Alan Ehrenhalt was an executive editor of GOVERNING. He is currently the information director for the Pew Center on the States and a lecturer in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.
Granville Hicks, the literary critic, would have been a hundred years
old a few weeks ago. Hicks died in 1982, and so he isn't exactly a
household name anymore--I didn't know much about him myself until I
ran across a copy of "Small Town," his portrait of the village of
Grafton, New York, written just at the end of World War II. But the
story is worth remembering, both for the unusual life the author led
and for the ideas he emerged with after decades of personal struggle.
When I started writing this column, I promised myself I wouldn't use
it as a soapbox for personal grudges or quarrels. It can come off as
bad sportsmanship, and most of the time, it bores the reader. But some
opportunities are just too juicy to pass up.
At the intersection of Wilson and Highland streets, a few blocks from
where I live in Arlington, Virginia, there is a big, gaping hole in
the ground. It isn't much to look at, as you might expect. But it's a
hole in the ground with a rich history. If you will indulge me in a
few paragraphs of local nostalgia, I think I can use it to draw some
lessons about the ways of growth, planning and survival these days in
A few years ago, I went for a drive through the winding streets of
Emery Manor, a subdivision of small, Levittown-like rambler houses
built in the Chicago suburbs in the early 1950s. People in the older
neighborhoods nearby said terrible things about Emery Manor when it
was going up: They called it a drab, tasteless collection of identical
tiny boxes, scarcely better than shacks.
The 20th century produced a pantheon of brilliant urban thinkers and
planners. Some built, some mostly wrote, some did both. Some did
better than others at translating their ideas into reality. But one
way or another, we are living with the consequences of their vision:
Back when Lester Maddox was governor of Georgia, in the late 1960s,
there was a riot at the state prison. Reporters asked him what he
planned to do about the conditions that caused the trouble. Maddox
rejected the entire premise of the question. "There's nothing wrong
with our prison system," he said. "We just don't have a very good
class of prisoners anymore."
A few minutes into the movie "Traffic," in a Washington, D.C.,
cocktail party scene, an amiable red-haired man offers some wisdom
about the nation's drug problem: "You'll never solve this on the
We Americans profess not to like nepotism very much, but when we see
it on a grand enough scale, we're intrigued. We're not bothered by a
presidential election in which both of the candidates owe every
political triumph in life to the exploits of their fathers. We can get
used to the idea of the president's brother as attorney general, or
the president's wife as chief domestic policy adviser.
If you live in Louisville, this is the time of year when it hurts your pride a little bit just to pick up the sports page. The cities that are your natural rivals--cities that used to rank right alongside you in size, image and self-confidence--are winning priceless national publicity on the professional football field.
The mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky Anderson, is talking about an
experiment he launched earlier this year. Once a week, his department
heads and senior managers are required to appear at an open meeting
and answer questions from ordinary voters. "I learned that from the
Sandinistas," he says.
One afternoon in the fall of 1995, John McDonough tells us in his new book, "Experiencing Politics," he was sitting in his seat on the floor of the Massachusetts House of Representatives as the chamber prepared to vote on a huge tax break for Raytheon, the locally based defense contractor.
If there's any group of American citizens you wouldn't expect to find at the cutting edge of political reform, it's the lobster fishermen along the coast of Maine. Not only do they have a national reputation for being cranky loners--they readily accept it.