Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Progressive Paradox: Quality Control

On March 3, 2009 voters in Burlington chose a mayor. Incumbent Bob Kiss, the third progressive to hold office over the previous 28 years, defeated Democratic, Republican, Green and Independent challengers. To put the race into perspective, this series looks at the movement that began with the election of Bernie Sanders on March 3, 1981 and subsequently changed the face of Vermont politics.

Chapter Five

Driving up Battery Street in Burlington in 1997, I passed what looked like a private prison. “Unless you belong here, go away,” it seemed to say. After living for two years in New Mexico, where punishment had become a growth industry, maybe incarceration was simply on my mind. But in this case it turned out to be The Residence, luxury living for Burlington’s upper class.

Well, at least it’s not on the waterfront, I thought. And if people were ready to pay top dollar to live in a building with what looked like guard towers, that was their business.

What also struck me, however, was its size. Big. Before returning to town, I’d read a sugary story in The Nation describing the Queen City as a prime example of “what works.” Although it was partly hype, after living in Los Angeles and Albuquerque for much of the 1990s I was eager to get back to a place where people understood “human scale.” While I was away, however, the definition had apparently changed.

Don’t get me wrong. Burlington was still a fine place to live. Concepts like “sustainability” and “quality of life” underpinned local policies. In fact, that Fall the city’s Ordinance Committee was considering how to turn complaints about abandoned housing, garbage and other neighborhood nuisances into enforceable law. But did people really want to regulate lawn conditions, I had to wonder, or confiscate skateboards from unruly kids?

Mayor Peter Clavelle, now in his third term, predicted that Burlington’s road-building era was coming to an end. On the other hand, he also argued that downtown urban renewal was “irreversible” and ought to be completed. In the old days, progressives had called it “urban removal,” and wouldn’t have been very enthusiastic about the coming of Filene’s and Borders.

Gazing at the waterfront, I thought I saw the ghost of Mayor Gordie Paquette. Like Hamlet’s father, he was moaning something like, “If you’re going to finish my work, at least give me some of the credit.”

Sustainability and superstores were hard to reconcile. Yet, like The Residence, initial impressions might be deceiving. Take Borders, at that point already the country’s second largest bookseller. It stood accused of fierce opposition to unions. In Boston and elsewhere, protests had been led by the United Food and Commercial Workers and IWW, which called for a national boycott. As you can guess, that didn’t get far.

Still, having Borders in Burlington might mean that retail workers here began some serious organizing. And since one element in the Borders protests was wages – their booksellers often made under $6 an hour at the time– it could also boost the campaign to raise Vermont’s minimum wage. The City Council was about to vote on a “prevailing wage” ordinance, requiring city contracts to meet a set hourly minimum – not a livable wage (what it really costs to make ends meet) but at least a start.

Or take Williston, site of a landmark fight to block a mega-mall so long ago. Forget about “rural character.” It had become a caricature of suburban commercial development. But even in the land of Wal-Mart there were more than big boxes and contented shoppers. That August, for instance, two people had unfurled banners on the roof of Home Depot announcing, “Stop Selling Old Growth Wood!” About 70 activists below leant support, protesting the use of wood from ancient forests in North America and the tropics by the nation’s largest lumberyard. Native Forest Network spokesperson Anne Peterman pointed out that Home Depot was already “causing the extinction of independent local hardware stores. Now we see that they are doing the same thing to the world’s last ancient forests.”

I speculated: could superstore hegemony usher in a wave of activism that linked commercial development with labor and global issues? This was very wishful thinking.

Since returning to office after a one-term defeat, Peter Clavelle had become more guarded. His circle of advisors was smaller, and the Progressive Coalition no longer called the shots. When the debate over Filene’s began, Terry Bouricious, the first Progressive city councilor of the Sanders era, suggested a supermarket rather than a department store for what was left of the urban renewal area. Other Progressives also had doubts. But none were ready to break publicly with their leader. Despite talk about sustainability and dialogue, big decisions were being driven by tax and business imperatives.

Neighborhood associations were upgrading parks and addressing problems that fell through the cracks. Yet neighborhood planning assemblies, established during the Sanders era, no longer sparked much interest. In some wards, it was hard to drum up a quorum unless it was time to divvy up some money. In short, it was becoming tougher for a maturing, tourist-dependent city to retain small-town quality. 

Residents were less engaged, more prickly and, in some cases, too demanding.

The previous winter Traci Sawyers had been recruited by Bouricius to run for the City Council. In accepting the challenge, she hoped to be asked about Filene’s and waterfront development as she knocked on doors in Ward Two. But many voters hadn’t even heard about the impending arrival of the new department store and didn’t expect to shop there. Instead, they complained about noise at “party houses,” run-down buildings owned by absentee landlords, trash spilling into their yards, graffiti, and dog poop. Along with the loss of green space, Sawyers concluded, “The most significant threat to Burlington are these quality of life issues.”

It wasn’t a new problem. For some time, Council President Sharon Bushor had been pushing for a comprehensive program to combat “neighborhood decay.” The main obstacle, according to Assistant City Attorney Jessica Oski, was enforcement. Depending on the complaint, that could fall to housing or building inspectors, the Fire Department, or the police.

Some residents blamed the perceived decline on students, particularly those attending the University of Vermont. Others targeted absentee landlords, or the city’s failure to enforce existing ordinances. For Norm Williams, a resident who had demonstrated his point by bringing the Ordinance Committee boxes of trash collected from the lawn of his home, the culprits were obviously the students but the real trouble was the Planning Commission’s interpretation of zoning rules. Landlords were allowed to rent to large, unrelated groups in areas zoned for families. Norm’s solution was to define family more narrowly – as “one or more persons related by blood, adoption, or marriage,” or unmarried couples who live with relatives.

The problem went deeper than enforcement, however. In the end, it was linked to the city’s changing culture and how people defined that vague phrase, quality of life.

In the 1950s, as the US entered what John Kenneth Gailbraith named the Age of Affluence, “quality of life” had emerged as a way to describe a public desire for something beyond an improved standard of living. Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson circulated it during his 1956 campaign, borrowing the phrase from TV commentator Eric Severeid. It was also used by Arthur Schlesinger to contrast the “quantitative liberalism” of the 1930s New Deal with a growing middle-class desire for “qualitative liberalism.”

In the 1960s, the emerging environmental movement expanded the definition, relating quality to issues such as pollution. But it was primarily related to the emergence of what Gailbraith called the New Class, a largely professional and educated group that placed a premium on clean, secure, and comfortable surroundings.

Vermont experienced the impact as middle-class families deserted deteriorating urban areas. Drawn by the state’s slower pace, cleaner air and water, and relatively safe communities, many newcomers were willing to accept lower salaries in exchange for a “higher” quality of life. By the 1970s, however, quality control problems were already becoming obvious. Many young people were alienated, suburban sprawl was on the horizon, and Burlington’s “gentrification” was driving up the cost of living. In other words, the Age of Affluence was having some adverse side effects.

By the end of the 20th Century the state’s largest urban area reached a turning point. While it wasn’t possible to say that conditions were entirely worse – in fact, some low-income neighborhoods looked better than they once did – attitudes had changed. People harbored a series of small grudges that were approaching critical mass. Sawyers, who had moved from Boston in the mid-90s, talked about “an environment of disregard for people.” Mayor Clavelle said that nuisances like abandoned cars on front yards were “getting under people’s skin.”

The proposed solution was to consolidate and toughen enforcement, as Sawyers put it “to change the culture of what’s acceptable.” But that opened up more questions; for example, can you actually regulate that type of behavior without creating repressive standards? Can you really force people to be good citizens? And, is a clean and quiet neighborhood what “quality of life” is all about?

Chapter One: Vermont’s Progressive Paradox

Chapter Two: Progressive Paradox: Rhetoric & Reality

Chapter Three: Progressive Paradox: Identity Crisis

Chapter Four: Progressive Paradox: Beyond Bernie

Next: Pragmatic Populism

No comments: