When Rudy Giuliani called Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama a community organizer in a derogatory manner, he managed to inspire almost as much rage from liberals as did Sarah Palin’s incessant winking. However, many of those insulted did not know exactly what a community organizer did. Even those familiar with the term might not have realized just how powerful that role can be.
Enter Michael Gecan, whose short book, After America’s Midlife Crisis emphasizes the importance of community organizers, and articulates the effective procedures for improvement that take place when policy is controlled at the grass roots level. He claims that the current methods of approach, “Republican and Democratic, tax-cutting and program-generating, corporate and labor” will not be useful when it comes to reviving America’s shattered economy. There larger programs only help cities that are already relatively well-off, and it is not those cities that prevent the country from thriving.
Using several examples from his own experience in the Chicago area, Gecan demonstrates just how particular the operations of each community are and why they require a government that understands them. In particular, he addresses the way that American cities have changed, and in some cases deteriorated, over the past 30 years. Quite simply, Gecan asserts that things must change drastically in order for the United States, and its citizens, to live well again.
He discusses the period in the’ 80s when President Ford threatened New York City with “municipal mortality”, and the promising effect it had. When pushed to find solutions, communities become ingenuous, driven and dynamic. He points out that the changes that saved the city did not start in City Hall. Rather, it was the rebuilding of disenfranchised communities that enabled New York to bounce back.
Specifically, independent groups created buildings that provided stable homes for families. The people that the lived there began to care about their community. Keeping public transportation running and implementing a solid police force also contributed dramatically.
While some of his opinions seem Utopic, others are quite liberal and would be likely to meet resistance from more conservative opponents. He argues that since the since rebuilding communities costs money, programs that cut taxes do a disservice to areas in need. While he advocates the need for money from the government, his recipe for success is “less government, more planning”. He argues strongly for the value of religious organizations such as churches and synagogues that might facilitate growth in a community and in particular, motivate citizens to act.
Those concepts feel particularly unique; it’s not often that we here a liberal arguing that if we just let the Roman Catholic Church take charge, everything will work out. His ideas may seems a tad idealistic, but through copious examples and personal anecdotes, he makes a good case for them.
He also offers a warning tale to emphasize that a church cannot serve as sole leader. It must be a place where individuals find agency. He tells the story of a Catholic school in his hometown that ignored fire code laws and ultimately caused the death of 90 students in a fire. It’s not exactly obvious why this story is included. In fact, his book weaves between being an academic paper and personal memoir.
While the parts of the paper where he spoke sentimentally about his personal experience were quite engaging, they served to dilute, not tighten his argument. He goes on to discuss the rebuilding of schools that is taking place in that community, including a charter school. However, the sudden emotional tone towards the end of the paper seems a bit out of place. It feels like the book needs to be either longer or shorter in order for Gecan to effectively state his case.
Still, a short book that began with a rush of statistics and information about demographics and city lines and economics ended on a powerful, optimistic note. Although it seems that America is quite far from running the system the way Gecan envisions it, he emphasizes the hope and the ingenuity of the common people. At a time when it seems that most Americans are completely apathetic or disengaged, his descriptions of the possibilities for active communities are fascinating.