Muncie, Indiana, is an interesting place, for both historical and modern reasons. It became famous in the 1920s as the subject of Middletown, a classic sociological study of a typical American industrial city. Today, it's too often held up as the example of a typical industrial city when the industry goes away.
Now, Muncie is trying to face the future and change its luck. I was there recently to take part in programs centered on the Muncie Action Plan, a long (51 pages) and detailed (47 proposed actions) drawn up over the past two years by many (2,000 people) of Muncie's citizens, all aimed at revitalizing their town.
This is important, for symbolic and other reasons. Muncie really is typical of tattered old Midwestern industrial cities. It has 70,000 people. It's home to a big university, Ball State, that like too many Midwestern colleges and universities, has never played the role in town that it should. It gave birth to some major corporations -- Ball Glass and Borg-Warner, among others. It has lost these corporations, plus the civic leadership they provided, plus the jobs they supported, plus the prosperity they generated and, especially, plus a whole generation of young people who would have worked there and are either unemployed now or long gone to other places with jobs.
In other words, if Muncie can fight back from its post-industrial doldrums, this gives more hope to many other Midwestern cities that are trying to do the same.
The Action Plan and the people working on it are very impressive. When I first visited Muncie five years ago, it was a town in denial, refusing to admit the good old days are gone forever. That denial is over. The Plan lays out Muncie's problems in stark prose-- disinvestment, a brain drain, lost jobs, vacant houses, growing gaps between the rich and poor, an aging population. This had added up to a civic malaise, a tendency by residents to bad-mouth their town, an assumption that any kid with gumption will go somewhere else.
In this, the Plan asks the right questions and then comes up with some answers. Worked out in a series of town meetings, it focuses on five key areas -- linking learning, health and prosperity; fostering collaboration, strengthening local pride, creating an attractive city, and managing community resources. Within this, they have targeted some specific goals:
- Making people aware that education is important and that a high school diploma doesn't cut in in the knowledge era.
- Working on an economic development plan to draw in good jobs.
- Work with neighborhood organizations to draw in all citizens.
- Develop a city brand and image.
- Revamp the downtown, improve recreational paths and remove blight.
- Promote the use of bikes and re-open a long-closed pool. (The pool now is open.)
Just the fact that Muncie is working together as a community says a lot. Even by the standards of so many old industrial towns, Muncie was a divided place. Robert and Helen Lynd, the sociologists who wrote Middletown, reported on this in the 1920s. Today, many of the persons I met volunteered that Muncie is split by class, by income, by neighborhood, by race. The north and south sides don't talk with each other, and neither do whites or blacks.
The Plan seems to have brought Muncie together, which is a big achievement.
Especially, Ball State has been an outlier, aloof from the town, not exactly a walled fortress but forbidding. All colleges have parking problems, but Ball State has virtually no places for outsiders to park, meaning that anyone who comes to a campus event invites a ticket: not surprisingly, few come.
The fact that Ball State is active in the Action Plan and some of its faculty and employees are leaders is important. For almost the first time, the intellectual expertise locked up within the university is being put to use in the community surrounding it.
Now if they would just do something about that parking problem. I suggested that the school offer to tear up any tickets received by townspeople, but I don't think they're ready to go that far.
There are other problems with the plan that need to be fixed if it is to succeed.
First, it's billed as "a vision and action plan," but I saw no vision of the kind of city they want. It says it wants Muncie "to be the best it can be," to be "an attractive, desirable place." Well, yes, but don't we all want that? Does anyone really have a vision for the city, how it will differ from other cities?
I was told that the leaders of the Plan recognize this lack, but felt it was better to get started with some small specific projects now, to get people used to working with each other, before trying to frame a common vision. This is the sort of project-by-project thinking that has created the European Union, but even the EU's founding fathers have a vision of a "united states of Europe."
Once, Muncie was a major industrial city, a regional center, a place where people from around the world came looking for jobs, mostly in the auto-related and natural gas-related industries that fed on the talents and raw materials found there. Does Muncie today have talents or resources that can be used to create new industries? It clearly has to earn its way in the world, but how will it do that? Any worker applying for a job presents a résumé: what is Muncie's résumé?
Beyond that, the Plan virtually ignores the impact of globalization on Muncie or the fact that the town is now in a global competition. I'd argue that we don't understand our city, or our state, or even the Midwest these days until we understand where it fits into the global economy. There's a global niche out there for Muncie, but it has yet to find it.
More seriously, the Muncie Action Plan treats Muncie as an isolated community, totally disconnected from the towns and economies around it. If Muncie has a future, it's as part of a thriving and prosperous region that can only be built by others in the neighborhood: after all, it rose originally as part of the Auto Alley, declined with the rest of the auto industry, and will recover only if this region also recovers.
Despite this, the Plan doesn't mention Anderson, its twin town, equally distressed, 20 miles away. Nor Indianapolis, the region's biggest economic engine, 60 miles down the Interstate, nor Dayton just across the Ohio state line. Nor does it look north to South Bend, another beat-up old manufacturing town with an aloof university, Notre Dame, that is finally taking some responsibility for its community: it seems to be that Muncie and South Bend would have much to say to each other, but this thought apparently hasn't occurred.
This sort of Balkanization is the bane of Midwestern redevelopment. I know it's hard to bury old rivalries but, sorry folks, nothing's going to work otherwise.
Muncie does seem to have one crucial commodity, which is leadership, both elected and otherwise. The Plan is the sort of project that brings unknown leaders out of the shadows. Given something to do, they do it. If a Plan like this is to work, this kind of leadership will make it happen.
The actual leadership doesn't seem to come from City Hall, but has its support. At the meetings I attended, both the former mayor, a Republican, and the new mayor, a Democrat, were there -- enthusiastically so.