Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Wayward words and the path to wisdom

I found a recent correspondence to The Red Electric both troubling and encouraging.

The writer was broadly responding to the post “Four Phases for Hillsdale.”

He referred readers to a posting on his own web site. There he claimed to be familiar with Hillsdale and wrote with an indignant and hollow authority about the place.

Still, I sensed in his voice a note of caring and passion. That was the encouraging part.

But as I got into his critique of Hillsdale, it became apparent that he had little understanding of what’s been happening here for the last 15 years.

In essence, he was shooting from the hip, hoping that at least a few shots would find their mark. Or he may have been announcing his Hillsdale awareness or simply filling space on his blog.

I was tempted to take the writer to task, but then I thought of the times I’ve written with woefully superficial knowledge. At best I offered a "fresh" perspective, however wrong it might have been.

So I commented on his web site without picking apart the errors the writer made. I said nothing of his ignorance about Hillsdale and its recent history as a Metro-designated Town Center. He thought that the term “town center” was some journalistic contrivance. Accordingly, he also had no clue about the purpose of the Metro area’s 13 “town centers” — namely to absorb population growth by up-zoning areas well served by mass-transit. If the writer had looked into the matter, he would have agreed with the goal of making us all less dependent on cars by encouraging us to live more compactly near bus and light rail stops. The town centers fight urban sprawl, combat pollution and save precious farm land. They are the urban planners’ answer to smaller carbon footprints.

The writer also seemed unaware of the foibles surrounding the siting and construction of the Hillsdale Branch Library, which went $3.5 million over budget. County officials wrongly decided to squeeze the new building onto a small site. In the process they demolished the old library, an architectural gem. As attractive as the new building is, it is already too small to meet increasing demand.

The writer also seemed to think that the “open space” many of us would like to see developed in the Sunset Triangle is actually being used for some public purpose. It’s mostly unused backyards invisible to the public.

There’s more, but I’ll stop here. The thrust of my response was to encourage him to get involved. I’m a believer in Daniel Kemmis’ response to civic criticism: Got a problem? Get involved!

I invited the critic to the next Hillsdale Neighborhood Association meeting (7 p.m., Wed. Jan 7 at St. Barnabas Church on Vermont Street) or the next Hillsdale Alliance meeting (7 p.m., Wed, Jan. 14 at RE/MAX, corner of Sunset Boulevard and Capitol Highway).

Through involvement, he’ll discover for himself how he got Hillsdale wrong and where he might redirect his energies.

As I say, he has my sympathies. I’ve gotten things wrong too. Often it has been only after years of involvement that I’ve discovered exactly how wrong I was.

The trick, of course, is to learn from one’s errors and not commit them again. I’ve found the best way to avoid mistakes is through skepticism (including skepticism about oneself) knowledge (which means asking good questions of informed sources) and humility.

Put all that together and on rare occasions you might come up with something that approaches insight — and even wisdom.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Dave Allen said...

Hi Rick,
As the writer you refer to I have to say that I wasn't being "indignant" nor "hollow" as you put it. It was a post about how, through the idea of hyper-local news dissemination, residents in communities could be very well informed - the digital tools are at hand I use them everyday. Hillsdale Twitter uppdates would work extremely well.

Me and my family are residents in Hillsdale and have been here 8 years and I am simply concerned that development and traffic are getting out of hand. I understand that people have been working on initiatives for the 15 years that you mention and I understand that I have missed some initiatives over the years. This doesn't make me a "less concerned resident."

I wasn't shooting from the hip either. I was actually pointing out some direct issues, the biggest being the automobile and its domination of our community and the safety of Hillsdale's residents as they walk unsafe roads. You didn't mention how I thought the current traffic-free portion of Terwilliger was a blessing for cyclists and pedestrians.

If my knowledge is "superficial" so be it. I have the capacity to dig for knowledge, it's actually part of my job, but I would ask you to save me the time - what percentage of Hillsdale's residents are currently fully aware of the plans for Hillsdale? And what percentage support them?

"Town Centre" by the way is still a contrivance whether its designated by Metro or a newspaper or any one else for that matter. Hillsdale is a district just as Belmont is a district. Strip malls do not signify 'Town Centre' to me.

I am a concerned resident who would like to see development contained in Hillsdale, you are someone who is actively pursuing your agenda to support business in the community. That's where we differ.

You challenge my "wisdom and insight" as you put it, rather patronizingly. You even suggest that I am "simply filling space on his blog" oh how you underestimate the power of blogs Rick!

I have no intention of picking a fight with you, but just as I may have much to learn about what's been happening in Hillsdale, you have much to learn about me. You forget perhaps that we have been in communication about Hillsdale before - in fact I wrote once advising you to start blogging rather than having a 'web site.'

I look forward to continuing the discussion but unfortunately I will be speaking on a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on the 7th so I can't make the next Hillsdale meeting.

Meanwhile let me leave you with some quotes about town and city planning and space from other learned people that I have studied -

“The farmer or engineer who cuts into the land can either cultivate it or devastate it.... When one looks at cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, one cannot separate art from nature. And one cannot forget the Indian mounds of Ohio.” Robert Smithson, “Fredrick Law Olmstead and The Dialectical Landscape” (1973), The Collected Writings

“‘Togetherness’ is a fittingly nauseating name for an old ideal in planning theory. This ideal is that if anything is shared among people, much should be shared. ‘Togetherness,’ apparently a spiritual resource of the new suburbs, works destructively in cities. The requirement that much shall be shared drives city people apart.... There is no public life here, in any city sense. There are differing degrees of extended private life.” Jane Jacobs

“An immense, devastating brutal evolution has burned the bridges that link us with the past.” Le Corbusier, The Guiding Principals of Town-Planning (1925)

“Apart from theaters and ball parks [saucers], the occasional communal space that is big is a space for crowds of anonymous individuals without explicit connection with each other.” Venturi, Brown, & Izenour

“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean...plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.... Old ideas sometimes use old buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” Jane Jacobs

10:21 AM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

David and I are going to meet next week to share perceptions and ideas.

In an off-site e-mail exchange, we agreed that we seem have much more in common than our Red Electric exchanges suggest.

I'm looking forward to our visit.

9:30 PM  

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