Now years since Hillary Clinton first penned her book, "It Takes a Village," I was beginning to imagine the old African proverb a bit too trite to inspire reflection.
But in November, after the opening of "Legacy Village"—an upscale shopping center in an affluent Cleveland suburb—the public spectacle caused me to think again about the 21st century American meaning of "It takes a village to raise a child."
At Legacy Village, touted as "Cleveland's Premier Lifestyle Center," developer Mitchell Schneider has said he wanted to incorporate spiritual elements into the design in order to "humanize" the shopping experience and counter shoppers' feelings of "aloneness in the world."
In response, Steven Litt, architecture critic for Cleveland's The Plain Dealer newspaper, points out, "The fundamental problem with Legacy Village is that it pretends to be something it's not." The center actually carries no legacy whatsoever, he says, since it is merely a conglomeration of national chain stores and restaurants put up in what was, until it was bulldozed last winter, one of the last wooded areas in an otherwise urban-suburban concrete landscape.
And while a legacy it's not, it's definitely no "village" either. The center's lifestyle emphasis is merely a consumerist, individualist construct, one that defines people based on purchased objects. Real communities, in contrast, are built on webs of mutuality where people are defined by their roles, responsibilities and connections over time. We may be able to buy a "lifestyle" at a furniture-decorator store, but we certainly cannot buy "community."
As Christians, we are part of the community we call the body of Christ, in which all the parts depend upon the others. Our secular communities are built around public institutions intended to protect the rights of individuals for the good of the whole. Theologian Malcolm Warford has written, "At the heart of the public is a set of personal, social and economic relationships that exist between ourselves and others. ...Citizenship is nothing less than the way we care for these relationships."
In Ohio, to be specific, it literally does take the village to raise children. According to a study by the Citizens Budget Commission of New York, Ohio ranks 34 out of 50 states in statewide taxes, and therefore it compensates by being 6th out of 50 in local taxes - directed in large part to pay for schools. And because of a tax freeze law imposed in 1976, school districts across Ohio must continually mobilize the whole village to vote for any local tax increase needed to pay the teachers, keep class size under control and make the football team and the band possible.
This fall, as Legacy Village opened, over a third of the state's 612 school districts put school operating levies on the ballot. Only 48 percent of Ohio's 221 school levies passed—the lowest percentage in 10 years. Schools in the small suburb of Lyndhurst, where Legacy Village is located, will benefit, but the property taxes from this destination mall will not accrue to any of the schools of its far-flung shoppers.
In November, as I went door-to-door in my own community to convince my neighbors to support our school levy, I met a young neighbor carrying a large carton from one of Legacy Village's lifestyle stores to his trash. He told me he didn't know if he could vote for our school levy, since the $400 increased tax on his house would be pretty steep. I wanted to tell him that perhaps the cost of his recent Legacy Village purchase could have been better spent helping to create a real legacy for our community's children.
This winter, as we try to balance our checkbooks and pay down the credit cards after Christmas, I hope we'll think more sincerely about the gift of protecting, nurturing and educating our children. It's the best legacy we can provide them. After all, it still does take a village to raise a child.
Jan Resseger is minister for public education and witness with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries in Cleveland.