26 07 2005

Nashville has a building code and zoning ordinances. Theoretically, this is a good idea—a way of deciding where your right to swing your arms ends and my nose begins. Unfortunately, it sometimes turns into a way to legitimize punching someone in the nose.

A small, almost humorous example is the case of my mother-in-law’s chickens. My mother-in-law has kept chickens in her back yard for as long as she has lived there. A year or two ago, a local real-estate firm wanted to raise property values in her neighborhood, so they went around looking for codes infractions—and it turns out keeping chickens in your back yard is a code infraction, at least in that neighborhood. None of her actual neighbors cared a bit—many of them in fact appreciate her occasional surplus eggs and broiler hens. It was a corporate person, the kind of person who, even less than a vegan, doesn’t appreciate the reality of homegrown chickens, that complained to codes. Corporate persons are demons, committed only to fattening themselves at the expense of whatever they can find to devour—and they don’t appreciate fried chicken, just the money to made from selling fried chicken. So, at the behest of this corporate non-person, whose only stake in the neighborhood was its desire to make more money from it, the codes people were dispatched to shut my mother-in-law’s chicken coop down.

Now, I haven’t eaten chicken in almost forty years, but if I were going to eat chicken, I’d rather eat my mother-in-law’s homegrown backyard chicken than some multinational corporation’s hormone-saturated chicken. As fuel prices rise and supply lines attenuate, we had better encourage local food production any way we can—and if that means altering the zoning codes to allow people to raise backyard chickens, let’s do it, and to hell with conceptual ideas of property values. A neighborhood that raises its own chickens is more valuable than a neighborhood that doesn’t. There’s something to eat there!

Now, that’s one very personal example. At a similar level of nitpickyness we find laws against unmowed lawns, unliscenced vehicles, loose dogs, ugly fences, and the like. Many of these provisions actually do work to the benefit of flesh-and-blood neighbors who would like a little leverage on their sloppier fellow citizens.

A little further up the scale we have Metro requirements that dwellings be hooked up to the municipal electrical, water, and sewerage systems in a responsible fashion. Such provisions cut both ways. They prevent landlords from renting so-called substandard housing to people, but they also prohibit homeless individuals from creating their own shelter, and at the other end of the spectrum they prevent innovative, off-the-grid housing from being created here in Davidson County—and at this point, we come back to my mother-in-law’s chickens. With supply lines and fuel sources looking increasingly dicey, we need to allow creative housing options to flourish in Davidson County, not just for those who have land and want to do something different, but for those who have nothing and would like a place to call their own. The importance of giving people at the bottom of our society a sense of ownership and achievement has often been noted, so why not allow them a chance to call someplace besides a homeless shelter home? There is plenty of unused land in this city—do the Titans really need so much parking space? That’s a spot where showers and toilets are already available and underutilized, most days of the year.

And then there are times when the zoning board is just a way to legitimize punching a whole neighborhood in the nose. The Supreme Court’s recent decision allowing cities to condemn private property to facilitate large retail development is only going to make this worse. We have had numerous examples of private hijacking of the public trust already, from the malls that grow like cancers in our suburbs to Vanderbilt’s destruction of the northern half of the Hillsboro Village neighborhood so rich college kids would have a place to play games and park their parents’ cars. The only way to stop any more of this kind of piracy from happening is for more people who understand the limits of growth to get on the zoning board.

We do not need any more retail outlets. Commercial retail sales are no longer the engine that drives the economy, they are the open artery that is bleeding America dry—thanks to the movement of virtually all consumer goods manufacturing to China and other low-wage enclaves. This is why the Democratic Party’s economic platform doesn’t make sense any more. Consumer spending no longer circulates money in the country, it sends it right out of the country. The funny thing is, we could probably do without new consumer goods for years, if we were collectively unneurotic enough to quit looking for satisfaction in material things. This country is awash in clothing and household goods—that’s why the u-storit business is booming. We could not import any consumer goods for five years and just have a great time going to each others’ yard sales and nobody would go naked or run out of furniture or kitchenware or entertainment possibilities. That’s how to cut the trade deficit. Think about it.




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