Down in the basement of the old Bristol Press building were a bunch of file cabinets that contained decades' worth of records from the former publisher of the paper, the legendary Bart Barnes.
When I had free time, I liked to paw through them, reading these thick files he kept on the creation of an airport where Superior Electric was later built, or the purchase of the Hoppers-Birge Pond area, or a thousand and one other topics in which Barnes played a crucial role.
He managed to be both a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker and the public face of a good many civic improvements.
Why did he do it all? Partly, of course, because a growing, thriving Bristol meant a growing, thriving Press. A community on the move takes its paper to new heights.
But Barnes was also just an old school, civic-minded man who believed strongly in leaving his community a better place than he found it. Fortunately for Bristol, he also had the tools to make a lot of his ideas happen.
There aren't any Bart Barnes' anymore, though the community is still blessed with a number of generous folks of whom Craig Yarde is just one example. They're willing to lend a hand, but they're not out there in quite the same way.
That's OK, too, because the hard work of making the city better doesn't really belong to a handful of self-selected kingpins -- men with money, mostly -- it actually falls on all of us who live and work in Bristol.
The more I've thought about it, and listened to the thoughts of others, the more I recognize there is a genuine desire to take our best ideas and turn them into reality. There's just a sort of disconnect that keeps it from happening most of the time.
Money, of course, plays a role. There's never enough cash to do everything that ought to be done.
But where there's political will and a community pushing for action, things do happen.
The problem that Bristol has in too many instances is that ideas rarely become plans and plans rarely become reality. In part, the reason is that the government isn't set up to focus on the future.
In the best view of City Hall, it's good at fixing potholes. It's even adequate in making sure a street is paved once in awhile so it won't fall apart.
It deals with things the way they are.
But officials rarely focus on the way things ought to be or could be. They don't look into the future and say we should do this or we should do that because we want Bristol to be something distinct. Decisions aren't made to define the future. They're made instead merely to fix a pressing problem.
Bristol has a good planner in Alan Weiner. It has scores of men and women with expertise to burn. It just doesn't use them to their highest potential.
I'm not sure that having the council meet occasionally to talk about the future would really help. After all, they're just politicians.
But I'm more sure than ever that the city ought to establish some kind of mechanism to pull in residents and offer up ideas. The focus needs to be on a simple question: what should Bristol be?
Without an answer, it won't be long before it's like New Britain or Waterbury or some other struggling municipality that is so consumed with trying to keep the public safe and to educate the poor that it can barely breathe, let alone dream.
Bristol still has time to soar. Let's at least try.
Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org