Monday, January 28, 2013

Valuing and Respecting Community

Last week’s Presidential Inauguration reminded me of an old lesson about valuing and respecting one’s community.  It’s a lesson that can be applied to the reach toward urbanism.

As I talk with people about urbanism and about the need to bring a more urbanist perspective to our cities and towns, I speak with some who are angry about the current land use patterns.  They’re convinced that developers imposed drivable suburbia upon us.  And that city halls were complicit because they were getting kickbacks.

I respectfully disagree.  I think our land use pattern is the logical and predictable result of a number of land use rules and regulations that seemed reasonable and appropriate at the time, but inevitably led to where we are today.  I also believe that, while many people may have facilitated the downward spiral and profited along the way, few truly thought about the implications of where we were heading.

This perspective is reflected in the aphorism that I consider my life philosophy, “Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.”  It’s astonishing how much of life can be explained and lived by those words.

I mention this because making our cities and towns more urban will require an effort from all segments of the land use world, including city halls and developers.  If we start off thinking that some of our partners are evil, we’re less likely to make the progress we need.

Instead, if we are to move ahead, we need to value and to respect all elements of our communities, even if we disagree with some actions they’ve taken in the past.

This lesson was brought back to mind by the Presidential Inauguration.  One of the key participants once taught me a valuable lesson about valuing community despite past bad experiences.

Myrlie Evers-Williams offered the invocation for the Inauguration, shortly before the oaths of office were administered.  The television network that I watched didn’t offer much background on Evers-Williams, but I knew her well.  She’s the widow of Medgar Evers, a civil rights worker who was murdered in the frontyard of his Mississippi home while Myrlie and their three children ducked for cover.  The murder was the third attempt on his life in two weeks.  (The thirty-year effort to convict the killer was made into the movie “Ghosts of Mississippi.”)

After her husband’s death, Evers-Williams remarried, raised her children, secured her college degree, filled a number of public service positions, ran for office, and ended up, widowed for a second time, living in the same town as me.

In 1997, affiliated baseball retired the number of Jackie Robinson.  The baseball club of which I was part-owner belonged to an independent league, so wasn’t obligated to follow the dictates of the commissioner’s office.  We nonetheless decided to retire number “42”.  And Evers-Williams, given her history and her residence in the town, was our obvious choice to throw out the first pitch at the ceremony.

Evers-Williams agreed to participate even though she had a family wedding in Los Angeles on the following day.  To reach the wedding on time, she had to catch a 5am plane out of the nearby airport.  When the local cab company expressed hesitation about making a run that early in the morning, my wife and I volunteered to drive her.

And so we found ourselves picking up Evers-Williams at 3:30 on a Saturday morning.  As we drove to the airport, I again thanked her for being part of the evening before, especially given the complications to her wedding travel plans.  She assured me that it was no problem at all.  That the town was important to her.  And that one of the highest duties in life was to respect and to give back to one’s community.

As she continued to talk about the value of community, I thought about the journey she’d taken.  Going from watching her husband murdered on her front steps, a crime that many in that town may have silently cheered, to chatting with me about the value of supporting one’s community.  Nor was she at the end of her journey.  Since then, she continued to where she shared a stage with the nation’s leaders and offered the invocation for one of its most solemn events.

And if Myrlie Evers-Williams can take that journey, then it should be nothing for us to forgive those with whom we might have disagreed on land use matters in the past and to proceed jointly into an urbanist future.  Our communities require that we do so.

I still have the jersey that Evers-Williams wore when she threw out the first pitch.  She signed it that evening and we mounted it for display in the team store.  When the team ceased operations two seasons later, I won a coin flip for it.  It remains a treasured possession.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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