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Hello, Columbus – One Act Of Community Building

Out here on the left coast, there are probably not too many of us know about Columbus, Indiana. The county seat of Bartholomew County, Columbus is located about 40 miles south of Indianapolis on the East Fork of the White River. With a population of  slightly under 45,000, it is Indiana’s 20th largest city. It is not particularly diverse, with 91% of its population being Caucasian, only 2.7% African-American, 3.2% Asian and 2.8% Hispanic. But, neither is it particularly wealthy, the median income for a family is around $52,000. There is not a long list of famous Columbus “natives.” Perhaps the most relevant for Northern Californians is the once important Scott McNealy, chairman and cofounder of Sun Microsystems, recently inhaled by Larry Ellison’s Oracle.

What is interesting about Columbus is the consistency with which it is ranked – 11th on the US on the list of  safest cities; 11th  on the National Geographic Traveler’s 2008 list of historic destinations ( “authentic, unique and unspoiled”); one of the “10 most playful towns” in the Nick Jr. Family Magazine, 2004;  one of the “62 reasons to love your Country” in the 2005 addition of GQ magazine.  Okay, not an Olympic gold medal or a Pulitzer Prize, but not bad for Indiana’s 20th largest city.

Columbus is also the headquarters of the diesel engine manufacturer, Cummins Inc. And why this is relevant, in a community that is home to many manufacturers, is not because Cummins is the region’s largest employer.  Rather, it is because the late J Irwin Miller, then the company’s second CEO and nephew of the company’s cofounder, decided to fund the cost of bringing great architects to the community to design great public buildings. Initiated with a single building project, the practice was institutionalized with the formation of the Cummins Foundation, which paid the architects fees for public buildings, provided that the architect was chosen from a list that Miller compiled. It began with public schools then migrated to fire stations, public housing and other community structures.  Noted architects, who graced the community with their buildings, include Eero Saarinnen, Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Cesar Pelli, John Carl Warnecke and Richard Meier. Six of these buildings constructed between 1942 and 1965  already are designated as National Historic Landmarks. This Columbus link will take you to a short “chamber of commerce-ish” video on the town and its architecture. But there is a great clip of Mr. Miller speaking. This link is much shorter, unnarrated and all about the buildings.

So why are you telling me all this? Well, as you watch the video, note the pride the community takes in its buildings, parks, trails, and public art.  I’ve never been to Columbus, Indiana. And, I never met Mr. Miller. But I do believe that he understood the power of “placemaking” in instilling a community confidence and pride. The Cummins Foundation hasn’t funded all the great  architecture in Columbus.  But it got the ball rolling. And one could argue that Cummins had something to gain by making its headquarters city someplace special. But I’m going to suggest, perhaps naĂŻvely, that Mr. Miller did what he did with the intention creating a lasting community, a community the would have the opportunity every day to see what great art and architecture do to make us more aware our surroundings, to feel what it is like to belong to a special place,  and to realize how the sharing of that place with others binds a community.

And, even if I haven’t gotten this completely right,  I still believe it to be true. I look at the impact on Bilbao, Spain of the construction of the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry. It was said to have created the “Bilbao effect” through the demonstrable change it made to its residents and others as to the desirability of the community. I feel the same way about the effort of my late friend, Warren Hellman, to bring together a special community for music through his Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco.  The effort of one person can make a tremendous difference.

One final thought -  not all communities are large; community formation does not depend on big money.  It is a matter of knowing what connects people and how to create a place where that connection can be made.





Tim Tosta
Life Coach


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