Is It the past or is it the future?

Headshot, closeup informal Scott M. Graves in profile with Tenor Saxophone in hand
Scott M. Graves, founder M the Media Project
 used by permission of Jessica White
I recently engaged in conversation with two local neighbors, a long-standing local business owner and a former elected official who offered their opinions on my support for a ‘return’ to investments in transforming our city’s core into a walkable, bike-able, densely populated urban center.  

One man’s multi-generational business left the urban core more than 55 years ago to settle along the then ‘modern’ single-use commercial district just off the exit of the then newly minted highway.  

So I understand his hesitation to a long-term plan that seems to leave single-use development, i.e. his family’s investment, in the dust bin of history.  

The former political leader lamented the cost of ‘sidewalks and infrastructure’. Such a transition will cost too much in his estimation.  We hear this in our neck of the woods with regularity. 

How many politicians among us will readily offer their approval of poaching corporate entities to town with free or reduced tax liabilities. These projects typically require additional infrastructure paid for by residents and small businesses who do not receive such subsidies.  Subsidizing out of town companies and infrastructure supporting single-use commercial space and the car.

Ask yourself: Does that Wal-Mart parking lot generate as much tax revenue as any single downtown building when fully occupied?  Which development encourages a strong sense of community and a strong sense of place?

It occurs to me that what we’re really talking about is personal perspective.  Folks in my camp get accused of supporting ‘the past’. That creating environments for people to live and work in a smaller, denser area that supports the pedestrian and cyclist is somehow supportive of a former time that can never return. 


Particularly for Baby-Boomers, the recipients of ‘benefits’ from the post-war grand experiment in suburbanization only know this reality.  What they think of as ‘the future’ and the ‘American way’ is not only fiscally insolvent, inefficient and dangerous to the climate, it’s also an aberration from millennia of human development pattern.  It may be the only thing multiple generations of citizens of the US know, but the rest of the world and our ancestors wouldn’t be able to describe it much less conceptualize it.

And it’s a pattern of development that now fully represents the past.  And it’s strangling every one of our cities and towns.

Class also plays a role. Take our region for example.  For generations, success has been measured in one’s ability to escape the downtown apartment or off center of town family home in favor of that new, 3-4 bedroom ala cul-de-sac.

When I was a kid, folks from ‘the city’ were moving in droves to our little town 75 miles west of Boston. They were building large homes on the outskirts of town on former farmland.  They sent their children to private school in Worcester (13 miles away) and worked 10-30 or more miles away, mostly heading east in the morning and west at the end of the workday. They only came into town to occasionally buy groceries.

They grew to become a force for change in town politics.  They consistently voted to keep local property taxes low.  Such revenues would have made for investments in schools, public spaces, and programming for infrastructure and economic development.  A Tale of Two Cities.


For many of us ‘the past’ of strong urban cores, mixed use development with high tax revenue/acre ratios and incremental development is somehow outdated.  Though it does many things right, it also doesn’t support the kind of lifestyle many of our neighbors have come to worship with religious zeal as the ‘American way’. If you’re not on board the suburban train, then maybe you just don’t have what it takes to be successful, right?

Like Reading about Economic Development? Listen to our interview with Strong Towns Founder Chuck Marohn 

Another characteristic of the “American way’.  Our habit of mixing class and ideas of ‘progress’ in order to propagandize; we delude ourselves into believing what’s wrong is right. What’s sustainable is ‘backwards’.

And so it is.  The past is really the future.  The future is really a blip on the radar that is rapidly becoming the past, the kicking and the screaming be damned.

It will be through dialogue that we find consensus and solutions that represent everyone.  But why cling to a development pattern that separates, that gives in to our insecurities and prejudices.  Why not develop a future that encourages opportunities for sharing. 

For we all have stories to tell.

Essays from an Artist: On Toxic Individualism
Scott M. Graves
Scott M. Graves is founder of SMGraves Associates and host of SMG’s ‘Are We Here Yet?’ Podcast.  Partnered with The Worcshop of Worcester, MA SMG is developing the Worc-It Business Lab in the largest industrial makerspace on the east coast.  SMG’s ‘M the Media Project’ is developing new ways to deliver local journalism.  Scott stays positive while combatting the effects of de-industrialization in the milltowns he so desperately loves.