Do People Still Say Synergy?

A loose meat sandwich is a thing of beauty. Deceptive in its simplicity, it comprises a white bun, crumbled ground beef, katsup, mustard, and, if you prefer, cheese. Should you desire, you can have it “wet” (the whole assembly dunked into the cooking liquid). In the Midwest these sandwiches can be found at chains such as Maid-Rite. The perfected incarnation of the loose meat sandwich, however, is found Canteen Lunch in Ottumwa, Iowa.

The Canteen Sandwich

Canteen Lunch is one of those blessed places where a legendary product is combined with an inimitable atmosphere. Canteen lunch has been in operation at the same location since 1936. In the 80’s the city of Ottumwa tried to relocate the Canteen in order to build a parking structure. The Canteen had no intention of moving and so the city build a parking garage around our friends in the humble brick building. On the inside, the restaurant consists of a single, small room enclosing a u-shaped service counter. In the middle of the U, three chatty ladies bustle around a metal meat-cooking apparatus. On the wall in a corner hangs a map of the United States for out-of-towners to represent with push pins (due to the number of pilgrims, the map has to be reset twice a year).

This place is the embodiment of synergy (yes, I know "synergy" went out with "paradigm" in the late 1990's, but stick with me). In much the same way that their sandwich is greater than the sum of its parts, the experience of Canteen Lunch is exponentially greater than the sum of the taste of a sandwich, the smell of a kitchen, the friendly people, and the quaintness of a small brick building in an alley. Synergy is a powerful thing, and one of the core principles our community embraced as we set about the task of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps.

Part of our task in Ottumwa was to tell the Chattanooga story to a select group of Ottumwa VIP. I never tire of giving that presentation. When we work in other places we are, without fail, asked about specific projects that turn a city around. Without fail, I answer that the answer lies not in projects, but in principles. Projects are important, but in the end, they are singular things that can succeed or fail. Principles, however, express the essence of the community and can be applied to projects and processes. Projects can succeed or fail based on external factors that can be unpredictable and capricious. Core principles cannot be tarnished by external influences.

I shared with my new friends the principles that guided our actions in Chattanooga. I was, however, quick to point out that Ottumwa needed to go through its own process of dialogue and discovery to develop their own set of unique principles. As I was preachin’, it struck me that although our principles are ingrained in the vast majority of Chattanoogans that got in the boat and rowed, we probably don’t do a good enough job of talking about them explicitly. As a refresher:

Inclusion- Downtown should be for everyone. 
History- Reuse of buildings and respect for history should be key elements of downtown strategies. 
Quality- Whatever is done should be of high quality. 
Partnering- Partnerships should be created and strengthened to get things done. 
Importance of Place- Attnetion should be paid t public and natural places in downtown. 
Citizen Involvement- City building should be accompanied by robust citizen engagement. 
Genuine- Downtown should authentically represent Chattanooga and Chattanoogans. 
Synergy- Every piece and part of the downtown should contribute positively to the overall development and liveliness of the city around it. 
Please note that these are not C.Rushing’s principles- they are Chattanooga’s. Also note, that I ripped off that specific language from somebody else, although, I must confess I do not remember the source (I believe that came from one of Mr. Kennedy’s presentations, but I'm not certain).

When we argue for good urban design in future projects downtown, the argument has to be based on principle instead of aesthetics. When I rail against the likes of Buffalo Wild Wings, it’s not necessarily because I don’t like the gold, black and white color scheme (I don’t). That building happens to violate a number of the community-established principles that the revitalization of our city was based on. Specifically: it is not genuine, lacks quality, doesn’t respect the importance of place, and has no synergistic effect. So while the symptom of the problem is aesthetic, the root of the problem lies in the fact that our community principles have been violated. Are those principles as valid today as they were in the early 90’s? I think so, but perhaps they need to be reassessed. In either case, we need to return to a place where what we do as a community is grounded by a set of commonly held ideals.

1 comment:

  1. "...the symptom of the problem is aesthetic, the roof of the problem is..." is a superb thought and you should put it on your business cards and open and close every presentation with it. Perhaps you should mention it in every conversation with anyone in Chattanooga because if we get another Applebee's/Buffalo Wild Wings downtown I might lose my sauce.

    Great post today, Christian!