Good city and good life: It's 'we,' not 'thay,' who will build it

January 22, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

DANIEL KEMMIS, the personable, second-term mayor of Missoula, Montana, lightens up the introduction to his new book -- ''The Good City and the Good Life'' -- with a quote from an angry ''flamer'' on a local computer bulletin board.

Responding to a fellow resident's modest query about a rise in local property taxes, a Missoulian named ''Jerry'' fulminated -- unedited:

''you are not alone in your frustrations with the city. all thay want is more tax money so thay can do less. thay can't take care of what thay have now what we can look forward to when they inlarge the city, more potholes, more taxes. thay (the people in power of the city, these are not the taxpayers) will vote a rase for themselfs when the $%& is about to hit the fan.''

Feeling of alienation

Jerry's unique spelling of ''thay,'' notes Mayor Kemmis, reflects remarkably well the feeling of people alienated from our political system. Then he slips in one of his own zingers in a remarkable book about democracy, citizenship and the critical role of cities BTC in our future:

''People who customarily refer to themselves as taxpayers,'' he says, ''are not even remotely related to democratic citizens. Taxpayers pay tribute to the government, and they receive services from it. So does every subject of a totalitarian regime.'' In a democracy, Mr. Kemmis notes, the people -- not an anonymous ''thay'' -- govern.

Up to that point, the mayor has lots of company among today's political commentators, reaffirming democratic government but lamenting the lack of civic engagement.

But then he takes a breathtaking step. He reminds us that the words ''civil,'' ''civility,'' indeed ''civilization'' and ''citizenship'' themselves, all derive from civitas, the Roman word for city. A citizen is a denizen of the city: a city-zen.

Social health

And it's only in cities and city-regions, he says, that we will form the basic human ties to create the sense of wholeness, of intimate association, of social health, needed to offset a politics of universal anger and mistrust, to recreate a democratic order in our time.

Mayor Kemmis' message, of course, is one that most national and state politicos, national media and ''big'' thinkers, will instinctively reject.

Cities? What are they? Losers in the power games of centralized national and corporate power, is the answer. Anyway, they're hellholes: Just look at the demonized picture of urban America purveyed by Hollywood and the nightly news.

Mr. Kemmis will have none of that. Cities and their surrounding countryside, he insists, are organic -- the natural way that human beings settle, the nature of their economy. By contrast, he says, states and nation-states are cold, impersonal abstractions. Cities are home to the entrepreneurial synergies that drive economies forward. They're where business -- busy-ness -- is most naturally conducted.

Urban market

The Missoula mayor's favorite image is the urban market, where amid the stands selling broccoli, green beans and fresh-baked breads, the people of a city not only celebrate their life together but engage in productive partnership with farmers from the surrounding countryside.

And it's not just small cities like Mr. Kemmis' Missoula (pop. 60,000) that have that draw. He cites Hong Kong, likely to maintain its independent role next year after its absorption by the People's Republic of China, precisely because of its economic magnetism.

I'm drawn to the Kemmis formulation because it so precisely matches my own idea that the future belongs to citistate regions, cities and suburbs seen as one, cooperating and competing globally, because in the post-Cold War world, economic instead of military power is what matters.

Mr. Kemmis closes the loop in intriguing fashion. A richer, more humanly satisfying kind of politics can't evolve, he says, unless individuals are connected with each other through collaboration and consensus.

That means on the one hand ''healthy cities,'' not just in good medical care but the broader picture of affordable housing, urban design, open space and individual opportunities.

Nurturing youth

It also means, he says, cities recalling their primary function since the dawn of time: nurturing, educating and teaching citizenship to their youth. In no other respect are cities so deficient today; in no other way are there great opportunities for recovery than engaging, respecting, challenging and tapping the talents of cities' young people. And then, through programs like ''sister cities,'' giving our youth a sense of global citizenship.

Like so many strands in the mayor's book (published by Houghton Mifflin), the youth emphasis flies in the face of current notions -- that teen-agers, for example, are a dangerous, uncontrollable, crime-prone force, best kept at a distance.

Mr. Kemmis defines instead a politics and citizenship focused on the shared life of the cities where we live -- our natural habitat since the days of the Greek polis. For all the dilemmas and splintering of the modern metropolis, all the wrangling about ''thay,'' the mayor of Missoula reminds us that the city is the best place for a fulfilling existence.


Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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