Bringing the City Council meeting to a (participatory) stage

I have read through decades of City Council and other local commission minutes for research projects. Thus, I was intrigued to find out a playwright had taken real City Council experiences and put them together into a participatory performance:

Inside a hushed theater, a voice on the loudspeaker instantly lets the audience know this isn’t your typical performance.

“By joining us tonight” a soft female voice says, “you’ll be standing in for someone who was actually part of a local government meeting somewhere in the U.S. in the last three years.”

The show, for the most part, doesn’t use actors. Instead, theater goers are asked to volunteer to play the role of city council members, the mayor, and regular citizens at a city council meeting. The performance is staged just as if it were a real meeting, with real people participating in a play that reflects the good, the bad, the ugly, and the sometimes nail-biting tediousness of participatory democracy…

“How do you take someone whose way of speaking or obvious demographic might be very different from yours and respectfully put it in the room?” Landsman asks. “How do you give voice to someone else’s language? For me it’s like walking a mile in their shoes – verbally.”

I would love to see this and to participate. The play takes something mundane to most people and provides an opportunity to see how things work and different people approach their community.

Here is why this has the potential to matter: Americans say that they like local government but their involvement is often limited (as exhibited by low turnout rates for local voting). And much of the time in local government boards, committees, and groups may involve arcane discussions of local ordinances, approval of paying bills, and odd local political or interpersonal disputes. Yet, these meetings help shape the character of communities. Even if there is a sizable public discussion about a development project or an annexation or a significant change, it is in the local government meeting that the vote actually takes place. These discussions and decisions can make a difference and set a community down a particular path for decades.

I would guess those who see this play do not immediately show up at all the local meetings eager to observe. However, at the least, it could help reveal some of the local processes that have the potential to impact all of our lives and communities.

The development of a changing and global northern Virginia

Alongside the rise of Washington, D.C. as an American center, the suburbs of northern Virginia have expanded and evolved:

One such non-DC-centered book was published in 2013 by the scholar Andrew Friedman. “Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia” stands out as a serious application of academic history and landscape studies about the Dulles Corridor. It just may be the first 21st-century attempt to mold a critical perspective on Northern Virginia…

The book is built on Friedman’s understanding that “there is no American place that’s not also a global place.” He establishes a dichotomy between the “Overt Capital” of Washington, where the Capitol dome represents the public sphere, and the “Covert Capital” of the Dulles Corridor, where the CIA and Pentagon manage their operations in relative privacy. As Friedman examines how foreign policy and foreign interventions shaped the domestic landscape, he locates the cross-border flows of material and people that have made our region what it is today…

For Friedman, the history of the Dulles Corridor begins with the construction of the Pentagon in the 1940s, followed a decade later by the CIA headquarters. These buildings took advantage of car-oriented development to gain a new kind of hiddenness, obscured behind forests and parking lots. A drive through Langley can reveal nothing about what takes place behind the agency’s doors.

Friedman sees the seven years since his book was published as the beginning of a “third generation” in the development of the Dulles Corridor. It’s no longer characterized by leisurely semi-rural landscapes nor by McMansions, but by “lifestyle centers” and “placemaking,” as in the Mosaic District or The Boro. These centers, Friedman says, are in danger of becoming “fortified cells… reinventing the ‘urban’ into subdivisions, compartmentalized, buy-in-based.” Rather than creating an inclusive environment, he worries that lifestyle centers will only create a new form of “landscapes of denial.”

On one hand, this like the development of Sunbelt suburbs after World War Two. With defense spending, the spread of highways, and sprawling suburbs, this could describe any number of regions from D.C. to southern California. Over time, communities developed and became part of a global system: new immigration flows starting in the late 1960s brought new people, multiple generations of people lived in the new communities, and suburbs began to differentiate themselves. On the other hand, few places have the CIA and Pentagon – defense spending in suburbs could run the gamut from aircraft plants to military bases to government offices. And individual communities and regions have their own particular histories that affect local development character.

More broadly, looking at regional development – not just at cities – is a worthwhile endeavor. Major cities, like Washington, D.C., cannot be separated from their suburbs and vice versa. Considering the variation within a region versus connections between particular parts of the region and other parts of the United States is fun. Tyson’s Corner, cited above would be a good example: is it more like edge cities or northern Virginia. And what lessons could northern Virginia provide for the rest of the country about what to do or not to do?

Living in a community named after someone should prompt some curiosity about that founder

Upon seeing news earlier this year about the death of Carol Stream, the daughter of a Wheaton-born developer who founded a suburb in the 1950s named after his daughter, I remembered that I live in a town named after someone (the Wheaton brothers, Jesse and Warren). I have also studied another town named after a person, Naperville, studied another community that started with a person’s name (Turner Junction which became West Chicago), and have some knowledge of an adjacent suburb named after another person, Warrenville.

If people live in a community named after a person, how much should community members know about that person? More broadly, I would guess many Americans have limited knowledge of the early days of their community. The founding could be decades, possibly centuries, earlier. Americans tend to look to the future, not the past. American communities do not always have local museums, plaques, or other markers that talk about the early days. Yet, a community with a specific name attached to it offers an opportunity to connect to a particular person who likely had some time in the area before and after the community got its start. (An aside: communities named after distant people who may have never visited, may not provide as compelling a story.)

On the flip side, other communities might appear to have mundane names. In the Chicago area, it seems like a variety of suburban communities that put together two words from a list: Oak, Forest, Village, Park, River, Hills, etc. These might also some research: what has behind the name choice?

At the beginning of a community, the founders choose a name. Even though that name may seem less relevant decades later, community members can do a little digging and connect the name to particular people, if applicable, or concepts. All of this could help create a great sense of shared history and community.

(See earlier related posts: Learning About a Suburb.)

Looking deeper at Wheaton, Illinois in Walmart’s “United Towns” ad

During the Super Bowl, Walmart ran an ad titled “United Towns.” From roughly 0:10-0:12, there is a a shot of Wheaton, Illinois looking south on Main Street. Here is the view:

WheatonWalmart2020

Four things of note from this short appearance of Wheaton in a national ad:

  1. As a number of Wheaton residents noted online, there is no Walmart in Wheaton. This is true but it obscures the larger story. One, how many Wheaton residents shop at Walmart (there are two within several miles of the town’s borders) as opposed to other big box stores (such as the Target in Wheaton or the several within a few miles)? Or, how many Walmart employees live in Wheaton? Two, there may be reasons Wheaton has no Walmart: it might not have wanted one. The busy stretch along Roosevelt Road is carefully controlled by the city – no big box stores. The largest shopping area, Danada, does not have any big box stores (though it now has three sizable grocery stores). Wheaton had one of the first Target stores in the area but it is located right on the edge of town and a proposed Home Depot across the street did not get approval and is now just past Wheaton’s northern border.
  2. The image captures a feature of Wheaton life: the passing of trains through the downtown and the community. Without the train line, there is no Wheaton (at least the one officially founded in the 1850s). The train may be a fact of life in Wheaton and numerous other American communities but it is not necessarily a welcome one since these trains can delay traffic.
  3. The ad on the whole promotes the ideas of small towns and community life. There are lots of shots of houses and older downtown buildings. But, is Walmart both a rural/small town as well as a suburban phenomenon? Without suburban stores – meaning Walmart locations along main roads, within sprawl, and dependent on driving – Walmart is not the company it is today. Like many Americans, Walmart might promote the ideal of small towns but not really live in that world.
  4. Connected to #3, the shot of a cute or quaint suburban downtown is an interesting contrast to the effect of Walmart in the American economy plus the larger changes in which they participated. Wheaton’s downtown is in okay shape but imagine what it could be without big box stores. More broadly, downtowns across the country pursued different options to counter the changes in retail and shopping in the postwar era (starting with shopping malls and strip malls and later extending to big box stores).

Lamenting small town growth in Idaho

Star, Idaho is dealing with what many communities in the United States have experienced at one time or another: the change to the community that comes with a growing population.

Since then, Star, about 30 minutes west of Boise, has become the fastest-growing city in Idaho—one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. Over the past nine years, Star’s population has doubled to more than 10,000. Most of the growth has come from people like the Turnipseeds who uprooted from the West Coast to the greater Boise area—known as the Treasure Valley—drawn by the promise of less stressful and more affordable living. By 2040, Star’s population could surpass 35,000, according to city projections.

Now Star is grappling with some of the same problems the Turnipseeds left California to escape. The town’s main drag, where ranchers once drove their cattle, is clogged with traffic during rush-hour commutes. Sprawling subdivisions have sprouted up around farmland, as have new chain stores. The median home price has more than doubled to nearly $400,000 since 2010…

According to a September 2019 survey by Boise State University, 75% of Treasure Valley residents said that growth was occurring too fast, up from 50% in 2016…

The debate over Star’s transformation mirrors the rest of the region, as disputes in neighboring cities have erupted over whether to approve major housing developments. A public meeting in Star this week on a proposed apartment complex is expected to draw a large crowd, officials said.

Growth is generally good for American communities. To not grow is to stagnate (or even decline).

But, this story presents one of the acceptable situations in which residents and leaders can argue their community should not grow. The typical argument goes like this: our community (or neighborhood) is unique because it is small, tight-knit, not over-developed and more people coming would ruin the character and atmosphere.

It gets more complicated when the community is full of relatively recent arrivals. In cases of suburban sprawl, people might choose a community to move to because of its particular features and then find in ten or twenty years that the community changed because other people had similar ideas. At what point do community members get to discuss and possibly enact drawing up the proverbial moat and saying they want no more growth?

Pretty much all communities change over time. Instead of thinking in binary terms of change versus no change, it would be helpful to think of community change on a continuum from slow change to major quick change. Some people do really want to live in communities that change relatively little and such places can be found. Others might want to be in dynamic places and they can find those. How many people will move when a community changes a lot? Hard to say as this might be dependent on personal circumstances or the direction of change.

Working out these tensions in a community can be difficult. Much public conversation and listening are needed. And some residents might move away seeking something else and others might still come as they see something attractive and exciting.

The little development battles happening across American suburbs

A debate over proposed development in Reston, Virginia might be indicative of debates across suburbs:

You may be well versed in this debate. “What you’ve got in Reston, and really everywhere in suburban America, is a demographic shift that’s occurring. The dominant baby-boom generation ages and expires, and the newer, younger generations look different—they have different interests and different incomes and different commuting patterns,” says Patrick Phillips, former CEO of the Urban Land Institute, who has studied Reston. “These sort of little battles”—bike lanes versus parking lots, open spaces versus outdoor shopping malls, high-rises full of two-bedrooms versus fairways framed by cherry trees—“are fractious,” Phillips says, “but they’re inevitable, too.”

The implication here is that younger suburbanites prefer more density and additional transportation options beyond having to own a car. In contrast, older suburbanites want to retain a suburban emphasis on single-family homes and quieter communities. More from Reston:

Since Metro arrived, Hays explained, traffic had become impossible, schools got crowded. As the county forged ahead with its plans, the Yellow Shirts saw each new rendering of an urban promenade or pocket park as a threat to their town’s character. They weren’t unsympathetic to Merchant’s dilemma—they just didn’t believe condos would fix it. (Were those really what a thirtysomething couple with three kids and a goldendoodle would want?) Also, the high-rises were ugly. “Azkaban Prison” and “Moscow Towers,” Hays called them.

Residents who move into a suburban community or neighborhood can become very invested in wanting to maintain the same look and feel that attracted them in the first place. With the interests suburbanites have in maintaining and growing their property values, exclusion of people who might threaten the character or property values, and the benefits of local government, residents can mobilize.

If growth is often seen as good and suburban residents should be able to protect their property rights, which side will give? The battles within communities about development then often turn into residents wanting to protect their vision versus community leaders (and possibly regional leaders) looking forward to positive changes.Some possible outcomes:

  1. Long-term conflict in the community with no changes but plenty of tension.
  2. A decisive showdown with one side winning and the others retreating for a number of years.
  3. A slow set of changes that add up to something over time.
  4. True generational change as a number of older residents leave or pass on and a new generation decides to do something different in the community.

The long-lasting consequences of the original conditions in Levittown

When subdivisions or communities are built, conditions at their starting point can have long-lasting effects. See Levittown.

Levittown was built on rules. No fences around the yards. Grass had to be maintained and trimmed. Clothes could only be hung to dry in the backyard on weekdays. Only white people could live there. Though these rules no longer apply, their mere existence has continued to shape and permeate the town’s culture today, particularly for Levittown’s teens, who speak about traditions and customs and the deep-rootedness of certain conservative mentalities…

Today, the museum features a model Levitt kitchen, bedroom, and living room from the 1950s and a sports memorabilia collection. Paul Manton, the president of the Levittown Historical Society and Museum, says the school kids learn about the farmland, Levitt’s mass-production techniques, and suburban expansion. When I ask about the whites-only restriction, he says, “We don’t talk too much about the deeds and restrictions because it’s a small part of Levittown, really.” His response parallels the one Kushner, the writer, heard at the museum. “Levitt was the largest real estate developer in the country, but each state you went to had those kinds of restrictions,” Manton continues. “Levitt himself was personally opposed to it. He was a progressive man. He would hire large numbers of black workers and he had a black sales manager.”…

The layouts were more or less uniform, which provides a familiar comfort still today. Things can get tricky if the design veers off course. “My front door opens to our living room in front of the stairs and I remember my friends getting lost and not knowing where anything was,” says Jacqueline Testamark, a senior at Division Avenue…

When Bill Griffith’s family moved to Levittown in 1952, it was “an old white world.” By the early ’60s, he started to feel suffocated and broke several Levittown molds. Most teens ride their bikes within the town limits. Griffith rode his to Walt Whitman’s birthplace an hour away. He didn’t learn one piece of Levittown history in school, he says. “I grew up in a time when we were being handed myths and legends. History was full of blank spaces or made-up stories.”

The character of a suburb can last for a long time, particularly if later decisions reinforce earlier conditions and choices. Some quick thoughts in reaction to the conditions in Levittown discussed above:

  1. The legacy of no blacks in the community is a long-lasting one. According to the Census, the Levittown CDP is less than 2% black (though the community is nearly 15% Latino).
  2. It would be hard to change either lot sizes or significantly increase the footprints of the original homes. And because Levittown was all roughly built at the same time, it does not offer the level of variation in housing stock that many suburbs might offer.
  3. In The Levittowners, sociologist Herbert Gans noted that teenagers are limited in Levittown and similar suburbs because so much driving is required and many of the social activities are geared around raising children in the home. This may still be the case in many suburbs as teenagers need rides and spaces friendly toward teenagers and young adults can be hard to find.

Going further, this article suggests continuity marks Levittown. Would it be possible to find signs of change or significant alterations from the original conditions? The Levittown of today could be more similar to the original Levittown but communities can follow significantly different paths given certain decisions and social forces.