Prairie Lights: Big cities, beacons of hope


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The Philadelphia Art Museum. So much to see, so many languages to hear.

I’m still pretty sure I couldn’t live in a big city, but a recent 10-day visit to Philadelphia did me a world of good — and not just because my oldest daughter and her family happen to live there.


Ed Kemmick

The trip to Philly (which included a one-day excursion to New York City) was good for what ailed me because it gave me hope for the future. Love them or hate them, cities by their nature are already working hard to solve the kinds of problems that are going to be problems almost everywhere in the future.

The world is going to get more crowded, and people of different races, nationalities and religions are going to have to figure out how to get along. The world must adjust to and reduce the severity of climate change, and it has to find a way to encourage economic growth that benefits as many people as possible.

Throw in education, policing and public safety, health care, public services and renewable energy. All of these things involve all of us, but the need to deal with them is felt more acutely in our biggest cities.

The idea of doing what America once prided itself on doing so well — being the great melting pot of the world — seems to be the fundamental necessity, because without getting along and working together we doom ourselves to endless wars, terrorism and violence.

It won’t be easy, but in Philadelphia and New York there is the kind of acceptance born of familiarity. It’s one thing to see people in foreign raiment or hear people speaking a foreign language on television, especially since TV news is apt to present such images and sounds in the context of clashing civilizations.

It’s quite another to see people in burkhas, veils or turbans at the grocery store or local coffee shop, or to hear foreign languages everywhere one goes. That person you see is not then a Muslim or an Arab, a Turk, Somalian or “illegal alien.” That person is just someone shopping for groceries, fiddling with a cell phone or waiting for a light to turn green.

And then I get back to Billings and one of the first things I see is a bumper sticker that says, “Are you gonna understand me in English, or do I have to speak 12-gauge?”

One of the things I loved about Montana, when I first came here 45 years ago, was the open-mindedness of most everyone I met, the live-and-let-live attitude that seemed to be a birthright. Now there’s so much aggressive close-mindedness, so much pride in prejudice.

What would the person displaying that bumper sticker think if a person who’s been in these parts a bit longer than him demanded that he understand Apsaalooke?

While I was in Philadelphia, one reader, commenting on the Last Best News Facebook page, went off on a weird tangent, arguing that cities with the worst problems were governed by Democrats. He even included Billings — which is in pretty good shape and sure as hell isn’t governed by Democrats.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

In this restored house in Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson did some important writing, enumerating several self-evident truths.

But what a strange notion, I thought, to reduce perspectives on cities to what political party the mayor belongs to. Then I recalled that this has been a right-wing talking point for some time now — as when President Obama was regularly taken to task for all the violence in Chicago, presumably because he was from there and, oh yeah, was also an African-American.

For starters, why not take the long view? Last year in Chicago, population 2.7 million, there were 650 murders. In the first half of 1893, I read just yesterday (in “The Devil in the White City”), there were nearly 800 murders, at a time when the population of Chicago was closer to 1.1 million. Sounds like progress to me.

But maybe the larger point is that big cities favor Democrats because they are the party of solving problems, or at least trying to solve problems. Laissez faire, hands-off governing works well in some places at some times — in Billings 100 years ago, in Jordan right now — but the daunting, dynamic problems of big cities need people with ideas and the desire to get things done.

The world in general becomes more like a big city with each passing year, and fortunately cities are the great incubators and laboratories where solutions to the world’s problems are being hatched, studied and put in place.

Cities, states and countries that figure this stuff out first will be the first to benefit economically and culturally. Montana doesn’t have to be left out of the process. We could deal with some of the same problems while they are small and manageable.

We could show the world how big-hearted people adapt to change, how caution does not have to become fear. We could show the world what real courage looks like, as opposed to the empty bravado of bumper stickers and tweets.

Comments are closed.