The first story I ever read by Jorge Luis Borges was El etnógrafo. (English version) It’s the story of a man named Fred Murdock and his discovery of the secret of life. If you’re at all familiar with Borges you’ll not be surprised to learn that the story ends in a way which leaves the reader reinterpreting the meaning of the story over and over. The last line explains that, after becoming the only White man to possess the secret after spending years living with a tribe of native Americans and deciding not to publish it, he gets married, gets divorced, and is a librarian at Yale University.
Get it? The secret isn’t what you think it is, or doesn’t do what you think it should. His romantic life fails, his professional life is unremarkable. If knowing THE SECRET doesn’t even help you with those things, or doesn’t cause you to drop out completely and be completely satisfied without them, to what realm of life does the secret pertain? What is its function?
In what I think was Chuck Marohn’s first interview related to the publication of the new Strong Towns book he interviews none other than James Howard Kunstler. The connection is that JHK’s The Long Emergency was a seminal work in the formulation and the direction of what became the Strong Towns movement. In the interview Chuck prefaces a comment by stating that the American landscape gets less and less coherent as one travels west. In a later interview Chuck specifies Boston as a city which in its development pattern adheres to Strong Towns concepts.
Chuck would be the first to say that the east-west continuum idea is at most a heuristic. Boston ran highways through its core neighborhoods, Boston has built mega-projects, torn down buildings for surface parking, and neglected many of its public amenities even for generations. But there’s still enough there there to be a model for most of what Strong Towns is trying to elaborate. That said, as I have expressed many times including in my most popular post ever, Springfield is not Boston.
And yet. As the week has gone on and in interview after interview Chuck describes the rational responses to the predicaments we face on the American landscape I see how, in case after case, Springfield is already there. How can that be in a Strong Towns universe where Springfield’s claim to fame is its disregard for its citizens relative to the juxtaposition of one amazing City Beautiful Carnegie library, and its parking lot? There’s more to a town than one parking lot and the one, really the only thoroughfare in the city which turns into an out and out stroad.
Start with housing. Chuck describes a healthy income to home value ratio of 1-2 or perhaps 1-3. If you look at the median family income in the metro, and the average home price in Springfield that’s about where we are. For my wife and me it’s a little more like 1-1 or even 1.5-1.
Maintenance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard commentators at Strong Towns claim that the problem with building maintenance and road maintenance is that there is no ribbon cutting, there is no “photo-op”, it isn’t glamorous or glitzy. Here it is. I can link to dozens of articles and news reports on roof repairs in public buildings, new windows in schools, sidewalk repairs, and new boilers, and insulation…
I have to add here: Patrick Sullivan. In my mind absolutely the most important man in the history of Springfield after William Pynchon. From the moment he took over the parks department, and was given increasingly more and more responsibility as it became clear that he could take the resources he was given and get done what he needed to get done, the legacy that his “Greatest Generation” predecessors was willing to watch decay and rot was nurtured and preserved. Patrick saw the “good bones” with which the city was endowed and was unwilling to let them grow brittle. How he has done it I have no idea. How Springfield has kept him? I can’t understand.
Back to the Strong Towns message: Where to focus these reinvestments? Which neighborhoods get the sidewalks, the libraries, the parks, the schools? I’d call it the Kevin Garnett strategy, but with Chuck being from Minnesota that seems cruel; in a way you take your biggest weakness and make it your greatest strength. Of course, it’s not exactly that as in case after case after case, as Chuck describes it, the poorest neighborhoods in struggling cities have the best bones and give cities the best return on investment. With the caveat that there was no way the city could rebuild and renovate every school in every neighborhood in a school system with more students than any other in all of New England outside Boston itself in 10, 20, or even 30 years, it is remarkable how many schools have been built, rebuilt, renovated, or repurposed in the last 35 years: All four high schools; dozens of elementary schools, magnet schools, Chestnut Middle, and Forest Park Middle School.
That last one makes an interesting case study. There was a push to cast that old shell of a building aside and build new inside King Phillips Stockade, a place about as isolated from anywhere a student might live as humanly possible. FPMS, or FPJH as it was when I attended, remains where it was, all new, all up to date, but still the anchor of the neighborhood and a middle school a tremendous number of children can walk to not only safely, but surrounded by some of the most beautiful streets in the city.
Look at all of the mini downtowns of all of the neighborhoods that were the poorest, most run down, and least regarded when I was a young man: Mason Square, the South End, the North End, and Six Corners. Which one doesn’t have new sidewalks, new parks, new schools? Which one doesn’t have decorative street lights, a more pedestrian friendly core, and a strip of well maintained local shops?
Back to Borges. So we’re done then. Fix one library parking lot deal and we’re all set? Not at all. The Strong Towns message isn’t what you think it is. It doesn’t do what you want it to do. It’s still the single most important message out there to tackle all of the most pressing issues of the 21st century from environmental degradation to the opioid crisis and all points in between. But, as Fred Murdock explains to his professor, the secret is not nearly as valuable as the roads that lead to it. How literally true in this case.
Being strong, perhaps by accident, has allowed Springfield to survive when many others really haven’t. Springfield, like the thousands of cities that came before is an experiment. Whether or not it is an experiment that will earn the right to continue for another century or two, or a millennia, will be determined by forces larger and more complex than anything I could hope to ever comprehend; but focusing on people and their struggles, and finding ways to confront those struggles as nimbly and as adroitly as possible will improve the odds.
Success is survival. Success, by the way, is still having people who have problems that need to be confronted. That’s as good as it gets. If you don’t have problems to confront that means you’re already dead and buried!
We were lucky enough here to be nearly frozen in time when the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world produced what we’ve come to see as normal in our post war automobile oriented development pattern. We have less cancer. Yup. That is a good thing. Yup. But we still have cancer. And other things can kill you apart from cancer you know. And all of the cancer that’s grown up all around us at the regional and national level doesn’t help us. Being a slightly healthier organism surrounded by a dying ecosystem does not signify inevitable success. In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king…of a bunch of blind people…which can make getting on with this experiment in civilization that much harder.