The Importance of Keeping the Riff-Raff Out

Club memberships have been a part of my family tradition since the Gilded Age.  Although it isn’t one of our more prestigious memberships, my business membership in Sam’s Club is doubtless one of the more useful.  One of the nice perks with such a membership is the ability to get in and get your shopping done before 1000, when they open up the place to the general membership and the check-out lines assume Wal-Mart proportions.  When I’m able to take advantage of this, Palm Beacher that I am, I tell my wife that I’m going to Sam’s “before the riff-raff gets there.”

Such sentiments don’t do anything for my Christian humility (such as it is), but they’re instinctive.  (For NT students, this is a “Romans 7” moment).  Keeping the riff-raff out is Rule #1 for an exclusive community of any kind, and it certainly drove much of Palm Beach’s life when I grew up there.  It drove Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal’s Church’s vestry to eject the ladies’ rummage sale from the church grounds.  It also nearly derailed Palm Beach getting its beloved Publix.

Today, of course, our elites assure us that they are the product of a “meritocracy”, as opposed to the old “WASP inherited” deal.  They also assure us that the world is “flattening” due to social media, so the stratified social structure of days gone by no longer exist.

Such self-congratulation, however is belied by stuff like this:

As I have argued elsewhere, there are two competing models of successful American cities. One encourages a growing population, fosters a middle-class, family-centered lifestyle, and liberally permits new housing. It used to be the norm nationally, and it still predominates in the South and Southwest. The other favors long-term residents, attracts highly productive, work-driven people, focuses on aesthetic amenities, and makes it difficult to build. It prevails on the West Coast, in the Northeast and in picturesque cities such as Boulder, Colorado and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The first model spurs income convergence, the second spurs economic segregation. Both create cities that people find desirable to live in, but they attract different sorts of residents…

Finally, there’s the never-mentioned possibility: that the best-educated, most-affluent, most politically influential Americans like this result. They may wring their hands over inequality, but in everyday life they see segregation as a feature, not a bug. It keeps out fat people with bad taste. Paul Krugman may wax nostalgic about a childhood spent in the suburbs where plumbers and middle managers lived side by side. But I doubt that many of his fervent fans would really want to live there. If so, they might try Texas.

Keeping out fat people with bad taste…now that’s the Palm Beach way!  By using the regulatory process to restrict land use, our “flattened” elites have managed to create exclusive enclaves for themselves from which to rule the rest of us, all the while presiding over a widening gap between themselves and the rest of the country.

Palm Beach itself is a good example of this in action.  The Bloomberg article noted the high cost of living in élite places, and that of course starts with housing.  We sold our Palm Beach house forty years ago next month.  A little figuring and research tells me that, even in the current market, the value of the house and land (mostly the latter) has risen about ten times the rate of inflation in the intervening years.  Unlike Paul Krugman, we didn’t live down the street from the plumber, but today I couldn’t even live on my street.

To build anything on the island is next to impossible, although it’s certainly possible to replace a home under the right conditions.  (One thing that makes that simpler is the fact that many homes in Palm Beach aren’t visible from the street because of the foliage).  The island is larded with places on the National Register of Historical Places, including my home church.

With commercial development things are even more complicated.  The aforementioned Publix found the only way to rebuild this island institution was to go around the dreaded Architectural Commission (ARCOM) and come to the Town Council to get the approvals it needed.  Testa’s Restaurant, a more ancient institution where my grandparents dined, has flirted with financial disaster in the process of attempting to get its property redeveloped.  The rent structure of the place has even driven out long-running (55 years) places like Hamburger Heaven.

The result from the island standpoint is that, while locals wring their hands over the problems of redeveloping places like the Royal Poinciana Plaza (where I used to go to Abercrombie & Fitch before they went mass market) more and more retail leaves the island, forcing the residents (especially those who actually live there and not the pied à terre set) to go off the island and mix with the riff raff.  It’s dreadful.

Although Palm Beach is an out-sized example of just about everything, exclusive communities, heavily regulated by land use restrictions and populated by people who can manipulate and outlast such an environment for their own benefit, dot our country and house those who make decisions for everyone.  Even with the pervasive influence of social media, once you achieve geographic segregation, all other kinds follow.

The thing that bothers me more than anything else about this is that our elites can develop a “keep the riff-raff out” driven agenda and still proclaim the society that results as the most just and fair society in human history, denigrating all that has gone before it.  The capacity of human beings for hypocrisy, self-righteousness and blindness to same never ceases to amaze.

And as for those Evangelical Christians on the outside?  One of the big problems Evangelicals face is that their whole life view and structure came up in an open structure.  That structure is still very much alive but, short of splitting the country up, I think that the centralisation of power and money will continue apace, progressively shrinking it.  But I still believe that, with a little paradigm shift, we can adjust.  As I pointed out in the About page:

It used to be, for those of us who happen to live in the United States, that exclusivism and snobbery were the kiss of death in an open and egalitarian society.  But times have changed.  Today we live in a society where the road to the top is well marked educationally and credentially, and becoming more so all of the time.  We even put into the highest office someone who can justifiably be characterised as an elitist snob.

However, for a Palm Beacher such as myself, Jesus’ claims of exclusivity were never a put-off.  In fact, in a place where exclusive clubs and other élite organisations (including churches like the one pictured here) were a natural part of the landscape, the thought of God himself proclaiming an eternal exclusive club was a major part of the appeal.  And having a very well-defined road to joining that club was a natural too.

But the best news of all was this: the membership of this club is open to all who will follow the Master, and he has already paid the dues.

If you’re interested in joining this club, click here for more information

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