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Housing Democrats 

Why Democratic mayors must build America's cities by establishing an urban real estate cartel

Wednesday, Dec 15 2004
Seeking refuge from cold, damp Market Street last Wednesday, I pushed open an unlocked door near the corner of Second Street, stepped onto an escalator, and found myself amid a couple of hundred environmentalists eagerly waiting to be declared extinct.

"With fond memories, a heavy heart, and a desire for progress, I say to you tonight that environmentalism is dead," declared former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach to a crowd that included current leaders of top enviro groups such as the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and Earth Island Institute.

As it loses basic battles such as curbing pollution, environmentalism has shown it's as good as dead. The movement's members should therefore stop focusing on a single cause and instead advocate for broader leftist ideals, Werbach urged.

"Choose your side. Are you a progressive or a conservative? If you're a conservative," Werbach declared, "we wish you well, but we need you to leave this movement."

On Thursday the Commonwealth Club hosted yet another left fretfest, an election postmortem panel moderated by a CNN political analyst, former Stanford Law Review editor, and McKinsey & Co. consultant named Carlos Watson. He employed his superior smarts by toying with the political scientist, think-tank pundit, blogger, and pollster who made up his panel.

"So why not admit George W. Bush is one of history's most brilliant political minds?" Watson insisted several times.

Watson made equal sport of the moping, leftish audience, asking for a show of hands from people who had spoken with an actual Republican during the past month. When some hands crept up, he made a face depicting shock. By the evening's end, Watson had some crowd members beside themselves.

"Why can't people see that Bush is so, so, so ... stupid!" one man said.

I can see the point in Watson's teasing. Post-election Democratic angst has blossomed when it should have waned and, by now, turned into resentment or fence-building. We have environmental leftists urging those who are insufficiently left-leaning to exit the room, while, from the other end of the Democratic spectrum, nostalgists such as New Republic Editor Peter Beinart recommend a re-enactment of the 1940s purge of Communist sympathizers from the party, with, this time, Michael Moore, George Soros, and other fellow travelers suffering banishment.

These dueling donkey pogroms seem a bit harsh, given that they're aimed at remedying a nonexistent catastrophe: Stiff and discursive John Kerry did fail to unseat a politically deft wartime president, but barely. There was no landslide. The election would have turned out differently if 60,000 Ohioans had voted the other way, or if a total of 64,000 voters in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico had polled Democratic instead of Republican.

Rather than angst and pogroms, the Democratic Party needs to broaden its political embrace, wrapping the greenest of its Utopians together with its fiercest capitalists in a strategy that has the potential to do more than any previous U.S. government program to protect the environment, house the homeless, and uplift the values of racial and cultural tolerance. Democrats must build up the population of America's cities by establishing a disciplined, national, urban real estate cartel.

Whether the means be formal or otherwise, mayors of Democratic cities need to find a way to join together to market their unused or underused land in a way that encourages large developers to create dense urban communities, without demanding a king's ransom in taxpayer subsidies in return. Such a strategy would bring new people into the city, improve the environment by reducing sprawl and gasoline use, and -- and here is the novel part of the plan -- create new Democrats through the shared experience of urban living, all without crippling the urban governments financially, as such projects often do now.

Post-election fretting has blamed the Democratic Party's fortunes on losing the South because of the civil rights movement, or on the populist reconnoitering of the Republican Party following Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential bid. But these trends might have proven inconsequential if Americans had not, for the past 50 years, marched away from one another.

In that procession, suburban areas such as Mesa, Ariz., have grown to outpopulate cities such as St. Louis and Minneapolis. Over time, that suburban march has increased the number of citizens whose daily experience is consistent with Republican values such as self-reliance and suspicion of cultural differences and has reduced the proportion of Americans who appreciate Democrat-espoused urban values such as interconnectedness and tolerance.

To put the argument directly: Density breeds Democrats. The 516 counties that voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections have, on average, four times the number of voters as the 2,374 counties that voted Republican, according to a Cox News Service story citing poll and census data.

A Democratic urban repopulation strategy would serve to redirect the party's ideological purgers on both the left and the right. If Democrats made growing cities priority No. 1, environmentalists would see their party striving to curb the diffusion of America's population into once-natural areas, a trend that qualifies as an environmental catastrophe in its own right. Pro-business Democrats, meanwhile, would see their economic dreams fulfilled, as their party chieftains strove to draw hundreds of thousands of consumers, workers, and entrepreneurs into mixed-use developments on abandoned and underused industrial, military, and urban land.

As I listened to forlorn Democrats express their pain and resentment at the Commonwealth Club, it just so happened that a potential answer to their troubles was erecting a department store 2 1/2 blocks away. Forest City Enterprises Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio -- developer of the new Bloomingdale's-anchored urban mall between Market and Mission streets and a project that will turn the old Public Health Service hospital in the Presidio into apartments -- is leading a national business trend in which niche developers are building closely bunched apartments, stores, and offices in American cities -- and making a healthy profit in so doing.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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