality, efficiency, easy allocation of resources, safety, time spent at home with family, (cooking dinners together), incidental exercise... there are a thousand cultural and social reasons to support it, too.

chicago pop said...

Those are all good reasons as well, absolutely.

Georg said...

You make some good points.

But density cannot be an excuse for HP's lack of vitality. HP is more dense than most other north- and west-side neighborhoods that have more going on. Hyde Park has its own skyline. How many huge multi-unit buildings does HP have compared to Bucktown/Wicker Park? Lincoln Square? Pilsen? Even Evanston. The lack of density is not the reason we have no vitality.

It has something to do with the footprint. There is an unacceptably small amount of commercial space to begin with. It is fractured in small pieces. Most space is obsolete in that stores lack sufficient depth to hold inventory (whence the banks, nail, and phone stores, all of which carry little to no inventory). Churches and schools are located nearby most of the commercial space so liquor can't be served. A lot of the space has been hopelessly fractured by the co-op form of ownership (Kimbark Plaza). 53rd was never built to be HP's main street.

Today's U of C admin is not responsible for past mistakes and I think its leaders mean well, but it occupies commanding heights created by its predecessors that have left HP frozen. It is basically a command economy. You've got your state/Party jobs, school system, gym, movie theater, snack bars, and bus system. The state owns almost all of the commercial space and surrounding vacant land and a lot of the housing stock. It's a decent lifestyle for the insiders, with perks to set you apart from the proles. Outsiders can scratch out a living on the periphery, but no other significant institutions or businesses can exist independent of the U of C.

Entrepreneurs are scared away--by NIMBYs that have a comfortable insider life as members of the U of C party, or by a moneyed competitor that can own acres of land without having to pay a cent's worth of taxes. If the entrepreneur meets with some success, the U of C limits his growth so he has to move away. Immigrants fill the rest of the city with vitality but stay away from HP.

Like any planner, the U of C in its commercial efforts will mean well but still screw things up. Partly because it isn't accountable to anyone, and partly because academic administrators make terrible businesmen. It will try to create "nightlife," but operate on some planner's idea of coolness that results in gray-haired white schoolmarms taking over the "Checkerboard."

I fear the larger Harper Court project will also get screwed up. When has the U of C ever planned anything well? The instinct to control is too hard to resist.

chicago pop said...

Georg, very interesting comment. There are a lot of factors at play, and you pick up a number of them related to physical space and the seigneurial position of the University with regards to local real estate.

But on the following I'm not sure I agree:

But density cannot be an excuse for HP's lack of vitality. HP is more dense than most other north- and west-side neighborhoods that have more going on.

This is a simple empirical question, although it is difficult to correlate it to what you describe as neighborhoods with stuff "going on." This last sounds subjective. For example, Evanston has become much more vibrant since it deliberately embarked on a program to build density in its downtown, something examined on this blog at here.

Pilsen is probably denser than you think in relation to its area; Hyde Park Kenwood is actually quite small in terms of square miles. But I would bet that any number of the neighborhoods you mention suffer from some of the same problems as does HP, but not, for example, Lakeview or Lincoln Park, which are among the most dense in the city.

I'm not sure stuff "going on" defines a neighborhood sufficiently enough to discount density as a factor necessary to achieve a level of livability that appeals to young adults as well as seniors, and including families with children. For that, you need a wide arrange of amenities that need a large concentration of households.

David Farley said...

"An older generation is passing from the scene"

Hey old people, hurry up and die already! Didn't you get called out on this before, C.Pop?

So by this model Hong Kong is the greenest city in the world?

chicago pop said...

No, David Farley: the excerpt you make is a statement of fact.

Yes, Hong Kong is one hell of a green city, at least in the terms of this discussion. Though it is certainly one extreme...

Georg said...

Evanston became more vibrant when it developed its commercial space. That was the logjam that needed to be broken--not an insufficient amount of customers.

You highlight the biggest towers built on Sherman, one with 105 units and one with 253 units. That's still small compared to the 540 units inside monoxide island. A quick look on Google Earth shows over 20 high-rises on Lake Park and East Hyde Park alone. That's great density right there.

Why isn't east hyde park teeming with commercial activity? No commercial space!

chicago pop said...

Georg: please read further in that post. Evanston added 2,500 new housing units when the downtown plan was complete. That, plus over 1,000,000 transit passengers a year passing through the renovated multimodal Davis Street station make for a lot of bustle that simply wasn't there before.

Another point to consider is a historical one: why is there an absence of commercial activity in East Hyde Park? In part because the population of the neighborhood has fallen by over 20,000 since 1960, with the result being that much of the retail that serviced the neighborhood disappeared as well. Many of the units in the buildings you look at on Google earth house smaller families/fewer people than they did 50/60 years ago. The numbers have fallen, and the retail has declined in direct correlation. This is something that retailers, independent and chain, have told us explicitly.

That said, your point about the footprint and obsolete spaces is entirely valid. Although we also know that crummy landlords and wacky high rents have something to do with discouraging entrepreneurs, which may get to your argument about the University's effect in the neighborhood. The argument could be made that, with greater density and higher average household incomes, commercial space would take care of itself when presented with sufficient demand. After all, many of the most interesting places to shop in Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, and elsewhere, are in precisely those sorts of antiquated old spaces that are empty in Hyde Park.

christoph said...

The commercial space is there it just needs to be developed.. see mcmobil, 53rd and cornell corner, Del Prado and East Part Tower retail, the vacant spots along 55th and cornell, the 2 or 3 retail spaces under metra stations tah remain vacant, etc etc

Greg said...

I can testify to the Davis Street station encouraging people tospend money in Evanston. When I was commuting from up North to the city I transferred at Davis and frequently (at least once a week if not more) would stop in at Bennisons or Le Peep for a bite. (If Bennisons was in Hyde Park I would likely weigh 400 pounds right now... it's pure evil).

I think Georg does have a point regarding our retail space in that much of it is not adequate. It's hard to compare HP retail space to Lincoln Park retail space because, frankly, I think they have many more young urban professionals with more disposable income than we do here. The character is different in that neighborhood. People shop for fun there. I'm not saying Hyde Park can't support boutiques but we need a greater mix of national retailers to convince people that our shopping district is for real. It really sucks walking down 53rd and seeing all those vacant storefronts. But much of the actual retail space on that street is not adequate for a national retailer. We mostly have medium to small retail spaces, while we need a number of larger ones (not necessarily free-standing, just greater sq. footage).

By the time Harper Court is completed I'm afraid we'll all be the "old timers"!

There's so much more though... landlords who prefer to sit on a vacant parcel than come down in their rent demands, not to mention the crackpots and weirdos who simply won't rent to you PERIOD, for whatever reasons they have (Zig & Lou brought that up some time ago).

Hyde Park's problem is that it's basically a college town but it doesn't do squat to cater to the large student base (and their considerable monies). No 24 hour diners, not enough bars, no clubs geared towards young people, no thrift stores... it's a college town without most of the cool things college towns have. I see a LOT of students heading up to 47th street for Z&H, so it's not a matter of them not wanting to take a little trip for something worthwhile. If they had more quality establishments like that in their own back yard, Hyde Park retail would be just fine.

LPB said...

Ah yes, this brings back memories of Jack Spicer spouting off about how the excessive height of the proposed Marriott hotel on the Doctors Hospital site would "block sunlight, views and fresh air movement."

At any rate, Georg highlights a good point about the (currently) too small commercial footprint in Hyde Park. I'm curious what the commercial space was like before Urban Renewal. How much more commercial space was available? What commercial areas have since been repurposed for residential(?) space?

Richard Gill said...

"Hyde Park's problem is that it's basically a college town but it doesn't do squat to cater to the large student base."

When I was attending Northwestern in the 1960s, Evanston was virtually non-existent with regard to student life. Downtown was a lethargic place during the day, and dead at night. That was a real problem for the school. The WCTU had a grip on the town (like the "Hyde Park Establishment" tries to keep its grip here in Hyde Park), and you had to cross Howard Street to buy a beer. You had to ride the 'L' to the Loop to do almost anything. Evanston finally wised up. Look at downtown Evanston now, and look how students flock to it.
****************

"I'm curious what the commercial space was like before Urban Renewal."

Wasn't 55th Street just about solid storefronts from Lake Park to Woodlawn?

Elizabeth Fama said...

I'll bet the University would like nothing more than to have another major player in the neighborhood. Something like what Eastman-Kodak was for University of Rochester for decades.

Greg said...

"Look at downtown Evanston now, and look how students flock to it."

I spent the greater part of my teenage free time during the early to mid 90s on Dempster Street, buying CDs and records, browsing shops, visiting the animals at the pet store. I've probably spent thousands of dollars at 2nd Hand Tunes.

"Wasn't 55th Street just about solid storefronts from Lake Park to Woodlawn?"

From the photos I've seen, yes. Storefronts, taverns, nightclubs... turning 55th into a residential street was one of the worse decisions of Urban Renewal. The only remainder of that now, I guess, is the building that holds Jimmy's.

Richard Gill said...

55th isn't good, even as a residential street. It's largely a lonely pass-through. Hardly any dwellings face the street, and monoxide island is totally isolated. Also, with the semi-blind curves, crossing the street there is hazardous.

edj said...

The whole liberal-conservative thing about the so-called NIMBYs is unconvincing. Look at all thosee liberals in Taxachusetts who don't want to have a wind farm because it ruins the viewshed. Are they not liberal? I don't know. On the whole Hyde Park development issue, I would say that the NIMBYs want a strange tye of suburban lifestyle cut off from the rest of the south side. I would bet that there are many people who agree with this blog who call themselves conservative. It's not an either or thing.

Which reminds me of the story about someone saying they're from the south side and when asked which neighborhood they live in they respond "Hyde Park", the other person says, "you're not from the south side."

Connectedness of Hyde Park with other neighborhoods means that you interact at a community garden on the border between two neighborhoods, but you don't actually go to that neighborhood to shop.

It's the smae people who want to have small shops in Hyde Park, but seem to want to keep people out by maintaining one way streets that should be main entrances to the neighborhood or who want to keep visitors out by opposing new hotels or viable businesset s.

They want development, but they want to keep outsiders out. What they want is not sustainable for the long-term.

It's not liberal or conservative. It's a philosphy of "It's for thee, not for me."

chicago pop said...

edj asks:

Look at all those liberals in Taxachusetts who don't want to have a wind farm because it ruins the viewshed. Are they not liberal?

These definitions (Liberal, etc.) aren't frozen in time. What I'm arguing is that the general circumstances that determine political priorities for any movement, group, or ideology are changing. Climate change is a new priority, and it is -- or ought to be -- reshuffling the others in the Liberal docket.

So it becomes possible to make the case that, whatever else one might call oneself, or whatever other policies one supports, if one is a NIMBY about wind power, or anything else, it seriously undermines any Liberal credentials one can claim.

This is an interesting argument because, as the Easy Bay Express article discusses, for a long time being a NIMBY was part and parcel of a Liberal and environmentalism identity. No-growth, etc.

This kind of change is nothing new; these kinds contradictions in political allegiances happen all the time. Just look at the very phenomenon of "Reagan Democrats". At some point, one or another issue that was dormant before can take on salience and shift a coalition.

I'd go further and argue that yes, NIMBY-ism is a strand of conservatism. This fact is not inherently bad or evil; it is simply moderating; but conservatism by definition is a moderating force, and so NIMBY-ism is conservative. Which puts it in contradiction to a very cherished Liberal self-identity in Hyde Park.

That's my case, at least.

edj said...

There I remember reading a story about a writer from Mother Jones who followed the Pat Buchanan presidential campaign in maybe 1992 where the writer followed the campaign for a couple of wekks and when he was about to leave Buchanan asked him about his time following the campaign. The writer, thinking about Buchanan's views on free trade and other economic issues said something like "All my life I've been waiting for a presidential candidate to talk about these issues and it has to be you."

Maybe political philosphy is more like a circle where you see different extremes coming together on a lot of issues.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I love you, edj.

edj said...

Right back at ya, Elizabeth.

Georg said...

Right on, edj, re the suburban lifestyle and lack of interest in connectedness.

What explains that?

A big part has to be that a huge part of HP depends for its existence on the U of C. If the U of C pays you and meets a lot of your basic wants and needs (kids' education, security, even entertainment, lodging, and where you eat), it's natural that you're just not going to care as much about how the private sector or government meets those needs.

If your paycheck depends on your academic "services", you are not going to rate attracting visitors to HP as highly as someone whose livelihood depended on it.

If you spend your after-work hours at Ratner, DOC Films, the Court Theater, lectures, or the Pub, some of your entertainment needs are going to be met and you won't care as much about the dearth of options for your neighbors.

If you have the occasional visitor from out of town, you can put them up at the Quad Club or I-House.

If you send your kids to Lab, you're not going to attentively follow what goes on in the public schools or in the schools surrounding HP.

Sure, it'd be nice if there were more options in terms of entertainment, schools, hotels, etc, but it's completely expected that you're not going to care as much.

You can do just fine living in your little world.

susan said...

Yes to everything Georg said. My example is the park district facilities. There are two great pools in Washington Park, both of which have had a variety of stupid scheduling and rules, and a lack of informative, positive marketing over the years. I wondered why there weren't many other hyde park people complaining along with me; then I realized that many people here have what they need through the university and/or Lab school pools so they aren't aware of other lacks.

chicago pop said...

Susan and Georg make interesting points. I've noticed a certain inward-looking, University-centered apathy here and there myself. I can think of at least 2 families, both of which have kids at Lab, and at least one spouse on faculty, who are oblivious to neighborhood issues, never read this blog, or even the Herald. Neither of them had any idea what was going on at Harper Court or -- this is really amazing -- Doctor's Hospital. The University does offer a potentially numbing cocoon, not always to its advantage.

Which is why, I have to say, Peter Rossi deserves so much credit for having given a hoot about anything other than his academic job. It's rare to find faculty like that.

Richard Gill said...

Probably, all universities beget a level of inwardness. The cloistered life may be attractive to many people. There's a lot of that on military posts around the country. "The Urban Renewal" in Hyde Park increased the appeal of isolation and carried it to an extreme. Not only did neighborhood self-sufficiency become an objective, nobody else was to have a part of it. To this day, the DO NOT ENTER sign at 57th & Stony is a reminder of this.

Along with a number of other "aliens" from outside Hyde Park, I entered Lab School at the beginning of urban renewal. Early in my freshman year, as i was lacing up my gym shoes in the boys' locker room in Sunny Gym, a classmate who lived in Hyde Park told me point blank, "You're nice guys and all that, but it was better without you." Funny how you remember stuff like that. Well, I played better baseball than he did.

Around the same time, I became aware of Lab kids who virtually never left Hyde Park. Sometimes they would ride the IC downtown to shop for something if they couldn't get it at Breslauer's on 55th Street, but that was about it. Today, at least, people have to leave the neighborhood for a few hours every week or so because there isn't much to buy in Hyde Park.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Whoa, I have to defend the University and its faculty here. First of all, many of the entertainment and activities that Georg listed are not exclusive to faculty and staff: Court Theater, academic lectures, DOC Films. Those are things that are helping make Hyde Park more lively for everyone. I'll go on to list other open-to-the-public gems like the Oriental Institute (my personal playground as a kid), the Smart Museum, the skating rink, and things like yesterday's Children's Book Fair (put on by 57th Street Books, because intellectuals support their independent bookstore)...

Also, if you look at the vocal opponents to density in Hyde Park -- the loudest voices -- they are not primarily (or at all?) affiliated with the University, and in fact openly disdain it to some degree.

As for the Lab Schools, roughly 49% of the students come from the north side or downtown now.

Richard Gill said...

Beth, I wasn't taking a poke at the U of C or the faculty. I don't think I even mentioned them in my comment. I related what I encountered and observed "back in the 50s" and noted that there is some amount of it evident even today.

Granted the neighborhood now does more to invite people in than when it was cordoned off way back when. For instance, I enjoy the Saturday Compton lectures, and I'm not sure they would be viable without attendees from outside Hyde Park.

However, some of the old "wishing-this-were-a-gated-community" mentality remains. I wonder how that's going to relate to the Olympics if (perish the thought) the Olympics come to Chicago.

Georg said...

I bet most of the people who voted dry the precincts of the Drs Hosp and the area around the Medici were either employed by the U of C or big consumers of U of C services.

The funny thing about a lot of the HP NIMBYites is that even as they portray the U of C as evil they are more than happy to free-ride on and gorge on U of C services and benefits. I bet the active folks in the Hyde Park Hist Society/ Antiquarian Society/ HPKCC would rank as some of the most steadfast subscribers to U of C services/benefits.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Anyone who lives in Hyde Park is a consumer of U of C services. Just think of the U of C police alone.

I've seen the signatures on the dry vote petition. Blackstone and Harper have lots of single-family homes, which didn't add up to that many signatures (I recognized some faculty and Lab School names there). The vast majority of the signatures came from apartments on Stony Island, and on 57th and 59th Streets.

The people who spearheaded the dry vote (and gathered the signatures) are mostly non-U of C related: Greg Lane, Jack Spicer, Allan Rechtschaffen, Hans Morsbach, and the late Len Despres. Union workers also collected signatures.

Rechtschaffen is the retired head of the sleep lab at the U of C. Morsbach's and Spicer's businesses both depend on student and faculty clientele.

Greg said...

Actually, the University was the primary supporter of the Marriott Hotel project at the Doctors Hospital site. A good case could be made for the University making some poor choices and sometimes bungling the good choices, but I think they're pretty firmly behind growth here.