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Liberal Geography, Conservative Geography

The other night I got an interesting insight into the different ways that conservative versus liberal dispositions can influence how people conceptualize urban geography. I was at a gathering of a local hobby/interest group, and a discussion arose about the problems associated with barriers between neighborhoods in our city. Pittsburgh is famously a city of neighborhoods, and it's a common saying that (despite having more bridges than just about any other city), people here won't cross a river.

The general tenor of the discussion was that this extreme neighborhoodiness is a problem. People are unwilling to go to new places and try new things, and therefore miss out on opportunities. People have a fear of areas that are slightly different from their own and prefer to stick with the familiar, unless a "host" can introduce them. None of the people in the discussion felt that they were particularly neighborhood-bound (except insofar as physical infrastructure and lack of transit options forced them to be), but they all knew people who were -- such as one woman someone had talked to who would only walk on the south side of Penn Ave, because that side is in her neighborhood (Friendship) while the north side is in a different neighborhood (Garfield).

The most interesting point of the night was made by a friend who questioned the assumption that neighborhoodiness is necessarily a bad thing. He argued that he liked the fact that his neighborhood was a kind of self-contained world, giving him a familiar and close-knit home base. He felt that neighborhoodiness gave him more autonomy, as he and his neighbors had more control over the culture and public life of the place where they live. And he pointed out that people only have the psychological capacity to make a certain number of deep connections to people and places, so encouraging more dispersed connections may sacrifice local connections. This friend was hardly an extreme case of neighborhood-bound-ness -- he had crossed a substantial portion of the city, albeit no rivers, to get to the bar we were meeting at. But he recognized the positive side of neighborhood isolation. But he did a good job of making the case for the positive aspects of neighborhoodiness.

What made this conversation particularly notable was that the friend who spoke out in defense of neighborhoods is one of the more religiously and politically conservative people I hang out with. The remainder of the group, to the best of my knowledge, was quite liberal. I was immediately reminded of the psychological research on "openness to experience" as a personality trait. This is often pointed to as a major factor differentiating conservative versus liberal temperaments.* People with high openness to experience seek variety and new things. They enjoy questioning assumptions and shaking up the way things are done. People with low openness to experience prefer the comfort of the familiar. They enjoy deepening their experiences of things they already know are important to them.

A city of neighborhoods is a city designed for people with low openness to experience. A city of bridges is a city designed for people with high openness to experience. Both have their value, and both have their flaws. The end result of the conversation was the beginnings of a plan to seek funds for a project that would encourage crossing neighborhood boundaries in some way. I support their efforts, because I think Pittsburgh can be both kinds of city.

*I'm trying to be careful to distinguish conservative and liberal dispositions or temperaments from conservative or liberal political agendas. There's a lot more than conformity to a disposition that goes into making a certain item a part of right- or left-wing politics (including a fair dose of historical contingency). A liberal like myself can find value in conservative dispositions, and even see examples of dispositional conservatism on the left, without necessarily buying into any right-wing political proposals.


Blogger Jasmine said...

This is fascinating to me - I used to feel comfortable in my neighborhood (and *only* my neighborhood) until I moved to another one. Then, I only felt comfortable in two neighborhoods, etc. I think I'm finally getting to the point where I'm open to exploring the whole city (as long as I can take the bus there!) but it took me over six years.

2:34 AM  

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