Never in this Country

Tucson, AZ, 1969 | Photo courtesy of Vishaan Chakrabarti.

Xenophobia.  Unfunded entitlements.  Anti-immigrant zeal.  More retirees than workers.  Crumbling infrastructure.  Failing schoolsThreats to burn books.

Taken together, our national ailments have shaken my belief in a Country of Cities. I have argued on these pages that density and infrastructure, and the diverse ecology they engender, can lead us out of this recession to a greener, leaner nation. Yet how can we ask the nation to emulate our model of life in New York if we abandon inclusiveness, the most fundamental ecological strength that binds us together as a city? If the majority of New Yorkers oppose religious freedom and private property rights, as the recent New York Times poll regarding the proposed downtown Islamic cultural center startlingly uncovered, how can I dare propose that our way of life lead the nation out of this malaise?

None of the ailments above describe the aspirations of post-war New York. Having avoided the tribalism that had twice set Europe ablaze, we were looked to by most of the world as the model that had created unrivaled opportunities to become middle class, the model that sought freedom of speech and civil rights, and the model that had paved an open path for striving immigrants. Mad Men Manhattan was by no means perfect, but it aspired towards a brave new world of meritocracy. By contrast, India — the country my parents left in 1968 with $32, two graduate degrees, and two toddlers — was defined by searing religious strife and protectionist economic policies that impoverished millions for decades, only to emerge today as a secular democracy that in many ways mirrors imperfect post-war America in its tolerance, entrepreneurialism and ambition.

What a difference a half century makes. While sea levels are surely rising, the Atlantic seems to simultaneously be shrinking as our society perilously closes the gap between the United States and the most venal tendencies of 1930s Europe.

Never in this country could I imagine the outright racism now being directed at Muslims. For those who claim the issue of the cultural center is one of sensitivity, not racism, I offer the following question: If a radical “pro-lifer” blew up an abortion clinic, crazily killing innocents in the name of a Christian god, would there be protests if years later a Christian community center was proposed nearby? To the contrary, it would be seen as an act of healing. The religious intolerance at the root of this double standard is clear, and is made all the more so as mosques and Muslims nationwide are attacked regardless of their proximity to ground zero. Also clear is the Republican double standard, in which private property rights and local control are held sacrosanct until the local, private decision offends the tyranny of their own majority.

Never in this country could I imagine the new Arizona immigration law. In 1968 my family moved from Calcutta to Tucson, where my father taught chemistry and conducted cataract research. We didn’t carry our passports. My beautiful brown children, however, will not visit the Grand Canyon, will not see the ramshackle house their grandparents were welcomed to by their neighbors, will not experience the open sky of that American west, because my children too will not travel in their own country while carrying passports.

Never in this country could I imagine the decline of the educational system — the very system for which my parents remained in the US — to the point that half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 can’t find New York on an unlabeled world map. And as the Times poll on the cultural center also revealed, opposition to the center increased as education levels decreased. When Democrats in the NY Legislature block charter school seats desperately sought after by parents in Harlem, when seniority beats meritocracy in the union ranks, when bad teachers are shuffled around like fallen priests, is there any wonder as to the roots of our educational decline?

Never in this country could I imagine the comparative disadvantage of our infrastructure to the point where China has the world’s fastest passenger train, New Delhi runs all of its buses and taxis on compressed natural gas, Hong Kong connects its airport to its downtown via express train, and Brazil is the world’s leading biofuel producer. How can we better understand our cultural differences if we continually privilege the cultural isolation of cars and single-family homes over the infrastructure that binds us as one society? Yet with every last discretionary tax dollar propping up either wasteful entitlements or wasteful defense spending, can we hope to muster the support for retiring all of the Bush tax cuts in 2012 as Peter Orszag, Obama’s former Budget Director, has rightly proposed? Even the most liberal-minded must question whether the unaffordable tax cuts — which virtually every economist agrees do not pay for themselves — could be repealed when we know in our guts that the increased government revenue in the hands of our Congress would not fund deficit reduction nor would it fund the hundreds of billions needed for investments in clean infrastructure and green energy. To be sure, the President should be applauded for his recent proposal, backed by Governors Schwarzenegger and Rendell as well as Mayor Bloomberg, for a $50 billion National Infrastructure Bank. But with national high speed rail alone projected to cost multiples of this, it is disappointing that this much-touted campaign proposal was withheld from the original $787 billion stimulus package. Instead, the “stimulus” crafted by Congressional Democrats essentially propped up bloated local budgets rather than creating good jobs for today and smart infrastructure for tomorrow.

Aspiration was the centerpiece of the tumultuous America my parents envisioned as they boarded their flight in 1968. Separated by money, culture and age from the largely comfortable angst of baby boomer protests, my parents nonetheless understood that the liberal values of tolerance and equity were convergent with the conservative values of entrepreneurialism and investment. For all immigrants regardless of race or religion, these combined values equated to opportunity, to the chance, but not the promise, that their children may just lead better lives.

As a city and a country, to what do we aspire now? Perhaps New York, rallied by Michael Bloomberg, the only leader in America who has spoken clearly and righteously on these issues, can still lead our nation towards our own stated values. After all, the Times poll also indicated that support for the cultural center increased with density, perhaps proof that proximity leads to understanding.

Other than Native Americans, our families all came to this country, in large measure through the harbor of New York City, to escape the oppressions of their homelands, whether it was religious persecution or taxation without representation. Whatever ailments plagued their countries of origin — whether it was England or Italy, India or Iran — they carried with them the aspiration that those problems would never darken our shores. Now, as these ailments attempt to redefine who we are as a nation, we must declare, we must demand, never in this country.

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This is the seventh in a series of opinion pieces in which Vishaan Chakrabarti casts key current events as rallying cries in his evolving argument for urban density, for a Country of Cities.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, is the Marc Holliday Professor of Real Estate and the Director of the Real Estate Development program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University and the founding principal of Vishaan Chakrabarti Design Collaborative (VCDC, llc), an urban design, planning, and strategic advisory firm based in Manhattan. He is a registered architect in the State of New York and lives in Tribeca. Read more…

Series

A Country of Cities

A series of opinion pieces in which Vishaan Chakrabarti casts key current events as rallying cries in his evolving argument for urban density, for a Country of Cities.

Comments

George Siekkinen September 15, 2010

Greetings: Prof. Chakrabarti has written a very thoughtful and disturbing essay. What is the troubling aspect is the laying bare of the realities one finds in so many aspects of the American condition today. Education, affordable health care, infrastructure that reflects a sustainable civilization, reinvestment in existing communities, conserving our nation’s natural and cultural resources, and an economy that rewards hard and honest work rather that gambling on arcane financial instruments are all values and societal aspirations that should be shared, but there seems to be such a division in society today. One is particularly troubled in the discourse or total lack thereof one finds in the politics and politicians and the media who cover our public life of this unfortunate age. We have to find again that common ground where we can sort through our great list of national needs and find ways to move forward. I do not know how much farther down this unlit path we have to go before we come to some shared realization that societal divisions, a lack of hope, and selfish and fearful attitude in anyone who is “other” is not a path that leads anywhere, otherwise we will be lost.

Larry B September 15, 2010

Oh Vishaan, don’t be so negative! It’s quite simple: the political demagogues & war mongers have lost the Russkies as the rallying ‘evil other,’ so now they have been replaced with the Muslims (and perhaps with the Messicans as back-up bad-guys). This sort of din has always existed in human culture, and only roars lounder when times are tough. Don’t let it seep into your consciousness, throwing you off your patriotic game (Throwing your TV out the window can help with this). Focus rather on how we can build the world you believe in. In small, tangible steps.

But big steps make better reading. NYC allowing this Islamic Center to get built could be one big step. Clearly, Islam has an image problem in the West, and too many Westerners are casting Muslims into that very un-Christian ‘you are not my brother’ category. We need venues for dialogue & education, and room for a new world Islam to take root. It might also serve to neutralize, at lease on a cultural level, that histrionic Sept 11 monument a few blocks to the south. A village honors its widow/ers; it doesn’t lie prostrate at their feet. It’s time to move on and grab the bull by the horns, New York!

Everyone has been slinging arrowz at AZ, but it’s useful to look at the situation they are in. Beyond all the partisan posturing, AZ is (with TX and CA) on the frontline of illegal immigration from the south and the public security meltdown in Mexico. Mexico’s violent problems are spilling over into the foreclosure-riddled suburbs of Phoenix. You wouldn’t want to be raising your kids next door to this either. So, AZ put out this law as a gunshot across Washington’s bow, to try to force the Feds to secure the border. I’m sure they know it will be struck down eventually by the Supreme Court.

I have a simple big-step solution to our North American iron curtain: we should have kept Mexico after the Mexican-American War (I can’t believe I’m typing this on the bicentenniary day of Mexico’s independence. Sorry Barbara!) There was apparently a movement to do this in Congress back in 1848, and I think it would have been the better solution for both countries. I say it’s still not too late. Oddly, I’m not getting much traction with this idea. But consider the advantages: we will eventually become a bilingual country, as we are articulated at our Siamese hip with Latin America. Only we will do it in an awkward, divisive and slow way. Had we joined in 1848, ‘American’ culture would already be a rich, bilingual mix of Anglo & Mexican traditions. Like South Florida, but with better drivers. And we wouldn’t have had to wait 150 years for decent burritos to make it to New England. Mexicans, by far the largest foundational element of the Next-Gen USA, would not have to pass through generations of second-class status but would already feel part of the bedrock. It would have been better for Mexico too. A little gringo rule-of-law would go a long way to giving the average Mexican a more stable & prosperous life. Point is, it wouldn’t have destroyed either culture, but made them together more diverse & stronger.

As I said, I’m not getting much traction for this idea on either side of the border. Big steps make good reading, but are highly improbable in practice. So, I focus on little steps. Like listening to Spanish radio to improve my vocabulary, but also to hear my country through Spanish-speaking ears. Or talking with a Pakistani work colleague about how Muslims feel these days about their place in the American village. Or going with my Indian & Pakistani friends to a Bollywood movie (I’m still hoping those two will get re-married one day…). Or lobbying local governments to push forward with difficult planning decisions, to ensure California gets the lion’s share of High Speed Rail funding (we have the best demographic case for HSR in the nation). I try to find ways to build a small bridge every day.

BTW, who is that little brat in the photo? 😉

your ranting universalist friend,
Larry

Augusto Nunes November 3, 2010

Greetings: Prof. Chakrabarti has written a very thoughtful and disturbing essay. What is the troubling aspect is the laying bare of the realities one finds in so many aspects of the American condition today. Education, affordable health care, infrastructure that reflects a sustainable civilization, reinvestment in existing communities, conserving our nation’s natural and cultural resources, and an economy that rewards hard and honest work rather that gambling on arcane financial instruments are all values and societal aspirations that should be shared, but there seems to be such a division in society today. One is particularly troubled in the discourse or total lack thereof one finds in the politics and politicians and the media who cover our public life of this unfortunate age. We have to find again that common ground where we can sort through our great list of national needs and find ways to move forward. I do not know how much farther down this unlit path we have to go before we come to some shared realization that societal divisions, a lack of hope, and selfish and fearful attitude in anyone who is “other” is not a path that leads anywhere, otherwise we will be lost.

Donna Walcavage November 30, 2010

Simply brilliant, Vishaan.