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Thursday, Aug. 11, 2005 12:08 pm

Summer in the city

Reading for hope in the off-season


My summer reading has turned to cities, realizing the good that is in them, solving their problems through leadership, and deciding what personal role to play. My books aren’t typical beach reads, not your fun fiction or the means to while away lazy days. I tend to take summer too seriously, using it to catch up with the rest of you who are taking time off. I might miss the season entirely if it weren’t for the teachers and students in my life who use summer to rest and recharge before back-to-school seriousness is required. With them I travel a bit, get away and dream a little, get expansive and seek out hope. Winter is the time to solve problems; summer is the time to think that they can be solved and ponder why to try.

It was in California, land of possibilities, that I wandered into a used book store and picked up Mark Harris’ 1963 volume, Selected Poems of Vachel Lindsay, which reminded me that home has possibilities, too. There is a whole section of poems under the heading “Home Town,” including “Springfield Magical,” “The Springfield of the Far Future,” and “The Town of American Visions.” I have often quoted “On the Building of Springfield,” not knowing there were so many variations on the theme of Springfield-the-ideal. The notion is so preposterous, it is no wonder that Lindsay’s contemporary townmates thought him a kook. But with time he has grown wise, and on a summer day in Santa Maria I took heart from “The Soul of the City Receives the Gift of the Holy Spirit (A broadside distributed in Springfield, Illinois)”: “Wake from the dead,/Rise, little city,/Shine like a queen.”

“Rudy Giuliani is my new hero,” I announced halfway through his 2002 book, Leadership. “You’re being facetious, Dad, aren’t you?” my daughter asked. “Mostly,” I said, and she seemed relieved. The two things I like best about the former New York mayor is that he is out of office and he chose not to run against Hillary Clinton. It’s their business not mine, but Republicans could do worse than turn to someone with experience in big-city problem-solving with enough street smarts to know, unlike George W. Bush, not to pick a fight you can’t win. Giuliani picked his fights well and won often. Crime was drastically reduced during his eight years as mayor; the welfare rolls were cut in half. Yes, he had help from Bill Clinton and a strong economy. But he also worked hard, surrounded himself with good people, and learned how to, as his chapter title says, “Underpromise and Overdeliver.” Tim Davlin should read this book. It gave me new appreciation for what can be accomplished by a mayor who sets an agenda and pushes it relentlessly.

A Giuliani crime-fighting technique is taken up by Charles Colson (I know, another conservative Republican; don’t tell my daughter) in his How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale House, 1999). In his chapter on neighborhoods, he endorses the “broken-window theory” that worked well in New York City in the early 1990s. If a broken window is left unrepaired, soon all of the windows in that building are knocked out. So we fix broken windows, arrest petty offenders, paint over graffiti, clean up neighborhoods, and restore order. This, Colson says, is today’s version of the ancient Hebrews’ concept of shalom, a rightly ordered community. In the fourth century, St. Augustine taught that real peace is “the tranquility produced by order.” Colson suggests that police, and the rest of us who care about neighborhoods, would do well to concentrate less on law and more on order. We should be about converting chaos into order, “one house at a time, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, one community at a time.”

Progress is possible. But what is my role? What is yours? Let Your Life Speak is the slim volume by the Quaker teacher Parker Palmer, who tells us not only to pay attention to what we’re good at, and what we’re not, but also to act on what we believe. Not many are cut out to be mayor or school-board member. But for each there is a way to lead, by summoning the spirit within. He quotes Václav Havel, then-president of Czechoslovakia, from his 1990 speech to the U.S. Congress: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better.”

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