I understand it’s good to be thankful. I am well aware of how practicing gratitude can make our lives fuller and boost our happiness. These are reasonable things. I like happy. I’m the Michael Jordan of smiling.
I have been part of a lot of planning meetings. I’ve seen all the public inputs. It’s all the same. What do you love about your city? What is your favorite place in town? What do you appreciate most about your community?
Please return your sticky notes to the nice city planner man in the jeans and a sport coat because you have better things to do.
“I love the people here”
“We have such a rich history”
“We are a proud community”
These are literally the answers at every one of these meetings. Like as if this is some sort of transcendental revelation and will forever set your town apart. Really? The people? This is the lowest conceivable bar to base affection for one’s hometown. “Hey kids, pack your bags, we are going to go see that town with the people. The people? If someone says the best thing about my cooking is the calories, I will not be flattered. All towns have people, many aren’t even that great.
History? Really bringing the fire with this answer. If your town wasn’t built yesterday, and who knows, maybe you live in Arizona and it was, just having a history doesn’t really set you apart. Maybe your history is lame. Maybe some settlers thought they had discovered the Pacific Ocean not realizing it was just the Mississippi and never got around to getting back on the road. It could happen. My hometown was named after Lima, Peru, but somehow it is pronounced “Lye-muh”. That should have been a gimme.
And the pride one. I’ve walked through towns that trumpet their pride from the sagging rooftops. If your sidewalks resemble an obstacle course and your weeds are big enough to grow fruit, you can’t claim pride, I don’t care how good your high school football team is.
It is useful to be thankful, but it is also useful to be pissed. I know we aren’t supposed to focus on such feelings this time of year, but I strive to be a contrarian and it’s hard to write about being thankful without sounding like someone with a silver ponytail.
When it comes to our cities, we need to ask what pisses people off. When we focus so much on what is good about our towns, we come up with stupid answers that are the same everywhere. Conversations like these lead to “live work play” and “preserving the past, celebrating the future” taglines. Yes, these are words and yes, they can reasonably placed next to one another, but at this point, they are just offensive and shouldn’t we consider the children.
I have never been a part of an intervention, but I have seen one of TV. They get right to it, don’t they? They say what matters, because it MATTERS. The rawness of it is important, because they are so sick of someone’s shit that they just can’t be positive any longer. Maybe they realize that being positive just isn’t getting through. Maybe no one can really begin addressing a problem when everyone keeps pretending there isn’t a problem. An intervention would be pretty lame if the responses were “I like Matt because he has arms”, “I celebrate Matt for his ability to wake up and then later fall asleep.” No. They are blunt and honest and it hurts.
We need more honesty when it comes to our cities. A lot of them are failing us and we are too kind to point it out. We aren’t being asked real questions because we don’t want real answers. But there is value in honesty, and opportunity in candor. If all someone can say about their town is they like the history and the people, there is something seriously wrong with that town.
We can’t tackle our problems until we admit we have them. People are nice and I appreciate that, and they want to make people feel good so they say nice things, I also get that. But it keeps us from digging deeper and having the conversations that need to take place. Not everything is copacetic, some things are intolerable. Let’s talk about those.
Next meeting, try asking something useful. “What do you hate about this place?” Imagine the answers you will get. This will be profound. I would love to be there when someone says “the people here, they are absolute shit.” Wouldn’t that be more useful to know what people despise? A thousand anodyne restaurant reviews full of tepid praise aren’t as helpful as the one the one brutal takedown. Those savage words hurt so much more because you know them to be true. Our cities can’t get better if we only ever listen to praise for the all you can park special.
Stop looking for the things people like about your town, it’s trite and self serving. It might make people feel good for a day or two, but it prevents any meaningful discussion from taking place. It keeps everyone from addressing what is broken. We don’t ask people in public, but then we get mad when the trolls go home and complain in private. People are complaining online about these issues because they are too afraid to do it in public, but then we dismiss what they say online. What is your forum for talking about what’s wrong?
Next meeting I run, I am going to ask the audience “How did your city hurt you?” I am not joking. We are all in a relationship with our towns and most of those relationships are terrible. They are empty, sometimes toxic, almost always unfulfilling. I want to know how this relationship has effected everyone in the audience. There will be an opportunity for a real breakthrough when the community feels like they can see what hurts them, what has turned them off, what keeps them from caring. This is the shit we need to know.
“I call my city all the time, but my city never calls me back, I don’t think my city cares about me.”
“I love my city, but my city seems infatuated with the people two towns over.”
“My city doesn’t pick up after itself, which makes me feel unappreciated.”
The thing about an intervention is, the addict gets to hear the real impact of their actions in a setting where they have to accept it. The hope being, if loved ones can help the offender understand how this is affecting them, maybe it will be cause to reconsider and seek assistance.
Cities’ decisions are affecting people. They are impacting the lives of residents everyday. I am grateful for all the people that run for office, for all the dedicated public servants that work to make residents’ lives better. They have a thankless job, but they do it because they feel compelled to. We are all lucky to have them, but I implore those of you in office to try something new. Don’t go through with the next downtown plan. Save your money on the public input session. We can’t afford to keep asking people what they like and what they want. We already know the answers to all of these questions. It’s written everywhere.
Let’s find out what residents hate about town and then start addressing that. This is how you win people over. This is how you become better. This is what real improvement looks like. Looking at what doesn’t work, looking at what is broken and fixing the things that everyone hates. Win residents over, not by patting yourself on the back, but in finding out what is making them miserable. Find out how you can make their lives better with the levers of city government and then they will be thankful.