Thursday, January 09, 2014

ON THE AVENUES: I am not a Frankenstein. I'm a Fronkensteen.

ON THE AVENUES: I am not a Frankenstein. I'm a Fronkensteen.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

In early May of 2013, there was a meeting upstairs at the Exchange Pub + Kitchen. Truly, it was an unprecedented gathering.

Representatives from Develop New Albany, New Albany First, the informal downtown “merchant mixer” group, and the city’s food and drink bloc were present, along with Mayor Jeff Gahan and economic development chief David Duggins, who also is head of the Urban Enterprise Association. There may have been others; if I recall correctly, New Albany Clean and Green was not invited. I didn’t keep precise notes.

The gist of the session was to discuss ways of encouraging the coordination of efforts undertaken by these currently separate groups. How might they all be aligned to row in the same direction, thus avoiding the catastrophe of the “joint” branding non-effort in 2011 – the infamous “Come to City” fiasco?

It wasn’t a bad meeting, and at the time, the outlook seemed quite promising. I suppose my mood reflected a state of resignation I’ve always reluctantly accepted, if not openly endorsed: If business owners, entrepreneurs and attendant non-profits cannot unify of their own accord – a lamentable failure, but sadly, the congenital default setting in battered New Albany – and, if City Hall desires a unified front to advance the city’s interests, then it’s time for riot acts to be read, integrated tasks to be delegated, and heads banged together.

In retrospect, my hopes were set far too high. They probably always are. Alas, while dreamers like me see the possibilities, others ask: But what about MY own narrow fiefdom?


What I see more clearly now is that my viewpoint was based on an assumption about vacuums, namely, that there necessarily exists urgency in filling them on the part of this or any other municipal administration. Is there value in such cooperation, and is the expenditure of effort necessary to build such a unified front a priority?

Allow me to explain.

To no one’s surprise, Doug England was an example of a mayor who didn’t care much for the idea of unity. He preferred hands-on backroom cronyism, on occasion limply offering uninspired lip service to the ideal of togetherness, and then yawningly deferring to DNA’s ennui through various pay-backs and personal favors, naturally omitting any appreciable financial support to the organization itself on the part of the city.

But in fairness to Thrice Hizzoner, why on earth would he bother otherwise? If the indies and entrepreneurs were doing all the deep spending and heavy lifting without making any demands, if the non-profits were somnolent, and if England’s political supporters could be stroked just the same from the safety of the shadows, why offer anything of substance?

Why care at all?

Outsourcing a diminished mayoral attention span represented the best of all possible worlds. Yes, it was cynical, but take the cynicism out of New Albany politics, and you’re left with little of discernible substance. It isn’t like we have political parties in any readily identifiable sense eagerly waiting to fill the gaping idea chasm. They merely acquiesce in the charade, occasionally unleashing torrents of legalistic obscurantism sufficient to embarrass a curate.

The crux of it is this: The argument from common sense, which I so foolishly imagined as relevant last spring, favors using any and all community assets to bring assorted stakeholders together and advance the city’s overall prospects for improvement.

Unfortunately, the problem with doing so from a petty political standpoint (is there any other?) is that doing so might unintentionally lead to the creation of an opposing power base, one capable of leveraging an agenda of its own, without even begging the Democratic Party’s priestly grandees for written permission.

And what if such an independent power base advocated change along broad, non-partisan lines for – say – a two-way street grid, thereby making it impossible for City Hall to adhere to the position that the community as a whole doesn’t have any detectable opinion on the matter?

Boy, that’d be a tough one to explain, and so let’s face facts. There are far more politicians fearing such a Frankenstein-like eventuality than ones willing to play to role of midwives at their birth. After all, a strategy of “divide and conquer” is among the earliest of commandments inscribed on any political tablet, anywhere and anytime. Here in New Albany, it’s in our blood. Our Bicentennial tag line should have been this:

“Since 1817: Divided, Conquered and Sedated At River’s Edge.”


In the months since the May meeting, there has been no further movement on the agenda items discussed that day, which means that as usual, the joke’s on us. In the ongoing absence of unity, stakeholders remain divided against themselves, while the ghost of Benjamin Franklin continues to remind us: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

We won’t, and consequently we are, and I’ll never understand why.

Independent businesses seem as determined as ever to go it alone, come what may, as though style points for tragic heroism matter more than collectively bargained influence commensurate with their level of toil and investment.

The UEA is a deflated, dying entity absorbed by the current administration, with its money to be spent by the city at will, whenever a few farthings somehow trickle into the bank account.

NA 1st does its low-key localism thing, and our Main Street organization, DNA, continues to refrain from grubby politicking out of rigorous principle – except, of course, when the word “politics” is pronounced “Farmers Market” – and then all hands are extended to accept the cash-stuffed envelope, grubbily.

Being the perennially contrarian sort, I feel compelled to ask: If the same old politics as usual seeks to maintain our condition of continued separation and ongoing degradation, doesn’t it seem that the very first priority should be renewed effort for greater unity?

I mean, we’re the ones doing the actual work.

Shouldn’t we get together and have a say in at least some of role-playing?

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