Every February I start thinking about leaving Chicago. Historically, this has been because I am so incredibly tired of the weather here by February—the fact that my eyeballs freeze when I walk too quicky, the slush soaking my socks, the generally crabbiness of the population, the inability to ride my bike because I’m afraid of hitting black ice on Clark Street and doing irreparable damage to my brain—but this year my reasons are evolving. I have lived in, or on the cusp of, a huge metropolis my entire life, and lately I just find the work that I hear about in smaller cities to be much more inspiring that the battles we face in larger, more populous cities.
If you’ve read this blog with any consistency, you have no doubt picked up on my obsession with New Orleans. But beyond my general love of the culture, history, iconoclasm, music, and live oaks, I like the crazy sense of possibility of that city. Essentially, the city government has been incredibly ineffective there (most notably during the past 5 years), so it has effectively turned over many of the basic functions of the city to non-profits and anyone willing to take charge on a project. But other places are doing this as well. Places like Detroit, which is described by many as a wasteland and is now inspiring incredibly cool urban gardening and preservation programs, and smaller communities that focus on local economies, are drawing more and more people tired of trying to work within the constraints of – or without any support from— their larger government. These places are also beginning to draw those who are tired of paying through the nose to live in a large city that just isn’t providing the quality of life that most people would expect during their blip of time on this planet.
A couple of years ago I stumbled upon an article about Braddock, Pennsylvania, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. At its height, Braddock was a thriving city of 20,000, but lost 90% of it’s population due to the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s and 90s. Enter John Fetterman, a Harvard Public Policy grad who, though creativity and tireless, enthusiastic focus on community, is slowly turning this forgotten city around. Read about this guy—he’s 6’9’’, 300 pounds, bald, tattooed, and inspiring countless public programs through education, art, environmental and preservation initiatives. Seriously, if you’re feeling stuck, read more about this place and get inspired.
What I think is so appealing about places like Braddock is the focus on local efforts and community. The culture in the U.S. is increasingly focused on the individual. We have lost our neighborliness across the board, from cities to farmlands, and are almost completely without a safety net in most areas of our lives. Now that pensions are being yanked and companies are increasingly unable to provide health insurance, honestly, what do we have to lose? My best days working at the Chicago Center for Green Technology were days when someone would come in asking for help with their plans to build a community garden or how to start up groups to educate their neighborhood about sustainability. People who wanted to know how to clean up their tiny local strip of green space so that their kids literally didn’t have to play on broken glass or so they could get some fresh veggies that summer. I’ve seen pamphlets of countless new green communities and most of the pictures are of people working together on gardens and running around outside. None, I might add, are pictures of someone sitting in front of their 50” plasma screen t.v., alone, bored, and eating takeout. Obviously the images of community, connectedness, and fresh food are effective because more and more of these communities keep sprouting up. Granted, I feel that we should first use the existing buildings and infrastructures of countless towns that have been abandoned as their industry has left, but the point is that having more of a connection to your space and working together with your neighbors to create or recreate a thriving local community is where we need—and I would argue want—to head in this country.
So, anybody out there want to revive an old town? Some day soon, I might just be tempted to lead the charge.