We don’t often give credit to how much appearances affect us and shape our opinions. We judge nearly everything based on looks. We see the way people dress and groom themselves and it leads us to conclusions about those people. We instantly make determinations about a person’s level of success, health, pride, and self confidence, just from a glance. The website “People of Wal-Mart” wouldn’t exist if we didn’t. When we see a home, our opinions are shaped by all of the details that we can see from the street, and we even go so far as to make assumptions about the person that lives there. The paint colors, the materials, the lawn, the flowers, the level of maintenance, the number of weird crystal lawn balls, the decorations and the porch furniture are all indicators of the type of person that lives in that home and the type of life that they lead. In most cases, those judgements are fairly accurate too, otherwise we would abandon this process.
There is a lot we can surmise from a quick glance, and it makes sense. A person’s appearance, more often than not, is going to be an accurate representation of that person. They made a majority of the decisions about their level of fitness and their hairstyle and clothing. Someone would choose a house that suits them in terms of space and style and the additional touches would have been made because they like them. We are not wrong in making assumptions when it comes to appearances, and in fact it is very useful to us as humans. It saves us a great deal of time in that it helps us categorize new things into useful existing places. It gives us a greater chance of approaching new situations in a successful manner. It would be exhausting to approach every new person, place or thing with zero assumptions about what it is, what it does, or how it will behave. All this is to say, and contrary to my daughters’ very strongly held opinion regarding school clothes, appearances do matter and they matter a great deal.
Appearances even shape our own opinion of ourselves. When we look in the mirror, our appearance affect the way we feel about ourselves and the way we feel overall. We have all had mornings where our tube top isn’t fitting just right or our handle bar mustache just won’t curl the right way. On those mornings, you might feel a sense of discouragement, or off your game. On the other hand, there are times when you look in the mirror and you probably feel like “oh crap, watch out world, this fanny pack is lit.” In those instances, appearances can degrade your day, or vastly improve it. We also know the power in altering those appearances. If you aren’t pleased with the way you feel, you may grab your shake weight and tone up those arms. You might swing by JC Penny’s and get yourself a new fedora. Maybe you get that mullet trimmed up for your date or interview. All of these have the power to alter your appearance and make you feel better about yourself. Every one of us have had this experience and we go about improving our appearances as a way of feeling better about ourselves. And it’s advice like that we offer up to friends all the time. If your bestie is down on her luck, you would take her shoe shopping or drag her out to the spa, because you know for a fact that this will elevate her mood to some degree, even if it doesn’t bring Daryl back into the picture.
Why aren’t we applying the same logic to our blocks, neighborhoods and cities? There is no shortage of stories explaining the reasons for the decline of rural America, but they never seem to go beyond jobs, or opioids or payday lending. They all miss out on the fact that a lack of self-esteem is at the heart of the issue and plays a huge role in exacerbating the other problems. We aren’t just going to job a community out of its struggles, but if we work to start improving its self esteem and sense of pride we can begin the process of restoring a place to its former self. I have the experience of working with hundreds of communities struggling with low self esteem. They are their own biggest naysayers. They talk poorly about their town to themselves, but worse, they talk crap on their town to anyone that will listen. They are convinced nothing good will happen to their city and they believe they don’t deserve anything good. They have succumbed to apathy and don’t believe their community will ever change or improve, and why should they? For most of the people in small towns in America, they have only ever experienced decline. They don’t know anything different. Hardly anyone is alive that lived in these towns when they were at their peak. People don’t know what it felt like to be proud of their town or enjoy a sense of community or know what can be done to serve their community. And why should they? We are fooling ourselves if we just sit around and lament the fact that people don’t give a damn today, hoping that one day, the residents of a community will wake up feeling different. This is no strategy at all, and the fault is on us, as community leaders, to not take the responsibility on ourselves to change the way people feel about their city. If residents don’t know what it’s like to feel proud of their community, we have to teach them. Don’t complain about “kids these days” and ignore the parents’ role in their upbringing. The process to revitalize a community starts with changing peoples’ relationship to their community and how they feel about it. It starts by taking small steps to begin combatting apathy. Pride is the enemy of apathy and restoring self-esteem is the only sure path to pride.
So if we know that appearances matter and our own grooming and attire shapes the way we feel about ourselves, it stands to reason that the same logic can be applied to our cities. I’ve had first hand experience of seeing how when the appearance of a city changes, the way people feel about their city changes. As dilapidated buildings get renovated and empty storefronts fill up, peoples relationship with their town begins to shift. Just as when you join the gym, when you start seeing changes in the mirror, you begin feeing different about yourself, you start feeling a little more pride and self-esteem. When the every day appearance of a city changes, people feel differently about it. They begin to care about it, they begin to take pride in it, they begin to engage with it.
Changing the appearance of a city does not require million dollar building renovations just as changing your own appearance does not require major plastic surgery. It should, and needs to, start small. Everyone wants a silver bullet project that will fix everything, but I’ve got bad news for you. The big ticket project that will change everything doesn’t exist or only seems to show up after you’ve already fixed everything on your own. You don’t have to repaint your home to love it a bit more, planting a flower bed will do just fine. Giving the house a big spring cleaning will make you feel immensely more proud of your house. Real community revitalization starts in your front yard and on your block. It’s about changing people’s mindset about their town and establishing new and healthy relationships. If we want to realize million dollar investments in our downtown in 5 or 10 years, we have to pickup the trash in our front lawn today.
Spring is all about new beginnings and fresh starts. The phrase spring cleaning exists for a reason. It’s the time of year when we give our homes, our yards and our lives a little shake-up. We might start jogging more now that we can’t hide our all those winter beer sins behind sweaters. We plant flowers in the yard and tend to dead grass. We invite the neighbors over that we haven’t seen since trick-or-treat to ensure they haven’t died in the cold months. Spring is a time to jump back in to the maintenance, that is life, with both feet. It’s time to get back to maintaining our weight, our friendships, our yard, and our cars. More so, it’s time we jump back into maintaining our community. It’s time we give our cities a spring cleaning. We don’t need to concern ourselves with the overwhelming municipal bureaucracy involved with trying to bring about change, just walk outside and start picking up trash. It takes nearly nothing, but a bag and a few minutes and you have no idea how much it can affect people. One simple act of kindness towards your community can change how people feel about the place they live. Start with your own yard and make sure it looks great. This will in-turn affect the neighbor and might inspire them to take a little extra effort. Start picking up all the trash on your block. Maybe pick up the trash on the next block. See something that needs tending to? Tend to it. Make a punch-list of things that could be improved on your block; peeling paint, a loose porch stair, tattered flags, dead flowers and go out with your family or friends one Saturday morning and fix it all. Start a clean up club and meet weekly. Tackle a new project every time, get some coffee and donuts for the group. Give someone the gift of improving their community. Imagine the pride you will feel in your experience and consider the impact it will have on how people feel about your block. We don’t need big changes to experience a boost in self-esteem or pride. Even the smallest improvement in terms of appearances effects people and can lift them up. Want to take it a step further? Head downtown and clean-up. Host a flash pick-up mob and bring everyone together to clean up an important block in your city. Weed and pick-up the trash around civic buildings and public parks as well. Show city leaders that if they aren’t willing to take care of their own stuff, the community will do it for them. Send a message and simultaneously remind people, we have to take care of our own place, because this sense of ownership is what has been lost. All of these steps help remind people that they have to tend to the important things in their lives.
If we want a nice place to live, we have to make it a nice place to live. If we want a community we can be proud of, we have to take the steps to make our community a place worth being proud of. Lead by example and remind people in your city what it means to be proud of your place. Teach people that may have never experienced it, how community works. The weather is warming up, take the opportunity to get outside and start making your city look like a place that is worthy of the people that live there. Do anything, but do something. And social media the crap out of it. Take photos and share every improvement you make, because you want this to catch on, you want other people to pitch in. Check out and use #TrashTag. Every single person deserves to live in a place worth loving and should have the opportunity to experience a sense of community. There are plenty of problems facing our cities, but there is nothing that a little spring cleaning won’t improve. If you want other people to have a little more pride in your town, demonstrate your own pride in your place. Together, we can all pick up our community.