The Art of City Making by Charles Landry

It was left to the guy who came from the farthest away to raise the scariest question at the Creative Cities Summit.

Charles Landry, British author of The Art of City Making, wondered if Lexington was, maybe, just a little too complacent, even a bit self-satisfied?

It is, after all, a relatively livable city in a very beautiful place with a moderate climate, a big university and reasonable cost of living.

Can’t we all just be happy with what we’ve got?

Almost from the first week I landed in Lexington 19 years ago, it seemed like a fundamentally conservative place. Not necessarily politically or even socially conservative, but very settled and very wary about change. New people – basically anyone not born here or at least in Kentucky – were just that: novelties that might amuse, but should never influence. You always had the feeling that decisions were made, not in a raucous smoke-filled back room but, in some well-appointed, genteel and private setting by a very few people.
And for most Lexingtonians, that was just fine most of the time. After all, things were OK.

But after a while, this self-satisfied, closed system starts to break down. Bright young people move away to other places and come back to find their hometown a little dull and a little claustrophobic. After a decade or so, the “new” people begin to wonder what it takes to crack the code and why it’s so hard to buck the establishment.

When a public controversy arises, people get nervous. The debates over ownership of the water company and CentrePointe are prime examples. At some point in each, the public discussion began to shift away from the central issue to anxiety over why there’s so much discord.

Things are really OK in Lexington, so let’s give a little and try to get along. All this nastiness just doesn’t look good.

Viewed in this light, it becomes much easier to understand why the Commerce Lexington trips to exciting cities generate so much enthusiasm, yet so little action. It begins to make sense that we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Downtown Development Plan that’s been fundamentally ignored. And in a weird way, it explains the inexplicable: that some of the most historic commercial buildings in the city were torn down for what’s proved to be nothing more than an uninspiring image on paper.

In the web (no pun intended) of social and business relations that govern Lexington, it becomes a bit too hard to criticize a bad idea publicly.

What if you see someone you’ve criticized at a club, at Keeneland, at a wedding or party? Gee, it could be uncomfortable and in Lexington we like to be comfortable.

I’m not arguing for in-your-face shouting matches or even civil disobedience. But, I do think that if there is any hope for Lexington to make the leap to the kind of place envisioned at the Creative Cities Summit and the Now What, Lexington? unconference the following week, we’ve got to face up to Landry’s implied question:

Can we give up our comfort for an open, vigorous and sometimes rancorous debate about what kind of community Lexington should be?