There are plenty of ways to look at the proposed term limit change to the city charter. For a start there is sore loser frame; or the “anybody but George Heartwell (and throw in Rossalyn Bliss)” frame. And of course, another favorite would be that of the vaguely concealed Tea Party initiative — another right wing, ill considered piece of politics forced on the general population. While there’s some truth to all of these, their easy perspectives hide the actual civic discussion underway.
Grand Rapids continues to think about what it means to be a Big City. Stuff is happening here as the latest Movoto post would suggest. We’re a city making the lists. And while that sounds good if you’re walking down Cherry Street, or hanging out downtown, in the neighborhoods it is more ambiguous.
The battle on term limits is part of the same discussion that came with civic tax initiatives (Silver Line, road repair), as well as in last year’s Third Ward race between Senita Lennear and Michael Tufflemire. Listen closely, and one can also hear it in the discussion on black business Jamiel Robinson is spearheading. While it is nice to have the rapids back in Grand Rapids, say, how does that translate to the neighborhoods? Is the Big City, in effect, for all of us? How does the Big City become the city that embraces its neighbors?
There’s an economic anxiety lurking, not so far from the surface. One can see it in the signs themselves, or rather where the signs lie. In the Third Ward they’re on well kept homes, young and old, whites and blacks. They may be doing ok, but the edge is there, if one looks. Perhaps nothing reveals it quite so plainly as the Urban Institute’s map of mortgages:
The lack of mortgage activity in the city speaks volumes about the continuing economic struggle in the region where the Big City glitter doesn’t make it out to the post-war neighborhoods of the city — those blocks with the 50s brick ranches. For those neighborhoods, the larger national narrative of suspicion of elites takes hold, something that proponents of Term Limits certainly are counting on. Thus the campaign uses the language of “entrenched interests” or of vague lobbyists and the like. These are the stand-ins for the economic elites robbing us of our future: whether we call it Obamacare or the Koch brothers it is the same. We are beleaguered; we can only look out for ourselves. This is a corrosive vision, a fragmentation.
Taken at its best, the Big City offers an alternative to this national rhetoric of suspicion. It’s not the festivals or polished buildings (or the bikeways), but an approach, a process, a working together. It is of course, imperfectly realized as the continuing discussion makes clear, but we nevertheless should be clear how different it is from prevailing attitudes elsewhere.
The question of Term Limits, then, is one of approach to those items still on our civic to-do list, viz. how to bring neighborhoods up; how to improve the schools; how to add high quality jobs. We can opt for the current path of pulling back, of looking out for oneself (that wearisome pattern of our present politics), or that of the Big City and the promise that it can in fact, be for everyone.