James Fallows on ‘Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed’ (Part 2)

I wrote yesterday about James Fallows‘s ‘Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed.’  Today’s post considers whether his list applies to Whitewater, and how Whitewater fares if items on the list – at least in part – apply to our small city.

One word of caution applies to Fallows’s list: it was compiled after he visited cities larger than Whitewater. In his essay, Fallows writes that “by the time we [Fallows and his wife, Deborah] had been to half a dozen cities, we had developed an informal checklist of the traits that distinguished a place where things seemed to work.”

Those first half-dozen cities from the City Makers: American Futures series were Holland MI (33,000), Rapid City SD (67,000), Sioux Falls SD (153,000), Burlington VT (42,000), Eastport ME (1,300), and Redlands CA (68,000) (using 2010 Census figures).  All except one are larger than Whitewater.  When one reviews list for signs of success, it’s clear that it derives from more populous communities, where greater size has begun to limit coordination of projects.  It’s a limitation on use of the checklist worth remembering.

Here below are the eleven signs, with comments on each.

1. Divisive national politics seem a distant concern.  I’d say that, for the most part, this is true for us: we’re not a place where national controversies matter much.  On the contrary, Whitewater is a place of hyper-locality, where policymakers sometimes act as though all the world ends at Townline Road.  If anything, we’re too locally focused, to the detriment of higher standards.   (See, on the need for a higher standard, What Standards for Whitewater?)

2. You can pick out the local patriots.  Here again, our situation is the opposite of Fallows’ concern: he’s worried about “Who makes this town go?” in cities that are large enough that many people might not know influential residents; Whitewater’s a smaller place where a few town notables are intoxicated with the idea of wrapping the city in a single, neat package to be held in their grasping hands.

Whitewater doesn’t have a problem with too few leaders, she has a problem with too many people in a small town advancing themselves under the guise of being a ‘Whitewater Advocate,’ conflicts of interest or lack of insight notwithstanding their efforts.  (What a sad condition not to see that advocacy requires more than simple-minded boosterism; one truly sees the object of one’s love with clear eyes.)

Whitewater has a same-ten-people-problem because the same ten people can’t see beyond empty boilerplate.

The answer to DYKWIA? should be YMBFKM.

It’s instinctual for libertarians to dislike concentrations of state power (and often other kinds of power more broadly).   Better to be a counterweight to others’ striving, assuring by doing so that there will be a fair equilibrium within one’s community.

3. “Public-private partnerships” are real.  One can guess that I’ve my doubts about this generally, but these doubts are borne out in Whitewater.  Here’s a test: list all the public money that’s been spent here, and then list how many jobs have been created (omitting public employees shifted from nearby, well-paid employees already on the university payroll, work-study students and interns, but including only actual, private, full-time jobs).

When Mr. Clapper produces that table – to supply good data to otherwise bad rhetoric – only then can one begin to evaluate the unctuous claims so often made in this city.

Now you know, and I know, too, that Messrs. Clapper, Reel, and Binnie would like to find a so-called public-private partnership for trash-importation into this tiny city of ours.  Tree City, Bird City, Trash City: one of these doesn’t fit with the others.

That’s not the success that Fallows has in mind, especially in a city of our small population and limited natural area.  It’s not the hoped-for success any reasonable person would have for this city.

4.  People know the civic story.  I think residents could use more of our history, but at least those who’ve grown up here seem to know it well enough.

5.  They have a downtown.  We do, and we’re better for it.  I’m not connected to anyone in Downtown Whitewater, Inc. (and as it’s a WEDC-supported entity I’ll remain distant and detached).  Still, I like our downtown very much, and hope better for it yet to come.

6.  They are near a research university.  We don’t have a research university, but we do have a good undergraduate school in the very center of town.

7.  They have, and care about, a community college.  Fallows means that a community college might substitute for lack of a university; we are not lacking, as we have a comprehensive, four-year university.

8.  They have unusual schools.  We briefly had a charter school, but there’s a deeper point here, about the range of teaching, and the limits of a narrow, traditional approach.  Briefly: fighting over an incremental difference in ACT scores as a marketing tool is futile; one has no comparative advantage when one is indistinct among background static.  (Here I am talking about collective marketing, not individual performance.)  Whatever his ability to keep a general harmony, our last district administrator stuck to the conventional, with the hope of a slightly better showing.

That’s futile as a marketing effort (no one notices among the clutter of other marketing efforts), and is uncompelling to the creative and ambitious families we’d like to attract.

Success comes in great part from an innovative curriculum and an energetic faculty.  One needn’t to go to university to teach the way everyone else has been teaching for the last few decades.  One goes to school – among many other important reasons – to advance learing, not duplicate stale methods.  

9.  They make themselves open.  We’ve made gains in this regard, but there’s much more to do.

10.  They have big plans.  We’re a small town, and sometimes our plans are too big, and often too expensive.  We’ve had our share of ‘come on guys, let’s put on a show’ spenders, including too many big-government conservatives who’ve shoved ineffectual, expensive project after ineffectual, expensive project on a city that cannot easily bear it.

11.  They have craft breweries.  Thankfully, we do.  Private efforts have led to a public gain.  The foundation of our society’s prosperity is private property and private enterprise.

We’ve strengths, but also much to do, in our small and beautiful city.  For it all, we’ve good reason to be optimistic.

Yesterday James Fallows on ‘Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed’ (Part 1)

2 thoughts on “James Fallows on ‘Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed’ (Part 2)

  1. Good assessment, John. A lot of people would agree with most of this.Been around awhile and the same people problem is really a same ideas problem. Too many people expect agreement based on how long they’ve lived here, like people owe them for whatever they say. Nope, doesn’t work that way.

  2. The best things in this town have come from ordinary people who aren’t connected to the same old gang.

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