October 14, 2005
A town full of Babbitt
Sinclair Lewis wrote Babbitt, his profile of the ultimate conformist, in 1922. When it comes to Kansas City, he might as well have wrote it yesterday.
In the novel, George Babbitt, a real-estate man cum developer, seeks to increase his business and personal opportunities with a zeal that can only be described as opportunistic. But the root of his drive and ambition is the need for affirmation from others. He cannot see himself. Rather, he only understands himself, his standing and his esteem through what he believes are the perceptions of people he wants approval from.
Sadly, for Babbitt, business and ambition mask the inner emptiness he feels in the onslaught of modernity — a hodge-podge of priorities, concerns and influences he cannot hope to control. This kind of emptiness, unfortunately, is the base upon which we have built our city.
After a long-line of mayors, city council people and civic and corporate leaders who have understand progress only in terms others have given them, the present city leadership has not learned that the strength of the city lies in its people. Rather, its people are something of a liability that the leadership must contend with in order to remain in power. We look to other places, innovative places, to cure our ills. Over the last ten years or so it’s been Denver, Charlotte or Cincinnati. We’ve floated bistate cooperation, tax base sharing and one central planning recommendation from the Mid-America Regional Council after another.
Regardless of the great ideas of what we could be like, we remain what we are — a hodge-podge of little (if nothing else, in mind) and disconnected communities each trying to attract money, get rid of our poor and make sure the races don’t get too mixed. We are afraid of the same things Babbitt was: disorder, crime (except somewhere else we read about in the paper) and cultural influences that disturb us. God forbid an Escalade-driving hip-hop star move into some development with the name of Cedar Pointe, Stoneybrooke or Sylvan Grove. Or that the Internet be unfiltered and available to our children — who might see something that not good for them and have to ask questions about. Or that some homeless bum gets pass the Plaza.
While Americans have long derided the adverse affects of sprawl, it strides unabated farther outside the I-435 loop. Rows of smaller Babbitts define and redefine lines between what is city and what is not solely on how much Levittown construction they can finance. In the city center, Babbitt-like civic and corporate leaders (who are 99 percent the same) line up for their turn at the public trough through every kind of tax incentive one can imagine. And if no one can imagine it, they make more up.
What we have left is duded-up bus service that’s largely the same. We have an inner-city dependant on corporate welfare and government largess. We have a divided town into which gentrifiers creep in to push the working classes into deteriorating first-ring suburbs. We have a citizen mindset that is not derisive of separation and segregation but, rather, accommodating to it. We have inferior schools exacerbated by further flight from the impoverishment of lives and minds of those who have stable lives, sharp minds and management skills.
In short, those American strengths we believe so greatly in — family, church, commerce — cannot be too strong or we wouldn’t worry about their sullying by those things we don’t like. Rather, we would be able to understand that our strong families, churches and commercial interests would eradicate impoverishment of any kind. But we don’t. And I argue that because of this, we have little faith at all in family, church or commerce.
The leadership of Kansas City cannot help but give tax dollars to civic and corporate leaders because it wants to be liked. It sees that further acceptance of federal dollars that worsen sprawl (particularly highway and road building) is a key to its future. It cannot help but see, with the rows and rows of Babbitts like themselves, undeveloped land and understand it as opportunity. Meanwhile, building opportunities that would make neighborhoods stronger are left to political stooges who rapaciously use housing agencies for their own cynical, selfish ends.
This sounds, of course, like a diatribe against…well, the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. And while it asks the question of what came first, the highway or the housing project, it should, instead, be seen as call to look inside.
What exactly do we want with an arena in a downtown that looks less and less like a downtown and more with each passing month like a Corporate Woods? What do we really want with major sports teams that extract and move money around the community rather than create new wealth? What is the use of tax break after tax break for people who already have wealth when the infrastructure, schools and libraries they don’t pay for have to be paid by those who have far fewer means?
On other words, examine every word from city hall, the state government and corporate and civic leaders to find out what’s in it for them.
Kansas Citians, as all working people, are strong and smart. Now’s the time for confidence.
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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