Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Yet Another Last Chance?

I've mentioned before that where I live now is not where I was born. I was born in New York City. My parents and many of their friends moved to New Jersey when I was little more than a toddler.  Jersey was one of two places that Eisenhower-era young married New Yorkers (YMNY) moved to when they had a few bucks. 

When YMNY had MORE than a few bucks, they moved to Connecticut, actually to the Gold Coast, not the part of the state in which I live now, east of the Connecticut River and almost in Rhode Island. Until the two Indian casinos (sorry-I turned off the political correctness keyboard; I meant to type the two Native American gaming destinations) came along, this part of the state was known for Mystic, which was on either side of 95 North as folks went to Cape Cod for their summer vacations. 

There a lot of old towns and villages in the new england without capital letters-built along the banks of the rivers that were used to drive the turbines for the textile factories that disappeared in the late Forties and Fifties as cheaper labor in the Deep South shifted the industrial footprint only to be destroyed, itself, by even cheaper labor half a world away. Part of that Global Village 'what goes around, comes around' phenomena we mistakenly think of as 'The New World Order' when the only orders around here are for fries and a shake. 

This new england doesn't suffer from Future Shock, but present shock. There are many people here who hold on to the past so tightly, believing it will return though they know not how, that they literally and figuratively cannot grasp how much life and times have changed or how far behind they have fallen. They watch with a mixture of suspicion and  hope as every 'new' person or 'new' idea is presented as The Next Big Thing and when that definite article proves to be less than advertised, and their feelings change from disappointed to deceived, they neither forgive nor forget.        
  
Much of what I’ve seen in Norwich in the almost two decades I and my family have lived here is a changing of the direction of the circles in which we run, as if the running were a plan of some kind. We elect new brooms to sweep old dust-or choose old brooms to leave the dust alone. It seems to make no difference, least of all to the dust. 

We were talking about downtown revitalization when I arrived here, and we're still doing it-and that's NOT accidental. People prefer problems that are familiar to solutions that are not. In nearly every election, we’ve had a chance to try a new path, for state representative, Congressman, Governor, Senator-you name the office- but we’ve steered clear of any and all new ideas. 

Those of us who didn’t grow up here will never be “from here” no matter how long we live in Norwich. Yeah, my kids went to school with your kids, but I didn't go to school with you and
that's what counts. To some extent, every discussion about this city becomes ‘this is a Norwich thing, and you don’t understand.’ Maybe, but here’s something all of us can understand about those of us not from here: we are less wedded to a past we never had and are more willing to risk our present for a more desirable future for ourselves and our families. It’s the New Math: the less you have, the less you have to lose.

It’s not that, as a city, we haven’t meant well in Norwich. We have had hundreds, if not thousands, of people, on a variety of committees, commissions, agencies and boards, each with a tiny piece of the economic development puzzle, struggling to make a breakthrough and somehow hit a game-winning grand slam home run. And plans! Brother, Sister-there are rooms in our City Hall where you can't swing a cat, or other small animal, and not hit yet another development study, nicely bound, never read, right on a shelf.  

And it's not that I'm being cynical or that we're self-serving when we demand to know 'where have all the good times gone?' because we can't even agree on a definition of "good times." And just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t. And how many times over the years have we been told, or told one another, “Norwich is on the move,” and “Norwich is turning around” or “this time for sure.”

Looking around the downtown we’ve convinced one another is a pearl of great price, we’ve had so many first steps. We had our first restored
Wauregan Hotel (there were two businesses and a laundromat on the ground floor; now you can get your clothes clean), our first renovated Otis Library (whose doors close for two weeks starting Monday because there's no money) and our first Mercantile Exchange

Three isolated, well-intentioned public sector projects that were, and are, substantial state, federal and municipal investments in our city. And so far all three have had the half-life of a snowball in Hell as economic stimulus. Norwich is city of great starts. We don’t do middles very well and I’m not sure we’d recognize a successful end if we got bitten by one on ours.

In recent months many people within and without the City Council along with others from throughout the redevelopment domain (there are so many agencies with redevelopment as part of the name or their mission, it's amazing)  have worked together, despite our traditional dyspeptic despair, to create a plan of private and public investment, for sustained economic development and positive growth for all of us, those from here and those who just got here.

It’s out in the
, and no one is pretending it's perfect, but it gets better every time one of us reads it and shares a comment or a suggestion to improve it. Read it for yourself, then bring a neighbor to Monday night’s City Council public hearing (starts at 7:30) and share your ideas with all of us. Instead of Put up or Shut up, I'm thinking Show up or Give up. You in? 
-bill kenny

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