As is becoming a welcome routine, I joined my neighbor for beers on his front porch last Friday, for what he calls “porch pirating.” We cover a range of topics during the course of our conversation and solve most of life’s great conundrums. Is it okay to punch a Nazi? Yes. Is a hotdog a sandwich? Certainly. Who would win in a fight between Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift? Taylor Swift clearly has the advantage, no contest. Sorry, Biebs. Are eyebrows facial hair? Jury still out.
This week we meandered our way into a conversation about standards. Neighbor Kevin mentioned a gentleman down the street having a particularly loud phone call earlier in the week on his front porch. The conversation growing loud enough to be heard a couple of houses away. Kevin explained that as the conversation concluded, he casually made his way over to explain to the individual that such calls are more appropriately discussed indoors or that he should attempt to keep his voice at a reasonable level, less everyone on the street be subject to his personal conversations. I appreciate this sort of response a great deal. While some may find it pushy or as someone from Pittsburgh might call it, nebby, I find this behavior welcome and even necessary. Just a day prior, I was inside the house working when I heard a couple of teenagers shouting obscenities. At the same time, a group of elementary school kids were playing ball in the street. I quickly made my way outside and walked up the group to asked them what they were shouting. All of them denied having done anything wrong. I explained that it’s a very small neighborhood and if it occurs again, I will make sure to speak to each of their parents. I don’t mind sounding like the old man from Up shouting at kids to get off my lawn. I believe others in the neighborhood feel the same way, and I hope they yell at my kids if they see them acting like idiots, which is highly likely.
I understand everyone may not appreciate such behavior, but I contend it makes our neighborhood a better place to live. I am a firm believer that standards shape our lives to such a vast degree and we give very little credit or thought to their influence. Some standards are written, such as is the case with our laws, regulations or school policy. Others are unwritten, such as is the case with much of baseball or public behavior. It is illegal to drive down my street at 50, but you are legally allowed to scream nearly anything. It is important though to our society that we have standards, both written and unwritten, and we do the work it takes to uphold those standards, less they becoming meaningless.
It is in upholding these unwritten standards that we project our expectations for our neighborhoods. This is the way we shape behavior. Pet owners understand how praise and punishment are used to shape their animals behavior. Parents know that a child is a product of their environment and will behave in a manner in which they are encouraged and will tend not to behave in ways in which they are discouraged. This does not always work, but it’s worth the attempt. I think this very concept is the basis for community and neighborhoods. These unwritten standards are what shape our places. It is up to the people of a community or a neighborhood to ensure that these standards are upheld, less we cease to have standards and the very fabric of our place begins to deteriorate. You may ask, who am I to dictate how people behave? I would argue that the onus is on every single person in a place to shoulder this responsibility. I am no more the arbiter of what is wrong or right on my street than anyone else, but I am letting my fellow neighbors down if I stop upholding or enforcing these standards. If we all decide not to say anything next time we see someone toss a cigarette butt in the street, aren’t we passively encouraging this behavior? If I don’t say something to the kids yelling on the street, don’t they get the message that it is okay to do it again?
I want to live in a neighborhood where people attempt to shape that places’ behavior, it sounds far superior to living in a place where no one cares what occurs. In being intentional, aren’t we making choices for how we would like things to be; versus, accepting things however they are? We are wise to encourage what we would like to see in our communities, otherwise we are acclimating to what we don’t want. Acclimating is not a strategy for improvement, it’s a strategy for decline.
The problem doesn’t just lie with unwritten rules. A huge issue I run across in my work is the lack of enforcement with existing municipal regulations. What once was considered unacceptable, enough so that at some point, city council codified an ordinance to make it so, is now quite acceptable. This is the most troubling area of revitalization. When a city stops enforcing existing codes and the community stands by as a complicit witness, this is when decline happens. This is when apathy takes hold. This erosion of standards is easy in its occurrence, but is not undone without great effort.
Recently, I was working with a city that was struggling with all the typical issues one expects to find: a lack of community engagement; vacant buildings; unappealing aesthetics; a decline in civic pride; a lack of quality business; an unobtainable thirst for more parking. At the main intersection of the city, the heart of the community, a once beautiful, large, brick building was sitting empty, signaling to all that pass, that the better days were behind. Not empty, sorry, full of someone’s junk. This building, which was built to considerable expense, utilizing quality materials and old world craftsmanship; this building helped define this city for more than a century. Its presence informing residents and travelers alike, that this is a proud town, a place that matters. This building no longer sends this message, it says something entirely different now to people that pass by.
Some standards are unwritten and require a tacit agreement. They are implicit in nature. Design standards and building codes are not. They are very much explicit and were considered important enough that city leaders made a conscientious decision that they should be law. Consider that, at some point, city council believed the maintenance of property was so important to a community that they passed legislation. Shouldn’t we consider why this might be the case? What does it say about us when we no longer uphold the standards of those that came before us?
The reason such legislation was passed, is because city leaders understood how important it is to maintain property. Appearances matter. The look of something defines people’s opinions of it- be it a car, a house, or a city. Our former city leaders embraced the idea of value. We value the things we own and we take care of them. When we no longer value something, we stop taking care of it. A lack of maintenance is the surest route to decline and when a downtown building declines, a community declines. It doesn’t just matter a little bit, it matters ALL. A declining building leads to a decline in property values. It leads to a decline in civic pride. It leads to a decline in tourism. It leads to a decline in business. It leads to a decline in economic development efforts. The simple and passive act of letting one property slip into disrepair can have untold consequences. I hate to sound alarmist, but clichés about one bad apple exist for a reason. When one property declines, others are sure to follow, because the economics get tougher. It also sends a message to other owners that the city is no longer interested in enforcing codes. Sadly, we can all behave this way. If everyone is driving over the speed limit, we tell ourselves that it is probably okay.
All this is to say, dear community leaders, be very careful in letting your standards decline. Standards, like a retaining wall, are up against constant pressure. There are always forces at work to see them fall, yet it takes a constant commitment and effort to ensure they remain. They must be bolstered at times to continue to be effective. Once allowed to fall, the prospect of restoring them is exponentially harder than the act of maintaining them. Standards matter.
No single institution ever improved by lowering standards. Standards are the invisible guidelines that shape our lives and our cities. If your community is no longer what it once was, consider how your standards may have changed over the years. Consider what can be done to start to raise them again. Understand that when we ask more of one another, we rise to the challenge. Know that standards and expectations are a good thing and that we all thrive when given the opportunity to do better. People want to give a damn, give them a chance. Consider whether or not your community’s appearance is an accurate reflection of the people that live there. If not, change it.