Opinion Columns & Blogs

Russell Arben Fox: Wichita needs a ‘facing of reality’

The most striking comment in data analyst James Chung’s rather depressing presentation of Wichita’s social and economic woes (Sept. 23 Eagle) came near the end. In speaking of the common denominators shared by cities that have pulled through challenging times, Chung identified a degree of acceptance: “They put their differences aside. Leaders came together and decided, you know, we are stuck with each other, so let’s (make) this a better city.”

His phrase that marked the moment of acceptance – “we are stuck with each other” – is the one that communicates the reality of our situation most strongly, I think. For my part, it reminds me of a billboard.

About 10 years ago, one of our local entrepreneurs decided to launch a new publishing venture. It never got very far off the ground, and the advertising campaign for Wichita City Paper is probably the clearest memory most people have of it. It showed a range of diverse Wichita faces, staring out from a black background, with stark white lettering underneath: “Face it. You’re in Wichita.”

That billboard struck an essential truth common to a great many midsize cities that are not part of an extended urban agglomeration but rather form their own geographic centers. Many people in such cities are tempted to believe their home could be something else. Perhaps they see it as an oversized rural town, not that different from so many of their surrounding communities. Or they imagine that it is on the cusp of a great metropolitan explosion and soon will be – in terms of jobs, the arts and more – networked in with the great global cities of the world.

But, of course, neither of those is true. Wichita, like so many other cities of middling size, is not likely to be a central node in the globalized flow of information, culture and wealth, and it is not still a quaint, homogeneous farming village at heart. It is, instead, a big city – but not all that big. That is its burden, but maybe its opportunity, too.

To make a case for sticking with Wichita – for investing in it and improving it – means, first and foremost, facing up to what it is: a city of great (but not unlimited) human and economic resources, resources that need to be used for the public good, even if that good doesn’t perfectly match the ideological preferences of each and every person who lives here.

People find themselves sticking with particular places for endless numbers of reasons – family, jobs, church, friends, schools, children and more. To take pride in these places – in fact, to see in that commitment to a place, and the compromises doing so will entail, something positive, something ennobling – means a facing of reality. In our case, that means setting aside both libertarian-pastoral and progressive-urban fantasies.

There is something to be said for midsize cities that reflect some perspective on how to face up to the challenges of building culturally and economically attractive and rewarding civic spaces today. Wichita could offer that perspective – but only if citizens and leaders alike face up to what we have, and stick with it, rather than wishing it was actually something else.

Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University.