I have written in previous columns about the Midwestern tendency to be modest, a trait I like very much. It can be a virtue, and it is taught by every parent.
But we know there’s a balance, and I think Fort Wayne is tilted too far toward modesty. I believe Fort Wayne needs to flex just a bit. Let’s think of it as salesmanship.
Two reasons make it important that our city not be too modest. First, we need people outside of Fort Wayne to hear about and talk about the outstanding community we are and are becoming. If we’re too modest, who outside of Allen County will know? Second is how positive word of mouth will bolster us. When someone outside of Northeast Indiana talks about our home, we feel proud and it validates us. Such outside attention bolsters our efforts here so that we will to not let failures define us.
Fort Wayne needs to think about flexing, just a bit. I respect flexing — proudly promoting our real strengths and advantages, not just bragging loudly — because I’ve seen it work.
I saw flexing work in high school, and the story revolves around my cafeteria lunches there.
We had excellent lunches made from scratch every day by four spirited and talented women. The homemade rolls were amazing and the chicken and noodles something to look forward to, but the stereotype generally held by those not eating the food was that cafeteria food is awful. The lines at lunch proved otherwise to those of us at Roswell High School, but only we knew that cafeteria food could be more than the traditional perception and perhaps what was the norm in other schools.
We had the opportunity to change that perception when the all-region track meet was held at our school. Track teams from all over our part of the state were there and all ate at our cafeteria. Most of the visiting athletes grumbled that it was terrible to have to eat awful cafeteria food instead of being allowed to leave campus for lunch. However, after they had tried the chicken and noodles and steaming rolls, the grumbling stopped. Word of Roswell High School’s cafeteria quality and the four women responsible spread through the district and to other school systems. As a result, our cooks were written up in other school newspapers and eventually held two workshops at the school for other school cooks to show them how to improve the quality of their food. The women used their opportunity to flex, just a little, and their actions were noticed through the word of mouth of hungry high school athletes.
I see the same problem of an incorrect perception of Fort Wayne as my high school cafeteria had before that track meet. As long as people from outside our region don’t know any better than those athletes who hadn’t tasted the rolls and chicken and noodles yet, Fort Wayne will be on the sidelines as one of those best-kept-secret places. You know the perception: Midwestern, midsized city, on the downslide not the upswing. Contrast that with what people have learned about Chattanooga, Tenn., and Greenville, S.C., — wow, now those are great places.
Those cities have their reputation not only because they deserve it but also because they flexed and let the world know. I grew up in the South, and my father was a regional manager for Marriott Food Service. I visited those two cities as a teenager. Both were quite underwhelming in the late 70’s-early 80’s, and — frankly — the regional perception of Chattanooga was that it was an armpit. Both of those communities are exceptional places today, and we use them as examples because people outside of these communities are noticing and talking about them. That started through word of mouth and the communities’ beginning to flex, showing off just a bit of their accomplishments.
Fort Wayne has many great things, well beyond what people outside of our region usually expect. As a person who works in our arts community, I find people are shocked when they come from somewhere else and experience our performances and our arts groups. Without fail, they leave happy and surprised, talking about how they didn’t expect to see a performance of such high quality in Fort Wayne. Looking around town, I often wonder if everyone who lives here knows what we have. Lack of knowledge would explain that they perhaps don’t flex when away from home because they don’t know and actually buy into the negative perception. I do know that the level of quality we experience in our arts would rival many communities with much higher national perception. The same situation is true of many of our other amenities, projects and initiatives, even though their reality and its positive perception should be helping shape our expectations and urgency to succeed in other areas. Our beautiful downtown ballpark rivals any other minor league park in the country regardless of the number of A’s denoting the level of the league. Our trails and parks system are not only outstanding for Fort Wayne; they are outstanding at a national level and should be examples for other communities. Our zoo, our arts, our festivals are just scratching the surface of the list of things that far exceed those uninformed expectations and perception.
We now see great progress with our downtown. We have steadily increasing activity and development that is noticed by others who come to visit. Seventy-five visitors from ArtsMidwest, representing Minnesota, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana last year, were stunned and excited by how accessible and vibrant our downtown was. They actually reshuffled arrangements to stay and spend more time downtown, commenting on the walkability, the parks, restaurants, architecture and bike lanes. I am not saying we are ready to claim victory, but downtown housing is growing and activities and neighborhoods are developing.
Our success can become contagious, but others need to know about it. The next time someone comes to town to visit or there is opportunity to share with others while you are outside our community, flex a bit. We have a lot to begin sharing.
Jim Sparrow is executive director of Arts United, the third-oldest united arts fund in the United States and the second largest arts council in Indiana.