A view of Franklin Street from 2009

Note: Thursday evening I was a participant in a panel on scale, place, and community hosted by the McConnell Center at the ACC’s newest outpost, the University of Louisville. This blog is an excerpt from remarks at the talk, which begin with a reflection on the role of UNC basketball in sustaining a sense of community in Chapel Hill.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here this evening and to the University of Louisville for inviting us.

The question of human scale, and related questions of place and community, is a brilliant question to pose for a discussion like this. It takes us well outside the stale, narrow ideological debates of national politics, and allows us to pose more fundamental questions from a different angle.

The first thing I want to do then, is to describe in a personal sense how community, place, and scale have shaped my own life and political sensibility. Then I want to go on and sketch the political ideal I favor—the pluralist commonwealth, a species of a larger family of ideas called property-owning democracy—and talk about how it might be realized in a nation of our size.

I grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., and my father worked for 16 years at the University of North Carolina as a professor and administrator. Chapel Hill at the time I grew up had about 35,000 residents. The university itself was the dominant institution. A very large percentage of the people I knew and were friends with as a kid had some connection to the university; others had connections to the local business community.

Chapel Hill was and is a highly educated community as measured by percentage of adults with college or advanced degrees. It is also a racially diverse community. At the time I grew up there, the population was about 15-20 percent African-American. I began attending public school in Chapel Hill in 1977, just a few years after the school system was fully integrated racially. I became conscious of racial inequality when I noticed as an elementary school student that almost all the African-American children in my classes rode a bus home. The white children walked to our houses in the surrounding neighborhood. At that time, the cluster of middle-class neighborhoods surrounding the school had only one black family—which happened to be the family of a former mayor of Chapel Hill, Howard Lee, elected in 1970 as one of the first black mayors in the modern south.

Many of the black students lived in a public housing project about a mile and a half away from the school. It was tucked away, right off the bypass. I had occasion to visit the project once or twice when giving rides home to kids on basketball teams I or my older brother played on, but I never hung out there socially. I did however interact with black children regularly at school, especially in recess, and in playing basketball at the local community center, and in organized recreational sports. When I got to be a little older, a teenager, sometimes I would go to the community center and be the only white person playing in a game with older black men.

What tied the community together, across racial lines, was a shared love and enthusiasm for the University of North Carolina and especially UNC basketball. I have a feeling that maybe some of you here in Louisville can relate. Our emotions rose and fell with the fortunes of the team. It gave us something to talk about—not just across racial lines, but gender lines too. On my Facebook feed to this day, the most vociferous comments about Carolina basketball are often from girls I grew up with in Chapel Hill who are now grown women who are not ashamed to scream at the TV screen during games in front of their own children.

For many of us, an important piece of the puzzle too was the coach we grew up with, Dean Smith. Dean Smith was a revered figure in the community, a figure of awe—respected not just a coach, but as a person of moral substance. He had been active in the civil rights movement, quietly, well before it became popular, and later became involved in showing support for the antiwar and peace movement, ending the death penalty, opposing the state lottery, and many other progressive causes. Coach Smith gave us the feeling that in rooting for the Tar Heels, we were rooting for the right side of history.

I feel like a grew up in a strong community that had a coherent narrative. We were a progressive community that favored greater racial equality, greater education, greater tolerance and social progress, and we had a particular mission within the state of North Carolina to forward those ends. In the basketball team, with its living model of graceful team play and biracial cooperation, we had our symbolic representation of that narrative. That community undoubtedly shaped who I am, to this day.

At the same time, I grew up with an acute awareness that Chapel Hill, and by extension American society, was not a just community. The racial inequality was too glaring to miss. I remember feeling a little stunned on graduation day from Chapel Hill High School, when I realized that almost all my white friends and acquaintances had plans to go to college. Some of the students of color did as well, but many did not. We had shared classrooms together for 12 years, but now our life paths would more or less permanently diverge.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in a community like that, for the positive and the critical lessons is taught. There are many other terrific communities in the United States that have had similar impact on its residents. But Chapel Hill, and other college towns, have a huge advantage over most communities of that size in the U.S.: it has a permanent economic base, embedded in the state university. The university is not going to get up and leave, and this permanence assures that Chapel Hill will literally always be a viable community. This frees the community to focus on things beyond simply economic development—it can also focus on quality-of-life, social issues, environmental issues.

Most other towns and cities are not so fortunate. They are vulnerable to major employers re-locating, across the country or across the world. Because capital is mobile but local government is not, mobile capital can play local governments off one another to extract subsidies and favorable deals. What happens to towns and cities that don’t succeed in this competition? Quite simply, they decay and die off, cease to be places where the children want to stay as adults, survive only as shells of their former selves. That is exactly what happened to my father’s hometown of Springhill, Louisiana—a bustling community in the middle of the 20th century because of the International Paper mill there. When the main mill shut down in the late 1970s, the town began a slow death from which it has never recovered.

This phenomenon is much more general. A couple of years ago I looked at the 112 largest cities in the U.S. in 1950. Between 1950 and 2008, one-half of them lost populations, some of them quite dramatically so, at the same time that the national population was growing rapidly. Yet another piece of evidence is the way towns clamor to protest projected defense cuts, or to gain new prison facilities, in order to preserve community stability.

Why does it matter if towns and cities die or decline? We can point to the economic and ecological irrationality of throwing away some places at the same time we are building new communities elsewhere. But I think the most serious problem is that towns and cities need to play, and have been expected by democratic theorists since Tocqueville to play, a key role in shaping civic virtues and democratic practice. It is at the level of the town or city that the ordinary citizen has the most opportunity to get involved in public life, and for a relatively small group of people to work together to make an impact.

Further, in the locality, where many debated problems are fundamentally practical, not ideological, there is a possibility for a kind of politics that is far healthier than the ideological warfare we typically see in Washington. To be sure, it’s not always easy for so the low-income public housing resident or the inner city community gardening advocate to establish a meaningful and respectful dialogue with the white businessman or the highly educated public official, but I have seen it happen many times. It’s in the context of a place-based community that we best learn to come to terms with those who have different concerns, interests, problems, and ideas than our own, and try to figure out how to address common problems and continue to live together as a community even when there are severe disagreements.

Healthy local politics requires that localities have a healthy, stable economic base. To achieve this would require having an economic system that truly values communities as important in their own right, not disposable conveniences that can be discarded anytime a private firm encounters tough times and cuts back or chooses to move elsewhere in search of higher profit. The ironic thing is, we know how to provide localities with just such a stable economic base, as the example of Chapel Hill, and many other cities and towns that have major universities, state capitals, even county seats: anchor communities with permanent public or quasi-public institutions. Not every place can have a university or be a capital of course, but there are other ways to achieve the same effect by nurturing locally-owned, permanent place-based enterprises, through such mechanisms as locally-oriented development banks and community or worker ownership.

Crucial to the Pluralist Commonwealth vision is a renewed focus on the value of the local community. We must create mechanisms to assure the economic viability of localities, and beyond that, provide sufficient resources so that localities can take the lead in creative experimentation to build better and more sustainable communities.

Assuring the economic stability of local communities can help renew the value and practice of local political engagement. Such engagement in turn, gives local communities the best chance of holding higher-order units of government genuinely accountable.