I was the Community Liaison for the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association and we were engaged in an effort to beautify the neighborhood. I spent a lot of hours picking up trash in parks and on sidewalks and our executive board leveraged some services from the park department and the Business Improvement District to hang baskets of flowers and some newly designed banners. As we presented the idea for the banners to the group one person, that I can’t remember ever seeing before, objected strenuously; How could we justify wasting money in this way when children in the Springfield Public Schools were in need of things like books?!
Leaving aside the fact that I was a parent representative on the School Centered Decision Making Team at the nearby elementary school and that the children there were not any more in need of books than any other children, the pot of money from which the banners and flowers were to come would not flow to “books for neighborhood kids” if we chose not to use it, but rather it would flow to some other neighborhood, perhaps in some other community, for their neighborhood beautification efforts. The commonwealth spends hundreds of millions on public education. I’m sure every school could use more funding, but I highly doubt the tiny fraction of public funding that accrues to neighborhood beautification in any way impacts school funding.
(At least two of the banners still flying)
Apart from just the “do-gooder-ishness” of the visitor’s commentary there is also a touch of the bias which shows itself, as Noam Chomsky describes it, as requiring a much higher level of morality for the poor than for the affluent: Rich neighborhoods can have hanging baskets of flowers and banners, but for poor neighborhoods it shows a wanton disregard for probity to squander funds on such trivialities! I would take it a step further; the rich can have their own private flower gardens in their own fenced in yards and hang ridiculous banners from their front porches representing whatever their banal obsessions might be, the poor have only the public space and often spend a great deal more time in it. Why not some flowers to beautify their walk to the dollar store and some banners to inform them that they do live in a place with people who have an identity and care about the public realm?
And here we scratch the surface another debate NOT raging at Strong Towns: the foolishness of spending money to attract tourists to older urban neighborhoods. “Stop wasting money on creating amenities for visitors and focus on your residents!” Except, I can’t think of an amenity for a visitor which couldn’t also enhance the life of a resident. When I worked at the Sheraton downtown, an amenity for visitors if ever there was one, that hotel gave me a job that I could walk to with hours that allowed me to go to school in the daytime and work on the evenings and weekends.
Yes, the newer fancy pedestrian enhancements here are designed for visitors to MGM, but my neighbors and I get to use them as well. More shows at Symphony Hall and the civic center will give visitors more entertainment options to choose from…and residents too! Is the problem that the poor shouldn’t go to shows or concerts, or is it a bad thing that people who aren’t poor might decide to move to the neighborhood because there is so much going on? Gentrification! Gentrification! To quote a headline from from the American Conservative (in an article republished at Strong Towns): Rust Belt Cities Need Investment, Not Gentrification Worries.
Halle-frickin-lujah. Can I get an “amen”?!
I’ll take it a step further. I often attend the symphony. I absolutely love it. Ditto the American Hockey League Springfield Thunderbirds. At both venues I guarantee that suburbanites make up the overwhelming majority of attendees. “Boo! Boo! You’re catering to the outsider, the person who just comes into the city to have their little ‘experience’ and then they run home to their white (emphasis on the white) picket fence!”
Ok. Except, those are the suburbanites who care, at least a little bit, about the city. At least in my experience. Maybe they also hit up a restaurant or a bar in the city when they go to a concert or a game. Maybe they play a little pool at Smith’s Billiards too, or they have dinner at a friend’s house nearby. There is a difference between ignoring your residents’ needs and enhancing your city for visitors. I suppose it’s possible to do both at once, but I have actual experience in an urban neighborhood where, from my perspective, every enhancement for visitors has enhanced the area for residents.
Perhaps the greatest paradox of the lifestyle I have chosen is that, were I to magically inherit tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars I would not want to leave my home, but most of my neighbors, if they were to come into a thousand would use it to leave. The irony is that money is not an obstacle to so many of the rich experiences I have here. Just yesterday my wife and I went to the annual flower show at the museums. We choose to be members in order to support the museums in what they do, but any Springfield resident can go to any of the museums for no charge as often as they choose.
It really is a metaphor for the experience here; so much is accessible here for so little, but the people who perhaps need it most access it the least. Nothing helps one to appreciate what one possesses like seeing someone else experience and appreciate it. I’ve always thought that the only really valuable outcome for the emphasis we’ve placed on getting outsiders to value the assets we have here is that in so doing the people who live here might actually look up and realize the exact same thing for themselves.