A Note to a New Greenfield City-Manager

Be ready for the common lament, “You know, Greenfield used to be a helluva good city. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it”. The problem is: we ain’t what we used to be and we ought to accept that, we may have once had the right to our “exceptionalism” but we have slipped badly. Unhappily, the majority solution is, we have dug ourselves out of holes before and we can do it again, and someone else will do it for us –be a “frustrated optimist.”

You cannot long for the days when Greenfield believed in service and sacrifice and the Boy Scouts ruled the earth and helped little old ladies across the street and neighbors brought one another casseroles and everyone was awesome, private industry built schools and homes, and then talk about how any doing of any of that these days is wrong. You have to pick. Either you want Greenfield to once again be the place of your forefathers when we did stuff like this or you don’t.

The symptoms of Greenfield’s decline are all around to see. This decline was slow in coming and hence, Greenfield failed to even recognize the existence of the problem. Many Greenfield problems have festered for decades, such as the downtown decay. I’ve realized that no one seriously thinks these issues will be dealt with or even resolved, after Greenfield politicians have kicked the can down the road for so long. Public and political paralysis has led to poor standards of living, shoddy infrastructure, a student Brain Drain, lack of investments and, a lack of regulations; the byproduct is that the strength of much of our middle-class, housing, attractiveness and finances, and stature have deteriorated. We do not speak of decay. Decay is captured only in the long, vacant stares, in the silences, in the memories, in the tears. Our Neighbor lives in poverty, desperately poor, raising her children alone. Another flees from life through drink and drugs and self-destructiveness.

Tigers who end up succeeding have the right combination of resources while in high school – meaning caring teachers, exposure to college, peers who are thinking about their careers, some kind of knowledge on how to create an affordable path to college and lesser responsibilities at home. Many of these graduates succeed, but young Greenfield students who see this community from different locales can’t help but conclude that something is awry in a Greenfield culture that denies what they plainly see elsewhere. They think it doesn’t matter who governs here, that no real change is possible. They think the power of special interests or is it “no interest” is simply too great. As for adding these ‘best minds’ to our weakening economy, it has becoming less attractive.

And they are right. Neighborhood is home to a large population of unmotivated youth who have a bleak future. Many factors such as family dynamics and community institutions shaped the important transition these youth face when moving on to adulthood. Some are working hard, and some have fallen to drugs and crime. Despite school teachers’ attempts to keep them in school, more and more, they grew convinced that finishing school was not going to clear a path towards personal satisfaction. They became disillusioned as to what to do in regards to their future and fell through the cracks without realizing their full potential as contributors to society. Many here feel that they have nowhere to turn for help.

Common sense is all that’s required to solve Greenfield ‘s economic problems, aided by analogy, thinking, and a little data. We should try to learn from other communities. The communities that are making great strides follow a different path. Some of them are autocracies. Their leaders want to know how best to prepare and protect community while maintaining business vitality, and they benchmark against these leaders–just like the strongest businesses do. Their ‘solution’ is reviving the values, priorities, and practices that Greenfield used to succeed in the past. Attracting back graduates should be number one. This is not all that easy! But, we may have no other choice. Think business start-up scholarships and reduced business loans for former graduates who bring or start a new Greenfield business.

We need a Housing Trust that would rehab vacant buildings as affordable rentals. A Housing Trust that would accept donations of vacant buildings from banks and lend them at no cost to developers who would agree to provide affordable housing and hire local residents. Banks would get to remove negative equity from their portfolios and take advantage of tax write-offs, and developers would be spared acquisition costs, enabling them to provide housing at lower cost.

Government must take a consistent, long-term, fact-based forward-looking perspective; now. Talk to the community, to the school, to returning alumni about things that are required for start-ups and business to find Greenfield attractive. And, we need to keep Greenfield ‘s doors open to legal immigration so we are adding both the low-skilled/high-aspiring and best minds in the world’ ; another recommendation from ‘That Used to be Us.’ We’re not going to have a 5,000-person factory. We need to start a lot, a whole lot, of new start-ups. What we need are 50 people, 10 of whom are starting jobs for 2 people, 5 of whom for 10, 2 of whom for 30. Here will be the bakery, the movie theater, the bowling alley, the coffee shop the rebuilt downtown, better public transportation; more upward mobility and more rational discourse and greater citizen participation.

No less a Tiger than when they left, alumni see how curiosity about other ways to do things can only make us a stronger community. They were taught that Greenfield was built to greatness on ideas. That is what we must do again. Consider some of the things that fueled that Greenfield lantern of attraction for more than two centuries. Perhaps more than anything else, it has been the American Dream: the universal desire of all parents that their children will lead lives better than their own. But that Greenfield dream is dying. And it can’t be resuscitated if talented people sit on the sidelines or don’t attend the game at all. But we know too the awful truth, as James Baldwin wrote, that “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction.”

My point is not to depress. It is to express my hope that as young Greenfielders study and live away from their home, they will give serious attention to what they see around them and engage politically when they get home. I am not suggesting that any of them should run for office or to choose work in the public sector. But I am urging you and them to get as deeply involved as you can.

Public governance needs extraordinary talent, reach, ambition, and problem-solving skills. Much of the work the next generation faces will be frustrating. But if they stick to it, the personal satisfaction they gain — and the lantern of growth they help to reignite — will surely compensate for the pain and slog of getting there. I cannot impart to you the cheerful and childish optimism that is the curse of America. I can only tell you to stand up, to pick up your hammer, to keep moving. I can tell you that you must always defy the forces that eat away at you — this plague of decay.

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