Circle of life.

Coming to Your Town: Change

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The village of Bloomingburg, New York, is pondering drastic action to prevent immigration: Rather than allow a developer to build 400 townhomes to house Hasidic families, it is considering dissolving the village and having it absorbed by a larger neighboring community, which will dilute the Hasidic vote and hopefully allow it to keep the town from turning into the next Ramapo.

This is a hard case to write about, because it stirs up a lot of ugly emotions. Decades after communities such as Darien, Connecticut, were forced to drop their restrictions on people "of the Hebrew race," the Bloomingburg case pits gentiles against Jews, and the conflict sometimes takes on anti-Semitic overtones. Of course, the people of Bloomingburg will say that they just want to preserve the character of their community -- but, of course, that's also what the folks running Darien might have said in 1931.

At the same time, you can understand why the residents of Bloomingburg are nervous. For one thing, Bloomingburg had just 420 residents at the last census; 400 townhomes overflowing with large Hasidic families will easily double or triple its population, changing the rural character of the village, as well as what services and businesses are available.

Building the development will also undoubtedly hand over political control of Bloomingburg's government to a group that will likely have very different interests from that of the non-Hasidic population. Such a situation has created great conflict in the East Ramapo Central School District, where Hasidim control the school board. Ramapo's Hasidim send their children to private religious schools, using the public school system only to obtain special-education services for disabled community members, and parents charge that they have gutted the regular school system to pay for that special education and keep taxes low.

People living in big cities tend to be mystified by opposition to immigration, because when you live in a major metropolis that's filled with a constantly changing array of strangers, immigration is mostly a matter of bringing you new choices in ethnic eateries. In small places, however, immigration can quickly change a community into something entirely different -- something that's maybe not so hospitable to people like you. I asked a Modern Orthodox friend about the situation in Bloomingburg, and he said, "What the protestors are correct about is that the tipping point can arrive very quickly. Once an area becomes known as a viable spot for Orthodox, lots of them can move in very quickly, shifting communal institutions really fast."

He notes that, whatever the truth of the Ramapo situation, this is not a strictly zero-sum conflict -- in the area of Long Island where he grew up, the Orthodox community pays a lot of taxes to fund the school system but doesn't use any of the services, resulting in very high spending per pupil on those who remain in the schools. But he also notes that there is an obvious public-choice problem when the people on the school board don't use the schools -- and an equally obvious public-choice problem when the people on the school board use the schools but don't pay the taxes to fund them.

It is a recurring theme on this blog that other peoples' choices have real externalities: that there are, in fact, real benefits to living around people such as yourself. Working mothers benefit from being around other working mothers, whose demand creates support services they need (such as day care and solid pre-prepared meal choices). Stay-at-home mothers benefit from being around other SAHMs, who provide social support, adult company and demand for good places to take small children during the day. DINK gentrifiers benefit from having lots of other DINK gentrifiers around to create demand for things such as good bars and restaurants and dog walkers, just as the people they displaced benefited from all the social and commercial networks that made up the "old neighborhood."

People are not evil or wrong to dislike neighborhood change; it often really does represent a great loss for them, as the neighborhood starts to be designed around the needs of the newcomers instead of the old-timers. This is especially so when you throw local government into the mix; different communities may vote differently from each other not because one of the groups is selfish and mean, but because different groups of people have legitimately different interests, and it is natural for everyone to see their interests as especially important.

It is, of course, quite wrong to move from "I dislike this" or "This makes me worse off" to "I hate those people" or "They have no right to be here." Unless you are a full-blooded American Indian or a descendant of slaves, then any American reading this is descended from folks who moved here despite the seething resentment of the folks who were there before them. Which gives you little moral standing to protest the next wave of immigration.

Am I sympathetic to the people of Bloomingburg? Absolutely -- though of course not to the extent of condoning anti-Semitic gestures. Change isn't always wonderful for those who liked what they had before.

But that doesn't mean it's a good idea to give them -- or the neighboring community -- veto power over that change. Communities are increasingly seeking to preserve themselves in amber, no larger, or poorer or richer, or foreign-born, or more or less religious, than they were 10 years ago. If previous generations had taken that tack, than many of our ancestors would be dead back in Ireland or Russia or Greece, and none of the communities we are trying to preserve would even exist.

And in this case, I suspect it's futile. The Hasidim are fleeing the same pressures that they are now creating in Bloomingburg: Brooklyn gentrified, and house prices went up, and it's no longer a good place to live for large families whose men frequently devote most of their waking hours to studying the Torah. They are moving to the Catskills because land is cheap there, and they are congregating in numbers large enough to overwhelm the surrounding gentile population because religious practice and their total immersion in the community make that the most practical way for them to live. Bloomingburg may slow down the pace of change by denying them a townhome development, but I doubt they will stop it. And something will be lost when that change comes -- and something else will be gained, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net