The Power of Showing Up Right Where You Are

We may not be able to address what’s happening in congress, but we can show up today, build our own community, build our own business, make something beautiful and just and true and creative in our own corner of the world, and watch it spread from there.

In the past few weeks, our holiday travels took us zigzagging across America- from California’s central valley and its overmortgaged desperation, to the struggling towns of upstate New York, with their indistinguishable empty store fronts, decrepit unpainted ladies and armed forces recruiting offices on the main drags.  We then stopped over to visit Highland Park, IL, a little city (or suburb, depending on who you ask) on Chicago’s famed North Shore.

Highland Park (“HP”) is very rich in spots, with estate homes gracing the ridges of hardwood forested ravines along Lake Michigan’s shoreline- and at least solidly prosperous inland to its western borders.  It boasts the summer home of the Chicago symphony, incredibly demanding schools, even more demanding parents, a commuter train directly to the financial district, and a city planning commission with vision and foresight.

We accidentally bought a house there in 1988.  I was 22 years old, pregnant with my third child, and needing someplace in commuting distance to Northwestern University, and we found a turn of the century fixer upper on a busy street that we could afford, in a lovely neighborhood- and ended up staying  for 17 years.  I put in many hours as a parent at a jewel of an elementary school set in the woods close to the lake, served on several boards in the community, and commuted to Chicago for work.  I had my own complaints about HP at the time (chiefly, the co-dwellers of wealth: vapid materialism, rude drivers, self-hatred and drugs) but there were enough shining lights in the people to make it fun, and it was safe and stunningly beautiful in places, and we found dear friends.  Three of our kids graduated from HPHS, and after some upheavals, I relocated for love in 2006, to California’s wine country, with my youngest son.

That was 5 years ago.  Since then, I have had the privilege of seeing so much of America, driving cross country several times, seeing the lost and forgotten places.  On this trip back, I saw HP in a new light- with deep appreciation for what it takes to build a town, to create a place, to keep up a community, to keep improving and looking toward the future.

The things that have changed in HP are all for the better.  I am especially impressed by the small businesses that have grown up here.  I can remember walking the streets of the town with 3 babies and 2 giant white sled dogs in tow 20 years ago, seeing the small insurance brokerage with its little window sticker- that guy  now has a building with his name on it; or, the landscaper with one pickup truck and day laborers who now has a shiny fleet; the small baker who moved from a warehouse to a big retail storefront and has a thriving operation.  I remember the approximate date certain restaurants opened- their windows are as clean today and the wait just as long 15 years later.

The city itself has done good things, too.  The recreation department has built an aquatic center and a state of the art fitness center.  There is a stunning new elementary school, derivative of Frank Lloyd Wright in style, with every education enhancing amenity a child could want.  There’s a great hospital and birthing center.  There is mixed curbside recycling and climate change mitigation initiatives, there are yoga studios and a natural grocer and an art house film center.  There is multifamily housing in the downtown area, which lets older people stay in the community when they have scaled down their lives, and younger people move in, creating more diversity.   There is subsidized housing, bringing the opportunity inherent here to a broader population.  There are new entertainment venues, opening up at later hours, bringing a sense of life and expression that wasn’t here before. There are seasonal “attractions”- ice sculptures done by artists in winter, festivals in summer, banners and marketing campaigns- that takes such incredible energy to maintain and execute.

But what hasn’t changed is the neighborhoods, with the arching trees over manicured lawns and elaborate play structures, the uber fit young moms with running strollers and golden labs on the Green Bay trail- those haven’t changed.  The feeling of being safe, that the kids are well educated and cared for, that all is well- that hasn’t gone away. The town is highly liveable, relatively democratic, somewhat racially and religiously diverse. I’m not saying the community is perfect- there are incredible pressures among the, but on the whole, if you are psychologically balanced, it’s a lovely place to live.

Do you know what it takes, collectively, for a community to thrive like this, to move in a positive direction consistently and for so long?  Yes, it takes money, and a strong tax base, but it also takes incredibly committed people and leaders in every corner of the community.  The people who show up every day for 25 or 30 or 50 years to build a business.  It takes political leaders and commissioners who have a vision for what is possible, who draw up 25 year plans and stick to them.  It takes an appreciation for aesthetic, for creating a place that people want to come to, to stroll around, to visit- even if that means taking more time or investing more money.   It takes a gazillion volunteer hours to keep schools and athletics and boards running.  It takes business and philanthropic leaders who just do their job for 20 year stretches.

In an era when what is NEW, what is hot, what is fashionable gets the press,  I am humbled by the what patience, vision,  and showing up every day has done for this town.  Whether it’s a sole proprietor waking up and heading in to open the coffee shop, the clothing store, the plumbing business, the nail salon- or the dedicated commissioner sitting in a planning meeting and discerning how to balance growth and stability, aesthetics and expense, traffic and ease- this staying power has built an incredibly beautiful and prosperous community at a time when other towns in America are failing.  Yes, the Borders is closed down (but Borders in general is failing across America), and there’s an empty storefront where an 80 year old business used to be- but America has just gone through a very difficult decade-  from 9/11 to the dotcom bust to the great recession of the last 2 years- and Highland Park and Highwood look mighty good from the outside- like they are faring better than many many places in the world.

Highland Park’s story isn’t one of reinvention, it’s a story of building on a solid base, and making it better.  Of investing where you are over a long period of time.  It is  the result of smart people asking big questions, seeking the right answers, and keeping at it day in and day out.

My takeaway after going back to visit:  we may not be able to address what’s happening in congress, but we can show up today, build our own community, build our own business, make something beautiful and just and true and creative in our own corner of the world, and watch it spread from there.