AR-150209011.jpg&updated=201502071118&MaxW=800&maxH=800&updated=201502071118&noborderThere was a great story on NPR’s “This American Life” this week.  Back in 1999, on an annual list of 354 U.S. & Canada Cities, Kankakee, Illinois was voted the worst – number 354. The criterion included crime rate per capita, climate, unemployment rate, etc. When the list came out, David Letterman (a nearby Indiana native) felt some compassion for Kankakee, knowing that they had (like a lot of Mid-West towns at the time) lost a lot of lot key industries in the 90’s, leaving the town a shell of itself.  The last thing he felt that the town needed was to be kicked when it was down.  So doing a recurring bit on his show about Kankakee being declared “the worst city in America” , and having some fun with it, made sense.

Here are a few of the Top 10 Slogans for Kankakee “Top 10 List” that debuted on Letterman back in 1999:

4. Abe Lincoln slept her once, accidentally

8. We put the `Ill’ in `Illinois.

7. We also put the `annoy’ in `Illinois.

9. Ask about our staggering unemployment rate.

10. You’ll come for our payphone — you’ll stay because your car’s been stolen.

The TAL segment this week tells of some students at Kankakee High School who recently came across the Letterman segments during a library archive project in which they had to find historical information about their city. Letterman had sent two gazebos to Kankakee in 1999 to be displayed in the town square – his way of giving some encouragement to the town with the unfortunate title. Barely born in 1999, these students had a different feeling about Letterman’s good will.

Rather than being flattered at the notion that Kankakee could be known as the “Town with Twin Gazebos”, the Kankakee students were offended. They viewed the gazebos as “monuments of shame”. They love their town and noted particularly the pride they take in the diversity in their school, and how students of all races get along so well. Despite facing significant opposition from folks in the town who love the gazebos, the students banded together to tear down one of the gazebos and remake it into a rocking chair to send to David Letterman for his pending retirement.  The story behind that ran recently on Letterman:

There’s something redemptive about re-purposing the monuments of our shame, even when the monuments were given to us benevolently. It sounds oddly similar to someone making a conscious effort to bask in a new identity.