I must have been 12 or 13 years old when my dad and I were driving home from Manhattan on the 59th Street bridge and we couldn't help but notice a large piece of graffiti scrawled above the roadway: "Save the World, Give a S***!" Despite the vulgar word choice, we both laughed hard at the simple humor of the message. It became my favorite quote.
Flash forward 31 years or so and now my more profound-sounding favorite quote essentially sends the same message: "Men did not love Rome because she was beautiful. Rome was beautiful because men loved her." The source of that quote is a bit of a controversy. Some historians believe it was part of some kind of oath members of the Roman armies or the senate had to take. Others attribute it to G.K. Chesterton or Leopold Kuhr. But wherever the quote comes from, it makes the point that only those of us who care about something and do things to prove it can make that something lovable.
From an economic standpoint, this is an easy concept to accept. You need to put hard work into a business or service to make it marketable. Even a raw commodity like crude oil, gold, or diamonds still needs to be drilled, carved, or properly cleaned before anyone will find it useful, beautiful, or worth money. But the idea that it takes work to not only make someone else love something, but for you to truly love it is also true when it comes to two other crucial parts of our lives: our children and our cities.
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It's funny to hear more and more people these days accuse parents of being selfish for having kids. I find this funny because being a real parent and raising a child well is the least selfish thing a person can do and it's the hard work we do for our children that makes us love them. Think about it, yes newborns look cute and all, but they don't actually do anything "lovable" until they hit six months or so. Until then, hopefully both parents connect with the child by working very hard to feed, clothe, soothe and clean the baby. Then the hard part really starts, as the following years are filled with challenges where parents have to make the right choices to raise a moral and decent human being even as we always advocate for them. I can honestly say I love my 12 and 7 year olds more today than I did the day they were born. So I guess this is working, but I don't expect the hard work to ever stop not even when both my children are parents or grandparents themselves. If my wife and I keep working hard it, they will be beautiful then because we loved them.
The same seems true of the places where we live. My new heroes at the StrongTowns group make a daily case, complete with instructions, on how we can show more "love" for our cities and towns and the overall infrastructure. And I'm struck by the similarities between loving a space and loving a child. Good parents know that simply throwing money at a child isn't the way to raise her right. And the folks at Strong Towns know that simply pouring more millions and billions into our cities isn't the answer either. Like children, cities need good management with real love to make whatever money is available work best. Like children, we can't make our cities better or more economically viable simply by buying them new and shiny toys like big highways, monorails, or stadiums. Like children, cities and towns do best when they have two parents who act as good managers. In this metaphor, that means political leadership coming from both major parties and good public and private sector cooperation.
Perhaps America's biggest "problem child" city is Detroit. Detroit has been spoiled over the years with all the shiny toys a city can get from bailouts to legalized gambling to the aforementioned monorail. But those toys didn't stop the population from rushing out of the city in droves. Detroit's population is down a stunning 53% since 1950. And with one-party Democratic Party rule for 50+ years, not enough people have shown even enough love for the city to vote the same old bums with the same platform out of office.
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But if there's one thing good parents or city managers should never be it's smug. A smart parent knows that no matter how hard you work and care, your child may still have an accident, make a bad mistake, or could even become a bad adult. So while it's okay to offer some advice when asked for, the best parents know they can always be wrong. Similarly, astute Americans are beginning to see that feeling superior to cities like Detroit is dangerous. Because it's the suburbs, and not our cities, that are in the most danger now that our car-based infrastructure is proving more and more costly to maintain. And honestly, when was the last time enough suburban dwellers like me showed true "love" for our towns by taking local elections very seriously or even voting in them? Do our property taxes keep rising because we're getting better services for our money or because the money isn't being managed well by the people we "elected" to manage it? How much longer will the residents of New York's Westchester County continue to "love" it now that it's again been identified as the country with the highest median property tax of more than $13,000 per year? Wealthier residents of our tonier suburbs may think they're superior to the people of big cities like Detroit who let their elected leaders waste billions, but how many of them are really paying attention to where those big property tax revenues are going? The fact is, Detroit's political and management failure is replicated every day on a smaller scale in thousands of suburbs across this country.
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Private sector interest and investment is as crucial as a mother's love to our cities and suburbs. We might smugly point out the private sector exodus from Detroit, but do our suburbs where we live have enough private sector investment to sustain them? Don't cities and suburbs both spend billions of dollars in public money on roads and bridges and then block private investors from building hotels, houses, and stores to help create the revenues to pay for it all? Just like a bad parent, our government can be overprotective when it comes to our human-made resources. Good parents spend money on kids in order to achieve a greater goal. Good cities and suburbs spend money on resources that will really boost the economy and return much more than the original investment. You can't do that if you're a politician or constantly electing politicians who spends the public's money only for political reasons. Do we love our country enough to demand our politicians from both parties stop doing this? The free market wants to make our cities and suburbs more livable and lovable because there's no money to be made in the Detroits of America.
Once again remember: men did not love Rome because she was beautiful. Rome was beautiful because men loved her. So let me ask now: Will we save America because it is beautiful, or will American be beautiful because we saved it?