The Fountainhead: Urban Renewal

The Fountainhead: Urban Renewal July 5, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 19

One day after the trial, Roark is at work (on what? who’s hiring him now?) when he gets a call from Gail Wynand’s secretary asking to set up a meeting the following day. For the first time ever in his life, he finds himself too anxious and distracted to focus on the work in front of him, and he takes the rest of the day off.

When he arrives at the Banner Building, it’s mostly empty. As he’s ascending in the elevator, he feels a moment of relief, but as soon as he enters Wynand’s office, he can tell that there’s “no cure and no hope”:

Wynand sat behind his desk and rose when he entered, looking straight at him. Wynand’s face was more than the face of a stranger… [a] face remote and quiet, with a dignity of its own, not a living attribute, but the dignity of a figure on a medieval tomb that speaks of past greatness and forbids a hand to reach out for the remains.

“Mr. Roark, this interview is necessary, but very difficult for me. Please act accordingly.”

Roark knew that the last act of kindness he could offer was to claim no bond. He knew he would break what was left of the man before him if he pronounced one word: Gail. Roark answered: “Yes, Mr. Wynand.”

In Ayn Rand’s lives, there are no second acts.

This flows from the fact that her characters are static philosophical principles in human form, rather than actual people who grow and change. When their author-assigned purpose fails, there’s nothing else they can do with themselves. Like the damned ghosts in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, they dwindle into mere shadows of their former selves.

Gail Wynand is an example. His life’s ambition to control human beings through controlling the media they consume was a failure. He learned too late that his power is hollow and always was. Most people would feel depressed and adrift after suffering such a blow to their self-image, so that’s understandable.

However, despite the fall in his fortunes, he’s still rich enough to do anything he wants. He could retire from the newspaper business and find something else to do with his life: run for office, or devote his life to charity, or travel to Tibet and take up meditation, or build a submarine to explore the ocean.

But Rand tells us that he’ll never recover. Instead of seeking a new purpose to devote himself to, he just gives up. He intends to spend the rest of his life… what? Barricaded in his office, getting food through a slot? Living like a recluse in his mansion, collecting jars of urine? It’s not clear.

Wynand summoned Roark to give him one last commission. He once told Roark that he bought the block of Hell’s Kitchen where he grew up, planning to build the tallest and most magnificent skyscraper in the city as a monument to his life. Now he intends to bring those plans to fruition, but not for his own sake any more:

“I wish to undertake the construction of the Wynand Building at once. I wish it to be the tallest structure of the city. Do not discuss with me the question of whether this is timely or economically advisable. I wish it built. It will be used — which is all that concerns you… But I wish it understood that I shall not have to see you. There will be an agent to represent me in all technical and financial matters. You will deal with him. You will hold all further conferences with him… You are not to expect or attempt to see me. Should you do so, you will be refused admittance. I do not wish to speak to you. I do not wish ever to see you again. If you are prepared to comply with these conditions, please read the contract and sign it.”

Roark reached for a pen and signed without looking at the paper.

Wynand says he has enough standing left to guarantee that the building will be rented out: “You need have no fear of erecting a useless structure” – which is an odd reassurance to make, since Roark doesn’t care about that. Once something is built, he loses all interest in what happens to it.

Wynand says that, except for New York City, his media empire is alive and well. It will last the rest of his lifetime, but he intends to liquidate it when he dies:

“If you consider the behavior of the world at present and the disaster toward which it is moving you might find the undertaking preposterous. The age of the skyscraper is gone. This is the age of the housing project. Which is always a prelude to the age of the cave. But you are not afraid of a gesture against the whole world. This will be the last skyscraper ever built in New York. It is proper that it should be so. The last achievement of man on earth before mankind destroys itself.”

“Mankind will never destroy itself, Mr. Wynand. Nor should it think of itself as destroyed. Not so long as it does things such as this.”

… “That is up to you. Dead things — such as the Banner — are only the financial fertilizer that will make it possible. It is their proper function.”

Contradicting Wynand’s pessimism, Roark is confident that he just has to ignore socialist bad guys like Ellsworth Toohey and keep building big, phallic skyscrapers. As long as he does this, humanity will eventually come around and reason and capitalism will triumph.

Ironically, this is the conclusion that Rand’s heroes in Atlas Shrugged have to learn to reject. In that book, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart’s plot arc consists of them coming to accept that they have to give up on their work and abandon the world to communist dictatorship and civilizational collapse (“the age of the cave”).

But if we’re really worried about collapse? It turns out it’s not the housing projects that are the biggest threat, but the suburbs.

This article by Strong Towns discusses the predicament that towns and cities across the U.S. are facing, using the city of Lafayette, Louisiana as an example. Like many cities, Lafayette has a huge backlog of infrastructure maintenance: roads to be repaved, pipes to be replaced, sewage and water treatment plants to be maintained, and so on. But:

When we added up the replacement cost of all of the city’s infrastructure — an expense we would anticipate them cumulatively experiencing roughly once a generation — it came to $32 billion. When we added up the entire tax base of the city, all of the private wealth sustained by that infrastructure, it came to just $16 billion.

…The median household income in Lafayette is $41,000. With the wealth that has been created by all this infrastructure investment, a median family living in the median house would need to have their city taxes go from $1,500 per year to $9,200 per year. To just take care of what they now have, one out of every five dollars this family makes would need to go to fixing roads, ditches and pipes. That will never happen.

This is the end result of what the site calls the “growth Ponzi scheme”. By building more and more sprawling suburban developments, local governments get a temporary bump in tax revenue, but at the cost of committing themselves to unsustainable long-term infrastructure spending. As I’ve previously written, Florida has an especially bad case of this problem, but many suburbs across the U.S. suffer from it to some degree.

So what kind of development is sustainable? Turns out, it’s the dense, walkable, mixed-use areas that are often found in historic districts and urban cores – the parts of the city built before it was assumed that daily life would revolve around the car.

This pattern repeats itself in towns and cities across America. When we build for people, we get economically prosperous places. When we build for cars, we get low-value developments. The result is that the urban core is almost always financially propping up the entire city.

Most of America’s car-centered suburbs are unsustainable resource drains. They can only exist through implicit or explicit subsidies from the productive urban cores. It’s been estimated that the maintenance backlog is at least $4 trillion, and when the bill can’t be deferred any longer, it’s likely that many of these places as we now know them will cease to exist.

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