A Civic Confirmation Bias Check In

So, New Geography just reposted this piece by  John Sanphillipo that originally got air over at Granola Shotgun on Christmas Day (wierd day to post, right?). And I’m jumping on that band wagon (“OMG, I love this song!“) while also adding a little commentary of my own.

Sanphillipo rightly points out that all cities – ‘crown jewels of urban planning’ (Portland) or ‘mistake on the lake’ (Cleveland) have sunny, beautiful, ugly and dirty sides, and with this, I completely agree.

So many ‘rusty’ and blue collared towns get a ridiculous rap based on overly simplified stories of economic decline and resulting depressed societies, which are little more than headline and soundbite-driven gossip. I found so much more awesome art, electric creativity, civic enthusiasm and burgeoning new businesses and industries than downtrodden desolation in the rust belt cities I went to in 2011 and when I went to Jackson MS in October. Jackson, Cleveland, Detroit, St Louis, Indianapolis  (I wrote two pieces for this place) and Youngstown showed me tonnes of examples of initiatives that are led by people who are genuinely excited to be deeply engaged with their cities and communities – and it is this engagement that leads them to be entrepreneurs in their cities, rather than a drive to capitalize on the next hot new thing, seeing a real estate trend others don’t yet or pimping the cool ‘grit’ of their scene. Isn’t that the kind of community you want to be a part of?

The overlooked and underestimated beauty of real life, human struggle (and therefore success) and civic history in public spaces is so much more attractive than another long-socked and bearded fixie-riding synth-playing barista. NO matter how much I love the syth. Srlsy.

Public spaces, art and communities that share evidence and reference to the lived and felt experiences of the ups and downs of the fickle and flawed economic and governance systems we’ve pledged our allegiances and identities to, give their visitors and residents an honest story and unique local character to hold onto and align themselves with – as opposed to a Disney-fied and cookie cutter version of a sparkling and doe-eyed (set) civic landscape that so many places seem to be taking up. By allowing our cities, shared spaces and expressions of who we are as communities, to show their cracks and struggles, we allow ourselves, and our society, to learn from our pasts, grow stronger from our foibles and be more honest about who we are here and now. And that’s the first step towards tomorrow.

At the end of his piece, Sanphillipo encourages people to “stop fighting” the increasingly disparate economic realities and increasing status anxiety inducing social demands of contemporary coastal societies to take up an affordable place within the interior of the country. While I do wholeheartedly support that many cities on lists are unfortunate recipients of overly simplified, underestimated and ill-defined identities, there is a special magic to being a part of the struggle and emergent culture and character of the cities with the ridiculous rents, too. I know, I’ve been in San Francisco for the past 6 months..


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