Thursday, August 21, 2014

Shifting Landscapes

     The glossy website picturing historic buildings, touting its long history of attracting tourists of discriminating tastes was enough to make me mark this southern city on my Mother Map. Hot springs after all!

      As I entered the city in early spring the landscape shifted away from the website.  A derelict apartment house and a burned down hotel slid past the car windows.  Later in the day I headed north away from downtown searching for a grocery store and got caught in a snarl of traffic around a tourist destination inching past grim looking lots and empty store fronts and a single young black man surrounded by three police cars.  The narrow two-lane road through the canyon city screeched as police cars tried to navigate from one end to the other.  Late in the day I passed yet another clutch of police vehicles surrounding the next youth up-to-no good.

      "Shifting landscapes" entered business lexicon some years back.  I am sure this little city was familiar with the expression.  Grappling with racial inequities, economic woes, the loss of stable citizens and unfortunate building designs this little city faced them all with their brave little website.  I talked with the young, enthusiastic and sincere city planner.  They had tools. The city had recently done a needs survey of its citizens.  Clearly hopes rested on solving crime by wanting a community center and activities for their youth, better school funding and more opportunities for small businesses.  However, in juxtaposition of this voice from the landscape, the city had just had a much-touted presentation to the city council and citizens of new plans afoot.  I watched the video, which was presented by all white guys to a council with only one person of color on it and a room full of citizens.  The "landscapers", good businessmen, proposed a big convention center to attract more tourists.  Period.  No mention of a community center, traffic jams and arrested opportunities for youth.  (I will give some credit for an effort by the city inspectors who were working with the downtown small businesses to find ways to skirt costly upgrades in old buildings.)

    When a landscape has a major fault line that periodically opens-up and swallows its people alive thereby sending tremors, rumors and shivers of chaos outwards, there is trouble.  Abuse that has settled in the crevices splits the fault open.  The trouble might be invisible on the planning charts and websites.  The recent killing of a young black youth in Ferguson, Missouri indicates the existence of a fault line.   I have been reading an insightful book called "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs.  Reviews of this book include a description like this one by William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man:  "The research apparatus (in this book) is not pretentious- it is the eye and the heart- but it has given us a magnificent study of what gives life and spirit to the city."  The eye and the heart.  The little city in the south needs an eye and a heart.  The book mostly addresses city planning that tried to unslum neighborhoods by building large-scale housing projects and investing in huge buildings like convention centers.  The eye and the heart starts on the sidewalks where children play while neighbors and the foot-traffic of the local businesses assist to ward off danger.   As I write this, I think that I should send my copy of the book to the city planner.  He seemed like the type that would settle in a chair and take it to heart, seeing new landscapes.  Quieter ones with less rumbling.        

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