If a writer could write the truth about one Chicago street,

that would be a good life’s work.

– Nelson Algren

In his memoir of migration from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Queens, N.Y., writer Gary Shteyngart recounts his mother’s list of her educational aspirations for him. First came Harvard Law School; next came Fordham Law School; then came the John F. Kennedy School of Government; and finally, the Cornell Department of City and Regional Planning. This ranking of institutional status, so acutely (and accurately) noted by an observant stranger fled from the socialist workers paradise, says much, I think, about the nature of our society and about the challenges we face in changing it.

More status and success in life are likely to accrue to those managing and protecting great wealth or running a major agency of the federal government than to those helping citizens shape the landscapes, align the streets and collect the garbage in the communities where they live. Yet such mundane tasks, I’m convinced, do as much to shape the quality of life and offer far more opportunities to engage in meaningful relationships with neighbors than those undertaken with far more fanfare by the so-called “masters of the universe.”

The greatest joy of my day job as a consultant dealing with economic and community development issues across the state is not delivering “answers” to grateful customers. It is, rather, engaging with citizens grappling with the questions that form the basis of their civic life. How can we get more jobs in our community without destroying the “small-town character” we cherish so much? How should we organize our schools so we can have a voice in our children’s education while not taxing ourselves out of our homes? How can we make our downtown centers more attractive and lively without further surrendering ever more space to the seemingly ceaseless demands of traffic and parking?

All communities have their share of know-it-all blowhards and closed-minded, personal agenda only die-hards. But in my experience, the vast majority of citizen volunteers are honest, straightforward, good-hearted, hard-working and open-minded people deeply committed to representing their neighbors and seeking solutions to the problems that plague them.

While often derided as a barrier to “efficient” government, Maine’s tradition of local control is in fact an essential element of our quality of place. Far better to have engaged, civic-minded neighbors than the rule of faceless bureaucrats from afar who have prepared a plan we ought to support because it is in our best interest, even if we don’t quite see how.

Many years ago, with a group of graduate students, I met David Rockefeller. In a boardroom high atop the headquarters of Chase Manhattan Bank, we sat around a marble table that itself was larger than most rooms I had ever seen in my life. I don’t remember a single word anyone said that afternoon, but I will never forget the sense of privilege, prestige and power that settled around me like the fog on a gray morning on Penobscot Bay.

One of my classmates took a job with the bank. I have no idea what the arc of his life became, but I know that I wouldn’t take it in trade for one spent on plastic chairs around folding tables in the basements of modest town halls engaged in the search for solutions to community problems.

In a nation populated with escapees from socialist, religious, monarchical and imperial paradises ruled by those not chosen by the ruled, the education of city and regional planners ought to have more status than the education of handmaidens to the rulers.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be reached at:

[email protected]