City of Fools

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerNovember 2, 2013 

Some 30 years ago I ran into an old high school classmate who asked me where I was living. I said that I had moved into the Historic District. With a look of pity in his eyes and a "tut-tut" on his lips, he blathered on about our "noble but failed experiment in downtown revitalization." He was talking about the neighborhood I had grown to love, and his patronizing, know-nothing attitude was irritating beyond measure. Yet at the time I could think of no response other than a ridiculous "Oh, really?"

Now, as president of Historic Columbus, I get a chance to respond (three decades too late) to that "failed experiment" comment. Though this city has had enormous success in revitalization, there is still a prevalent attitude that "hysterical" preservation is not worth the effort. And, conversely, that the community resources we take for granted today have occurred with but little sweat, sacrifice or swag.

What I have to say has been percolating for a very long time.

I am honored to be president of this terrific organization. Past presidents have been pillars of our community -- philanthropists, business icons, financial wizards -- wise and astute leaders all. I can only humbly imagine what my predecessors are thinking now: this venerable institution has been handed over to someone with limited social skills and a poor grasp of the term "responsible adult." I am honored and truly intimidated to be in this position.

What I bring to Historic Columbus is commitment. I have served continually, for more than a quarter of a century, as a regular or ex officio member of the board. And next to my family and my work, this organization is closest to my heart -- it represents home and community to me

With an organization such as this, leadership is not about consensus, or committee, or referendum. It is not about majority rules nor testing the waters. It is not about "the tried and the true," polling data or market surveys. Nope.

Being active in Historic Columbus over the years, I have observed that leadership is really about one damn fool latching on to an idea with tenacity and doggedness, persuading others of the merits of that idea, and fighting to see it through. This is what I refer to as the Greater Fool Model of Leadership.

I became fascinated with this concept after seeing an episode of the HBO series "The Network." As explained on that show, "The Greater Fool" is actually an economic term. It refers to a patsy. For the rest of us to profit in this society, we need a greater fool to buy long and sell short. Many people spend their entire lives trying not to be the greater fool. He is the one left holding the hot potato, left standing when the music stops.

But the greater fool is also someone with just the right combination of self-delusion and self-confidence. Against all odds, he has the courage of his own convictions. Not content with the status quo, this fool has the audacity to think he can succeed where others see only failure. He sees worth where others see only obstructions. I would contend that this whole country, and certainly our community, has been made by greater fools.

This is not about the "Vision Thing." The greater fool is not a dreamer, but a doer. He does not throw out his idea with the expectation that someone else will take the ball and run with it. No, this fool owns his idea. It possesses him with passion and a fervor to see it through.

Greater fools fought to save the Springer when political and economic interests knew that what downtown really needed was more parking spaces. What good, they asked, is an obsolete opera house?

Then there were all those individual fools who, against better judgment, saw value in the dilapidated old homes by the river. There is an interesting story of the two influential fools who presumed they could reverse the decades-long decline of our central business district through sheer force of will (and, of course, money). They created Uptown Inc. and hired another great fool to run it.

As a community of fools, we voted to tax ourselves, with some pie-in-the-sky notion that we would improve our quality of life; because of that foolishness we now have, among other things, the RiverCenter.

Who but a fool would think of turning a sewer project into a recreational venue? I can personally attest to the fact that 20 years ago, the Seventh Street Redevelopment Project was accomplished by a pair of obstinate fools.

Some fool decided to move the college's art and music departments downtown. What about condos in the old riverfront textile mills? Only a fool would imagine that people would pay good money to live in an uptown loft!

And one of the most remarkable examples of great foolishness was that guy who wanted to blow up dams and turn the river into a whitewater Mecca. Dumb, expensive and impractical! "You are playing the fool," shout "the spirits of the wise, who sit in the clouds and mock."

Our greater fools do, of course, run the risk of appearing ludicrous. They go against the prevailing notions of "progress." But as St. Paul said, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise." Our fools reject the hollow belief that the readily disposable, the asphalt expanses and zoned Xanadus are the best achievements of our community. They are constantly at odds with the naysayers, the cynics; those good people who seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Being a fool is not easy. It requires steadfast resolution -- hanging in there, even in the face of repeated, abject, soul-searing failure. Unlike the cynics, who are always dead certain, we fools are plagued by doubts. Just a bit of encouragement can go a long way. As a little boy once told a great fool of literature (Winnie the Pooh), "Promise me you'll always remember: you're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

So our fools put in the labor and long hours required, overcome the difficulties and, improbably, bring their project to a successful conclusion. And guess what? Their ideas are no longer foolish, but in retrospect, deemed visionary, shrewd, smart. The whiners and complainers crawl back from whence they came. And the product of that "foolish" labor becomes just one more piece in the fabric that makes our community an interesting and enjoyable place to live.

We are garnering a lot of national attention: We are one of the 100 Best Places to Live in 2014. We have one of the Top 12 Man-Made Adventures in the World. Just this month there is a terrific article in Atlanta Magazine about our riverfront development. Visitors continually remind us that we have something special here.

The role of Historic Columbus is to educate, advocate and encourage. We are here to enable worthy revitalization efforts, but also to roll up our sleeves and take on real bricks-and-mortar projects. Finally, though, our organization will serve as the proverbial gadfly, pricking this community into action. We will not be lulled into complacency or comfortable conclusions about our future.

Historic Columbus has plenty of worthy projects on the table and I look forward to throwing my own ideas into the mix. We have the resources, the momentum and the will to do some extraordinary things. We have a magnificent board, and a splendid staff, fully capable of steering me away from my more exuberant inclinations and excesses. I may remind them, however, from time to time, that a little glorious foolishness can work wonders.

So now, in just this brief time in office, I have managed to cast our organization as a vast conspiracy of fools. Even for me this is pretty remarkable. I will, I'm sure, have a lot more explaining to do.

Garry Pound, a Columbus artist, is president of Historic Columbus Inc. (www.historiccolumbus.com). This essay is adapted from a recent address to the Historic Columbus membership.

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