Lessons From a Minivan

January 26, 2022

Let’s say you have a bike you love. You had your eye on it for a long time before you finally made the purchase. You researched all the other bikes in that category. You agonized over the decision. You test rode a bunch of different bikes to see which one felt best. You asked your friends their opinion. You saved your shekels for months, you pinched those pennies until you could make it work. You bought your dream bike. You love this bike, not only because it is the best bike, but because you put in the effort to get it, you saved, you struggled, you researched. You brought that bike home and put it in a special spot. Don’t be crazy- that baby’s not going in the garage- looks like the kids are going to have to double-up in bedrooms from now on. You only take your new bike out when the weather is perfect, you use the old one on rainy days. After every ride, you clean the chain and wipe off any trail grime. You take pictures of your bike and share them all over Reddit, yeah- you’re that guy. 

You are proud of that bike, as you should be. You worked hard for it and it brings you joy. It feels like a dream to ride, it’s gorgeous and you ride more often because of it. All in all, the bike makes you happier.

Well one day you decide to go for a rosé ride and maybe you hit the wine a little too hard, it happens to all of us, and you wreck into your neighbor’s house. Your baby is scratched up. The spokes are bent. The handlebar tape is torn up. Your bike is still rideable, but damn, it looks like hell. You are heartbroken.

Well, what do you do? Do you take it to the shop and have her repaired, come out looking good as new? Do you take her home and fix her up the best you can yourself? Or are you crestfallen and just toss her in the garage and let the kid have their bedrooms back?

Let us consider what happens if you don’t repair your bike. You start riding a lot less. You stop photographing your bike every day. You don’t clean the chain anymore and when you wrap up a ride- you don’t wipe her down either. You stop tending to your pride and joy and the process of decline sets in. This thing that brought you so much joy suddenly ceases to matter. This item that you loved maintaining, gets ignored and starts gathering spiders. You are no longer proud of your baby because it just doesn’t look as good as it used to.

This is how we, as people, behave- every single one of us. When things start to decline, we are less likely to take care of them. Whether it is the lack of pride in something that keeps us from maintaining it, or a lack of maintenance that keeps us from being proud of said item- it doesn’t matter,  the two go hand in hand. Eventually, things that are no longer maintained get to the point that it becomes overwhelming to repair them, or more often, they are trashed. They go into the landfill, or the scrapyard.

The car that never gets maintained will eventually make its way to the junk pile. The house that is never maintained will eventually get bulldozed. The relationship that is never maintained will cease to be. When anything gets to the point where it has deteriorated beyond regular maintenance- you have a problem. Things untended become overwhelming. True for your home, true for your weight, and true for the historic buildings downtown. A lack of maintenance puts you on a crash course with some type of termination. We all know how things can become overwhelming when left unattended. Don’t do your laundry for a couple weeks- it’s going to take an entire day to get caught up. When your holiday eating binge lasts until Memorial Day, you are going to have a hell of a time getting into those summer speedos in time for the 4th.

This is why it’s necessary to pay attention to the maintenance of life constantly. When something is allowed to fall too far into disrepair, there are tough decisions to be made. Getting something back to good working order might be overwhelming, so the other option is to scrap it. This situation can be stressful and sad. Either scrap it or spend tons of money and time trying to bring the item back to life.

The point of this long winded diatribe on maintenance is to help you see how this relates to your city and why it is sick. Your city has been neglected. The maintenance has stopped, decline has set in, you are at that perilous point where you have to decide, is it worth saving, or is it too far gone? Well of course it’s worth saving- snap out of it. It’s not going to be easy- you have so much more work ahead of you because of how far your city has been allowed to fall.

Going back to the bike analogy, because I like bikes, your community was once like your shiny new bike… the greatest bike ever built. Thousands of people built it, utilizing all kinds of refined skills brought with them from the old world, passed down through generations and utilizing the materials that were available to them right in your area. But this wasn’t just your bike, it was everyone’s. Okay, enough of that. We’ll  get back to the bike thing in a minute.

The process of building your city took decades and so many talented, hardworking people had a hand in it. From surveying, to creating parcels, to clearing the land, to actually constructing buildings, and on and on. This was an epic accomplishment and the reward was a place everyone could be proud of. Your town was full of the greatest buildings, all beautiful, all distinct, all built with quality and craftsmanship. Imagine yourself walking down your Main Street, surrounded by those buildings. You probably knew the families that built those buildings. They probably had their name on the top. Those buildings were full of gorgeous shops owned by your fellow community members. They were grocers, cobblers, butchers, bakers and brewers. This place was the shizz.

But one day, you got tired of your amazing bike, so you bought a minivan because you thought it would be more convenient. You tossed your bike in the shed and ignored it. One day your town got tired of its old ways and decided walking around was for suckers and they bought a highway. Then all the people moved out to the highway and the town tossed all the old buildings in the shed.

Over the decades, as your town traded in community for convenience, those buildings emptied out. Not all at once, but as the nature of your economy changed, your commerce changed. The best tenants went out of business or moved out to the highway with the people. The next tenant couldn’t pay as much and then there wasn’t as much money available for maintenance and repairs in the building. Another decade past and the only tenant that was willing to go downtown was the Universal Church of Karate Time. The buildings didn’t get the maintenance they needed. They were neglected. The space between the buildings got the same treatment, the roads, the sidewalks, the alleys- were all left to the ravages of time and weather.

City leaders turned their attention towards the suburbs, towards the fancy new stuff and turned their dollars there as well.  The suburbs got new sidewalks and new stores while the downtowns were left neglected.

This is how your town got sick. The part that mattered was neglected. It was abandoned and no one cared for it for decades. Your community tossed your downtown in the shed and forgot about it, thinking no one would ever need it again. Well, we know what happens to the things we neglect. They decline to the point where we either have to scrap ‘em or it takes a miracle to get it back in working order.

Maybe one day you got tired of that minivan. You got all fat because you weren’t getting any exercise. Your friends were teasing you all the time and you couldn’t scrounge up a date. About then, bikes caught on again. They were cheap, convenient and made you fit. Bonus- you had a kick-ass vintage bike in your shed, just chilling, waiting for your butt to come back and join it. But dear god, when you opened the shed, you found your vintage bike was completely rusted, had two flat tires, and a badger had made a home in your saddle. Was it even possible to repair?

Of course numbskull, almost everything is possible to repair, and quality objects are worth it. Your downtown is worth repairing, but you let it decline for entirely too long and the prospect has become overwhelming.

Everything in this world requires maintenance and when we stop tending to things, they decline. When things decline, we stop caring for them. This is what happened to your city. When you wonder why apathy creeped into your town, this is why. The part of your town people cared about went away. The places that mattered were discarded. They were all replaced by things that didn’t matter. Of course people stopped caring. What is there to care about? Are they going to fall in love with the parking lot?. Are they going to share photos of the Cracker Barrel ? Will they brag to their friends about the sweet new ‘right turn only’ lane? No. Humans are emotional creatures and we systematically removed emotion from our community decision making process. This apathetic outcome shouldn’t surprise anyone.

– An excerpt from my upcoming book “Your City is Sick”

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