What Unsettlers Can Teach Us About Building Better Cities

A few hour before I met the author Mark Sundeen, he went for a five mile walk alone through downtown St. Louis.

Of course, I didn’t find out about this until I interviewed him later, weeks after I’d first sat down to watch him give a presentation at one of my city’s independent bookstores. When I’d first heard the title of Sundeen’s book—The Unsettlers—I thought I was in for a fun nonfiction read about doomsday preppers or backwoods survivalists. But as Sundeen flipped through Powerpoint slides, I realized I had it wrong, and I was in for something better.

As the author of the bestselling biography The Man Who Quit Money, Sundeen initially thought his next project would be about Americans who decided to remove themselves from other basic institutions of our society—the Wall Street bank, the grocery store filled with aisles of industrial-farmed and processed food, the corner gas station and the streets we drive to get there. But along the way, he’d become more interested in what the "Unsettlers" lived for, rather than what they resisted against.

“I thought I’d be talking about people who dropped out,” he said. “But I ended up writing a book about people that plugged in, who chose a different, more connected and joyful way of living.”

To my eye, the people in Sundeen’s book are called Unsettlers because their way of living is intentionally disturbing to the normal order: they’re not just packing up and heading for the woods, but working to actually remake American culture, from squarely within their own communities. The people Sundeen profiles are incredibly diverse in their tactics and their settings, ranging from homesteaders in Northern Missouri to urban farmers in downtown Detroit.

Where so many stories about consumer ethics seem to focus on how each of us should restrict our own behavior—subtract a car ride here, give up a fast food hamburger there—Sundeen’s book focuses on what we need to do more of, bit by bit, if we want to really change the systems to which we object.

What they have in common, though—and what makes the Unsettlers relevant to the average reader who’s unlikely to give up a checking account or electricity—is that none of them are isolationists, nor are they the kind of mythical, self-flagellating eco-hippies who take anxieties about buying non-organic apples to their logical agrarian extreme. Where so many stories about consumer ethics seem to focus on how each of us should restrict our own behavior—subtract a car ride here, give up a fast food hamburger there—Sundeen’s book focuses on what we need to do more of, bit by bit, if we want to really change the systems to which we object. And the stories he tells suggests that there are ways do it anywhere—even in the middle of a city.

That’s why I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that before Mark gave his reading, he decided to go for a walk. When he told me about it in our interview, I realized he’d inadvertently given himself a tour of St. Louis’ most argued-over development projects, beginning his journey in our wealthiest ward—the Central West End—and headed straight east along a stroad that runs through the central corridor, which has been the target of virtually all of the city’s big development dollars (and the massive tax increment finding that they often demand). Though his route took him through what many would herald as my city’s best neighborhoods, including a university campus and many of the shiny and new auto-centric development projects that our decision makers herald as markers of success, Sundeen wasn’t impressed.

“I didn’t feel totally hopeless until I got to the Arch,” he said. “Then I saw all those corporate hotels and empty buildings, and I think Guns and Roses was coming to play at one of the casinos, and there was literally no one on the street. Everything was just concrete. There were more parking garages than I’d ever seen in my life. It felt more and more soulless the further I walked.”

You’re just a suburb dweller with a longer driveway.

Throughout his book, Sundeen is careful to contextualize even his most radical Unsettlers’ actions within no-longer-radical ways that our built landscape has been drastically reshaped by auto-centric development. “When I started writing this book, I assumed that if you wanted to, say, have a low carbon footprint, you would go out into the middle of nowhere and live off the grid,” he said. “But what I found was that if you’re not willing to give up your car to do that...if you have to drive 30 or 40 miles to go to a job or a supermarket or to take your kids to their soccer game, you’ve probably undone all the good that you did by putting up solar panels and pumping your own well water. You’re just a suburb dweller with a longer driveway."

But while Sundeen looks to cities as a possibly more efficient form of “radical communitarian experiment,” he doesn’t always see them as a strong alternative.  “It seems like cities fall into two categories. There are the high functioning cities with great culture and art and public education, and they’re basically all too expensive for anyone who wants to be able to live off of meaningful work, by which I mean work that isn’t just manipulating information on a screen,” he said. “But the other types of cities, the cheaper cities, are the ones where the downtown has been abandoned, the public transportation seems to be nonfunctional, and you have really bad segregation, crime and blight, like Detroit.”

An urban garden in Detroit (Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

An urban garden in Detroit (Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

So that’s where Sundeen went. In the section of the book that I found most captivating, Sundeen profiles Greg Willerer and Olivia Hubert, a married couple who have been working for years to establish food independence in the heart of downtown Detroit, Michigan—a city that, when they started, didn’t even have a chain grocery store.  

“They’re making a living selling vegetables that they grow on abandoned lots with their neighbors,” he said. “They’re not funded by any federal program or nonprofit or foundation or university, and that’s very much by intention. They don’t believe that those programs are going to be around forever, because in Detroit, every federal program has failed. It’s really important to them to be able to make money and to prove that this is a viable economic choice.”

A few years after establishing their farm, Whole Foods opened a location in the heart of downtown Detroit—and they approached Greg and Olivia to become local suppliers. In a shocking move, they turned the big chain down. They’d built their farm for and with their neighbors, not for or with a corporation, and they were bold enough to keep it that way.

“Committing to a place and building relationships is more important than a non-profit or a government program coming in with a $100,000 grant and saying, we’re going to hire people to do x, y or z,” Sundeen says. “The $100,000 is fine sometimes, but the relationships, those are more meaningful.”

This statement, and the ethos of the people in The Unsettlers, encapsulates something rare and important about how we can build better places, whether our goal is to make society less violent or to stop building infrastructure our children won’t be able to afford to maintain. In the debate over where we can locate the most meaningful engine of change—in the broad reform of systems from above or in the individual efforts of citizens looking within—we can sometimes neglect the in-between, which has capabilities distinct from either.

The people in The Unsettlers are quite literally building the worlds they want to live in, and they’re doing it in a radical and ancient way: by building communities of people who care, who work to slowly create a whole new system of living together.  If we want to build a St. Louis riverfront that Mark Sundeen would be thrilled to walk along, we need to stay in our neighborhoods while decamping from old notions of how the world should be built. And then we need to get to work, and take joy in the doing. In whatever way we can, we need to all become Unsettlers.

(Top photo from http://homesteadthedesert.com/)

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