Thursday, June 19, 2008

of Mice and Men

A week or so ago, there was an exhibition and information session at the Otis Library in Norwich, CT on city plans and the history of city planning in Norwich over the years. I didn't go, not because I wasn't (or am not) interested in what happens in the city in which I live but, as James McMurty says, "I'm not from here, I just live here." Based on what I read in the local papers, it seemed to go about the way I feared it would.

The accounts suggested those who attended were impressed but dismayed in almost equal amounts by the number of detailed studies accomplished (and the decades these plans covered) and how almost, without exception, they were shelved, left to gather dust until cleaned and moved when the shelf was reorganized to accommodate the next plan that was commissioned. There seemed to be an undercurrent of chagrin at the realization a lot of folks had asked a lot of questions, and gotten a large number of answers and then no one was interested in any of it.

Seems almost like a case of MADD, Municipal Attention Deficit Disorder, which is a challenge many small cities, with large numbers of volunteers, will always face that's compounded by the twin plagues of too much to do and not enough time to do it all in. In Norwich our City Council and Mayor all have full-time, and real-time, jobs and lives beyond City Hall. They have hired professional city management and department heads and municipal employees but when one of us residents says 'somebody oughta do somethin' about that (whatever that is on any given day) we usually are thinking of the Council and Mayor. Makes sense-we elect them--we don't vote for the Comptroller or the Personnel Director.

And, think about it: what exactly is a plan? It's a map, of sorts, that takes you from where we are to where we'd like to be and transports you from now to some time in the future. It's a little bit like going to Grandma's except, because we're a city, there's sometimes discussions about whose Grandma we're going to visit and what her house looks like. I always want a house with a yard big enough for a swing set (and a pony, of course)--but some think a Starbucks is a better idea while others don't speak up at all until after we've driven past Grandma's house. And don't get me started on what route to drive to get there or whose car we're going in! The discussions on all of this can get so heated, there's a danger we lose sight of what it was we set out to do.

That may be what befell a lot of the plans on display at the library. That so little of any of them has made its way into our daily lives is probably more a sin of omission than commission (you can take the FARC out of the church but you can't take the altar boy out of the FARC). The sad part is, to me, I have little doubt we, like towns and cities everywhere, have not gone around the same bridge twice (sorry, Captain Yossarian) for the last time. Unless (and until) George and Lenny agree on where to build the rabbit farm, the chances Steinbeck will ever meet us there or at his grandmother's house are moot.
-bill kenny

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