Monday, May 25th, 2009
“For the apparel oft proclaims the man.” – Hamlet, Act I, Scene III
John Stuart Mill said that “opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence.” I’ve tried to live that credo in my blog, but at no small risk to myself, I’m putting aside my standard garb for today, and taking up the long black cloak and broad brimmed hat of the itinerant preacher, calling the people forth to repentance.
The city of Indianapolis is replacing sewer inlets in the downtown area. But instead of replacing them with new inlets that are laid flush with the existing sidewalk, it’s installing them at a higher grade, leaving major bumps in sidewalks all over downtown. These photos illustrate.
In a downtown which has seen billions invested in improvements, how is it that something so casually unsightly, lazy, and anti-functional could get built in the present day?
It’s tempting to want to pin the blame on the engineers at places like DPW when we see things like this. But as someone who has studied the public works sector extensively for years, I’ve met many engineers at these agencies and haven’t met any of them who are either malicious or stupid. Not even one. To the contrary, I’m always impressed with how generally sharp they are, and with their desire to make their communities better places. That’s only logical. They live there too. In fact, they are the kind of guys you wouldn’t mind kicking back and having beer with. They’re not all that different from you and me.
Which is exactly the problem. The problem isn’t them, it’s us. They are an all too accurate reflection of the values of the people who live in the cities of the Midwest. Rather than engage in difficult self-reflection about our own roles in the communities where we live, it’s easier to just externalize problems by blaming them on some Other.
Our engineers are a mirror held up to ourselves. They aren’t imposing something on the unwilling. Rather, they are giving our communities exactly what they want. Consider: has anyone complained about these sewer inlets? With outrageous examples of this installation dotting prominent corners all over downtown, I think it is fair to say that every community leader has seen one at some point, as well as huge numbers of ordinary citizens. But has anyone done anything? It is debatable whether or not most people even notice them. Things like this are so normal, so expected in this city that they have become as invisible as the air we breathe. When they are pointed out, people shrug and wonder why anyone thinks it worth remarking upon.
What’s the big deal about a few sewer grates? you might ask. Keeping in mind that these are but the smallest example of the design mentality that permeates the city, I’ll explain. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the unemployment problems that have hit places like Portland, Oregon. You see, despite the economy, young, educated people are continuing to flock there and to places like Austin and Seattle. They want to live there so badly that they are willing to put up with months of unemployment and menial jobs in order to stay in a place they consider so personally attractive.
When’s the last time you heard of a Midwest city having that problem? Even Indianapolis, one of the best performing, barely hits the national average for college degree attainment. It has a downtown that, after 30 years of investment, still requires major subsidies for virtually every development. That downtown is surrounded by miles of decaying, blighted neighborhoods, abandoned homes, vacant lots, empty factories and brownfields, severe depopulation, limited retail options and poverty in all directions. Only a narrow corridor to the north is healthy. Most cities have a so-called “favored quarter”. Indianapolis has a “favored sliver”.
I said there were two challenges for the city in attracting talent: getting an audition in the first place, and closing the deal afterward. But building a city that looks this way is like the smartest kid in the class showing up to an interview in ripped jeans and stained t-shirt. No matter how good you are, you’re not getting the job. That’s why the educated are streaming to Portland and Seattle even though there’s no room at the inn, but Indy is barely treading water and the rest of the Midwest is on the verge of drowning.
In case you didn’t get the memo, don’t expect anyone who visits to tell you this. When you visit someone’s house, do you draw conclusions about them from the way they decorate and keep the place up? Darn right, you do. Especially if it is someone you barely know otherwise. Do you tell them any bad conclusions you draw to their face? Of course not.
Do we really think any prospective resident is going to confine their survey of the city to only the few manicured blocks in the Wholesale District and a handful other “approved” zones? What do we think will happen when people see the physical face the city all too often puts forward, one that is actively repellent to much of its target demographic? Is it likely that anyone with even modest standards and ambitions for themselves will want to live in a place with such apparently low standards? If a city looks like it doesn’t care about itself, why should it expect anyone to care to live there?
When a prospective resident or business owner sees something like these sewer inlets, what conclusions are they likely to draw about the type of city they are in and the people who live there? Pretty darn accurate ones. What do these pictures tell us about why the Midwest has failed? My friends, everything we need to know.
The problem facing the Midwest isn’t an economic crisis, it’s a spiritual crisis. I say values because let’s not pretend there are true moral issues at stake. People can make legitimately different choices about how they want to live. The problem of the Midwest is that there is a contradiction between the values of the people and their cherished ways of life, and the economic results they want and believe they are entitled to expect.
Many Midwesterners hold values that are no longer compatible with economic growth in the 21st century, don’t recognize that, and probably wouldn’t change if they did. Then when their cities, towns, and rural areas sink into the mire they rage against the forces they believe are conspiring against them: NAFTA, foreigners, corrupt politicians, greedy corporate executives, unions, you name it. And while there is no doubt that the Midwest has been heavily hit by economic forces beyond its control, it’s equally true that the people themselves were willing accomplices in their own demise.
If Indianapolis really does implode, it will be not just a leadership failure of the highest order, but also an indictment of those who follow. Until there is public demand for something different from the status quo, it will take extraordinary leadership to change the present course, and that is a commodity which is, alas, in all too short a supply.
Sadly, this way of thinking seems deeply entrenched, passed down from generation to generation like a treasured inheritance. We celebrate that families bring their children downtown to eat, shop, and play. But what are they learning while they are there? People usually talk about the “values of the street” as a way of talking about peer pressure. But in the Midwest it is literally the street. The values of the community are embodied in the very concrete on which we drive, and, on rare occasions walk. Our children are learning what is normal in this place. The very streets of the city are teaching it to them all too well.
Is there any value so cherished that we think we deserve this? I hope not. It is critical that our communities engage in deep soul-searching and reflection about what their values really are, what’s important to them, and what’s not. Some things are legitimately worth holding despite a high cost. On this Memorial Day we remember those who gave their lives in the service of our country. That’s a value worth cherishing and holding to no matter what.
But most of our values aren’t like that. Many of them aren’t even consciously considered. For those that were products of and specific to a time and place that no longer exists, it’s time to grow up and grow beyond them, to create and take on new thinking better suited to today’s world and tomorrow’s. The alternative is to retreat into nostalgia and bitterness, to cling to the some imagined, sanitized good old days, and watch our cities disintegrate around us.
For some places, it’s too late. There is no easy road back for them. But for a lot of the Midwest there is still time to rise up and meet the challenge. If we don’t, then we don’t have far to look to see what fate has in store for us.
The longest journey begins with a step, but you have to take it. We need to decide right now, today, that things like these sewer inlets are no longer acceptable, and that another one will never be installed. Our leaders, political, cultural, business, and otherwise, need to make it their personal business to ensure that we embrace creating quality of space. And our citizens need to be there supporting, encouraging, and demanding the same. Otherwise, while the region may soldier on, for the city, it’s game over.
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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.