Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mission of a City

From where do we and our city's leaders get our ideas about the purposes for our city and region?

Two-term Mayor Greg Ballard has decided not to seek a third term, leaving Republicans scrambling to find a candidate. Yesterday, former Secretary of State Joe Hogsett officially launched his campaign to lead Indianapolis. Whoever takes the reigns will have significant issues to grapple with.

But before arguing policies, postulating solutions, or resuming power plays, I wonder if would-be leaders and citizens would pause to consider the mission of our city?

If so, I suggest we begin with the following mission statement and apply it to our city and Central Indiana. Our polis, to be healthy, must be guided by a high enough mission to heal and inspire the whole.

“The mission of a city is to put the highest concerns of human beings at the center of all its activities: to unite the scattered fragments of the human personality, turning artificially dismembered people…into complete human beings, repairing the damage that has been done by vocational separation, by social segregation, by the over-cultivation of a favored function, by tribalisms and nationalisms, by the absence of organic partnerships and ideal purposes.” 
-- Lewis Mumford in The City in History (1961)

Read it carefully. It is not idealism. It is neither unrealistic nor unreachable. It is not a business-as-usual mission, however. It is not a business-knows-best perspective. So-called leaders have overlooked the core concerns named in this mission at the expense of our city’s and region’s vitality. And yet there has never been a more opportune time to fulfill its promise.

If we took this as our city’s mission, we would invest to address crime’s personal and inter-cultural sources rather than frantically throw more taxpayer money at covering its symptoms. We would reverse the devolution of public education into private self interest. We would develop our capacities to draw our residents into a rich common life--regardless of income or cultural background--instead of occasional faux expressions of it.

Mumford’s perspective of a city is a soulful—though not religious—one. That is, it places ultimate value on persons as individuals and as participants together in a commonly-felt but pervasively-sabotaged common good. It defies interest groups, which, all the while declaring their value to the city, nonetheless act primarily to exploit it for gain.

Based on Mumford’s mission of a city, I offer the following challenges for the current and next generation of our region’s residents and those who would serve them in municipal leadership:

1. Carefully explore where you get your understanding of the city, interpretation of its conditions, and recommendations for shaping its future. Develop a healthy skepticism of so-called expert sources that self-identity as serving our good. I, for one, have not found many local news media outlets, real estate brokers, partisan ideologues, pulpiteers, or entertainment media to be valid reflectors or helpful interpreters of the life and challenges of our city. Unfortunately, these are some of the prime sources by which many people form their perceptions and respond with their actions.

Consider four inadequate views and responses to the city: 

• A necessary evil – endure it

• A marketplace – consume it, exploit it, use it, take advantage of it 

• A dangerous place – flee it, fight it 

• A broken place – work around it

Such inadequate and misleading perceptions of the city and metropolitan area lead to choices, behaviors and values that can become self-fulfilling prophecies of fear, division, segregation, disinvestment, and violence. On the other hand, an understanding of the city as Mumford describes it can lead to barriers being bridged and vibrancy abounding.

2. Strain to see your life and the city's future as bound together in a greater work of vitality.  Are we not here together now in this particular place to listen, learn, contribute, and grow? Place and what we do with it and in it, Mumford implies, is tied to one’s sense of meaning and fulfillment. So, let’s make a functional connection between our personal wholeness and the vitality of this place in which are together living.

In this, I ask myself two questions: (1) In what ways might I be formed to become more mature, more whole? (2) How do this city and region’s past, present and future challenges uniquely connect with this maturation process? Personally, I am convinced that my salvation is tied up with how I live in and contribute in this place we call Indianapolis and Central Indiana.

3. Cooperate with a bigger dream by investing your life redemptively in our city and region's peace.  A transcendent sense of purpose should be informing our approach to life and development in this metropolitan area. This is not our city to use, exploit, possess, or control. It is a place and a people with a higher value and peaceful purpose. Regardless of its self-deceptions, its worth is inestimable. Regardless of its hurtful ways, it is renewable. Actions for individual and community redemption are critical to higher purposes for both.

Could Indianapolis and Central Indiana identify and claim Mumford's mission as our own?  Certainly. Can we develop a clear, unique sense of mission that is shared across the region?   It is possible. Or, we can continue to be pushed and pulled and quartered by one competing self-interest and passing influence after another. I'm choosing to live as if Mumford's mission applies. Will you join me?

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

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