Community Collapse in the West

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Within the suburban enclaves themselves community expression finds its form in a variety of patterns of negative solidarity. The inhabitants of a suburb will band together to fight the invasion of their seamless web of private houses by bars, restaurants, laundromats; any kind of communal or public structure capable of generating ‘noise’, ‘disturbance’ or interference with steadily rising property values. The presence or threatened arrival of subsidized housing in the area demonstrates the community spirit of the suburbs in its clearest form. In Britain the juxtaposition of local-authority estates with areas of privately owned houses frequently produces conflicts only resolved by the construction of physical barriers between the two. The most celebrated case (though by no means the only one of its kind) involved walls seven feet high surmounted with rotating cast-iron spikes which were repeatedly built and demolished across such a divide between 1934 and 1959 at Cutteslowe in Oxford. In the United States, where suburban areas tend to be unfenced and landscaped, the enclave must be protected at its perimeter owing to the absence of internal barriers. The poor, blacks and other ethnic minorities are effectively barred from these white ‘spread cities’ by illegal cartels of real-estate agents and local vigilante groups more than prepared to fire-bomb any family that makes it through the outer defences. Attempts to force the integration of schools by transporting children from the suburbs to the ghettoes and vice versa are fought to a stalemate by legal delaying tactics and ambiguous political attitudes on the part of local representatives who know where their real voting support comes from.

The evasion of any area of public encounter even the everyday confrontations and showdowns of city life (pushing for trains, competing for the waiters’ or salesgirls’ attention, fighting for taxis) is a dominant characteristic of suburban life. It underlies the collapse of public transport in favour of the private car, and in modern suburban developments such as the British New Towns, it can be seen incorporated into the very infrastructure of decentralization. At Milton Keynes, a new city designated in 1967 and currently under construction, the pattern of development will be based on eighty-one kilometre-square neighbourhoods, each with its own shops and schools in addition to low-density housing. The area of the city will be 22,000 acres and its population on completion 250,000. At traditional urban densities such an area could accommodate at least two million persons. The ‘centre’ of Milton Keynes will be a massive 86-acre space planted with 7,500 trees and crossed by geometrical ‘boulevards’ between which will be located parking spaces for 25,000 cars.

Whatever notion of community underlies such planning there can be little doubt today that the ‘political, municipal or social unity’ central to the historic definition of the word has been totally reinterpreted. The dangerous dissonance between local politics — the issues that really engage the suburban citizen — and politics as presented at a national level, which was so ably exploited by George Wallace in the early stages of the 1972 American presidential election (and which is equally exploited by Enoch Powell in Britain and the major right-wing parties in West Germany and Italy), shows itself clearly at precisely those times when the community spirit is deliberately invoked. School bussing in the United States and immigration in Britain present clear indications of the depths of xenophobia and social fragmentation which underlie the silence of the majority. With their endless acres of arcadian development devoid of traditional urban interdependence yet bulging with the technology of private affluence, the high-turnover suburbs demonstrate a unique schizophrenia over political loyalties.

On issues such as foreign policy the personality of the candidate as revealed by television encounters establishes his popularity, and fed by media exposure and public-opinion polls his career can expand and contract in a blaze of publicity without his ever coming within striking distance of real political power. At this level the ‘political unity’ of the suburb becomes a fantasy identification acted out over ‘issues’ forgotten within months of a major election.’ On local issues the position changes dramatically. In Britain, organizations of parents in London suburbs demonstrated and lobbied frenziedly during the spring of 1971 for security guards to be placed outside every primary school to prevent attacks upon children, which had not in fact increased in frequency prior to the furor. In the USA, 15,000 citizens of Berkeley, California, besieged the Mayor’s office in 1970 with similar demands for ‘block wardens’ to defend their homes against ‘the dangerous revolutionary minority that has been doing its thing for six years’. Violence breaks out over school integration, subsidized housing, and in Britain particularly over immigration. During the immigration scare of the summer of 1972, when expulsion of British passport holding Asians from Uganda threatened to create an influx of ‘up to a quarter of a million’ immigrants at a time when unemployment stood at just under one million (the highest figure for a quarter of a century), the British government minister charged with organizing the distribution of the incoming Asians disputed with local councillors on television. ‘We are all in this together,’ he began, only to be interrupted by cries from representatives of areas already holding large immigrant minorities asking him how he was in it.

The social unity of the suburbs is an infinitely graduated and eminently exploitable disunity based upon private criteria such as differences in the size of the mortgage, the hire-purchase debt, the age or charisma of the automobile and a hundred other distinctions visible only within the sign language of consumer commodities. The community unit is not the city, the suburb, the neighbourhood, the block or the drive, it is the private connection with a worldwide credit and supply service, the freemasonry of the private owner. As such it is nothing to do with location in the sense of belonging, but everything to do with it in the sense of receiving that which is distributed throughout the land but more densely in some places than in others. The suburban community is a body of well-placed receivers on line to a massive delivery system. The stresses of city life impede the enjoyment of consumption; truly rural life with its remoteness, scarcities and absence of definitive peer groups checks ambition; only in the suburbs is the organization of what economists call ‘the intention to purchase’ optimized, clarified and purified. In so far as the exercise of consumption involves the adoption of similar states of mind and similar postures it is a communal experience, and suburban solidarity often takes the form of a group defence of postures and states of mind; but in so far as such solidarity only exists in relation to the supply of commodities, it is vulnerable to their scarcity. Even where the reality of affluence is less evident than its image, in the poorer pockets of the nations of the West such as Northern Ireland or Southern Italy, still the possibility of private wealth represents the sole real guarantee of social harmony under present conditions. In Northern Ireland, where the prospect of affluence for the Catholic minority was finally eclipsed by systematic discrimination in matters of housing and employment, the consequent disintegration of all the communities in the province proved more rapid and alarming than any observer had felt possible. The progressive subdivision of areas by means of bombings and demolitions, the erection of barricades and the construction of large numbers of miniature Berlin walls, all proceeded directly from the breakdown of the supply of commodities, including dreams. The physical juxtaposition of Catholic and Protestant families in Belfast, in some cases cemented by upwards of twenty years’ peaceful coexistence, collapsed in an orgy of fire-bombing and evacua¬tion within hours of the first major riots in 1969, and the process of community fragmentation did not end there. The creation of ‘No Go’ areas (barricaded against security forces) in parts of Belfast and Londonderry in turn led to conflict between rival community groups, each claiming to represent the people of the area. Ultimately the formation of com¬mittees, movements, clubs and gangs split the effective ad¬ministrative areas down from towns and parts of cities to streets, estates of houses, blocks of flats, even individual buildings and public spaces.

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This is a test

Posted by Bruce  on  12/30  at  06:19 PM

This is another test. It looks like comments work fine, after I fixed an error in the system.

Posted by Bruce  on  12/30  at  06:26 PM

interesting article!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/02  at  10:13 PM

Well, NY isn’t a much better alternative…just a bunch of people who don’t care about one another living on top of each other. That’s the beauty of an online community. You can get to know people that you would otherwise never talk to.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  06:06 AM
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