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Not believing in “big ideas” or, why we can’t have nice things

I have absolutely no idea if the Hyperloop is even close to feasible. I’m not an engineer, and I know bupkis about such things. I do tend to be somebody who prefers transit to cars; I love the convenience of trains when I’m in Europe, I wish it more replicable here than we seem to be willing to make it, I hate living in a part of the country that’s difficult to get in and out of without a car, and I hate the sheer waste of hours that travel becomes when one is behind the wheel. I had to go to Memphis a couple of years ago, it was an absolutely ridiculous drive that took about nine hours each way that I just plain didn’t have to give it, but there was no other way to get there. A regional flight, counterintuitively, was going to cost more than the fare for flying to either coast. That was nine hours each way that could have been spent correcting, reading, sleeping, whatever. So, yeah, big ideas surrounding transit tend to be appealing to me.

This piece on CNET regarding reactions in some circles to the Hyperloop really resonated, I have to say:

I’m thrilled because this is a conversation about solving big issues with big ideas and not with cautious, incremental, compromised, and cynical status quo concepts. This is unfamiliar, it’s exciting, it’s futuristic, it’s unquestionably beneficial, and there is no technological reason that it can’t work. Why tear it down? Just build it… It’s tempting to blame “Internet culture” for the creeping negativity and cynicism that stops us from ever imagining more, but I believe that the chorus of “no’s” from Twitter and the comments section only amplifies a depressing point of view that’s infected America since the 1970s. We’re afraid. We hate science. We have no heroes. We don’t believe that we are capable of more.

I’ve seen precisely the attitude this author complains about firsthand with respect to issues of transit; I’m from Seattle, after all, where they want nice things but don’t want to pay for them or have poor people riding on them. I’ve also seen this attitude in other arenas, and I think what the culprit is in a lot of cases is that the status quo is at a point where most people who would bother to say anything that would be heard feel like they have things sufficiently their way to not care, and they don’t want to hear how it could be “better”. “Better” is not going to be better for them, not when in order for it to be better they’d have to make an adjustment away from their current comfort zone. What’s the point of a public transit system like this when there are so many reasons to just not bother fixing what ain’t broke? Never mind that there are ways where it is broke, or will be; the cure is going to be worse than the disease and not worth it. We’ll adjust in other ways.

A Facebook commenter noted the following:

I love what I’ve seen of this… but I can see it getting gutted by the petty nitpicking that always chips away at big projects like this. Somebody doesn’t want construction in their neighborhood. Somebody else doesn’t want the view from their lanai to be affected. Somebody else complains loudly about the types of people (“I’m not racist, but…”) who will be riding. And before you know it, a bold, forward-thinking mass transit project becomes another cutback in bus services.

Geez, I just depressed myself.

Yeah, no kidding. “…a bold, forward-thinking mass transit project becomes another cutback in bus services.” Ouch. Ouch because it’s true.

all saints concept ag 15 jan large for webOne of the most frustrating personal experiences I’ve had with this kind of “nothing to see here, move along” attitude towards big ideas is with church building, and I’m not going to bother being disingenuously circumspect here, since one can very easily find out where I went to church through last December and find some of the things I wrote about my participation on the building committee, and the broad strokes are all public record anyway via the minutes of parish council and building committee meetings. I posted this about a year and a half ago, and I have to imagine that, reading between the lines, some of the sources of tension are clear. I’ll note that I said back in March of 2012 that I hoped I would have something concrete to talk about in “the coming weeks”; well, there never was anything to say.

We brought Andrew Gould, as I wrote about at the time (giving a fairly frank summary of efforts up to that point), to All Saints in January 2010, and he very much talked the language of big ideas. Right now you’re a mission church without a church, and you’ve got to build something that actually serves your function as a mission church. This is what’s in the tradition to build, this is what I would design for your property, these are the considerations you need to put above all others. You need to build a beautiful church that is first and foremost for the worship of God; there’s a right way we worship, which means there’s a right way we build.

I again refer you to my “Notes from the building committee” piece so that you may read between the lines for some of the controversy that emerged from Andrew’s proposal, but I’ll go into some detail about one part of the problem. The thing of it is, when people decide they don’t want to hear a big idea, one of the tactics is to glom onto details they don’t like, inflate their importance, and make them undetachable from the whole so that the entire idea can be very efficiently shot down. In the case of Andrew’s concept, his detractors immediately focused on a particular element that was his way of handling a problem we had asked him to spitball a solution for in the first place. The existing building was separated from the proposed location of the permanent church by something of a ravine; how do we connect the two locations so that the existing building isn’t just abandoned? Andrew’s solution was a bridge, inspired by the Indiana tradition of covered bridges. Part of his vision, too, was to make All Saints’ property something of a destination, turning the remote location into something of an advantage. Well, for a segment of the congregation who didn’t want to build in the first place and who saw the remote nature of our location as a feature and not a bug, the bridge became an easy blunt instrument to swing around as a dealbreaker. “Well, wouldn’t that be dangerous? Would you really want your kids going across that? What kind of money are we going to spend on a bridge when what we claim we need is a building, and I’m not convinced we really need that to begin with?” ad nauseam. When it became clear that Andrew’s big ideas had become points of digging in against building altogether, there wasn’t much of a choice but to quietly drop his concept entirely and try to find another way to move forward. A compromise architect was found who seemed interested in the project and who brought some good things to the table, but after an initial positive meeting in July 2011, other factors kept a contract from being delivered until August 2012. There was some hope from the building committee chair that we could sign the contract quickly and have drawings by Christmas, but politics prevailed again; the building committee didn’t even meet to discuss this contract until October 2012, some parties wanted significant revisions to the contract that would have to be negotiated, and to the best of my knowledge there has been no additional movement forward with the project in the ten months since, at least not as of the end of July.

Meanwhile, the stopgap measure to create more space in our temporary nave was to leave the collapsible wall between the nave and the fellowship space open permanently, with a curtain installed on a track that could be moved around to subdivide the space as necessary. As a friend of mine put it, the net effect was to make All Saints feel even more like just a big living room that happened to have an iconostasis at the front.

Effectively, a bold, forward-thinking church building project became a curtain.

And, not unlike the people who say that only poor people and people who already ride the bus are going to bother riding mass transit, making it a solution looking for a problem, one of the things that was common to hear in response to arguments for building was that most of our “extra” people were “just college students”, and eventually the people we can’t fit will leave — problem solved.

Big ideas, it seems to me, are easy to argue about when they make the wrong people uncomfortable, or when they’re trying to solve a problem that the people who matter don’t care about, while conversely the people who do care about it don’t matter. Maybe it also keeps unnecessary change from happening too fast, so maybe this is something to be thankful for, but I will say that sometimes I have a hard time believing that we were actually able to go to the moon.

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