Sign up for our free newsletter
Few contemporary political movements are as indicative of the sorriness of our situation—not to mention as utterly maddening—as communitarianism. Abjuring any attempt at concrete political action, adherents of this so-called “moderate” philosophy preach instead about a vaguely defined set of virtues whose absence is responsible for the fearful and chaotic state of our present times. The problem isn’t that urban teen-agers see few opportunities ahead, or that factory workers live with the fear of their jobs whisking away to Mexico or Madagascar. It’s simply that, as communitarian guru Amitai Etzioni has said, “We are atomized, all living separately without enough common bonds.”
This analysis isn’t in itself so wrong—we probably are more detached from our communities than we used to be. But it’s not just a mistake to ascribe this to the rise of something called “me-ism,” it’s practically an obscenity given the real, largely pernicious roots of our distrust. Forget Vietnam, homelessness, and the lengthening workweek, the communitarians say. The real source of our malaise, as Alan Ehrenhalt writes in The Lost City, is our failure to uphold our side of a crucial contract.
“What we have done in the last forty years is repeal a bargain that, if it was starting to unravel a bit at the margins in the 1950s, nevertheless was a fact of day-to-day life for nearly everyone in America,” Ehrenhalt writes. “The bargain provided us with communities that were, for the most part, familiar and secure; stable jobs and relationships whose survival we did not need to worry about in bed at night; rules that we could live by, or, when we were old enough, rebel against; and people known as leaders who were trusted with the task of seeing that the rules were enforced.”
It’s not clear who, exactly, was sitting at the bargaining table when these terms were spelled out. But even if there were any basis for Ehrenhalt’s belief in this deal, the existence of alienation is no kind of foundation for a political philosophy—or at least not this one. Even as communitarianism wins a following, gaining the ear of various members of Congress and the first lady, all it succeeds in doing is triggering white, upper-class folks’ hankerings for the days when happiness was a Congoleum kitchen and the have-nots weren’t so restless. “I want to live in a place again where I can walk down any street without being afraid,” Ehrenhalt quotes Hillary Clinton as saying. “I want to be able to take my daughter to a park at any time of day or night in the summer and remember what I used to be able to do when I was a little kid.” Clinton may have a dream, but how will brooding over sepia-toned memories bring back a vanished era?
Apparently the evocation of times past is supposed to work like an incantation, kindling both the will and the ability to re-create those values and conditions. That’s essentially Ehrenhalt’s justification for The Lost City, subtitled Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s. He believes that by describing life in three midcentury Chicago neighborhoods—the working-class, Catholic St. Nicholas of Tolentine parish; the middle-class suburb of Elmhurst; and the black Bronzeville ghetto—he can somehow trigger a return to the community spirit that, he says, united all three. “The best way I can think of to begin [these values’] reexamination is to re-visit the decade that was their crucible,” he explains. “….This wasn’t just a time when people dressed differently and drove cars with tail fins and watched situation comedies in black and white. This was a moral culture much further removed from our own than we have ever stopped to realize.”
The main difference, of course, was the presence of that elusive quality of “community.” But Ehrenhalt has a hard time pinning down just what “community” means, much less what it would take to bring it back. He has similar trouble with another of his favorite concepts, and one whose vanishing he mourns with even more fervor: “authority.” Any boss, he makes clear, is a good one. Even if the man in charge is a sadistic Catholic-school principal or corrupt union leader, his painful reign is far better than the moral vacuum his absence leaves. (Ignoring the issue of women’s power entirely, Ehrenhalt assumes that no similar consequences accompany the past or present dearth of women in charge.)
Ehrenhalt—now an Arlington, Va., resident—grew up in the city and time in question, and he wanders as if hell-bent into all the traps that catch writers striving for a believable account of their youth. Clichés abound: The St. Nicholas parish was “a world unto itself,” the Nabisco plant was a place where “life was a web of relationships,” and in pre-suburban Elmhurst, students “walked to class across farmland.” “Some readers will no doubt object that I am portraying the 1950s as a pre-modern, pre-capitalist Eden. I am not that naive,” Ehrenhalt insists. But after every storm of caveats, he turns around and nostalgizes with the best of them, celebrating front-stoop society and the Good Humor man, and demonizing “the 1960s deluge” and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.
This tendency is most irritating in his consideration of Bronzeville, the black ghetto on Chicago’s southeast side that was gradually replaced with scattered-site housing projects in the ’60s. However squalid, we learn, “Bronzeville was a community that thought about things in moral terms, in the language of good and evil.” And there were real roles models back then, too, both black and white: “If the ultimate authority figures were wealthy white people somewhere far away, the most familiar and important ones were right there inside the community.” What a relief it is to learn that there was once a time when benevolent authority came in every color.
There’s no question that life in Bronzeville was more hopeful and secure than it is in Cabrini-Green, but the forces that led to these changes—the end of segregation and accompanying middle-class flight, the sloppy planning and political deals that created the projects—are simply not comparable to those that eroded suburban Elmhurst or the working-class southwest side. Lyrical paeans to cramped houses and yelling neighbors are barely tolerable when applied to moderately well-off white communities; they’re infuriating when pinned onto a segregated slum. Ehrenhalt sounds like an insulated uptowner sighing over the passing of the Harlem renaissance: However dank and constrictive Bronzeville was, it was just so colorful back then! Take his eulogy for the underground gambling business, long since replaced by the state-sponsored lottery:
There is no demand for dream books anymore on the South Side, no circus-like drawings in crowded basements with a light over the entrance. People play the legal numbers game with a humorless compulsiveness that has little in common with the old-fashioned emotional experience.
As is almost always the case, the difference between then and now can only be measured subjectively. Lacking the warm glow of memory worn by “then,” “now” can never compete. But the differences aren’t quite as stark as they seem. One of Ehrenhalt’s pet themes is the diminishing power of geography: He argues that people’s ties to their jobs and families have replaced neighborhood allegiances. But the most cursory glance at Chicago politics today reveals that boundary obsessions are thriving. Had he chosen to examine Hyde Park instead of Bronzeville, Ehrenhalt might have been forced to a very different conclusion about the fate of black—and white—community. With its middle- and upper-class black establishment at the north end and its mostly white, university population in the south, Hyde Park is a showcase for the ties and tensions that Ehrenhalt claims have faded. In its black churches and clubs, as well as the protective arms of the University of Chicago, it even has an abundance of the authority structures that he holds so dear.
But Hyde Park isn’t the only example. Incomes and safety levels in Chicago’s North Side vary enormously from block to block, and the street where one lives has a profound impact on one’s identity; the same dynamic exists in such D.C. environs as Capitol Hill and Mount Pleasant. This contradicts Ehrenhalt’s claim that, unlike now, “a neighborhood…in the 1950s was a tangible thing, a piece of ground, a physical marker in life.”
That’s the one thing the present day has going for it. Like a neighborhood, it’s concrete and observable, even if interpretations of it may differ. With no stake in today and no plan for making their dreams come true, the communitarians are helpless before the evidence. The ’60s happened. Numbers games and ruler-wielding nuns vanished, two-career marriages and cable TV appeared. However much he talks—and no matter whose ear he claims—Ehrenhalt will, finally, have no more effect than dissenters who insist that change is all for the better.