Issue 49: A City that Rocks: Battle of the Zones

By: Joe Steinberger

There are two competing visions of Rockland. On vision is of an up-and-coming artsy town in the prestigious suburban territory known as the midcoast. The other is of a small industrious city, compact and densely populated, in which people of different social classes live near each other and become friends.

These two visions are not in all ways mutually exclusive. That small industrious and inclusive city can be artsy and prestigious, but the vision of a spread-out suburban residential territory of large lawns and haut-bourgeois houses, protected by zoning laws from encroachment by the hoi polloi, is not compatible with the vision of a compact and inclusive city.

The suburban vision, however, has been winning out, not by people’s everyday choices, but by the force of our zoning laws.

Zoning as a means of segregation goes back to antiquity, when residential zones were explicitly divided by class and caste. In the American south, zoning has long been used to enforce racial segregation, and this practice migrated to northern cities as southern blacks moved north. Zoning regulations proliferated in the US in the 1920’s and 30’s.

In Rockland the segregation is not by race, that is not our problem, but by class. Indeed, we have residential “A” zones and a residential “B” zones that are explicitly designed to segregate first class from second class residents. The goal is to defend the purity of the bourgeoise experience in zones protected from incursion by the lower orders.

Not only is zoning designed to segregate by class, it is designed to prevent the lower classes from working out of their homes in their traditional trades. The bourgeois professions – doctor, lawyer, etc., – are permitted in home offices, no problem, but baking bread, repairing lawnmowers, building furniture, and other typically working class ways of earning a living are forbidden as “industrial” or “commercial.” God gives a reward to industry, according to Rockland’s motto, but according to our practice industry is punished, unless you have the means to own or lease a separate building in a commercial or industrial zone.

All of this injustice is vigorously defended by its beneficiaries as necessary to preserve the “character” of Rockland. But Rockland’s character, at least its architectural character, was created a hundred and fifty years ago when most of its building were built – in the total absence of zoning restrictions. The character of a community is not something that can be created by fiat, it is something that evolves in a suitable environment. Freedom is an essential element for the development of the kind of community character that is suitable for democracy.

In those old days when freedom reigned, people built the fine and solid buildings that line Main Street in our downtown. They also built most of the houses that stand today; the grand houses of the successful merchants and industrialists, and the small houses of working people. Most of those small houses were built on lots just 40 to 50 feet wide, half the size that is required by our current zoning rules. Now, they are “non-conforming.”

With a few modest exceptions, this unjust nonsense has gone unchallenged for decades, but recently we have had a modest movement for reform. As Rockland has seen increasing interest, from a variety of people, as an attractive place to settle, as real estate prices have increased, and as older “non-conforming” housing is torn down, rental rates have been going up steeply. We are facing a shortage of housing that people of modest means can afford.

Shuffling our less affluent residents off to other places is a good thing, from the perspective of many, but now we are facing a labor shortage. Boing! We actually need working people here, a revelation.

Also, our development as a center for the arts requires that we have… artists! We can go only so far with retired bankers posing as artists, we need those young struggling genuine artists who have always been the foundation of creative communities. And, wonderful, they want to come to Rockland. But where will they live?

Over the past few years Rockland City Councilor Valli Geiger has tried patiently to get the Council to consider loosening zoning rules that make housing unnecessarily expensive for working people. This past Monday she put one such proposal forward, to open the possibility of small accessory houses on some lots. She was viciously put down with angry personal attacks at public comment, all of her attackers well heeled “beneficiaries” of rules that keep the riffraff out of their neighborhoods. Keep them away from us! they brayed.

Meanwhile, the people who would benefit from opportunities for less expensive housing in town are silent. They are busy making ends meet, and In most cases they don’t even know who they are. This is why serving the public is so difficult, and serving the rich is so easy.


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