Winders: Suffering through a crisis of identity

It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

Last weekend, The London Free Press rolled out a yearlong project entitled “Who’s London?” By way of introduction, reporter Randy Richmond penned a personal and interesting piece. In it, he wrote the paper had been inspired to launch the project, in part, to answer one question: “Has the lack of something – an identity, an image, a love proclaimed loudly to others – destined London to a slow decline into a forgotten, second-rate city?”

Gotta admit, it’s nice to hear some else ask the question.

To be honest, I don’t know what to think about London. My usual response to how I like the city, “Well, I love working at Western,” usually draws raised eyebrows. I don’t mean anything negative in it. Less than two years in town, with most of that time spent on campus, I haven’t explored all corners of the community.

Simply put, I don’t know what London is yet.

I attribute that to my newcomer status. But it seems many others are puzzled as well.

While it may seem like a silly newspaper project to some, the questions being asked in its early days should resonate at Western. While we think of ourselves on an international scale, it is impossible to separate completely from this city. How London sees itself – and sells itself – factors into how we do the same.

So it’s worth our time to help London find itself.

That said, having spent 20 years in community newspapers, I have seen dozens, maybe even hundreds, of these crises of identities in various communities, organizations, corporations and even universities. Be they spearheaded by the government, chamber of commerce or the newspaper, each of them hopes to answer the cringe-worthy mid-life crisis cry of “Who are we?”

It can be an embarrassing exercise in many cases. I have watched a lot of money and/or time spent only for the community to end up with a new slogan, some new fonts for letterhead and the same old problems.

But every now and then, you discover an interesting truth or two. My hopes are this project, an exercise in classic community journalism, helps London do just that.

To me, it boils down to definition vs. reinvention. You must know who you are before you decide who you want to be.

Like a lot of older communities, London seems to suffer from an obsession over what it used to be.

I saw this attitude a lot in the U.S. Midwest and South. Too many communities locked their identities into being ‘textile towns,’ ‘oil towns,’ ‘auto towns.’ Then, as those industries slowly packed up and left, the community was thrown into an economic, as well as an identity, crisis.

I see a bit of that in London, a Forest City that paves its way to progress (unless a bulldozer is a species of tree), an insurance town that is only a shadow of its former corporate self. But it’s far from unrecoverable here as opposed to places like Joliet, Ill., Roanoke Rapids, N.C., even Detroit, Mich., all of whom might be considered near dead communities because they clung to past identities for too long.

London has a lot going for it. But in a way, the need to ask the questions offered by this series signals a city defined by its obsession over what it isn’t rather than what it is. To me, that’s a sad way to live.

And don’t laugh, my Western colleagues. I have seen a lot of that here, where people almost apologize for not being Harvard or Toronto or even Waterloo. Like London, among our greatest sins may be humility and not being proud of shouting out what we do. And do well.

London must decide who it is before deciding who it wants to be. It would be worth our time as a university community to participate as that discussion moves forward.

A better defined London makes for a better Western.