ON THE AVENUES: Weeds, porch appliances and our civic Gospel of Appearances.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
The Confidentials bought an older house on Spring Street in 2003, and almost immediately we started meeting our new neighbors. Some of them, though by no means all, were active in community affairs.
This holds true today. Others have moved, or retreated from the fray. There is nothing unusual about any of this. At the time, my wife and I wanted to be involved, and so we began talking about neighborhood issues with the seemingly like-minded folks living nearby.
Early on, we noticed an emerging pattern when it came to judgments about the quality of urban life, in the sense that we’d entered a twilight zone governed by the Gospel of Appearances, as deemed no less important within the city’s historic core than at a suburban gated community.
If I’ve heard it uttered once, I heard it said a thousand times.
“They may be poor, but at least they can keep things tidy and looking nice.”
In other words, poverty is all about appearances, and the crux of “improvement” is the willingness of the impoverished to hone their skills at propriety, and to better understand their obligation not to offend better-heeled neighbors.
In short, we must focus on facades, and prim and proper exteriors, so that our city might finally amount to something. Of course, there is a place for such, just not as a substitute for how things actually work.
Admittedly, it took far too long for me to grasp the weird-headedness of the Gospel of Appearances, perhaps because my own rural/suburban, middle-class upbringing instilled similar attitudes that needed aggressive purging.
When my cognitive dissonance finally came bubbling to the surface, it commenced an unforgiving learning process. It continues to do so. I already knew that when facts change, one’s viewpoint must change with them. However, at times one must undergo a change in order to be able to see these facts.
They’re not always visible up front, on the surface.
In the years since our arrival, I’ve witnessed this obsession with outward appearance periodically boomerang back into our local discourse.
Still, even the proud sociologists among seem unwilling – perhaps unable – to embrace ideas to address anti-social conditions such as inequality at the grassroots level, or to analyze the prevailing economic system with a mind toward rendering it accountable, representative or sustainable.
Rather, it always comes back to those Disneyesque exteriors. If only it/they/those looked better. If only miscreants existing at the fringe of shared standards might become better actors, more willing to play their roles, and eager to conform to ephemeral propriety.
Can’t they at least try to look a little less unequal?
After all, we have our property values to think about … and yes, we read where two-way streets might help with property values … but, well, except … that’s fundamental, and probably beyond our collective comprehension, and no one wants to expend an extra five minutes driving through town when all they do in the first place is reference their own road rage on social media.
The single most damning aspect of the Gospel of Appearances is the socio-economic status of the majority of those advocating it. Most often, they’re by no means the wealthiest members of the community, although they tend to be white, which means they’re certainly among the most privileged.
The rich ones rarely play this game. As defined by the possession of wealth, power and privilege, the upper crust is comfortable with a cynicism borne of detachment. In other words, there is nothing about an old fridge reposing on the porch of a rental property that threatens the position of a one-percenter, or stands in the way of his or her amassing even greater money and power.
Rather, those most fervently advocating programs to improve outward appearances are themselves located in what passes for a middle tier, light years removed socially and economically from the rarefied heights of the one-percenters, and always just a misfortune or three from slipping down the ladder into the untidily huddled masses below them.
Hence their annoyance with the visible disorderliness of the lower orders, and the eagerness with which they hector them, because they’ve managed to crawl a few yards ahead of the rabble, and intend to keep it this way.
What’s more, they’re forever willing to make soul-crushing alliances with traditional bastions of wealth, power and privilege, not so much because there is any genuine hope of upward advancement (itself largely a cultural myth), but to arrest the distasteful possibility of their own decline into non-manicured hopelessness.
The Gospel of Appearances grows increasingly shrill, and these visible yardsticks denoting boundaries take on byzantine complexity.
Socioeconomic realities? Dude, that’s just too many syllables, and no one really wants to dirty his hands. Tell you what, just get that fridge off your porch before we enact another symbolic, non-enforced ordinance.
After all, how many advocates of rental property reform care what happens inside the house?
In a roundabout way, this brings me to the saga of Irv Stumler, his fiefdom (otherwise known as New Albany Clean and Green), and their unified appearance before the Board of Public Works and Safety on July 12.
To make a long story short, Stumler’s remarks on Tuesday were focused on two targets. He wanted the board to know that Bill Allen’s properties on the 200 block of East Main Street are dilapidated, disgraceful and potentially unsafe, and he offered to bring a group of volunteers down from the lofty heights of Silver Hills to mow vegetation growing from the medians further east on Main.
Whatever else we might say about the three members of the board, their hostility to Stumler was undisguised. Granted, board chairman Warren Nash did a better job of maintaining a partial poker face than Mickey Thompson and Cheryl Cotner-Bailey, both of whom openly snapped back at Mr. Clean Greens.
And no, Stumler cannot import his crew to weed-eat the median, because the city hires its own contractors to do it, and as an aside, isn’t this the real story?
Has the city mowed your verge lately?
Not that we’re judging.
In Stumler’s own words, he became aware of Bill Allen’s unsightly property while working to restore the original steeple on the Second Baptist (Town Clock) Church, which is Stumler’s second church steeple refit since 2008, when he spearheaded restoration work on St. Mary’s at the corner of 8th and Spring.
According to the Gospel of Appearances, blessed are those who help tax-exempt organizations maintain their properties. According to this logic, the city of New Albany received a boost in the quality of life when the two church spires were repaired, and yet, wouldn’t both these churches still be able to function spiritually without steeples?
Wasn’t the combined expense somewhere in the neighborhood of $750,000 of someone else’s money?
Might the money have been invested in other ways, so as to lift humans, and not spires?
Speaking personally, I’ve no problem in both these instances accepting the argument from the utility of historic preservation. Furthermore, I support the notion that the greenest building is the one already standing, and urge building rehabilitation whenever possible.
And yet metaphors matter.
Stumler once fought the Great Flowerpot War with city officials, competing to place the greatest number of beautiful ashtray-shaped urns at sidewalk corners, so as to block pedestrian access adjacent to high-speed, truck-choked one-way streets that Stumler fights like a banshee to keep exactly as they are.
Why always flowers, and never fundamentals?
Isn’t it true that when the infrastructure remains flawed, and ours certainly does, these steeples, flowerpots and “welcome to our city” signs are nothing more than blotches of lipstick on an aggregation of soiled and muddy pigs?
When Irv Stumler, the foremost exponent of the Gospel of Appearances, can see clearly enough that Bill Allen’s coat of paint back in 2012 was an evasion of responsibility for maintenance fundamentals expected of him, but cannot grasp that his own standards of imposed beautification parallel the futility of Allen’s bizarre whitewashing, especially when decreed to occur in the middle of a city where Padgett’s trucks shouldn’t be traversing in the first place, then it’s no longer a case of praiseworthy public service, as Dale Moss would have you believe.
It’s just sad.
Incredibly, indelibly sad.