A couple of months ago, I read an article in the Observer, by a student newspaper for Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College, pondering the question of how South Bend, Indiana, could appear on Newsweek’s recent list of “dying cities” and also have been an All-America City Award finalist in 2009. (Read the Observer article here.)
Well, one possible answer is that these “best of….worst of” media lists are often misleading. South Bend was apparently flagged by Newsweek because of its loss of population and manufacturing jobs, but the city has a lot of strengths, not the least of which is its relationship to Notre Dame and other nearby colleges and universities.
Another point, which comes up again and again, is that the All-America City Award is not a beauty contest. We ask applicants to list their strengths and weaknesses and to describe three successful of projects to address their most pressing challenges. In these tough economic times, there are very few cities that aren’t facing some kind of crisis or another. What makes them “All-America Cities” is the ability to address those problems with innovative solutions.
South Bend happened to have some terrific civic projects in 2009. The city’s neighborhood revitalization partnership with the local universities and hospitals was impressive, as was its government innovation task force. Thanks to local anti-childhood obesity efforts, South Bend was selected one of the three cities to pilot the national We Can! campaign in 2007.
Yesterday, the National Civic League released the names of the 26 finalists for the 2011 All-America City Award, and I was very happy to see South Bend on that list again. Once again, South Bend is touting its Northeast Neighborhood Alliance, but it has a couple of new programs, including one that nicely illustrates what I mean by communities having challenges and addressing them.
Back in the 1920s, there was a local swimming pool known as the Engman Public Natatorium. It was located in a racially mixed neighborhood yet was a “whites only” pool. In 1937, African-Americans gained admission for one day a week. The next day the pool would be drained before whites would use the pool again.
The pool closed in 1978, but last year the site was rechristened as the “Indiana University South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center,” thus transforming a shameful chapter in the city’s history into a “cultural center focusing on the civil rights movement in the northern United States,” a movement that—among other things—successfully desegregated the Engman Natatorium pool in the 1950s.
In the coming weeks I will be writing most posts about the 26 All-America City finalists and their community projects, everything from tsunami preparedness (Seaside, Oregon) to “green city” initiatives (Philadelphia and Cincinnati) to an effort to improvement mental health care (Forth Worth, Texas), to name a few.
The ten winners of the 2011 All-America City Awards will be announced June 17 after a three day event in Kansas City, Missouri. It won’t be a list of the ten “most livable” cities or the ten best places to raise children.
Just be a list of ten places where people are working hard to make their communities better.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.