Paradigm Shift

In a recent column about urban relocation, Neil Pierce noted that “for humans, displacement from their known settings may be exceedingly painful…the psychological impact of forced removal from a familiar neighborhood is like a plant being jerked from its native soil.” He went on to acknowledge that holding neighborhoods static isn’t practical.

Of course, it isn’t just neighborhoods that cannot remain static. The whole world is in a state of flux, what scientists might call a “paradigm shift,” and the pain and discomfort that undeniable fact is causing is manifest in our communications, our economy, and especially our politics. (How else do we understand the angry and frightened voices insisting that they want “their country” back?)

Most of us do manage to handle social change and the discomfort it brings without taking to the streets or indulging in paranoid conspiracy theories. We learn to accept new technologies and discard old prejudices, and to recognize the benefits that accompany the dislocations. But even those who welcome the new paradigm need to recognize its challenges, and that is especially true for those of us who care about our cities.

Let me offer just one example. When I was a young professional, civic leadership in Indianapolis was provided by people like Tom Binford and P.E. MacAllister, people who did not hold—or want—public office. They had deep roots in this community and believed they had a civic obligation to nurture it. Many leaders were drawn from locally-owned banks and industries—enterprises that depended for their viability upon the health of their city. Whatever the benefits of globalization and nationalization, those trends have largely robbed us of the corporate headquarters and local banks from which we used to draw people committed to the civic enterprise.

Political actors and elected officials can’t fill these roles. Furthermore, elected officials are less able to be effective without the help of a cadre of civic leaders who are committed to the long-term health of the community and who are not constrained by political considerations. (Long term to a politician, understandably, is ‘until the next election.’)   

The challenge we face is to simultaneously embrace our roots and our wings: to cultivate a city with a quality of life that rewards our allegiance on the one hand, and to welcome the opportunities that come with increasing globalization on the other. To meet that challenge, we need to figure out how we will cultivate the next generation of civic leadership.

A couple of years ago, a television commercial proclaimed “This isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile.” Today, of course, it isn’t your Oldsmobile either—it is no longer manufactured, and the American auto industry no longer dominates the economy. This isn’t your father’s Indianapolis or America either. If the old saying is right, if change is the only constant, we need to do what previous generations did: accept reality and inhabit the world as it is.

Our job isn’t to whine about the inevitable—our job is to make it better.