The Corner


On Toxic Nostalgia

(Brian Snyder/REUTERS)

There is a kind of conservatism that is much stronger among people who do not think of themselves as politically conservative: toxic nostalgia. Conservatives who are at peace with — or even look forward to — Schumpeterian creative destruction are less prone to it than are many progressives, moderates, and right-leaning people who see the world a bit more like Tucker Carlson does.

In today’s New York Times there is a lamentation for Bobby’s Idle Hour, a bar in Nashville. (The column is by Margaret Renkl, whose editors have had the exceedingly bad taste to run it under the headline, “The Day the Music Died.”) It is the last live-music venue on Nashville’s famous Music Row, a neighborhood that — unforgivable sin — continues to grow and to change, as neighborhoods tend to do in cities that are not dead or dying. You know how it goes: First the Starbucks, then the yoga studio, the residential-commercial hybrid developments, etc. You know: the stuff that is wanted by the people who actually live there.

Renkl greets Nashville’s good fortune lugubriously:

The city’s explosive growth in the last decade has imperiled its own beating heart, with quaint Music Row houses and historic Music Row studios falling again and again to developers who put up fancy condominiums and trendy restaurants and shiny office buildings in their place.

Ah, “quaint.” How I hate it.

In a similar mode, Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonsky last week reported, practically weeping, that an infamous slum is to be knocked down and replaced with something better. As a result, the “ramshackle complex will soon look like all the other high-end, high-priced housing surrounding it, springing from the ground like weeds over the last few years.” Well, “ramshackle” is a funny adjective, one that probably should be used no more than once a quarter, much less more than once in the same report. Wilonsky continues:

In one ramshackle unit, where rat droppings decorate the top of the refrigerator, a Cambodian woman who uses an electric wheelchair lives alone. She speaks only Khmer. But she can barely communicate at all: Residents say she was injured in a motorcycle accident — they do not know when — and that she has only gotten worse.

Of course people who cannot care for themselves have to be looked after, but surely that kind of “ramshackle” squalor is not something that we want to preserve.

In Austin, it’s “Keep Austin Weird,” a particularly dopey kind of nostalgia for an overgrown college town that was never all that interesting to begin with. What Austin long has been is comfortable and, like many state capitals, considerably more expensive than the rest of the state. In New York City, it’s the ridiculous nostalgia for the pre-Giuliani era, where Times Square was a “vibrant” place to contract an infection and much of Manhattan was a “vibrant” place to get mugged or murdered.

In the Bay area, New York City, Austin, and many other popular metropolitan areas, the main complaint is that housing is too expensive. One of the reasons that housing is very expensive in those places is that there isn’t enough of it, and local political conditions make it difficult or impossible to build enough housing to keep up with demand. Growing demand plus stagnant supply equals higher prices.

Do you know where new housing often comes from? From knocking down what’s “quaint” and building what’s needed on the site. That’s especially true in cities that do not have the dynamic capacity of, say, Houston, which sprawls and builds in ways that are organic and frequently ugly — but where a family with a normal income can afford to live decently.

Where there’s not enough housing, people complain. When housing is built, people complain. Residents of neighborhoods without many options for groceries and other retail services complain about their lack of development; when development comes, they complain about “gentrification” and try to stop it. We complain about our aging infrastructure and fight like hell against building new infrastructure.

It’s a natural cycle: What Renkl sneers at as new and fancy and shiny will not always be new and fancy and shiny — eventually it will be old and familiar and dull, perhaps even ramshackle. And it will be more affordable then.

Think of market activity as a kind of weighted voting. What should we make of this neighborhood, this block, this empty lot? Opinions will vary, but there is an excellent way of discovering how intensely held those opinions are and how sincerely committed to acting on them the various parties are: letting them put up their own money to develop their own properties as they see fit. Sometimes, this will produce perplexing results, and certainly not the results that I would choose if I were designing a city from scratch to suit myself: I really don’t know why Midtown Manhattan has so many eyebrow-grooming enterprises. It seems like a lot. But there it is. Someday, it will be something else. For all I know, it already is: I haven’t been in New York in a few months, and things change quickly there.

As Renkl notes, Music Row was not the result of anybody’s master plan. Here, Adam Ferguson is useful:

He who would scheme and project for others will find an opponent in every person who is disposed to scheme for himself. Like the winds that come we know not whence, and blow whithersoever they list, the forms of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin; they arise, long before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not from the speculations of men. The crowd of mankind are directed in their establishments and measures by the circumstances in which they are placed; and seldom are turned from their way, to follow the plan of any single projector. Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.

F. A. Hayek took up that phrase — “the result of human action, but not of human design” — in his description of spontaneous orders. And that is what a city mostly is.

I’ve lived in more than a dozen American cities, including two boroughs of New York. I’ve never thought that any of them didn’t have enough slums, never wished any of them more ramshackle than they were.

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