If you've seen a new, excellent movie for kids, Chicken Run, you may have noted the tribute to a terrific film from four decades ago, The Great Escape. In that movie, a captured American World War II pilot played by Steve McQueen repeatedly tries to escape and is sent to the "cooler," an isolation cell. To pass the tedium he repeatedly bounces a baseball off the floor, off the wall, into his glove. The new movie shows a frequently-caught chicken bouncing a cabbage in an isolation pit. It's a nice touch.
The moral behind the repeated attempts in both movies: Don't submit to wrongful authority. The very American refusal to fall into passivity is summed up well when the German prison camp commandant asks McQueen, "Are all American officers as ill-mannered as you are?" He breezily responds, "About 99 percent, yeh."
Recently, however, many Americans have become better-mannered, meekly paying our taxes and expecting a paternalistic government to do most of what should be the work of citizens. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was pleasurably astounded to see assertive Americans forming associations to fight poverty and other social ills, rather than waiting for government to act. In recent years, though, we often have been strangled by so much red tape that it's hard to get initiatives started.
Jay Height, a soft-spoken Indianapolis minister, faced that issue three years ago as he looked out from a meeting and watched five drug deals going down at an alley near his church. He had a great idea: Turn the alley into a park. That change, he believed, could help to transform an entire neighborhood, since the alley was a drug dealer's dream-off a main street, but with lots of escape routes should the police come by, and pay phones nearby to supplement the dealers' cell phones. Since only a few street corners are appropriate for dealing, he figured that if the dealers left that perfect spot they might leave the neighborhood entirely.
Mr. Height set about rallying neighborhood support, but soon found that closing the alley was as hard a task as escaping from prison camp. Even though everyone (except the drug dealers) loved the idea, he found that closure would require immense paperwork, including approval from 51 government agencies and private groups. He almost gave up. "I don't have the time or ability to figure out the regulations," Mr. Height said. "I know my neighborhood and the Bible."
Providentially, though, Mr. Height received help from the Front Porch Alliance (FPA), a then-unique group based in City Hall and designed to help faith-based groups and others hurdle government regulations. Mr. Height and local business folks made phone calls and went door to door passing out fliers to get church and civic groups involved. They formed an Old National Road Business Coalition, with the pastor as president. But it was the FPA that then walked Coalition members through the red tape and made sure all the paperwork was in place to close the alley.
Soon the papers were all signed, sealed, and delivered, and Public Works department workers came to jackhammer the concrete and haul it away. Then volunteers from Youth for Christ and Keep Indianapolis Beautiful quickly laid down trucked-in topsoil, shrubs, mulch, and 20 nursery-raised pear trees. Two years ago, in August, 1998, the park that had been an alley opened, at a cost of $900 of donated funds. "When we work together, we can turn the tide," Mr. Height proclaimed. "This is our neighborhood. It's not the crack dealers' neighborhood."
That turned out to be the case. Drug dealers did leave the neighborhood, for there were no "good" business locations nearby. The alley closure created momentum for more progress. Police set up bicycle patrols, rousted prostitutes in the area, and ran stings to nab male customers. Crime in the neighborhood declined. When neighborhood leaders complained that a local bar was accepting food stamps for alcohol, with hungry children often left at home, police and other agencies worked to have the owner charged with welfare fraud.
Jay Height kept pushing, with help from the FPA's bureaucracy-busters. When the local power company donated a small piece of land that it owned in back of Mr. Height's church, and the church wanted to put in playgrounds, "The FPA held my hand, took me through the process, filled out the paperwork-a huge task-and helped me through two hearings." So a government group did good by promoting the general welfare, but letting citizens take the initiative.