Sometimes I find inspiration from the written word of famous leaders and other times I get it straight from the “mouth’s of babes.” Yesterday I got a couple of good doses of both thanks to Oliver Wendell Holmes, my daughter, and a 4 hour drive over the hills and through the woods from Grandma’s house coming back to Kent.
Maybe it’s because we’re nearing the end of the year but I found myself waxing philosophic lately about the possibilities of Kent. Then again, I suppose I do that pretty much year round but I’d have to admit it’s been more pronounced recently. And when I’m in that state of mind, quotes and comments will catch my eye and ear more readily, which is what happened this weekend and inspired this blog post.
First, unexpectedly in a newspaper I came across a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes that seamed to speak directly to the matter of community building:
“Greatness is not in where we stand, but in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it — but sail we must and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
For anyone that is in a city, or follows the practice of democracy performed in city halls across this country every day — including in Kent — you know the wisdom inherent in this quote. Every community wants to be great, first rate, world class, a premier place to live, work and play. The challenge is in defining what exactly “great” looks like and feels like for each community.
What’s great for NY City is not likely to be a great fit in Kent. It’s important to keep an eye on what works in other places but cities have to be careful not to fall into the same trap that gets played out with neighbors all trying to “keep up with the Jones’.”
The “keeping up with the Jones'” syndrome reminds me a lot of the army ant death spiral. Actually, it’s a circular mill, first described in army ants by Schneirla (1944). A circle of army ants, each one following the ant in front, becomes locked into a circular mill. They will continue to circle each other until they all die. Beebe (1921) described a circular mill he witnessed in Guyana. It measured 1200 feet in circumference and had a 2.5 hour circuit time per ant. The mill persisted for two days, “with ever increasing numbers of dead bodies littering the route as exhaustion took its toll, but eventually a few workers straggled from the trail thus breaking the cycle, and the raid marched off into the forest.” How crazy is that?
Good reason NOT to keep up with the Jones’ — either as a neighor or a city.
I know that may sound a bit odd coming from the guy that is always posting stories of things going on in other cities. But I do that to inspire us to dream big in Kent, not copy for the sake of one-upping our city neighbors. There’s some really good ideas out there and we need to stay in touch with what’s going on around us, but greatness comes when you use someone else’s good idea to inspire a great adaptation that becomes truly yours — or in our case, Kent’s.
With Justice Holmes’ quote ringing in my ears, I’d suggest that greatness is not an end, but a process that is our never-ending story. Community building is the ultimate test of “what have you done for me lately.” Greatness is less a static characteristic of a building or park that got built than it is a reflection of the spirt and effort invested that continually strives to make things better by building new buildings and new parks.
By the nature of democracy in action, we won’t always agree on whether the “end” result is great or not, but thanks to Justice Holmes we don’t have to. We just have to agree to honor the spirit of democracy, admire the courage of people’s convictions and applaud the efforts of our fellow citizens that contribute their ideas and energy to make sure Kent doesn’t drift nor lie at anchor.
With that in mind, let me share an unsolicited comment my daughter offered regarding the Old Hotel in downtown Kent. Keep in mind I’ve never had a conversation about the Old Hotel with my daughter but apparently she and her 9 year old friends have.
These budding fourth grade citizens at Longcoy were talking about wanting to do their part and pitch-in to the rehabilitation of the idle structure. They didn’t over-complicate matters about this regulation or that, or who should do what, how or when, — they saw an old building and wanted to make it useful again.
So what do fourth graders do? Thanks to good teachers, parents and probably even the Disney Channel, they “imagineer” their way to possible solutions. Even though winter is rapidly approaching they suggested holding a “really big” car wash to raise money to fix the building. That led to the suggestion of a citywide bake sale. After all, every fourth grader knows that when you have a tough problem, you hold a bake sale.
Will a bake sale fix the Old Hotel? Probably not, but I’m sure Justice Holmes would be proud of the spirit and willingness of Kent’s kids to get in the boat and row. I know I am. And that feeling will keep me pushing to row as hard as I can because these kids reminded me that I’m not just rowing for me and you today, I’m rowing for all our kids and their kids tomorrow.
By the way, there’s room in the boat and plenty of oars to go around if the spirit moves you too.