Here in January, a month marked by resolutions to improve the status quo, I’ve been thinking about something I saw last year — and what it reminded me about the value of seeing fresh possibilities in our familiar, everyday lives.
On a vacation in London back in October, my wife and I took a side trip to Bath, the city so named because of the mineral baths that made it a big draw for the imperial Romans who colonized the area centuries ago.
Though Bath’s history goes back ages, what struck me, as we got off the train and walked into town, was how new the place looked. Most of the buildings, which would have been familiar to Jane Austen when she lived there, are made of a creamy limestone, mined nearby, called Bath stone. It looks like a fresh bar of soap, which seems brilliant as you glance down block after block of Bath stone shops.
But on a walking tour of the town, our volunteer guide, a native, brought us to a storefront that staked a stark departure from the rest. Also made of Bath stone, it was covered in soot.
“This building’s been kept this way,” the guide explained, “to show everyone what all the buildings used to look like.” Our guide, a senior citizen, could himself remember when Bath was gray.
In the early industrial age, Britain’s factories ran on coal.
“Unregulated coal burning darkened the skies in Britain’s industrial cities, and it was plain for all to see,” Tim Hatton, a professor of economics at England’s University of Sussex, has noted, adding that the pollution routinely blackened buildings and clothing.
In 1952, though, England got a wake-up call. A weather pattern caused a thick layer of smog to blanket London for days. By one estimate, some 4,000 people died from respiratory problems, and thousands more got sick. Answering the tragedy, British lawmakers passed air pollution legislation, and the skies got clearer. Buildings got cleaner, too.
Our tour guide recalled seeing Bath’s buildings staying free of soot, something he’d never witnessed before. “I remember thinking, ‘So that’s what a building looks like,’” he told us.
I took a picture of the sooty storefront, which I keep as a testament to the power of raised expectations. It helps me keep in mind that just because something’s been changeless for generations, it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. Sometimes, all it takes is the collective resolve to do better.
Within days of seeing that sooty wall in Bath, I was back in Louisiana, a state I love. But I couldn’t help noticing, as we left the airport in New Orleans for the drive home, all the litter along the road, an emblem of sorts for the low expectations we’ve too often set for ourselves.
The first step to changing that, I guess, is simply recognizing that change is possible.