Our Contest isn’t about Streets, it’s about Centers
Soon after the financial crisis in 2008 and immediately after the Occupy Wall Street event, the issue before us was framed as a conflict between Wall Street and Main Street. The issue before us is actually a much deeper conflict between two centers: civic centers and financial centers.
The fundamental question isn’t about small business (main street) vs. big business (corporations), even though that is important in terms of sustainability; or even about the 99% vs. the 1%, although that is a central question in regard to justice. The fundamental question is simple: Will financial centers serve as the centers of our life together or will civic centers?
The United States began, as you know, with property owners. The American Revolution in many ways was a commercial, not a civic, revolution. Still, slave owners like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wrote about liberty and human rights. In time, these implicit civic themes were expanded on by some states granting non-owners the right to vote, and later by the Civil War. After the war former slaves could vote even without owning property. Jim Crow laws soon took away these rights, but the notion that civic membership was no longer based on property ownership remained.
Further expansion of civic membership occurred when women won the right to vote and workers won the right to organize. Later, in the civil rights movement, we got a foretaste of a nation of citizens, instead of a nation of property owners. The law and order reaction to this dream, as well as the attack on labor unions, has dimmed the lights on the possibility of a civic life together. We now have a major political party that despises the civic. We also have some progressives that have abandoned the civic and think they can fight financial centers (streets) without it. A big mistake.
On the one hand, a civic center is a particular place. In San Francisco, it is around Market and Hyde. It is also a public space—a space for the people. This space, however, is not just a location; it is also a space for conversations—civic conversations. These conversations can actually happen in other places. They are civic because they are open, not private, and equal, not hierarchical. They are spaces where we realize ourselves as citizens. In these conversations, we move out of the feudalistic structures of global capitalism and recapture the spirit of democracy—a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In this civic space, we have the necessary means—empathy, good arguments, laws and law enforcers, even prisons—to ensure that our future is guided by civic values rather than financial interests.