Cross-posting from RTUF on "It's a Wonderful Life"

Your humble correspondent had a ferociously busy fall, so the blogposting was a little thin on the ground the last couple of months. In any event, we here at RTUF Worldwide didn't want to let the calendar turn over without at least one final thought for 2013. And this thought comes with a mild and somewhat oblique ding on Geoff Anderson at Smart Growth America. I don't know Geoff, but I have seen him speak and have great respect for the work he is doing at SGA and the work he did when he was at the EPA Smart Growth office before that. That said, I received a fundraising email from Geoff on behalf of SGA and found the following passage worth commenting on:

One of my favorite holiday movies is a story about family, friendships—and smart growth. You’ve probably seen "It’s a Wonderful Life." If you’re like me, you’ve seen it more than once, and you know the story of Bedford Falls. Bedford Falls is more than just a town to the movie's hero. It's a community, it's home. It's the place where friends and family come together along tree-lined streets, sidewalks, businesses and houses. And when the movie's villain threatens Bedford Falls, the hero knows it is more than just a threat to his housing choices. It is a threat to his home. This is what smart growth is all about. Creating places where families, businesses and communities can come together and thrive. Towns like Bedford Falls need your help...Bedford Falls might be fictional, but it’s a story that plays out across the country every day. No town wants to become a Pottersville.

I have to say that appealing to Bedford Falls as depicted in "It's a Wonderful Life" as a symbol of all that is good and place-centered in urban America without any qualification misses the point by a good deal. As depicted, Bedford Falls is certainly idyllic. But at a deeper level there are unmistakable signs that all is not well, and the source of the impending tragedy that will be full-tilt auto-oriented suburbanization is not Old Man Potter but George Bailey himself. It simply cannot be denied that the new housing Bailey Building & Loan is financing in the movie is suburban tract, Levittown-style housing that appears unconnected from the main street and is reachable only by car (or at least, you only see cars in the scene when the Martini family enter their new "castle"). The unbridled greed of Mr. Potter may well be the ultimate source of the accompanying post-war American tragedy of de-industrialization that treated moving jobs to low-wage states and economies as a kind of never-ending parlor game. Yet it is also hard to deny that well-intentioned George is the point of the spear when it comes to the cul-de-sac McMansions that have come to rule suburban America in our time. While I view Jim Kunstler as a decided mixed-bag, his decade-old take on this is essentially perfect and I'm with him that Pottersville looks a whole lot more exciting than what Bedford Falls would almost certainly have become in our time under George's steady hand:

Frank Capra's 1946 movie "It's a Wonderful Life" has become the totemic American Christmas story over the last couple of decades. It was a box-office flop when it came out, but constant holiday-time TV exposure since then turned it into the classic it has now become. It has replaced Dicken's A Christmas Carol with an updated and more accessible American mythology. But a close examination shows that it contains strange, paradoxical, and disturbing messages for our time. 

The movie was made just after our nation's triumphal victory over manifest evil in World War Two, but it carries a heavy undertone of the Great Depression that preceeded the war. Indeed the story takes place from early in the 20th century to the middle of it and, in a way, can be viewed as a comprehensive social history of America's industrial high tide. To greatly simplify it, the story concerns the denizens of Bedford Falls, New York, a provincial main street town, and one George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who grows up to preside over a little Savings & Loan Association (a kind of bank that no longer exists thanks to the scandals of the 1980s). Over the years, George struggles with his family-owned bank, tries to help his neighbors, raises a family with wife Mary (Donna Reed), and eventually endures a great personal crisis of conscience and self-worth, from which he is rescued by an angel. In the end, the world is made right and Christmas carols ring out as the credits roll. Oddly, George Bailey's greatest accomplishment in the movie is shown to be the development of Bedford Falls' first suburb, Bailey Park, with a scene of much patriotic hoopla when the first unit is sold to the owner of a local restaurant, Mr. Martini, an immigrant. I say odd because of how innocently clueless our collective imagination was about the consequences of that seemingly benign transaction. Like vicious nano-bots, the little units of suburban America metastisized over the following fifty years to consume and defeat all the small towns like Bedford Falls in America, and all the rich local social and economic networks that the movie celebrates, including George's bank and Mr. Martini's family-owned restaurant. Along similar lines is the sequence in which George Bailey is shown, by the angel who saves him from a suicide attempt, how Bedford Falls would have turned out if George had never been born. The town is renamed Pottersville, after the movie's villain, a greedy rival banker played by Lionel Barrymore. How striking and odd, though, what a wonderful town Pottersville actually appears to be, compared to the real horror of what happened to American towns in the late 20th century. In fact, Pottersville looks like the kind of tourist town that demoralized suburbanites now flock to for country weekends. Standing on Pottersville's lively Main Street, George sees the sidewalks full of people. Some of them are carousing drunks. Some of the businesses are gin-mills, with hints of prostitution and all the other usual quaint human vices of an earlier day (including many that are now part of mainstream American culture). But the catch is that Pottersville is actually portrayed as a town brimming with life and activity! Only the content is considered bad -- too many gin mills and loose women, not enough soda fountains. 

As we really know, the many Bedford Falls of our nation have uniformly become hollowed-out ghost towns with no life and no activity. And the George Baileys of our world went on to become the WalMart moguls and real estate tycoons who sold out their towns and ultimately destroyed them. So, it really provokes me to wonder what Americans are thinking when they see this beautifully-crafted but deeply paradoxical movie. Do we notice what it is we really have lost? And how insidious the process was?