Is the price of leadership and results an aversion to gridlock? We ask leaders to find solutions and get things done, but lambast them when they're not done exactly to our liking. What, then, do we pick elected leaders to do? Do we pick them to obsess intensely over the minutiae or trust them to take a long view? Where does trust come in? Has the tenor of politics changed? Do we no longer trust our elected officials to make good decisions, irrespective of their history and background?
I don't pretend to have the answer to any of these questions, but they're worth pondering as our neighborhoods, cities, states, and nation meld and model into new forms.
As gridlock has beset us in Washington, and the pall of partisanship has eroded progress in Lansing, it seems that a vocal minority, some of whom who have managed to get themselves elected to local government, are bent on taking an antagonistic view to policy ideas presented. Indeed, how do we move forward if one of the four wheels on the car is intent on driving in the opposite direction?
Some choose to give up. In this, antagonism fails our citizens. We have bickered and been unwilling to compromise so long that some citizens choose to throw up their hands in disgust and remove themselves from civic engagement. What some may view as a failure to engage, or a failure on behalf of that individual, I view as a failure of our elected officials. The more one's heels are dug into the sand, the less likely we are to compromise, and thus exceedingly less likely to move policy forward to tackle any of the myriad of problems that plague our cities, nations, and state.
On the whole, Ann Arbor is a town that is fairly well off. Objectively, our standard of living is quite high. We have a university in our midst, up-sided property values, and public services that (though some complain), are active, effective, and ample. Not every community can say that. Whether or not we realize that we have much to work with becomes beside the point if there are loud elected voices bent on proclaiming the end is nigh: and as you go to the polls in November and beyond, remember the balance that must be weighed out.
The places we live in are forever changing: people move in and out of them. The dynamics of traffic, pollution, environment, commerce, retail, and everyday life are not static, nor should they be. The fact that humans live in spaces necessitates their fluidity. As one family outgrows an abode, another moves into it – and on the whole, there's a stasis – a balance, if you will.
If we build too many houses, the value decreases to the point where we cannot sell them for the cost of materials put into them. If there is high demand, however, to live in a certain area, then prices rise. Ann Arbor residents know this well, especially anyone who has rented. That's not wrong, it is just a matter of reality. Sure, we could seek to legislate our city back to the 1980s when things weren't so out of control, but that does little good to change the matter at hand: Ann Arbor is a desirable place to live.
It would behoove those in local government inclined to nitpick and place barricades in front of progress to realize the effect of their actions – I'm not advocating for unbridled development, just as much as I believe that a keen eye toward the specifics of policy is important, but there must be a means to an end.
I'll be honest, I tend to reject the arguments of folks who want to return back to something, or are interested in preserving what once was – not because I don't long for that past and simplicity, but because I understand the impracticality of it. We are now here, and thus we must try to find solutions to the problems that face us, not return back to the page we just read to revise our response.
What I hope for, however, is the real possibility that enough calm voices arise urging that we be pragmatic about things – if opportunities present themselves we should not simply shy away from them but embrace them for the future potential they withhold. It is, of course, appropriate to consider the risks and consequences, but I remain intensely optimistic that these voices maintain focused on not nitpicking for the sake of obstructionism, but try to find the good in proposals and work to improve them.
This simple, yet important change of mindset is key to the end goal of a government: bettering the lives of those who employ it and whom it represents. If we come to the table hell-bent on the goal of preventing a certain thing (be it a train station, an apartment complex, a structure, a park, or an improvement) from happening, then we cannot ever come to a point of understanding, and that is a disservice to us all. I don't pretend to think that each representative isn't doing what they think is in the best interests of all of their constituents (not just the vocal ones) but another head check would serve us all, and our futures (and those of our children) well.
Places are living things, at once having an effect on the people who reside within them from day to day, and those who come across them in passing. The effect, however, that they have is completely up to the leaders, voters, and residents of a place. It comes down to deciding what exactly a community represents, how it represents itself, and how its citizens and visitors perceive it.
My hometown, Ann Arbor, is full of public places. In the city's long history, we've taken care to include ample parkland in the vision of our city, and have attempted to maintain this focus as we move forward. A walk around town yields small squares to gather and eat lunch, tree-lined parks, small vistas, and facets that the populace of a vibrant city deserves. Looking outward from the city's center, Ann Arbor not only has a large number of smaller neighborhood parks, but a series of larger, activity-focused spaces as well.
More than just green space, what are these things, these places, if you will? What makes a public place something memorable, that evokes a response, and that makes you want to return? For some, it is that space's usability: the number of park benches or ball fields, the quality of the grass or the height of the trees (yes, that pun was on purpose); for others, what the space means to them is more of an attraction: for me, my memories of playing softball in West Park, or seeing a play in the Bandshell there, or exploring the wetlands at Mary Beth Doyle Park, or eating lunch with a friend under the gaze of the Arch sculpture in front of the People's Food Co-Op. To some, these places are simply a line item in a budget.
In all likelihood, the most responsible way to think about these places is an amalgam of all the above. But when it comes time to make a decision about it, I'd argue that what makes our city memorable is its beauty. Ann Arbor is not just a city, but also a place that people are keen to visit, where we're proud to live, and a town longed for by those who've had to move away.
Part of that rose-colored vision is the memory of a city that imparted upon them good feelings, and I'd argue that a good deal of this comes from the care that we take as a community to create a welcoming atmosphere. That atmosphere owes much to the citizens of our town, and to our reputation as a place of learning and culture.
We are known across the state (and even outside of it too!), as a cultural leader, and it is a proud banner that Ann Arborites can bear.
For a city with a long commitment to the arts, welcoming illustrious artists such as Arthur Miller, Bob Seger, John Sinclair, and Ken Burns among our ranks; a storied Art Fair; numerous galleries and a downtown art center; performance venues that rival many major cities; and museums to match, it seems only natural for people in such a cultural center to decide that a commitment to the beautification of public spaces is important to them, and now there's a chance to put that commitment into action in the ballot box.
Ann Arbor has decided to join the ranks of countless municipalities across the country that have made a strong commitment to art in public places by placing a small millage on this November's ballot. The average homeowner will pay less than a dollar (yes, less than a cup of coffee at Sweetwaters) per month to invest in the beauty of the city we love so dearly. It is cheap, smart, and an investment not only in the future of our town, but your own property values as well, when push comes to shove.
So much of what we take for granted here is not found in other cities, and it pains me to think that being so blessed, we run the risk of missing an opportunity to build upon the great foundation available here and cement our reputation as a cultural mecca. I hope you'll join me in strengthening our city by voting yes, with me, on Proposal B, in November.
Thru all the stress of the economic downturn this nation has seen, hitting Michigan especially hard, it becomes very easy to cut that which could be a huge part of the remedy to the situation.
It begs asking: how many of you have actively considered moving away? How many people do you know who don't live here have considered moving here?
To answer those questions personally, I've considered moving, and to date don't really know anyone who has considered moving here for a reason other than schooling. I'm sure there are some, but I'd also be willing to say they are few and far between, and I'd also bet a good chunk of people who read this may have similar answers.
For those who follow these sorts of things, there have been numerous studies and initiatives sounding the warning call loud and clear: not only are we losing jobs, but we're losing those citizens we've invested in to educate in our public schools and universities, and we can't attract people from outside the state to move here. This spells declines in representation in our national government, declines in state funding, and an overall decline of our state and communities on the whole.
So why is this happening? Sure we're fighting an economic downturn, but these problems were happening before the downturn, and have only been expedited by the slowdown. What have we been doing wrong then? Why are people moving away or choosing not to come here?
The answer: We haven't sold our state in the right way. We've been marketing ourselves to our citizens and to the world as a whole all wrong. Stay with me here for a second.
This isn't to say that we haven't made efforts to show people what Michigan is made of. We're getting there, but missing a crucial element. We've got insanely cheap real estate, companies who are hiring (while not in droves, there are openings for young talent out there), but we're missing the pitch on selling the young software designer, bio-tech engineer, or graphic designer that there's a wealth of culture in our cities. We're fumbling the ball when we tell them about the lakes and the forests and the sports teams, but not the gold mine of artists who make their living here.
What do people associate with Michigan? What has Michigan been exporting to the rest of the world for the last 50 odd years other than automobiles?
Music. And amazing music at that. On top of that, we've born brilliant writers, designers, and visual artists.
Yet, somehow, as a state, whenever times get tough, the first thing on the chopping block is the Arts. It's an easy cut - not everyone likes all types of art, and when a dollar either has to go to a road or an art installation, the road seems the easy choice.
This, however, is where we as cities and a state err.
If we want to attract people to this state, we don't need to build new roads to bring them here. We need to prove to them that there's things to do other than drive around a bunch, and go to the lake or go camping. These are all part of the total package, but focusing solely on them as a way to attract & retain citizens is completely backward. We need to invest in telling people about the programming that agencies like University Musical Society provide, the brilliant films that show at theaters like the the Detroit Film Theatre and the Michigan Theater, impressive spaces like the Art Museums in our cities, and arguably most importantly the music scenes that have always been part and parcel to the culture of our state.
From Motown to Kid Rock, from The Gories to Iggy & The Stooges, from Eminem to Steve Miller, and from Carl Cox to Nomo, Michigan has always been a music state. It is in our blood, it's a huge asset, and to me it seems like we're collectively throwing away a chance to grow the exact thing that will attract not only citizens but businesses to the state.
When choosing a place for a new office or headquarters, employers want to know that their employees will lead full and vibrant lives and have things to do within their communities when they're not in the office. In that same token, it makes it a million times easier for a business to attract the talent it needs to expand and succeed when those employees immediately know that they're moving to vibrant, culturally rich cities - places that they can enjoy and can ultimately raise well rounded children in.
I know I'm biased here, as I'm employed in the Arts, but I'll say it is obscenely frustrating to hear close friends who are immensely talent musicians, writers, photographers, and designers speak and ultimately act on the idea of packing up and heading away from the area. I
'm not talking about moving from Ann Arbor to Ypsi, or from Ypsi to Lansing. We're losing the undercurrent of culture and creatively minded people that has always kept our cities vibrant to the Chicagos, Brooklyns, San Franciscos and Austins of the world. Given a wide angle lens, it's easy to brush this off, saying "Oh well, that's always going to happen."
Should it though?
I'd argue no. This shouldn't be happening. These people are exactly the ones driving the culture that our state should be putting in the forefront. What should be happening is that these art scenes should be growing, and our cities and state should be investing in them. It's gotten to the point where we're taking things into our own hands and banding together to get thru this - from artist colonies sprouting up in Detroit, to Arts & Culture organizations banding together to defend themselves against people in power who see them as easy ways to balance a bloated budget.
I would relish living in a state where a fledgling do-it-yourself record label, home based book publisher, or painter wasn't stretching themselves so thin that they eventually break. I would relish living in a place that recognizes the immense diversity and wealth of the culture that resides within its boundaries and would go out of its way to promote it, to present it, and to invest in making sure that all facets of the arts community, from the painters who paint in their living rooms, to the record label based in the family room of the house, to those art organizations, artisans, and businesses with their own performance spaces, offices, and buildings are all incentivized or invested in somehow by the cities and the state they reside in.
The risk is too great. Michigan is a state that isn't in the greatest financial shape, we all know. There are tough choices ahead of us, but one of them shouldn't be whether or not to invest into our culture - the culture that is the easiest way to market what a great place this is to live, that has been intrinsically woven in our communities fabric for so long, and the loss of which results in a part of the country that people don't consider interesting enough to move to - even if we're flush with jobs in the future.
You want to attract and retain talent? Put our music scenes, our art scenes, and our cultural institutions on the presentation block, not the chopping block. Do otherwise, and we risk losing not only our history, but our future.
It's always seemed curious to me that we have about four downtown areas in the city. Something must have happened on the way to the planning committee. Each has their own flavor and individual vibrancy, but what seems to be lacking is a connection between them.
As such, we have upwards of 4 different associations in town to represent each downtown's concern. Add to the pile the developmental and business interests of the University (almost in and of itself its own downtown) and what we have is a loose network, when everything screams to me that these areas should be sharing resources and connecting to become one cohesive unit.
Perhaps it's only a matter of how it feels, and not how things actually interact. I do know that the A2D2 (Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown) initiative is working on some of these issues, and while the A2D2 process is still in the works, my gut tells me we need to do more. From a business standpoint, my sense tells me that these Street associations could easily band together and work to push for zoning changes and general code changes that could benefit our downtowns for the better, and make the city seem more cohesive all the while.
Policywise, I think it would make sense for the city (essentially those voters living within the city) to consider adding another Ward that essentially encompasses these downtowns. The citizens who live in these areas, from student renter to property owner I feel are a tad underrepresented by the current council Wards. While the city charter states that each ward should be pieshaped "so as to make each ward a very rough cross section of the community population from the center outward", in fact, this process tends to give us districts that end up under representing the greater downtowns, and disproportionally representing the outer edges of the city*. Doing so would likely result in adding two brand new council seats to the current 10 that already exist.
The current Wards work, but work ineffectively. The voices of the residents, businesses, property owners of our downtowns are divided between multiple council members, making each member only partially responsible to hearing the concerns of the downtown areas that provide services and drive the economy of our city.
It makes more sense to me that consolidating the areas (by a small portion, mind you) that each council member has to represent will help those elected officials better represent the citizens and property owners they are elected to represent. Our current wards are confusing to citizens of the downtown, and probably even more so to businesses who may be interested in moving into our city when the economy turns around. They too want to know whom to turn to when they need help, and above all else, this should be the job of the council to do as an elected city representative.
To make the point clearer, I feel like some of the problems the city faces in having the University engage meaningfully with the city stems from the current districting. Given that the University doesn't have to play along (as it is given eminent domain in Michigan's Constitution), perhaps consolidating a good part of it under one council Ward roof could at least help them. Furthermore, it gives more of a voice to those students who live here and want to be part of the community. As you might guess, I was one of these kids, but as I moved around and lived in Student Housing, my council district changed all the time.
I know it might seem outwardly frightening to those who begrudgingly deal with the University's presence in the city - as this opens the door wide open for a University student to be elected to city council, but perhaps stop and take a look at the benefits that could be reaped: A direct link between the University, it's student population (which does make up a large number of individuals), and the city government.
Add to this the benefit of homeowners, renters, property owners, and business owners in our downtowns having a direct representative to air their concerns to and I feel the benefits begin to outweigh the problems and struggle needed to consider such a proposal.
Lastly, it would provide a single ward to address the problems in the "student ghetto". Given a bit more structure as a community, this heavily student area would have a voice to turn to in the city, and be represented in one single ward, hopefully resulting in increased participation in that same community, meanwhile giving non studen community members and homeowners who aren't pleased with the problems in these areas a strengthened voice on council and council members who will more directly understand the issues of absentee landlords, trash, and parking that plague these neighborhoods.
I'll be the first to admit this would likely be an enormous undertaking, but perhaps as new census data comes to us in 2010, we can begin to look at this process a little more in-depth. Such a change would necessitate changes to the City's charter and collecting just over 5,300 signatures to do so. I'm willing to bet there's at least that many people who are interested in having their individual ward more directly represent their individual neighborhood and who are interested in having a more cohesive downtown.
*As it stands now, most of the downtowns and University area sit in the 1st Ward, while chunks fall to the 5th (Main St. south of Huron), 3rd and 4th (Packard St. depending on which side you're on, and S. State St. in the 5 corners area where Packard St., State St., and Hill St. convolve), and to a small degree, the 2nd even.
I think it is clear from the comments heard at Ann Arbor City Council meetings over the past few weeks, the follow up statements of community members, and Council members that there are clear issues with some of the proposed cuts to the city's budget. As Mayor Hieftje mentioned at a recent Council meeting, we face further difficulties, looking forward, from the declining tax base in the city and regional area.
As such, it seems to me that we need to be proactive about figuring out ways to fund the city services and amazing programs that, for one, we've grown to love and rely on as community members and secondly, although no less important, make our community one that is attractive to people moving to the area & help retain the talent that we grow here in our backyards.
However, we all know these programs cost money - money that is just plain not in the the city's general fund due to declining tax income. As such, it is imperative that we grow the base amount of dollars put into the pot.
While not popular, it must be said: there are developers and developments proposed in the area that could do just this. Allowing developments such as these to move forward will bring much needed tax income into the city's coffers. This is tax money that could immensely help to keep community policing on the streets, that could keep Mack Pool open, and keep the Senior Center open!
Whether or not these units are owned or rented, the city budget will indeed benefit from increased property tax income in addition to the single year gain from the initial building out of the space.
While large, I'll give, these plans intend, for the most part, to build green and increase the number of people per square foot inhabiting our downtown and the areas nearby it. Cities such as San Francisco have built well upon these ideals - building smartly up instead of sprawling out - building increased vibrancy into their communities while respecting the environment all the while.
Unfortunately, plans like these are coming under fire due to what seems to me to be a lack of interest in cooperation. What cooperation you ask?
We need a bit more cooperation from the neighborhood associations and the residents they represent to allow larger buildings in their backyards - green buildings at that; from the city - to work with both sides and hammer out a plan; and from the interested developers as well by continuing to be committed to keeping the community involved (or, though they're not required to - picking a program that may be killed due to budget issues and sponsoring that program from the revenue they hope to make - perhaps even innovatively via a non-profit so that they could see the tax benefit from the donations on their federal taxes).
Perhaps then, all sides can be happy - we all gain - we all give a little, and we all get more in the end: the services we love, an increased tax base in the city, and more spaces to welcome to the community the people we are trying to attract and retain. Coming to the conversation with an attitude intended to do the opposite - to diametrically oppose anything brought to the table - is wholly ineffective and only serves to hurt our local economy.
We're an opinionated, active, and interested community, one of our strongest suits, but also one that tends to make us dig in our heels and not be open to any sort of compromise at all. Unfortunately, this failure to compromise leads to anger and impasse, when what we need are openness, innovative solutions, and constructive ideas on how to solve the problems we face. Let's be that open-hearted community we know we all are!
While none of the sides are required to do any of this, they are taking baby steps, to a degree, and should do more. It is my hope that this appeal, and others like it will stimulate our sense of community (the community of business and the community of citizens) can help us come together and build a stronger city in the end.
In case anyone's asking, I'm 29, a renter, and live on North Main Street just up the block from the planned Near North Development.