Steve Paul

May 30, 2014

Let’s follow the path toward a vibrant city

In a stagnant city, residents hold on to the past and value nostalgia. In a vibrant city, residents look forward to the future, preserve the best of the past and value the benefits that technological progress can bring.

Someone in my neighborhood sent out a misleading Facebook post the other day, linking the proposed closing of a couple of fire stations in the city to the coming of light rail.

It’s the kind of short-sighted propaganda that emanates from the hand-wringing forces who don’t want anything to happen in our town.

For some reason it made me think of former mayor Mark Funkhouser, the literal-minded bean counter whose populist-seeming vision had little effect other than to brake any semblance of progress. And a memory bubbled up of another former mayor, and current congressman, Emanuel Cleaver, without whose ill-considered slam nearly 20 years ago on a proposed light-rail starter line (“touristy frou-frou,” he called it) we’d be riding the damn thing today.

Now I don’t mean to sound like an apologist for developers and real estate and other corporate interests, who have a way of influencing political leadership more than regular folks do. But that Facebook post did make me wonder how important it was to recognize the very thin line that stands between a stagnant city and one that feels vibrant.

In a stagnant city, residents hold onto the past and value nostalgia. In a vibrant city, residents look forward to the future, preserve the best of the past and value the benefits that technological progress can bring. In a stagnant city, residents fear change; in a vibrant city, change that improves lives and civic processes is welcomed enthusiastically.

People of a stagnant city tend toward selfishness and isolation and prioritize their own sense of well-being. People of a vibrant city tend to look outward, to celebrate community and to practice generosity.

A stagnant city applauds mediocrity, avoids expressions of new ideas and lumbers toward obscurity. A vibrant city embraces innovation, cheers experimentation and projects an image of nimble, though mostly humble, self-confidence.

A stagnant city allows its educational system to languish and can’t seem to find the will to address the vital needs of its most helpless citizens — the poor, the disabled, the homeless. A vibrant city challenges its residents to build safety nets and to participate in the solving of the hardest problems.

The civic conversation lately courses over this wavy boundary line between the past and the future. Are we a can-do city that can once again lure a political convention? Do we have what it takes to adequately address the complications surrounding one of our most crucial civic assets — the airport? Do we deserve, and are we willing to pay for, a new mode of public transportation that will offer people choices, spark new development and quite possibly reduce the city’s carbon footprint?

Kansas City — the metro area, that is — rarely seems to adopt the philosophy expressed by that famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no small plans.” We too often seem stuck in one of those quaintly polite medium gears. We’re happy to dawdle along without ever considering a turbo-charged sprint into the passing lane.

Mayor Sly James often has the right, upbeat spirit when he addresses both the issues of the day and the emerging image of the can-do city. At an event launching an ArtsKC Week on Wednesday, he lauded the work of ArtsKC - Regional Arts Council, tossed in a $10 bill to kickstart the organization’s new grassroots fundraising effort, and talked about how important it was to use the arts to help area children find real and rewarding opportunities in life.

“This is something,” James said, “that will contribute to the vitality of the community — and save souls.”

That’s a tall order, of course. But wouldn’t it be refreshing if we set aside petty and bogus arguments against progress and found a way to make community vitality and the saving of souls a vision we all could share?

To reach Steve Paul, call 816-234-4762 or send email to Twitter: @sbpaul.

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