Friday, December 22, 2023

Supermarkets, New Urbanism, and Remembering Etzioni: A Chat with Alan Ehrenhalt


On Wednesday, December 20, I, once again, had the awesome privilege of interviewing Alan Ehrenhalt, author of The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, and former executive editor of Governing Magazine. When we last spoke in April (you can find that interview here.), Communitarian pioneer, Amitai Etzioni, was still alive, and the "loneliness epidemic" was still largely unreported. Alan and I had much to catch up on...

Frank Filocomo: I wanted to start by asking you about some of your recent work in Governing. I just read your article, Is there a Place for Super Market Socialism? I'd love to know how that came about. 

Alan Ehrenhalt: I saw a small news item about the mayor of Chicago considering city-owned supermarkets. From there, I looked into the fiasco involving Whole Foods going into an underserved neighborhood, and there was a lot to say about that and why that happened and whether something could be done about that in the form of a public option. 

FF: I wonder if there's a civic engagement element to supermarkets. Can they serve as community hubs? I recall earlier this year, you wrote something on cafes losing their status as "third places" and becoming "utilitarian caffeine dispensers" after COVID. I wonder if there is a Communitarian element to a supermarket. 

AE: Well, I think there could be, but if you look at what's going on in supermarkets, we have a lot of self-checkouts that we didn't have twenty years ago. That's kind of an icon for things that are going out of society. I don't find, when I go to the grocery store, I don't find the checkout clerks especially friendly. But, I also have read that in some other countries, there are supermarkets that have established slow lines so you can talk to the checkout clerk and you're not expected to move very fast. Well, maybe that's a move in the direction of so-called "weak tie" relationships. 

FF: On that note, do you think that automation is playing an adverse role in facilitating social interaction? 

AE: Well yeah, I think that the more things that we buy online, the fewer retail workers we are going to come into contact with. One of the nice things I used to like about book stores, and still do to some extent, is that you can go in and have a conversation with the person behind the counter. And that person, especially in the old days, new quite a bit about books. When you order from Amazon, however, you're not having a relationship with anybody. So, in the commercial world, we've already come across two ways in which interpersonal contact has declined.  

FF: I was just recently at my local Walgreens and the man behind the register had a name tag and he saw my name pop up when I processed my credit card. "Your name is Frank", he said. "I'm Luis, very nice to meet you." I was completely taken aback by that. Do you think that name tags could bolster a Communitarian spirit? I know it sounds so trivial...

AE: Well, it could. The clerk at the grocery store I go to is named Diane, and when I get up to the line I say, "hello, Diane" or "good morning, Diane," and she never says anything! So, I guess it depends. 

FF: I've come across that too, and I think that's probably the norm. 

AE: Yeah, I think so.

FF: I remember reading in your book, The Lost City, how people used to patronize the mom and pop stores that they felt a loyalty to, even if the prices were comparatively lower at the bigger chain stores. It seems like that behavior is declining. 

AE: Well it's funny, I'll offer a contrarian point of view: When I was a kid, we had a mom and pop grocery store around the corner of our street. My mother would send me there to get a loaf of bread in the afternoon. But the guy who ran it was terrible! He was rude, arrogant, and you didn't want a relationship with him even though you had one. I mean, people would always grumble about Sam. How was he going to stay in business? And, of course, eventually he didn't stay in business. But I don't think that was because of his personality. My mother was glad when she could go to a supermarket and not have to deal with this guy. So, it kind of works both ways. But I think that's an exception, rather than the rule. 

FF: Well, I'm sure you also established some positive weak tie relationships with some of these workers too, right?

AE: Well, in this particular mom and pop store, Sam's Food Store, I can still remember the names of the clerks! And we're talking many decades ago. Carl was the young guy, who was probably studying to be something else; and then there was pop, who was Sam's father, and he was okay. So, it may lead to the conclusion that relationships, even if not completely enjoyable, are still better than no relationships.

FF: Yeah, I think so too. I think even just hearing your name mentioned, or saying the other person's name, is powerful. 

AE: Yeah, and I try to do that all the time. At the pharmacy that I go to, I know the names of all of the technicians, and they know my name, and I actually find that rather comforting. 

FF: I don't know if you've read it yet, but I just finished David Brooks' new book, How to Know a Person...

AE: Frank, I haven't gotten to it yet. I should read it. 

FF:  It's really tremendous and he remarks that the power of saying someone's name is indicative of you seeing them and seeing their humanity. You're saying "I see you and I acknowledge your existence." And it appears to me that in a lot of these chain stores, there's a lack of seeing people, and everything is just purely transactional.  

AE: Yeah you know, Dale Carnegie wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People, that the single, most sweetest sound to most people is the sound of their own name. I don't endorse everything Dale Carnegie wrote, but I think he was right about that. 

FF: Another article that really struck me, that you wrote, was the one about the designated public drinking areas that I think are primarily in North Carolina, right?

AE: Well that's the capital of it yeah, but they're now also in Michigan and Ohio. 

FF: Yeah, is there any update on those areas? Are they getting traction? Is it proving to be a successful recipe for facilitating social engagement? 

AE: At the time I wrote the article, it seemed to be gaining support and becoming more successful, but I haven't really gotten into it since then. 

FF: I've never been to New Orleans, but Bourbon Street looks like a social hub. 

AE: It's true, although most people don't realize that over there drinking is only legal in the French Quarter. If you do it in another neighborhood, it's technically against the law, but you aren't going to get thrown in jail for it. 

FF: Do you see these efforts to establish designated drinking areas as a response to our current loneliness epidemic?

AE: Yeah, I think there are some responses to it. I just read an article that said that the way you arrange benches in public parks has a lot to do with sociability and breaking down loneliness. And it said that benches should be set at angles to each other. That promotes the most social activity. So, maybe that's true. The managers at the park distributed primitive walkie-talkies so people on one bench could talk to people on another bench. 

FF: But why not just sit next to the person?

AE: Well, that's a good question. Maybe that just shows you where we are in this society where a walkie-talkie is more like social media. 

FF: It seems to me like the urban planners are among the most proactive people when it comes to creating communities that are conducive to social interaction. Do you get that impression too?

AE: Yes well, William Whyte basically revived Bryant Park in New York by convincing the managers of the park that the benches should not be fixed; you should be able to move them wherever you wanted to. The use of Bryant Park increased dramatically after people were allowed to seat themselves in whatever way they wanted to. So, there are little things that are being tried, and parks are kind of a ground zero for that. Parks used to be where people would socialize. My parents, for their social activity on Sunday afternoons, would go to the park and sit down on a bench and talk to their friends. That's what they did. They would maybe listen to a ball game too. That was social interaction. And in the evenings, people would congregate on the sidewalk...

FF: I was just going to mention that. 

AE: I mean, they would just stand around on the sidewalk. There were no front porches or anywhere else to stand, so you would just stand on the sidewalk, and that doesn't happen anymore.  

FF: Well, it strikes me that infrastructure is an integral component here. And I think that it's very sad commentary that, as you pointed out in the article, that there are communities where there just aren't viable sidewalks. It's actually dangerous. There are traffic accidents and things like that. 

AE: Well, many suburbs have no sidewalks at all. 

FF: You write that you and your friends would spend hours on the sidewalk. 

AE: We would, yeah. 

FF: I also remember reading about Lake Wales, Florida, this small community that was being reinvented by urban planners. They are incorporating front porches, balconies, verdant walkways...

AE: And those are all aspects of the New Urbanism movement, and have been since Andrés Duany essentially created it the 1990s. 

FF: Do you see this New Urbanism movement playing a pivotal role here in terms of revitalizing civic engagement?

AE: Actually, I do because if you look at almost all city planning departments now, they, whether they know it or not, are imbued with the New Urbanist principles, that is: pedestrian friendly, breaking down zoning barriers. I mean, that's just the conventional wisdom in cities now. That comes out of the New Urbanist effort of the last thirty years. 

FF: So, that would imply to me that a lot of this is external. You know, I hear a lot of the need for a spiritual renaissance or a spiritual reawakening, but do you think a lot of this is just external impediments to community?

AE: Yes, I think a lot of it is. Good things are happening in cities. Not all good things, but a lot of good things. And they're not based on any spiritual revival on the individual level; they're based on public decisions. Infrastructure determines behavior. I think we've known that for a long time. Transportation determines behavior. I just read in a book about San Francisco and its Ferry Building, and the history of the Ferry Building. In the 1930s, they got rid of the ferry because the Bay Bridge opened. So, people who used to take the ferry into San Francisco from Marin County didn't know quite how to behave because they used to spend twenty minutes with the same people everyday for the twenty years they had been commuting, and now they were in their cars and they weren't seeing them. That's a case in which infrastructure is determining human behavior. 

FF: Before I let you go, I believe Amitai Etzioni was still alive the last time we spoke. 

AE: He was.

FF: I thought you could just say a word about him and the impact he had on the Communitarian movement. 

AE: Well, I had enormous admiration for Amitai Etzioni. He really created the Communitarian movement, to a great extent. And, because of his academic credentials, he made it credible. I think a lot of this comes out of his boyhood in Israel. He lived on a kibbutz and he saw social connections based on his years in Israel, and he tried to translate it to modern America. He really provided the intellectual basis for what we are now trying to do with Communitarianism. Andrés Duany did it in a different way with the New Urbanism. 

FF: I recall him saying in an interview that Communitarianism is a term that very few people know, but something that many of us still practice. Do you think that the term Communitarian could ever really penetrate the lexicon of most people?

AE: I don't think it has so far, but the idea has penetrated the mindset of the people who make city planning decisions. It's very prevalent. Whether they call it Communitarian or not, to try to advantage pedestrians over cars is a Communitarian gesture. And whether they use the word Communitarianism or not, I don't think really matters a great deal. 

FF: I think that's true. So what are some good Communitarian publications that people ought to check out? Governing has been my go-to. You've also referenced Public Square: A CNU Journal

AE: Yes, that's still a good one. The one that comes out of Oregon, City Observatory is great too. 

FF: There's also Front Porch Republic. But it seems like there needs to be more writing about this. 

AE: The more, the better. 

FF: I occasionally will write some pieces for National Review, and I plan on writing more. 

AE: You know, the American Conservative really is a force for Communitarianism and New Urban principles. You would not expect it, but it is. And it's worth reading. Rod Dreher writes in there all the time and I think he's a sort of Communitarian. A right-wing Communitarian.

FF: Yeah, I think a lot of Catholic publications are interested in this idea. I'm also reminded of First Things. 

AE: Yes, that's been around a long time. Marry Ann Glendon used to be very active in First Things. I doubt if she is anymore. 

FF: Well, Mr. Ehrenhalt, as always, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I always value it a lot. You are one of my big influences. 

AE: Well, I appreciate it and I'm always glad to talk to you. 


1 comment:

  1. Informative interview.. Small, interpersonal gestures between strangers can go a long way. How can you educate and increase people’s awareness on this important issue?