Sunday, May 14, 2006

COLUMN -- Promoting an illusion of 'community' vision

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:53 AM |  

Sunday, May 14, 2006

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...

I read an editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press ("Great idea for a great river", May 7). It said: There is plenty to like about turning the city's 17 miles of riverfront into a unified marketing and living concept...

"Plenty to like" includes providing support for St. Paul's heritage and the community's love for outdoor commons, making St. Paul a more interesting place to live; meshing the project with other priorities like revitalizing the Central Corridor; and, noted the editorial board, "if it's thought through and designed to do so, (it could well) draw new business, new residents and create new possibilities."

The editorial caveats are more detailed and less qualitative. It takes private money to sustain such an effort; St. Paul, it said, is "already overdependent on government." If private development barriers rise, then others should fall. Business and residents must buy into the project. The tension inherent between "stewardship and sustainability" must be resolved.

Those concerns notwithstanding, the editorial board endorsed the National Great River Park as a "great idea," confident "the community will steer an enterprising, sustainable course down Old Man River."

... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read...

Unfortunately, as philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand noted, there is no such entity as "the community." Every community is merely an aggregate of individuals. So, when collective benefits happen to conflict with individual interests, the latter must be sacrificed to wishes of those in power. It cannot be any other way. Notwithstanding, the effort is made to convince us otherwise by promoting the illusion of a common community vision.

Never one to mince words, Rand refers to leaders raising such chimeras as "spiritual parasites." They hunger for prestige without distinction; adoration for the sake of adoration, not as appreciation for productive accomplishment.

Such leaders' only means of garnering prestige is the most wasteful, useless and meaningless activity of all — the building of public monuments, which they present as munificent gifts "to the victims whose forced labor or extorted money" pays for them.

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

So, what is one to think of Mayor Chris Coleman's vision of the National Great River Park, which appeared on the same Sunday Viewpoints page ("More urban, more natural, more connected"): "A bold ambition that reflects what the community wants Saint Paul to become — a vibrant and prosperous city centered on a healthy Mississippi River"?

Is he really speaking for "the community"? Or is he a "mayor of mayors" building a legacy on the backs of the people of St. Paul?

"Saint Paul will be renowned as one of the most beautiful cities in the nation" he writes. "The quality of our urban environment plays a significant role in our unique sense of place and directly impacts why people choose to live, work and play in Saint Paul."

The operative word is "choose." What St. Paul is today, whatever is unique about us, grew organically from myriad choices by made by individual people. The mayor, however, would have us believe "today's generation of civic leaders" is better suited to choose our futures.

They choose a "City in a Park." They choose to ride clean trains to smoke-free bars and restaurants, publicly funded stadiums and subsidized theaters. They choose to shop at status boutiques next to spa-salons. They would, no thank you, rather not face the question posed in a Pioneer Press article aptly titled "Chasing snob appeal" — "Do I want to live with poor people?"

It's easier on the conscience to simply gentrify the poor and the working class out of sight with appeal to the illusionary "common good," which in reality is good for everyone but the common people who are forced to get out of the way, and oh, by the way, pay for the privilege.

History and poets [Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias"] tell us where such visions ultimately lead.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.