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Main Street Is Not an Idea

Conservatives must not turn localism into an ideology.
March 16, 2021
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(Via Shutterstock)

One of the chief critiques of modern suburban development is that it lacks—mostly by design—a strong public realm on the order of the main street or the town square, or the human interactions that arise from the intermixing of residential, commercial, and religious or recreational establishments.

Conservatives often bristle at such critiques, interpreting them as critiques of the American way of life itself. Nonetheless, one can sense an increasing appreciation for America’s older, pre-suburban places—both among urbanists, who see in small towns and cities a classical urban fabric ready for some kind of reinvigoration, and conservatives, who see a confluence between their political philosophy and the kind of old-fashioned places where it is understood to thrive.

Chris Arnade, a dissident leftist, considers one of America’s main lines of inequality to be between elite Americans who don’t care about rootedness or sense of place, and those left behind in disinvested places who do. Grace Olmstead, in her new book Uprooted, praises people who return later in their careers to their hometowns, driven by a sense of loss or personal duty.

There is also, though, a more radical tendency to be found on the right, one that attributes to people who move away from their hometowns, whether for suburbia or for a career, a certain moral or character weakness. A lonely and atomizing culture, the reasoning goes, needs more unchosen obligations.

Perhaps there’s a bit of Burke in there somewhere, but America has never prized place in this way. As Charles Marohn, the founder of Strong Towns—perhaps the foremost organization advocating localist, bottom-up, placemaking—has written, while sometimes a place needs us, sometimes we need a different place. “If it’s not the right place for you, if the opportunity for you is not there, then go someplace else.” That is not a failure of duty. It’s just life. And it’s mostly how Americans have historically approached this question.

Placemaking—the collaborative improvement of the public realm—is, whether in its more technocratic design-focused sense or its more humane sense of rootedness, fundamentally a local enterprise. And being local, it implies a recognition of America’s vast diversity, given that no two places are the same, or need quite the same human capital or policy prescriptions. A genuine localism can also be melancholy, in that it must recognize the broader economic context that has rendered some places obsolete, and forced the hand of those who leave.

Conservatives must be wary of allowing localism to become an ideology, in which the most personal needs of unique people and places are abstracted into an idealized vision. If condescending, clichéd “diner journalism” is the elite left’s failure mode when talking about the America “out there,” then an uncritical glorification of such places, an implication that their purpose is cosmic and their accidental residents are bound to their soil, is the failure mode of the right.

Main street, after all, is a place, not an idea. And it must be tended—or sometimes, frankly, abandoned—according to how real places actually develop and thrive, or fail to. It is a dismal and sobering fact that transformations in economics and technology can render someone’s home obsolete. But a fact it is.

The death of places, of course, can be exaggerated. (I have probably done so myself, because I have remarked before on Detroit.) Critics of America’s land-use status quo, like Marohn and James Howard Kunstler, frequently point out that most of the places where wealth is actually generated, and where human settlements will likely endure even through very tough times, are places that exist for a geographic reason. Detroit happens to be one such settlement; it is not likely to actually go anywhere.

Nonetheless, America is littered with failed settlements, places which were once homes. Places which were, for a moment in time and for a handful of people, places. They were not located in prime geographic spots, or they failed to transcend whatever passing economic arrangement underpinned them.

You don’t need to look to the storied nineteenth-century ghost towns of the Old West to see this phenomenon. Open Google Maps, go to the satellite view, and scroll through the hinterlands of Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, or North Carolina. Jump over to the remotest parts of the Midwest or the Mountain West. What you’ll see is scores of crossroads or intersections, identified by a name on the map and little more. Occasionally, there’s a single house, a church, sometimes even a post office. Some such settlements were large enough to earn a monument on their former site. Most were not.

When conservatives speak of knowing and loving one’s place, or describe America as a nation of main streets, or suggest a duty of sorts to put down roots, they must be cautious. America is a nation of restless pioneers and open roads as much as it is a nation of small towns. Conservatism does not socially engineer, but credits and works with what already exists. And what America has never been and will never be is a nation of feudalism.

Of course, there’s a gulf between this arcane ideological localism, and critiquing suburbia or encouraging those who personally feel a sense of duty to their own places or communities of birth. Perhaps we should even cultivate such a sense of duty in ourselves. But we should do so at our discretion, and in accordance with our needs.

If this radical tendency to valorize home and localism and places of origin continues to grow, it is likely to backfire. The suburban status quo will have an argument made for itself: Do you want feudalism, or do you want a three-car garage? Neither is ideal, but every American likely knows their answer.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Twitter: @ad_mastro.