Wednesday, September 29, 2010

So, you want to ruin a community?

By Aaron Johnson

These days it seems like just about all governments – from the smallest town councils to the largest – are trying to ruin the communities they govern. This can seem like a daunting task; for the amateur, cutting through fads and hype to find truly effective methods of ruining a community can be confusing, frustrating and downright difficult.

Fortunately, there are some leaders in the field who have developed tried-and-true techniques for ruining a community. I’m proud to say that my hometown is one of the nation’s leaders when it comes to destroying its own community. As a long-time observer of the goings-on of city council and the municipal government at large, I have decided to make it easier for you, the prospective community ruiner, to get the job done by distilling the tools and techniques of our beloved state capitol down to the bare essentials.

I have identified four essential elements to the ruination of a city, and I have also developed a nifty little acronym to make it easier to keep track of everything. Just remember:


Combat the Arts.

Oppress the Youth.

Lie, and Lack a Plan.

Assault Small Business.

Combat the Arts, or: F___ Hippies.

In order to win a battle, it is important to know the enemy. In our situation, the enemy is anything that makes a community grow and prosper. Fortunately for us, there has been a lot of groundbreaking development in the past few years when it comes to understanding what makes a community flourish. Professor Richard Florida has demonstrated in several studies, culminating in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, that “knowledge workers” who constitute “the creative class” comprise the foundation upon which all successful modern communities are built.

Just what is a knowledge worker? Simple: any highly trained, skilled professional who performs creative, often technical work that can’t be automated. You know, folks such as architects, engineers, software designers and the like. Knowledge workers are awesome when it comes to building communities because they bring in a lot of wealth, they hype up the perceived status of a city and they bolster secondary business models like high-end fashion and retail shops, gourmet coffee shops, dentists and other fancy businesses that we average Joes could never afford.

Of course, since our goal is to ruin our community, we have to ferret out these pesky little buggers and send them packing, never to return again! Which brings us to our next question: what attracts knowledge workers to begin with? The answer: the arts.

I know what you’re thinking! For years, the arts have been used as a way to drain public coffers and pretend you’re doing something for the community you govern, while actually doing nothing. If it weren’t for highly visible  atrocities like the Blue Sky fire hydrant, for instance, Columbia would be hundreds of thousands of dollars less in debt.

Don’t worry, councilmen and women of America, your artsy-fartsy boondoggles are safe. What you have to be careful not to develop, if you really want to ruin your community, is a thriving, vibrant and authentic arts scene in your area. You see, individual artists and small, active art groups like musicians, performance artists, theaters, independent film scenes and such are like catnip to knowledge workers. (Anyone who’s seen a mechanical engineer roll around on his back and bat at the sky with his hands and feet during an improvised jazz concert knows what I’m talking about here.) In Columbia, the municipal government is doing a fantastic job destroying the knowledge economy by going right to the root of the problem: the artists.

Case study: Columbia Alternacirque. This is a real staple of Columbia’s performance art scene. Assembled every weekend at Art Bar is a collection of belly dancers, fire eaters, magicians, live musicians and other artists participating in a smorgasbord for the eyes, ears and heart. It is a precious little gem for Columbia. We’re talking top-notch, national-caliber entertainment that gathers a huge, peaceable crowd of arts lovers (many of whom, of course, are nasty little knowledge workers).

Columbia is doing an impeccable job of pounding this shiny nail back into the ground by harassing patrons who wander six inches away from the “free zone” of Art Bar property with cocktails in hand. Oh, but it doesn’t stop with an undignified game of “the sidewalk is lava!”  The atmosphere is also ruined by a veritable “Rat Patrol” of tow trucks that strobe bright lights a few feet away from the Alternacirque stage and a complete lack of support for the cast and crew of our humble little circus when it comes to things like parking and promotion.

A community that wants to grow would seek out fantastic groups like Alternacirque, but of course we, the community ruiners of America, can learn a fine lesson from the animosity which has been cultivated by the City of Columbia.

Oppress the Youth, or: Get Out of Here, You Kids!

Happy, productive young people – especially bright young professionals – are a shining source of energy and spirit for a healthy community. But if you really want to ruin a community, you have to make sure these kids are given the boot, hard and often. Now, a healthy community might institute reasonable restrictions on minors – like curfews in entertainment districts – in the interest of public safety. But a truly ruinous municipality doesn’t stop there!

You know what kids love? Video games! Columbia’s municipal government recognized this fact, acting upon it by citing local bar The Whig for “lacking a license” for a free cocktail table version of “Space Invaders.” Now, keep in mind that this version of “Space Invaders” – a classic 1980s video game that anyone can obtain for free on a notebook computer, mobile phone or graphic calculator – was completely free! The Whig did not charge a dime, nickel, penny or back rub for anyone to sit down and play. So when I tell you the City of Columbia cracked down on The Whig, no longer allowing it to offer this whimsical laser blastin’ action game for play at its bar, you understand what I mean when I say this was a stroke of genius. Community-ruining wannabes, take note!

Lie, and Lack a Plan; or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Forget About All My Campaign Promises.

It’s no secret that politicians stretch the truth during campaigns to gain the power needed to effectively ruin a community, but our mayor, Steve Benjamin, has made tremendous strides in the art, that would give even national-level players a run for their graft. Not only has he “failed” to implement any of several flat-out, cross-my-heart-hope-to-die promises (such as agreeing not to hold any vocational position other than the office of mayor, or balancing the budget), but he has done so without eliciting even so much as a murmur from the local press! Even alt-weeklies like the Free Times have lionized him from the starting gate. And his cohort, Tameika Isaac Devine, has been given one free pass after another since she stumbled her way into an 8 point re-election after facing a 26-year-old sweaty, bearded nobody with a total budget of $2,000 to her $50,000 plus. (Hi, Grant!)

Of course, you can lie and still find success. Just look at Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and Baron Münchhausen! So you need to pair your lying with a complete lack of any sort of cohesive plan or vision. Columbia has been a champion at this for decades under the guiding hand of former Mayor Bob Coble. It looks like Benjamin and his new regime will take up the torch with gusto as they amble their way through one council meeting after another, quibbling over minutiae and bringing in a Ziegfeld Follies-esque parade of consultants, committees and experts – most highly paid and all completely without answers.

Assault Small Business, or: Stop Mom and Pop.

Finally, it is important to destroy small local business at every turn. This can be as simple as having the highest tax rate in the entire state for local businesses, or you can go the advanced route and favor out-of-town big developers when doling out public contracts and hiring consultants and experts.

It’s also a good idea to make small business operation impossible by perpetrating extremely expensive and poorly conceived streetscaping regimens like those previously on Main Street and in Five Points and, to this day, on North Main. You also have to think long-term by concocting harebrained schemes like the “Renaissance TIF District,” which will cost our city millions of dollars over the next few decades and will provide “benefits” ranging from opening a pizza parlor to publicly funding developments for a private school (which is illegal), while simultaneously driving out lower-middle class folks living in that area.

Once you become comfortable with the individual measures outlined above, you can begin dabbling in combination maneuvers. These one-two punches will ensure that your community will stall out, plummet and crash to the ground with an oily, choking cloud of smoke and flame.

Case study: temporary vendors

Columbia is cracking down on temporary vendors. We saw the foreshadowing when it red-taped a potential taco truck into submission by pretending there was some sort of “precedent” or “justification” for blocking a new business from moving into an area developed and zoned for exactly what the taco truck entrepreneur was aiming to do. Now the city is coming out swinging against produce farmers and other vendors like our love-him/hate-him artist Ernest Lee. Whereas most healthy communities would fight to allow temporary vendors to grow and flourish in a manner that benefits the city, in this example, we see that Columbia has managed to Combat a staple of our arts community; Lie to a taco vendor; Lack any sort of plan to make room for these worthy, contributing small businessmen and women; and, of course, Assault small local businesses with ruthless precision.

Case study: 2 a.m. closings

Belinda Gergel has proven to be the most onerous nanny to hit the scene since Fran Drescher, and her for-your-own-good, tough-love, mother-knows-best crusade has most recently taken the form of a maternalistic campaign to shut down entertainment districts in Columbia at 2 a.m. Sure, it would be reasonable to pass a curfew restricting minors from being in entertainment districts after a certain time, but Belinda thinks grown-ass men and women like you and me have no business carousing and reveling after 2 a.m.

This will be a master stroke, as it will Combat the Arts, since a lot of local musicians play well into the night; Oppress the Youth who want a decent nightlife in Columbia; Lack a plan for how bars and night clubs who rely on this after-2 a.m. income will be able to compensate; and Assault small businesses by placing even more restrictions on the already over-taxed and over-regulated restaurants and bars of our fair city.

See? Once you get the system down, it’s fool proof! Now, all you outlying municipal councils and governments, get out there and ruin some communities!

If you do your job right, you might even be able to get the same reaction out of your local artists as we got out of good ol’ Earnest Lee, who was quoted in The State Newspaper as saying: “I’ll go to another city or state if I have to. That’s the end of that.”

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Chicken Man!


  1. There were two great orators of antiquity, Cicero and Demosthenes. When Cicero was done speaking, people always gave him a standing ovation and cheered, "What a great speech!" When Demosthenes was done, people said, "Let's march," and they did.

    I agree with almost every point in your very well written article. Unfortunately, I think you wrote it too well. The dummies who need to understand it, won't. As I tell my USC Ad Campaigns class at the beginning of every semester-- I speak at the 3rd grade, 6 month level because I have found if I do that, then even other college professors can understand what I'm saying.

    It's nice to see all this brought to life in a cynically funny way. I truly hope the point gets across.


  2. Aaron,


    I could not have shared the sentiment more eloquently if I tried. And believe me, I have tried. My frustration and anger with the whole situation always got the better of me.
    Columbia is a place that has ever had the potential to be so much better than it is. I am an immigrant that has made Columbia my home for roughly 10 years (attending college for the first 4) and have watched that potential squandered and wasted time and time again by the officials elected to positions of leadership.

    I can't help but share Robert Butt's worry that the piece may go over the heads of those that most need to read it (I, myself, appreciated the tongue-in-cheek nod to Willie Lynch in your delivery, but that's just me). If not for my non-citizen status in this country, I might have done what you tried to do and run for a public office of some kind, myself. The city council and government DESPERATELY needs someone in place who truly understands the needs of the city and its residents....or even if they don't fully understand, they at least need to be willing to listen.
    The current administration has shown nothing but a marked disdain toward the very people who have elected them and put them in control. Their lies, their ineptitude and their inadequacies have found them out time and time again and they still remain seated in control.

    The time has come for the people in this city to wake up and recognize this and recognize that they are the ones that have to change it. It's the only way progress can finally come to Columbia, South Carolina.
    It is downright disgraceful that a state capital can lag so far behind its neighbours in terms of progress and vitality.

  3. Thank you Aaron! and congratulations, you just won over a Steve Morrison Pink Party supporter. Too bad none of the creators of the Pink Party Facebook page insisted that you be interviewed. You would have had the highest score for your support of the arts. I was glad to have gotten to know
    you in the Mayoral race. You were everybody's candidate.
    Your passion on every issue was real. Thanks for being in

  4. Brilliantly written and spot on! Though I have to agree the people who NEED to read this and understand it, just won't (on either point). It's really wonderful to see someone put in detail all the awful ridiculousness that is the City of Columbia.

  5. I have to point out that not one penny of public money funded the fire hydrant "Busted Plug Plaza" by Blue Sky. AgFirst Bank commissioned the fountain to commemorate the anniversary of the bank. The world's largest fire hydrant on the other hand has brought recognition to Columbia and was also in commemoration of all firefighters and in the memory of Blue Sky's father, Jesse Johnson, who was a fireman all of his life and became South Carolina's first official state fire marshal.

    And as a further note, the City of Columbia and the State of South Carolina have never funded ANYTHING

  6. (and the rest of the sentence)
    by Blue Sky

  7. Blue Sky requests there be a retraction printed concerning the funding of the fire hydrant and ALL of his projects and suggest that in the future you refrain from shoddy journalism and get the facts straight before you publish.

  8. I guess Blue Sky is either too important to make the request himself, is too far immersed in his latest project, or doesn't know how to use a computer. Either way Aaron, you are spot-on with what ails Columbia. I've lived here 18 years and while there has been tremendous growth in that time it has been haphazard at best and incompetent at worst. We have wasted so many opportunities, from the Air South fiasco to losing the Capital City Bombers and Columbia Inferno. From letting the Carolina Panthers play their first season at Clemson to the "renovations" in Five Points and on Main Street that killed local businesses and left openings for chain restaurants. And now we have the latest installment, where the City of Columbia will have its 4th police chief of the 21st century because City Council feared losing control more than they feared the horror of wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars.

    At the same time I am encouraged by the fact there are so many people in Columbia who are sick and tired of waiting for the local governments to lead that they are taking action on their own to make things better. I can only hope they don't get overly discouraged by the lack of City support, because that sort of energy will feed on itself and become sustainable over time.

  9. Lynn,

    I have never claimed to be a journalist - this was my opinion piece and apparently my source was incorrect about Blue Sky.

    I am requesting a correction in the next edition. That said, I earnestly believe that having Blue Sky build a giant fire hydrant that takes up half a city block is a GREAT way to ruin a city.


  10. Aaron, can't wait for your thoughts on the recently passed $500 fine for an open container! Benjamin was the only one
    that voted "no". Can't wait to see what happens with enforcing that this weekend. What a mess.
    BTW, in one of the "arts" debates, I know that I heard
    the cameleon spewing the "knowledge workers" concept.
    Mostly, though, I heard the ringtones of the blackberry.

  11. Every song that the Beatles sang was not a hit. Not every quote is a quote to remember. But everybody is entitled to an opinion. I don't like the baseball stadium on the river.
    In some other setting, it might be considered a great structure.