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Our man in Montevideo…

and why local government should get out more

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader


People are nervous in Montevideo. Driving to work is dangerous, being home is dangerous, filling up is dangerous. The sublimely beautiful Uruguayan capital is on edge…and it has a garbage problem, too many stray dogs and obvious drug houses, plenty of homeless and great income gaps.

Montevideo was my latest foray into the unknown. I now have visited 25 countries and hundreds of cities. Montevideo sits across the Platte River from huge and bustling Buenos Aires. That river, though, is around 100 miles wide where it empties into the South Atlantic and the ferry crossing takes four hours from one city to the other.
Montevideo is the capital of the rapidly growing nation of Uruguay. In 2010, growth was a blistering 8.5%, while in 2011, the preliminary figures point to a cooling to a “modest” 5.5%. The US would kill for such strong growth. Uruguay is in a boom.

But, there is palpable fear. In one upscale neighborhood where I stayed each house is a small fortress with high walls, electric fencing, metal grill work on window, Rotweilers, neighborhood patrols and more. Each house has a security system. Crime rates number one in surveys of Uruguayans.

A friend told me of her two very close encounters with petty burglars. They might have committed greater crimes, but they could not get to her through the thick metal bars that are part of the roof system. Her house is a fortress. The front plate glass window facing her pool is shatter-resistant and three layers deep. At her shop thieves had stolen the razor wire from the business parapets. They have stolen whatever can be drug away, pulled off, dug up.

Crime is so regularly the case in Montevideo that the papers don’t bother reporting anything but the sensational. The problem she speculates, lies with the government’s feeling that the rich have cheated the poor. The president is a former guerrilla implicated in murder, labeled a communist by his opponents, loathed by those who have prospered.

The public schools, she says, offer little future, the dropout rate is staggering. Prosperous families take their children to private schools that lead to exclusive universities that lead to exclusive clubs for the rich. Wages for most are depressed and unemployment is legion despite an economy that is booming.

Another more visible blight on beautiful Montevideo is the ubiquitous garbage bin; even along the wide, sandy rambla that fronts that majestic Platte there are lines of ugly, overflowing dumpsters. In the best neighborhoods the large, industrial style containers – four-feet cubes, gray, battered, with scratched red and white reflective tape and missing wheels – sit in front of the most perfectly manicured homes. Ugh. Picture Cherry Hills with hulking eyesores ever block or so, 24-7, 365. And, around the bins lay strewn garbage. Dumpster-divers dig out whatever they want and toss the rest on the ground and in the street, there is constantly a mess.

Fort Wayne is no Montevideo. Despite the crime and grime it is a vibrant city, bathed in sun, decorated with lines of palm trees and gleaming-white high rise buildings, grand homes, spacious parks. They have the waves and sand and pretty people walking their Rottweilers and Yorkies. Conversely, we have the Maumee.

After two weeks in Uruguay and Argentina I was greeted at Baer Field by a grandmotherly blue-hair with a cookie. I could only smile, my heart was in my throat. Welcome home. Anyone who has been through Charles DeGaulle understands.

What we have here we have hewn without the lure of beaches or mountains. We have low crime because our PD is smart, educated and devoted; and, equally as important, we watch out for each other. Kindness (ask any foreign visitor) must be in our DNA. We take pride in Fort Wayne, we don’t have garbage strewed in the street because we
pick up after ourselves, and because the likes of city officials Matt Gratz and Bobby Kennedy who have found a smarter way to master the flow of trash. We don’t have a thousand stray dogs running in small packs because we are committed to finding smart solutions. Our homeless problem is comparably small. We work hard to mitigate our drug problem. Certainly, we have plenty of problems, but we seem to be smart enough and responsible enough to manage them.

These are lessons that travel teaches. Seeing other countries and cities provides a basis of comparison and insight.

Getting out of town frequently should be expected of everyone in leadership in Fort Wayne, especially our employees in our government. Seeing other cities is equivalent to a PhD in comparative governance. There is so much we can learn from communities that have already tackled the very problems we now confront and have found innovative solutions that could well benefit us all. Our sister city, Gera, for example, transformed her polluted brown fields into now beloved green spaces, they rebuilt their now-bustling downtown and installed a high quality and well-used mass-transit system. Our police department and that of Gera are in close collaboration trading ideas and teaching each other. They have much to teach us, as does Montevideo, beautiful Montevideo.

Instead, past councils, in their false, short-sighted wisdom, have cut nearly every bit of travel out of every department’s budget. It is analogous to inbreeding. It is the narrowing of ideas, rather than the collection of new ideas that made a name for generation after generation of Marco Polos. We are all culpable: too many narrow minds believe travel equates to junkets. Certainly, some abuse their opportunities, but, trade in ideas is essential to the growth of Fort Wayne as trade in goods. Cutting travel is penny-wise, but pound foolish.

Afoot in Fort Wayne is an effort to establish a Chinese sister city. It will be good for Fort Wayne, perhaps very good. It will introduce our people to hundreds of new ideas, new tastes, new approaches to government, business contacts and educational opportunities that will make Fort Wayne that much richer for us all. Go forth and harvest best practices around the world. It is time for council to invest in the research and development that is travel, if they have the courage.

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