The Best Direction for Our Future: UP!

Lane County needs more elevators. Not that we need more tall buildings or fewer stairs. The elevators aren’t as important as the particular lessons we learn when we ride them.

A friend once offered me this brain teaser. “Which direction does almost everyone in Manhattan travel to get to work?” I puzzled out the commuting patterns: Connecticut from the north, New Jersey from the south and west, the boroughs from the east. His answer was deceptively simple: “Up.”

Elevators define the urban sensibility. Cities exploded after elevators were adapted for transporting humans 150 years ago. No longer limited by stair-climbing stamina, building heights became expressions of ambition and engineering expertise. (Elisha Otis did not invent the elevator. His 1853 “Improvement in Hoisting Apparatus” was a braking system.)

Can you recall the first time you rode an elevator? Did you confuse it with an amusement ride, the way I did? I remember the entire experience in my stomach.

When you stop to think about it, an elevator ride is a harrowing experience. There you are, in a small metal box, racing skyward or plummeting toward the ground, together with a bunch of strangers, tethered against death by cables you cannot see, that use engineering you do not understand. But tractors and televisions and toasters are all scientific marvels we learn to take for granted. That sort of trust is not peculiar to the city.

Each elevator ride requires we trust more than engineering know-how. Remember the setting. Half a dozen strangers in a small metal box, from which there is no easy exit. Worse yet, there’s a little red button that can stop the box, and that button is but a short lunge away from each stranger in the box.

Our parents warned us never to accept rides with strangers, but every trip in an elevator is essentially that — a ride with strangers.

It’s only after riding an elevator over and over that we learn that it’s not really unsafe. Most strangers mean us no harm. But if one did, all the other strangers would unite immediately and instinctively, joining forces against the one bad person. Most strangers are friends we haven’t yet needed or met.

People who don’t ride elevators don’t easily learn they can unite with strangers to overcome obstacles. People who live in urban environments learn this lesson well. They become comfortable on street corners, in parking garages, and on mass transit because strangers no longer frighten them. Crowds of people who don’t know one another become a source of comfort.

Each elevator is like a test tube, a microcosm of diversity that spills out in spoonfuls to the teeming pool of humanity in the streetscape beneath. (A Bunsen Burner belongs in this metaphor, but I haven’t found where.)

Towns differ from cities. Towns turn their energies inward, forming clans of safe groups who eat and work and play and talk and think and worship together. When somebody new shows up, they are welcomed, but with suspicion until they are no longer a stranger. Safety is the order of the day.

Trouble is, towns in great places without geological limits can’t stay small forever. They keep attracting new people. Prognosticators expect our regional population to double in the next generation. We can’t make new friends as fast as the strangers are arriving. So we’ll have to learn to treat those we don’t know with less suspicion and more surprise. If we all could take elevator rides together, we could learn more quickly.

Instead, we’ll have to tackle projects together, expecting to work with people we don’t know, accepting that there will be surprises along the way, enjoying the energy of lots of different sorts of people working together on a single project.

Life in the small city the Eugene is slowly becoming can be as exciting as that very first elevator ride you had as a kid. Our future will certainly have its ups and downs. Better that we learn to trust one another.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs, consults, writes, teaches, speaks, and lives in Eugene. He hasn’t used an elevator daily since 1985, but he did for a time have a key to control the elevators in Chicago’s John Hancock Building — all the way to the 98th floor. You can read and respond to what he’s thinking about at www.dksez.com.