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March 28, 2014
Viewpoints: To be a good citizen, care about the place you live


(March 28 - By Ben Boychuk, Special to The Bee)

We are not "citizens of the world." If you consider yourself one, try running that ID past a cop in Burma or Singapore, or a customs agent in China or Mexico - or here in the United States, for that matter.

No, we're Americans generally and Californians specifically. We're products of a particular time and place.

The idea of "place" is inseparable from citizenship and our unique brand of self-government. That may sound obvious, but it's a subject of keen interest these days to academics and policymakers.

I spent Thursday in lovely Malibu, on the campus of Pepperdine University, ruminating on the relevance of place to civic engagement with a roomful of scholars, students, some urban planning types and a few mere journalists like me. The occasion was the launch of "Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America." Title notwithstanding, the book is a provocative and accessible collection of essays edited by Pepperdine's Ted V. McAllister and the University of Oklahoma's Wilfred M. McClay.

McAllister wondered whether Malibu was "an ironic choice" for a conference about the vitality of place. After all, it's a city full of people - and actors - who fancy themselves "citizens of the world," largely detached by technology from where they live, seemingly well attuned to the plight of the nameless, faceless poor halfway around the world, but often blissfully unaware or unconcerned about poverty in their own backyard.

It isn't crazy to think of California as a nation unto itself, or to speak of "Californias" in the plural. The old north-south rivalry usually comes to mind. But more and more, the split is between west and east, coastal and inland, unrooted but secure elites and highly insecure middle and working classes.

McAllister mentioned the fight over water in the Central Valley as a prime example of this divide. A citizen of the world might fret about global climate change and sustainability, but it "comes with a willful ignorance," he says.

"They can easily bear the costs of making certain moral claims about sustainability," McAllister argued. After all, what's another dollar or two for a bunch of spinach or a gallon of gas? But "they have little to say about the lives of people trying to sustain themselves right now" in places such as Fresno and Merced, where poverty runs to record highs and unemployment hovers between 12 and 14 percent.

Fact is, California's often-dysfunctional government isn't exactly amenable to "place." Our modern administrative state is all about centralization, top-down mandates, and uniform zoning codes. Centralized government - and, to be fair, a number of ill-conceived voter-approved ballot measures - has taken away much of the power of local communities to control their own destinies.

A note of caution here: Conservatives often extol the virtues of local control, but the truth is that petty bureaucrats are often the pettiest in City Hall. Local tyranny is just as real and just as dangerous as bureaucratic tyranny from afar. We seem to catch it both ways in the Golden State. That said, local control is more likely to come with local accountability.

Pete Peterson, a Republican candidate for secretary of state who also runs Pepperdine's Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Participation, has spent his career looking for ways to reconnect citizens with their government. Much of that work, he says, hinges on giving people a reason to look up from their screens and see the world in which they live.

Peterson offers the city of Bell as an example of what happens when people are disconnected from where they live - and how they might reengage. Bell, you'll recall, was embroiled in a nasty corruption scandal a few years ago. In 2005, about 400 voters in a city of 36,000 opted to convert the south Los Angeles city from a "general law city" to a "charter city." The change gave local officials more autonomy. It also let them rob the city blind. The former city manager, assistant city manager and five of six former City Council members were found guilty last year of conspiracy, corruption and misappropriation of funds.

Bell residents were rightly embarrassed. People who had lived in the city for decades didn't like how their city had become a cesspool and a laughingstock. They elected a new City Council, hired a new city manager, and began cleaning up their government. After one long meeting where a new city budget topped the agenda, a local resident said to Peterson, "We did hard work here today." Peterson says that offhand remark contained a great deal of wisdom.

"Citizenship rightly understood is hard, done well," he said. "A sense of place makes that hard work easier. Without those connections, bad things happen."

The problem with being a "citizen of the world" is it's hard to love - genuinely love - an abstraction. It's much easier to love your family, your neighborhood, your town, your city. That's why place matters.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Contact him at