The Metropolitan City and the Parochial City: Two Visions of Urbanism
Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. Photo by dbking.

Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. Photo by dbking.

The Post’s article about how U Street residents are beginning to get tired of the increasing noise of their neighborhood. My first reaction was basically the same as Ryan Avent and BeyondDC’s, that it’s hardly as if these residents didn’t know what they were getting into and if they really want to, they can move. As I think about it more, though, I realize it’s more complicated than that.

What’s going on here is a conflict between two models of what the city should be that are in conflict. On the one hand, we celebrate our cities as sites of metropolitanism, of constant flow and flux, of Baudelaire’s love at last sight and of a chance to reinvent yourself; we celebrate the virtues of the temporary and transient. On the other, we value the permanence of community in cities as much as in small towns. Jane Jacobs’ North End or Saul Alinsky’s Back of the Yards or Spike Lee’s Bed-Sty. Here in D.C., there’s talk about “the people who actually live here,” in opposition to all the interns flowing in and out of the city.

This is a real conflict. Richard Layman starts to deal with this at the end of a great post about planning neighborhoods for all hours of the day and week, but he finds the contradicting visions for the neighborhood to be coexisting ironically, not battling each other for dominance. But it is a battle and actually one worth discussing, because the answer is important.

It’s clear that a sense of place and community is valuable for a neighborhood for any number of reasons. But these two visions of the city lead to very different types of community. The community can be age-based. Student areas are the archetypal examples of this, where you still have a real sense of place despite total turnover in just four years. Community can also be based on a stable population, where families live for decades and sometimes kids then raise their own families in an area. There’s no turnover, but an equally strong community. Boston is particularly known for this kind of vibrant parochialism.

This U Street article is about a desire to make the neighborhood a community based on permanence when the market is pushing it to be a community based on transience. Since this is one of D.C.’s model revitalized neighborhoods, watching the struggle over which vision of the city U Street will embrace is an important bellwether in understanding what kind of city D.C. will become, which vision it will embrace.

Note: I hope this isn’t taken as a defense of NIMBYism. It’s quite possible to make communities that are rooted and permanent but can also allow in new members and grow – think immigrant neighborhoods. Some of the folks quoted are being bad NIMBYs, some aren’t.

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