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Delaware's Odd, Beautiful, Contentious, Private Utopia

Arden is a suburb, an artist's colony, and a radical political experiment.

Arden Creek. Courtesy Arden Craft Shop Museum and the Arden Archives. Property of Arden Craft Shop Museum.Arden Creek. Courtesy Arden Craft Shop Museum and the Arden Archives. Property of Arden Craft Shop Museum.They held a town pageant in Arden, Delaware, on September 5, 1910: a medieval procession with performers dressed as knights, troubadours, pages, and squires. One Ardenite, an anarchist shoemaker named George Brown, played a beggar. This annoyed some of the other players, because no such role had actually been written. But Brown decided to add it to the program anyway, so he dressed in rags, caked himself with mud, and invaded the proceedings, taunting the other characters and demanding alms from the audience. Many "onlookers needed assurance," The Single Tax Review reported, that Brown "was only 'part of the show.'"

This was a pattern: Brown liked to talk, and not everyone liked to listen to him. According to the novelist Upton Sinclair, who lived at the time in a little Arden house that his neighbors had dubbed the Jungalow, Brown insisted on "discussing sex questions" at the Arden Economic Club. When the club asked him to cut it out, Brown declared his free-speech right to continue and kept talking until he'd broken up the meeting. He broke up the next meeting too, and finally, Sinclair wrote, "declared it his intention to break up all future meetings."

At this point some of the locals wanted to have him arrested for disturbing the peace. But that required outside help, because the town of Arden did not have a police force.

In fact, the town of Arden didn't have a government at all. Not, at least, in the usual sense of the word.

I should back up and explain a few things. Arden's origins go back to the Delaware Invasion of 1895 and '96, when the Single Tax movement tried to take over the state. The Single Taxers were followers of Henry George, a 19th century economist who argued that government should be financed solely by a tax on land values. No income tax, no sales tax, no tax on the improvements to a property—just one tax on land. The campaigners crisscrossed the state in armbands, knapsacks, and Union Army uniforms, delivering streetcorner speeches and singing Single Tax songs ("Get the landlords off your backs/With our little Single Tax/And there's lots of fun ahead for Delaware!"). More than a few got tossed in jail for their efforts.

The invasion was a flop. A disaster, really. Not only did their gubernatorial candidate get only 2.4 percent of the vote, but within a year the movement's foes would insert a provision into the state constitution that made a George-style tax impossible.

Unable to achieve their ideas at the ballot box, a group of Georgists decided to take another approach. In 1900 they acquired some farmland outside Wilmington, created what amounted to a community land trust, leased out plots to anyone who wanted to move in, levied rents based on the value of the unimproved land, and used the rent money to pay for public goods. In other words, they set up a private town and enacted the Single Tax program contractually. And with that double experiment in communalism and privatization, Arden was born.

I just called Arden a "town," but for its first few years it was essentially a summer resort. (Or a summer camp—many of the part-time residents slept in tents.) But by the end of the decade, particularly after the founders made some tweaks to the lease agreement in 1908, a year-round community had formed. It was a largely lower-middle-class crowd, with a high number of artists and craftsmen; it attracted not just Georgists but other sorts of nonconformists, from socialists to vegetarians. And anarchists, like our sexually explicit friend George Brown, who kept a cottage there with his common-law wife.

The Ardenfolk had institutions—the trustees who set the rents had a certain degree of power, and there were regular town meetings too—but they weren't a municipality and they didn't have any police. So in July 1911, aggravated by the shoemaker's antics, a group left the town limits, found the appropriate authorities, and swore out a warrant for Brown's arrest.

Not everyone in the colony liked this idea. "They did not want any 'laws or lawing in Arden,'" The New York Times reported, because "once the pernicious things came in there would be no getting rid of them." But the warrant was issued, and Brown ended up spending five days in the workhouse.

He soon got his revenge. While incarcerated, Brown claimed, he had an epiphany that "the Law is supreme and must be obeyed." And so he swore out a warrant of his own against Sinclair and 10 other Ardenites for violating Delaware's blue laws. The Arden 11 wound up serving 18 hours behind bars for the crime of playing baseball, playing tennis, and selling ice cream on a Sunday.

After the prisoners' sentences were completed, the town celebrated with a circus. The performance included an arrest of its own: A clown dressed as a cop entered the audience, grabbed a surprised Sinclair, and marched him away from the show.

Zen Suburbs

"I've spent more time debating things in the grocery store than I did buying that house," says Denise Nordheimer. "It was an impulse buy."

We're sitting in the Buzz Ware Village Center, where the Arden Community Planning Committee has been mulling such matters as a community garden and a bridge. The year is 2017, and everyone involved in the George Brown caper of 1911 is long dead. Yet Arden is still here, a little shire surrounded by an otherwise ordinary suburban landscape. It's a maze of narrow roads, abundant forests, and houses that look nothing like each other, some of them sporting engagingly unusual pieces of art in their yards. The place did eventually acquire a municipal government, but it took until 1967 for that to happen, and the change didn't represent a major shift in how the town was run so much as a convenient shell when dealing with the state and county authorities.

The place has even spawned two spinoffs, the neighboring villages of Ardentown and Ardencroft. Both are run on the same general principles. The three communities, known collectively as The Ardens, have a combined population of about 1,000 people. Nordheimer, an attorney, has been one of them for about a decade now.

In 2007 she and her family owned a home in Wilmington. Life was perfect, she says—"everything was just the way I wanted it"—except they lived on a busy street and her 7-year-old daughter was too nervous to ride a bike. "We just realized that she needed more physical independence and she was never going to get it at that house," says Nordheimer. "We always needed to supervise her."

"We have to move," she told her husband. "She's not learning to ride her bicycle."

Photo Credit: Courtesy Arden Craft Shop Museum and the Arden Archives. Property Arden Craft Shop Museum.

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  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    "And then there was the original Ardencroft, not to be confused with the current town of that name. In 1930 a group led by Stephens set it up near Arden as a homestead community, with the idea that "until the present Depression blows over, they intend to raise their own food." They planted vegetables, issued their own currency, got in a fight with the mother village about whether Arden would chip in to help build a bridge, and fell apart after two years."

    Lamest redneck horror movie origin story ever.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    "The arts-and-crafts movement, which exalted traditional craftsmanship and denounced centralized industrial production, was a heavy influence on Arden in the early days too"

    Until, that is, they suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Woodshop League in the War of the Red-Stained Wood Glue.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    "Arden isn't just reluctant to impose its own land-use rules. It has wrangled official exemptions from a number of county regulations too. New Castle County restricts how high your grass can grow, but those rules aren't enforced in Arden, where several of the locals keep natural gardens. When the county adopted "instant ticketing" for property code violations, Arden opted out. Ardenites are also allowed to ignore several rules restricting home-based businesses, and as a result there are a number of studios, workshops, and other enterprises in the village."

    +/- 1,000 down, +/- 6,999,999,000 to go...

  • Lily Bulero||

    A journey of 7,000,000,000 miles begins with 1,000 steps.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    A journey of N miles begins with [0,N) steps.

  • ||

    Glad to see there's an impulse of liberty still ticking in parts of America.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    Balko finds a way to combine the Hollywooders are creeps narrative to the Joe Ariapaio is a creep narrative for a super 1-2 combo nutpunch:

    Steven Seagal: Drug warrior, honorary cop, alleged serial sex abuser

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    When I wonder how freedom could spread, as in libertopias with no coercive government, this is what I think of ... grass-roots enclaves gradually agreeing that they will not use coercive state power against others who sign the same contract, and eventually so many people opting out that the coercive state gradually fades away. Maybe the Free Staters are part of that, maybe the Ardens are. Will it ever happen in practice? I doubt it, but then, time is infinite.

    Maybe all those tourists who are entranced by Arden will gradually bring enough demand for a second Arden, and a third. Delaware's a small state. 3 counties, I think. Maybe the Ardens will expand to take over an entire county.

    One can dream, can't one?

  • Qsl||

    At any given moment, most of the world resembles an anarchist commune- people going about their lives with little concern over the reins of power, peacefully going about their day without being compelled by the state, and in fact, moment by moment, more laws are broken than there are bureaucrats to enforce them, and somehow civilization doesn't come crashing down.

    The difficulty is that the moments are fleeting, and the anarchist commune of my room gives way to being a satellite office of the tax authority, focal point of the zoning magistrate, and back to anarchist commune, moment by moment.

    It seems the trick is to make the moments last at little longer each time, a few days into a few months of being unburdened by anything more than working on the latest cabinet revision. People are surprisingly good at simply ignoring false government.

    I think the Georgist were on to something in viewing claims of land ownership suspiciously. From plot to town to county to state to nation; it is easy to see how the fiefdom of government arises, and the person laying up barbed wire to stake his claim (with the sanction of the state) might be a tyrant in disguise.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Maybe government is a self-correcting disease. When government just started sporadic wars fought by volunteers, or taxed imports because it had no other funding, people didn't care a lot. But as it steps into more and more daily life, with occupational licensing, business permits, permits to fix a septic tank, speeding tickets and parking meters, and soda taxes, people dodge it more and more. I know a lot of people who do business without reporting either the income or the work to the government.

    What happens as more and more private business is done out of sight of the government? Maybe government will never end, per se, but only fade into controlling a public fiefdom that matters little to most people. Suppose people live out more and more of their lives online -- what good would it do to censor movies or books if they are never shown publicly? If all correspondence takes place in cryptographically private channels, what good does it do the control the post office?

    California started medical marijuana then got dragged into allowing recreational by sheer numbers of specious medical uses. I know a guy growing 100 plants who was told by code enforcement -- code enforcement! -- to get them out of sight: raise the fence or move them. I can't even begin to imagine the paradigm shift that has taken place. But what choice does the county have? There isn't enough standing room in the jails or enough prosecutorial budget.

  • Qsl||

    There was a line from an article on anarchism which was to the effect the purpose of government is to become obsolete. I could see this in terms of government serving more of an administrative function, to an idea of total government a la demarchy. There is an absolute limit on the expanse of government as it takes more resources to maintain than any possible benefit or simply looses its mandate to rule from incompetence. All empires fall.

    My suspicion however is the political scientist have nearly perfected extracting as much as possible from the populace while being able to project dominion. Meanwhile, another 17 year old lights a spliff and even the force of the American government is impotent to do much of anything about it.

  • Paloma||

    No, my HOA assures me that without stiff HOA fees and laws, all our property values would collapse.

  • CE||

    Time is infinite in only one direction.

  • oldtimer||

    I hoped this article would be posted here after I read it in the print edition, but was not sure it would be. A niche article, it most likely interests us Delawareans (whether we still live there or not) more than those not familiar with the area. An excellent article in that it didn't set off red flags for me, even with my prior knowledge of the neighborhoods.

  • buddhastalin||

    I loved this fascinating article. I have an interest in private governance and have never heard of Arden before. I live in Commifornia and would love to take a drive through Arden when I'm back in the East Coast visiting family.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    "once the pernicious things came in there would be no getting rid of them."

    Is that referring to laws, or socialists, vegetarians, and anarchists?

  • CE||

    All of the above.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Is it full of people related to Joe Biden? I'll pass.

  • Robert||

    This story makes me so happy. & so does your writing generally, Mr. Walker.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I think we may - MAY - see a growing anti-buttinsky sentiment in the country, going forward. It would certainly cheer me. But if we do, we are also going to see a long, drawn-out, rearguard action by the bureaucrats and meddlers.

    *sigh*

    I understand the impulse to say "It would be just so nice if everybody would do what I say". I have it, too (though I try to keep in locked away). What I don't understand is the impulse to tolerate it.

  • IceTrey||

    It seems to me throwing Henry George out on his ass would fall well within the NAP.

  • greymas||

    It's more socialist than the rest of New Castle County which is Joe Biden blue. It's nice to drive through. That's about it. I enjoyed the article.

  • AndyWingall||

    OK so I never heard of Arden until reading this article and since I happen to be in Delaware at this moment I did some googling. Prominent articles that came up describe Arden as a cult, many more proclaimed Arden full of witches, and quite a few described Arden as a haven for child molesters. Several articles cite the number of Arden's children having been molested at 90%. With suspicious sounding radically anti-Arden stats and accusations such as those, I have to assume that Arden is indeed a paradise where people have learned for the most part to mind their own businesses free from most urban social decay. The media has always been against individual liberty. I think media people have always been in a battle for people's minds. When the media trashes something I have to assume the opposite. It's a good lesson to live on.

  • mulp||

    So, the antigovernment anticentral planning Arden has centrally planned to make half the land totally unproductive by denying any opportunity to build on half the land in the town by making half the land government owned and thus exempt from paying taxes and forever denied being made productive land to provide jobs, incomes, housing, etc.

    How is Arden different than liberal metro areas where government owns maybe 10-20% of the land and prevents much development, just development like parks and water absorbers that are highly productive to the rest of the community and land owners?

  • Paloma||

    I thought in a free market, BOTH parties had to freely consent. If Arden owns the land and doesn't want to sell the land, they consider it a better deal than selling it for a couple billion. Now is someone paid them $50 billion, I bet they'd take it. But they are under no obligation to make it "productive" (for WHO?) nor provide jobs, incomes, or housing.

  • JFree||

    The land is as productive as they want it to be. And the reality is that they are NOT independent and the land is not 'exempt' from paying county-level property taxes. The buildings are taxed via PROPERTY taxes of Delaware (and Delaware specifically made Georgist land taxes illegal). If they were to lease the other land in the trust for development, then all of that incremental revenue would go to the county/state - not the community. If they were to lease to someone looking to build commercial property, then their entire property tax burden might shift over to commercial rated property and all of the land would then also be subject to county-level zoning. Ultimately, they would lose their control over their own community.

    IOW - you are a fucking idiot. Delaware deliberately backed that community into a corner because like most other places in the US, the real estate developers and bankers who run most local governments are hostile to any Georgist land tax (Alabama did the same with Fairhope). The only way the community can continue in existence is to avoid playing that tax game. Which means leaving land empty because it is DELAWARE that wants to demonstrate that a Georgist tax system cannot work. And Delaware is aided by useful idiots like you.

  • J-Lib||

    The Single Taxers were followers of Henry George, a 19th century economist who argued that government should be financed solely by a tax on land values. No income tax, no sales tax, no tax on the improvements to a property—just one tax on land.

    Absolutely. A "rent," really.
    Neolibertarians seriously need to get into George and take him seriously. Perhaps start with Protection or Free Trade (which is sometimes cited by Austrian schoolers but extremely selectively). Especially chapter 25 and chapter 26.

    People taken with the romantic myth of some kind of "allodial" or absolutist right to unlimited ownership of land untouched by any taxation even for minimal or local services (I used to be one of those people) need to read George on land. Then you see how the absolutist myth precludes the reality of access to land for all. And access to suitable land is an absolute prerequisite to the oft-invoked but seldom-seen free market.
    The "you have no right to charge me rent for land!" notion works out mainly to the benefit of the Donald Trumps and crony banksters because they own most of it -- i.e., most of the land value.

  • J-Lib||

    Links blocked?!
    Maybe this'll work http://oll.libertyfund.org/tit.....free-trade

    Or this

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