Of all the cities of which I have some personal experience, but to which I have no personal connection, Charleston, South Carolina, is the only one in which I’ve seriously thought I could live. The attraction is not the climate (my Polish and German genes and my Upper Midwest upbringing make me long for a real winter and a more temperate summer); nor the Southern culture, which I admire but of which I could never truly be part; nor even the food, which feels comfortably familiar to someone with roots in Southern Indiana, albeit with grits and seafood mixed in.
No, the attraction of Charleston is that it is a real place, to which a string of buzzwords—walkable, livable, human-scale—could never do justice. And it is a living testament to how the character of a people can shape a city, which in turn molds the character of future generations.
Returning to Rockford from my fourth visit in a little more than a decade to Charleston, I could not help but be struck by what has been lost here. It is not that Rockford never had its charms; you can sample them in two volumes of vintage postcards, Rockford: 1900-World War I and Rockford: 1920-1960, both from Arcadia Publishing (based in Charleston).
Of course, Rockford never looked like Charleston. A different place called for a different architecture, more suited to the climate and topography of Northern Illinois and to the character of a predominantly Northern European people. But from the turn of the 20th century until sometime in the early 1960’s, Rockford was a coherent city in a way that Charleston still is.
Sadly, that is no longer the case. Starting in 1920, with the establishment of the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings, dedicated citizens of Charleston took steps to preserve their city in a way that Rockfordians never did.
There are many reasons for this difference, chief among them a very American fascination with “progress” and “economic development” that old-line Charlestonians consistently resisted but which their counterparts in Rockford embraced. Underlying all of the reasons, however, are two distinct and utterly opposed conceptions of the nature and purpose of private property.
Is property, as Claude Polin argues, intrinsic to man in a way that means he belongs to it as much as it belongs to him, or is it a mere commodity that man can dispose of as he wishes, with no damage to himself? Is property ownership entirely an individual matter, or does it have a social aspect? Does property ownership entail responsibilities, or only rights? To put it in practical terms, can communities put reasonable restrictions on the ownership, use, and disposal of property that make it something more than the tangible substitute for money to which it has been reduced, and thus draw it back into the life of the community?
Polin argues that the attack on private property arises from the reduction of property ownership to the cash nexus, and small wonder: Neighborhoods and downtowns cannot long survive when homeowners and businessmen view all equivalently valued property as interchangeable, and thus make their decision to hold or sell a piece of property almost exclusively on the rational calculation of whether holding or selling will allow them to make more money. The problem is exacerbated when one man owns enough property that he cannot possibly have a personal connection with each parcel of land or each building; this is, in fact, one of the key insights of distributism, so unjustly maligned as “socialism” in recent years.
The practical consequences of this debasement of property are seen on virtually every block in Rockford, as businesses abandon long-standing storefronts downtown to move closer to new vinyl-sided developments out in the Wasteland, itself once some of the richest farmland in the entire country, now covered over with concrete and asphalt. The vinyl-sided ranch houses are inhabited—for a few years, anyway—by people who abandoned older, established neighborhoods for the promise of rapidly rising property values, a promise that, after the mortgage crisis of 2007, has proved as empty as the failed big-box stores that scar the landscape.
This “progress” from homes to “investment properties” and from family businesses to ephemeral franchises and national chains spills over into the public realm as well, where beautiful courthouses and libraries, built to last, are torn down to make way for “more practical” structures, built for the “needs” of today, and designed with a 20-year lifespan in mind.
Meanwhile, Charleston lives on, as it has for over 300 years, growing slowly, sometimes contracting, but always maintaining a proper sense of the true purpose of property—to provide for the true needs of its owners, not merely their unlimited “wants,” and thus to make the life of people and of communities worth living.