Our Very Own Stockholm Syndrome

Posted: 29 January 2012 in Everything Else...

We have had an interesting community discussion this week in light of a decision made by our City Council. Like a play in three acts there has been a character who has played a starring role throughout this “drama” though he has scarcely been seen. That character is the automobile.

Here is how it has played out.

The Council tentatively approved the move of a popular gymnastics business to a part of town zoned as an automobile only retail area. This “auto lane” is designed to make it possible for people shopping for a car to have a “one stop shopping” experience to compare different brands in one location. Though not an “auto mall” (common around here) it plays the same role on a somewhat smaller scale. The Council wrestled mightily with this decision because if it allows a conditional use permit to the gymnastics group it will lose future revenue from auto sales in this zone.

It turns out that revenue loss could be significant for the city. Auto sales are the single largest source of sales revenue for the city and while a number of sites there sit empty, the city fully expects them to be filled in the years ahead providing much needed revenue for our Northern CA town. (Which, like other CA towns, is starved for revenue due to Prop 13 (and other measures)).

The irony is bitter.

Our small town fancies itself (with reason) as the “bicycling capital of the US” and has the goal that 25% of all trips in town will be by bicycle by the end of this year. Further, it has set a more ambitious goal that by 2050 fully half of all trips in town will be by non-automobile sources. Despite these goals the Council found itself in the difficult position of having to promote auto sales to achieve revenue targets needed to keep critical city services funded. Of course our local citizens are not the only ones buying cars in these establishments, but our simultaneous commitment to lowering our carbon footprint by moving away from car use while promoting auto sales is paradoxical to say the least. Some might be less kind and call it hypocritical.

And so in Act 1 of our local play we find the automobile playing a key role in our lives. Indeed, it is playing a central role because it is driving basic decisions about how we will generate revenue for our town.

A local blogger picked up on the story (for other reasons) but the comments on his blog morphed into a full blown discussion on alternative sources of revenue. Which brings us to Act 2. In this act the Mayor is quoted as saying that if we lose auto revenue due to decisions like this one (which he voted against) we may be forced to find it from other sources such as “big box” retail.

Now our city hates big box retail. Well, kind of. We don’t want it in our town but we are willing and able to drive between 10 and 40 miles to access it elsewhere. More precisely, we want–and all our planning documents call for–a compact, “traditional”, small downtown with other retail options designed to meet basic needs in neighborhood shopping centers around town. A good goal. But, this model is not providing what we say we need in this town (shopping wise).

The discussion on the blog, while civil, delved into various issues concerning large retailers and, specifically, the issue of how they provide better selection and prices (as well as the revenues we need). Without any dispute, several contributors noted that they would buy local up to a certain price point but beyond that would drive to nearby towns to find better prices at the big boxes there. And with those comments the character of the automobile returns to stage.

Here there is no conversation about how the automobile has shaped our city, how it has rendered our model (compact downtown plus neighborhood shopping centers) unworkable, or how it has enabled a behavior that leaves us bereft of retail options (even for some “basic” needs like clothes). No one is analyzing how the “freedom” to hop in the car and go elsewhere has led to the reality that no small business person will open a retail shop that must compete with big boxes. We are left with speciality shops and lots of restaurants but little variety in terms of basic goods.

The car has bled our downtown. Other cities, also short on revenue, have chosen a different path, accepting sprawl and chewing up large chunks of prime (and I mean it) farmland to create vast shopping surfaces and even vaster parking lots needed to store the cars that nimbly move us from door to door. The car has liberated all of us from our quaint, prosperous, walkable, bikeable downtowns so we can shop the extended plains of goods and obtain the quality and quantity (and price!) we so deeply desire.

Thus, the automobile ambles across the stage in Act 2 while hardly anyone notices what it has done and how the very problems we name have been exacerbated by its central place in our lives.

But the discussion continued on the blog because several (mostly downtown) business owners kept dragging the conversation back to the goals we have set: the desire for a compact downtown with solid retail supported by neighborhood shopping centers. They were correct to do so in my view because these ARE our goals and it is critically important to figure out whether we are moving in the direction of achieving them or not.

However in the course of the conversation (and this moves us inevitably to Act 3) we come to understand a sad reality. If we actually find a way to attract solid retail base (back) to the downtown then we will have (or according to the business people we already (!) have) the problem of lack of parking for cars.* And, yes, with that the car makes its final appearance in our little play. To achieve a thriving downtown we need more people living, working, shopping and playing there but… we will also need to find a way to house all their cars. Once again, the automobile appears, not as a part of the solution but as a problem to be solved.

I had considered adding my comments to the blog, raising the issue of how problematic cars are in all aspects of this narrative. I could have suggested that we did NOT need to have a conversation about retail choices at all, but rather a conversation about cars and their unhealthy hold on our lives. I could have talked about how they have conditioned, constrained, bound, directed and otherwise forced us to act in ways that are, clearly, not in our collective interest. However, I was pretty sure that if I did that my comments would be met with silence. I may as well question the value of air, water or food. Trust me, I have had these kinds of discussions and I know the truth. The truth is that we view cars as a basic necessity of life.

Cars are out captors. They hold us hostage but are careful to bring us a daily ration of thin gruel called “the freedom of the open road.” They feed a basic need and we defend their indispensability even as they enslave and chain us. But we do more than defend our captor… much more. We love our captor and it is no platonic love this. Eros lurks here.

We caress their faux leather seats (individually heated!). We fondle their dials that allow us to plug in and stay connected as we hurtle down the highway seeking the American dream. We bathe them ritually, stroke their controls, and incessantly gush (like shameless teenagers tasting first love) about the computer-like control panels that allow us to judge the costly (in blood and money) fuel we are consuming so we can “change the way we drive to be more fuel efficient.”

But there is more. Like the protagonist in Charles Williams Descent into Hell, we create our cars in our own image and then yearn to possess them as both projections of our essential selves and as objects to which we can give our love. Have I gone overboard? Not a chance.

Spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon watching commercials while a football (or basketball or baseball) game plays quietly in the background. Observe how the advertisements appeal to our identity (the hard worker, the responsible dad, the enviro-conscious mom), our needs (safety is job number one), our sense of who we would like to be (the party crowd, the autonomous thrill seeker, the lady killer). Either the people spending tens of millions of dollars making and buying advertising time for these ads are completely crazy (indeed open to lawsuits for defrauding shareholders) or they understand perfectly the efficacy of what they are doing.

And finally, after nearly a century of improvements to these oh-so-stimulating love toys, we are told that we must buy them (and then trash them and buy them again, and again and again–karmically cycling through endless lives of servitude without release) because it is critical to our national economic security, and therefore our patriotic duty.

My friends… I give you the automobile. Jailer and master, we believe in its power to liberate even as it helps destroy all that we value.


*I disagree with this because I think we have a parking management problem, not a parking problem.

  1. Steven Andersen says:

    Sue Greenwald acknowledged the lead character well (in the Vanguard article):
    “One of the problems that we face as a city is that really nothing brings us any net revenue except auto malls, auto dealerships, and hotels,” she continued. “We’re in terrible financial shape.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s