On Mayor's Message: Citizenship Focuses on Shared Lifeof the City

By Neal Peirce Copyright Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

On Mayor's Message: Citizenship Focuses on Shared Lifeof the City


Neal Peirce Copyright Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Daniel Kemmis, the personable, second-term mayor of Missoula, Mont., lightens up the introduction to his new book - "The Good City and the Good Life" - with a quote from an angry "flamer" on a local computer bulletin board.

Responding to a fellow resident's query about a rise in local property taxes, a Missoulian named Jerry fulminated - unedited:

"you are not alone in your frustrations with the city. all thay want is more tax money so thay can do less. thay can't take care of what thay have now what we can look forward to when they inlarge the city, more potholes, more taxes. thay (the people in power of the city, these are not the taxpayers) will vote a rase for themselfs when the $%& is about to hit the fan."

Jerry's spelling of "thay," notes Kemmis, reflects the feeling of people alienated from our political system. Then Kemmis slips in one of his own zingers in a remarkable book about democracy, citizenship and the critical role of cities in our future:

"People who customarily refer to themselves as taxpayers," writes Kemmis, "are not even remotely related to democratic citizens. Taxpayers pay tribute to the government, and they receive services from it. So does every subject of a totalitarian regime." In a democracy, Kemmis notes, the people - not an anonymous "thay" - govern.

Up to that point, Kemmis has lots of company, with political commentators reaffirming democratic government but lamenting the lack of civic engagement.

But then Kemmis takes a breathtaking step. He reminds us that the words "civil," "civility," indeed "civilization" and "citizenship" themselves, all derive from civitas, the Roman word for city. A citizen is a denizen of the city: a city-zen.

And it's only in cities and city-regions, says Kemmis, that we will f orm the basic human ties to create the sense of wholeness, of intimate association, of social health needed to offset a politics of universal anger and mistrust, to re-create a democratic order in our time.

Kemmis' message is one that most national and state politicos, national media and "big" thinkers, will instinctively reject. Cities? What are they? Losers in the power games of centralized national and corporate power, is the answer. Anyway, they're hellholes: Just look at the demonized picture of urban America purveyed by Hollywood and the nightly news. …

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