During my 40-year tortured relationship with Salem -- love you! hate you! let's never part! divorce time! -- here's one of the things that bugs me the most about the town I both can't leave and can't be totally happy with.
Salemians (the obviously proper word for people who live here) tend to expect that our city's future should be like the past, only more so. Conservatism runs rampant, even when this isn't of the political variety. Bold visions of what could be are shunned in favor of sticking with an embrace of what has been.
Individuals frequently reinvent themselves. So can cities.
But this takes the same sort of willingness to let go of the past as is evidenced by someone who changes careers, adopts a different outlook on life, says goodbye to a longterm relationship that isn't working any more, alters their physical appearance markedly, takes up a new creative pursuit with unbridled passion, or any other sort of this is the new me! activity.
Salem's previous Mayor, Anna Peterson, liked to say this town was a "collaboration capital." Aside from this being not really true, I'd much prefer that Salem be known as an "innovation capital."
We're often the last to get on board a Trend Train that other bolder cities have embraced years ago.
Whether it be Uber/ride sharing, Airbnb/home sharing, tiny houses/accessory dwelling units, an environmental/global warming action plan, homelessness/affordable housing initiatives, or whatever, all too often we follow belatedly in the footsteps of other municipalities rather than being among the first to venture into new enhanced-livability territory.
Many millions of dollars have been spent planning for a billion dollar boondoggle -- a third bridge across the Willamette River. Alternatives that are both vastly more creative and hugely less expensive were rejected because building a bridge, pretty much like the existing ones (a bridge is a bridge), has been done before, so let's do it again.
Ditto with City of Salem policies that primarily encourage sprawl rather than dense mixed-use downtown development. Hey, subdivisions and big box stores on the edge of town were Big Ideas -- albeit decades ago! -- so let's keep on doing what we're doing regardless of whether it makes any sense.
Case(s) in point: City officials don't allow brewpubs downtown, apparently because -- shock!-- brewpubs brew beer in addition to selling it. And City officials don't allow businesses that sell marijuana to be located downtown. So tourists/visitors who come to downtown Salem expecting to sample some quintessential Oregon offerings, brewpubs and cannabis emporiums, will have to go to some other more with-it city.
Also, downtown could get a marvelous makeover through a full-blown creative streetscape project, but City officials seem determined to make this as blandly "off the shelf" as possible rather than transformative. I keep hearing, "We can't do anything about major downtown streets like Liberty and Commercial because current traffic patterns would be disrupted."
Well, that's the freaking point!
Change. Innovation. A fresh vision. Reinvention. Breaking with a past that doesn't meet Salem's needs in favor of a way-more-attractive future.
Here's a passage that I like a lot in Yuval Noah Harari's new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harari is a historian with a wonderfully creative view of how things were, are, and could be.
Science is not just about predicting the future, though scholars in all fields often seek to broaden our horizons, thereby opening before us new and unknown futures. This is especially true of history. Though historians occasionally try their hand at prophecy (without notable success), the study of history aims above all to make us aware of possibilities we don't normally consider.
Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it.
Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable, and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics, and society, but also our thoughts, fears, and dreams.
The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future.
We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free and envision alternative futures.
For sure. Few people are doing this in Salem, especially at City Hall.
"More of the same" is the safe slogan that keeps money, power, and energy flowing in ways that are no longer working well for Salemians. There's no overarching vision of what our town could and should become, just stuttering steps in different directions that don't add up to any concerted productive movement.
Hopefully things will change in this town. Otherwise we will continue to be viewed as So-Lame with considerable justification by other cities which are better are recognizing the value of pursuing alternative futures.