The Dark Future for America’s Brightest City

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An Empty San Jose Center for Performing Arts (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Frank Lloyd Wright designed San Jose Center for Performing Arts sits empty (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Like Many U.S. cities, the San Jose, California is in damage control mode, struggling with crippling budget shortfalls and making cuts in multiple areas. At an economic development meeting this week, it was said that although the police force lost over 60 officers to layoffs recently, the city still has over $3 million on their books sanctioned for art.

$3 Million to ART!?

Many would argue that any such superfluous funding should be cut before police officers are laid off, and that is precisely what the City of San Jose intends to do.

The Current Paradigm

The City of San Jose, as with any other large U.S. City, has a governmental structure built on a simple paradigm: tax the population and city visitors, and use that money to provide essential services. The issue with this paradigm is, has always been, and will likely continue to be in the way our government defines “essential services.” The standard fashion for defining these services, is to do so in a reactionary way. That is, to combat the negative things such as crime — which are seen as a fact of life — with a controlling force.

By this way of thinking, we have police to protect and serve, emergency medical services to save lives, and art to take us away from the dreary day-to-day grind. But isn’t there more to safety, health, and life, and don’t we have other options in creating a safe, healthy, happy environment in our cities?

The issue with reactionary definitions is that they do not address the source of the problems they seek to solve.

Reactionary thinking only serves to treat surface conditions, and often assumes that these conditions (crime, poor health, boredom) are unavoidable.

This type of thinking will lead to, at best, a constant struggle between affliction and methods of protection; at worst, and almost certainly eventually, it will send any society into an unending downward spiral.

As a case study, the City of San Jose has closed libraries, and shortened their hours in order to maintain budget that will save police jobs. This is a reactionary move; the city needs money to maintain police in order to protect us from the crime which they assume will always be there.

What reactionary thinking does not look at, however, is the root of our problems, such as crime, and where these problems come from. In doing so, our government not only ignores many causes of crime, but often inadvertently helps these causes, in turn creating a need for large numbers of police officers.

Unfortunately for us, this problem — creating bad things that we should have a reason to battle these bad things — is not a unique problem in our world today, or historically.

The former Citadel Canning Factory, turned Artist Community in San Jose, sits in the dark during a power outage (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The former Citadel Canning Factory, turned Artist Community in San Jose, in the dark during a power outage (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Reactionary thinking patterns do not take into account that extended library hours and engaging youth programs are things which keep crime rates at bay, that the more engaged youth we have, the less crime there will be, and that dollar for dollar, spending on preventative measures to stop crime before it begins is much more effective than fighting crime after it has had a chance to breed.

Part of the reason that this thought is not accepted so easily is that when we see immediate problems, we look for immediate solutions; and let’s be quite clear here, the correlation between library hours and crime is not an immediate one. This does not mean, however, that the tie does not exist. A seemingly small detail such as library closures is just one of the roots of the larger issue of crime; closures here and there, or even shortened hours are all actions which will give freely and plentifully to a slow but constant upswing in crime rates.

Into the Dark?

At this very moment, Charles Reed, the Honorable Mayor of the City of San Jose — along with like-minded leaders across the country — is unwittingly planting the seeds which have the very real potential to become immense root-systems of crime and civil unrest.

Historically, when civilizations have made the decision to cut arts, community, and cultural activities, those civilizations have seen crime rise and quality of life drop.

It won’t happen overnight of course, not likely until our mayors and government officials are long out of office. But as long as they balance the budget during the current term, our leaders can afford to let it be the next one’s problem.

If our leaders were to do the opposite at this juncture, to put more money into the arts and culture, to increase after-school programs and library hours, and to invest more in cultural facilities and festivals, the effect would also be the opposite. A slow, but unstoppable path would be paved to lower crime, safer streets, and better quality of life.

Let me be very clear in saying that if your goal is a safe, happy, and healthy city, the arts are not a nice-to-have, they are a must-be.

I understand it would be very easy to write off these words as not addressing the technical aspects of the problem at hand, as not being complex enough to fully realize the breadth of the situation. But in fact, these ideas supersede all of the technical aspects, and they do so because they are the building blocks on which these technical aspects are created in our society.

San Jose and other cities can continue to proceed with their plans to cut funding for the arts, close more libraries and cultural facilities, remove funding for parades, festivals, and cultural celebrations, and it won’t look too terrible next month, or even next year.

You won’t see the effect immediately, but with the final pen stroke that would cut arts and culture funding, the end result will already be irreversible. Citizens will leave for greener, perhaps smaller and more vibrant communities, crime in large cities will increase, and the police force will really need to grow exponentially in numbers to take care of the long lasting ill-effects of this budget “solution.”

With a shiny new balanced budget and dwindling support for arts and culture, the road to the downfall of our cities might be relatively quick. The recovery however — even in simply returning to today’s vibrant, culturally rich landscape — will require a hard many decades.

Further Research and Reading:

The Leading Innovative Cities – Forbes
Cultural Facilities Plan Update – City of San Jose (PDF)
Art Facts for At-Risk Youth – Americans for the Arts (PDF)