The Public Humanist

The Invested Voice

Around the foundation of my new house this fall, I discovered buried, immense, handsome flagstones near a back door, underneath layers of displaced gravel and sod that had evidently developed over a period of years. The layers of dirt had likely drifted downhill along with water that naturally flows into my back yard from other yards, contributing to a flooding problem around the house's 100-plus-year-old foundation.

Working to uncover the flagstones, I reflected on the nature of locally specific work capturing the essence of more global issues. My back yard erosion, below-grade foundation, and proliferating poison ivy in the lawn may signify something instructive about the environment and old housing stock, but it doesn't necessarily make specific information about those conditions an interesting commodity.

Mine is merely one anecdote among many. I tell my neighbors, and they are sometimes keen to hear.

This is similar to the blog work I carry out, in which I write about local concerns and events and get the sense that only neighbors would have much interest in such tales. I cover a range of political and municipal issues in Springfield and recently also Hartford, especially planning and development, and I believe these topics need better coverage than they typically get.

Citizens benefit from detailed information about their local community; more progress can occur when a community is better-informed about itself, its opportunities and challenges. Traditional media outlets can have a sustained role in that growth, if they so choose, but regardless of their help, the significance of the local story has only expanded since the proliferation of the Internet and the growing trend toward an increasingly complex, connected world.

Surmising the situation at my flagstones, I thought about how treating a place like garbage tends to bring on more of the same, until the place-as-garbage attitude almost takes on a life of its own. In this case, increased silt caused more water to accumulate at a higher elevation and pour into the basement.

When I write for my blog about the underdog city, there are times when I feel like a brick in that foundation wall, overwhelmed by natural forces seemingly out of the realm of anyone's control. It's as though the best I can do as a “citizen journalist” is chronicle the flow of water. The plight of cities is so obviously dire and easy to pinpoint, attack and disparage that it seems much easier to dwell on the problem rather that look for sustainable solutions.

The dirt around the back door of my house needs to be graded so water flows away from the house instead of into it. This involves a lot of digging and discovery under the sediment, apparently left neglected for quite a while. A previous owner laid down gravel, but it appeared to have been picked up by water and moved and spread elsewhere while no one noticed. To cope with the flooding, another owner drilled holes in the cement basement floor.

I understand that approach to a problem that seems too big to amend. As cities with seemingly untenable economies and overwhelmingly poor populations, Springfield and Hartford have seen many come and go who have attempted patch-like fixes.

I believe the future of journalism is about the task, if you will, of getting involved to help make the foundation wall of the house above grade. A responsible citizen doesn't just stand there and tell everyone how awful the flooding is, and then walk away. Journalists aren't immune to what the world is around us, merely hoping to chronicle tales of demise. When reporters are invested, the tone of their work changes.

Solutions can come about when people take the time to examine problems more closely, as Springfield's Finance Control Board and staff have managed to do. Mundane local stories about that progress offer nuggets of true societal change, and are where the broader public benefits from enhanced journalistic efforts.

Traditional newsrooms face a challenge in figuring out how to make local stories work as a commodity. I practice civic participation through a type of journalism, lending a woman-on-the-street perspective as a city-dweller. As discourse about citizen journalism came onto my radar, I understood that I was part of a larger conversation, but rather than being interested in citizens as journalists, I'm interested in journalists as citizens, taking ownership of a civic role based less on a paycheck and more on being a member. I believe it's possible to do this and still maintain a degree of detachment from outcomes, which is why my blog strives to avoid being partisan.

When we examine where we live, we learn examples about everywhere else as well, and there is increasing detail. Just one community contains it all; the same patterns are present; the experience of humanity is all right there. So much is manifest in the act of walking down the street, including signs of where our struggles lie as a nation and region, as well as a city, or a neighborhood. In their short film "Powers of Ten," Charles and Ray Eames demonstrated such parallels in broad strokes, like the similarities between atoms circulating in molecules and planets orbiting suns.

We do our cities a disservice in not telling stories that are here, looking into our own back yards to learn important lessons about critical issues. Cities have many lessons to teach about how the world can improve, and many tales of heroism, competence and sacrifice.

When we had a landscaper look at our flooding problem before we bought our house, we asked for a rough idea of the work required. He said, "This isn't going to be expensive, but it is going to be time consuming." The same can be said for journalism work that considers today's urban conditions.

--Heather Brandon, Writer, Urban Compass

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