Squawks of a citizen - Lapse of community

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 16, 2018

PAUL GOODMAN’S article is extracted from his book The Society I Live in is Mine (Horizon Press, New York, $3.95) which is a collection of letters to editors, and to public officials, book reviews and speeches of the last few years. They express protest, indignation or constructive proposals on themes which affect him as a citizen; war preparation and the bomb, the power of money, social and sexual suppression, education, town planning and “the failure of intellect.”

“The society I live in is mine,” declares Goodman, “open to my voice and action, or I do not live there at all. The government, the school board, the church, the university, the world of publishing and communications, are my agencies as a citizen. To the extent that they are not my agencies, at least open to my voice and action, I am entirely in revolutionary opposition to them and I think they should be wiped off the slate.”

“It is appalling how few people regard themselves as citizens, as society-makers, in this existential sense. Rather, people seem to take society as a pre-established machinery of institutions and authorities, and they take themselves as I don’t know what, some kind of individuals “in” society, whatever that means. Such a view is dangerous, because it must result in a few people being society-makers and exercising power over the rest. Now even if these few—managers, governors, and so forth—were intelligent or had some other excellence, the situation would be disastrous, since a few do not, in sheer quantity, have enough mind, enough attentiveness and concern, to deal with the multifarious problems of society … There is no remedy except large numbers of authentic citizens, alert, concerned, intervening, deciding on all issues and at all levels.”

Lapse of


I was asked to give a talk in Professor William Kolb’s seminar on the sociology of city-planning, at Carleton College. The following is the edited* tape of the talk and of the subsequent discussion. as printed in the CARLETON MISCELLANY, Summer 1962. The more interesting part is, certainly, the discussion, for the students were bright and pugnacious.

ALL AREAS OF PLANNING MUST BE TREATED AS A UNITY. It can’t be helped. If you’re going to do any good physical or social planning, you’ll find the areas will be unified because the human animals are unified. I’m a pretty ignorant man. I have, except perhaps as a literary critic, no special knowledge. I am, though, a little bit of a philosopher. And what I see is just the fact that things hang together and you can’t be very wise unless you are willing to let them hang together.

I’ll give you an instance of unwisdom in recent planning literature, in Jane Jacobs’ new book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In that book an astonishing amount of space is devoted to the fact that the streets are not safe, and to what must be done to make them safe. I’d been at conventions with Jane and had heard her on this subject, and I assumed that she was an old maid. But that isn’t true; she’s married and has two children. Now about a third of her book is devoted to physical arrangements to make streets safe, for example adequate lighting. but her most serious suggestion is that things must be arranged so that everybody on the street is always under some sort of social surveillance. So she’s against parks and housing projects with back alleys. etc. I myself would find being under social surveillance quite unlivable. and without alleys and basements how will kids, who can’t afford hotels. ever have sex? But those are the disadvantages; the question is are there advantages? If she imagines that the lack of safety in New York and Chicago can be cured by some kind of physical planning for social surveillance, she’s quite mistaken.

Recently James Conant, who has been investigating the school system of America, came out with a new book, Slums and Suburbs, in which he speaks of the social dynamite of our big cities, stored up by a combination of unemployment, especially of negroes, unrealistic school programmes, discrimination by employers and labour unions. He suggests various remedies, in the schools and in serving the drop-outs.

* We have had to condense it a little, ED.

Now this kind of approach, if it were seriously implemented, which it won’t be, might do something about safety on the city streets. But arranging the buildings and the entrances for continual social surveillance is not going to do anything for safety. The fact that people are watching does not prevent crime, it merely inhibits freedom. Under dynamite circumstances, a white man can walk down a street or into a hall, or a coloured man can walk down a street in Birmingham, Alabama, and under perfect social surveillance get himself mugged, robbed, or beat up. And all the surveyors will sit back and couldn’t care less. No amount of physical planning is going to help that. You have to look at the problem as a problem of human motives.

You can hope for too much from physical planning. What physical planning can do is to facilitate, to actualise, to perfect underlying social motives that are valuable. If there is a valuable friendliness among people, then it’s possible by a good campus to make a better school. But if there’s no real community of faculty and students, and no real interest in real studies, you will not create a school spirit by planning a campus. I think this isn’t said enough, though it seems to be such a simple thing. Planning is done in isolation from what’s being planned for, and from the social, economic, and political conditions that prevail. In such a case the ideal plan becomes a sort of trap, a trap even worse than no plan.

At present in New York City, in Boston, even Cleveland, certainly Chicago, the big problem for social planning is the fact of segregation, the dis-integrating of neighbourhoods. It’s happened this way: There’s tremendous migration from the south to a certain number of northern cities, especially in the east. The migrants are for the most part young people, as migrants almost always are. These young people have children. That’s the nature of young people. At the same time that they are coming to the city, there’s an emigration of young, middle-class white people to the suburbs. These too are the ones who have the children.

The result is that although the population is not quite 50 per cent coloured, a much greater proportion of the children are coloured. So the schools are 70, 90, 100 per cent segregated. For some reason the others, the young whites, have fled to the suburbs. It’s not precise what they are fleeing from, but they are the cause of the de facto segregation. Forty years ago, when I was a boy in New York, we had integrated schools, and now we don’t, and its the same in other large cities of the north. The conditions in the coloured areas are bad and both confirm and breed prejudice in the inhabitants of those areas just as the whites are prejudiced. Then all the physical planning in the world will not make the streets safe. Further, ill-considered bureaucratic efforts to change these conditions may make then worse. Consider housing, for example. In New York City public housing, if your income rises above a certain figure, you have to move out. There couldn’t be a more stupid notion. The people in the neighbourhood who apparently can make a go of it even in this society, and might help others to, are forced out. It takes real bureaucrats to think of this: they have to satisfy certain administrative criteria, so the people housed have to be poor and take a means test.
Obviously if you mean to do any planning to undo segregation, and dangerous streets, you must try to build in mixtures. The public housing must be built for three classes, four classes.

There’s another problem in our housing projects that you out here wouldn’t know about. There are moral criteria for living in public housing. If a woman has too many men, she is judged immoral and out she goes. Now it is simply a fact that the mores of many urban poor are not middle-class. They are not, in many cases, going to live in little families of man, wife and children. Not uncommonly a woman will have had several children by several different men. Or the woman might go out and work—there is no breadwinning man—and the children are then called in the school jargon “latchkey children”, they return after school and let themselves in with their keys. Now these are simply facts. But the housing is planned in terms of middle-class conventions for people who do not have these conventions. It isn’t a matter of morals at all; middle-class morals are not the only morals.

Therefore I’m beginning to recommend as a feature of public housing the experiment of a dormitory for the teenagers, beginning, say, at age 11. The teenagers will live in the dormitory as in a youth house in primitive societies. At the same time, their parents live in the same housing. The kids have some place to go for solace and advice, and dinner. They might eat breakfast in the dormitory, lunch at school, and dinner with mama. Then, if mama has a new gentleman home, less hatred might be generated. If these are the facts of life, planning must be adapted to the facts and yet try to bring out something new. In my opinion, this dormitory arrangement would be preferable for the middle class too. Indeed, I wouldn’t advise it for anybody unless I thought it would be good for me and my children.

Let’s move on. I have started with the smaller units of planning, housing. Let us move to neighbourhoods. As you know, most of the advanced and sociologically minded city-planners of the last generation have latched on to neighbourhood planning as the right thing. There has been a resurgence of interest in community, the face-to-face group, as the basis for diminishing the anomie and loneliness of mass society—and one of the crimes of big slum-clearance and big public housing has been the disruption of neighbourhood ties. But this attitude too can become mechanical. It is felt that the meeting together of people in shopping-centres, for example, will take away the blight of the supermetropolis and megalopolis.

But to make neighbourhood planning work, the physical planning is only trivially important compared to the really important thing: neighbourhood function. And in order to make any community-function work as community, you must give the community authority, power to make decisions. The only way you will ever get any neighbourhood planning that amounts to anything is to dare to decentralise the administration and allow local initiative. Of course you can’t give initiative; but you can give people the right to exercise initiative and make crucial decisions. (It is said that one person in ten is a “leader”. That is enough, if the others have face-to-face access to him).

Consider it this way: it is not the bigness of cities that does the damage of anomie; for in principle, a population of 6,000,000 can be regarded as 2,000 neighbourhoods of 3,000, with a local town-hall, for health, education, sanitation, police, etc. Naturally many functions require centralisation, e.g. transit; but many functions can be efficiently decentralised to the neighbourhoods.

Let me develop one, the school system. In New York City we are supposed to have a pretty good system. It is dreadful. But however bad it is academically, administratively it is absurd.
Have you heard of the rat school? The principal is a friend of mine, Elliott Shapiro. He’s a saintly type and picked that school because it was one of the worst. Among other things, lots of rats. So he squawked and finally the Mayor appeared. Sure enough, he walked into the building and out jumped a rat right at the Mayor, and there was a picture of it in the Times! “This must be attended to immediately!” Top priority. This was in March. In July came the workmen and left their cans of paint. They left their cement to repair the courtyard. But all summer no work was done. School began the second week in September. The third week came the workmen, with a pneumatic drill in the courtyard. You couldn’t hold classes because you couldn’t hear. The paint dripped on your head, the fumes were sickening. So Elliott, who is very bold, called off classes, and told the children to go home and tell their mothers that school was off because the city hadn’t repaired the school in time, and he would not keep children in a dangerous school. The mothers then organised a strike. The city objected to the strike, but finally it got so bad that the city—an election was coming up—had to give in. Children were bussed to other schools, workmen were paid for overtime. Fine. But back in March, two Marches ago, three Marches ago, Elliott could have picked up a phone, called an exterminator in the neighbourhood, and said, “Get rid of those damned rats and bill the city.” But if he’d done that, he would have landed in the penitentiary, for spending the public money. You have to go through Livingston Street, that’s the Board of Education, and when Livingston Street has agreed to get rid of rats, you proceed to the Board of Estimate. Thing like that takes time.

Conceive of the advantages and the dangers of the opposite: the tax money going to the Parent Teacher Association, for instance, to make the kind of school they want to make, with the Central Board of Education preserving, let us say, minimum standards and seeing to it that every neighbourhood gets a reasonable share of money, so the rich neighbourhoods don’t hog it all. It seems to me that this is perfectly feasible. If it were established in the New York school system tomorrow, of course, there would be chaos, but even that mightn’t be so bad. Some schools would be perfectly terrible, some would be pure John Birch. On the other hand, some would be excellent. (A surprising number of intelligent people might join a PTA if it had any power). At present there are no excellent schools in our public system. None. You can’t have a good school if you can’t experiment more freely than is allowed. Given a completely decentralised system, there might be schools worse than our worst. I doubt it but it’s possible: all the children might die of cholera. But then people would be making their own mistakes and they’d have to learn real fast! The Board might well advise them and say, “What you’re doing won’t work. The kids will never get into high school or college.” The members of the PTA might get smarter.

In fact, this is how the settlement houses are run. Neighbourhood gang work and other kinds of social work are neighbourhood projects invented by the project leaders in the settlement houses. They call on the city when they want help. (They don’t always get it, but that’s the theory anyway.) So far as we have community spirit in our New York neighbourhoods, these settlement houses have been a great factor. Clearly localised schools would be an even greater factor.

Even more important, perhaps, are housing and urban renewal. They too could be localised. A reasonable method would be to invite people from a university to make alternative sets of plans for a neighbourhood. Perhaps by competition, with a board of architects, etc., to rule out the plans that are just impossible. Perhaps six workable plans will remain. Then you educate people by inviting them to the school. You have a party or bazaar; you explain the plans, and point up the features of this one and that one. You carry on communication for six months, a year. Perhaps the plans become a local political issue. Finally, a vote—whatever they choose they get. No faking. Usually they won’t choose the best. How could they possibly? But they’ll choose something that will almost surely be better, more fitting their local needs, that what some bureaucrat in the City Planning Commission of New York City will give them. By giving the neighbourhoods the power to decide, I think you will eventually get real neighbourhoods, and you might even get good plans.

And let me now make a big jump, to the final topic I’d like to discuss. In my opinion, one of the chief things we have to do in order to get better urban planning is to reverse somewhat the trend from country to city. Consider. The cities have always been the place where high culture has grown and flourished. For obvious reasons. People mix, crafts and groups mix; there’s trade, and people come from far places to trade. The people of the city hear other languages, customs, philosophies, and sciences. This sharpens intelligence. But I don’t think it’s sufficiently remembered that these exciting cities have always had a definite limit and a pretty close relationship with a countryside. It’s one thing to live in a city when you have country cousins whom you visit and they visit you. It’s another thing to live in a 600 mile conurbation when you can go and go and go and never get out of the suburbs that have the same city-culture in a more boring form. The city must have a stopping point. Then you might have an entity and begin to improve its centre. Think of the money we’ve spent in New York on escape highways to Long Island, Westchester, Westport in Connecticut, etc. Billions of dollars. And think if we spent the greater part of this money on improving the centre, saying, Here, this is the limit of the city. Around here we’ll have some good thick forests for a little way. And after the forest, farms, with cows.”

The problem then is how to get people to live on the farms with the cows. Just the reverse is happening. Everybody goes away from the farms that have the cows into the city. The reason, I think, is pretty simple. Besides the fact that there’s not enough cash, the farm in some ways is dull. Now the modern city is even duller, but the farmboy doesn’t know that. It’s exciting when he first arrives. It’s importantly a question of morals, of impossible morals in the farm community. The kind of moral repression that is possible, when, as was the case, temptations remained in the unconscious and were never thought of, is impossible when the contents have been thought of. For moral repression then becomes plain inhibition, and nobody can lead an inhibited life. You can’t take people with certain repressive moral customs and surround them with an urban culture in which quite different things are acceptable and advertised—the TV, the movies, and all the rest of it—and expect that those people are going to be content and happy as they were, they are continually stimulated, the old repression breaks down, and then the country life becomes unacceptable and the young go to the city. Of course they do.

They make a mistake, because the place they go to may be freer in some respects, but it doesn’t have many other desirable qualities. And the quality of city life is made dull when it is no longer related to the country. We must then find some way to build new patterns of life in the country and the small town and so diminish the urban migration.

Take your Northfield, for example. If new industries were brought in, so there’d be more cash, specially if they were interesting industries, then you’d have industry, a farming community, and the two colleges. That could be a very exciting community if in fact everybody shared in all three activities. If every family had one boy or girl in the college, and one in the factory, and one on the farm, and yet they all lived together, as you can in a place of this size, you would begin to get a very interesting life with cross fertilisation of ideas, a life which, on the whole, would be better than in an urban spread. That kind of pattern might help to stop the urban migration, and perhaps partly reverse it. I’ve talked enough.

QUESTION: You have been called a utopian thinker on the ground that the things you propose cannot conceivably be achieved. How do you move in the direction of getting these things done?
ANSWER: If any of these things are to be accomplished they must be accomplished by pressure. The important thing is to try to make the unit of pressure the small local unit, the renewal of which is one of the things you’re trying to accomplish. In trying to achieve decentralisation in the city, for example, it is the settlement house, the school, the neighbourhood that should be exercising the pressure, not the election district, the aim being that the neighbourhood finally becomes the election district.

Q. If the desire for power corrupts, as well as power, and if the neighbourhood settlement house had charge of its own budget, and the budget was public money, wouldn’t your neighbours like to climb from their place in the hierarchy to the place which would inevitably be there, the tax collector’s office and the disbursement office at the top?
A. No, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think so because I think the corruptibility of mankind is caused by frustration. People don’t want power as such. What they want is activity. They want to actualise potentialities, and insofar as they want power they want it in order to make decisions, in order to act. Now in a situation when more and more rights to make decisions are taken away from people, there gets to be more and more need to identify with big decision makers. But in a family, for instance, where decision making remains, isn’t there pretty much of a continual town meeting going on?

Q. It seems to me there’s a valid point that’s been lost somewhere here. A great part of the time, perhaps due to the fact that frustration is inevitable, there are power struggles. Let’s acknowledge this first, and then your idea of neighbourhoods can be talked about in terms of more available power.
A. That’s right.

Q. Somebody almost inevitably is going to be holding that power, some one person or small group.
A. I don’t see why that follows. What was the idea of our federal system to begin with?

Q. What happened though?
A. Well, yes, did it have to happen? You’re saying it had to happen.

Q. Just a pure empirical argument: it does happen.
A. But that isn’t altogether true. We tend to be very blind to those cases where it hasn’t been true. Let’s take the history of science. Up to the last thirty years, you’ll find that science has been run in an international and completely decentralised way. Perfectly. There’ve been scientific academies, there’ve been universities that co-operated. They’ve advanced science by leaps and bounds; each little group has been in charge of its funds. And there hasn’t been much of an attempt by anybody to dominate from above.

Q. I’m going to pick on this one, because I don’t think you have a valid example, simply because there isn’t much conflict of basic personal importance.
A. Oh, the devil that’s so!

Q. Well, maybe there wasn’t any need for this degree of organisation before?
A. Scientific work has been extremely organised. I never said it wasn’t organised. In every country there were academies of science, conventions, publications. The organisation was immense, but there was no power struggle in the sense. of some group struggling for centralised domination.

Q. There wasn’t any need for a power struggle.
A. There never is any need for a power struggle. This is a neurosis.

Q. But today big organisations are giving out the money, and if you want any part in research in science you have to have money, and you have to have it from the people who control it?
A. That’s right. In other words, what’s happening is that we are interfering with this great history of science with goals that are not the ideals of science. But centralisation does not have to happen. It’s a style exactly the way baroque was a style. In fact it is a baroque style, as Lewis Mumford points out. That’s just what baroque planning is: in the middle is the big palace and all the rays come from the centre.

Q. You think: though that this is not necessary either in science or in the planning of a neighbourhood, that we could choose to do otherwise?
A. Choose is too strong a word because choose gives the idea that you can get out of your skin. I think that we could edge in directions where it would become less necessary to do it this way. Let’s put it that way. By creating other kinds of small institutions, we can take the venom out of the centralised institution. You have to fight against it with ideas of alternative activities. You can’t fight against it with words, thought, a beatnik withdrawal. A beatnik withdrawal, however, is not a bad first step. To stop is often a very good step. Just to stop, in the beatnik way. You just won’t do it. Then maybe you will think of something else to do.

Q. What kind of children would come out of the dormitory situation you propose?
A. What I was proposing was the family structure of the Kibbutz, and the psychological theory behind it was Freudian. The trouble that leads to the Oedipus complex is the problem of the good and bad mother. The aim of the kibbutz is to make the mother only the good mother; that is, she teaches you nothing. She doesn’t teach you table manners, you learn table manners from society. But when society gets too rough then you can run home crying and mama comforts you.

Q. I’ve heard some conflicting things about the effects that the kibbutz has had on children.
A. That’s why I said to begin at age eleven. It seems beyond doubt that if a child is brought up, especially from the age of about six months to two years, without personal attention, he develops a cold personality which may eventually become a psychopathic personality. In Israel it was not implicit in the notion that the child should not get individual attention; they placed the child in the (nursery of the) kibbutz too early because they needed the woman’s work in the fields.

Q. I wonder when you talk about putting the children in a dormitory like that. I would not want to give my children up to someone else.
A. You’re living in a dream world, dear. Wait till you have children. You’ll find that your children get their standards from the street and not from you.

Q. Well, if they are still living at home and I have some influence on their lives, I might be able at least to modify the standards of the street. But if they are off somewhere else, I can’t control them at all.
A. Yes, that’s true. But even then if the standards you have at home are really more worthwhile and, what is more important, interesting, the child will get something from them even though he lives in the dormitory. But if we take the average situation, I think that almost any street situation is better than most family situations with regard to standards, culture, or love. Moreover, there is no such thing as absolute power over a child anyway.

Q. You mentioned something about the importance of interest. Why does it have this importance?
A. I’ll tell you why. There are some things that have to be done against people’s wills, but we do them at peril. For instance, if a child drifts out into the traffic you get him by the neck and swat the tar out of him so that he learns his lesson. But every time that’s done or a child is made to do something which isn’t interesting to him, he is going to do it with less grace and talent; that is, less of himself, initiated from inside, is going to be involved in it. So insofar as we’re interested in the perfection of everybody’s life, we must try as much as we can to have a basis of spontaneous interest for anything that is done. The reason is that it will be done better, more accurately, with more grace, more intelligence, and more force.

Q. Would there be adult supervision in these dormitories?
A. If I were running them there would not be. There would be rules, for there is a necessity for structure. The kids would not be left completely to their own devices, for I would combine the dormitory system with a form of urban renewal which would attempt to give the kids the kinds of jobs which adolescents can do, such as renovation. The kids would not be neglected by adults, for if one comes over to a man working and watches, the man will talk to him. And they will be paid for working in the urban renewal programme. Isn’t this what happens in a primitive culture: Youth House and community work?

Q. You mentioned that with local planning there might be tremendous messes. What would happen? People might think that planning was a terrible idea and public opinion might become so strong that the planning could not be carried through.
A. That’s right. That’s exactly what happened to progressive education when they began to try it. So that instead of giving it a real try, things stopped at the level of minor messes and then panic.

Q. Well what would you suggest doing about this?
A. I would suggest more courage.

Q. If power is given to the small group, who is going to lead its members?
A.The people who are wiser, compassionate.

Q. How are they going to establish themselves in this group?
A. Well now look. Let’s pretend for a moment that since I’m sitting here at the head of the table, I’m wiser. How have I established myself? It’s not the physical plan of the room. There is no other answer, except that I care. I care enough to think about it; I care enough to write an article; I care enough to talk about it to other people who know something about it.

Q. Is there anything beside courage that might serve to overcome panic?
A. Well perhaps motivational research might serve the same function at this level; that is you use sociological and psychological techniques not in order to put something into the person, but in order to get rid of those things which prevent him from being himself. In psychotherapy we call this unblocking. Thus we might use motivational research to get people out of the idea that planning can’t be done. That would be quite sufficient. Then I would rather let nature take its course, so that the community is natural. I really deeply think so.

Q. Somewhere you have described yourself as an anarchist. What do you mean by that?
A. I’m for diminishing the exercise of coercive authority as much as possible. I don’t think there’s any anarchist thought at present which is interested in a total revolution of society or has any picture of a total society. The aim in general is to turn involuntary organisations into voluntary organisations, to turn as much as possible the pre-organised into the spontaneously organised. To remove as far as possible the principle of fear as a strong force in human relations so that other feelings will emerge, such as anger, love, excitement, interest.

Q. I don’t understand what you would do, if, for instance on a small community level the majority of the members decide to do this or that, and an individual or a few individuals are outvoted.
A. In principle in a good society things would not be put to a vote. If there was disagreement nothing would be done. The matter would not be tabled forever, because people would keep attempting to understand the others’ point of view, for the motives of all would be trusted. But frequently things can be decided fairly easily. Suppose you go out with a few friends and one says let’s go to this movie and another says let’s go to a different movie. How is it decided?

Q. You vote.
A. Oh, you do not. What happens is that somebody really cares and really wants to go to a particular movie, and the others don’t really care that much and say OK. Isn’t that what would happen in a society where people trust one another?

Q. But people don’t always have the same set of principles.
A. That’s right. And that’s another reason for decentralisation. When you have a decentralised system, those who disagree with the way one neighbourhood is run can pack up and find another one more to their liking.

Q. To get back to the criticism of your work as utopian, there are those who say that people spend a lot of time talking about impossible ideals, the utopias if you will, and that this keeps them from getting down to the things which actually might be accomplished.

A. I think that there is a false estimate of the general public involved here. The basis of this sort of criticism is the conception that the average man does not have profound ideals, that he doesn’t have high hopes and castles in the air. In fact, the more simple people are, the more they tend to go in for future thinking. But because there is so much potential conflict in such ideas, the people who want to get elected soft-pedal them. It is a matter of how people really are, and therefore of what is really feasible.