I spent the afternoon down in Silicon Valley visiting friends. We hired a driver and made the rounds to local wineries to sample their wares. Evidently a lot of tech money has found its way up into the hills where large fortunes are turned into slightly smaller ones by way of the grape.

When we got back to my friend’s house we opened a bottle of pinot noir and she asked about my recent travels around the country. I took out my laptop and showed her some photos. I explained that a group of community organizers were concerned about some of their less successful neighborhoods and were looking for ways to improve them.

She has absolutely no interest in city planning or economic development which is a good thing from my perspective. I knew she wouldn’t overthink things. So I asked her what she thought of these photos. “It doesn’t look like there’s any reason to ever go to a place like this.” Then I asked her what could be done to make it better. “Fill the empty space with people and buildings so there’s stuff to do.” That, in a nutshell, is exactly the same conclusion that I came to.

While I had my laptop out I checked my e-mail. As coincidence would have it one of the people from this very same town had a request for me. She asked in the most delicate way possible if I could remove a couple of photos and one tiny reference from a past blog post. They cast some local establishments in an unfavorable light and the proprietors may take offense. I assured her that I was opinionated and abrasive, but marvelously amoral. I did as she asked without hesitation. In order to be effective she needs to get key players on board and it does no good to alienate folks. I get it.

This takes me back to my overall assessment of the town. It’s a profoundly risk averse location with a particular set of preoccupations. Everyone I spoke with – black and white, rich and poor – listed all the things they didn’t like about their community: People have ugly old furniture out on their front porches. The signs are ugly. We need more flowers and greenery planted where people can see them as they drive by. I understand these concerns, but they’re cosmetic. They in no way address the underlying dynamics of why some places succeed and others fail. Yes, many thriving places have attractive lawn furniture, tasteful signage, and abundant flowers. But adding those items to a place with fundamental flaws is just lipstick on a pig.

Here’s the real challenge for this town. Will it be possible to persuade nervous people to embrace proposed changes that could gradually turn things around? Or will the fear of change chip away at the process until it becomes pointless? Will local merchants reject the idea of mobile business incubators like food trucks because they present competition for brick and mortar operations? Will school and church officials kill any notion of beer gardens? Will nearby residents lobby against live/work accommodations in dead commercial buildings? Will the end result of these compromises devolve into a few weekend events with face painting and balloon animals because that’s what’s left after everything else has been scratched off the list?

I like this town. I especially like the people. But it’s dull. And all the things that might make it a bit more interesting are scary. On more than a couple of occasions people expressed concerns. You want people to just gather in the streets? What if they do things that are loud or unruly? How do we control them?

Maybe enacting a few city ordinances about acceptable outdoor furniture and proper signage would be more culturally acceptable here. And perhaps community events could be organized where people come together to plant flowers by the side of the road… This might be the best this place can muster at the moment. Or maybe they can rise to the occasion and be bold. It’s their town. They’ll ultimately figure things out in their own way. It’s up to them.

(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo)

Related stories