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COLUMN

Fort Wayne: Fat, stupid ... and melancholy?

More Information

Read it and weep

Nation's 'saddest' cities:
1: St. Petersburg, FL
2: Detroit, MI
3: Memphis, TN
4: Tampa, FL
5: Louisville, KY
6: St. Louis, MO
7: Birmingham, AL
8: Miami, FL
9: Reno, NV
10: Las Vegan, NV

Ten 'happiest' cities

1: Honolulu, HI
2: Manchester, NH
3: Fargo, ND
4: Omaha, NE
5: Boston, MA
6: Madison, WI
7: Souix Falls, SD
8: St. Paul, MN
9: Burlington, VT
10: Plano, TX
Source: Men's Health magazine

Magazine says city's no longer nation's 'happiest,' but that's OK

Saturday, December 3, 2011 - 5:44 am

Fat, happy and stupid is not exactly an attractive combination.

So perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that Fort Wayne – dubbed “America's Happiest Town” by Look magazine in 1949 – was squarely in the middle of the pack when Men's Health magazine released its list of the nation's happiest cities last month. When the federal government names you one the country's heftiest cities (2003) and Men's Health declares you the absolute dumbest (2005), two out of three really isn't bad.

With a civic reputation like that, emotional ambivalence is about the best anybody has a right to expect from us.

The magazine analyzed suicide rates, unemployment statistics, the use of antidepressants and the number of people reportedly feeling depressed at least part of the time and concluded that Fort Wayne is the county's 46th happiest city. That puts us right behind Boise City, ID, and just ahead of Seattle, which despite the mountains and ocean may be slightly sadder because of the rain, overpriced coffee and liberal politics, which seem to frown on joy so long as even one person, somewhere, is having a bad day.

In fact, there seems to be no partisan agenda behind the magazine's “saddest” list, which rated cold and bleak Detroit No. 2 but sunny St. Petersburg, Fla., No. 1. Such open-mindedness is in sharp contrast to its “dumbest” poll, which by sheer coincidence included eight cities in “Republican” states among the top 10.

If anything, Men's Health seems to be biased against Florida this time around, with Tampa and Miami also making the "bottom10." Of the 10 happiest cities, conversely, all could be considered “snow belt” towns except for Plano, Texas, and Honolulu, which tops the list.

To be fair, such liberal bastions as Boston and Madison, WI, made the list of “happiest cities,” too -- maybe because the cold induces more alcohol consumption.

Whether Fort Wayne's contentment level has eroded as dramatically over the past 62 years as Men's Health suggests is, of course, a matter of opinion. Or psychiatry. But here's how Look's Martin Gumbert described us in the magazine's Aug. 20, 1949 issue:

“With all Fort Wayne's vitality, people don't shout, push or show symptoms of irritation. There are no extremes of poverty, no sprawling slums, no organized vice and gambling. There is little open prejudice. Everybody knows his neighbor. There is no ‘boss,' no bad civic memories.

“Fort Wayne is two years behind the times in fashion and 20 years ahead in vision.”

If everything Gumbert wrote were true, the contrast with today's Fort Wayne would be troubling indeed. And some of Look's praise was indeed warranted, such as the fact that the city's per-capita income at the time was fourth-highest in the nation. Today, our wages are about 80 percent of the national average. That's enough to depress anybody.

But Gumbert must have been wearing rose-colored glasses or on the Chamber of Commerce's payroll when he wrote his story, because much of it seems laughable in hindsight and some was suspect even at the time.

No prejudice? Of the several photographs that accompanied the article, minorities appeared in only one: a group of blacks with this caption underneath: “Fort Wayne's slum area is small. A superhighway project to eliminate it was voted down because of a critical housing shortage.”

In truth, the public in 1947 had rejected the $27 million Anthony Wayne Parkway, which would have essentially run an Interstate-style highway through the center of town, in part because some feared uprooted blacks might move into their neighborhoods.

No “bosses”? A year after Look's story was published, Mayor Henry Branning (a “hard-working, Harry Truman look-alike,” Gumbert wrote), was indicted along with the police chief for allegedly rigging the city's coal contracts.

In other words, for all its virtues, Fort Wayne was never the Leave-it-to-Beaver utopia we remember – just as its present-day challenges may not be quite as daunting as they often seem. There is still joy to be found, if you are willing to work for and accept it.

Even Men's Health seems to agree. When it ranked 100 cities in terms of the popularity of cosmetic surgery three years ago, guess who came in 99th?

That's right: We did.

And if our oversized buns and bellies don't make us ecstatic, neither do they make us sad enough to do anything drastic or phony about it.

I bet not even Honolulu can say that.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.