I blame the weather. Now that the worst part of summer has passed, I've spent more time walking around Baltimore and less time with the computer. And so it's taken me almost a week to get out a quick blog post on the conference I went to last weekend in beautiful Emmitsburg, Maryland. The event's title was "Human Scale and the Human Good: Building Healthy Communities in a Global Age," but everyone knew that it was really the Front Porch Republic conference.
I should admit now that I haven't been a regular reader of Front Porch Republic in a while. It's a general thing about writers or groups of writers: once you get the main themes, sometimes you need to move on. But I wanted to see these guys in the flesh, so I paid my registration fee and reserved a rental car for my trip to Western Maryland. I'll talk about some of the speakers below, but I won't say much about some of the other talks I enjoyed: Christine Rosen on geolocation technology, David Cloutier on luxury and choice, Darryl Hart on the dangers of Protestant ecumenism, and Caleb Stegall on Jayhawk Federalism.
This being a Front Porch Republic gathering, the brand of localism on offer was decidedly agrarian. I'm a city dweller, so my mind kept moving to the problem of urbanism. Patrick Deneen spoke about Wendell Berry's two American tendencies: the strong tendency to displace ourselves and the weaker tendency to put down roots. I wondered what it looks like to put down roots in a city. Mark Mitchell talked about local currencies in western Massachusetts, but he didn't mention the BNote, Baltimore's fledgling currency. And Phillip Bess's excellent presentation on small-town urban design certainly held lessons for larger cities, but he seemed to despair of getting past municipal bureaucracies.
Perhaps the most obvious opportunity to raise the question of urbanism came during Allan Carlson's lecture. Carlson described vividly the agrarian civilization of pre-WWII Iowa: the civic associations, the regional artists and poets, the local farms. But he also pointed out that fecund farming cultures produce too many children for them all to remain in the community: the non-inheriting children move to cities or try to find another place to buy farms of their own. (Apparently, the small-farm owners in France have managed to keep themselves reproducing more or less at the replacement rate, but this will be more difficult for the kind of devout Catholic agrarians that read Front Porch Republic.) So if an agrarian civilization produces spillover, it seems that we ought to talk about cities.
Another, less obvious opportunity to bring up urbanism came with the keynote speaker, Bill Kauffman. Kauffman gave a hilarious, feisty speech lecture on the beauties and banalities of life in Batavia, NY. It was full of love -- not abstract nostalgiac love, but angry and hard-earned love -- for the people of the town and scorn for the highway-building technocrats who would tell his people that they live in an insignificant backwater. You know who Kauffman reminded me of more than anyone? He brought to mind David Simon (creator of The Wire) talking about Baltimore: about how the city he made his life in continually screws itself up, how it's looked down on by New Yorkers, how abstract technocratic institutions screw up the lives of ordinary people. Despite the gulf in political opinions, there's something there.
So how does agrarian localism approach localist urbanism? I imagine that this question would show some real fault lines in the FPR crowd. But maybe it's just my myopia.
(A big thanks to John Schwenkler for helping organize the conference and inviting me to make the trip!)