At some point, we have to draw a line. We have to make a choice. We have to decide that something is unacceptable, lest everything become acceptable and we acclimate ourselves to a standard that is far below what we would once consider. Lest we no longer have anything to be proud of. Lest we cater to the lowest common denominator and everything just becomes shit. This is the cost of continuously lowering our standards. That at some point, nothing really matters anymore because when nothing is nice, there isn’t anything to care about.
The nationwide movement of lowering standards has run parallel to the growth of the sprawl economy. Back in the beginnings of our towns, when a local family made a decision to erect a structure, they understood that the building was a reflection on them as a people. They spent the extra time and money to build something that would make them proud and signal to others that they were a proud family. That they were people that cared about their community and wanted to be an integral part of that place. So much so that often times they put their name on that building. Same pride was apparent with business owners. A local business owner understood that extra effort would help them become more successful but also allow them to have a business they could be proud of. The things we are associated with, shape others’ opinions of us. The things we are associated with, also shape our own opinions of ourselves.
This is the high price of ceding local ownership to the sprawl barons. The board of a publicly traded big box store doesn’t give a shit about the appearance of your community or whether or not they build something that makes you proud. Exactly the opposite. Their concern is the bottom line and the less they have to spend on aesthetics and context and wages, etc, the more they earn. Their interests are diametrically opposed to the wellbeing of your town. The sooner that we understand this, the easier this is going to be. And everyone can stop with all the arguments about how great these businesses have been for your town. These businesses prey on low standards. Their business model is low standards. If they can lobby council to remove any barriers to development they will. If they can spend less on design, they will. If they can scare people with lawyers or calling them anti-business, they will. They count on getting local legislators to lower their standards by promising the world or scaring them that they might bypass town. I’ve got news for you. They showed up for a reason and they aren’t leaving if they know they can make a buck. Why the hell should your community drop its standards for an outsider? Shouldn’t the national chain meet your standards if it wants to come to your town?
Those carpetbaggers want to put in as little effort and money as possible in hopes of keeping up earnings. They want nothing more than to erode your standards so their earnings can rise. It’s a real bad deal. The cost is too high because standards fall easily, and they are a hell of a lot harder to lift.
The sprawl economy delivered its low standards onto us, but plenty of us have helped carry the ball forward. Every time you pass a downtown building falling apart, you are witnessing the lowering of standards. You are seeing a city’s pride slip away. You are looking upon something that once mattered, now no longer matter. Our town founders built our cities with pride. They busted their asses to build beautiful buildings. Craftsman with old world skills and locally sourced materials made structures that were meant to lift us up. Buildings that they knew would shape us so they took the time to build them right. Those buildings were meant to stand the test of time. Those builders understood that if we simply maintained our standards and simultaneously maintained their buildings, that they would stand indefinitely. Build them right the first time and generations could enjoy them. We betrayed them.
A couple of generations down the road and we decided, meh, who cares. Let those old ass buildings fall apart. What do they matter, we got a sweet new Cracker Barrel out by the highway? Problem is, the sweet new Cracker Barrel doesn’t make anybody feel good about their town. And the crumbling downtown building makes everyone feel much worse about their town. Seeing something that was once beautiful and a source of pride, slip into disrepair hurts. It affects us. It changes us. Seeing yourself fall out of shape hurts. Not being able to maintain your home properly brings about a certain amount of shame. Watching the center of your community go to hell is the quickest way to ensure that no one cares. It is a perfect recipe for apathy. Start with something that matters, more importantly, something that defines us, let it turn to shit, welcome in apathy.
People haven’t changed over time, our environment has. Remember this. We are not different people than our great grandparents. We want the same things, we share the same values. We operate the same. Our environment is what is different. We have started accepting less and less and the results have been the least surprising. We keep lowering the bar and in doing this, we have forfeited the things that once made us proud. We need to wake up and realize this; low standards cannot lead to success. Sorry. No dice. Every single time, we as a board member, we as a council member, we as community leaders, or we as concerned residents accept less, we are giving up on our town and we are failing the people that call it home. We are handing the deadbeat property owners and the sprawl barons a victory. We are killing off a piece of something that once brought us pride and made us feel good about our towns, and in-turn, ourselves. There is only one small slice of society that benefits from lowering standards while the vast majority suffer, yet we repeat the pattern again and again. Next time there is a question in front of your council regarding some sort of standard, consider where the push is coming from. Consider who will benefit and who will it hurt. Dig a little deeper.
Standards aren’t a one way street. While not as easy, they can be raised. They must be raised in fact. The only way we are going to start lifting our communities up is by raising our standards. We simply have to draw a line today and say this is the floor. This is the lowest we will ever accept and we will go no lower. Standards mean the least we will accept. The lower that floor goes, the worse off we are. We can no longer stop at saying this is the least we will accept. We have to go further. We have to say no longer will we accept things as they are today. We have to be honest about the fact that things have declined far beyond where we would like. We have to be upfront about how the condition of certain things today is not good enough. We must raise the floor. We must take a critical look at our communities and decide what has stopped being a source of pride and is now a source of shame. If we are honest about these areas and the effect they have on us, we can start having real conversations about how to address them. We can start considering accountability measures. We all must take a long hard look at our towns and make some decisions not about who we are, but about who we want to be. Simply put, we have continuously lowered our standards for the last 50 years and we have all suffered for it. Our communities have declined, we have less to be proud of, we have less to care about and our quality of life has degraded. It’s not working, so stop. Experiment over. Results are in. This decade is soon coming to a close, let’s put a bow on it and kick off the 20’s with something new. A decade of raising standards could define us. We could approach the new year by asking more. We could stop resting on the accomplishments of those that came before us and start achieving our own. Our ancestors left us something special and we have neglected it with reckless abandon. Let’s do better so our future generations can one day be proud of us and our accomplishments.