Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The New American Poverty--Part II

In 1946, Eric Johnston became the head of the MPAA.  Johnston had previously been president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he believed firmly in capitalism and free enterprise.  As the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, he believed that the film industry had an important role to play in the ideological defeat of Communism and the Soviet Union.  Therefore, he worked hard to export films which portrayed American prosperity.

One story that Johnston told from those years involved trying to get the newly communist Polish government to import U.S. films to its theaters.  At one time, Johnston traveled to Warsaw to screen a film with the Polish minister of Education in which two characters work at a Lockheed plant in Southern, California.  During one scene, the characters are shown walking through the parking lot.  Immediately, the minister of education ordered the film stopped.

"There, Mr. Johnson, there's what we don't like, that propaganda."

"What do you mean propaganda?" Johnston asked.

"All those cars in the parking lot. Are you trying to make us poor Poles believe that the workers in a factory in America drive those automobiles to work?"

Johnston tried his best to convince the Polish minister of Education that American workers did in fact take cars to work, but he was unsuccessful in doing so.  The communist mindset which demanded that the "Workers of the World Unite!" simply could not reconcile the fact that in a free market, free enterprise system, average workers could enjoy a standard of living that included an individual automobile.

Today, unfortunately, the forces of socialism are still on the march, and the Progressives in our country are determined to make sure that in the future, factory parking lots will not be filled with cars which the owners will drive to their own homes.

In The New American Poverty--Part I, I talked yesterday about the fact that the housing bubble and subsequent housing crash became an excuse to re-engineer the American housing system to transform us from a society of homeowners to a society of renters. The Dodd-Frank bill, named for Chris Dodd and Barney Frank, is creating guidelines for lending which will guarantee that most Americans will never be able to buy a house. But the re-engineering that is taking place in our society goes beyond just taking away our ability to own a home--it will also change where we live and how we commute.

Last year, outgoing Senator Chris Dodd tried to pass what would have been his final piece of landmark legislation, "The Livable Communities Act."  This Act would have provided federal dollars to subsidize Smart Growth--urban communities with small lots, and narrower streets which combine multi family and single family housing into one neighborhood along with shops and businesses.  The idea is to make the communities walkable so that rather than commuting to our jobs and then to stores, we live, shop, and, hopefully work, in our neighborhoods.  We rely on public transportation rather than our cars.  The Livable Communities Act was the perfect final stroke on Dodd's rewriting of how Americans live and work.

Dodd's bill did not pass, but the reality of Smart Growth and Smart Communities is already here.  In fact, in El Paso, our very left-leaning City Council has spent six years pushing Smart Growth and encouraging developers to use Smart Growth in their developments.  They are also pushing for widespread use of public transportation here, even though in our city the only form of public transportation is the city bus system which is famous for its gross inefficiency. (For example, a local TV station did a report on our bus system since we are being encouraged to use it. The reporter followed a woman who cleans houses for a living from her home in Horizon City to the home where she cleans on the West side of El Paso.  The trip is about 30 miles and should normally take about 45 minutes, but this woman rides the bus for 5 hours (from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.) to reach her destination by bus.  That is not exactly practical for people whose jobs require that they be at work at 8:00 A.M.

Nevertheless, less than a month ago I spoke to City Council on behalf of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce against the new landscape ordinance which will increase the costs of all new development and ultimately the cost of new office space to all small businesses and the cost of housing to all those living in new housing developments.  The City Councilman pushing through this agenda said that he was tired of the Chambers of Commerce being reactionary, and he rammed through the vote in favor of the new landscape ordinance.  We were told that the ordinance is necessary to provide tree-lined walkways so that people walking to public transportation will have shade.  And since we are all being encouraged to convert to public transportation, I suppose that all of us can ultimately benefit from the trees we are paying for with higher rents.

Shortly after that experience, I emailed a friend of mine and told her that I was looking for some information on Smart Growth.  I wanted to write about Smart Communities in this blog, but they are also featured heavily in the new novel I am working on. My friend immediately set up an appointment for me to meet with someone from the city planning office, who very pleasantly came to my office to give me a presentation on Smart Growth. He brought a slide presentation of a Smart Community in Wisconsin with beautiful park-like spaces and a combination of single family and multi family housing.  My friend told me that the biggest objection to living in a Smart Community is that the communities are mixed income.  (I can see how this could be a drawback for people on all points of the socio-economic scale.)

Smart Communities in and of themselves are not necessarily bad.  Carlos from the city planning office showed me studies indicating that both young adults and seniors prefer the concept of walkable communities. The apartments are built over shops so that people can shop in their neighborhoods.  The garages are constructed in the back of the houses, so all of the parking is in the back and the streets are narrow to discourage driving.  My friend expressed her hope that with beautiful open park-like spaces, teenagers will be encouraged to get out of their houses and walk through the neighborhood, thus reducing obesity and creating more of a sense of community in our youth.  I have no issues with Smart Communities as long as the choice of whether to develop such communities and whether to live in them is completely voluntary.  But any developer in El Paso will tell you that while publicly the City Council says that Smart Growth is voluntary, in practice the city does not leave developers much choice about whether to use Smart Code or more traditional development tools.

I understand why some people would want an urban experience with the opportunities to be within walking distance of work, restaurants and shopping facilities.  Six years ago I visited my brother in Chicago. He works for CNN, and he lived at the top of a 34 story apartment building in downtown Chicago When the weather permitted, he walked to work which was about a mile from his apartment, and when he wanted to go somewhere else in the city he took public transportation.  Since CNN provided vehicles for his use on the job, he did not really need his Jeep.  But I also noticed that in spite of all of that, he never did get rid of his Jeep Rubicon.  Instead, he paid excessively high rates to park it until he got a job transfer to Miami where he lives today.

My brother was barely 30 years old when he lived in Chicago, but as a successful single man who grew up in the country rather than a huge metroplex, he may have been the wrong type of personality to really enjoy an "urban" experience.  After all, his goal is to retire to some quiet community in Alaska or Montana at the end of his career.  For retirees, the Smart Community could offer more benefits since many retirees get to a point where they can no longer drive.  Since retirees do not have to worry about their careers, they can be more open to this kind of lifestyle. 

However, when my mother asked her younger sister who has worked as a social worker in Los Angeles, California for nearly 30 years and is close to retirement whether she had considered life in a Livable Community, she said that she had not and would not.  After years of driving all over LA to provide social services to various residents, she said that she knows what part of town the Livable Community that her son-in-law is helping to build is located in and she would not even consider living there, because as she put it, "Sometimes I am going to want to leave the community and I don't want to be in the neighborhood that it is built next to when I do."  After 30 years of traffic, civil service and mediating problems for troubled individuals and families, my aunt's dream is to retire to a small piece of land in Tennessee and spend her weekends driving around visiting old antebellum homes that have been made into museums and eating Southern cooking.

And many of us who are not retirees--particularly people in my age demographic of 35-65--don't want to live in walkable communities and depend on public transportation.  We want the freedom to use our cars, to own our homes, and to determine what kinds of neighborhoods appeal to us.  If we have children, we want to be able to choose neighborhoods that offer the kinds of schools and after-school activities that we believe will best help them achieve their potential. We want to be able to choose the stores and businesses we frequent--not because they happen to be located within walking distance of our homes--but because they offer the lowest price, or the best service, or because they sell such and such item that we just can't do without.  We want to be able to change jobs when we want to or need to without worrying about whether the nearest public transportation is going to get us to work on time every day. We don't want somebody to draw boundaries for us that dictate where we live and where we shop and where we work. 

If giving up our cars and living in communities where we walk almost everywhere and rely on public transportation were concepts with widespread appeal, the Progressive elements of the federal and state and municipal governments would not have to go to such lengths to change our society so that we have no other choices about how we live and work.  Keeping gas prices high and mortgage guidelines unattainable for all but an elite few serves the purpose of forcing us into Livable Communities and making us adopt a lifestyle that most of us would voluntarily reject.  Looking at the New American Poverty, the Polish minister of Education would have been extremely proud.

For related posts and books by Alexandra Swann, visit her website at


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