Cities And Democracy

Jane Jacobs was one of the great urban theorists of the twentieth century, and an enormously provocative thinker. (Her Systems of Survival is one of my all-time favorite books–in my opinion, right up there with the Death and Life of Great American Cities.) 

A recent article about Jacobs focused on a less-well-known aspect of her work: her abiding concern about the fragility of democracy.

As the author noted,

Urban life was Jacobs’s great subject. But her great theme was the fragility of democracy—how difficult it is to maintain, how easily it can crumble. A city offered the perfect laboratory in which to study democracy’s intricate, interconnected gears and ballistics. “When we deal with cities,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense.” When cities succeed, they represent the purest manifestation of democratic ideals: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” When cities fail, they fail for the same reasons democracies fail: corruption, tyranny, homogenization, overspecialization, cultural drift and atrophy.

The article began with a description of an Appalachian village–Higgins, North Carolina–where Jacobs’ aunt was a social worker. The town was a depressing example of decline, an example of civic failure that evidently deeply concerned Jacobs.

In a year when American democracy has courted despotism, Jacobs’s work offers a warning and a challenge. Her goal was never merely to enlighten urban planners. In her work she argued, with increasing urgency, that the distance between New York City and Higgins is not as great as it seems. It is not very great at all, and it is shrinking.

Jacobs’ first book, Constitutional Chaff was a compilation of failed proposals from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, such as a third house of Congress and direct election of a Senate that never went out of session. In the introduction to the book, Jacobs argued that this diversity of conflicting perspectives “reflected the soul of American democracy as vividly as the ratified document itself did.”

In her “magnum opus,” The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs argued that a city–or for that matter, a neighborhood– absolutely requires diversity: “diversity of residential and commercial use, racial and socioeconomic diversity, diversity of governing bodies (from local wards to state agencies), diverse modes of transportation, diversity of public and private institutional support, diversity of architectural style.”  She also insisted that concentrating numbers of people in relatively small areas, far from being problematic, is the foundation of healthy communities. Dense, varied populations are desirable, Jacobs wrote,

because they are the source of immense vitality, and because they do represent, in small geographic compass, a great and exuberant richness of differences and possibilities, many of these differences unique and unpredictable and all the more valuable because they are.

If vitality comes from diversity, decline comes from homogeneity. Early indicators of decline in places like Higgins–a decline we increasingly see in small towns across many states, including Indiana–are :

“cultural xenophobia,” “self-imposed isolation,” and “a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit … to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backwards to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.” She warns of the profligate use of plausible denial in American politics, the idea that “a presentable image makes substance immaterial,” allowing political campaigns “to construct new reality.” She finds further evidence of our hardening cultural sclerosis in the rise of the prison-industrial complex, the prioritization of credentials over critical thinking in the educational system, low voter turnout, and the reluctance to develop renewable forms of energy in the face of global ecological collapse.

The article’s conclusion brings the lesson home.

No reader of Jacobs’s work would be surprised by the somewhat recent finding by a Gallup researcher that Donald Trump’s supporters “are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones.” These zones are latter-day incarnations of Higgins: marooned, amnesiac, homogenous, gutted by the diminishment of skills and opportunities. One Higgins is dangerous enough, for both its residents and the republic to which it belongs. But the nation’s Higginses have proliferated to the point that their residents have assumed control of a major political party.

Assuming voters successfully “vote blue no matter who,” one of the multitude of daunting tasks a new administration must undertake is the rescue of small-town America.

I have no idea how.


  1. Great thoughts today. This will require more THINKING and less praying. Good luck to all the thinkers and workers.

  2. What then do we think of the self-segregating neighborhoods of Indianapolis? All black neighborhoods. All white neighborhoods. Rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods. Millennial strongholds. Large housing projects for the elderly only. What drives this “like seeks like” behavior?
    As patmcc put it, “This will require more thinking…”

  3. Pat,

    I see you haven’t changed your opinions in the approximately 15 years I’ve been seeing your posts, LOL.

    The Cities! They have their benefits, and they also have their disadvantages. The larger the city, the less personal it becomes, the larger cities Tribalize temselves by language, race, culture, religion and political beliefs. then you have a subset from those which includes, but not limited to, experiences, either from their home countries or implied from information gleaned from others, personal habits i.e types of hallucinogenic’s, weed smokers, opioids, cocaine, LSD, heroin, roofies, Even cigars and cigarettes, types of alcohol consumption, and others. But the cities were also huge hubs of commerce and trade. Far outweighing the combined output of small towns and cities.

    The entire village of Harlem in New York, was destroyed by heroine and other drugs, unfortunately a lot of the pipelines that formed in the United States to predominantly black communities in the late 50s and 60s were promoted by the government, the American government! This wasn’t, or shouldn’t have been a big secret, because a lot of the folks running the drugs into the country were average military types. The CIA turned a blind eye because they were using funds from these drugs to do whatever the CIA does. And one of the things they did along with the FBI, is destroy black communities. This was confirmed by J Edgar Hoover’s ADEX list which was a pre-computer database supposedly to track subversives. Subversives which happened to be African-American at the time.

    Louis Onorato “Jeff” Giuffrida was Ronald Reagan’s FEMA chief, and while he was at the war College in the 60s, he wrote a thesis outlining a military plan for the forcible relocation of millions of black Americans to concentration camps in the event of a national emergency involving racial strife. Ronald Reagan promoted him to lead the California militia, before Reagan became president, and then brought in Giuffrida has FEMA director.

    This was just part and parcel of plans designed to eradicate cohesion in black communities. It evolved later on in the middle and late 1980s mostly during Reagan’s administration, to include South American and Central American immigrants, basically, keep them worried about being deported, they won’t have to worry about them voting Democratic, or voting at all.

    Get the picture? Many of ” them” Brown folks live/lived in the cities, and the demonization of “SO CALLED” liberal socialist and communist cities began a new phase, along with demonization of educators, and demonization of education PERIOD. The government then earnestly promoted this division in culture, from the multicultural multi-racial multi-religious multiethnic and multi-lifestyle large American cities, to the walled off, protected, noninclusive bastions of white Protestant America in the smaller towns and cities.

    Eventually, the government was successful in destroying many of the brown and black communities in the large cities, by not only allowing, but promoting, drug distribution and weapons smuggling. So they could point to not only what they considered debauchery, but also a burgeoning drug using militancy that was armed to the teeth. The boogie man was pretty scary to those small town and city white Protestants. The only problem, our Dr. Frankenstein government could not control the monster it created, and basically poisoned OUR societies body, a slow enough acting poison where people got used to the side effects until it was/is too late.

    And here we are, not by accident, but purposefully, destroyed by a power-hungry minority, using unmitigated fear and loathing, false patriotism, and the lemminglike rah rah sis boom ba, save the country ilk.

    There is no conspiracy in this comment, all of this information is open sourced, the conspiracies come from the power-hungry minority group that have rewritten history in their own image. Divide and conquer, although, what’s left after a house is divided? Not much!

    In the King James Version, this quote is found in Matthew, 12:25: “And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”

    Wow, how prophetic!

    I would say Pat, maybe instead of listening to the ne’er-do-wells who do not represent Christianity, but use it to divide Americans contrary to its purpose, you should investigate a little more, it’s quite enlightening.

  4. Only by engaging with people who are different from us do, we realize how much alike we are in dreams, hopes and ambitions, those things that truly matter.

  5. Mumbo jumbo doesn’t create jobs, or inject ambition into the slothful. What it takes is real leadership and initiative to fix what’s wrong, repair what’s broken and take joy and pride in accomplishments. Small towns needn’t wait for some messiah to lead them out of the wilderness. Their leadership lies within their own populace, you know, just like the tribes that used to live in caves. How do you think those “small towns” survived, even flourished, to become the species that exploded across the Earth? They solved their own problems by recognizing them and then doing something to fix them. Did they all succeed? Of course not.

    Not every town or village can be the next utopia, but they can optimize what they have and do the best they can to make the lives of the residents worth living. None of us can expect the Federal or our state governments to do the things that are best for the small town. Clearly, our Federal government as been coopted by corporate/banking America and only panders to the stockholders. So, as the Republicans like to say about the children born to 15 year-old single moms: “You’re on your own.”

  6. Patmcc and Theresa; kudos! Thinking and working, in that specific order, will get us further that talking, including prayers which are inactive private conversations.

    John Sorg; those “ne’er do wells” CLAIMING to represent Christianity are running our government today, in case you have missed those conversations from the evangelicals. You sermonize from your personal Christian viewpoint; it is not the only Christian viewpoint The problem is not recognizing other Christian beliefs or other religions as valid or worth mentioning; there isn’t even a documented number of active denominations of Christianity in this country alone. They cannot agree with one another or among their chosen denomination on anything but the majority appear to be following Judas goat Trump like sheep, especially in small towns and rural areas. The term “under God” is used as a generic name for whatever higher power is recognized by all religious denominations; that name is another issue Christians cannot agree on. Sermonizing the last part of Matthew 12:25 was reflected by President Abraham Lincoln when he stated “A House divided against itself cannot stand.” referring to salvation of the Union of the United States of America and uphold democracy and the Constitution…which is NOT based on any Bible. We are in a political civil war which is getting closer to blood in our streets; the religious civil war has been ongoing for thousands of years and will continue without end. We need to be thinking and working to the salvation of our families, neighborhoods and our country during these “days of infamy” under the Trump administration. Pray all you want; I do that daily, then I get busy thinking and working to do what little I can.

  7. Great post, John!

    I doubt Higgins, NC, would accept “diversity” as the answer because Americans have been sorting themselves by ideology for decades.

    The same thing goes for small-town Indiana or any other small town within the Nanny States. They seek the homogenization that small towns offer. The people tend to be closed-minded conservatives, so introducing a culturally diverse population to this mix wouldn’t be welcome.

    This is why political redistricting has become such a hot topic. Gerrymandering away the power of the big cities or isolating the power of big cities became strategically crucial to winning elections. It’s also why the Electoral College is failing to produce the desired outcomes our Founding Fathers expected.

    Here is a good reference source to the book, The Big Sort…:

    “One of the key insights of the founding fathers was that heterogeneity fostered creativity and problem-solving; the clashing of ideas was encouraged. Without this “clashing,” partisanship dominates. People vote, but voting becomes less of an expression of political opinion, and more of a sign of group allegiance. Without knowing any actual members of the opposite party, perceptions of the “other side” become more radical and less accurate.

    Bishop then discusses the confirmation bias and the tendency for people to confirm their existing beliefs. People choose to listen to news sources that match their preferences and build confidence in their preexisting opinions. This results in partisan individuals reinforcing their more extreme beliefs, and the separation between groups grows larger.”

  8. John, it does seem that wherever there is a CIA involvement drugs are part of scenario. The “Golden Triangle” during the Vietnam War, Columbia, Iran-Contra and now Afghanistan again. Gary Webb, wrote a book “Dark Alliance” about the drugs and Contra connections with the CIA.

    Webb would say, “The government side of the story is coming through the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post”, he stated. “They use the giant corporate press rather than saying anything directly. If you work through friendly reporters on major newspapers, it comes off as The New York Times saying it and not a mouthpiece of the CIA.

    If we had met five years ago, you wouldn’t have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me … And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job … The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress

    The Corporate Press, jumped on Bush the Younger’s claim of WMD’s in Iraq, never questioning the veracity of the claims and the obvious attempts, by Bush the Younger to start Iraq War 2.

  9. Rural America has never been diverse. Growing up in the South Chicago area, we knew around election time “Down State” south of the Chicago Megalopolis was overwhelming white and Republican.

    It was understandable the wealthy lily white suburbs voted Republican. The Republicans have long attacked taxes – It’s your Money- Taxation is confiscation of Your Money. The Welfare King or Queen was often pointed to as an example of how Your Money was being mis-used.

    The other part of GOP Propaganda that played well in Rural America was the Cultural and Social Liberalism of the big cities as attacking Conservative Rural Family values. The old song Okie from Muskogee by Merle Haggard from 1969 was a warning to Rural America:

    The lyrics say it all:
    We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee and we don’t take our trips on LSD
    We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
    Cause we like living right and being free

    We don’t make a party out of loving but we like holding hands and pitching woo
    And we don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy
    Like the hippies out in San Francisco do

    And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee
    A place where even squares can have a ball
    And we still wave Ol’ Glory down at the courthouse
    And white lightning’s still the biggest thrill of all

    Cowboy boots are still in style for manly footwear
    Beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen
    And football’s still the roughest thing on campus
    And the kids here still respect the college dean
    And I’m proud to be an Okie
    In Muskogee Oklahoma US
    Clearly that Hippie life style and all it represented was a threat, old Glory, cowboy boots, white lightening and football was America.

  10. Todd,

    I’m going to have to check out that book, The big Sort! What you’ve quoted is exactly how people progress moving towards more of a tribalistic existence. And when they have a professed leader, even if the leader is deranged and psychotic, they accept the insanity because of their personal fear of “others,” and thanks for the shout.


    I would have to agree with you on newspapers conveniently using anonymous sources and becoming mouthpieces for those anonymous sources. It was interesting to look at how the New York Times lit into Hillary Clinton in 2016. They beat her to a pulp, for what? It was obvious what was happening, and the explanation the New York Times gave was nonsensical and wholly untenable. I agree with everything in your post!


    Yes, I read your posts with interest, and, what sort of work do you think should be done? Obviously, we can all go and vote, but those votes are going to be worth anything. Our government is now a runaway Frankenstein’s monster. And even if Trump is put out of office somehow, the die has been cast now, imagine Mayor Pete or Mayor Mike or Sen. Warren, or Sen. Sanders, using this unfettered power that was gifted by the Senate! Do you think things would go well? These are all imperfect people, just as Barack Obama was an imperfect man, I knew him before he was a politician while he was working as an organizer for laid off steelworkers and paid by local churches! A good man, but he didn’t like conflict, he now realizes that he could not be a good man and fight with those who wanted to destroy him. He could’ve went the route of Donald Trump, but he did not, so I commend him for that. He was a very principled man, I’m not so sure any of the others in the group we have now will be that magnanimous as Barack Obama.

    As far as Abraham Lincoln using Scripture, he did quite a bit. And I’m well aware that he used Matthew 12: 25. Jimmy Carter was also quite prolific in quoting Scripture! And Jimmy Carter is a very good man also.

    “The first and almost the only book deserving of universal attention is the Bible. I speak as a man of the world…and I say to you, “Search the Scriptures.””- John Quincy Adams, Sixth President

    “That Book, sir, is the Rock on which our Republic rests.” – Andrew Jackson, Seventh President

    “In regard for this Great Book, I have this to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good Savior gave to the world was communicated through this Book.” – Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth President

    The list goes on, and these were all men of faith and tried to follow their morals and conscience while steering a nation. And these weren’t the only presidents of the United States that quoted Scripture on a regular basis. They also knew that there had to be a separation between church and state, their beliefs bled into their profession, although they did not attempt to force it on the country. They were well aware of the Abrahammists (Muslims) the Jews, the Catholics, along with Protestants and some exotic religions.

    And you are right, Christianity should be of one mind, Christianity should be one faith, but because men prefer to have their ears tickled, they look for leniency in their desires, if they can’t find a church or chapter that allows them their personal lifestyle and beliefs, they make one! So yes, that is extremely hypocritical.

    As far as works, Becky said the other day, one did not need works! Well, I think James the 2nd chapter best to read the whole thing,

    “Of what benefit is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but he does not have works? That faith cannot save him, can it? 15 If any brothers or sisters are lacking clothing and enough food for the day, 16 yet one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but you do not give them what they need for their body, of what benefit is it? 17 So, too, faith by itself, without works, is dead.”

    I cook! And I do it well! I donate food to re-passes for the dead, I cook for widows, I cook for the poor, because I was a hungry child. I cook for not only my family but my extended spiritual family. Not only that, I put in the time. 50 to 60 hours a month for preaching and teaching, including teaching my granddaughters at home. The same with my wife, except she puts in twice as much time, and on top of that, she suffers from severe lupus. So yes, I’m aware of work, and I do not shy away from work, neither do any in my family!

    I do not like talking about that portion, because it seems to be braggadocio, so usually I don’t mention it. I am also aware of the hypocrisy going on, those using Scripture to bend people to their will, we are all free moral agents, we have free will, we don’t have to follow a particular course if we don’t want to, if we feel we are correct, then that’s the course we follow. You follow yours, Trump follows his, I follow mine, it’s just my family chooses to follow a course that will give us more benefits in the future because mankind has proven he is incapable of not slaughtering his fellow man. Christians slaughtering Christians during the world wars, Catholics slaughtering Catholics Protestants slaughtering Protestants, it’s a terrible thing, and, if the Pope would have decided to put a moratorium on fighting, there would’ve been a huge impact on the wars, but the Popes throughout history were more inclined to start wars than to stop them. The same with the Protestant hierarchy, so, the hypocrisy runs deep.

    “When you go making gifts of mercy, do not blow a trumpet ahead of you, . . . do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, that your gifts of mercy may be in secret; then your Father who is looking on in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:2-4)

    “Also, when you pray, do not act like the hypocrites, for they like to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the main streets to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your private room and, after shutting your door, pray to your Father who is in secret. Then your Father who looks on in secret will repay you.” ( Matthew 6:5-6)

    Don’t see much of that from the Congressional pastor, nor any of those who are using these politicians for their personal vendettas.

    James 1 : 26-27 If any man thinks he is a worshipper of God but does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he is deceiving his own heart, and his worship is futile. … 27 The form of worship that is clean and undefiled from the standpoint of our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their tribulation, and to keep oneself without spot from the world.”

  11. ML,

    LOL, look at my avatar picture. That’s me earlier this year, although you can see the scope of the rifle and my hat complete with red rag, I’m is far from a redneck as you can get. I love my snakeskin Boots (Anaconda) that I bought on the Seminole reservation. They kill the invasive species! I have 2 pairs of boots, and 6 pairs of sandals, tons of Wrangler and Levi jeans, and more pairs of hippie shorts that I can count. Also, a lot of suits. It pays to be diverse, LOL. My folks were country, lived on farms on and off throughout their life. I grew up that way also, between the city, and farm country, from the green East, to the desert west.

  12. Can democracy successfully fend off autocracy? Can a majority of individuals regularly display the wisdom necessary to hire into government enough leaders to maintain respect for the common needs of all individuals in the common law?

    We don’t know the long term answer to those questions, only the short term answer.

    To what degree is our recent stumble evidence of an inability of the common man to maintain self determination versus an anomaly created by the temporary details of our times?

    We’ll get the next clue in November.

  13. John, shades of Marv Kramer; “…what sort of work do you think should be done? ” The very fact that you would ask that question means my answer would only mean to you that I am doing nothing. This was Marv’s view of almost everyone on the blog who talked about what we have done, what we are going to do, organizations and candidates we donate to and support are all meaningless…told repeatedly that we are doing nothing. So I won’t waste time or space telling you how I spend my time and money doing nothing.

  14. Gerrymandering tells us at least one positive thing.

    Follow along; it’s easy.
    When many cultures and worldviews flow together (assimilate) into any geographic area, the political hack then is much challenged to corral his own (in order to use his own) and thus is extremely motivated to draw crazy partisan boundaries known as gerrymandering. This we understand, but there is another side to gerrymandering–the pre-gerrymandering side.

    The pre-gerrymandering side? Well, there are conditions–once more common than today–when the political hack does not need gerrymandering, and the character of those conditions should tell us something encouraging.

    Here it is:
    Gerrymandering is superfluous when assimilation–mixing of cultures and world views–has NOT occurred or does not exist. When populations are homogeneous, where birds of a feather flock together, where like-minded and like-appearing people have already accumulated into easy to define demographic areas in which assimilation does not exist, political hacks find no need for gerrymandering. Nature has done it for them.

    I purport that because gerrymandering always follows assimilation, ironically, it PROVES THE EXISTENCE OF ASSIMILATION.

    Gerrymandering is a reaction to America’s natural bent toward organic assimilation. And America’s natural bent toward assimilation is a hopeful thing.

  15. Vernon – well said and not lost in the rest. Solving problems, even complex social ones, comes down to people leadership, “servant leaders” who are driven to take, even force the body politic to find our better selves. Of course, if you believe that most of us only care about our selves…than there is no hope.

  16. JoAnn,

    Why do you get the impression that I am somehow picking on you? Didn’t I say that everyone is a free moral agent? Everyone follows the path they think is best. I have no doubt you are passionate about what you do and how you do it. I’m passionate about my way, you are passionate about your way, Marv is compassionate about his way, ML the same Todd the same, obviously Becky the same, and last but not least, in a demented way, POTUS.

    Like I said, I’ve read your comments intently. And I see the amount of passion you have, what I am saying, is that mankind has been doing the same thing for millennia, they still murder each other on a plague like carnal scale.

    Governments starve their children to death, they locked them in cages, they refuse them healthcare, they put them in facilities with adults, and , well you get the picture. The same with the prisons being the largest mentalhealthcare facilities in the country, not very compassionate is it? Definitely not empathetic. Take healthcare away from the most vulnerable, try to stop people from using contraception, you know this is wrong, I know this is wrong, everyone on this blog for the most part knows that’s wrong.

    my boss used to say, there’s a thousand ways to do a job, pick the one that’s right for you, the one that fits your abilities! And I think that’s what everyone should do. If this is supposed to be an exchange of ideas, do you automatically toss some in the garbage can if they don’t fit our personal narrative? I’ve been involved in the political system for a long time, I choose not to participate in it now because it goes nowhere. I’m tired a beating my head against the wall or better yet, a large Boulder trying to convince myself that it feels good. I am not masochistic, and I’m sure neither are you, don’t you feel you’ve been bashing your head against a boulder for a long time?

    I’ve decided to go the route that my conscience tells me, just as you do. My personal experiences and those of my family and ancestors steered me in a path that helps me keep what sanity I have left. And JoAnn you should always do the same. I exercise a lot of faith, my interactions with men have not always been good. Men destroyed my past family members, present family members, and will do the same to Future family members. I’m not intent on the same old same old, and neither should you.

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