Changing the values of a city is different than changing the value of a city

When I reflect on all of the critical conversations I’ve entertained about life in Columbus, I am exhausted by how many of them never consider the values of a city merely concerned with its growth as opposed to a growing city.

A city concerned with its growth will do all manner of things to ensure that happens: allow rampant development, leave failing institutions unchecked, rebrand its deficiencies, advertise diversity it does not actually possess. By contrast, a growing city has, by a notable majority, opted to expand and enrich itself in ways that are less destructive and more inclusive: maintain fair living conditions, prioritize institutions that aid in generational growth (schools, cultural nodes) and so on. Columbus is an example of the first. Most cities are, and the challenge of living in them has a serious learning curve.

Even the word “challenge” is a problem. It’s the kind of thing businesses insert into memos when “problem” or “we’re sorry” is more fitting. Spin like that reminds me of a Malcolm X quote: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.” A city concerned with its growth does a lot of stabbing: People get displaced, neighborhoods neglected, schools left to literally rot. And what makes such actions even more egregious is that they’re not accidental.

Contrary to most headlines, cities run on values. That may sound naive considering most civic discourse concerns itself with money, but it is important to remember that money is a tool. The work of money — and police, politicians and other cultural institutions — are manifestations of a city’s values.

Here in Columbus, a soccer team was deemed by enough resource-rich people as more valuable than a single public school improvement. Except to see the fight that way ignores a broader reality: That the people for whom a soccer team is valuable already have good schools. It’s not that they don’t care about schools; they just don’t care about your school.

None of this is natural. What I mean is, none of this has to be this way. What we see in cities like Columbus does not have to be a foregone conclusion. We should seek to become citizens of another city, a city whose citizens remain informed and think broader about what drives the places we call home. And we should do that work not because we will always see the change that will come of it, but because there is value in knowing your values and holding people accountable to that and not the tools.

Money is fluid, hard to nail down. Values are easy. You either value something to the point of action or you don’t.