Civic engagement in America, as measured by things such as voter turnout, has been in decline. Trust in many of our institutions has been falling. One of the key endeavors of many local leaders around the country has been to create a more civically engaged citizenry to tackle community problems and build on opportunities to create more prosperous and equitable communities for the future.
The need for more civically engaged people is clear. But perhaps there’s another need in places like Providence as well. It may be heresy to say, but Providence could also use more people – and by more people, I mean community newcomers – who care much less about the civic environment.
This thought occurred to me during a visit to Providence two weeks ago. I lived in Rhode Island during 2012 and 2013, but here I am six years later still visiting the city from New York. Why? Because I like coming back to Rhode Island and like the people I met when I lived there.
Because I don’t live in Rhode Island these days, I don’t keep up much with all the news about it. So when I get off the train in Providence, all of the various controversies and challenges that loom so large in the local news aren’t at the top of my mind. Instead of thinking about the PawSox or the Providence pension problems or whatever, I’m instead thinking to myself, “Wow, this is place is looking great.”
Every time I come back I get to be reminded of the beauty and historic architecture of Providence. I get to sample new restaurants that have opened since I was last there. Or visit some new development or redevelopment that I’d not yet had the chance to see. On this trip, for example, I checked out the Arcade and relaxed a bit at New Harvest Coffee. And if I get a chance I always like to go visit the RISD Museum Store, because the assortment of things they carry is very unique, heavily focusing on items made by alumni and not just the typical MoMA Store catalog merchandise you see to most other museum stores. I always seem to manage to stumble into something unexpected and interesting too. This trip I met a guy named Yarrow I hadn’t met before who is doing very interesting things with public art.
When I was living in Rhode Island, I tried to dig more into how the place worked, to understand the culture, public policy, etc. I tried to do what a good civically engaged person would do. And honestly, I found a long list of distressing problems. But now that I am just visiting, I’m able to tune all of that out of my mind and just enjoy the great things it has to offer.
It made me think that if only someone didn’t care about various important, but in some respects personally remote, civic problems and controversies, living in Providence would be pretty great. You could enjoy the many things the city has to offer, without taking on the psychic stress of wondering how the city is going to pay its pension bill or the various political follies.
Obviously, no one would want the people who are already civically engaged in Providence to stop being that way. But every city has a class of people – today maybe the majority – who are just there for the opportunity it presents and the lifestyle they get to enjoy. That includes even boomtowns like Denver or Nashville.
The people moving to these places aren’t doing it with the idea of digging in on civic issues. They are coming there because these places are cool and offer the kinds of lifestyle, amenities, and professional opportunities they want. It’s great that there are people forcing a debate about the subsidies being handed out to Amazon in Nashville, for example. That’s very important. But realistically most people aren’t going to be that interested. Unless it’s an issue that affects them personally, they are just there to consume. And of course, they will be part of the local talent pool, spend money, and pay taxes while doing it, thus contributing at some level civically as well.
I sometimes get jealous of these folks and wish I could be that way, but I’m just hard-wired to think about civic matters. I suspect many other civically engaged people are too. But not everybody is like us. Some folks just want to live their lives.
Providence is a historic East Coast city in commuting range of Boston with a quality housing stock that is, if not cheap, then less expensive than many other places. It has renowned institutions, and enough culture and amenities for almost anyone to enjoy. It has plenty of interesting people to meet. Perhaps part of the demographic boost the city and state could use might come from people who come there simply in order to enjoy life and what Providence has to offer, and who just don’t care all that much about civic life one way or another.
This piece originally appeared at GoLocalProv
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