Tuesday, January 30, 2029

Behold, The Mittelpolitanism Blog

I first started thinking seriously about writing a book about mid-sized cities in the summer of 2013. I finally got the chance to really dive into a subject a year later, and I started blogging about it in the fall of 2014. Since then? I've read, I've thought, I've written, I've reconsidered, I've kept busy. No book yet, and unfortunately, it's still not on the foreseeable horizon. (I did come up with an explanation of my invented label "mittelpolitanism", though.) Anyway, I finally decided, at the very least, to put all the stuff I've blogged about this topic together in one place, organized around five broad themes: civic identity, democracy, economics, sustainability, urban planning, and general theory, with "cities" as a catch-all for stuff that is very specific to Wichita (or other particular cities). I hope you like what you read here--and I hope it's presence is a goad to help me keep focused on it!

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Mid-Sized Meditations #18: Growth, Sustainability, and the Possibility of Illiberal Urbanisms

For your possible enjoyment, or not: the first truly academic fruits of my research project, maybe. I am sharing here a draft paper which begins with the arguments which political theorist Benjamin Barber made towards the end of his like which presented the possibility of a global consortium of urban democracies as crucial to the fight against climate change. His thesis, in my view, never wrestled with the liberal presumptions about growth and mobility which are inextricably connected to the social imaginaries of the global cities upon which he placed his greatest hopes. This paper criticizes Barber's thesis, but suggests that he was not so much wrong as that he had the wrong focus: the kind of urban democracy that could truly sustain, as opposed to undermine, those actions necessary to fight global warming, is one that arises in conjunction with an entirely different vision of urbanism, an "illiberal" and perhaps even "conservative" one, of the sort which one might at least theoretically see arising in (you guessed it!) smaller or mid-sized cities. So, there you go. Let's see what happens with it, shall we?

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Mid-Sized Meditations #17: Local Identity and Cities In-Between

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

2018 has been a busy year for those of us who aspire to--or are at least somewhat animated by--localism here in Wichita, KS, the 50th-most populated city in the United States. I have great affection for this place, but that affection is complicated by the problems we all seem to have in getting a handle on what it is, exactly, in or about our city that inspires, or deserves, said affection. Not for lack of trying! Like many small and mid-sized cities, the population of Wichita regularly tends to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy worrying about, focusing upon, and boosting in every way possible itself, and 2018, what saw a bumper crop of just that (and yes, I contributed as well.)

If you aren't part of the slightly less than 20% of the population of the United States that lives in a rural area, or part of the slightly more than 40% of the population of the United States that lives in one of the couple of dozen of giant metropolitan agglomerations in America--in other words, roughly speaking, if you live in one of the dots on this map, as opposed to in the white spaces or one of the big purple smears--then you very likely know exactly what I'm talking about. In a world where global capitalism has, as Marx predicted, mostly made everything solid melt into air, wealth and people and culture have too often been either sucked up by the great urban engines of the planet, or those things have freely chosen to make that move to those smears themselves, all of which makes it necessary for most smaller and medium-sized cities to scramble for resources...and, more importantly, to scramble for ideas about how to hold on to and make the most of the resources--the material, cultural, and human capital--which they still have. So it was probably inevitable (and, I think, mostly a good thing) that my city is inundated with surveys and studies and self-promotion--as silly as much of it, in retrospect, may turn out to be.

Still, as I involve myself in, or stand back and observe, or sometimes just barely tolerate, all these well-intended efforts to analyze and energize my city, I'm haunted by something: small in comparison to major metros though Wichita may be, are we nonetheless too large to actually have any kind of coherent civic identity to build upon? Is there a definable locality here to love?

This concern--the "is there a there there?" question made famous by Gertrude Stein's sad reflection on her hometown of Oakland, CA more than 80 years ago--is hardly new. It has been expressed in various forms by localists and nationalists, centralizers and decentralists, for probably as long as the notion of popular sovereignty has existed. It was at the heart of the argument between Madison and the Anti-Federalists, with the former defending the value and coherence of an "extended republic," and with Brutus, to pick just one example, denying the republican legitimacy of a "large extended country." But let me push it into the sort of localist worries that, whether they realize it or not, are the lot of perhaps 130 million Americans. At least here in the mid-sized city of Wichita, most of those activists and analysts and boosters and critics I interact with--and, to be sure, mostly agree with!--in all these meetings and discussion groups see the relationship between size of a city and the civic identity of a city as presenting a problem only in one direction. We're too small, they all say! Look at how those big cities, the Dallases and Chicagoes and Oklahoma Cities, are drawing away all our businesses, our college graduates, our growing families! Sure, there's a great deal of truth to all that. But still the size presumed by those responses has everything to do with people and economics, whereas I am thinking about space. In other words, I would like to extended the question to the grass-roots, meaning the actual ground where the grass is rooted. Is one of the problems of Wichita and other similar cities simply spatial? Are they--are we--just too spread out? Is there just too much of us, acreage-wise?

I've talked about some matters related to this a few times before, but mostly in the context of being able to identify and conserve a collective, citizen-enpowering civic identity in urban environments whose whole operating premise is, of course, usually entwined with individualistic demands for equality, opportunity, and change. Here I am thinking about spatiality in a much more structural sense. Cities like Wichita--and remember, there are hundreds of them, where millions of people live--are not part of dense networks of urban connectivity; rather, they are spread out, sitting on dozens or hundreds of square miles of land. Does that plain fact--the fact that Wichita is an automobile-dependent city, that it is a city which, as my oldest daughter (who now lives in Toronto, one of the great, dense urban agglomerations of North America) says, "you can't just walk to get anywhere"--itself something which gets in the way of getting a handle on the city, and talking about its future?

I recently finished an essay collection which is relevant to this question: Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life. It's an uneven collection, as these sorts of books often are; the essays approach the topic of place from a wide range of philosophical, political, and practical perspectives, with more than few seeming rushed and underdeveloped, and some falling completely flat. But the best essays in the volume are those which dealt, in one way or another, with the often inchoate problem of space--how we occupy it, traverse it, build upon it, and identify with it. Unsurprisingly, the authors of those pieces were mostly architects, scholars of map-making and civic engagement, transportation engineers, or people who have studied all of the above closely. And they did not all agree with each other--in fact, the best parts of the collection illuminated a central tension that, I think, haunts localists in small and mid-sized cities across the country. Being spread out is costly, both in terms of fiscal sustainability and social anomie (which has all sorts of real-world health consequences). But at the same time, spreading out and staking out one's own sovereign space--thanks to interstate highways, cheap land, lax zoning laws, and most of all the automobile--is inextricably entwined with the mostly conservative and libertarian political cultures of the places where many of these communities have taken root. So, for those of us who are not localists who live on Wendell Berry’s Port Royal farm or in Jane Jacob’s Greenwich Village apartment building, there is a hard choice: must we learn to love the spatial reality we have--and thus respect, as Witold Rybczynski wrote, "the demand-side" of much contemporary automobile-centric American urbanism (p. 122)--or must we, in the name of our affection for our places, seek to make them more particular, limited, contained, and thus presumably more identifiable and lovable (all of which would require imposing, as Roger Scruton suggested, "side constraints" upon our community, so as to endow them with an "aesthetic identity"--p. 160)? I suspect that this dilemma permeates all the scrambling for answers and investments that go on in my city, and hundreds of others.

It should be noted that this question about local affection for one's spaces, and the built environment on top of it, isn't confined to counter-culturally conservative and/or radical discussions of community; on the contrary, it's a background argument that has been present in the debates between various New Urbanist and Strong Town-types for decades. There are those who strongly suggest (as Philip Bess did in Why Place Matters--pp. 146-148) that environmental, economic, and even metaphysical circumstances will force people in places like Wichita to rethink how they have chosen, knowingly or otherwise, to live; they will recognize that there is simply no way to democratically govern, fiscally sustain, or morally appreciate an urban environment so willing to privilege individuality, privacy, and openness, and as a result a "great urban reset" towards traditional ideas about building will be inevitable, with liberal modernism being abandoned and in its place emerging "a finer grained set of master street grids for the places that can remain as towns and probably the aggregation of many other places back into viable farms, fields, and forests." And then there are those who, with varying degrees of gloominess, acceptance, and contentment, say that there is no evidence whatsoever that any such reset or rethinking or recognition on the horizon; they point out that, despite the huge urban tilt of America's overall population, less than 20% of all Americans have chosen to live in one of those relatively rare genuinely dense--and therefore walkable--cities, and that moreover there is every reason to believe that at least half of all the detached single-family-home-with-yard suburban structures currently filling up America's cities will still be occupied 40 years from now. As one of these great Jeremiahs, Keven Klinkenberg--himself a major fan of walkability and spatial limits!--unsentimentally observed: "we have a lot of suburbia in this country. We have far more than many planners and designers like to acknowledge or are aware of. Sometimes I think many of my colleagues haven't really been to America, and seen what it's like out there."

For spread-out, heavily suburbanized cities like Klinkenberg sees across the country, the radicals and reseters hold out little hope. Jane Jacobs herself spelled it out directly, nearly 60 years ago, in her discussion of urban density (one of her four central imperatives for any city of generate the necessary level of diverse social and economic activity) in the classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities: "[D]ensities high enough to bring with them innate city problems are not by any means necessarily high enough to do their share in producing city liveliness, safety, convenience and interest....[B]etween the point where semi-suburban character and function are lost, and the point at which lively diversity and public life can arise, lies a range of big-city densities that I shall call "in-between" densities. They are fit neither for suburban life nor city life. They are fit, generally, for nothing but trouble" (p. 210).

That's a harsh message for localists like me, and millions of other who live in places like mine, to hear. Of course, there are no definitive percentages regarding people-per-block or dwellings-per-acre attached to the arguments here--but nonetheless, I can recognize by own community in her words. Wichita, like so many other mid-sized cities, is a mostly conservative, mostly car-centric place, with struggles against the preferences of most of its own residences to pull people together around either civic centers or common causes. It definitely has urban problems, but its urban culture, which it cannot avoid having (it's not as though it could get a better handle on its own needs and possibilities by pretending, against all evidence, that it's actually just a rural county town), is a thin, oft-privatized one.

Pushing against that "in-between" reality can take radical (or radically traditionalist, as the case may be) forms. I'm an urban cyclist, serve on Wichita's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, and want to see real transportation alternatives develop to get people out of their cars; I've long pushed for sustainability and local food systems that could take advantage of the Wichita's environmental resources and lessen its many dependencies; and I've railed against the sort of (mostly) corporate-driven construction that is too often a fake kind of growth, does nothing to encourage density, and which only disrupts the many low-profile commons areas our city has. As I've written before, I am basically Vogtian in my heart, meaning that I resonate most with William Vogt's call for us to cut back and figure out ways to condense and compact our presence on the earth. And yet for all that...I'm not willing to abandon the strategy of amelioration. I want to work with what and who is actually here, not some Bretchian alternative. This place, for all its problems, for all its arguable lack of a center--both material and cultural--that those trying to get the city to move in one way or another can hold onto, is nonetheless a very good place. I like the way its schools have educated our children, I like riding on its roads, I like its weird corners of deep and radical thought. So I go to the meetings, and where I can try to articulate a way to make Wichita's mid-sized in-betweenness work.

In the final--and very good--essay in Why Place Matters, Wilfred McClay makes use of Lewis Mumford, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to emphasize that being part of those arguments, that engaging with these concerns and problems, however in vain it may sometimes seem (especially for cities stuck in the middle), is deeply connected to democratically realizing the whole point of, and thus making a home in, the community which occupies the space where each of us live:

A key factor in this openness [in urban planning] is the recognition that the making of a place must have a participatory dimension if it is to be genuine and enduring. Place is not something that can be manufactured by others or handed over intact from generation to generation. On the contrary, each generation faces the task anew. One things of Goethe's famous adage, placed in the mouth of Faust: "Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen" ("What you have inherited from your fathers, you must earn or appropriate for yourself, and only then will it be yours"). It is made ours in the very way that John Locke described the act of taking possession of land or some other thing in his Second Treatise: a thing becomes our property, fully possessed by us, when that thing has been "mixed with our labor," with the wealth of experiences we have had in our "land of living," and the efforts we have expended on it and for it (p. 256).

Wichita has, like so many other cities looking down threatening fiscal and environmental barrels at this moment, a great many unresolved problems. Unfortunately, the trajectory of the global economy is such that there is little reason to believe that communities like mine will have any greater success in the years to come in holding onto or increasing the sort of resources which might allow them to easily articulate a collective vision and thereby pursue the kind of radical solutions which we almost certainly need. So where does that leave millions of us, stuck as we are between the rural town, with its small ecological footprint and its inherited homogeneous identity, and the global city, with its globally-fed concentrations of people, ideas, and wealth? We will be left, in all likelihood, with patchwork solutions, as we slowly attempt to get a hold of this sprawled-out, slow-growth space, and make it, or keep it, an enduring place of our own. The pressure against such openness will remain acute, I think; always, the demand will be for localities like mine to reject every immigrant or input, or go mad with debt so as to attract every investment and opportunity, solely to be able to say to ourselves that we are no longer stuck in the middle, and are finally on our way, retreating back or advancing forward into being one or the other. For my part, though, I'll keep going to meetings, and keep muddling, talking about in-fill development, talking about farmers markets, talking about all those micro-changes, into 2019 and beyond. Maybe, in a certain sense, that's the most radical approach of all.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Mid-Sized Meditations #16: Losing (Some of) the Local Commons

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The annual Prairie Festival at The Land Institute just outside Salina, KS, was held two months ago, but it's been much on my mind for the past week or so--mostly because of the fate of Mead's Corner, a coffee shop and urban outreach ministry here in Wichita which closed this past summer. What's the connection? Let me explain.

As always, there were many fine presentations during the Prairie Festival (which I've praised before). I was particularly captivated by two I heard. The rural sociologist Loka Ashwood walked us through the results of her years of patient listening and careful research in rural Georgia, all of which emphasized something that every honest localist, probably already knows: namely, that rural America's politics is driven by, more than anything else, the fear of and frustration over economic dispossession, meaning the capturing of land--the very thing that most crucially defines a person's choice to live and stick with a rural life--by both state and corporate actors. That fear and frustration entrenches an attitude which can be easily appropriated by anti-state and conservative movements, but is more properly understood as an agrarian version of anarchism, a desire for statelessness, a wish to preserve that which should be a local resources and be subject to local stewardship, rather than distant ownership.

Ashwood's presentation was a fine complement to the keynote speech given by David Bollier, a long-time activist on behalf of reminding us creatures of late capitalism about a once-common way of organizing our affairs: through "the commons." By commons, Bollier simply means--as he puts it in his book, Think Like A Commoner--"a resource + a community + a set of social protocols" (p. 15). Which means everything from the park where you walk your dog to open-source software, from an abandoned city block to open-mic night at a school board meeting. All of that, and more, is threatened by what Bollier called a "second major enclosure movement." To extend upon his argument in Salina and that presented in his wonderful book, the collapse of regulatory regimes, the rise of debt-driven financing, the proliferation of private covenants, the emergence of the gig economy, the maximizing of outsourcing, and much more: all have tended to open up once common resources and practices to capitalist predation (frequently with government assistance), thus revealing the profound atrophy in our ability to collectively affirm and protect the res communes.

Bollier isn't a political economist like Nobel-prize winner Elinor Ostrom, carefully delineating all the ways in which communities throughout history really have, despite the doubters who wave the "tragedy of the commons" at them, successfully managed their common resources collectively, without recourse to boundaries and enclosures. Nor is he a radical sociologist like Erik Olin Wright, working out the many different social arrangements by which public resources and personal wealth can be subject to and put to work for egalitarian ends. Though inspired by such thinkers and many others, he repeatedly insists that one probably shouldn't work too hard to legally or politically define the parameters of those places, events, and processes which constitute a community's common resources, wealth, and opportunities; in fact there should be, he writes in his book, no "unified field theory" of the commons, nor a "fixed body of canonical knowledge" about how a commons should be defined or managed (pp. 155, 169). The one overriding principle is simply to recognize that, in all of our lives, there is an always evolving, always shifting range of things and places, of tools and opportunities, which are best managed together. Bicyclists working together to maintain a preferred path, volunteers nit-picking a new Wikipedia entry into shape together, churches opening their property to dentists who decide together to provide their services at a discount--all of those reflect, in Bollier's view, a "stewardship" perspective rather than an "ownership" one, because they necessarily involve a "richer ongoing set of ethical and cultural relationships than private property normally entails" (pp. 102-103). He explains:

Private property rights are not necessarily hostile to a functioning commons....The problem is the dominant market-based forms of law usually privilege individual rights and ignore collective rights and needs...That's why protecting commons from enclosures has generally required legal ingenuity, at least within the context of the modern liberal state: the commons exists within a lexical void, rendering it unnamed and inscrutable....The commons asks us to consider a different paradigm of social and moral order. It asks us to embrace social rules that are compatible with a more cooperative, civic-minded and inclusive set of values, norms and practices....It asks us to entertain the idea that certain [social] rights should be inalienable--that is, not for sale--and to elevate certain social values over private property rights (pp. 102, 104).

How does this relate to Mead's Corner? Because Mead's Corner, a coffee shop run by First United Methodist Church, located in a central junction of old Wichita and the newer downtown, was for a decade a (very minimally) profitable business...but also a commons. The sad reactions to the news last summer that rising rents would force the church to end its ministry there make it pretty clear that for a great many Wichita residents, particularly younger people, less conventional people, and those people searching for a new spiritual home, the space that Mead's provided was embraced as much more than simply a place to order free-trade coffee: it was, rather, a site of comfort, fellowship, insight, discovery, organization, and fun. The same, obviously, could be said about any number of commercial establishments that we human beings, in our embodied ways, become attached to and form enriching memories and valuable relationships in conjunction with. (Local bookstores or pubs, anyone?) And no, I am not insisting that the logic of commons-thinking should have mandated that the Wichita city government swoop in and, on behalf of this commons-empowering nexus, purchase the building that housed Mead's Corner and let First United remain there in perpetuity. (Though I'm not denouncing that logical conclusion either.) But the struggle over Mead's is not happening in isolation, and thus the need, in my view, to consider what kinds of "legal ingenuity" might be needed to protect the decreasing number of places in this city from which a true commons-mentality historically has arisen.

Mead's was located in building right at the heart of Wichita's East Douglas Historical District, near the now rapidly-being-rebuilt Naftzger Park, about which I've written before. Much of the argument over the fate of that city park was inextricably entwined with the degree to which its fate was determined not by popular demand (though the desire to improve the park's design was genuinely present on the part of at least some downtown residents) but by a confluence of elite actors--some motivated by goals which they saw as aligned with public interests, others by goals obviously tied to their own business plans. It is unfortunately the case that as the redesign of Naftzger proceeds and expands, we're seeing more of the latter than the former. A consortium of real estate developers and speculators see the area around the park as an attractive gateway for their planned retail construction--and, of course, it would be silly for them not to take financial advantage of the TIF (tax-increment financing) district subsidy which Wichita set up in the area, especially when other business interests are happy to contribute to the park's renovation as well--with their name attached to their surprise (and unreported to the local Parks Commission) gift, of course. Across Douglas Avenue and further westward in the Historical District stood Mead's Corner; a choice opportunity for further construction synergy and brand-expanding business activity (even if the evidence for any actual demand for new construction in along this particular avenue is scant, at best).

In a series of events whose timeline is far from clear, after the rent was raised, and First United couldn't afford to continue their just-barely-financially sustainable ministry, Mead's Corner closed. When the news of this started to spread, a businesswoman approached the owners of the building about continuing the coffee shop--since Mead's had been a big part of her life, and that as one who recognized it as having been a "cornerstone to the community downtown," she felt the space was "calling her name." But then, it turns out that one of the key players in the aforementioned development consortium had just become (or was in the process of immediately becoming) the new owner of the building, and the idea of continuing the building's corner coffee commons tradition was promptly redirected (or, as later investigation revealed, simply shut down, as the developers who bought the building immediately proposed rents even higher the previous owner had raised them to). The businesswoman found a new location, and I wish her well (her coffeeshop is much closer to my house, as it turns out). But in place of what could have been a continuation of an important commons-resource in a central part of Wichita, we now have a proposal for a four-story mixed-use building...one whose frontage--and signage, no doubt--will nicely match that construction alongside the park, just a little over a block away.

As I wrote before, and as anyone who looks honestly at how cities (particularly cities caught up in, for reasons that they cannot entirely control, the place-making mentality, as a way to either jump-start, anticipate, or just create a simulacrum of growth) make decisions and fund the consequences of those decisions, none of this is surprising. What is surprising, perhaps, is the dedication of some to using whatever tools available to make their case against tearing down a once-vital city commons--or, to be fair, a privately owned building which, for a decade, housed a business which provided one part of the city, and one part of the city's population, with a commons, and perhaps could do so again. Even as Wichita's city council set up, once again, subsidies in the form of establishing a CID (community improvement district) to justify promised property and sales tax reductions, the city's Historical Preservation Board--which can only make recommendations; not veto any proposed construction--voted to oppose the new development. Their reasoning has little to do with any of the issues I've expressed here...except in the sense that historical memory is particular, non-quantifiable, non-priceable thing--and, in that sense, is a commons too.

The fate of the former Mead's Corner remains to be seen. What isn't doubtful, unfortunately, is that even if the building is saved and the current owners sell it back to the former owner or someone else, depending upon private property to host and preserve the places and processes by which Wichitans and others can experience the kind wealth which can only be known in common--what Bollier called in his presentation "relational" rather than "transactional" wealth--is, frankly, a risky bet. At present, though, however risky the bets may be, they are worth taking. Framing these ongoing urban struggles, these dilemmas over ownership and development and more, in terms of what Collier called "place-based stewardship" gives one an important understanding to argue for. No, I don't anticipate convincing anyone, even myself, that the sale of a treasured building or the closing of a beloved service-provider, in the name of providing profits and opportunities to the owner, is necessarily always a form of economic dispossession. But it is like unto it, and perhaps that is enough.

Like Wendell Berry, Collier sees commons-thinking as a push-back against "inevitability," and as an invitation to hold fast to our ability, as human beings, to imagine an alternative to simple acceptance when we, as he said in Salina, something "rooted in an ecosystem is redefined as a market commodity." The patterns and possibilities of thousands of people conditioned by the resources made available by a private business in a historical building is not, perhaps, the kind "ecosystem" he had in mind. And obviously, with real money on the table, you can't simply insist that the developers in question instantly recognize the properties on the market all around them as things that cannot be alienated from the civil society they is part of. But if there are ways, even in the midst of a typical urban economy, to slow things down, in the hope that such recognition may grow? Take them, says I. You'll never know what all you'll lose otherwise.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mid-Sized Meditations #15: Naftzger Park, Planning, and the Problem of "Growth"

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Naftzger Memorial Park was a small, pleasantly run-down city block of trees, grass, and benches, near the center of downtown Wichita, KS, just a block north of Intrust Bank Arena, recently of much-heralded (in the local media, anyway) NCAA March Madness fame. The park had a gazebo for wedding photos and a decorative waterfall that flowed into a pond that was often (though not always) kept clean of trash. It wasn't anyone's example of a perfect civic space--can there be such a thing?--but it had its historic place along the Douglas Avenue, one of the main drives through Wichita's downtown. Built on land that the city acquired in 1980, with money donated by the Naftzger family, it was a place where idiosyncratic lovers of urban landscapes, offbeat photographers, causal walkers with their brown bag lunches, and, yes, many of the city's homeless used to gather, rest on the grass, and lean against the Carrie Nation memorial, spring and summer and fall and winter alike.

I put everything in that paragraph in the past tense, because beginning last week, following months of meetings, where proposals were put forward and audience input requested--but never, and this is crucial, truly and fully assessed--Naftzger Park is being torn apart and rebuilt. Supposedly, in a year's time or so, it will look more or less like this:

That's not a bad result, I suppose, all things considered. The new development right to its east will have an attractive (and presumably, though almost no one will say so directly, at least slightly less homeless friendly) and cleaned-up greenspace at its doorstep, the park will have a stage to host mid-sized events and a dog run for local dog-walkers and owners, and the old decorative iron fencing around it will be removed, opening it up to the "eyes on the street," in the classic Jane Jacobs sense. Considering the sort of boondoggles that some cities have committed significant expense to in the name of enlivening their downtowns, this could have been much worse.

Unfortunately, "could have been much worse" is about the best I can say about this redesign, for reasons that go far beyond any number of specific arguments that attended the long process through which the city of Wichita--or at least, those of us who got out to the meetings and attended the various advisory board meetings--has arrived at this point. (For example: wasn't this just a sweetheart arrangement between downtown urban boosters and local property-owners looking to attract buyers to and offset the costs of developing a not-terribly-in-demand Douglas Avenue location? Or: is there any solid reason to believe that the area's TIF district--which was extended to incorporate the property in question--will generate sufficient revenue to pay off the $1.5 million bond the city floated to begin construction, much less generate the additional money later to complete it? And, of particular interest to students of politics like myself: was there really any genuine interest in trying to measure citizen input about the park, or were all those public discussions only cosmetically relevant, with the real decisions having been pre-determined by the hiring of an NYC-based urban park design team to draft various options for the space?)

But no, beyond all those questions, I have a more basic one: why do some of us have problems with an old park? A "worn and outdated" park, in the words or some, that was a "destination for only neighborhood residents" only? An "underutilized" greenspace, in the words of others, that was lacking in "flexibility"? I don't deny at all that public spaces, and their design, matter; we are, after all, embodied and spatial creatures, and become who we are in part through our interactions with the buildings and streets and fields and parks which make up our lived environments. But just what is this frequently felt imperative that such environments be updated, programmed, and "activated"? That's my most fundamental question here. And the answer, I think, revolves around how so many people in cities (which means, allowing for some definitional slippage, more than three-quarters of us) fine ourselves necessarily thinking about growth.

Here in Wichita, the obsession of many is with the same problem which bedevils a great many mid-sized cities in America and around the world: we're not growing, either in population (20-year projections suggest that Wichita will grow at an average of .8% a year) or in economic heft (recent employment numbers suggest only around a 1% average increase in available jobs each year)--or if we are growing, we're still not growing at a rate sufficient to generate the increased revenue necessary to the match the obligations of our existing infrastructure. (Those same 20-year projections suggest that the city of Wichita will have $9-10 billion in repair and maintenance costs over that time period which it won't be able to pay.) As I and others have discussed at length, the current stage of economic globalization is one which has overwhelmingly concentrated financial resources, and hence human and cultural incentives, in large (if not always solely the world's largest) urban agglomerations. Wichita, the 50th-largest city in the U.S., is a good-sized city, but not big enough to generate the sort of gravity which would pull in those capital and creativity flows.

So do we content ourselves with holding on to what we have? Ideally, yes, we would address ourselves to pioneering some kind of urban conservation or contraction, pursing a "steady-state" or "strong towns" model. Unfortunately, figuring out how to do so, when faced with the economic and political realities which characterize cities in an era of finance capitalism, is a puzzle.

In any community that reaches a certain size (and leave off for now figuring out exactly what that size is or how it gets there; suffice to say that there are towns, and there are cities, and the differences between them can be persuasively articulated, even if not exactly innumerated), various cultural and economic factions will emerge. Achieving urban political power in the midst of those factions--for whatever purpose, however high-minded or venal--will almost inevitably involve building something, whether a highway or a museum or a program. Cities in the United States do not have the taxing and regulatory authority made legitimate by being handed down via constitutional channels; on the contrary, cities emerge organically through history, and are legitimated through governmental fiat (though much democratic agitation may precede that). Consequently, the policy tools available to them (especially if the city in question is not just a major urban metropolis as to be able to harness the political and economic power to make demands on the states they exist within, or the federal government itself) are generally pretty circumscribed. As a result, with broad issues of social import mostly off their table, and extensive funding mechanisms usually forbidden them as well, crudely relying upon, and then satisfying in turn, the aforementioned local factions, through the sort of construction enabled by sales taxes and subsidies and CIDs, usually becomes almost inseparable from the ordinary business of a city.

The above is, reductively speaking, the story of what multiple scholars have called the "growth machine" of American urbanism. Interestingly, you don't actually have to have real growth for that logic to take hold. Here in Wichita, Chase Billingham, a sociologist at Wichita State University, has argued that city leaders in small and mid-sized cities will feel impelled to discover growth wherever they can, so as to be able to justify, to themselves and others, the belief (or presumption) that they are actually responding to the needs of the city--which, in the end, generally means building things. So they will, for example, invest urban guerilla pop-up parks or resurgent local symbols with sufficient meaning as to make them count as signs of growth. Which, in turn, justifies more growth, and the cycle of promotion and promises continue.

To be sure, not all schemes of transformation and growth are equal; if a combination of urban factions in my city--downtown boosters looking to engage in "placemaking," city workers enamored of the prospect of addressing what some residents consider an eyesore, restaurant and club owners that want to increase foot traffic between the Arena and Douglas Avenue, ambivalent developers and business owners that would be happy for an upgrade to their property if some of the costs could be shared--come together with an idea to remake a rundown but still perfectly adequate local space, and the alternative to such is to see that invariably generated reconstructive energy invested in adding to our already far-overbuilt highway infrastructure, spreading suburbanization ever further out along the east-west corridor, believe me, I'll choose the park. After all, it's not like any urban development will ever truly be a simply matter of black and white; there really were downtown residents who wanted the Naftzger Park opened up, with better lighting and more amenities. And of course, those two options weren't placed in opposition to each other on the table; the former, for all the questions attached to it, is driven at least in part by genuine civic concerns, not pure capitalist expansion. For that reason, while I stood with a lot of doubters through the long meetings over Naftzger, I never quite thought the "leave it alone!" voices had a fair take on what the options for Naftzger really were. (To his credit, Chase's defense of the park's history likely moderated some of the architect's original plans, saving at least a couple of the park's historical features.)

Still, recognizing the way communities change and grow (if they do), in their organic, push-and-pull way, with government in the mix with all the other constituencies of the city, doesn't mean that the very idea of a "programmed" and "activated" public space should escape critique. Because, frankly, even if the idea fits seamlessly into the reigning logic of built-on-credit American cities of today (and, for that matter, of the past couple of generations), it's still pretty questionable as a human matter. Remember that urban communities have, most essentially, a kind of anarchist quality to them; Jane Jacobs observed that, as have many other urban scholars and activists. Planning events is one thing, but planning spaces themselves around the presumed gathering of people in coordination with planned events is, perhaps, something else entirely.

Various Wichita boosters have lately gone all-in on the vital need for "placemaking" in the city, and I know and like and respect a lot of these folks. When they talk about "underused spaces" being "activated with...a touch of theater," I'm sympathetic--I like public art and creative pathfinding and all the other stuff employed to generate a desire to walk or bike around a community and look at it (and, therefore, at the people who inhabit it alongside oneself), rather than one's phone. But there has to be a fine line walked here, I think. The goal of "programming" said places easily can (and, unfortunately, frequently does) take over, becoming an end to itself, bypassing the people that presumably would actually gather in any of those places in favor of those connected enough to the aforementioned factions to get their preferences written into the imposed programming in the first place. (When one of these well-intentioned factional leaders in Wichita defensively says, in regards to criticism of the above-mentioned bit of pop-up urban programming, that all is well from "the public standpoint," you may be forgiven for feeling some sympathy for the article's final quote, from a downtown resident: "I’m their biggest advocate...but it’s like they almost forget that we’re here once they have you.")

The world has become thoroughly urbanized, and will only become more so, so long a resource extraction and finance capitalism continues to reign. We can work to change that, and in the meantime struggle to find different, more sustainable and local and democratic, trajectories for our lives and communities. But while engaged in all those important tasks, and while responsibly accepting the compromises they will have to entail, let's hold in front of our eyes the simple fact that, whatever imperatives seem to rise up in our communities, nailing down, specifying, programming, and "activating" the public spaces in our midst needn't be one of them. People can, in fact, gather on their own. Maybe, in such unstructured environments, the people that will gather won't always be of the sort which will most effectively contribute to one possible economic consequence of the space in question. But we don't live in communities to be cogs in a process of producing economic consequences--or at least we shouldn't. We live where we do, and we become what we are through that lived environment, organically. If there is a consequence to it, it might be best, at the very least, that it not be one already determined by a planning board, because however well-meaning, their logic is likely not to be wholly their own.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Mid-Sized Meditations #14: Urban Questions (and Reponses) for Krugman

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Over a month ago, Paul Krugman used his space at The New York Times to ask "what, in the modern economy, are small cities even for?" As someone who has been writing on and off for nearly 4 years about the topic of small and mid-sized cities, I was interested in Krugman's answer--which was that, economically speaking, that smaller cities today have "nothing going for them except historical luck, which eventually tends to run out."

That seems a tad harsh--or, if not overly harsh, then at least overly hopeless. Let me pose some questions back to Krugman, if only to figure out what kind of answers those of us whose localism wants to make space for smaller cities need to come up with.

First of all, which, or what kind of cities is he actually talking about?  Well, he's clearly talking about cities of the United States, or at most other towns and cities whose roots are to be found in the creation of politically and socially necessary central places in the midst of 19th-century (or earlier) colonial and agricultural expansions (so think Canada or Argentina...but particularly the U.S.). What became of these places, as technologicially-driven market demands and cultural expectations led to the shrinking and homogenizing of the agricultural sector? Some survived, or even flourished, as important industrial locations, to the extent which the "Marshallian trinity of information exchange, specialized suppliers, and a pool of labor" allowed.

So what happened next? According to Krugman--drawing up this column and other writings of his--it was apparently the mutually reinforcing logics of free trade, consumer technologies, and global finance capitalism that happened. As Saskia Sassen put it in the article which prompted Krugman's ponderings, "urban economies [today] need other major urban economies more than they need the standardized production economies of other cities in their country." Or to put it in another way, the financial networks and the capital and population and cultural flows between major metropolitan agglomerations are bypassing small and mid-sized cities, in the same the interstate highway system bypassed numerous rural towns, picking winners and losers, as it expanded across the country from the 1950s to the 1980s. Just as consumers will now travel to the nearest urbanized outpost to do their shopping rather than to the county seat (assuming they don't do all their shopping online anyway, that is), the corporate economic drivers of today don't look to the hinterlands of the U.S. for raw material and labor--the look to other global cities, which in turn look to their own hinterlands (as one scholar in the above article put it, "the hinterland for Silicon Valley is Shenzhen"). Hence, those small cities which survive this latest--and sure to be at least as enduring--bypassment will do so, if they do so, simply because various historical contingencies currently allow it. And Krugman's conclusion is that such contingencies and coin-flips will eventually run out--and would have does so if globalization hadn't unfolded the way it did, because urban concentration will always feed upon itself.

Keep in mind that what Krugman is talking about is cities, not towns--which, if you have to attach numbers to it, you might as well employ Census-speak, and refer to "metropolitan" areas, not "micropolitan" or rural ones. In other words, he's not asking about those isolated towns which, despite the transformation of agriculture, really do still function as center places for the hundreds of square miles of rural counties which surround them. (I can name a half-dozen such locations off the top of my head, all of them out in sparsely populated in western Kansas.) Nor is he asking about those towns that happen to have, as this Rod Dreher thread examined, a combination of reinforcing cultural resources and localized employment opportunities sufficient for those who reside there to plausibly withstand--and thus articulate their own sense of self and their own goals separate from--the aforementioned global flows...meaning they could, if they so choose, focus their efforts to build lives for themselves on the places where they already are. (It goes without saying that such towns in America are increasingly rare.)

No, Krugman is talking about cities: metropolitan urban areas that have already expanded beyond their origin as a central place and have benefited from a "chain of external economies" which "allowed the city to take advantage of particular new technological and market opportunities when they arose." Some other research can put this into context, and lend support to Krugman's assumptions--modern cities, as they've expanded and diversified over time, almost invariably seem to make themselves subject to what sociologists and political theorists have called the "growth machine," thus putting them into an entirely different relationship with their region than exists for the stereotypical, vanishing, small town of today (as well as in an entirely different relationship with their spatial situation and natural environment than existed for even large cities up through the early 20th century).

Now though, according to Krugman (and Richard Florida, and many other students of urbanization), growth has changed: it's faster, more far-flung, and more cognitively demanding and technology-dependent than ever before. Many of these smaller and mid-sized cities, regional cities all, when they feel that their historical luck is running out, will attempt to keep up nonetheless, usually by accepting the idea that the revenue-demanding distributive and individuating work which they, as places of personal freedom and urban opportunity, are presumably committed to, will require "liberal expansion," with its imperative of ever-greater integration with and ever-greater dependence upon governments and corporations beyond the city. In short, cities that had experienced growth (and all its attendant obligations), but are no longer quickly growing, will often double-down on engineering further growth, with the ultimate goal of growing ever more some again. Paging Charles Marohn!

So--is Krugman right? Well, he's ignoring for the most part the role played by local businesses and political elites in choosing to pursue that aforementioned "chain of external economies," and he's ignoring the role of state and national governments, whose revenue bases presented certain cities with the possibility of chaining themselves to "external economies" in the first place. If nothing else, recognizing the role played by governments which consciously chose the rat-race of expansion (perhaps because of a desire to maximize middle-class suburbanization within city limits), or that played by the federal governments in providing key cities with enormous amounts of investment unrelated to any actually existing local economic chains (defense spending, NASA, etc.), arguably lessens the sense of inevitability attached to Krugman's assumptions about small or mid-sized cities today. What it doesn't lessen, I think, is the bottom-line correctness of his basic diagnosis.

The historical advantages which helped slowly develop many smaller cities really are being thoroughly bypassed by global networks which make their one-time specializations--be they raw materials or manufactured goods or trained labor--either irrelevant or (more commonly) prohibitively costly in comparison to what the financial, industrial, insurance, government, or real estate interests of the global cities of the world can get in bulk from either Guangzhou, China or Saltillo, Mexico. And for Krugman, that's the end of story, because he simply sees no other way the urban game can be played in this day and age. The innovations which matter most today--at least in terms of being able to generate import-replacing wealth and thus expand job opportunities and attract investment within the city itself--build most frequently upon already existing concentrations of people. And since success, as always, breeds success, those cities that, by this point, have missed out on the global flows can probably only prolong the inevitable, at best.

I disagree--I think there are, and will have to be, other ways for the urban game to be played in the years and decades to come. Right now, I can imagine three alternatives to Krugman's pessimism, three possibilities for localists who want to hold onto their small and mid-sized cities, concerned citizens for whom the agrarian option is not available, and joining the great inversion and returning to America's largest cities isn't an option either. I'm not sure which--if any--of these three are actually achievable, and it is interesting to consider what kind of culture of resistance to liberal assumptions regarding individual opportunity and capitalist growth the cities who took these routes would have to develop if they were to pull off the change. But for now, here's the alternatives as I see them.

First there is, quite simply, conservatism. I am not thinking here of the cities whose political cultures tend to track in the direction of self-identified conservative Republican candidates (in fact, often the latter seems to present a real obstacle to "conservatism" in the sense I am considering here). Rather, I'm thinking of stereotypically "conservative" economic traditions of frugality and austerity, ones which eschew expansion unless the financial benefits of growth are assured. Marohn's Strong Towns has been a consistent proponent of the need, in his view, of cities to allow themselves to shrink their footprint and their aspirations, to--as he put it nearly ten years ago--hibernate (stop building), prune (abandon or convert existing urban projects), retool (think in terms of regulations appropriate for a smaller spatial arena), plan (involve the population in embracing a different vision for the city), look inside (identify strengths for local production, but avoid going all in on import-replacement schemes that simply aren't cost effective in the age of Walmart), look outside (re-acquaint oneself with the resources of the immediate local region), and above all, take small steps (the idea that any large tourist or infrastructure or industrial project will be able to solely and dramatically change the reality which cities of this size and in this situation face simply invites more of the same debt rat-race or various problematic liberal expansionist solutions). This kind of conservatism isn't simply a flat rejection of urban development, but it is a load of cold water dumped upon it.

The main problem with this alternative is that Marohn was actually making those suggestions for small towns, not cities--meaning places that probably don't have cultures and economies in place whose relative diversity will probably politically oblige local leaders to at least acknowledge metropolitan aspirations. That's not to say there isn't much to learn from the civic-strengthening which comes along with re-emphasizing more fiscally responsible and democratically engaging city policies (the fight over the fate of a downtown park here in Wichita exemplified this well, I think). Many of his suggestions are important and valuable--but the underlying liberalism, meaning the underlying imperative of providing resources of individual opportunity--makes articulating a small-c conservatism appropriate for small and mid-sized cities is more complicated than just shrinking, I think.

But related to some of the key points of the conservative approach, there is sustainability. The term can mean a huge amount and apply to a huge range of urban approaches, obviously. But I'm thinking specifically here of the writings of Catherine Tumber, and her arguments that slow-growth regional cities have a unique opportunity to orient their markets around immediately available resources (agricultural and otherwise) on the outskirts of their suburban and exurban developments, something that isn't (or at least isn't as obviously) the case for massive urban agglomerations that spread across thousands of square miles. It is true that this alternative is probably only conceivable for smaller or mid-sized cities that are distant enough from other urban centers for there to be "hinterlands" of their own in relative proximity. Moreover, Tumber and other urbanists who focus on environmental impacts tend to premise their arguments regarding the possibilities for sustainable cities on the likelihood of oil depletion; and if it turns out that peak oil isn't a real phenomenon, then it might seem that the particular value which Tumber sees in these hypothetical "small, gritty, and green" cities--which are able to model local food and alternative energy production and the small-scale manufacturing such would allow for--would be quickly undermined by larger cities simply expanding their energy-dependent developments and product-chains ever further. But I don't think so, and not just because I assume, peak oil or not, that our energy-dependency simply can't expand infinitely. No, even if our energy problems can be addressed in the medium term, the model of a more sustainable city--one that embraces a moderate degree of autarky in the midst of, and despite of, globalization--is something that could potentially speak strongly to many smaller cities who feel their luck in running out. The key problem, again, would be trying to make the political and cultural case to the residents and the leadership of such cities for valuing the limits which any kind of autarky would have to involve.

Finally, if the ability to smaller or mid-sized cities to persuasively articulate, or even just develop, a coherent plan for scaling back in a conservative, or re-assessing in a more sustainable, direction, simply isn't there, what remains? Waiting for Krugman's predicted gambler's ruin? Or, perhaps do-it-yourself futurism? I'm an old fan of the writings of economist Juliet Schor, and I've used one of her books regularly when I've taught my Simplicity and Sustainability courses, even though the premises of her arguments involve some assumptions I seriously question. Basically, Schor suggests that in an environment where the internet has almost entirely liberated us from traditional, grounded means of conveying information, the DIY possibilities of the modern world--in which anyone can learn to be a farmer, a plumber, an app-designer, a freelance artist, or more--and almost endless. There is a sense here in which her projected "time-rich, ecologically light, small-scale, high-satisfaction economy" follows from Krugman's (admittedly well-supported) assumption that global financial capitalism has "cut [wealth] loose from the land"; that is, perhaps it is only because of the the ubiquity of big-city-developed technologies that our own urban hinterlands can now develop DIY alternatives to the economic chains of production and service whose profits are mostly passing those hinterlands by.  If that sounds vaguely similar to certain Marxist or progressive claims, in the sense of asserting that certain negative developments had to emerge for better options to follow them--well, you're right.

Overall, Schor's detailed suggestions form a powerful, almost utopian vision, and one that is greatly appealing: surely there are millions of people who would love to believe that they could stay in their own places, and develop financially rewarding lifestyles through universally available small-scale industries and services, even as the distant economic powers of the world become centralized even further. I don't want to rain on that possibility--but I must note that, to the extent Schor doesn't imagine standards of living or socio-economic expectations in these otherwise bypassed cities to signficantly change, she assumes that much larger changes would have to have taken place before the liberating shift away from office-bound, car-dependent work begins: portable health coverage that isn't tied to a job and wage supports as people embrace to working fewer hours being two of the largest and most radical proposals. Those are good proposals, to be certain! But I can't help but think that, in a crucial way, they displace the problem Krugman originally posed. After all, if the logic that he sees pushing small and mid-sized cities towards decline were changed...well, then, perhaps alternative urbanisms wouldn't be necessary in the first place, would they?

Those of us who want to figure out how to talk about urban localism, and not be locked into 1) recognizing global mega-cities as our only future, or 2) accepting that small-town agrarian sufficiency is the only other alternative (as well as 3) agitating for some kind of anti-capitalist revolution which would change the urban game entirely), there is a need to find an urban theory that can work with what small and mid-sized cities can offer. Of the three possibilities offered here, I think the sustainability approach makes the most sense, while elements of the conservative (and, to a lesser extent, the futurist) perspective would likely be valuable. But whatever elements of these three, or any others, may work best remains an open question--one that I hope more and more people, within their various disciplines, one way or another, will be thinking about. In the face of Krugman's despair, some of us want to hold on to our smaller cities, after all, and the idea that there are only two poles--or perhaps only one!--remaining when it comes to how all communities are to be organized is too much to accept just yet.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Mid-Sized Meditations #13: How Big Does a City Need to Be to Go Blue?

(It's been a while since I wrote one of these; nearly 2 1/2 years since I started the series, and I don't know how well the current topic fits with where my research continues to wander. But as The Wichita Eagle ran today a shortened version of some of my thoughts here, I ought to at least try to make them fit.)

Here in Wichita, KS, we have a special election coming up on April 11. The congressman from the Kansas 4th congressional district, Mike Pompeo (who, for the record, I always kind of liked as a straight-up, by-the-book, uncomplicated and unconflicted Reagan conservative) was Trump's choice to be the new director of the CIA, and that meant a replacement was needed. In February the local Republican and Democratic parties chose their candidates (the Libertarian party did as well, but for purposes of this analysis, I feel comfortable setting Chris Rockhold, who I'm sure is a perfectly nice guy, aside), and the choices were revealing--and not just in terms of political ideology. They reflect even more, I think, a shifting in how these two Kansas parties are choosing to deal with our existing political geography--or rather, how one party is arguably resisting, denying, or ignoring an important potential political shift, while the other has chosen to bet on the possibility that this shift, centered in the mid-sized city of Wichita, has a real chance of electoral success.

On the Republican side, candidate Ron Estes is the State Treasurer of Kansas, a long-time Republican politician, and a vocal supporter of Governor Brownback and President Trump (see here and here) who, in his acceptance speech last month, remembered to acknowledge every major faction in the Kansas Republican establishment: pro-life voters, small-government activists, promoters of an aggressive national defense, and more.

On the Democratic side, by contrast, James Thompson is a political newcomer, someone whose engagement with Democratic politics is more in line with the challenge to the Democratic establishment posed by Senator Bernie Sanders (who handily defeated Secretary Clinton in the Kansas Democratic caucus last spring, which I wrote about here). While Thompson does in some ways resemble those few Democrats that have achieved success in Kansas outside of the 2nd congressional district (that is, outside of the Kansas City-Lawrence-Topkea area) over the past 25 years--he is, for example, a military veteran who is culturally comfortable around guns, even identifying himself as a "strong 2nd Amendment man"--he departs in some important ways from the old model of Democrats like Wichita's Dan Glickman: rather than being conservative or at least quietly moderate on certain social issues, he is strongly committed to defending the rights (including reproductive rights) of women, racial minorities, and the LGBT community, as well as taking consistently progressive positions on taxation (opposing Governor Brownback's insistence that business owners not pay taxes) and poverty (promoting an increase in the minimum wage) and trade (opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

So Estes is a conservative Republican and Thompson is a progressive Democrat? Perhaps--but there's more to it than that.

Note that Estes’s primary commitment is to political movements that have been constructed and taken root both nationally and state-wide. There were Republicans competing for the 4th congressional district nomination which represented a conservatism that might have dissented from elements of Brownback’s record or Trump’s agenda, but they never really threatened Estes’s level of support. Ultimately, Estes is a loyal Kansas Republican, and the Republican establishment’s endorsement of him was no surprise. He really is best understood as a creature of a state-wide, and a nation-wide, conservative party infrastructure. In a country which just elected a president on the basis of, when you come right down to it, just a half-million or fewer votes spread across the rural and exurban counties three mostly white states, a Republican candidate like Estes makes sense.

Thompson's win of the Democratic nomination, which came only after a close race against Dennis McKinney--a former state legislator and very much the model of the sort of Democrat that was once, a generation ago, frequently (if not regularly) successful in non-northeastern Kansas politics: namely, a Democrat who is culturally conservative, strongly populist , with farming roots--doesn't immediately make the same amount of sense. A political newcomer, a Wichita lawyer, a progressive Democrat, running in a district that includes (thanks to redistricting) a significant chunk of rural south-central and southwestern Kansas? Don't the Democrats need to run a well-known, electorally proven moderate or conservative to have any kind of chance? Certainly there were plenty of people around here that were saying exactly that. But the Democratic party delegates took a chance of something different--and they weren't without reason to do so, I think.

Thompson's nomination is one more small data point in an evolving Democratic party. The evolution he at least partly reflects isn't just a matter of his connection to Bernie Sanders’s failed but energizing challenge to Clinton and the Democratic party establishment. It is also reflected in the millions of protesters nation-wide (including perhaps 3000 right here in Wichita) who marched to express opposition to the misogynistic and xenophobic implications of Trump’s election. It’s reflected in the way, across the country, progressive activists are organizing around public schools, government offices, and other local institutions to mount an urban popular resistance to what they fear will come from Washington D.C. All the talk of "sanctuary cities" and "islands of blue" in the midst of conservative red states--Atlanta in Georgia, Salt Lake City in Utah, Charlotte in North Carolina, etc.--all this and more is potentially a component in what Thompson’s candidacy presents the 4th congressional district with. It is certainly a component of what got him nominated, as his support among Democratic delegates found great strength among those who applauded his extensive work as a civil rights lawyer throughout the city of Wichita.

Now, Wichita votes consistently more Republican than any of those aforementioned cities, and its urban population isn't as large or as racially diverse or as skewed towards high-tech, government, or academic-centered employment as any of theirs are either. So outside of large metro agglomerations or straight-up university towns or state capitols--which, between those three variables, explains well the persistent (though not always electorally successful) liberal base of northeastern Kansas--is the political divide between cities and their surrounding counties just not big enough to make a difference? The 4th congressional district of Kansas includes in its borders 672,000 people; all but 30,000 of those are part of Wichita's metropolitan area. Obviously many tens of thousands of those people are conservative, Republican-voting Kansans--but more of those individuals, proportionally speaking, are to be found living in Wichita's residential neighborhoods and its surrounding suburbs and bedroom communities. What about the tens of thousands of people who live in Wichita's downtown, in College Hill, in Delano, in Linwood, in Riverside, in Chisholm Creek, in Crown Heights? Lots of people who vote Republican live in those places too, of course--but might there be a chance that in those urban neighborhoods, among Wichita's African-American, Hispanic, immigrant, single, younger, and more secular populations, there could be enough progressive voters (or at least enough anti-Brownback and anti-Trump voters) to put a Democrat over the top in a district that has been Republican since Bill Clinton was president? It's a risky choice, but not just a Hail Mary pass; there is actual data regarding the changing political culture of America's cities to back it up.

In nominating Thompson, the Kansas Democratic party is watching to see if a different kind of campaign–one that balances urban issues with rural ones, and one more forthrightly connected to the interests of Kansas’s more diverse and more independent urban and suburban populations–has a chance of success. And the national Democratic party, I'm sure, will be watching too. Ever since the rise of the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter, ever since Sanders’s challenge to the Clinton machine, there have been questions whether a strongly progressive party might–especially given the level of support for such movements among the diverse residents of America’s cities–have a real electoral chance. It would be fascinating if Wichita, KS, rather unexpectedly, becomes one of the first real tests of that idea.