by Martin Harris
A short list of recent events in Vermont raises some interesting questions about the workings of the I-want-this-goody-but-from-invisible-sources mindset prevalent amongst people of relatively higher socio-economic –one might almost say “gentry”– status, who by accident of birth or exercise of skill have managed to become part of suburban or exurban America in places like Vermont. The mindset is called NIMBY (not in my back yard) and it is intended as a bit of a pejorative when used by, for example, wind-power advocates seeking permits to build towers near the houses of other people who (unreasonably?) object because they would be affected in ways other than kilowatt production and availability. In most, but not all, cases, the advocates are positioned philosophically on the Politically Correct side of the issue, and have carefully pre-positioned themselves physically on the distant not-in-their-own-backyard actual location of their proposal. Not-rare exception-example 1. the pro- wind-power Massachusetts Senator who tacked sharply (a little yachtsman lingo, there) to oppose just such a sea-sited project when it was proposed within view of his Nantucket Sound sailing courses. Extremely-rare exception-example 2. The DC-based politics-commentatrix who, unlike her peers, actually enrolled her child in the DC public schools. Hers is the almost-never-seen YIMBY acceptance-response.
Like the best-not-seen-up-close manufacture of sausage or legislation (a little Otto von Bismarck lingo, there) most NIMBY preferences recognize ugly when they see it; which explains why people who enjoy beef don’t want to live near a slaughterhouse and people who advocate re-cycling don’t want to live near a junkyard. Sometimes ugly is in the eye of the beholder, which explains why low-volume oil pump-jacks are not considered visually unacceptable in the Southwest but would be considered esthetically intolerable in the Northeast. Even where residents demand the oil or gas product, they won’t tolerate its local (and visible) production, which explains why Vermont’s law-makers have been opposed even to exploration ever since the late ‘70’s when small commercial amounts were first geologically located, and have since been first opposed, now in favor of, pipelines to import the fossil fuel from any distant elsewhere that’s convenient and invisible. Similarly for more unavoidably-local needs: PC advocates call for criminal and/or addictive redemption and rehabilitation via halfway houses, and they level NIMBY charges at residents in the actual neighborhood (never their own) where the halfway-house is proposed. Think Rutland’s Granger Street, where locals could easily marshal past histories and statistics to demonstrate that such well-intentioned facilities are nevertheless predictably likely to generate off-site but nearby anti-social behaviors; and to make the decidedly non-PC argument that they don’t want such statistical probabilities increasing in their own previously-safe neighborhood. Even an amateur in sociology can make the obvious point that the wealth- and-skills-advantaged (and therefore highly mobile) upper-middle-class “gentry” who are in the forefront of all such Politically Correct advocacies in such selected destinations as Vermont, where they now effectively dominate in both public opinion and governance, are mostly refugees from just such “distant elsewhere” places which they fled precisely because of their own quite legitimate NIMBY objective of improving their own surroundings, and when they couldn’t succeed in changing things where they were, then chose to move to new places where now they can. and even discourage further such subsequent move-ins, a whole ‘nother aspect of the NIMBY-YIMBY phenomenon.
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And for another aspect, consider the public-education agonies over this subject since the SCOTUS reversal of stare decisis in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which set aside previous acceptance of separate-but-equal and required a partial end to segregation, forbidding it in de jure form but pretty much accepting it in de facto form, based on the Court’s acceptance of the concept of pre-existing residential location choices by home-owners, which can be seen illustrated around any major American city by the subtle and not so-subtle differences between places like Scarsdale and next-door Tuckahoe just North of NYC, or even the differences between Beacon Hill and next-door North End in downtown Boston. It was after legally-instituted mandatory busing among just such Boston neighborhoods triggered school-district-altering white and middle-class flight that SCOTUS subsequently chose to leave neighborhood schools pretty much alone, recognizing the adverse politics in attempting to over-ride family choice, NIMBY and YIMBY, regarding neighborhood schools for their own children. As similar events since, in Kansas City, Memphis, and now Detroit, illustrate, the middle-class instinct to preserve its own quality-of-life perceptions (the NIMBY principle) isn’t so much race-based (as Politically Correct accusers of Boston’s fleeing families charged) as class-and behavior-based, now that urban family flight in such cities isn’t so much white middle-class as it is black middle-class, seeking a new neighborhood where the YIMBY principle prevails, where the new-neighborhood schools are statistically likely to have significantly higher levels of in-classroom achievement (even though nation-wide K-12 stats aren’t as good as they once were) and significantly lower levels of in-classroom disruption, disengagement, and even occasional violence than the old-neighborhood schools they fled. In such recent cases as Memphis now seeking to create a new joint district with surrounding Shelby County, so as re-capture enrollment recently lost through middle-class flight, court approval has so far not been forthcoming. You might say that the YIMBY principle seems to be prevailing.
And you might or might not agree with Humble Scribe observation that a school district (think Burlington) attempting to over-ride via administrative student-classroom placement the pre-existing neighborhood choice decisions of district residents made for a set of reasons ranging from housing cost and neighborhood appearance to, perhaps, transit convenience and school quality, do so at some peril of encouraging what used to be (partially incorrectly) labeled white flight, and is (at least now) more correctly labeled middle-class flight deriving from both the NIMBY principle –middle-class parents typically don’t want their kids in unpleasant classrooms—and the YIMBY principle –if necessary, they’ll move their kids to classrooms more to their previous experience and future expectations, by selling the old back yard they couldn’t control and moving to a new one they can.