Someone recently shared an article with me about a new movie that he thought addressed some issues relevant to Strong Towns called The Little Pink House.
Intrigued, I read the article, which was published at the conservative National Review and entitled "The Bulldozers of Social Justice." That divisive headline might give you a clue as to the viewpoint of the review's author. Curious to get a little more perspective, I googled the movie, only to find a very different yet no less complimentary review in the left-leaning East Bay Express (a California Bay Area-based newspaper) titled "Little Pink House: Catherine Keener Leads an Anti-Eviction Rebellion."
The differences in framing and focus of these two politically opposite news sources were stark. And yet both reviewers came away applauding and recommending the film. I think we can learn something from these two different perspectives that will help us find a better approach to building strong towns. Let's break down these articles first.
Two Interpretations of the Same Film
The National Review describes an initial scene in the movie this way:
Working on behalf of a giant corporation and a corrupt politician, a development czar explains at a town-hall meeting why it’s necessary to bulldoze a group of houses nestled by a river: to “help those in need,” of course. “The jobless, the homeless, the people on the fringes of society will benefit the most from this plan,” says the development executive. Replies an incredulous resident: “You’re gonna help the homeless by kicking people out of their homes?”
Here, the writer has highlighted a "corrupt politician" in bed with a "giant corporation" pushing for hollow and disingenuous goals of helping "people on the fringes of society" rather than letting upstanding homeowners be.
Meanwhile, the East Bay Express kicks off its film review by explaining:
[Greedy] people see Susette's little pink house, and indeed her entire part of town, as a blighted area in an economically depressed city — the ideal place for the giant pharmaceutical company Pfizer to bring prosperity in the form of a new plant, with an adjoining hotel and upscale condos.
In this article, the framing is quite different. The enemies are "greedy people" and a "giant pharmaceutical company" that wants to trample on "economically depressed" people in order to build hotels and condos.
Throughout these twin articles, the juxtaposition continues. The National Review highlights an over-reaching government that claims it's implementing "social justice" principles and "adapt[s] the rule of law to its own desires." In this article, it is "a libertarian group called Institute for Justice" who rolls in to try and save the day. On the other hand, the East Bay Express piece focuses on the timely nature of themes like "corporate depredation and unfair evictions" and its defense of the protagonists seems to hinge, in large part, on their demographic identifiers: "low-income neighbors (largely senior citizens)." These poor yet plucky residents are "fighting the power," combatting "class resentment" and "big money."
As you read those descriptions, I'm sure you feel more convinced by one or the other. Pay attention to that.
The National Review piece's takeaway is this:
To see the movie is to take the red pill and be introduced to how much deception, cynicism, and corruption underlie even seemingly routine acts of government. Little Pink House should be viewed by every teen and young adult who is in danger of confusing government’s noble-sounding stated motives with its actual ones.
Conversely, the East Bay Express article concludes:
The issue is: Can governments seize people's homes to make way for private real estate development? [...] It's discouraging to have to say that the type of bullying Pfizer engaged in is not an isolated incident, then or now. Stay alert, get organized, and trust your local reporters.
In sum, the National Review article presents a film about a corrupt government, pretending it has well-meaning motives while really screwing residents over. The East Bay Express piece describes a movie in which low income, disenfranchised residents fight back against a greedy corporation.
What it Means for us
So how could two film critics watch the same film and come away with such different lessons?
In a time when one half of the American population is wringing its hands over gentrification while the other half is concerned about blight, crime and property values, we're all choosing the narrative that best affirms our current world views (the one that appeals most to our personal elephants).
And yet, at the end of the day, most of us do want the same things. We want the protagonist to keep that home she worked hard to purchase and fix up. We don't want a corporation or a government demolishing a neighborhood. Who among us would look a person in the eye and tell her that her home deserved to be bulldozed to make way for a new factory campus?
I think that's the crucial point. We have to start looking people in the eye if we want to figure out how to heal our country and make our towns stronger. We're never going to come up with realistic solutions to the challenges that our nation faces if our entire understanding of millions of fellow Americans is fed to us by the New York Times or Fox News. We have to start with our neighbors.
The fact that two politically opposed film critics could empathize with a neighborhood-level situation like the one depicted in The Little Pink House and agree on an ideal outcome gives me hope. While a Republican and a Democrat might disagree on a myriad of federal policy positions and despise the elected leaders who represent them, when we drill down to the neighborhood level, it's easier to empathize with the characters.
I realize that's an idealized perspective and that all of us have neighbors we truly dislike, but in our local communities, we're forced to work things out and compromise with the people around us. It's a lot harder to agree that Steven's house should be bulldozed when your kid plays baseball with Steven's kids. It's a lot harder to get in a fight with Caroline about the future of the neighborhood when Caroline brought your family pie the day you moved in down the block.
This is why a Strong Towns approach is so vital today. At Strong Towns, we've not groveling after federal dollars or hoping to sway the opinions of senators and representatives. We're focused on bottom-up action that operates at the neighborhood level.
Our friend Gracy Olmsted recently penned a brilliant New York Times op-ed about localism. In it, she shared that her mayor is quite liberal while she is more conservative, and yet:
[O]ur partisan political differences mean nothing when it comes to caring for this town and making it better. Here at the local level, our interests intertwine: They are practical, achievable, even apolitical. [...] This is localism, a bottom-up, practically oriented way of looking at today’s biggest policy dilemmas. Instead of always or only seeking to fix municipal issues through national policy, localism suggests that communities can and should find solutions to their own particular problems, within their own particular contexts.
We'll have a pretty tough time finding common ground with people who live three states away from us in a totally different community (and whom we've already been predisposed to stereotype by our media consumption), but the people who shop at our neighborhood grocery stores and visit our local parks? We may just be able to find some consensus with them. And when we look at the stories of people working hard to make life better in their neighborhoods — whether in a film about eminent domain, in the real life story of neighbors fighting a destructive highway project or any number of other bottom-up efforts — we can learn from their examples and get inspired by their work to build stronger towns.