urb/orgs part 3: land trusts, elites, and the public good
16 June 1947
Motored to Brockhampton, arriving in the cool of the evening. How beautiful this place is. I walked down to Lower Brockhampton just before dark, the trees dead quiet, not even whispering, and the undergrowth steaming. Two enormous black-and-white bulls gave me a fright by noiselessly poking their great faces over a gate and peering at me in a meditative manner. This evening the whole tragedy of England impressed itself upon me. This small, not very important seat, in the heart of our secluded country, is now deprived of its last squire. A whole social system has broken down. What will replace it beyond government by the masses, uncultivated, rancorous, savage, philistine, the enemies of all things beautiful? How I detest democracy. More and more I believe in benevolent autocracy. (Lees-Milne 2009, p. 18)
This little gem comes from the diaries of James Lees-Milne, the Historic Buildings Secretary of England’s National Trust. The extensive diaries of Lees-Milne’s journeys around the British countryside acquiring properties for the Trust are very funny and gossipy stuff for Merchant Ivory fans or those with a bent for real estate exotica. His personal life was even juicier. Mike McQuarrie asked in an earlier comment why cheap, low-quality architectural design for the masses is so “anti-social,” and Lees-Milne’s elegy vividly shows how preservation movements are tied up with anti-democratic sentiment and social control– a standard critique in a wide variety of environmental literatures (my favorite here). In my last post in this series, I talked about the often unheralded role of real estate in organizational life, using Dorothy Height’s memoir of her work with the National Council of Negro Women as an example. This time, I stick with life-writing about organizational work, but shift to consider a special kind of organization– private land trusts and historic preservation societies that seek to conserve real estate itself, typically for its architectural, historic, or environmental value.
Not only do these organizations face the daunting task of committing to care for such properties literally forever (do a little momentary thought experiment about strategic planning for eternity), but with limited resources, they must also decide which are worth saving. The type of work that land trusts do– approaching private property owners, evaluating whether the property (or an easement on it) is one the organization wants, and at what price, and convincing the owners both that the organization will be a better steward and that the owner is getting some benefit out of surrendering their property or their property rights– is an extremely delicate dance of opportunism and obligation.
The kind of person who can make personal contact with a property owner on behalf of such an organization is a very special person indeed; such courtships can involve many informal meetings and property walks over the course of years. Lees-Milne’s diaries are filled with accounts of foul suppers and lumpy beds endured while pursuing and escaping his hosts between 1936 and 1951. Given that many large properties are owned by the wealthy or farmers, the person (usually a man) must have the cultural capital and social networks to move easily among exclusive social groups– the ability to make owners feel comfortable with the organization and to carry out on the fly the sophisticated discrimination required to gauge architectural and ecological significance, both notoriously hard to evaluate. This sort of intimate knowledge of the physical and environmental landscape and the field of competing buyers, not to mention owners’ all-important health and mental status, byzantine legal messes, and complicated family dramas, takes many years to develop and requires intimate familiarity with local community. That would be plenty for one person to handle, but it also requires the ability to “scale jump” from the bulls’ eye view to a birds’ eye view of the national or regional fabric of conserved properties. Concern for the larger public good– and to be sure, local open space is a shared good of international scope because of migratory species and water flows, cf. Ostrom– often clashes with what locals are interested in (or capable of) protecting on their own.
By necessity, land trusts often have to divide this labor, but those with unusual success often rely on that rare bird-bull hybrid who embodies all of these deft skills and deep networks, and who becomes an institution in his or her own right. Interestingly, these independent figures often go “beyond” the organization, integrating their personal and public lives and moving between and among bird watchers and bird hunters, state agencies, Farm Bureau meetings, and private clubs with minimal friction and fuss. In an entry from 1947, Lees-Milne wonders why his friend Eddy Sackville-West didn’t like Lord Sackville, and describes where his loyalties lie:
I am not sure how pleased the Trust will be with me for disclosing these figures, but I believe we must always be absolutely frank with decent donors like Lord Sackville. My sympathies are always with them. In fact my loyalties are first to the houses, second to the donors, and third to the National Trust. I put the Trust last because it is neither a work of art nor a human being, but an abstract thing, a convenience. (Lees-Milne 2009, p. 40)
My own work has looked at the ways in which highly mobile non-local representatives can gain legitimacy by virtue of their discretion, their ability to avoid seeming too “organizational,” and their refusal to abide by locally-constrained versions of civic virtue. These backstage efforts to advance alternative versions of the public interest (as opposed to those that local civic networks regularly promote) can complicate our understanding of the relationship between elite interests and competing constructions of the public good.
But for readers of this blog, one of the things that makes these individuals and their balance of “friendly visiting” and global real estate financing so interesting is the way they can move between two warring factions that Lis Clemens describes in a fascinating 2010 article in Theory & Society: “obligation-hoarding” urban business networks seeking to locate civic responsibility at the local level, and the “nationalizers” who “sought to strengthen and elaborate a distinctive national, patriotic identity embedded within civic networks of formally private organizations” (p. 389). Clemens says that “the stakes in these conflicts were high, inasmuch as the relationships within which obligations were embedded could be linked to broader political identities at the scale of either community or nation” (p. 390), and obviously the particular struggles over community chests and Red Cross drives she describes are somewhat peculiar to American political development. But with these battles over civic virtue at various scales in mind, we can interpret the singularity of Lees-Milne’s voice, and his evident sympathies for the silent buildings, forests, and bulls of particular places, as forms of resistance against the siren call of organizational and patriotic belonging, surely a consolation for the loneliness of this particular species of organizational actor.