Colonialism, the New Colonist, and American Cities

American cities have their origins in Colonial times. Much of the machinery, economy, thought and growth pattern that have shaped today’s cities have their origins in Colonial cities. Since we started newcolonist.com, a few readers have written saying the name “New Colonist” conveys a negative image of subversion, imperialism and colonialism which isn’t contained in our substance. But colonies and colonization aren’t confined to a time when Europeans sailed across the seas, set up shop wherever they landed, did away with or forced into slavery whoever happened to be there, and generally pissed a lot of people off.

A colony is a group of people living together, and a colonist is someone who wants to live together with other people in a new place. In America today we move often and we are all forced to colonize some new place. The choice is whether to live in the city with people or in the suburbs away from them. And just as in days past, today’s colonists are forcing change on established patterns of life. While they are bringing new life to decaying urban neighborhoods, they are forcing up property values and forcing out some of the poor people (often people of color) or people working as artists, by taking advantage of the inexpensive rents. Conversely, in other places, poor immigrants are moving in and “colonizing” urban neighborhoods, forcing out others who don’t find living among members of another race or ethnicity attractive.

I’m here to say that from a birds-eye perspective, its all good. It means we have begun to rediscover the value of urban life and of dense, transportation-rich, convenient, efficient center cities.

Chicago Tribune newspaper editor Robert McCormick inscribed on the wall inside the Tribune Tower that it was part of the job of a newspaper to lead public opinion. As editor of a magazine about city life, I think it it should be part of our goal here to persuade city residents that change and movement bring renewal. They are signs of a civic-minded, participatory people interested in making things better. It was when no one cared about who lived in the city or what happened to the environment there that we got into trouble.

The thing about the city, regardless of the frustrations and the pressures, is that it brings us together. When we are close together in a dense environment, the poor live near the rich, blacks live near whites, and immigrants live not so far from members of the Daughters of the American Republic. Subsidized apartments are near million dollar homes. Only when we are together can we begin to form ideals and goals as a community of people living together experiencing something new– as colonists in a colony.

On the convention center in Cleveland words are inscribed dedicating the building as “a monument conceived as a tribute to the ideals of Cleveland. Builded by her citizens and dedicated to social progress, industrial achievement and civic interest.”

The ideals of Cleveland? Here in the suburban 21st Century it is hard to imagine there could be such a thing. With everyone spread apart, it is hard to conceive that a place could accompany ideals.

But then, Cleveland, a city planned using the model expressed by the City Beautiful movement, was once an ideal. It was a place where immigrants from any number of countries from Bulgaria to China could come together and see such words on a building that could somehow, someday translate into a better life. Writing them on the exterior walls of an office park wouldn’t get the attention of pigeons.

And then there’s this “social progress” thing. Today even those words don’t bring a clear image. But social also means together and interacting, and at face value, we could assume social progress means becoming more social…. coming together and interacting.

And what are we coming together for? For industrial achievement–which simply means making things to make our lives better–and for civic interest, which means in the interest of the city, in the interest of civilization.

Maybe the colonialists as we think of them got off to a bad start. But today we can make a new start and can once again begin to perceive of ideals that are common to residents new and old in Cleveland, Chicago, and San Jose, or wherever your city may be. We’re all in this together, coming in from the suburbs or from other continents, and making a new life in the city–making a new city, not as residents, but as citizens.

It is time to build new, inclusive, efficient and sustainable urban colonies. The New Colonist is here to help.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me