Vision is not enough

We have had no absence of ambitious visions over the past few years in this town. Not only that, but vision is very “in.” It’s become a cottage industry. People who are not ordinarily terribly visionary have been scrambling just to keep up with what’s expected of them, for fear of being left behind. But are people in Syracuse being oversold on visions that don’t have discipline or backbone behind them? It’s a good question to ask at the moment, and not just because we’re coming up on a pretty important countywide election.

We can’t survive without progressive vision, but it’s a true cynicism and exhaustion breeder when there’s no leadership, no real management, and no internal discipline… just visions of what could be. And it’s really a sickening feeling to be asked to go out on a limb, go beyond your bounds, buy into a vision wholeheartedly, and then the people who asked you to do it, don’t support you when times get tough or something goes wrong, or someone powerful is displeased with something you’ve done. It’s a real cynicism breeder and vision killer.

Nevertheless, life goes on, and you still need vision, discipline and backbone more than ever. No matter if you’re on Plan A, Plan B or Plan Z, you still need those three things in equal measure. A great lesson to keep in mind for all of our futures, since we will still be the masters of our own destiny after present circumstances have passed.

9 thoughts on “Vision is not enough

  1. sean

    i can think of a couple of instances, right off the dime, to which you might be referring. but any specific events that especially fired you up to write this?

    i think the problem you relate is manifested in two ways. the first is in sheer money and development. the city and county bring in ‘expert consultants’ who say all the right things about design and planning. but then, as soon as a builder who veers from those ideas walks up and puts money on the table, there is all too often backpedaling by our civic officials, who don’t want to be accused of being ‘anti-progress’ – especially at a time when so many projects are stalled or fallen apart, such as excellus-in-downtown.

    samuel hopkins adams, by the way, referring to urban renewal in rochester, wrote about ‘the juggernaut of misguided progress.’

    my second sore point, the thing that i think speaks more deeply than anything to our problems, is maintenance – which in many ways is the same thing as thankless courage. we come up with all these wonderful plans and have wonderful news conferences and plant wonderful gardens and build wonderful monuments but far too many people, in the public or private domains, lack the simple will to get their butts out there and the keep the sidewalks weeded and the garbage bagged. maintenance, to me, is the long day-to-day effort to get up and exercise the will to deal with the simplest, most tiring things – whether it is discipline in schools or restraint in civic spending or the kinds of basic efforts i mentioned earlier. without that, the vision inevitably fails.


  2. Aaron

    Realistically speaking, what we need is a combination of vision and stubbornness (to a point). Someone with vision is all fine and good, but you can’t leap from vision to vision, you have to see one through.

    We’ve had a myriad of different visions come out, with all the right-sounding things, and then noone sticks with it and sees them through…

  3. Ellen Post author

    any specific events that especially fired you up to write this?

    “No comment”

    But you’re right, that could be about any number of situations, really.

    It seems to me that the easiest thing to do is to have vision (or visions, scattered) and no discipline, or worse, no backbone. I appreciate your frequent comments about trash and I understand your desire to join a squad of Litter Ninjas or the equivalent when you mentioned it on your blog some time ago. I think the concept of a group of people who did this would be very useful, not for just picking up trash in neighborhoods, but for fostering a collective sense of discipline. Or perhaps backbone. Honestly I think people would pick up trash more publicly if they didn’t have to do it alone. Sometimes people are too timid to venture into traffic or into shoddy neighborhoods or even are wondering if they have the “right” to pick up the trash! Perhaps the courage for that can be developed but I think most people are not prepared right off the bat.

    However, I don’t think it’s just laziness behind it; I think many people have gotten burned, or burned out, on projects like these. At some point you have to have the backbone to insist that the people asking you to
    do things *back you up* and don’t make you go out there alone on a tightrope. I think we’ve all been there (it’s especially demoralizing when the pattern seems to repeat! “Is it me?!”) Questions sometimes need to be asked and people sometimes need to be confronted. But very often the people asking you to do things, are burned out themselves. There are several layers of burnout, usually. And the more it happens, the warier people are about getting and staying involved.

    But how do you heal burnout?

    Anyhow, it seems important to me that there must always be someone willing to step up to the plate (with ALL the goods, hopefully, not just some) when one attempt burns out. An endless string of pinch hitters. Maybe that’s the whole point.

  4. Simon St.Laurent

    I’m also tired of “the vision thing” – but I’m also having fun asking people a simple but hard question:

    What will Upstate look like in fifty years?

    More on that soon.

  5. sean

    maybe i’m off base, but i wondered if the subject of my column today (friday) might be related to the genesis of this entry?


  6. JS

    the trouble seems clear enough. we keep buying, literally, the vision of outsiders. or more specifically, our treehouse institutions, of which syracuse university can sometimes be one or at least work as an “enabler”, buy vision from outsiders.

    these outside prophets and visionaries package up some thinking, and sell it as the next local solution, “just do x, or build y” or “it is your perception that is unimaginative!!” some local leaders buy that and tell us that we just are not dreaming enough or thinking big or imaginatively enough…

    insurgencies are local. outside visionaries come and go, the local treehouse carries on with its projects based these outside, packaged perspectives.

  7. Ellen Post author

    Simon— that sounds ominous… or maybe it’s just my mood coloring my thoughts…

    JS— “Insurgencies are local” – good point. We can always use energy that tangentially bounces off us from people who are “just passing through” (half the abolitionists and women’s libbers of Upstate’s Golden Age came from New England and didn’t live here permanently) but there has to be a committed core of “stayers” in confrontation with those other “stayers” who will only take the money offered and not the vision.

    Sean— :-)

  8. JS

    definitely and therein lies the community physics problem to solve…how to spin these outside forces as good energy with local relationships rather than as an outflow of money, effort and time, or as self-reinforcing power plays for the local treehouse.

    i would even argue the local treehouse is benign, or at least certain players in that inside game. but it’s still just as undemocratic and “un-community-like” for a privileged few to decide what is best for the community. any system of local governance resembling that is essentially fascist in nature and operation.

  9. Ellen

    The problem I see with the local treehouse is that they are vulnerable to being played by opportunists. (Isn’t that what they do best?) It’s not like they’re evil themselves or anything.

    On the other hand, it’s not necessarily a bad thing when opportunists come to town. Local people have to learn how to be canny and benefit from their presence because some opportunists are benign too and “just passing through.” That’s something that’s always been part of local history, it was a place where people came and went with their strange, sometimes radical ideas. Neither should we feel abandoned when they leave. But you don’t want them to be DRIVEN away, that’s not right. Historically, it’s not right for Syracuse. It’s out of character. And I think just enough locals know that even if the treehouse doesn’t.

    I think of the Jerry Rescue and the presence of radical abolitionists in general in this town; surely they did not appeal to the groundlings with their radical religious and social ideas, but enough of the groundlings thought that it really sucked that the Feds were coming to get this poor guy and they weren’t going to make it easier for them to take him back to the South. This was an Erie Canal town and Underground Railroad town and we were open to strange people passing through, east to west or south to north… or should be.

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