Habits of the Holland Heart

September 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I spent a week in Holland, Michigan at the end of August (family, wedding), but I didn’t find out until now that also in August, the Atlantic was running a series of blogposts (here, for example) about Holland by James Fallows, who was also hanging around town. 

Fallows writes admiringly of Holland.  A strong sense of civic engagement has kept the downtown vibrant while elsewhere in the US, downtowns have had their life sucked out by the malls and bigbox stores at the periphery. That civic sense probably has something to do with Holland’s history as a conservatively religious Dutch town.  It’s hard to miss the Protestant presence. Churches and church schools abound. So do Dutch names. Also windmills and tulips.

On Holland’s main street, this banner –  a spoof on “American Gothic” – conveys the dour Dutch Reform sensibility and the tulips. The civic engagement is less obvious, contained perhaps in the idea that the town can laugh at itself.
But Holland also has a healthy manufacturing sector – furniture, scrap and recycling, pickles – and Fallows attributes much of Holland’s vitality to the non-corporate ownership and therefore the non-corporate ethos and behavior of those companies. These are family-run companies, not large multinationals. For those big corporations, says Fallows. . .
. . . it is a compliment rather than a criticism to say that ultimately they care most about dividend growth and "maximizing shareholder value." Toward that end layoffs, outsourcing, cost-cutting, cheese-paring, union-busting -- you name it, and if it can arguably lead to greater long-run corporate profitability, then by definition it is what management is supposed to do.

A family or privately run business can do things differently, for better and worse. Worse: management jobs for relatives, whether competent or not. Better: deciding in some cases to take a temporary loss, or settle for less-than-maximized profit, in exchange for some other goal. (The full Fallows post is here.)
In the schema of Habits of the Heart, Holland weaves the Biblical and civic republican strands of the American tradition. The other strands – utilitarian individualism (a.k.a. greed) and expressive individualism – are less in evidence.  Holland’s big businesses are firmly in the international economy, but while they act globally, their owners and executives think locally. They seem to see themselves as part of the local community. 

I hadn’t read Fallows’s articles when I was in Holland so I knew nothing of its economics, but one thing immediately struck me as we drove around. (Missing a turn and ranging far from your intended direct route can have its advantages.)  It was obvious that there was wealth here, but the homes in Holland were relatively modest by US standards.  Where in other places McMansion developments or individual new monstrosities would be rising, Holland had normal ranch and two-story houses with lawns of a size that you could mow even without industrial-scale equipment.*
It was as though the display of such opulence would violate community standards.  In fact, several people I spoke with mentioned the resentment that David and Carol VanAndel are incurring with their construction of a $3.6 million mansion overlooking Lake Michigan.  (VanAndel is heir to the Amway fortune.)

By standards of East Hampton and elsewhere, it’s not exactly a tear-down, but it’s certainly not top tier.  Yet for the people in Holland, it was literally enormous – outside the norm – even for the wealthy.  On top of that, VanAndel is indulging his individual wishes explicitly at the expense of the public. He is cutting off public access to Big Red, the landmark lighthouse.

The lighthouse and pier are public, but access goes through VanAndel property, and he wants to allow the public to walk that path only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That is not the civic-mindedness that Fallows finds just about everywhere else in Holland.


* Big problem with methodology here – journalistic impressionism rather than social science (I haven’t even scanned Zillow). Maybe Holland is rife with mansions, and I was just looking for conspicuous consumption in all the wrong places.

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