We can learn a lot from past mistakes if we are brave enough to look

Published 4:18pm Friday, March 12, 2010

Im on the way home from my semiannual trip to Pennsylvania to see my mother in the nursing home. This time I chose to come home by a different route in order to spend a few days with my high school horseback riding friend Lexine. She lives in Cambridge, Md., on the banks of the Little Choptank River.

Some of you may remember Cambridge; it became famous in the 1960s for race riots. It was a pretty rough town back then, and it still has a rough side to it. But Cambridge looks better now than it did in the 60s, thanks to the hard work of its people who chose to stay in Cambridge rather than move where the economic situation was better.

Many of the people who chose to spend their lives in and around Cambridge made their living crabbing, fishing, or farming. These are the same reasons why Cambridge was settled in the first place: abundant seafood, water resources, fertile farmland, and access to markets in Baltimore and Washington.

When intense development pressure started coming from Baltimore and Washington in the 90s, a citizens political action group rose in the community to fight against uncontrolled growth that would threaten what Cambridge valued most: its agricultural and water resources.

Lexine and I grew up in Salisbury, another 40 miles lower down on the Eastern Shore. Salisbury had a university, Salisbury State University, which helped its economy. In the 60s Salisbury was a great place to grow up, with good schools and a vibrant local economy. The downtown district thrived. After I graduated from high school a big mall was built outside of town, and that hurt the downtown area quite a bit. There have been many downtown rejuvenation projects, with minimal positive results.

This afternoon I took a walk down the old Main St., and it was like walking in a ghost town. There are a few professional offices, but no stores. I could not have bought anything if Id wanted to; and thats a shame because Ive saved all my trip spending money until today and have no place to spend it!

Salisbury has had 12 bank robberies since August 2009. Rather than being noted for its good schools, great shops, restaurants, and the university, Salisbury is now known for its crime. Its the crime capital of the Eastern Shore.

Why? Salisburys demise has a lot to do with decisions made when I was a child by people in power at the time. Salisburys civic leaders in the 50s and 60s wanted economic development. They voted to allow Route 50 to go right through the middle of town in hopes that travelers driving from Baltimore and Washington would stop in Salisbury to shop on their way to Ocean City 30 miles east of here. Route 13 already cut through Salisbury north to south; Route 50 divided it east and west.

Route 50 divided the church district and historic residential area, making pedestrian travel nearly impossible. It cut through the heart of the city in far more drastic ways than the civic leaders of the time could even imagine. Im sure that those leaders thought that they were doing the right thing, yet Im also sure that the majority of those leaders were business people who may have understood commerce issues much better than quality of life issues.

If a tree has a slice taken off its side, it will probably be able to heal itself. It the tree is sliced in half, it will die. The people who live in Salisbury now are seeing the results of poor decisions made 40 years ago, while those who made the decisions are long gone.

By comparison, Route 50 was routed around the edge of Cambridge and Easton, leaving those town centers intact. Both of those towns may not be economic boom towns today, but they are healthy and safe. &bsp;

One of the hardest things for us to do, emotionally, is to admit that we have made mistakes that have caused grave injury or harm to someone we love. Our egos simply cant handle a humility pill of that size, even though sometimes we have to swallow that pill anyway. Ive noticed, also, that human ego does not want to see the consequences of past decisions if those consequences do not mesh with what we want to do.

Economic development can be great for a community. Without a healthy economic base, a community cant survive. Salisburys forefathers wanted outsiders to support the local economy by easily driving to the center of town to shop, thus losing all control over what the outsiders brought in. Cambridge fared better by trying to make a living with what they had (farmland and tidewater fishing) and taking their products to the outsiders.

Remember learning in school that the reason we need to study history was so that well be able to learn and not make the same mistakes in the future? Im thinking that our planners would do well to look at dying communities like Salisbury, Md., to see what does not work. It seems like we think that we are smarter than those civic leaders were back then, but Im not sure. Wisdom does not come out of books, or off the Internet.

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