Sunday, February 1, 2015

What the "Main Street Kiss" teaches us about Ebola

In 2009 Matthew Aune and Derek Jones were strolling through Main Street Plaza. Aune gave Jones a kiss on the cheek and they were immediately stopped by security guards, thrown to the ground, handcuffed and arrested. While "Main Street" seems like a fine place to show a little affection, one block of Main Street in Salt Lake City was "bought" by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and is private property. No kissing, short shorts, sunbathing -- only strictly modest behavior allowed. Aune and Jones protested and LGBTQ community of Salt Lake City supported them by holding a "kiss-in." This opened the door to private talks between leaders of the LDS Church and the LBGTQ community. The talks gradually led to increased understanding and paved the way for a historic breakthrough and protections for gay rights in Salt Lake City. What is so interesting about this story is that it illustrates the kind of magical transformations that can occur in cities -- and which I think of as "urban alchemy." It helps us understand the remarkable report in today's NY Times that people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea found ways to manage the Ebola crisis. The Ebola epidemic has been worse than it needed to be, but much smaller than at one point we thought it might be. It was worse because of international disarray. But it is smaller that it might have been because people, faced with an impossible situation, took matters into their own hands and developed strategies for epidemic management. The Times article points out that people changed their behavior and this was particularly powerful in the urban settings. One story seemed to capture of lot of what on the ground. A neighborhood health group took charge of protecting people from Ebola. "In September, as the epidemic widened, the group’s chairman, Jeremiah Fahnbulleh, 27, another technical college graduate, proposed two measures that many communities would adopt in one form or another: outsiders would not be allowed to spend the night in Parker Paint; and residents leaving Parker Paint for more than two consecutive nights would be placed under quarantine upon their return. Standing under a mango tree next to his family home, a transistor radio at his side, Mr. Fahnbulleh said he came up with the idea after listening to the radio during a sleepless night. 'The thought came to me that Ebola came from one place to another, from house to house, from community to community,” he said. “Listening to the radio, I got to know how people got infected.'" People in cities, confronted with serious problems, get ideas for how to solve them. This can lead to changes that defy our predictions and that promote the general well-being beyond our wildest dreams. This is a profound lesson about the ways in which change can happen at blinding speed and with extraordinary power.

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