Tuesday, November 11, 2003


Josh Cherniss has taken notice, via the entry below, of Timothy Burke's wonderfully reflective essay on what taking his child to some local museums taught him about class and the public sphere. This reminds me that I meant to update that post with some comments from a friend of mine, who lives in Fairfield County, CT: another location where, as in Philadelphia, the urban (mostly minority) poor and the professional (mostly white) upper-class live in practically the same civic space. Emphasis on the "practically." But let me allow my friend to explain himself:

"Here in the burbs we have a fairly interesting YMCA system. By accident or design, the Y has three physical locations: A sprawling complex in a predominantly white affluent suburb, a "conference center" on a 200-acre lot in prime wilderness terrain, and an urban recreation center in a poor, predominantly Hispanic downtown area. Upper-middle suburbanites join the Y for facilities that resemble those of a country club - in fact, old, towel clad men actually close business deals in the mint-infused steamroom - but these goodies only come with a deluxe membership. Patrons can also purchase a standard membership, but they don't get all the perks (bring your own towels, no steam room, etc). Likewise, people in my community pay market rates to send their kids to Y camps -- either the expensive camp at the nature center (akin to the private museum [which Burke talked about]) or to the traditional day camp (akin in terms of crowds to the public museum). Here's the kicker, though. Regardless of whether you choose the deluxe or the standard membership/camp, a large part of the money is earmarked to support the operation of the urban Y, most of whose patrons receive memberships gratis. The organization also provides a large number of scholarships to both the nature center and standard summer camps, depending on the need of the camper. Most people feel quite good about this arrangement.

"I recognize that this system works largely by the accident of geography; the urban poor lack the resources to travel to a distant suburban location, even though their membership technically allows them access to the facility. This means that the suburbanites can enjoy the homogeneous, quiet civility that gives this particular Y its country club-esque flavor and can still claim equal access to all levels of society. Nevertheless, I think that the system also points to a potential for community participants to take responsibility for those in their midst who are unable to do for themselves. Socialism in capitalist clothes, but [an arrangement] less onerous for the suburbanites and less degrading and dehumanizing for the urbanites....It simply requires a community willing to transfer its excess from the wealthy to the poor without organizational compulsion."

I think it's very honest of my friend to recognize that this arrangement has the support of the broader public (both in terms of tax money as well as continued attendance at public facilities) at least partly, if not primarily, because of an "accident of geography" which allows members of the middle and upper classes to enjoy the benefits of--as Burke described it--"a private retreat from the public sphere, where you can have as much of a share of the privately bounded always-for-sale commons as you have time and money to claim," without in fact actually making such a retreat, thus sparing the affluent white suburbanites of Fairfield County the guilt and resentment involved in having to "accept such losses [of one's ability to create a relatively genteel social-educational environment through public works] and rationaliz[e] them as justified in terms of the loser's own culturally bounded shortcomings and hang-ups." The result: everyone's happy in their (dare we say publicly segregated?) arrangements. As I see it, Burke's whole point was that, as long as the world of the marketplace (and, and must add even if Burke didn't, the decline of communal norms, the breakdown of parental authority, the absence of civic shame...) makes the "tragedy of the commons" a fact of life, those who can avoid the commons will do so, meaning the commons will ultimately decline. (In short, the free-rider vs. full-contributor problem.) If, however, a twist of geography can keep the commons "discrete," as it were, then the middle and upper classes will continue to give their support to public projects, without having to wrestle with whether or not they can stand to be tagged as one of those (dare we say conservative?) white-flight Bobos or Patio Men which David Brooks has so often taught us about.

Talking about Brooks reminds me of my old hang-ups, about class and location and occupation. My deepest internal struggle--at least insofar as politics goes--is figuring out how I should feel, and how I should belong, when my class and my location do not mesh, when the suburban retreat is not an option. But I shouldn't allow my personal crusades to interfere with acknowledging that, whatever sort of compromises Fairfield County's solution to Burke's (and my) problems rest upon, it is nonetheless a solution, and one that should not be dismissed. Should we purposefully set out to make socio-economic segregation a guiding principle in our construction and funding of in civic spaces? That's putting it too harshly, and too unfairly. But look around at your towns: look at where the parks are built, what reasons they are built for, and who uses them. It's not as if this sort of (usually unstated) reasoning is absent from where we put museums, how we pay for swimming pools, and who maintains the playgrounds. Is this the sort of thing better left unstated? Or would we better serve the commons overall by bringing this particular hypocrisy out into the light?