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From potholes to promise

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Brown water, no water due to frozen pipes, lousy snow clearing, potholes -- these are a few of the things Winnipeggers are complaining about these days.

Over at radio station Power 97, one letter writer's rant to CJOB's Charles Adler went viral online. In it, the writer compared the city to a "Third-World country," adding that it is "mind boggling how the city has so deteriorated in the last five years... I am actually embarrassed and ashamed to say where I come from right now."

The letter, posted on the Power 97 website, has racked up over 12,000 Facebook likes so far.

The writer has a point; this has not been a great winter for Winnipeg. It's hard not to feel sorry for those who have been without water for days or even weeks. And we all are frustrated by the snow clearing and the potholes -- not to mention the cold weather that drags on and on.

What's the answer? The letter writer suggested getting back to "basics" and cutting back on "frills" like support for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. What things are basic and what are frills is open to debate. But there's no doubt we need a serious discussion about priorities and infrastructure.

But maybe a change of perspective can help, too -- something I noted in 2005 on this page, but which seems to bear repeating today.

Back then I recalled what British author and Christian philosopher G. K. Chesterton said over 100 years ago about an even worse situation in his hometown of London.

In his book, titled Orthodoxy, he drew attention to Pimlico -- a nice place to live today, but a foul London slum in 1908, filled with poverty, disease and despair.

"It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico," he wrote. "In that case he will merely cut his throat or move. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful."

The only way to fix a problem like Pimlico, he suggested, was for people to change their point of view.

"The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico," he said. "To love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason."

If that happened, "then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles... if men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence."

Some people, he noted, "will say that this is a mere fantasy." His answer? "This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great... men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her."

Loving a city doesn't mean glossing over its problems, he said. But he added that focusing only on the problems isn't the answer. In his experience, people who do that often don't actually love what they criticize.

For Chesterton, loving the place he lived was a matter of loyalty. The place we live is not like a bad hotel where we spend a day and then leave because "it is miserable." Instead, it is "the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it."

"When you do love a thing," he added, "its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more."

How do you see Winnipeg? Full of problems, or full of potential? Filled with potholes, or filled with promise? As what it is, or what it can be? For people of faith, these are especially important questions.

In the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, the story is told of how the ancient Israelites were carried away as captives to the city of Babylon -- certainly not a place they wanted to be, or that they felt fond of. But they received some advice from the prophet Jeremiah: "Pray to the Lord for it. Because if it prospers, you too will prosper."

It's still good advice for how we might see Winnipeg today, potholes and all.

Jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 D15

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