ON THE AVENUES: James Fallows, New Albany, and the primacy of bricks over string music.


ON THE AVENUES: James Fallows, New Albany, and the primacy of bricks over string music. 

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Yes, I’m happy the New Albany Bulldogs are doing so well, and I agree, it’s just horrible what happened to Louisville’s college basketball team.

Damn that Ramsey.

But what is the city of New Albany’s shooting percentage when it comes to predictors of civic success? Let’s return to an article by James Fallows in The Atlantic: Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed.

This article appears in the March print edition alongside the cover story, “Can America Put Itself Back Together?”—a summation of James and Deb Fallows’s 54,000-mile journey around America in a single-engine plane.

By the time we had been to half a dozen cities, we had developed an informal checklist of the traits that distinguished a place where things seemed to work. These items are obviously different in nature, most of them are subjective, and some of them overlap.

But if you tell us how a town measures up based on these standards, we can guess a lot of other things about it. In our experiences, these things were true of the cities, large or small, that were working best.

I’ve lifted Fallows’ eleven success points verbatim (in bold), followed by excerpts of his explanatory comments (italicized), and then my own thoughts. Please consider reading Fallows’ article in its entirety to get a better idea of his larger perspective.

I’ll be shooting from the hip, with my immediate reactions sans labored edits. There’ll be things I miss, so let me know about them.

1. Divisive national politics seem a distant concern.

“Overwhelmingly the focus in successful towns was not on national divisions but on practical problems that a community could address.”

That’s an air ball. Less than 30% of New Albany’s registered voters participated in the 2015 municipal election, and whether left or right of the aisle, conversations (especially on social media) tend to be about national and state issues, not local. Days are spent on The Donald, and nanoseconds on the street outside.

I readily concede that since my own focus tends to be toward fully addressable local community-driven issues, I may be jaundiced, verging on embittered, at the persistent lack of responsiveness. Still, apart from me, the evidence points to local issues being of concern only to a minority.

2. You can pick out the local patriots.

“A standard question we’d ask soon after arrival was ‘Who makes this town go?’ The answers varied widely … (but) the more quickly it was provided, the better shape the town was in.”

I’m sure the sitting mayor has a strong take on this one, especially as he’s replicated his image thousands of times during the course of Ceausescu-scale propaganda, but Jeff Gahan’s incessant self-aggrandizement is rather eloquently contradicted by New Albany’s ongoing absence of meaningful electoral participation.

This is not to deny the existence of local patriots. They exist, usually under the radar, and yet there seems to be little interest in the topic amid yawns. We’re looking forward to March Madness, though.

3. “Public-private partnerships” are real.

“The more specifically a community can explain what their public-private partnerships mean, the better off the city is.”

If indeed there exists any such animal in New Albany, evidence is scant, and the best known recent example would be the deal struck by City Hall with Flaherty and Collins, wherein the city is subsidizing the cost of constructing apartments at the former site of the Coyle automotive empire.

Is this an example of a “real” public-private partnership, or is it crony capitalism at its finest? Perhaps more importantly, has New Albany even countenanced a civic discussion of the question? If so, would anyone care?


4. People know the civic story.

“As with guiding national myths, the question is not whether these assessments seem precisely accurate to outsiders. Their value is in giving citizens a sense of how today’s efforts are connected to what happened yesterday and what they hope for tomorrow.”

A shaky maybe, perhaps half credit. Seriously, is there a shared sense of what New Albany is about – apart from high school sports? Certainly there are plenty of inhabitants, independent business owners and even the stray politician capable of voicing an opinion. Historic preservationists have their point. So do slumlords. Is there any sense of a place where they meet? If so, I haven’t seen much of it.

5. They have a downtown.

“But downtown ambitions of any sort are a positive sign, and second- and third-floor apartments and condos over restaurants and stores with lights on at night suggest that the downtown has crossed a decisive threshold and will survive.”

Yes, we do, thanks primarily to the unidentified local patriots, untold small business investors, and a few unsung urban pioneers. It’s unfinished and fragile, but it’s there, generally owing nothing to the self-identified patriots who claim credit for unrealized potential.

6. They are near a research university.

“Research universities have become the modern counterparts to a natural harbor or a river confluence.”

In the context Fallows intends – examples like Clemson or UC-Davis – then no, not really. At the same time, in addition to IU Southeast and Purdue Polytechnic there are numerous institutions of higher learning near New Albany, in Louisville, Lexington, Bloomington and Indianapolis. The trick is viewing them for what they really are (schools) and what they shouldn’t be (athletic feeder programs).

7. They have, and care about, a community college.

“The more often and more specifically we heard people talk about their community college, the better we ended up feeling about the direction of that town.”

Echoing the preceding, no … and still yes. Perhaps not a community college according to Fallows, but Ivy Tech, just up Charlestown Road near Sellersburg. As our friend Mark has observed, it’s also one thing to have, and something different to care. When sewer tap-in waivers go to a for-profit corporation and not IU Southeast’s student housing, it says something.

The wrong something. I’ll count it anyway.

8. They have unusual schools.

“Early in our stay, we would ask what was the most distinctive school to visit at the K–12 level. If four or five answers came quickly to mind, that was a good sign … the common theme was intensity of experimentation.”

The theater department at NAHS is incredible.

I happily defer to readers in tipping this consideration one way or the other. All I see is a school corporation eager to demolish housing stock and to build brand new bright shiny objects, although I’m open to persuasion and may well be missing details.

9. They make themselves open.

“The anti-immigrant passion that has inflamed this election cycle was not something people expressed in most of the cities we visited … every small town in America has thought about how to offset the natural brain drain that has historically sent its brightest young people elsewhere. The same emphasis on inclusion that makes a town attractive to talented outsiders increases its draw to its own natives.”

Judging (perhaps incorrectly) from social media alone, New Albany possesses the same percentage of xenophobes as most American communities of its size. Conversely, public episodes of intemperance and derangement have been few  in number.

Key to Fallows’ explanation is an acknowledged existence of a natural brain drain. I suspect that too few in New Albany understand what this implies. If they did, there might be a sharper delineation of openness as it pertains to us — good, bad or indifferent. Small business investors aside, can we really say this is an “open” community?

10. They have big plans.

“When a mayor or city-council member shows me a map of how new downtown residences will look when completed, or where the new greenway will go, I think: ‘I’d like to come back.’ Cities still make plans, because they can do things.”

Insofar as New Albanian elected government officials are concerned, yes. They do have plans. Often their plans are mistaken, injurious, overly expensive, or all three. They’re still big plans, nonetheless, and yet again, one must ask: Are these plans part and parcel of a shared public discourse?

No. They’re just big.

11. They have craft breweries.

“One final marker, perhaps the most reliable: A city on the way back will have one or more craft breweries, and probably some small distilleries too.”

Perhaps this is the only unqualified “yes” of the eleven. We have three breweries, a winery, and Indiana law has mutated to become more favorable to a future distillery. At least I can claim partial credit for something positive — right, Jeff?

Overall, my score for New Albany is 4.5 out of 11, a shooting percentage of around 40%.

If there is a commonality linking Fallows’ indicators, it seems to be a sense of affirmative replies deriving from a broad base of the community; of course the teachers know which schools are special, but do the rest of us?

In turn, this suggests an amorphous and indefinable notion of pride.

In those European places I’ve spent the most time – Bamberg, Prague, Plymouth, Copenhagen – virtually everyone I met knew their civic story. I’d be speaking to them from the vantage point of a vibrant downtown. It would have surprised me if any of these people (whether speaking to me in English or through a friendly interpreter) would have failed to grasp the value of education.

True, the openness vs. immigration argument is a hot button today, and not so much then, and naturally, my sampling has been small.

Does New Albany have an identity, and are we capable of pride?

I’m proud of what the food and drink sector has achieved, and at the same time, I know that this cannot be the whole of economic development.

I’m proud of Steve Resch, Matt Chalfant and others like them, and I’m completely disgusted that the inbred local ruling class can’t seem to avoid looking elsewhere for inspiration.

I’m proud and troubled, all at once. It would be wonderful to put a check mark by all eleven of these indicators. It would be even better to know there’s a path toward being able to do so in the future.

Is it possible?

Recent columns:

February 8: ON THE AVENUES EXTRA: “No, John Rosenbarger, congestion is our friend. Help us achieve it, or get out of the way.”

February 4: ON THE AVENUES: Hello, I must be going.

January 28: ON THE AVENUES: They’re surely not ROLL models.

January 21: ON THE AVENUES: When I grow up, I’d like to be alive.

January 14: ON THE AVENUES: Should the Queen fail to rescue us, there’s always H. L. Mencken.