(If you’re not familiar with A Chorus Line, and I wasn’t, you’ll need to watch this…not the version my niece was in!)
What is the “dance 10, looks 3” of cities? Given it’s a metaphor I’m sure there are multiple answers that could work, but the first one that springs to mind in my little corner of the world is the curse of “good bones”; that sort of backhanded complement delivered with a shake of the head, or a scratch of the chin. Their lips say: How could a place with such good bones be so overlooked, so down on its luck, so much in decline?
They’re thinking: this place is a $#|%hole.
As in: cold winters; humid summers; wet, well, all the time; the wrong type of “diversity”; lots of legacy coolness, not so much in the here and now; no Ivy League school; not the state capital. So what do you do?
Whatever it takes.
As I watched my niece play the role of the “dance 10, looks 3” girl in her (impressive) high school production of A Chorus Line I couldn’t help but see in the carefully crafted and delineated types of Broadway dancers, with their differing strengths and weaknesses, goals and desires, motivations and fears; an allegory for the urbanists I know, and read, and listen to. I’m this Johnny-One-Note with my community of concern tucked away in a little corner of the Northeast. A real Johnny, Johnny Sanphillippo, treks all over the continent taking notes on and photographs of everything from declining Rust Belt cities to the most cutting edge places and ideas on the Left Coast. Kunstler, he’s said his piece, written his books, fiction and non-fiction, and now just scrawls a new “The End is Near” sandwich board every Monday and Friday. And all the rest, just like the winners and losers in “A Chorus Line” they have their stories and their demons.
I have to ask myself what it means to not “give a fuck about the red shoes” in my urbanist allegory? I think it’s being purely about results, not process. For some of the others it’s a philosophical, theoretical, esoteric activity. If the complete implementation of the purest ideological urbanism doesn’t create the vibrant successful city they’re looking for, it’s off to the next. It reminds me a bit of the people who give professional development programs to teachers and present those great ideas for engaging the students. Cool. Now to just do that 179 more times…this year…in every class and across every course! Yeah. Not every lesson is going to be the “Citizen Kane” of classroom instruction. In school teaching, in urban design, expecting the actual execution to resemble its platonic ideal is a recipe for frustration and burnout.
And for those of us who experience all of the strident lectures about what this or that should be like or just how much more of a positive attitude we should have about this or that remarkably difficult challenge…the one thing that can be counted on is that the person expressing these impossible to live up to standards will be g o n e before too long. In teaching, as in building community, anyone can “bring it” for a year or two, or even three, but staying in it for the long haul, staying around long enough to watch what actually happens, decade in, and decade out, is the real test. There was one particular blogger, years ago, lauding the attributes of a down on its luck provincial city and talking all about what a great place it was to live; until she got a better offer! Adiós. What every town needs is a millenial willing to tell everyone how it’s a great place to put down roots, make a life, be in it for the long haul…and then move to the hottest hipster haven.
People who stay might experience something like this: The owner of your AHL franchise, after years of weak support, decides to move to Tucson, Arizona. So your MGM enabled business community steals the well supported Portland, Maine AHL affiliate right out from under Portland’s nose…a nose which has just paid millions to refurbish their arena. If you weren’t selling your soul to an enormous resort casino would a local partner in that development have cobbled together an ownership group to bring a replacement franchise to the city with the lowest attendance in the league? Doubtful. Nice guys finish last. Ugly dancers don’t get gigs on Broadway. Tell me that for you, in your town, the ends don’t justify the means and I’m guessing you’re willing to switch towns. That’s not really the moral high ground. Above me maybe, but still not the high ground.
If Springfield were in the running to steal the AAA Red Sox from Pawtucket, like Worcester is, would an argument that spending millions of public dollars on highly profitable entertainment ventures is wrong make me demand that my local political leaders cease and desist in this race to the bottom? No it would not. Show me a system where everyone else has unilaterally disarmed then maybe (maybe) I would too, but knowing the winner of this competition will need to sweeten the pot, I’d find every nickel I could to throw at the millionaires of the Fenway Group.
Dance 10, looks 3.
If this were about what it should be about we’d be in better shape than we are. When you sneak a peak at your dance card, or “just look around and see who is getting hired” and you can see that it’s not about what it’s supposed to be about, then I’d be surprised if you didn’t go in for a little “T & A” augmentation as well. I’m in this thing to see my city come out of its funk, not to convince Peoria to improve its walkability. If you’re not about that one place, that particular place, that special place, then I’m probably not for you.
In A Chorus Line terms: I’m getting the boob job. In baseball terms, I’m bunting to break up the no hitter. In soccer, I’m diving in their box and parking the bus in my own. If you’re not willing to do those things it’s either because you don’t need to, or you have no loyalty to the team anyway.
Viva el Betis manque pierda.