Friday, January 27, 2012

A Fair Hope of Success

Ma'ikwe and I just spent four days visiting my brother, Guy, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, where he and my sister-in-law, Elaine, retired two years ago.

It's different here than in the Chicago suburbs where they lived for 35 years. For example, when we went to bed Wed night the outdoor temperature was still north of 70 degrees. For Jan 25, I considered that a little odd. Pleasant, mind you, but definitely odd.

As an example of the amusing ways that Fate tends to spring little surprises on people, Guy & Elaine have inadvertently settled in a town that's home to one of the longest lasting communal experiments in US history: Fairhope, Alabama. That's funny because I've been totally immersed in the relatively obscure world of intentional communities since 1974. And while my family still loves me, my four siblings all think I'm a little (or you could substitute a more robust adjective here) weird for having removed my particular acorn so far from the Republican conservative tree from which we descended.

To be clear, Guy & Elaine moved here because of the climate, the ambiance, and the year-round golf—not because of any late-breaking egalitarian urge inspired by brotherly propinquity. Consider it serendipity, but Ma'ikwe and I enjoyed an informative hour in the Fairhope Historical Museum Wed afternoon (there's a sandwich board on the downtown sidewalk outside the building, informing strollers in chalk that there's "Commune inside," in much the same you might be enticed by a shoe sale, raw oysters, or gingerbread lattes).

• • •
The intentional roots of Fairhope go back to 1879, when the economic philosopher Henry George published his seminal work, Progress and Poverty. While apparently dry reading, it was nonetheless a hot item in its day—outselling everything except The Bible for several years. George's basic premise was that people should be entitled to the full benefit of what they created with their labor, while that which was produced by nature—notably land—should be shared equally by all. To address what he saw as the inequalities of modern life and the uncertainties generated by boom and bust industrial growth cycles, George came up with the single tax concept, based on the value of land, as a potential remedy.

Among other things, George's writing inspired the Populist Party in the latter part of the 19th Century, which reached its peak in 1892 when
James Weaver ran as a presidential candidate. He carried four states in that election, making it one of the strongest showings by a third party candidate in US history. Breaking from the Republicans led by Civil War hero Ulysses Grant, Weaver felt that the party of Abraham Lincoln had fallen too much under the control of big business (do some things ever change?).

The Populist Party ran on a platform which included the advocacy of
direct election of US Senators, graduated income tax, and relaxation of the gold standard for backing US currency—all reforms that were eventually adopted. While the Populist Party waned after the 1892 election (its support eventually absorbed by William Jennings Bryan), there was a cadre of folks in Des Moines who were inspired to experiment with Georgist thinking on the ground, rather than through the ballot box.

Under the guidance of newspaperman E B Gaston, this forming group articulated the following mission:
—to establish and conduct a model community or colony, free from all forms of private monopoly, and to secure to its members therein equality of opportunity, the full reward of individual efforts, and the benefits of cooperation in matters of general concern.

In 1894, the group bought a few hundred acres on the undeveloped eastern shore of Mobile Bay, and the experiment was begun, with "a fair hope of success." The Fairhope Single Tax Colony was begun with 28 intrepid souls, nine of whom were children. With the exception of one couple from Pennsylvania and another from California, all the first settlers came from the upper Midwest—foreshadowing a migratory trend that continues today [I couldn't help but notice that the calendar section of the daily Press-Register ("connecting coastal Alabama since 1813") is chock full of meetings dates for the Michigan Snowbirds, Iowa Snowbirds, Minnesota Snowbirds, Indiana Snowbirds, etc].

While progressive and adventurous, the early colonists were not particularly well off. Their early self-descriptive tagline was: Fairhope is a place where none are rich yet few are poor. Their modest original landholding was greatly expanded in the 1910s when philanthropist Joseph Fels (scion of the Fels Naptha fortune) was sufficiently inspired to pony up the money needed to increase the holding by more than 4000 additional acres—which is essentially what the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation owns today.

(Fels also provided the financial backing for a second Georgist colony in Arden, Delaware—started in 1900 and also still going today.)

Sprouting from its progressive rootstock,
Fairhope created an enclave that was an early proponent of gender equality, and a strong supporter of education and artistic initiative. In 1907, Marietta Johnson founded the Organic School. Singled out for praise in John Dewey's 1915 classic, Schools for Tomorrow, the school continues to this day based on Johnson's original (and surprisingly modern) philosophy:

1. We respect a child's individual learning style and pattern of growth.

2. We encourage children to experience the world by trying new tasks and ideas, experimenting and experiencing with all their senses.

3. Rather than requiring traditional tests, examinations and pressure to achieve an adult-designed goal, we allow freedom in approaching learning experiences according to the individual child's needs.

4. We strive to create an atmosphere that promotes the desire to learn by offering a flexible, free-flowing structure, adaptable to each child's needs.

Early on, the colony became an artistic center, and the tradition continues with the annual Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival which has straddled a mid-March weekend for 60 years running, and now attracts a quarter million people to a town that only boosts 16,000 year-round residents. (Talk about a boon to local business, it must be about as easy to find a Fairhope motel room around the vernal equinox as it it get one in Louisville the first weekend in May.)

In its early years, Fairhope was a relatively isolated outpost. Most of the colony's income was earned from docking and ferry fees (boats were the only reasonable way to get to and from Mobile until the causeway was built across the top of the bay in the 1930s—prior to that it was a two-day road trip because you had to go up around the extensive delta wetlands north of the bay).

Holding its land in common, the single tax corporation was able to use its lease fees for the common benefit and developed extensive public parks and also utilities. Though mostly these public assets were turned over to the town in the 1930s, when lease income was no longer sufficient to cover property taxes, it provided the town with such a strong financial base that Fairhope was able to operate without a local sales tax until only a few years ago.

Today the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation quietly continues with about 1800 leaseholds, owning somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of the property in town. From its start as a utopian experiment, the community evolved to become an artist and intellectual enclave, eventually transforming into the boutique resort and affluent suburb of Mobile it is today.

Nov 15 is Round Up Day in Fairhope—marking the day that the 28 original settlers first set foot on the land. Rather than the sinister associations that adhere to "round up" in connection with pogroms or Monsanto, it's nice to know that there's a fair hope of rehabilitating that term down in Alabama.