Friday, July 17, 2020

Glimmers of a Different Wichita

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Two weeks ago, the Wichita City Council, by a 4-3 vote--a result which surprised more than a few Wichitans--implemented a mask requirement in the city of Wichita, in the wake of the Sedgwick County Commission's refusal to fully support the mask mandate which Governor Kelly had called for all the state of Kansas to embrace. (To be fair, the commission later decided to support a similar order from Dr. Garold Minns, the county's health officer.) Then earlier this week the Wichita Historical Preservation Board, by a 5-2 vote--a result which, once again, surprised more than a few Wichitans--nominated Century II for state and national historic status, thus supporting the effort to get the iconic building listed by the Kansas State Historic Preservation Office and the National Register of Historic Places. If that happens, it would likely present very serious obstacles to any plan--such as that proposed by the Populous outfit hired by the Riverfront Legacy folks--which involved the destruction of Century II, which is why multiple interested groups sent representatives to the Preservation Board to make their case (in vain, as it turned out).

I found myself wondering yesterday: is there anything these two votes have in common?

The obvious first response--and, in all likelihood, mostly the correct one--would be: "no." Why would there be? One was a vote taken by elected representatives to the city council, the other by appointed members to an advisory board. One was a vote that had immediate, material consequences about life in our city, the other has only the force of a recommendation (though a significant one, all the same). One was a vote that reflected angry divides which have played out across the often-frustrating distribution of state, county, and city authority when it comes to matters of public health; the other reflected not so much ideological or political differences as generational ones, informed by an argument that has been studied and debated at length here in Wichita for years. In short, these were votes taken by different bodies, for different reasons, addressing categorically different types of issues. What possible overlap could their be?

For that matter, it's not hard to imagine a set of relatively clear demographic and, consequentially, partisan differences in the groupings of people who might be deeply invested in the results of either of these votes in fairly predictable ways. Don't we all know that it's all those very-online liberals and Democrats who support wearing masks as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and the anti-government Republicans who don't? And aren't those Democrats all younger and more urban and more racially diverse than those older, more suburban and rural, and more white Republicans? And so isn't it reasonable to assume that all the opposition to the plans to tear down a beloved but certainly-no-longer-cutting-edge building, and instead invest in some wholesale redevelopment of our downtown, would be coming from those grumpy Republicans who also don't wear masks?

I'm using a lot of stereotypes and assumptions in the above paragraph; the number of real-world exceptions to them in both cases would likely be pretty significant. Still, for all the limits in that particular act of imagination, I'm confident that almost every Wichitan who is even remotely politically informed would recognize the basic contours of what I'm talking about. The city council voting for masks? A progressive win! The Historical Preservation Board voting to protect Century II? A victory for tradition! Clearly, these votes are completely separate from each other.

Except, that is, for that fact that they do both partake of a particular perspective. It's hard to name just what that perspective is, but you can see it if you look at these votes, and those invested in them, closely. There are Wichitans out there--maybe not large in number, but not hidden either--who were both strong proponents of the mask mandate, and strong proponents of the decision made by the Historical Preservation Board. It's worth thinking about that small, curious overlap.

Consider, for example, that both of these close decisions faced, directly or indirectly, a certain type of business opposition. Some of the largest and best-funded business development organizations in Wichita lined up to protest the designation of Century II as historically significant, tying the future economic health of the city to a new and expanded convention center, a new and redesigned riverfront, with all sorts of new construction (some already finished, some projected far into the future) in the place of Century II connecting it together. And while a few of the large business interests which contribute to those groups had also spoken out in support of the mask mandate, the broader conversation about masks (both nationally and locally, as was demonstrated as recently as the Sedgwick County Commission's meeting two weeks ago) tended to focus on the sacrosanct right of business owners to open up, send their employees back to work, and allowing them to make whatever decisions they thought best for themselves and their customers. So in this sense, both the mask vote and the Century II vote reflect a prioritization of health and civic interests over those of business profit. So...a populist or civic republican sensibility, perhaps?

Or consider, as another example, that both of these unexpected votes were rooted in local, Wichita-based (small-d) democratic action. In the case of the city's mask mandate, the pressure on Mayor Whipple, who called for the emergency vote, arose directly from the realization that county-level decision-makers were acting on the basis of interests and information that did not reflect what was happening in the cities of Kansas, in the urban hospitals and government offices which provide essential services to the population of the whole state. Suzanne Perez and The Wichita Eagle, to their great credit, kept local data in front of its readers, and gave regular voice to the local doctors and medical authorities who could speak forcefully as to what was happening throughout the city.

In the case of the Century II vote, the grass-roots efforts of Save Century II, led by Celeste Racette, have been tremendously effective, collecting thousands of signatures from Wichitans with a great variety of concerns (economic, fiscal, political, cultural, as well as historical) about the proposed layout for Wichita's downtown, and pulling them together into a movement which has been flexible enough in its arguments--expressing no opposition to the widely accepted need for new performing arts venue somewhere in the downtown, and insisting on no specific limitations about what might be someday accomplished under Century II's dome--as to attract far more supporters than the critics first supposed. So in that sense, both the mask vote and the Century II vote reflect a somewhat radical, bottom-up challenge to larger government bodies and economic expectations. So...a localist, municipalist movement, one might say?

You can't read too much into these speculations, obviously. The very distinct contexts of these votes, and the very distinct political processes they emerged as part of, to say nothing of the brute demographic distinctions characterizing the likely supporters of either side in both efforts, make it all but impossible to hypothesize some kind unity between them. But maybe not entirely impossible. Student of political ideas that I am, I can't help but be intrigued in the glimmer the last two weeks, and these two votes, have provided me of a different Wichita, a more community-oriented and less conventionally business-oriented one. I have no reason to believe that those glimmers will turn into anything more broadly, much less politically, actionable anytime soon--but for someone of my preferences (both pro-mask and pro-Century II, if you haven't guessed), they were nice to see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some good news on the local civic scene in your neck of the woods. It is a refreshing read in these times of national "carnage." It is possible for people of good will to work together across the national divides if they change their perspective from the large to elevate the local instead. Two swallows don't make a summer, but you keep tabs on such developments and it would be nice to read about more such (anti :=)developments. Cheers, gerrit