Life in South Bend, a Rust Belt city on the move.


South Bend Doesn't Need a Savior

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On Tuesday morning I found myself on the receiving end of a statement that is (unfortunately) not uncommon: "someone said so-and-so is going to be the 'savior of South Bend.'"

Oh boy.

This line of thinking is not new and not exclusive to South Bend. Get to know cities around the Rust Belt and you will find a unique breed of civic esteem that manifests itself in statements circling this search for a savior. Detroit's Chief Storyteller Aaron Foley often writes about this savior narrative, especially as his city is increasingly covered by out-of-town journalists enamored by 'hipstepreneurs' and grand promises of redevelopment.

Suddenly, the hardscrabble, gritty Detroiters are in need of a savior — someone to rescue us from all this grittiness and strife, because that’s what we’ve been waiting for all this time, right?
— Aaron foley, City of Detroit chief storyteller

While I often discuss this issue in conversation, I first went on the record about it in my September piece 'Amazon HQ in South Bend? Hold Up.' The short-lived "let's sell Amazon on South Bend" movement was simply a resurfacing of this thinking that pervades our local culture. I want to address what I missed in that brief piece:

We've got problems. There's no avoiding the fact that despite South Bend's recent growth and seemingly upward trajectory, we're far from finished. Embracing this as a fact is foundational because it is (one) cause of the problem – who searches for a savior when everything is good? Optimism about the city that blindly ignores persistent problems does nothing (nothing!) to move us forward.

In fact I will argue that this blind optimism and celebration exposes a lack of love for the city. Thinking that South Bend's survival is dependent on constant, unabashed celebration (from me, or you) exposes that we don't see value inherent in South Bend. We see value in ourselves, the savior.

With that said – we don't have a zero sum situation between civic esteem and persistent problems. We can abandon the savior search without first alleviating every issue plaguing our city because this has more to do with how we perceive ourselves in relation to the city than how much investment some developer brings to a block.

South Bend is valuable. South Bend's people are valuable. And we don't need a savior.