Tag Archives: economic development

Learning from Utopia

5 Sep

I usually like to imagine myself a cynic, but we all delude ourselves in our own little ways, and as a person who’s never had any shortage of aspiration, a utopian impulse surges up every now and then. As I’ve explained before, I have deep reservations about utopian thinking, and am not a candidate to run off and join a commune anytime soon. But there’s always something we can learn from past efforts to build a perfect world, and as I think about articulating a more complete positive vision, the time was ripe to explore a few older utopian dreams.

And so the past couple weeks found me reading a book named Utopia Drive, in which author Erik Reece takes a road trip through some scattered American movements that aspired to utopia. He visits the Thomas Merton’s old abbey, explores Robert Owen’s Equity Stores, and sits beside Walden Pond, among other locales. Most of these date to the nineteenth century, fascinating but quaint tales of cultish communities on the frontier that achieved varying degrees of success before their sexual morals or the power of an industrial economy laid them low. Reece refuses to consider them failures, though: the Shakers, the Indiana town of New Harmony, and the perfectionists of Oneida, New York, all lasted for decades and more or less approximated their founders’ visions for a spell. Their common theme among the relative successes was a religious fervor that went beyond some vague sense of a brotherhood of man, which says some things about attempts to order societies only on intellectual principles, but we’ll save that for another time. Now, religious or not, none of these communities remain.

These noble relics lead one to wonder if this old eighteenth century ideal of a utopia distorts the use the concept may have in the present day. Even Oneida, which was relatively well-integrated into its surrounding community, could close itself off from the outside world in a way that isn’t really possible today. Separation is now nearly impossible. Most of Reece’s present-day examples rely on a key export or somehow take advantage of the broader forces of capitalism, as did the one present-day intentional community I’ve visited in my travels. One resident of the contemporary Twin Oaks community in Virginia, whose hammock-and-tofu manufacturing enterprise it allows it to operate more or less as it aspires to, laments that her friends there, in the end, aren’t any happier than those on the outside, and few stay for long. Outside of a few true believers, Twin Oaks comes across as more of a temporary resting house to where one goes to restore oneself, not a community bound for time eternal. In a similar vein, Rod Dreher’s attempts to explain his religiously conservative Benedict Option communities have (to his intense frustration) usually been construed as attempts to found isolated communes in the woods. While not explicitly utopian—for the orthodox Christian, that can’t come in this life—the debate here is much the same, and hinges on the question of just how far one ought to go in retreating from the world to build one that can coexist with one’s ideals.

For my purposes, though, that isn’t necessarily a problem. Reece’s book succeeds because it’s not just an elegy for a lost past or idolatry of a few scattered communities in the present. Instead, he looks to draw from the utopian impulse that many people feel; to take that quest for an answer on how life should be lived and apply whatever lessons might come out of those who have asked these questions in the past. The end goal of utopia, one senses, should not be happiness, but a community that inspires the somewhat more virtuous lives of which happiness is a byproduct.

Politically, Reece would appear to be an ally of the Bernie Sanders left, as his concluding chapter labels income inequality and dependence on extractive industries the two greatest threats to contemporary American existence. However, his takeaways from his road trip, while not necessarily opposed to such politics, point in a different direction. They carry an implicit understanding that turning the U.S. into Denmark (an ethnically uniform micro-state that makes Donald Trump look kind to immigrants) is not a realistic path. If the structural economic crisis is as great as Reece would have us believe, initiatives like raising the minimum wage will only amount to letting the people locked in steerage sit on the deck chairs of a sinking ship.

Instead, Reece’s answers are intensely local, and rarely involve government action. He points to Oneida’s silverware company and the Mondragón Cooperative in Basque Spain as models of cooperative ownership that successfully shared profits with workers for long periods of time. He gives a nod to land trusts, which can make homeownership reasonable for lower-income people. He talks about local loan programs, which can get entrepreneurs the capital they need to get off the ground, and managing public lands in trusts as well. (We’re already doing those two with some success here in northern Minnesota.) He explore things like local exchange trading systems, which provide structures in which (usually low-income) people trade the services that they’re capable of providing to one another (child care, home health care, picking up the groceries, etc.) in an exchange of labor instead of cash.

These are ideas worth tinkering with, and few require immediate political power to enact. For that matter, a number of them are less threatening to entrenched capitalist interests than direct redistribution. While this may disappoint the Jacobins in the crowd, it also raises the odds for success. The proposals amount to positive visions for a better society that do not always require their proponents to make bogeymen of opposing individuals or ideologies. Their implementation wouldn’t be seamless or without obstacles, but in all of this, one sees hints of an uplifting local approach that doesn’t lock itself in to old categories that drive people off before it’s even been tried.

The thrust of Reece’s proposals is also welcome for those of us who, despite entertaining occasional millenarian impulses, are mostly content living within the society that exists—or, at the very least, fear that blowing it up may blow back up in our faces in unexpected ways. One of the more fascinating images in the book comes when Reece quotes philosopher Paul Shepard on how the human genome “is encoded with a Paleolithic need for small communities and a closeness to the natural world.” While this certainly romanticizes caveman life, it does tap in to a certain communal bond made real. It underscores the need to build thick networks: close ties within an extended family, lasting loyalty to neighborhoods and place, homes with revolving front doors that people in and out and keep it alive with energy and creativity; a republic of front porches, in the words of one former professor of mine. It means a place to raise children who always know they have a town behind them. It may not be utopian, but it’s a place I’d want to live, and I have every intention of working to make it reality.

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From Office Towers to the Horrors of Heroin: Duluth City Council Notes, 10/28/13

28 Oct

The Council Chamber teemed with life for its final session before the 2013 elections, with a large, chattering crowd on hand. Councilor Hartman was absent and “sick in bed,” according to President Boyle, leaving the Council with only seven members. Even so, they managed to pack a broad range of issues into a relatively short meeting.

The highlight of the night actually took place before the formal meeting, as Councilor Fosle made good on his promise to hold a Committee of the Whole meeting on heroin use in the Duluth area. Police Chief Gordon Ramsay was on hand to testify, and fielded questions on the spread of heroin, explaining the PD’s efforts to cut off supply lines from Chicago and Detroit and the troubles the city has with for-profit methadone clinics. Once the formal meeting started, six citizen speakers addressed the Council on heroin. They led off with a woman who gave a thorough overview of the drug in Duluth, telling of how addiction begins with people taking pain-killing drugs such as Oxycontin that are over-prescribed and often serve as a gateway. She attributed over 20 Duluth-area deaths over the past two years to heroin overdoses, and labeled it an “epidemic” that requires more education.

She was followed by two mothers of heroin addicts who shared jarring stories of their sons’ struggles. One said of her son that “she didn’t know who he is anymore,” detailing his addiction to painkillers starting at age 16 that led him to heroin and jail stints, theft, and no sober friends. She likened the experience to “watching my child drown, and there’s nothing we can do to change it.” The second explained the agony of being the mother of an addict, a life filled with nights of “tears and silent screams” given the lack of support networks, and the pain of having one’s child labeled as “scum.” The fourth speaker was a recovering addict who has been clean for three and a half years after roughly 15 years on heroin; she talked of how difficult it was to overcome the drug, and did her best to offer hope to the mothers who had come before her. A 22-year-old took the stand as the witness for her generation, which has been the worst-hit by heroin; she told of several family members and friends who have died in recent years. The final speaker emphasized the importance of prevention and treatment; while it is good to cut off drug suppliers such as Jim Carlson, he pointed out that removing the supplier does little to stem the demand.

After the meeting, Councilor Fosle thanked the speakers for their time, and invited the other Councilors to reflect on the stories and come back to him with their thoughts on what, if anything, the Council could do to fight the heroin epidemic. For a second straight meeting, he came across not as the rambling ideologue he occasionally seemed to be in the past, but as a powerful advocate for issues that might otherwise be missed. Councilor Krug suggested the Council hear more testimony from people working with addicts in schools, emergency rooms, and rehab centers to better grasp the issue. Councilor Gardner agreed, and said the root of the problem—prescription opiates—appeared clear. She hoped for further engagement with the medical community in the future.

The most involved piece of official Council business was an update on the construction of an office tower on the 400 block of West Superior Street by Mr. Chris Eng of the city’s Business Development office. He explained that the building, which stood 15 stories high in the initial plans, was now down to 10-12 stories. He detailed the funding sources for the project; $50 million of the $70 million project will be contributed by clothing designer Maurices, which will occupy much of the building, while the city will match an $8.5 million grant to cover most of the remainder. Councilor Fosle asked whether Maurices had a tenant lined up for its current location; a Maurices representative told him they had one for their main building, and were confident they could sell their other two locations over the next two years. Councilor Stauber grilled the project’s representatives on the finer details of the changes to their funding plans and received an assurance that the tower had letters of intent from several likely tenants for its retails spaces, though the tenants could not be disclosed at this point. Councilor Julsrud asked about the parking ramp, which has also shrunk in size now that the tower will not be as tall as first planned, and will not require bond money due to Maurices’ decision to front the payment.

The Council’s consent agenda passed unanimously. A measure that would have asked the state legislature to make it possible to remove withdrawn candidates from ballots was tabled, and the administration withdrew a plan to remodel a fire hall for further work. Councilor Stauber was the lone vote against the planned distribution of tourism tax revenue, though he didn’t explain why. Councilor Gardner introduced a City Code amendment to rename the American Indian Commission the “Indigenous Commission,” saying the new name was more inclusive. Councilor Fosle clarified that the term “indigenous” included numerous Asian and Pacific island groups, and the name change passed unanimously.

Next up was an ordinance funding a parking ramp at the Duluth International Airport. Councilors Julsrud and Fosle took care to emphasize the importance of the project, noting its minimal risk and its role in completing an important expansion for the airport, while President Boyle shared his personal horror stories of flying back into Duluth after a vacation to find his car plowed in and buried under half a foot of snow. The measure passed unanimously, as did two minor changes to permitted building types and sites. That wrapped up official Council business for the meeting.

In addition to her comments on heroin, Councilor Gardner used the final comment session to discuss recent controversy over efforts to remove homeless people sleeping in the “Graffiti Graveyard” beneath I-35 in downtown Duluth. She said she and President Boyle had recently attended a forum on poverty and learned that many people experiencing homelessness feel “less than legal” and fear doing things like coming before the Council to speak about their plight. She said she was looking at models used in Seattle and Providence, Rhode Island that might help empower these people to seek more help. Her comments wrapped up a brief but heavy meeting in which the Council did a thorough job of shining light on people who might otherwise slip through the cracks, yet still found time to push a pair of key economic development projects. Yet again, the Council proved an effective governing body, confronting issues that face a wide swath of Duluthians. We’ll see how well it can turn its talk into action, and how it evolves after next week’s election.