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Public and private lives
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Tell me if the following scenario has ever happened to you: you're stepping out into the streets of your fair town, you're going for a walk or you're headed out to lunch, you see the usual panoply of city types on the streets, and out of the periphery of your eye you happen to notice one individual who is vigorously engaged in phone conversation as he's walking. Suddenly a friend of yours appears down the street and calls out to you, and being a civil sort you respond in kind, hailing him back. You haven't noticed that you've gotten physically close to the gregarious phone talker as you've walked, and the guy suddenly snaps his phone to his side and shoots you a dagger-filled stare, like: Do you mind? He's acting like you just entered the stall he's occupied at a public Men's Room. He's astonished that you've had the effrontery to speak in an entirely reasonable volume in public while he's conducting some essential business transaction with Spacely Sprockets or whoever. He's glaring at you, waiting for you to pipe down so he can continue his important conversation with the movers and shakers on the other end of the line.
If this has ever happened to you, I sincerely hope you responded exactly like I did. I usually make it a policy not to tell abject strangers to go ---- themselves, but, desperate times call for desperate measures, and sometimes a hearty "GFY" is the only appropriate response when encountering some over-privileged tool on the street. There are incorrigible types out there who need a brief refresher course in public discourse, guys who need to be told that the streets are the streets and not their personal fiefdoms. And this was that time. Of course, the guy backed down when I spoke, and I heard him mutter something about "this A-hole" to the guy on the other end of the line, as he shuffled down the street, away from me and my (delighted) friend.
I know I'm a little fanatical about cell phone use in public, but I've endured enough abuse already from the oblivious to become righteously sure that people need to be called out for extreme cell phone behavior. When people think it's just fine to continue a loud, personal conversation when entering a full elevator — something I've seen more than once — well, they deserve what they get. Normally I shy away from such confrontations — I'm much more antagonistic in print that in real life — but I take it as a personal duty to try and preserve a modicum of appropriateness in public situations. There is a social contract, after all, and that applies to us all.
It will be interesting to see how cities will respond in the immediate future to this battle over public interactions. For the first time in a generation, people are moving back into the cities and abandoning the decades-long exodus to the suburbs. The "millennial generation" — also known as "Generation Y" and roughly referring to people born between 1982-2004 — are the pivotal social forces leading the charge, as 20-somethings are relocating en masse into recently redeveloped downtown areas. There is a desire to reconnect with the long dormant notion of "city life," where people bump up against each other on a daily basis. It is a fascinating dichotomy, for the millennial generation seems wholly unaccustomed to the give-and-take of public interaction, yet the desire to live in an urban setting has become a powerful motivator for young people looking to settle down.
In Alan Ehrenhalt's excellent book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, the author points out some of the reasons for this subtle social evolution. Cities are much safer now than in the nadir of the 70's, when the "White Flight" was at its apex. Crime rates have fallen drastically in almost all major cities, and most cities have invested great resources to attract new home buyers and renters. There's also the "thrill of the new" for this demographic — most college-educated, 20s professionals grew up in the suburbs, and there's a new-found desire to seek different, urban climes.
In Indiana, the lily-white bedroom community of Carmel has become the poster child for city redevelopment. The city was recently named by Money Magazine as the "best place to live" in small-city America, and it's easy to see why — Carmel's mayor, Jim Brainard aggressively transformed the sleepy town into a European-style, walker-friendly area with a $750 million dollar arts complex and a vibrant downtown full of galleries and restaurants. Residents pay a 1% sales tax exclusively for the arts, and the city's calendar is filled with special events that close the streets and welcome out-of-town artists and vendors. The city has served as a model for other progressive-thinking Indiana cities — neighboring Fishers, in Hamilton County, recently announced plans to redo its downtown in like fashion, hoping to make the traffic-congested city an attractive and viable area that will bring future home-owners and professionals who want to experience the pleasures of "city life."
Of course, there are still going to be difficulties in this transformation--this is still Indiana, after all, and adequate public transportation — an indispensable part of city life — remains a problem for most Indiana cities. Car ownership in the state is among the nation's highest, and the infrastructure for public transportation is sorely lacking. And there is the state's natural resistance to change to deal with as well — Carmel's finances are a little shaky currently, as some of the bills have become due, and Brainard has had to deal with a lot of squabbling from city officials who wonder if the mayor's audacious plan might be a case of too much, too soon.
It will be interesting to see how Fort Wane adjusts to this new paradigm. There's no question that the city's downtown is a lot more interesting than it's been in decades — the ball field has played a significant part, but I'm curious to see if the new condominiums and downtown living projects — Midtowne Crossing, Renaissance Pointe, the condos at the stadium — can help reinvigorate the city and make Fort Wayne a destination attractive to the millennial generation. It's disconcerting that most of the downtown rental properties remain so expensive — for those just starting out, many of the splashy new apartments are simply out of reach. Still, the downtown improvements are a step in the right direction, and it will be curious to see if the national trend of people returning to city life will find itself manifested here.