Our Critical Nature

There’s apparently something comforting in lobbing criticism at others. This seems obvious because everywhere you turn, someone is carping at someone else’s lack of competence—at least that’s the way it appears. It’s easier to do that than look at your own ugly mug in the mirror, and write down your personal laundry list of foibles.

On Sunday, Boston Globe staff writer, Sara Schweitzer, profiled another New England mill town’s post-industrial attempts at reinvention, focusing on Franklin, New Hampshire. I was envious of Schweitzer, as she was given double the word count I had to tell my Biddeford story the week before; just one of the perks of being a staff writer, versus freelancing.

Franklin on the mapSchweitzer’s article was excellent, and her focus on an entrepreneur/developer, Todd Workman, and his struggles and challenges in this small city smack dab in the center of the Granite State highlighted the difficulties inherent in bringing back forgotten places like Franklin. The story gathered a number of important threads in this narrative focused on economic development in rural America.

There were several key elements that Schweitzer was able to tease out in her story. One was Workman’s difficulties in working with local government officials, in particular, Franklin’s city manager, Elizabeth Dragon. This isn’t to say that Dragon hasn’t been justified in questioning some of Workman’s tactics, especially what appears to be his attempts on is part in doing an end-run around established “checks and balances” that any municipality has in place to ensure that there is uniformity, as well as controls relative to economic development.

What wasn’t clear to me given my lack of knowledge about prior attempts to revive Franklin (other than what Schweitzer touched on, briefly), was why they failed. According to Workman’s assessment in the article, it’s because they were lacking a systematic economic plan, which he believes his focus on permaculture addresses.

I’m guessing that those who read this article from an anti-government perspective would characterize Dragon’s and the city’s perspective as meddling and even anti-business. I didn’t see it like that, but the comments indicated that some readers obviously did. There was also some snark, which added nothing to the conversation, which is common with online commenters in most cases.

Workman seems to be full of great ideas. However, one suggestion that Dragon offered and based upon what I know from what I read, as well as my own experience in community-building work—someone like Workman—viewed as an outsider by locals, needs to work at building trust, not just coming in and making a host of proposals. Granted, he’s putting his own money and resources on the line, but as Dragon is quoted as saying, why couldn’t Workman “focus on one project and show people that you have success and build on that?” This seemed reasonable, but Workman at the time appeared insulted. He has since reconsidered, at least that’s how the article leaves it.

That approach seems to be one that offers better long-term odds. It’s what’s worked in Biddeford, and is the strategy that Doug Sanford adopted successfully and was a key element in my own article.

This kind of long view isn’t popular, however, with the perpetually critical crowd. They’re all or nothing, even if they don’t have any demonstrated successes in their own personal portfolio. No, all they offer is negative shots from the anonymity of their basements and the safety of their keyboards.

This rush to criticize and predict failure might be due to the ever-widening ideological divide in America tracked by Pew Research not long ago. Then, it might be part of some larger sociological trend nourished by the nature of the internet and digital communication (the anonymity thing, again). I found this article in The Guardian especially enlightening about how one writer dealt with a barrage of hateful comments that went beyond the pale of most. This is the “progress” promised by our rush to embrace technology at all costs.

Without becoming the Dr. Joy Browne of the blogosphere offering pop psychology prescriptions, perhaps the haters really hate themselves. The internet and comment sections (as well as social media platforms) make it easy to project their self-loathing onto others. It’s a theory worth considering.

One of the things that came out of my conversations with Alan Casavant, Biddeford’s mayor, is that the revitalization of place also involves countering negative perceptions. These become ingrained in the psyche of a community that’s been beaten down after decades of economic drift.

Just this past weekend, my wife and I spent Valentine’s Day in Biddeford and she picked up on the positive spirit of the place, something that had been missing for decades.

Back to Franklin; the city has also been struggling with neglect and the loss of economic vitality dating back 30 or 40 years. I’m curious what locals think about Workman and his difficulties with city hall. I also wonder if he’s aware that success requires that he find a way to counter this sense of place-based depression. I hope he succeeds and I’ll be keeping tabs on this story, for sure.

Glory days in Franklin.

Glory days in Franklin.

4 thoughts on “Our Critical Nature

  1. The US is filled with places like Franklin, New Hampshire. They are forgotten places, at least by those not living there or nearby.
    I agree that one of the hardest things is getting local people to put aside their negative feelings and all the other baggage that comes from living in places that used to be vibrant but the new economy and big box retail stores have destroyed. It’s hard to admit that the mills aren’t coming back, or manufacturing.
    The Midwest where I’m from is filled with these towns, too. Any place where manufacturing was abundant 30 years ago is now struggling.
    Did you see the story about abandoned shopping malls? http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/04/business/the-economics-and-nostalgia-of-dead-malls.html?_r=0

    • I thought this comment (below) about how the new ‘sharing economy’ is evolving already was pretty interesting. It was one of the 675 responses to a NYTimes article about the demise of malls that was cited.:

      “What about the role of the sharing economy, sustainability and hyper-local neighborhood-based online yard sale groups? I’m a 30-something mom of two with a six-figure household income, but haven’t been the mall in years. Our society is awash in excess high-quality possessions in like-new condition, and those of us concerning about sustainability simply see no reason to buy new. Thanks to these online yard sale groups, neighbors can buy and sell to each other for 10-20% of retail price and keep 100% of the money circulating in our own local economy. With over 1000 members in our neighborhood yard sale group all living within two miles of each other, I can buy or sell almost anything and It’s all far more convenient than driving to the mall. And with every sale I get to meet or get to know a neighbor a little better. Plus we’re keeping things out of the landfill. This truly is my main retail experience these days especially for clothing, shoes, jewelry, toys, books, etc. Sorry national retailers, but malls are 100% over for Generation Social and our Sharing Economy….and our society will be better for it. On a separate but related note, this is also intertwined with our generation’s desire for walkable communities with local small business.

      • @sharing
        The article about abandoned malls was absolutely fascinating. I haven’t read through the host of comments, just a few at the top.

        It’s true—we are awash in foreign-manufactured junk, sold to us at the mall and big boxes. One way we can empower ourselves is to ween ourselves from the cult of consumption.

        Miss Mary is a big fan of the yard sale. I’m a bit late to the game in that area, although I’m beginning to see the light.

        Most of us have far more than we need, so maybe there’s something to this hyper-localized, yard sale economy.

        Yes, malls are becoming historical relics, at least if you look at the practices of Millennials, especially our Millennial, Mark.

  2. @MiddleAmerica
    I lived in Northwest Indiana during the early 1980s. Being from Maine, I couldn’t believe it when I went to Gary, Indiana for the first time, and all the businesses downtown were boarded up and abandoned. This would have been late 1982, and white flight had already occurred, as people fled inner-city Gary for Merrillville, Crown Point, and other suburban outposts. The South Lake Mall was the big shopping Mecca, killing off what had once been a vibrant downtown shopping district in Gary.

    Gary had been built by US Steel to be a company town for their workers and once steel began shedding workers (due to technological innovation and trade issues), Gary began to die. I went back in 2007 and blogged about it at an older blog.

    Places like Gary, Youngstown, Ohio, and the “forgotten places” that you commented on, are reminders that America has changed, and the “new economy” has left places and people behind.

    I had seen that article from the NY Times on abandoned malls. Maybe at some point, America will be nothing more than a country full of similar abandoned relics.

Comments are closed.