The Genuine and the Spurious

American Versailles, (ABCNEWS.com, July 2012)

(Genuine culture) is, ideally speaking, a culture in which nothing is spiritually meaningless, in which no important part of the general functioning brings with it a sense of frustration, of misdirected or unsympathetic effort. (Edward Sapir, American Journal of Sociology, Culture, Genuine and Spurious, 1924)

This will be, perhaps, one of my more personal blog posts. Inspired as it is by the excellent prose of another writer, Tressie McMillian-Cottom (a PhD student in Sociology at Emory University).

We hates us some poor people. First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags. (Tressie McMillian-Cottom)

In her blog post of October 29th, The Logic of Stupid Poor People, McMillian-Cottom argues that the purchasing-decisions of the poor are as aspirational as those made by anyone else. But, that there is a deeper significance to those purchases when connected to the desire of a woman, or person of color, to “fit into” the circle of white male privilege.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with Community or Regional Planning in the U.S.?

We live completely immersed in a world where our clothes, cars, and houses are all tied to our desire to succeed — they are not only items to keep us warm, or our means of conveyance, or (certainly) simply the place where we sleep, keep our stuff, and raise our children. They are, as McMillian-Cottom excellently put it, a means to transcend the merely “presentable” and achieve the status of “acceptance” into a desired group. She also tied the question of “domicile” (of hearth and home), to this question of acceptance and how this is  —  perhaps to the greatest extent of all  —  a measure of one’s acceptance.

Manufactured Homes in America - 2000

Manufactured Homes in America (Housing Assistance Council, Moving Home, 2005)

In her post she links to the following publication from the Housing Assistance Council (2005), Moving Home, Manufactured Housing in Rural America; which provides insight to the degree that manufactured housing has provided a means whereby many of the working poor in America (throughout the rural, suburban, and urban spectrum) have striven to acquire a measure of housing “acceptance”. It also highlights the degree that unscrupulous sellers, unresponsive planners, and scofflaw landlords have turned the poor’s desire to belong, into a nightmare of substandard housing and perpetual debt.

This is also one of the primary reasons why I’m not a “good” architectural designer. By all accounts (awards, promotions, “important” commissions), I was a rising architectural designer in the early 1990’s — yet there was something amiss in my career. My peers were eager to make their mark on the profession through both brinkmanship (their ability to land great clients — especially if it meant beating a fellow peer to the commission), and their unquestioned obedience to those clients’ aspirations (almost always framed by the client’s desire to project “wealth” — whether or not they could actually pay for, and keep, the pieces of architecture they were asking to be designed).

I understand the underlying pressures to conform/perform to the aspirational standards of wealth. Yet, though I see it as the sympathetic magic it is – my conviction did not grant me special powers over this aspect of the spurious.

By the mid-1990’s I found myself a maker-of-toys for those who already had too many toys, an arbiter of taste for the tasteless. Worse, I was expected to sympathize with my clients by sharing their delusions of grandeur (actually, their delusions for the grandeur-esque). And when, on the rare occasion, a truly wealthy and genuine client came my way I found them just as obsessed with the frivolous. Because, by then, an “architect” had become the professional one retained to advise you on just the right flavor of crazy that wouldn’t clash with all the rest of the insane illusions of modern life.

But there can be no stranger illusion — and it is an illusion we nearly all share — than this, that because the tools of life are today more specialized and more refined than ever before, that because the technique brought by science is more perfect than anything the world has yet known, it necessarily follows that we are in like degree attaining to a profounder harmony of life, to a deeper and more satisfying culture. (Sapir, Culture, Genuine and Spurious)

As we progress through our education as planners, I sincerely hope that we more fully grasp the degree to which “Sprawl” is not merely a type of place (to be coded and managed) — but a weaponsized mechanism. A cudgel, wielded by others, to cater to the aspirational desires of those deluded into believing the fallacious economic illusions of perpetual growth and an unending supply of cheap energy.

Galveston

Master Plan for LEED-ND Neighborhood in Galveston, TX (McCormack, Baron, Salazar, 2011)

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About Dean Gunderson

Dean recently completed a Masters of Community and Regional Planning from Boise State University. He has served on committees for the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, as a Director for the Valley Regional Transit Authority, and as the Associate Director for the Idaho Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He has also received regional and national recognition for his architectural, urban design and sculptural work. He's committed to improving the quality of life within his community through livable design.