This past weekend Strong Towns appeared on the front page of my hometown newspaper (specifically me this time, only a brief mention of Jon Commers and no mention of Ben Oleson - sorry Ben, I did talk about you but you weren't in the press release). The timing was nice (it was actually my birthday) so my parents and my grandfather were able to tell me in person how proud they were. Never mind what the article actually said, as long as it was not a photo from a police lineup, they were going to be happy to see my mug.
I threw a ton at the reporter, Mike O'Rourke, in a very short period of time. I think he had planned for a short interview and brief story on our Vulnerable Cities report. I kind of downloaded about ten years of built-up information on him in around two hours. The fact that the headline writer called me a "developer" was a little frustrating, but I'm not going to complain. Radical change needs to be digested in spoons, not shovels. I'm afraid I dished up a dump truck's worth.
One of the tough things about doing what I do while living in my hometown is that I know the backstory on nearly every property. I've often thought I should move to anther city so that I could see the landscape for what it is today and how it could be better - an optimistic view - not for what it used to be, knowing in detail how dramatically it has devolved. I frequently think about getting more involved in trying to shape my home town. I'm not sure what it says about me - good or bad - that it is mentally more satisfying (and less frustrating) for me to keep my distance and instead focus on other towns and neighborhoods. One of the "people" that commented on the story dished out a fair and biting criticism, hitting me where it hurts (truly):
I guess he does not practice what he preaches. Raised in Brainerd, met his wife at Franklin Jr. High, then decides to settle down in East Gull Lake. What a guy.
East Gull Lake is where I currently live. It is a bedroom community northwest of Brainerd. My wife and I built our house here on five acres of forest in the months after we got married. Our taxes are kept artificially low by the fact that the high-value lake property owners (of which I am not one) pay a ton of property tax and that I don't pay anything for the services provided by the regional center (Brainerd/Baxter) and make little contribution to the millions of dollars of high-capacity roads I drive to get there. In short, I live in the exact opposite style of development we at Strong Towns advocate for.
I won't bore you all with my life's story, but suffice it to say that I when I started my career as an engineer I had a completely different perspective on the world than I do now. That is perhaps what gives me the zeal of a convert - a decade and a half of asking questions, seeking answers, asking more questions, seeking more answers.... I'm reaching a comfort level now with knowing that I will never have all the answers, that each new answer brings a dozen new questions. My birthday this past weekend is the annual reminder that time will not wait for me to keep up.
So I live the modern American dream - a nice house on a big lot on a paved road in the forest. I designed it and built it with my own hands - or at least my own wits - back in 1996. It is a unique place and when people ask me about that I tell them that I started with a Christmas tree and designed a house around it. That is a true story. It a very hard thing to walk away from.
But it is also my own daily torture. I can see the "code" of the Matrix around me (sorry to our older readers for the pop culture reference) and I know that this is not real, at least in the sense that it is not anywhere near financially viable. I feel a little bit condemned to live here - defining here as broadly as need be - see the people, know them, care for them and understand that the world they know and the lives they live just won't continue as they envision it. I don't say that in the sense of some impending apocalypse, but in the knowledge that the fragile strings that support this Ponzi scheme are slowly but surely being frayed.
We've looked at moving to Brainerd, but I have little hope that it can pull out of the decline it is in right now. They are firing the same gun over and over and over with greater caliber, yet less impact, each time. And they seemingly have no intention of even considering a change of direction. The long, slow decline. That does not separate them from most other cities, but I'm not pondering moving to most other cities.
For those of you just discovering this blog, especially my neighbors coming over from the Dispatch article, we have an entire series on growth in Brainerd and Baxter that you may find interesting. We typically publish here Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, with a podcast released on most Thursdays. You are especially invited to hang out here, challenge yourself and your own thinking as well as challenge us and our thinking. Hopefully together we'll continue to learn how to build Strong Towns.