Limits of Civic Pride


I've lived in some fairly miserable cities in my life--Kaohsiung and Shanghai spring to mind. Reese Witherfork tells me that Kaohsiung has gotten worse since I was there in 1986, and everything I've read assures me that Shanghai has gotten better since I was there in 1991. Still, I have no particular desire to return to either, and whenever I've felt inclined to lament the shortcomings of anyplace I've lived in the past 15 years, I can always cheer myself up by saying, "At least it's not as bad as Shanghai."

Although not as crowded or filthy or schizophrenic or cruel as Kaohsiung or Shanghai, the city I live in now isn't exactly glamorous or exciting (which I'm told Shanghai has become in certain ways, though even when I lived there you could find glamor and excitement if only you had loads and load of foreign currency, which I lacked). Instead, like so many once prosperous cities in the rust belt, it's economically depressed and culturally deprived, blighted by urban decay and bad management. Some cities have managed to remake themselves into something that can draw industry and tourists, but this place hasn't--partly because it's also cursed by crappy weather.

I can't help feeling, however, that it could be a reasonably appealing place if only someone could shape it properly, then sell that shape to other. Apparently the city council feels the same way too, because billboards have been springing up around town, bearing slogans to help residents feel good about their city.

Unfortunately the slogans are thoroughly half-assed. Instead of actually promoting the city, citing its strengths and inciting pride, the slogans bear witness to just how little civic pride we've got. One big billboard features big block letters written on notebook paper, stating,

It's OK to love this town. --Anonymous

Anonymous? Anonymous? The city council can't even find someone willing to go on record saying that it's OK to love this town? Then there's the fact that we're not assured that it's GOOD or GREAT to love this town--no, it's merely OK. Every time I pass the sign I snort in derision. The billboard is worse than blank air or even a derelict brewery in terms of announcing and advertising the city's strengths: blank air can at least provide you with a decent view of the land or city scape, while an abandoned beer factory announces to teetotalers that the place has cast off some of its hedonistic devotion to booze and announces to imbibers that at some point residents understood what a city needed to keep its residents happy.

Another billboard points out that "Lots of places are cold in the winter." Well, that's true, but it's not exactly a motto that warms the heart--or anything else, for that matter.

I'm waiting for a billboard that tells me, "Buffalo has more vacant houses than we do," or "Be glad you don't live on an Indian reservation." Though I could always offer them a slogan of my own: "This town isn't as unpleasant as Shanghai in the early 1990s."


Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, passed away on Tuesday. She bemoaned the loss of street life and culture as the keys to making cities into the vibrant economic zones that could make a place interesting. She spent half of her life in Toronto, which has a somewhat different self-image problem to the one you describe. She supported Quebec's sovereignty and beleived Montreal needed to cultivate its own identity more carefully and as more clearly independent of Toronto. Cities can do a lot to make themselves appealing not only to the people who live there but also to people who might find the awful weather to be less of a burden if there are interesting things to do, or people who hope to invest in businesses that need to attract creative employees. There is some research that suggests that being culturally progressive is part of what made a city like Seattle (please, it never stops raining there) so attractive. Problem is, the city's rulers have to be willing to tolerate difference, for example by embracing a lively gay culture, in order to attract different people. This is so far not something that a lot of the rust belt has figured out, even though there are very attractive things about it (like property values and the lovely lakes).

I wonder how our experiences living abroad color our attitudes toward life in America. I lived in nice places-- Southern Germany and Switzerland-- and vacationed while living there in France and Spain. So I know life can be pretty nice in places besides the U.S. I've been to Japan, Hong Kong, and the Czech Republic on tours. I've never visited a really poor country, not even Mexico.
Most of my friends, whose experiences with living abroad were in the Peace Corps, see the rest of the world as a squalid place where the struggle for survival is extreme.
My feeling is that American life is still looking good on the surface, but it's kept going on the backs of hidden poor people in foreign countries manufacturing our consumer goods and illegal laborers growing and preparing our food and keeping our surroundings clean. And I fear this state of affairs is what people have come to expect and even take for granted. We think of ourselves as aristocrats, entitled to the finest. But such is our rhetoric about equality that we want all this labor to take place out of our sight. We don't have retinues of servants hanging about, as even modest middle class people once had. I'm talking about affluent Americans, of course, but even poor people here benefit from hidden labor.

The problem is that most cities now have amenities for tourists and the affuent. There's a lot of competition.
I was in Honolulu on the weekend, and it's very glitzy for the tourists. This provides jobs and is also pleasant for residents, but it's hell on the environment. Hilo, where I live, has a rundown looking downtown that is in fact very lively and livable though not a big money maker. We have a great open market on Wednesday and Saturday. The Palace Theater, in spite of its rusty roof, is a venue for good films and live performances. The best sushi restaurant I've ever been to is housed in a building that would be a tear-down most places. And the Mexican restaurant looks like a cucaracha haven but in fact is excellent.
Our big dilemma here is that we have a huge development that lacks the basics: water, sewage, paved roads, garbage collection, even lacks electricity in large stretches: and yet new houses are going in everywhere there because the land is cheap. A wit said that you build your mansion there, but when you step out your door, you're in Dogpatch.
The Big Island of Hawaii is a funny place.

Oh, I didn't know Jane Jacobs passed away. I heard it here first.

I live in a city that I completely despise, as does everyone else here (everyone with half a brain, anyway). There's a phantom evil lingering around this place. It's dreadful.

Aside to Reese Witherfork: I don't know if it's appropriate to your ville, but do you know the song "One Great City!" by the Weakerthans? A good account of why people come to love/hate the places they live.

I've liked a lot of cities I've lived in while I was there: Tainan (a small city in southern Taiwan), Tucson, London. I didn't like Iowa City so much until I left and realized just how many virtues it had, though many of those had to do with the house I lived in there--I LOVED that house--and where it was located. Also my really great yoga teacher. I've visited lots of cities I like--I think Toronto is fabulous, and I really like Brussels.

I don't know. It takes money to run a city, just like everything else. Foresight, careful planning and some beauty help too.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on April 27, 2006 9:41 AM.

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