One advantage of getting older is having experienced before the feeling that the world is ending. I felt it on September 11, 2001; on March 19, 2003, when we went to war in Iraq; on November 2, 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected; and during the Great Recession, when the stock market wiped out a generation of savings.
People say this time is different, and by that they mean it’s worse. I’d argue that this time is different, but has more opportunity for an upside. We are collectively grappling with the devastating effects of globalization, new technology, unbridled capitalism, and the descent of the media in a way that we never quite did during any of those other political or economic upheavals.
Instead of despairing about the broad political scene, it may instead make sense to think about what local actions are needed to improve the city around you. Channeling your anxiety and anger to address local problems can counteract the feelings of powerlessness that so often come from thinking about national issues. And not only can you see the results of your work in your own neighborhood, but you’re also more likely to have an impact this month instead of four years down the line.
Think of the thousands of carless, low-income Philadelphians who rely on slow, inefficient transit to get to jobs located far from Center City. Get fired up about the fact that SEPTA doesn’t provide free transfers, which would create the rider density it needs to justify service improvements (not to mention help it take a step toward making the city accessible to all Philadelphians). Consider the billions to be spent on “reviving” I-95, a highway that has never been more of an economic waste or an impediment to a burgeoning waterfront. Contemplate low-cost ways to provide better accommodation to the hundreds of BoltBus and Megabus riders shivering along JFK Boulevard.
Compared with fighting for human rights, freedom of the press, health care, and so many other major issues the Trump administration stands to dismantle, these seem like small, first-world problems. You are pardoned if you care about them still. In times like these, it’s more important than ever to keep your blinders on and focus on what really matters to you, at a level where you can effect change.
While the Trump administration may seem unprecedented, its hostility to communities like Philadelphia is politics as usual. Pennsylvania’s resolutely anti-urban state legislature is nothing new. Neither is blatant corruption — the Philadelphia District Attorney was recently fined $62,000 for ethics violations, and in December one of the city’s longstanding congressmen was sentenced to 10 years in jail for bribery and fraud. The upcoming 2017 state budget battle will likely echo last year’s impasse. With our stagnant Democratic machine and our antagonistic state GOP, we need progressive, engaged urbanists to fight against retrograde politics through whatever channels will accommodate their passion for a more vibrant, equitable city.
The other thing about getting old is that you see how time passes, and how those people who keep at what matters to them eventually succeed. So don’t fall for the spectacle, because by next month, by next year, and certainly by the midterm elections in 2018, you’ll have forgotten most of today’s outrageous presidential tweets or ridiculous press conferences. But your concerns, goals, wishes and wants will still be there, nagging. Perseverance is its own kind of civil disobedience. ◆
Photo by Juliana Laury