Howard Anglin: In defence of NIMBYism, and other notes for the New Year

In this Dec. 10, 2018 photo, a brownstone apartment building in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of New York. Mark Lennihan/AP Photo.

A motley of items, mostly light, mostly from the month that was.

Is there a more optimistic phrase than “First Annual”? Living up to their informal billing, this year’s first annual Roger Scruton Lectures, held at Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre, were cause for optimism. Of the four, the most interesting was by Marwa Al-Sabouni, the young Syrian architect and writer. She challenged us to reject modern “Factory” cities and “Factory” villages and build interdependent communities based on rural rather than urban principles, where families can build social fabric over generations.

The Q&A after touched on the problem du jour of the lack of affordable housing and the challenge of NIMBYism. NIMBYism gets a bad rap. Yes, it has a selfish form, but often it is just the oikophilic instinct to protect one’s community and one’s home from sudden change. Jane Jacobs was a NIMBY when she fought against developing Greenwich Village, and thank goodness for it. At one point Douglas Murray suggested a way to work with rather than against the NIMBY instinct when he described Roger once saying that no one would object if we build another Bath. Instead of forcing obtrusive development onto resistant communities, we should make new developments so attractive that even the most hardened NIMBY finds them hard to oppose. Instead of glass and steel condo towers, add density with more row houses like Brooklyn, stylish apartment blocks like Rome or Copenhagen, and infill mews like London or Washington. It’s probably not more expensive than the dull “units” we build now, and if it is, so be it. We pay for building ugly on the cheap in more important ways than money.

I’m writing this from my Air Canada flight back from Heathrow to Vancouver, where I just finished re-watching Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront.” Kazan, a refugee from Ottoman Turkey knew something about oppression. He also understood honesty and gratitude. When Kazan was asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, like Brando’s character in the movie he did so truthfully. Good for him. Like most former communists turned anti-communist, he was a romantic but committed patriot. Joe McCarthy could be a crude bully, but the other side was standing with Joe Stalin. When the Academy presented Kazan with an honorary Oscar in 1999, some churlish progressives like Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon refused to stand and applaud. I’m pretty sure Kazan, a far greater artist than any of them, didn’t mind. No doubt he knew what fine Stalinist propagandists they would have made. Besides, he’d already answered his critics in “On the Waterfront.”

Returning to Canada for the holidays, I left a country where the parliamentary spirit is still alive, for one in which no pulse has been detected for some time. Shortly after my plane took off, 99 Conservative Party MPs (and 8 Labour MPs, including former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn) voted against the government’s proposal to require proof of vaccination for nightclubs and large gatherings. For context, when I left in early December there were almost no restrictions in the UK despite the ascendency of the Omicron variant: no vaccine passports, no distancing, no limits on restaurants, pubs, or gyms, and no mask requirements except in some shops and on some public transit.

I landed in a country in which vaccination rates are significantly higher than in the UK, but where the political debate over restrictions is almost non-existent. I have my own opinion as to the best COVID-19 policy this time, but whatever restrictions are imposed, it would be reassuring to know that they had been thoroughly debated. 99 MPs is a little over a quarter of the Tory caucus. Imagine 44 members of the federal Liberal Party voting against a Trudeau plan on, forget Covid, on anything (I’ll pause while you stop laughing). It may be time to declare the parliamentary patient here dead and figure out how to dispose of the decaying corpse.

As a former Time Person of the Year (2006), I’m fine with this year’s choice of Elon Musk. It’s in Time’s tradition of recognising Captains of Industry like Mark Zuckerberg (2010), Jeff Bezos (1999), Andrew Grove (1997), and Harlow Curtice (1955). Of course, Time copped out by naming his main competitors, the vaccine scientists, their “Heroes of the Year,” which is like winning the magazine’s Intercontinental belt.

It also means that, despite being the most powerful man in the world for at least the last five years, President Xi again missed out. He can console himself that he is in good company among Chinese leaders: somehow Mao never made Man of the Year (oddly, Deng Xiaoping did twice, while Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife were co-honourees). Let’s hope it stays that way. If Xi does eventually win, it is probably going to be for a year the rest of the world would prefer to forget.

A Christmas present from an old friend: a collection of poetry and short prose edited by Lieutenant-General Sir Tom Bridges in 1940 for British soldiers fighting overseas. It’s a splendid volume, much superior to anything you would get in a Canadian university literature course today. There’s everything you would hope for—Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech, Newbolt’s The Fighting Téméraire, Lovelace’s To Lucasta, Going to the Wars, and plenty of that memorable and metrical but now-neglected Victorian verse that used to fire childhood imaginations—think of Anne Shirley’s hazardous re-enactment of the Lady of Shallot’s final voyage. It also includes some idiosyncratic choices, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s pugnacious paean to Admirals and prize-fighters and a ditty by Robbie Burns with the eyebrow-arching title of Cock up your Beaver. One can only imagine the punctiliously correct selection of Can-Con with which our government would arm our soldiers today. No doubt it would be enough to encourage them to follow Kipling’s bleak advice to a wounded Tommy Atkins to “Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains / An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

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I’d make a much stronger defence of NIMBYism. I actually hate the term. I’d turn the tables and say the default should be that people should have the right to maintain their neighbourhoods as they are, as most would. We choose to live where we live and then build our lives around it. Much of what we find meaningful in our lives comes from the built form of where we live, from childhood memories to relationships with neighbours to the rhythm of daily life. And yet the young urban progressive crowd are surprised when people fight development. Why, you don’t want this ugly condo tower on your street? Don’t you realize we’re in a CLIMATE CRISIS and need to make room for a zillion new immigrants? (Oops, did I kick that sacred Canadian cow?).

We should all be thankful to NIMBY’s (can I call them neighbourhood guardian instead?) for preserving not only our neighbourhoods but also our social fabric.

Last edited 4 days ago by Raj Bharati

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