Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

August 17, 2012

Harter: Turtle on a fencepost

Nathan Harter
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — They say, if you see a turtle on a fencepost, you know he didn't get there on his own.

Somebody had to place him there. We often work that way: Seeing something and then wondering how it came to be.

Scientists are no different. Picture a geologist standing beside the cut in a hill, looking at the different layers stacked one on top of the other. She wants to know why there are layers. What had to have happened for there to be layers underneath the soil?

Or picture an archeologist who uncovers unlikely animal bones in a prehistoric camp. What must have occurred for these bones in particular to wind up here, of all places? And so the scientist starts to imagine an explanation.

Historians are no different, according to Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis. They find some artifact or structure that interests them, such as an old letter. They seek the story behind that letter. "Who wrote it? To whom? Why?" Pretty soon the historian is forming a narrative about the letter.

People visiting a community for the first time do pretty much the same thing, except they have no obligation to come up with an authoritative answer. They can simply keep on driving. But if they notice decrepit buildings, unkempt front yards, and weeds in the sidewalks, they will concoct their own version. And it won't be flattering.

Now, instead of a passing tourist, suppose that the visitor is a prospective employer or a home buyer thinking of investing in the community. She sees the buildings we already have, the conditions on the street, and she makes up some story in her head to explain why things look the way they do.

Professor Gaddis mentions the triceratops, that three-horned dinosaur. By all accounts, the animal must have been forbidding, impregnable, what with the spiny tail, the massive protective skull, and the super-thick hide. So why is it gone?

Investors are no fools. They notice things. They wonder what might have led to the present. They see abandoned buildings and empty storefronts. Is there a plausible explanation? Is it perhaps evidence that this city would be a bad investment? It depends on the explanation.

Better still, perhaps, not to present these things at all. Better still to present a vibrant community, proud of its public spaces, where homeowners tend their property. But I know better than some of you why rock walls crumble, sidewalks crack, old houses leak, gardens turn to seed, and merchants move out.

Sometimes, you have to tour your hometown with the eyes of an outsider. Pretend you don't know what happened here over the last fifty years. Drive around and just look, making up plausible stories along the way. What does the appearance of a city tell you about its people and its potential to thrive?

To be honest, I think Greensburg in particular has been doing a number of things right lately. (I'm a big fan of the Mayasari Indonesian Grill, for example.) Nevertheless, it's all a process. Rome wasn't built in a day. Still, there is evidence that folks here are working toward a better tomorrow, for themselves and each other. The goal, in my opinion, is for people to stop and say, "Something is going right here."