Losing the Self-Evident Frame of Mind

Here’s a quick followup on my recent post on midsize Midwest cities.  Shortly after my piece went up, I saw a great guest piece from Eric McAfee at the Urbanophile.  In it, McAfee argues that nothing short of complete reinvention is needed in such cities, but that the loss of so many young adults to spur reinvention slows the effort:

Reinvention is the only condition likely to save many of these cities from persistent economic contraction, but, with an overabundance of retirees and older workers, these towns lack the collective civic will that could be expected in larger communities with more diversified economies. An absence of young people intensifies (and, to a certain extent, justifies) the low level of civic investment in one’s own community; after all, if a resident is six months from retirement, how likely is it that he or she would support public investments intended to improve quality of life for twenty or thirty years into the future? For that matter, how likely will a population of retirees remain engaged to encourage or challenge major private sector investments as well?

However, McAfee finds on a visit that Kokomo, IN, a city of 57,000 just one hour north of Indianapolis, has begun the process of reinvention:

(T)he city has introduced a trolley system at no charge to users; prior to this initiative, the city had had no mass transit for decades. The Mayor pushed successfully to annex 11 square miles in the town’s periphery, therefore elevating the population by about 10,000 people. The Mayor’s team worked to convert all one-way streets in Kokomo’s downtown to two-ways, recognizing that accommodating high-speed automobile traffic in a pedestrian-oriented environment only detracts from the appeal. The team has restriped several miles of urban streets to incorporate bike lanes, and it has converted a segment of an abandoned rail line into a rail-with-trail path, branding it by linking it to the city’s industrial heritage. They have deflected graffiti from several bridges and buildings through an expansive and growing mural project. They have upgraded the riverfront park with an amphitheatre and recreational path. They have introduced several sculptural installations, the most prominent of which is the KokoMantis, a giant praying mantis made entirely of repurposed metal and funded privately. And my personal favorite: with the support of the City, the school superintendent has integrated a prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program to the public school system, including an international exchange program for young men from several foreign countries (a girls’ program should arrive in the next year or two) who live in a recently restored historic structure in Kokomo’s walkable downtown, attending demanding courses that bolster their chances of admittance in a coveted American university. Most impressively, the City of Kokomo has achieved all of this without incurring any public debt in the past year. 

Setting aside the feat of accomplishing this reinvention without incurring any public debt, these are precisely the kind of infrastructure and programmatic upgrades that midsize cities like Kokomo should be making if they are to be relevant in the long term.

Does anyone remember the HGTV show “Designed to Sell?”  It was cancelled in 2011 but still comes on occasionally.  The show, about making modest home improvements that will maximize sale value, could very well be about most midsize Midwest cities.  The show begins with a homeowner who’s decided that the time has come to sell their comfortable home, but they simply can’t get find any takers.  The show’s hosts come through and construct an open house with hidden cameras situated throughout the house, to gauge the comments of open house visitors as they walk through.  What the homeowner usually finds is that the home “charm” that they take for granted is viewed as outdated, or simply ugly, by potential homebuyers.  In the end, the host recommends modest changes that improve the appearance of the home, and the home ends up being sold.

This is the case with so many midsize Midwest cities.  City leaders believe that the value of living in their community is self-evident — “we have beautiful homes, with great people!  Why consider anywhere else?”  Unfortunately, those very leaders are often locked into a perception of the city from its heyday, or of their own youth.  They don’t come to grips with the new kinds of amenities available to cities, often thinking they’re just for the “big guys”.  No, they’re for you, too, and must be if you want to continue as a healthy city.
I’m glad to see that Kokomo has made strides to upgrade its aesthetics and quality of life.  More cities will have to realize that, in a world with many choices, you have to move away from a self-evident frame of mind, and work toward developing a niche or brand that distinguishes your city from others.

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