To Boost or Not to Boost

"Boosting Local Emotional Evaluation." drawing by Aleksandra Krasutskaya, 2015 Terre Haute, IN, for Sardonic Spectator "Boosting Local Emotional Evaluation." drawing by Aleksandra Krasutskaya, 2015 Terre Haute, IN, for Sardonic Spectator

Terre Haute is the third most unlivable city in Indiana, so says a blog post that has floated into local consciousness. Like any city in North America, Terre Haute has sufficient oxygen, potable water and foodstuffs to support human life, and despite seasonal fluctuations, temperatures are well within acceptable ranges for human existence. Therefore, calling our town “unlivable” is an exaggeration.

The post claims “… households have a hard time making a living with a combined $32,000 a year. The crime is 9th highest in the state, and Terre Haute residents have a 1 in 20 chance of being the victim of a property crime. Meaning lots of stolen laptops, cell phones and tractor implements.”

Faced with dire economic and crime statistics, there’s no logic in pointing out how great our local parks are.

Predictably, on reading this, some offended local citizens have been goaded into a defensive response. That’s often the nature of discourse on social media. It’s a sad irony that the Internet, an amazing medium for gathering, storing and disseminating information often seems to narrow rather than broaden people’s views. Some guys put out a list that gets shared: people can rate it thumbs up or thumbs down; city boosters quickly complain the claims are stupid and unfair.

The criteria used by Roadsnacks is clearly explained, so it doesn’t take a lot of time and effort to check the truth of their claims.

According to the Census Bureau, Terre Haute’s median household income is $32, 446 and 25.8% of its residents live below the poverty line. (In 2014, that line was set at $23,850 for a family of four.)

As far as the crime statistic goes, here’s a summary from an organization called Neighborhood Scout:

With a crime rate of 57 per one thousand residents, Terre Haute has one of the highest crime rates in America compared to all communities of all sizes – from the smallest towns to the very largest cities. One’s chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime here is one in 18. Within Indiana, more than 97% of the communities have a lower crime rate than Terre Haute.

Despite the somewhat fly-by-night name, this site explains how information is complied from sources such as the FBI, and seems to use data similar to what the Roadsnack list relied on. With a little more digging, one could probably find the raw data used.

Alas, shooting off a response based on how one personally sees Terre Haute is a more common choice than looking into the facts. And that can turn out to be awfully thoughtless. Faced with dire economic and crime statistics, there’s no logic in pointing out how great our local parks are. Crowing about the low cost of living or how nice houses are a real bargain is also a weak choice, since those “perks” go hand-in-hand with the low wage base.

Sure, boosters have a right to their own opinion. They can reframe the issue, refocus the discussion, and compose their own picture of Terre Haute – a pretty one that excludes the poverty and crime that they don’t see in their own neighborhood. But being willfully blind is seldom, if ever, a strategy for improvement. It seems many in the Terre Haute community have adopted the boosterism long associated with politicians and real estate agents, and satirized by Sinclair Lewis in his most famous novels Main Street and Babbitt.

Ultimately, when someone dares to be critical of our fair city, they’re confronted with the proposition: If you don’t like Terre Haute, why don’t you move someplace else? Wishing away the critical voice is willful deafness, another useless strategy.

Lewis called these critics “knockers.” In a 1908 editorial entitled “The Needful Knocker” he wrote, “The booster’s enthusiasm is the motive force which builds up our American cities. Granted. But the hated knocker’s jibes are the check necessary to guide that force.”

Although outside our local community, the Roadsnack bloggers have challenged us with a “Knock –knock.” Let’s not treat it as a dumb joke.

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