Michael McKenna on urban heritage, curing mistrust and the dangers of top-down development

     The Detroit skyline rises behind the Monument to Joe Louis, also known as

    The Detroit skyline rises behind the Monument to Joe Louis, also known as "The Fist". (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

    “Five Questions with …” is a regular Keystone Crossroads feature where we seek to glean wisdom and ideas from some of Pennsylvania’s top urban thinkers and doers. Michael McKenna is the Economic Development Coordinator and Elm Street Manager for the City of Lebanon.

    Q: Tell us about an amenity or service that you’ve seen in your travels to other places that you wish you could bring back to Lebanon.

    A: As a millennial, I tend to admire communities that are walkable, bicycle-friendly, transit-oriented, and have good schools and parks. Adding these amenities can be politically difficult. But in cities that have been successful in their efforts, some amazing results have been achieved.

    One of my favorite examples is the revitalization of the High Line in New York City. In 1999, a nonprofit called the Friends of the High Line formed to advocate for the preservation and reuse of the High Line, a 1.45-mile-long rail that runs through the center blocks of Manhattan. It was repurposed as a linear park, inspired by the Promenade Plantée in Paris, France. Through years of fundraising and negotiating with community leaders, the High Line Park was designed and created as an aerial greenway, and a rails-to-trails park.

    As a former steel town, Lebanon has several underutilized properties that could be repurposed into something beautiful like the High Line Park. It would require a substantial effort.

    But it is achievable, and would greatly enhance the community.

    Q: What’s one urban improvement idea that you could categorize as “nice try but didn’t work”?

    A: In 1981, the Michigan State Supreme Court’s Poletown Decision allowed an entire neighborhood in Detroit to be bulldozed to build a GM Auto Plant for the purposes of economic revitalization.About $150 million in federal loans and $30 million in state loans financed the project, which destroyed a historic, racially diverse community and displaced 4,200 people, 140 businesses, six churches, several nonprofits and a hospital. The city took a huge economic and social hit with this project. Six thousand jobs were promised, but the plant never employed half that number and about one third of the displaced businesses closed immediately. This is a dramatic example of how and why the “top down” approach often results in failure. An idea is developed by people in power and imposed upon a community, and then it fails because of a mistrust of those in charge, or lack of interest in cooperating.

    Q: Describe a person in your community who is a “spark”….someone who seems to get things done and inspire people.

    A: Mayor Sherry Capello works around the clock to ensure Lebanon gets the most out of the little resources it has. She’s avoided going into Act 47 by entering into Pennsylvania’s Early Intervention Program.

    I’ve only been in the community a short time, so there are likely several more “sparks” that I have not yet met, but am looking forward to it.

    Q: What flaw or habit does Lebanon have that you would like to see change?

    A: Mistrust lingers throughout the community. While this is common in most densely populated areas where resources are limited, I believe it can be improved in Lebanon. Private enterprises, service organizations, and everyday citizens all have common goals that they can achieve if they have the opportunity to collaborate.

    Some city officials also say businesses here close too early, leaving the streets darker, less traveled, and more attractive to illicit activities.

    Q: Tell us about a movie or book that depicts, in a way that grabbed your attention, how a city can thrive or fail.

    A: I’m a third-generation Detroiter, born and raised in Metro Detroit. My maternal and paternal grandparents moved into the city from other parts of the state during its heyday. They moved to the suburbs when the riots hit in 1968, but this connection to the city has strongly influenced my thinking on urban issues.

    That said, the book that first comes to mind is Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff. It’s not the best-constructed piece of literature in the world, but manages to be entertaining and engaging while describing the struggles of everyday people living in Detroit.

    I read plenty of others during my formal education. Most aren’t all that attention-grabbing for the average reader, but are extremely informative and well written. One is American Odyssey, by Robert Conot, which details the history of Detroit and talks about many failed social welfare and revitalization programs in the context of the city’s history.

    Is there someone you know who thinks hard about cities and knows how to get things done? Someone whom Keystone Crossroads should spend “Five Questions with …”. Please let us know in the comment sections below or via Facebook or Twitter @Pacrossroads


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