Saturday, November 17

Agrarians and Urbanists

It's sometimes supposed that agrarians are the natural enemies of urbanists - that farms and sidewalks don't mix. Jefferson's advocacy for the virtuous "yeoman farmer" is blamed for the dissolution of city life in America, and the romantic Victorian ideal of an English countryside is often considered to have foreshadowed the decline of the industrial town. It would seem that any vote for country living is, at least tacitly, a vote against city living.

There are usually three routes to take when confronted with a nice binary opposition like this:

1. Contradiction. One is right and the other wrong.
2. Charybdis and Scylla. Navigate between the two.
3. Yin and Yang. Both, in their distinctiveness, are mutually collaborative.

Although I'd prefer to call it Trinitarian, I'd like to think that the third option could work between agrarian and urban ideals.

Consider a particular similarity between two dominant figureheads, Wendell Berry and Jane Jacobs. Jacobs earned her stripes confronting Robert Moses' plan for a lower Manhattan expressway. She argued passionately that the project would vivisect her living neighborhood of Greenwich Village and drain it of life. As the story goes, her grassroots campaign eventually toppled the powerful Moses.

Wendell Berry also worked in Greenwich village for a while, but later decided to move back to a rural lifestyle in Kentucky. In the essay A Native Hill, Berry discusses his own freeway of I-71:

"That first road from the site of New Castle to the mouth of the Kentucky river - lost now either by obsolescence or metamorphosis - is now being crossed and to some extant replaced by its modern predecessor known as I-71, and I have no wish to disturb the question of whether or not this road was needed. I only want to observe that it bears no relation whatever to the countryside it passes through. It is a pure abstraction, built to serve the two abstractions that are the poles of our national life: commerce and expensive pleasure. It was built not according to the lay of the land, but according to a blueprint. Such homes and farmlands and woodlands as happened to be in its way are now buried under it."

Although rural Kentucky and Manhattan could not be more different, it's not too hard to hear echos of Jane Jacob's wisdom in Wendell Berry's own observations.

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