The Cancer of a Community
Apathy is the cancer of community and rarely does it stop until it has effectively destroyed its host. Apathy sneaks in at night and parades on in when everyone is watching. It’s a silent killer and it announces its presence from the sagging rooftops. Apathy doesn't care. That’s actually kind of its thing. It doesn’t try to hide and it feels no need to be subtle. No community is immune to its effects and it takes hold in rich and poor towns alike. Apathy is a lack of shame and it is devastating. It erodes everything people took generations to build and there is no corner of society it doesn’t affect.
My college economics professor, Robert J. Gitter, discussed the concept of wages being sticky-down in nature. Meaning wages move up easily as the market improves, but do not move down in a similar fashion. This is because it is easy to pay people more, but things get a little complicated when it comes to paying people less. Apathy works in a sticky-UP fashion. Communities almost always grow more apathetic and rarely grow less apathetic. Decline is much easier, improvement takes work. Standards are hard to uphold and easy to ignore. Maintenance is simple to put off. My former community, in Ohio, had steadily succumbed to apathy throughout the second half of the 20th Century, but the community has been fighting like hell for the last 10 years to claw its way back. Apathy arrives with ease, but doesn’t leave without a fight. I can see signs of its arrival in my current community. A storage facility being constructed where no storage facility belongs. Commercial buildings no longer being maintained. Codes no longer being enforced. Signage ordinances getting ignored. Most look past these apathy indicators because the residential areas remain immaculate, but I know how the story unfolds. It’s a neighborhood with means, and while most think apathy is only a curse of the impoverished, the wealthy are just as susceptible because they assume resources can fix everything and so they are often blind to the signs. Money gives people the means to fix things up, but it doesn’t keep people from lowering their standards.
Apathy destroys communities. The simple act of not caring is all it takes to lead you down the path of rampant disinvestment and a rash of other social problems. The road to apathy is paved with declining standards. I read once, awhile back, that the standing ovation was losing its meaning because people were doing it at every show. While I certainly understand the desire to recognize someone’s talent and artistic contribution, it’s true that when we demonstrate the highest level of regard for everything, it no longer remains a high level of regard. I never paid much mind to talk of participation trophies because it always seemed to come from people with different politics than my own, but now I understand the point. When the standard used to be that the winners would receive a trophy and now everyone receives a trophy, we diminish what it means to excel. It probably isn’t without consequence as a society, to disincentivize excellence. I have noticed my school district has more than one tier of honor roll. My daughter that worries herself sick to get straight A’s makes the honor roll, but my other daughter, who is a little more, shall we say, “carefree” when it comes to grades, also makes an honor roll. This is nice for the dimmer one, but doesn’t send a great message to the bright one. The idea of lowering standards is not without merit, in fact it makes a lot of sense to lower standards. It should make life easier and make everyone feel better. And it does… until it doesn’t. Because the overall cost of lower standards is, in the end, everyone feeling worse. By holding up mediocrity as exceptional, we are thereby diminishing what it means to be exceptional. In treating average as above average, we are in essence lessening what it means to be above average. The numbers just don’t work. True achievement doesn’t come by lowering the bar, it comes from the sense of accomplishment we feel in reaching a higher bar.
The problem is not just about rewarding mediocrity, it also is about removing disincentives and penalties for substandard performance. We know that when we want to shape a behavior, we must reward the behavior we are hoping to foster and discourage the behavior we are hoping to diminish. We understand this with kids and pets, but adults are no different. The same logic applies to running a city. We set standards for a reason. We set them because a community made a collective decision as to what it wants to be. We know that standards shape behavior so that is why we use them. Standards are a means to strive toward and achieve greater outcomes. Lower standards have never led to a single improvement.
Apathy is everywhere. It’s stifled our voices, it’s made us uninterested and has told us to stop thinking that we deserve better. Apathy has made its way into our cities, and it calls downtown home. It’s apparent just upon looking, that most downtowns were built with very high standards in mind. That is why they all are constructed with quality materials, have a consistent appearance and stand the test of time. It is only in lowering our standards over the years that we have fostered blight. At some point, someone made a decision to no longer uphold the standard. How does this even happen? How have we forgotten to marvel in craftsmanship, in quality, in the place that we call home? The stories from town to town are common. A building code enforcement officer retired and no one ever replaced her. The city budget was tight and funds were diverted elsewhere. Lean times make for tough decisions, but lowering standards never ever results in a turnaround. We have all seen this play out in the restaurant industry. A place starts to struggle, so hours are cut, the quality of food suffers, service declines. All of these are measures to try and make ends meet and all of these measures ensure a worse outcome. The savvy business owner knows that this is a critical time to figure out where to make improvements. It doesn’t take much to start down the path to apathy. When we stop enforcing building codes and design standards, we aren’t just giving one person a pass, we are sending out a signal to everyone that it’s okay to do less. The bar has been lowered, please proceed accordingly. We send out a message that everyone that has been keeping up appearances are suckers because you can get by with less. When downtown buildings begin to decline in appearance, so do the businesses.
Quality businesses locate in quality spaces. What kind of businesses do you think are best suited for poorly maintained buildings? I focus on apathy in downtown because it’s the heart of the community and everything spreads from the center. This is where apathy begins. When the most visible part of the community begins to show signs of decline, it affects how people feel. If people derive their sense of identity from the downtown, what are the effects of it looking like crap? People don’t toss litter in a clean and well maintained place, but there is no sense of shame from trashing a place that is already trashed. Apathy robs a community of its self worth. It tells the community loud and clear that this is just how things are now. The impact of apathy on a community is devastating. You wonder how apathy takes hold? Imagine an entire community bearing witness to the steady deterioration of its most beloved feature. Imagine watching something that defines you, something the town founders built, and something you are immensely proud of, slowly march towards obsolescence and decay.
I believe apathy and lower standards are closely tied. It has been my experience that in communities struggling with dysfunction and rampant apathy, lower standards are the norm. This is understandable. These are the communities that have had every bit of bad luck. These are the places today’s economy left behind. I don’t believe apathy was at the root of their decline, but I do believe it’s at the root of their solution. We can tell that all of these towns were once immensely proud and didn’t feel the effects of apathy. We can tell because we have the buildings, the photos, and the history books to prove it. In knowing this, we realize that they didn’t decide to become apathetic, but times change and with less resources, communities decline.
I am not oblivious to the fact that having less means to maintain your wardrobe, your car, your home, or your city is going to lead to feelings of apathy. Shrinking community resources are very much what got us into this mess, but an increase in community resources isn’t necessarily going to be what gets us out of this mess. Pride is the enemy of apathy and pride can’t be gifted, pride must come from within. It won’t just come from grants or benevolent donors. A community won’t fundamentally improve through handouts. This is the same as a participation trophy isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, an increase in resources is critical to lifting up struggling communities, but it won’t ever provide people with a sense of accomplishment or help elicit feelings of pride. A community must improve from within, less no external application can take hold. A town must have ownership in its revitalization. We must work on raising standards and rebuilding a sense of pride if we are going to be able to effectively combat apathy and put such resources to work. I have witnessed millions of dollars in grant money and hundreds of hours of expertise provided to struggling communities go to waste because the city receiving them wasn’t capable, or ready, to make use of them.
We have to take a different approach to community revitalization and understand that our current economic development based strategy isn’t working in every city. We have to look deeper and consider what causes apathy and how we go about curing it. We have to raise our standards and ask more of one another. We have to, at times, be less sympathetic to the individual and consider what’s best for the community. Because in the end, when a community improves, the individual benefits, but the converse isn’t true. We can’t make exceptions for every rule breaker and code violator and expect it not to have consequences.