In a recent Washington Post article Joel Kotkin uses the term “New Localism” to describe a series of current (escalating) shifts in the operative and moral landscape of U.S. everydayness. Not unlike its trampled cousin, New Urbanism, New Localism is, in essence, reactive conservatism with a big smile and even bigger—albeit comforting—words. Kotkin’s New Localism choses familiar concepts like the strengthening of “community”, the virtues of “small town” organization and lifestyles, or the risks of dispersion and dislocation brought about by global dynamics. It’s a story we’ve heard before: local is good, worldly is bad; big tends to be nasty and small is beautiful. But why?
We are falling back into a time of fundamental uncertainty; uncertainty generates insecurity, and insecurity usually promotes conservative tendencies. The U.S. in particular has a longstanding tradition of moving back and forth between isolationism and international involvement. These broad political, social and moral tendencies become evident not only through public policy or in the handling of foreign affairs, but often seep into the organization and production of space. At the scale of the city (or the suburb) isolationism might be expressed in the concentration on personal or family ties, populist distortions of Main Street America and the tainted concept of community itself. All of these issues are at the heart of the New Localist repertoire, with its odes to the Pleasantville life of playhouses and pushcarts and evenings at the philharmonic; a buffered, conflict-free quotidian existence of home offices, “staycations”, local rodeos and farmers’ markets.
Does any of this really promote “community” bonding, or at least transcend the selfish, individualistic nature of consumerist society? Not really. In fact, behind the homey, comfy and seemingly innocuous rhetoric of New Localism lie some very old and serious dangers, including self-absorption, bigotry, and—despite its supposed purpose of bringing people closer—fragmentation.
Regardless of Kotkin’s misleading perspective, the notion of “breaking down” the scale of everydayness into manageable and more grounded units might indeed be crucial for approaching our (near) future agglomerations. New Localism should not be understood as a lifestyle, but as a mindset; a way of providing more focused, immediate and realistic grasp on the things that make our cities or suburbs or exurbs (or whatever) tick. I’m all for downsizing from the usually abstract and overwhelming working concept of “city” into a more specific, landed, focalized spatial unit: neighborhood, barrio, district, enclave, belt, etc.
Still, it’s absurd to understand these as detached, self-sufficient, self-referential nuclei. Today more than ever, nearly every single aspect of our “local” day to day existence is traversed by the “global” . New localists might want to ignore this fact, or even worse, “reverse” it. This is especially evident when they go on about their conservative fantasies of “community” as a condition that relies on a strong physical and cultural proximity, a source of consensus and immutability. Not. A grounded, localized focus doesn’t necessarily have to be at odds with a networked, dispersed functional reality.
According to Kotkin, “localism is neither urban nor anti-urban. At its heart, it represents something larger: a historic American tradition that sees society’s smaller units as vital and the proper focus of most people’s lives.” But he’s wrong. There’s nothing particularly “American” about focusing on “community” or smaller aggregations. Kotkin goes on to affirm that this small-unit type of organization is what good ’ol Tocqueville noted as the main difference between U.S. political structure and its European counterparts. He seems to have skipped the chapter where Alex d.T. writes of another feature, which actually sounds more intimately American. Regarding individuals in democracies, Tocqueville remarks:
They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.