What If…

March 26, 2020

Like most, I have had some extra time on my hands this week. Work has slowed down and I am thankful for some additional time with the family and to be afforded a chance to step back and think about things from a larger perspective. I have often heard people talk about how things might be different after all of this is over. How maybe we will reconsider some of our policies and practices and seek out something better. Maybe this dark cloud will have a silver lining and we will change our ways for the better. Maybe we will. I have been thinking about what it would like look. What if we did take this opportunity to rethink our cities? What if we stopped going down this current path and took a new one? What if stopped listening to terrible advice and started doing the things that have proven to make our cities better and have proven to make our lives better. What if we did what was best for us? What if? 

Over the last half-century, something shifted and citizens were replaced by consumers. We slowly shed our humanity and became a commodity. Concerns of the community, turned into concern for the economy. America became a country that worshiped at the altar of Wall Street. Jobs and profits replaced health and wellbeing as our primary concern. Bankers and economic developers became our pastors and preachers. Leading meaningful, connected lives took a backseat to full employment and share holder returns. I believe what will come out of this, is a realization that greed was behind it all. In hitching our wagon to corporate profits, we have sacrificed healthy communities. Our guiding light used to be what was best for our communities, but it was extinguished and replaced by a McDonald’s sign around every bend. 

Greed has driven every decision that has weakened our communities. I believe in capitalism-well regulated, work for everyone, realistic guardrails, capitalism. If responsibly managed, and balanced with the needs of the public, it is an effective means in with which to run an economy. The problem is, we are now in the 5th decade of removing those guardrails. Capitalism is no longer responsibly managed and we continue to sacrifice the needs of the whole for the benefit of a few. If there were 10 people in a room and I had 20 apples, socialism would say, distribute them evenly, which might make sense, but what we see in large economic systems, is that this sort of thinking can depress hard work and innovation. Capitalism would say, whoever grabs all the apples first should get to keep them. In this scenario, let’s say 3 people were able to grab up 15 of the apples and that left the other 5 apples for the 7 people left in the room. A winner- take-all scenario. Capitalism rewards hard work and innovation, but when unregulated, does a poor job of providing for the whole. What we should strive for, and what we generally practiced up until the 1980’s, was getting the balance right. This is the job of legislators. Ensuring that our economy fosters hard work and innovation while also making sure that everyone in the system is provided for. We have more than enough resources in our system to effectively strike this balance, but we have abandoned one half of the equation. It seems reasonable to me, that some people in the room might acquire more than one apple, that seems fine, that is, in effect, what we want, but it also seems reasonable to me, that if we have more than enough, every person should still receive one. 

This is what we have lost sight of in our current, rail-free economic system. We are extremely concerned with making sure that the productivity of a few is extremely well rewarded, but have completely negated the needs and well-being of the many. This winner-take-all system has devastated small business and been disastrous for most cities. We have reconfigured all of our thinking around this strategy and most cities have put all of their efforts towards this end. We have been told for 40 years, that this is how we improve our cities, but we have enough proof by now to say, this is an abject failure. Building more roads has not made our cities any better, it has only served to pull us apart. Building for cars has not made anything more convenient, it has only opened the door to more national chains. Focusing too much on economic development, has not strengthened our communities financially, it has rendered them bankrupt.  The advice we are being given has nearly nothing to do with strengthening local economies and everything to do with helping the winners take all, and then take some more. 

We’ve been told so often and for so long, how we must go about making our cities better, that we have bought the lie. More roads, more malls, more subdivision, more incentives, more jobs, more taxes, it will all be okay. But it is not okay. It is the opposite of okay. Placing too much attention on adding jobs and attracting national chains has not made any of our communities stronger, it has made them all weaker. Since we spread out, since we built more, since we built cheaper and since we focused on big- our communities have become less lovable, less connected, less proud, less interesting, less resilient. We have put all of our eggs in the big box basket and that basket belongs to someone living in Bentonville, Arkansas. 

But it’s not just retailers like Wal-Mart or CVS. It’s banks, it’s clothing stores and shoe stores, it’s restaurants and builders and everything else. Where once, our towns were filled with local businesses and local owners, they are now filled with community resource extraction satellites. Our friends and neighbors used to run the places in town that supplied the things we needed. Those people owned the buildings that housed those businesses. This system of lots of small, locally owned businesses, worked pretty well for the first few thousand years of civilization. It kept more money in town, those businesses were unique and interesting, the jobs they provided paid well and gave people a sense of pride. Our communities were more resilient then because we were more diversely invested. We celebrated those businesses, we created an organization, The Chamber of Commerce, to help support those businesses. We patronized those businesses. Our towns were built around those businesses. And then we turned our backs on those businesses. 

Greed told us it would be better. Greed convinced us to build more roads so we can invite in more chains. Greed told us we needed to incentivize these new businesses, otherwise they would go somewhere else. Greed told us we needed to make it easy to build and loosen regulations. Greed told us to hire people to make these deals go smoother. Greed has been whispering in our ear for decades convincing us everything will be better if we just listen. But greed gets real quiet when we start to talk about the effects. Greed doesn’t have much to say about the lack of local business, the shrinking tax base and the blighted buildings downtown. Greed doesn’t weigh in on the decline in the sense of community and the rampant apathy. Greed just says…do more of what you have been doing, but consider doing it harder and better. 

What if we stopped listening to greed? What if we looked at the data instead? What if we believed our own eyes? What if we said enough is enough to the winner-take-all system and when this time of social distancing passes, we rebuild our cities from within. What if when our cities open back up, we put our efforts back into shaping them for the people that already call them home. Can you imagine? I can, and I do, all the time. I imagine our cities like they were before. I imagine our cities like the places we admire overseas, or the s
mall pockets we find throughout the U.S. But instead of just a handful of well-to-do districts and towns, all of our communities are strong, resilient and vibrant again. What if instead of investing in more roads for big box stores and subdivision developers, we put that money into parks, and sidewalks and bike trails and hanging baskets. Imagine how much more we would love our towns. Instead of giving money to national chains to come in, what if we helped small local people get started and used that money to provide them with business classes and buy down rent and stock up initial inventory. What if instead of green-lighting subdivisions, we helped local people build their own buildings and renovate empty buildings. What if instead of plopping down completed housing projects, we built one house at a time on a grid system like we used to and what if those homes were built with pride and built to last. What if the Chamber of Commerce tossed out its current mission and decided to focus on helping locals become developers and business owners. What if instead of spending money to try to convince outsiders to love our towns, we used the bed-tax to foster affection amongst the people who already call our towns home? What if we focused inwards instead of always focusing outwards. 

I like to imagine a city that has decided to try a new way forward. I like to imagine leadership that turns its back on 40 years of failed policy and tries something different. They scrap their economic development budget and use those funds to send a local to France to learn to run a bakery. They send a local to Germany to learn to run a butcher shop. They send a local to Italy to learn to make and sell shoes. This city teaches people how to be entrepreneurs and points them in the direction of which businesses are needed and which will succeed. This city looks at what businesses operated on Main Street 100 years ago and trains people to open those businesses again, and helps bring back all the skills that were lost when factory jobs arrived. Those businesses would not just provide incomes, but work they could be proud of, work employees could be proud of and, in turn, these are the types of businesses that make the community proud and draw visitors. Instead of focusing on trying to attract one business with 500 employees, this city would invest in creating 100 new businesses, each with 5 employees. These would make a community so much healthier, more vibrant, more resilient and prouder. Simultaneously, this city would start investing in training people with the skills needed to rebuild. Invest in training people in the trades so we can begin restoring the buildings that have deteriorated over the years. Building the type of housing we used to build, with quality craftsmanship and locally sourced materials. Houses that are close together and facilitate a sense of community. Housing that makes people feel proud and connected. This city would be built by local hands for local people. 

While it can be challenging to find a bright side in all of this, the outpouring of community care and concern is inspiring. We are seeing how much people want to help one another and how we realize, more than ever, that we are all in this together. I am amazed at the response of so many small business owners- that in the moment they realized they could survive, they turned their attention to helping others. This is the nature of local businesses and this is something we can never expect from chains. This is why we must rethink our current strategy, and put our efforts into growing local businesses. Every city could have all the apples they need, but we keep offering most of them up to outsiders. Let’s keep our apples, let’s let local businesses into the orchard and give them a ladder. 

I’ve read that after World War II, in response to the mandatory blackouts, Dutch people decided they would never use curtains again. Their response from being forced to hide light from German bombers, was to be visible to one another forever after. I hope that when this treacherous time passes and we are no longer obligated to stay away from one another, that we make a decision to embrace our communities permanently. That we see how our local businesses are giving everything they can to help and that we, in return, support them forever. What if, after all this is over, we decide that we can’t go back to the way things were and we decide to be better. What if, in response, to being forced to stay apart, we come together. Forever. 

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