LaFLECHE: Building a city with soul
There are few civic events I distain more than a state of the city address.
Usually bereft of interesting news and filled with so much self-congratulatory backslapping, they are, from a journalist’s point of view, a kind of limbo where time has gone to die.
St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik’s state of the city address was held Friday, and much to my surprise it wasn’t entirely awful.
In fact, something interesting came out of it.
Sendzik laid out a vision for St. Catharines that is absolutely worth taking seriously.
He calls it the “compassionate city.” It is not a touchy-feely, pie-in-the-sky, hands-across-Niagara, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along idea. Rather it is a conceptual framework to change the way city hall relates to the citizens it serves, particularly the most disadvantaged.
I spoke to the mayor after his speech, and he said the kernel of the idea came from conversations he had with Tim Arnold of Southridge Church, one of St. Catharines’ more community-minded religious institutions.
Compassion, Arnold told him, comes from within.
“So when I thought about that, I thought, what does that mean? If compassion comes from within, maybe it should come from within city hall,” Sendzik said. “You know, a lot of people end up at certain times of the year saying, ‘Well, it’s Community Care time so let’s fill up a food basket,’ and then they think they have done their job.
“But it’s not about doing a job once year. It’s about a lifestyle and an attitude for the whole city.”
He took a bus tour with Arnold and a small group of community leaders and city staffers. They visited some of the city’s most impoverished areas, including a stop at the underside of the Fourth Avenue bridge where some homeless people have set up camp.
Surely, Sendzik thought, the city can do a better job to assist those who need it.
Consider, he said, the city workers who are in the parks tending the grounds. If they see a homeless person or someone in distress, they have no training to help them and few options even if they wanted to. So they do what most people do — move on.
Yet they are in city parks all the time, effectively putting them in close proximity with people in real need of help.
What if they had the training and tools?
What if they could call someone in, or get that needy person to a place where they can get some assistance?
So Sendzik is going to have city staff across several departments take that bus tour, and a training module is being developed to empower them to help others.
That is what Sendzik calls “the soft side” of his compassionate city idea. The other, harder side, is policy. Working on transit and affordable housing files, along with changing the nature of how the city operates.
Even simple changes can help, Sendzik said.
For example, those who want to access city programs designed for the less fortunate — from libraries to parks and pools — have to fill out a seemingly endless series of forms.
“It’s about dignity, because every time you fill out those forms you are basically having to say, ‘Hi, I’m poor,’” Sendzik said. “So why can’t we get that out of the way at one time? Why not have a single form?”
The mayor expects these initiatives to roll out through the year and hopes it will establish a model for other communities to follow.
Consider how different in tone and approach the compassionate city concept is from the current zeitgeist of Niagara politics.
For nearly a year, Niagara has been let down by its political leadership. Regional council and its related bodies, like the police services board, are often marked by discord and petty, self-interested meanness.
This idea, by contrast, seeks to improve the city and, critically, insists city hall lead not by rhetoric but by example.
As trite as it might sound, Sendzik’s idea is nothing less than an attempt to reshape the culture of a city by building a civic engagement that takes seriously the notion that we are responsible for our fellow citizens.
It is an idea the city needs. It is one the Region needs. And it is one we should, as a community, help make a reality.