ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: AS THEY CAN BE

By James M. Decker 

If you’ve been reading along, you know I’ve lately been pondering the topic of vacant buildings. I was talking to someone earlier this week and they brought up my essays on vacant buildings. This person is a relatively recent transplant to Stamford who is enamored with the opportunities in town and they said something that stuck with me. They said they like to look at vacant buildings and think about what those buildings can be. That’s when this line popped up in my mind: “not what they are, but what they can be.”

When you drive by a vacant building, how do you see it? Do you see it for what it is? Or do you see it for what it can be? Or maybe, if you remember its past life or know its history, do you see the building as it used to be? Each of us might see buildings through all three prisms, from time to time. Heck, we might view different buildings in different ways. We have fond memories of one building, so we see it as it used to be. We have no particular feeling about another building, so we just see it as it is. Then, there’s that building whose future we dream about, so we see it as it can be.

Now, how do we see our communities? I suspect that, for many people, it’s easier to dream about the future of a single building than an entire community. One person can pour their dreams into renovating a building, but revitalizing a community seems like a much bigger challenge. We might look around our community, seeing it as it is or remembering it as it used to be. Then, we look at the specific parts of the community that interest us the most — a vacant building, youth ballfields, church, whatever—and see “our” pieces as they can be.

In truth, our individual visions are inseparable from the entire community. When we think about what our communities “used to be,” we probably think about their most prosperous and populous eras. What “used to be” in our minds was once merely a future vision of the community’s forefathers. Once upon a time, they were imagining what the community “could be” one day. It was not the grand design of one individual laying out the community’s future all by himself or herself. What the community could be — what the community became — was the product of many individual dreams. The rancher, the farmer, the merchant, the banker, the restauranteur, and countless more all had their own individual dreams of a successful business. For one reason or another, each of those dreamers arrived in one location to build their individual dreams. As each dream took shape, they came together in the form of a community. Their dreams begat other dreams — a bustling community had other needs that weren’t being served by the original dreamers, so new dreamers rose up to start new businesses and achieve their own dreams. Each of those dreams came to life for the personal benefit of the individual dreamer, but whether intentionally or unintentionally, the whole community benefited from the individual dream.

As we look at individual buildings and consider our own dreams, we’re actually dreaming about the whole community, whether we realize it or not. Those individual dreams are incredibly powerful to the future of the whole, because communities decline and die off when fewer people are left to pursue their individual dreams. Sometimes it’s business ownership. Sometimes it’s a nonprofit pursuit. Sometimes the dream is a steady, decent-paying job. Each individual dream is different, but integral to the whole. A community can have all the entrepreneurs in the world, but if it doesn’t have people whose dreams are a steady job to support their family, those entrepreneurs will look elsewhere for a labor force. Without entrepreneurs dreaming of new businesses, steady jobs won’t exist. Without people whose dreams are oriented around retail and service, a community’s quality of life declines greatly.

As you look around at the buildings in your community, what is your individual dream that will help bring the community to life?

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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