Wednesday, December 05, 2007

George Babbitts thick as thieves

Last night, Tuesday, the Edina City Council met to consider, inter alia, a four month moratorium on the tear down of existing homes in Edina. These tear downs are usually replaced with a much larger, and therefore more expensive structure—Spot is reluctant to call some of them "homes"—and regrettably, often ones that looks like an onion in the petunia patch. The moratorium would have permitted the city's elected leaders some time to craft an ordinance that addresses the so-called "massing" issue. Which the council says it is committed to doing. There was an article in the Strib yesterday about the upcoming meeting.

The moratorium did not pass. In fact, in the end, council member Joni Bennett was the only person on the council to support the idea of a moratorium. It was illuminating to see who was there for the public comments ahead of the vote.

The largest group was the builders and real estate agents—the principal George Babbitts of the evening. Here's a description of Babbitt, living in the fictional city of Zenith, a real estate developer in Sinclair Lewis' novel of the same name:

Zenith's chief virtue is conformity, and its religion is boosterism. Prominent boosters in Zenith include Vergil Gunch, the coal-dealer; Sidney Finkelstein, the ladies'-ready-to-wear buyer for Parcher & Stein's department-store; and Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey, owner of the Riteway Business College and instructor in Public Speaking, Business English, Scenario Writing, and Commercial Law.

Babbitt lives a successful life professionally but remains unhappy. His success as a businessman is contrasted with his ignorance of contemporary social and economic conditions. Lewis, in one of the most cinematic passages of the novel, pulls back from his main narrative to take a sweeping view of events occurring elsewhere in Zenith. Babbitt lives with only the vaguest awareness of the lives and deaths of his contemporaries — he focuses instead on the drama of his own life. He gradually becomes disillusioned with his lifestyle and then rebels against it. Babbitt's rebellion is sparked by Paul Reisling being sent to prison for shooting Zilla. This forces Babbitt to look at his life and think about what he wants in life, and will if it make him happy. However, he eventually finds himself too weak to continue on that path and lapses back into conformity by the end of the novel. [italics are Spot's]

These new Babbitts delivered a string of heart-rending monologues on how a moratorium would condemn Edina forever to a marginal, down-market future. We heard what bad shape Edina's stock of $400,000 to $750,000 houses is in. Spot was shocked to hear this. We also heard that there were so many young families who wanted to move into Edina, but apparently the houses are too small. And oh, by the way, a moratorium would interfere with the Babbitts' ability to profit from Edina real estate. Babbitts from as far away as Farmington came to tell the council this!

There were also some homeowners—ones who want to leave town and think their property is the most valuable as an empty lot, what does that say, boys and girls?—who complained that a moratorium would impede their exit.

Finally, there was Spot's sentimental favorite, Lee McGrath, a libertarian attorney, who steamed up to the lectern—and steamed up the windows, too—informing the council that any limitation on homeowners' discretion in using their property was an infringement of their rights. Lee's ideology has a certain 18th century Scots - Irish feel to it, rather antiquated for modern living. Lee is a commenter here, sometimes. Perhaps Spot will take Lee to lunch so we can review the cases on land use regulation!

Standing against the Babbitts were homeowners worried about the construction of a man-made mountain right next door, especially on a small lot. In contrast to the sleek Babbitts, seeking to protect their livelihood, these were residents—mostly long time residents—seeking to protect their lives, or the quality of it anyway. These are the people who have voted for the school levy referenda, supported local civic and religious institutions, and showed up at all the bake sales and car washes for the local high school.

So in the end, the council was more solicitous of the people who want to come in or the people who want to leave, not the people who want to stay. It's funny though, this last group has another name: constituents.

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