If you don't like something change it; if you can't change it, change the way you think about it. ~Mary Engelbreit
As I write this I’m tooling along 275 towards my little scrap of paradise, although any adjective that implies I am moving in a speedy fashion would be a low-down, dirty, lying adjective. I’m stuck in rush-hour traffic in what appears to be some sort of modern-day epic of Gilgamesh. Cars line both sides of our “new and improved” interstate.
How many decades of construction were supposed to change this debacle we call Malfunction Junction? Seems to me all that work, money and time didn’t change much at all.
Perhaps this interstate offers a prime example of why so many people fear change and why others just plain don’t like it. Me? I’m all for it. I accept that everything changes. But I’m also highly in favor of thinking through the things we have the power to change before we change them.
There’s a lot of changes in town these days. On the surface, every one of them seems like a swell idea. Even so, I still wonder if we’re changing ourselves into something we won’t recognize a few years down the road.
To paraphrase Kierkegaard, we must live life forward. The bitch of it is, he went on to explain, we can only understand it backwards. We’re living forward right now, doing what we think is best for our city, but I’m starting to wonder if, when we look back, we’ll better understand what we should have done.
Last week I wrote in support of the beach smoking ban, and while I still support it, I’ve been thinking about things – namely, Gulfport’s litter situation – and growing ever-more-concerned that we may be going down the wrong road.
Don’t misunderstand; it’s not a mistake to say we don’t want litter on the beach. It’s not even a mistake to try and clean the trash from the town’s alleys and gutters. The mistake comes when we sanitize a community within an inch of its life. Gulfport appears to have gotten rather caught up in what we don’t want and what we need to change, but we’ve almost completely stopped talking about what makes Gulfport, Gulfport.
We are not doing that in Gulfport. No, we’re focusing on changing the things we don’t like. As I said, good, fine, great. Get rid of the litter. Clean the streets. Figure out the line between “rundown is just fine” and “gestapo code enforcement.” But be careful, folks. I’m watching everyone change things but I’m not seeing anyone talking about what we’re changing into. We had an embarrassingly small number of submissions for the new Clymer Park sign; perhaps that is not so much an indictment of the arts community as an indictment of us as a city. We don’t know who we are anymore; around what is an artist supposed to center a design?
I’ve spent the past three weeks peeling up the edges of many, many small Florida towns, and I’ve visited at least a baker’s dozen of communities that compare to Gulfport in size and character and charm. Obviously, I’m not privy to each town’s individual struggles, but I know what I saw on the outside. I saw communities with firm grasps on their identities: DeFuniak Springs has a spring at its core and a northern small-town feel; Fernandina Beach has a working waterfront; Appalachicola does oysters. Each town has its own thing going, and everything in that town communicates who that town is to visitors as much as it does the people who live there.
I’ve publicly criticized city council’s upcoming “visioning” session, and I still stand by my snorts of derision. It smacks of the movie “Office Space,” and Gulfportians never struck me as the sort of folks who march around like corporate zombies worrying about visioning and strategy. In fact, I’d say a lot of folks who live here escaped that lifestyle when they moved to town.
No, the city would better serve its residents by asking Gulfportians to define their city instead of the talking heads on council deciding that on their behalf. Gulfportians come from all walks of life, and only one thing unites all of them, from the business owner with a yacht in Pasadena Yacht and Country Club to the guy who can barely hold on to his two-bedroom 1920s home off 49th Street: they love Gulfport.
The other thing is, Gulfport can’t deny itself to become what it thinks it should be. That’s the oldest Florida story I know: newcomers move in and re-shape little Florida towns into something they find more palatable. I never got that; why not just move somewhere that already fits your dream? Eventually, the town’s identity disappears under a veil of uniformity.
Everything changes, Gulfport. You know that and I know that. The key is not just figuring out what we’re changing into, but what we stand to lose. Once we know that, we can decide what’s worth holding on to.