Op-Ed: Take the Test

An Atlantic correspondent has proposed 11 signs that a city will succeed. How does Mammoth Lakes measure up?

The cover story of this month’s Atlantic, entitled “Can American Put Itself Back Together?” considers the state of the country, not through national statistics, but by evaluating the condition of its small and medium-sized towns. Reporter James Fallon and his wife Deb solicited suggestions for interesting towns they should check out and then spent three years visiting them in their single-engine plane. Their conclusion is that although most Americans think the country is going to hell, there are surprising sources of strength. They determined that a city will exhibit 11 characteristics if it is to flourish. They maintain that if these markers are present, other things will fall into place. Here they are (in my order, not Fallon’s), and here is how I would grade us.

– Divisive national politics seem a distant concern. Despite the propensity of our paper to run stories about Trump (just kidding, Mike), I’d say this is true in Mammoth. My impression is that locals are fiercely independent and would object to being pigeon-holed into red or blue boxes. A.

A city on its way back will have craft breweries. Fallon writes that we might think he’s joking, but just try to find an exception. Regardless, check, we’re in there. A+.

– They make themselves open. Fallon here is talking about being open to immigrants or refugees or new people in general, and Mammoth Lakes surely qualifies with its significant Hispanic population. The schools, library and police have gone to exceptional lengths to care for our Latin students and parents. On the other hand, the lack of child care and low-income housing are detractors. And although soccer is the great equalizer, we don’t see many non-white faces on the ski and snowboard teams. Or on the government bodies. C.

They are near a research university. Fallon is using this as marker of an educated and nationally diverse population. Welp, we fail. F.

They have, and care about, a community college. Hey, we have this! And the involvement of the college in the community is very positive. A.

– They have unusual schools. Fallon is looking here for “intensity of experimentation,” not just academic achievement. I have been very impressed with the progressive approach of the middle school principal and teachers, and the options for the high school students to take courses through ILC and the college seem applicable. B.

– They have a downtown. Oops. While we have pieces of a nice downtown, they are strewn around, and we fall considerably short of Fallon’s dream of a community pouring resources into an old-fashioned Main Street with condos over restaurants and stores with lights on at night. D.

– Public-private partnerships are real. I can point to collaborative efforts going on, especially in the non-profit sector, but when the relationship between the Mountain and the town is compared to cannon fire, we’re a bit weak on this one. D.

– People know the civic story. Fallon says this guiding story, even if it’s a myth, is a way to give citizens an understanding of how their efforts are connected to their history and their future. It would be fun to pick “When hell freezes over, I’ll ski there too,” as our civic story, but “Don’t feed our bears” would win. Some marketing slogans aside, we seem to lack a common view, and I am surprised when we take actions that inconvenience or tick off our visitors and second-home owners. I am reminded of Colin Fernie’s comment that he was unsure if the community really embraces its identity as a tourist destination. While we all recognize the beauty of our environs, it doesn’t represent a unifying force. C.

– They have big plans. Fallon believes that cities can make realistic plans because they can still do things, unlike initiatives at the national level. While some in town do have plans, it is unclear to me if they can muster the political will to execute them (see above). C.

You can pick out the local patriots. OK, I’ll bite. Dave McCoy. Kathy Copeland, Paul Rudder. John Wentworth. Elizabeth Tenney. Betsy Truax. Shira Dubrovner. Others I’m forgetting. A.

There you have it. If we weigh all of these factors equally, our overall grade is a C+. Good thing we have that brewery.

The last factor may be our strongest. Positive change in Mammoth Lakes has been the work of a few determined individuals. We are fortunate to produce strong local patriots although it would behoove us to broaden the conversation, in my opinion. The Fallons found that in towns that were progressing, people in their 20s and 30s were engaged. One young artist from San Bernadino said he got involved because he had heard too often that it was a city of losers. “I was just pissed off,” he said. Maybe we need some pissed off youngsters to step up.

I love Mammoth Lakes, and left to my own devices I would have added points for our excellent public transportation system, bike and cross country ski trails, exceptional chamber music, nice public library, Latin Market, digital resources, volunteer clean-up efforts, minimal homeless problemand friendly post office clerks and Vons checkers. But those would be my criteria, not Fallon’s. What do you think?

© 2015 Jennifer K. Crittenden

This story originally appeared in the Mammoth Times.