Monday, May 7, 2007

Madison and privilege

I was pleased to see, over Labor Day weekend, a few minority people in town: African-Americans strolling along Middlebeach Road; Asian-Americans and Latinos fishing off the rocks. This is in addition to the tiny smattering of wealthy immigrants who have moved to town in the last few years. More often than not I see a South Asian or Chinese family in my visits to the Surf Club, which brings me to my main point: the court ruling which opened the town beaches was a small but significant step in breaking open the system of racial and/or class privileges that structure Connecticut society. But the ruling only addressed the legal side of the veiled “apartheid by zoning” which segregates the shoreline.
The ruling was a small step, of symbolic value. I would prefer to see low-income housing developed here. This would go beyond symbols and strictly legal rights of access to truly challenge the economic and moral foundations of Madison’s exclusivity. For while Madison as it is is aesthetically beautiful, any thought as to the reason for such manicured beauty – the exclusion of the poor – arouses in my mind a moral stench that detracts from the tranquil picture. In the long run, our anti-poor zoning and development policies threaten the aesthetic beauty we rightly cherish. How is this so?
In my mind, handing over the town, for the sake of tax dollars, to developers such as Milano and friends, as has occurred at a startling rate, only produces elephantine houses that sit on lanes – excuse me, “courts” -- with cartoonishly pretentious names like “Richborough.” Can anyone honestly argue that steroid-bloated faux-“country manors” that consistently win zoning approval in any way contribute to the “small-town atmosphere” of the simply-designed and modestly-sized colonial homes which are this town’s real cultural treasures? Somehow, the blank ugliness of houses built for the wealthy is sugared up in the eyes of zoning boards by their great cost, while the plain functionality of housing built for the poor is easily tagged “ugly” and “out of character for a small town.” The real fear – a truth that does not need to be spoken – is of having to face people of other classes on one’s own street. The issue is not really aesthetics, or traffic, though aesthetics is how people talk about what housing should and should not be allowed. As for traffic, are the poor likely to own more cars than the rich? The bedrock issue is the maintenance of class privilege.
But this is not something that is openly discussed in our little enclave. We love questions of morality in the movies, or in foreign policy, or in novels, but we fear them when they knock at the door of our own privilege. We love Erin Brockoviches or Mr. Smiths in the movies, and we shake our heads at the obvious wrong-headedness of Irish nuns (as in The Magdalene Sisters) or other screen villains, but can we see the wrongs of our own system, a system without clear villains, a system in which we all implicitly participate? A mere 18 miles separates us from New Haven, but it is another world to us culturally – our media, our zoning boards, and “our” developers (where do they live?) make sure of that.
It is no doubt true that low or lower-middle class housing would no more match the beauty of Madison’s quaint old houses than the McMansions do, but at least such housing would represent the socially useful cause of economic and racial integration, which possesses its own beauty: a moral beauty.
One need only stroll along the back roads of the Hammonasett district (near Clinton) or along the railroad tracks, or even along any street built before the 1980’s, to realize that the obsession with huge houses and exclusivity is a recent phenomena in Madison’s history. Modest housing – such as the little red house on Route 1 next to the former site of Schumann’s store – has a unique beauty which does not need to punch one-acre holes in the forest like the herds of McMansions lumbering clumsily over our landscape. Zoning Boards do have a choice. Markets do not determine all the decisions of our town leaders. Certainly Guilford, which is no less charming than Madison, displays far less infatuation with pretentious housing developments. And though Madison is right to resist a Milford-style giveaway to commercial development, the other extreme – a New Jersey-style giveaway to residential developers for the wealthy – is little better.
This letter will not bring about the changes I desire. But in the long run, this town will pay the price for its leaders’ short-sightedness. What price that might be is another subject. What is the philosophical justification for privilege? Privilege is a certain comfort denied to others which is rationalized as something one deserves morally, as if a ritzy beach house had been graciously granted one by God or society merely for the goodness of one’s soul, and the fact that one need not deal with poorer neighbors no more than a lucky accident, rather than the result of social engineering by zoning boards. I believe there is no “privilege” without “abuse”: privilege is nothing more nor less than systematized, legally institutionalized, abuse. And no one in Madison, myself included, is innocent of this privilege.
And what, then, of those souls laboring in wage-earning jobs? Are they then poor because they deserve to be? Do they have no moral right to leafy lanes and strolls along the beach? For such is the radical implication of Madison’s exclusionary housing policy, which uses economics as a false justification for exclusion. Using economic arguments in this way allows us to avoid responsibility by passing the buck: “Its not me, its the system,” one can always say. But just as talk of aesthetics and small-town atmosphere is really about class anxieties, so is talk of property values and markets a cop-out from the real issue of town policies. For markets are not “free.” They are structured by regulations. And it is regulations, not the market, which effectively ban lower-income housing development here. It is a policy without a conscience: and if this state and country face worsening social strife in coming years it is only because too many town leaders are exactly like Madison’s, allying with certain developers and looking only to a narrowly defined advantage which in the long run cannot be sustained against the anger of the excluded.

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