My recent Perceptions & Pawnshops post has gotten a lot of attention, with several great comments. (Thank you!) A lot of the comments touched on a common theme: when there are bigger, deeper, systemic problems, image is moot.
Commenter Beth, a non-Elginite looking in, summed it up best with an analogy:
“While I think aesthetics are extremely important, they are merely the frosting on the cake and we all know that you need to bake a good cake first before you put on the frosting. Frosting an old piece of bread is not going to fool anyone once they take the first bite.”
She’s right, and I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve written before about some of the bigger, structural issues that affect our city and its image. Indeed, I make my living creating, massaging and maintaining images. Marketers know that if the product is crap, the best marketing plan in the world is for naught.
We do have our problems, but we can’t neglect our image as we work to fix things.
We have a large low-income population, which is why we have pawnshops, payday loans and their ilk. As commenter Chris pointed out, pawnshops are a better option than payday loans for people in financial distress.
Our schools continue to struggle mightily. To really shine, a city needs good schools. For families with children, the local school’s reputation and test scores can be one of the biggest factors when picking a home. And having poor schools often presents a “hidden tax” when families feel they must pay for private school on top of property taxes.
But crime isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be – in fact, we’re now statistically safer than Schaumburg. As we slowly turn the corner on the recession, businesses are cautiously launching or expanding – sometimes even without government incentives.
Another commenter on the pawnshop post, Chuck, was right when he argued, “The pretense that we can buff our image up into a gleaming city on a hill is delusional.”
However, I’ll argue that we still must be mindful of how our actions affect that image. The bread may be stale, but we shouldn’t sprinkle it with arsenic. Presentation matters. And a decent image will entice people to take a bite or investigate further.
Chuck also mentioned a disparity at the recent special city council session:
“[A]t one time, the discussion was focused on just letting Elgin be Elgin, we are what we are. But in minutes, the discussion was how to improve our image.”
And there’s the rub. Elgin can’t just be Elgin. Elgin’s very soul isn’t content with stagnation and just being. Elgin is an urban city amidst the suburban sprawl, an old industrial city trying to reinvent itself. That reinvention is the key. Long after the factories left, we’re no longer settling. We’re reaching and striving for more.
As Paul Challacombe recently wrote, “[S]omething incremental but fantastic is going on here in downtown Elgin. A ghostly canyon of bricks is being animated, through restoration, human imagination and something resolutely American— entrepreneurs.”
That reinvention entails – requires – crafting a new image rather than accepting the image of who we used to be.
We do have to fix the core. The focus on image won’t fix our schools, and we still have residents who need the services provided by pawnshops and their kin. But talking about our low crime rate and celebrating the good do help bolster our image – which, in turn, attracts more people willing to work to improve our town.
So let’s keep crowing about the good and working to cultivate the kind of image that attracts good, solid residents who will help our town thrive. But at the same time, let’s roll up our sleeves and help solve those structural problems.
We’ve got the ingredients. Let’s make some cake.