Durable Growth

“Mormon Country” and building a community life

Urban street

Urban street

Two books were suggested as pre-reading for the recent annual meeting of the Congress of the New Urbanism.  To my credit, I secured both books.   To my discredit, I didn’t begin reading either until I was aboard the airplane.

The meeting location of Salt Lake City presumably affected the selections.  The first book, Town Planning in Frontier America, is filled with interesting information, but is also dry.  It couldn’t hold my interest on a crowded airplane.  I quickly set it aside.  It now lingers on my shelf for future reading.

The other volume, Mormon Country by Wallace Stegner, was far more compelling.  I suspect that it was recommended to give a sense of history to those who would be visiting Salt Lake City for the first time.  But I found that it also offered lessons that apply to urbanism.

Stegner is mostly known for his fiction.  His comfortable, understated prose has a distinctive, but not overbearing, style.  The lessons that he imparts are conveyed slowly, but surely.  I’ve haven’t read his entire body of fiction, but have enjoyed several of his novels, of which Angle of Repose is my favorite.

In addition to his fiction, Stegner wrote several well-respected works of non-fiction.  Beyond the 100th Meridian, which describes the early Grand Canyon explorations of seminal figure John Wesley Powell, is perhaps the best known.  Mormon Country is another worthy effort.

Stegner, who was neither raised a Mormon nor became one, but spent much of his life among Mormons, had a complicated relationship with his subject.  He’s skeptical of much of the Mormon religion, particularly the aspects that touch on prophecy and mysticism.

In 1942, when Stegner published his book, Mormonism was still evolving and adjusting to the secular world.  The religion still contained elements of the divine revelations reported by Joseph Smith and the folklore that had been conveyed to the intermountain west by Mormon converts from around the world.  Stegner didn’t disdain that part of Mormonism, but neither did he embrace it.

However, Stegner was enamored of the quiet dignity and contentment of daily life in Mormon towns.  And he respected how the community members who partook of that life had been able in a relatively few years to tame and to make profitable a region that most non-Mormons thought without value.

Stegner’s own childhood had been subject to regular dislocations.  The stability and quiet pleasure of life in a Mormon town was a revelation to him.

There are lessons in what Stegner saw in the Mormon communities of the 1930s and early 1940s.  And those lessons have application to our 21st century world.

The American Dream, as usually depicted in the media and as perceived by many, is largely individualistic.  It’s about individual achievement and individual rewards.  And reasonably so.  Much of the American economic success has been the result of the vision of people from Vanderbilt and Carnegie to Gates and Jobs.

But that vision of the American Dream led to many defining their version of the dream as a suburban home on a small parcel of land.  It was to be their little fortress of individualism.

For the last week, an advertisement for a Marin County raffle has been appearing on my email page.  The prize has been described as a “dream house”.  A photo of an architecture detail is shown, but no hints are given of the community in which the home is located, the neighbors who might share gardening tools, or the businesses which might be a short walk away.  The raffle conforms to the version of the American Dream in which one’s four walls are all that matter.

But Stegner’s understanding of the Mormon communities of his time points the way to a different vision.  Home is still important, but also important are civic functions and involvement.  Indeed, the Mormons of whom Stegner writes seem more content than the Americans who chase the more individualistic dream.

I like my home.  My wife has done a fine job of decorating it and making it a good place to live.  Walking in the front door and plopping into my favorite reading chair feels like home, as does sitting down to a quiet dinner with my wife.

But there are other things about my life that also feel like “home”.  Chatting with a neighbor about pruning the rose bush on our property line.  Trading rumors about new restaurants with my barber.  Being greeted with familiarity in a pub.  Exchanging greetings at a City Council meeting.

Opponents of urbanism often invoke the fictitious Coercion Myth, suggesting that everyone will be forced to live colorless lives in featureless block buildings.  For many, not only is that specter false, it is also wrong-headed.  It’s living in a stucco palace on a block filled with stucco palaces that is thin and unsatisfying.  Living where one can walk between a network of favorite places is what offers true contentment.

The Mormon communities of Stegner’s time may have little in common with American life in the 21st century.  But the sense of satisfaction that Stegner noted as comes from living in a welcoming and comfortable community offers lessons that apply nicely to our time.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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