Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Song of the year

One New Year's Eve, when I was a teenager in the 1970s, I got caught up in the excitement of listening to a radio station's countdown of the year's top hits, and decided to make my own list. That much is easy to explain; what is less easy to explain is that I've done it every year since. Anyhow I now have a considerable time series of my musical tastes. My early choices tended towards mellow songs ("Stop and Smell the Roses" by Mac Davis was the inaugural song of the year) or novelty records ("Convoy," "King Tut"). Since then I've gotten hipper, or at least less mainstream, but the choices have remained visceral. My criterion seems to be mostly what recording gave me the most pleasure that year, with perhaps an idea that the track would be the most memorable in the future. Often I'm wrong about that. Rare has been the song of the year that is clearly tied to that year. I imagine most of my choices are interchangeable, except that the musical styles might give them away as the product of a certain era.

For 2013 my song of the year is "Same Love" by the Seattle hip-hop artist Ben "Macklemore" Haggerty and his collaborator Ryan Lewis. It is a well-crafted track: Macklemore's spoken patter weaves in and out of the soulful singing of Mary Lambert. The chorus, "She Keeps Me Warm," was written by Lambert and has since been completed and released by her as a single in its own right (Spanos). Macklemore manages to maintain both a conversational tone and the rhythm of the piece. If they should choose in the future to collaborate on a track about national parks, or art museums, or the baseball trading deadline, it would be well worth a listen.

What sets "Same Love" apart from the 2013 pack, though, is the topic, as well as how the artists address it. Gay marriage is very much a topic of the current age. Ten (I hope) or at least twenty years from now, it will be so uncontroversial that songs about it will seem as quaint as the doomed inter-class romance described in the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," or the generation gap in "Signs" by the Five Man Electrical Band, do today. Twenty years ago, the song would have been too far ahead of its time. The only top 40 hit I can think of that dealt sympathetically with homosexuality was "The Killing of Georgie" by Rod Stewart, a ballad about a hate crime which hit #30 on the U.S. pop charts in 1977. (I can't remember: did Stewart openly say Georgie was gay, or was it just implied?) "Les Boys" by Dire Straits, a track on their extremely popular 1985 album Brothers in Arms, is openly sympathetic but the gay men he describes are goofy and alien. I have more examples of pro-gay folk songs from the 1990s, including "Home is Where the Heart Is" (Sally Fingerett), "Radical" (Catie Curtis) and "Oh, Baby I Love You So" (Ann Reed), as well as a line in Greg Brown's "The Poet Game," but these were hardly big-time pop hits. [I missed Melissa Etheridge's #8 hit from 1994, "I'm the Only One," which celebrates a gay relationship (McKinley)]. For the record, "Same Love" hit #11 on the U.S. charts this year (Caramanica).

It's also important to me that Macklemore's presentation is so straightforward and common-sensical. I can personally identify with his journey on this issue. He does not ape the confrontational style of, say, Glenn Beck. He's not looking to fight some culture war, just explaining his position. As the song progresses we see how his thinking evolved from his early fears to a recognition that there is more uniting us humans than there is dividing us ("Whatever God you believe in/We all come from the same one..."). That recognition is critical to sharing the world and creating community in the 21st century. And, with a nod to Parker J. Palmer, such unity comes from discussion and a willingness to empathize, not from slogans and shouting.


"BN Albums of 2013," http://public.coe.edu/~bnesmith/albums13.html

"Same Love" Video : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlVBg7_08n0


Jon Caramanica, "A Singer Whose Context is 'Love and Heart,'" New York Times, 12 November 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/13/arts/music/mary-lambert-breaks-out-on-her-own.html

"Macklemore Releases 'Same Love' Video in Support of Gay Marriage," Huffington Post, 4 October 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/04/macklemore-and-ryan-lewis-same-love-gay-marriage_n_1937384.html

James McKinley Jr., "Stars Align for a Gay Marriage Anthem," New York Times, 30 June 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/01/arts/music/stars-align-for-a-gay-marriage-anthem.html?_r=0

Brittany Spanos, "Mary Lambert on Critics of Macklemore's 'Same Love:' 'I'm Gay and Part of the Song Too!'" The Village Voice Blogs, 15 November 2013, http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2013/11/mary_lambert_qa.php

Chart positions pre-2000 from Joel Whitburn, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits: Complete Chart Information about the Artists and Their Songs, 1955-2000 (Watson-Guptill, 7th ed., 2000).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A challenge to the Gazette on climate change

The Cedar Rapids Gazette, whose coverage of many issues (including the economy and health care) has been responsible, is creating a misleading impression of the state of debate on climate change. For years the predominant view among climate scientists is that human pollution is accumulating in the atmosphere, and that this accumulation has begun to affect the climate of the Earth. If unchecked, these changes will lead to irreversible damage to the ability of the Earth to support life as we know it. (This is popularly known as "climate change," or by an earlier and less accurate monicker, "global warming." 97 percent of climate scientists endorsed this view in this NASA survey).

The only scientific voices on this subject that I've seen in the Gazette, however, represent the small minority of skeptics. Last Sunday, the International Climate Science Coalition presented its third op-ed column since June by my (non-systematic) count, arguing that "the idea that we can cause [extreme weather events] and can prevent them from occurring is science fiction." Opposite them was a column by a North Liberty woman who has participated in the Great March for Climate Action and is a member of the Iowa City-based 1000Grannies.org. Her commitment to this cause is undeniable and admirable, and I find little to object to in her column.

I object to the impression created by the Gazette that hard-headed science is skeptical about human impacts on the climate, while environmental activists are pushing the view that we humans are playing a dangerous game. Seriously... scientists vs. grannies? This is not even close to being accurate.

So, my challenge to the Gazette: In your circulation area exist a nationally-known Research I university, another state university of considerable size, and at least three private colleges with highly-reputed science departments. The Gazette circulation area is, quite obviously, hip-deep in scientific experts. If there's a debate on climate science, we shouldn't have to go to Toronto to find one side of it. We ought to be able to find it here. Ask the scientists, and report what they say. Tell it like it is.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ending the war on Christmas

(photo by Jane, from nesmithfamilyblog.blogspot.com)

Once upon a time America was a Christian nation. By that admittedly vague and inflammatory term I mean that when I grew up, people where I lived assumed each other were Christian unless informed otherwise. (Then, depending on who you were, we thought you either exotic or wrong.) I started school in 1964, two years after the Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court decision on prayer in public schools. While we didn't pray in class, we sang Christmas carols, and prayed before various events. Apollo 8 astronauts celebrated Christmas in their spaceship by reading the creation story from Genesis 1 to an unsurprised nation. Whether going to stores or watching television, it was easy to get the impression that everyone worshiped in the Christian tradition, albeit with varying levels of devotion.

It's hard to say exactly when all that changed. The 1965 Immigration Act opened the national doors to people from non-European parts of the world who had other religious traditions. In those heady days of rights movements, various people more vocally asserted their rights to be free of government-sponsored Christianity. (Tired of the easy assumption that they didn't exist, they began to insist that they did too.) Public officials in some cases overreacted to court decisions. And the drive for profit crashed through restraints such as Sunday openings (extending this year to Thanksgiving evening), turning the season into a retail extravaganza.

It's not hard to understand nostalgia for the days when Christian messages dominated America, and you could glide blithely through the season without wondering who was who. Christians, particularly those with more traditional beliefs, feel something is slipping or has slipped away. I'm not sure that excuses what seem to me blatant efforts to exploit these feelings for political or pecuniary advantage, specifically what someone has declared to be the "war on Christmas." The war anecdotes I've heard over the years tend mostly to be rather arcane local disputes in faraway locations, with suggestions that the incident is more complicated than described, if indeed it actually occurred to begin with.

Yet Fox reporter John Gibson has a book out called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought (Sentinel Trade, 2006). A brief search reveals other books on this subject by Sarah Palin, Brian Sack and Bodie Hodge. Fox News has an online tracker [http://nation.foxnews.com/2013/12/16/war-christmas] that follows stories on this war, and invites citizens to add their own experiences with anti-Christmas atrocities. They've decided already, it seems; it's left to me only to report. There haven't been many stories posted, though, and those that have been aren't self-evidently hostile to Christianity, such as the story out of Indiana where someone asked if Santa Claus could be black. Maybe this whole war on Christmas thing has played itself out.

In a thoughtful column, Lutheran religious scholar Martin E. Marty cautions that it's easy to get angry or snarky about this subject, whichever side you are on. So let us not. Let us instead take this season and its discontents seriously, and consider it from the perspective of our common life, which as you may have noticed is quite the thing on this blog.

Before there was America, before there was Christmas, long before Jesus came to Earth, people in the Northern Hemisphere celebrated this season. For early humans, the longer and longer nights must have been terrifying, not to mention they were doubtless very cold and very hungry. Once our species figured out the seasons, passing the winter solstice meant you were on the way to spring, warmth, and plentiful game. Oh joy! And who better to celebrate with than the people around you, because when it's dark and cold, and food is hard to get, people need to stick together.

That's the key word right there, friends and neighbors: together. But much of American social history is driven by people trying to get away from people they didn't like. The Puritans came to America, not so much for religious freedom as for the opportunity to create new communities untainted by theology they didn't like. The frontier was settled by people who didn't quite fit in the towns of their birth. Suburbs sprawled because people wanted to get away from dirty cities and the dirty people in them, and found that more space meant more privacy. Recent decades have witnessed the remarkable phenomenon of "geographic sorting," as people move to areas where their values are more common. And I, your humble blogger, will readily admit that while I love the people from the town where I grew up (especially if you've read this far), a key factor in my quality of life today was getting the h out of there.

Enclaves of monocultures aren't all they're cracked up to be... they're less interesting, and less resilient. I believe the American rush to enclaves has caused more problems than it has solved, and in the 21st century we'll need to find out how to get along with people not like us. Once we do, we will find our towns and lives more interesting, not to mention satisfying and prosperous.

So if our choices for this season of artificial light are (A) keep arguing and sell as many books as possible; (B) retreat to enclaves; (C) Christians rule and everyone else either converts or sucks it; (D) secularism rules and Christians suck on their memories; (E) no one says anything to anybody; or (F) find a solution that leaves everybody ahead... I choose "F." "Both-and" instead of "Either-or." That means:
  1. recognizing that we need each other all year round, but December's dark and cold most emphatically remind us of it; 
  2. showing "good will to men" and women i.e. meeting others joyfully as fellow humans whoever they are, not suspiciously as potential haters-of-our-values; 
  3. receiving good wishes from others in the spirit in which they're offered... or if they're being angry, rising above their anger.
I would like to wish everyone a "Merry Christmas" whether they're Christian or not, because in my religious tradition it is about the warmest thing you can say to someone this time of year. If I can say it generously, without judgment and without snobbery, can non-Christians hear it in the same spirit? I wish Jewish people would wish me Happy Hanukkah, and Hindus and Wiccans and atheists would say whatever they want to me as long it's friendly, but especially if it represents the best of their respective traditions. We are fellow travelers on a small planet. Life is too precarious and too short to spend December being unpleasant. Blessed be.


Gail Collins, "Cultural War Games," New York Times, 4 December 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/05/opinion/collins-cultural-war-games.html?hp&rref=opinion

Todd Dorman, "War on Christmas Alert--This is Only a Test," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 8 December 2013, 9A, 12A, http://thegazette.com/2013/12/08/war-on-christmas-alert-this-is-only-a-test/

Martin E. Marty, "The War on Christmas," Sightings, 9 December 2013, http://us6.campaign-archive2.com/?u=6b2c705bf61d6edb1d5e0549d&id=64d0e51fb3&e=86dbd7e7a0

"War on Christmas," Fox Nation, 16 December 2013, http://nation.foxnews.com/2013/12/16/war-christmas

Andy Williams sings "Happy Holidays (It's the Holiday Season)," 1962,  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2pQbphEipc

BBC Radio Scotland's "Out of Doors" program of December 22, 2013, includes discussion of solstice history and folklore at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03lzc0x

On geographic sorting, see Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart (Mariner, 2009)

On American social conditions of the 1950s and early 1960s appearing rosier in retrospect than they really were at the time, see Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic, 1993)

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased!"
--LUKE 2:13-14 (ASV,
(because the NRSV translation is gender-neutral but otherwise seems to support the other view!)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Judicial activism and gay sex

(Supreme Court of India, from en.wikipedia.org)

Politics and government are, for the most part, not that weird. Maddening maybe, scary arguably, but most people are used to people making rules and arguing, which is what the President and Congress mainly seem to be for.

But there are weird parts of government, too... the vast array of bureaucratic agencies, for example. This is where vaguely-written laws are turned into specifically-written regulations so they can be put into effect. Yet start talking about the bureaucracy, and most people, including I'm ashamed to say me, drop into the blissful oblivion of deep sleep. The public comment period required for regulations is ignored by most of the public, except for the affected interest groups who raise a big stink and try to get them watered down or eliminated (see Dodd-Frank on financial regulation). The rest of us only notice the bureaucracy when something misfires, such as the first two months of healthcare.gov.

Even weirder, by my estimation, is the judicial branch. It was created, sort of, by the Framers of the Constitution. They spent very little time on it at the Convention, and very little language on it in Article III of the Constitution, which only creates the Supreme Court. The rest of the details they left up to Congress. It wasn't until 1803 when the Supreme Court itself decided its job description was to review the constitutionality of actions by the other parts of government, and to declare those actions void if they violated the Constitution. (The case was Marbury v. Madison, and the process is called "judicial review.")

Despite fulminations by President Thomas Jefferson, among others, the Supreme Court's power of judicial review came to be widely accepted, and has been adopted to some degree by other democracies. The practice of judicial review, on the other hand, remains controversial. Very few parts of the Constitution are self-defining, and less so as word usage changes over time. For example, what is an "establishment of religion," which the First Amendment prohibits? And did the widespread practice of Christian prayer and Bible reading in public schools constitute such an establishment? The Supreme Court said it did, in a series of decisions beginning with Engel v. Vitale in 1962, but it requires acceptance of a string of premises to get to that conclusion.

Those who feel the Court should refrain from complex paths to arguable conclusions, and defer to the elected branches except in egregious cases, advocate what's called judicial restraint. This approach was probably best expressed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (served 1902-1932) who said "If my fellow citizens want to go to hell, I will help them. It's my job," because there's nothing in the Constitution that specifically forbids going to hell. On the opposite side of the argument were those who argued the Court, because it was not a majoritarian institution like the Presidency or Congress, should use its authority broadly to defend the rights of minorities (judicial activism). David Bazelon, a federal appellate judge from 1962-1978, said his standard was "Does it make you sick?" implying that if anything that came before him made him sick, he'd find a way to declare it unconstitutional.

Judicial activism is often associated with liberal causes, thanks in large part to a run of decisions in the 1960s and 1970s that struck down the custom of religious observances in public schools, expanded the rights of criminal defendants, and articulated a "right to privacy" that led circuitously to the famous 1973 decision that struck down state laws making abortion a crime. But judicial activism also has been used by the right, not only to strike down a number of New Deal programs in the 1930s, but in an earlier, appalling set of "freedom of contract" decisions that struck down a number of commercial regulations including child labor laws. More recently, conservative judges have articulated new doctrines on gun ownership rights (2008) and campaign finance regulation (2010) that reversed decades of federal and state laws.

The danger of judicial restraint is that it is too minimal, that it reduces the Constitution to use only in a few specifically-defined cases, such as the unlikely event that someone will pass an ex post facto law or a bill of attainder. The danger of judicial activism is that it turns the Constitution into the tool of whoever appointed the judges, with liberal judges using it to achieve liberal policy ends and to thwart conservative policies, and conservative judges doing the opposite. Too much of either threatens the Court's legitimacy and authority.

This controversy has been around awhile, as you can see. In October 1991, as the Senate debated President George H.W. Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, my college hosted P.N. Bhagwati, formerly the chief justice of the Supreme Court of India. (Justice Bhagwati, pictured at left in 2011 [swiped from firstpost.com], was personally acquainted with Dr. Ramakrishna Vaitheswaran, an economics professor at Coe.) Bhagwati related several instances of how "creative and imaginative judicial interpretation" of the Indian constitution had expanded human rights in that country. Later I asked him what would prevent later creative and imaginative judges from undoing human rights jurisprudence. He said nothing would, which is why the appointment process needs to take into account a person's judicial philosophy.
I recalled Bhagwati's talk this week as the Indian Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision from 2009 that had struck down the criminal law against homosexuality [See, for example, Gardiner Harris, "India's Supreme Court Restores an 1861 Law Banning Gay Sex," New York Times, 11 December 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/12/world/asia/court-restores-indias-ban-on-gay-sex.html?_r=0. The article also lists some recent, remarkable instances of Indian judicial activism]. The government, controlled by the BJP, is clearly hostile to gay rights, and Indian public opinion isn't particularly supportive. The lower court decision was activist, the Supreme Court decision restrained. India is not the United States, and the time may not be ripe for such a decision. Heck, it might not be ripe in America, either. But where minorities lack political power and public support, how else do their rights get protected?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Urban images from Arcadia

Arcadia cover
Arcadia is a recent novel by Lauren Groff (Voice, 2012). It is the story of Ridley "Bit" Stone, raised on a 1970s commune in upstate New York, and his life afterwards. It's an interesting psychological study, and her writing is justly praised for its lyrical qualities. Here are two short passages that bear on the urban project.

As an adult Bit gets a graduate degree and takes a job teaching photography at a university. Late one night, he walks through New York City, and stops at a diner:
He imagines snapping his fingers, making all the people in the diner stand, at once, and become their better selves. The woman with the cragged oak-bark face throws off her hood and shakes her hair and her age drops off of her like bandages. The man with a monk's tonsure, muttering to himself, leaps onto a table and strikes music from the air. Out of the bowels of the kitchen the weary cooks, small brown people, cartwheel and break-dance, spinning like upended beetles on the ground and their faces crack into glee and they are suddenly lovely to look at, and the dozen customers start up all at once into loud song, voice broken and beautiful. The song rises and infiltrates the city and wakes the inhabitants, one by one, from their own dark dreams, and all across the island, people sit up in bed and listen to it lap around them, an ocean of kindness, filling them, making them forget all the evil leaching out of the world for a very long moment, making them forget everything but the song. (p. 203)
Later he confronts his father, who is trying to build a new version of paradise in a Western wilderness area.
Abe, he says, it wasn't the country that was so beautiful about the whole Arcadian experiment, don't you see? It was the people, the interconnection, everyone relying on everyone else, the closeness. The villages are all dying now, small-town America is dying, and the only place where the same feeling exists now is here, in the city, millions of people all breathing the same air. This, here, now, is more utopia than utopia, more than your pretty little house out in the middle of the forest with only woodchucks for neighbors. Can't you see? All of we kids are here, almost all of the kids from Arcadia, are here in the city. We've gone urban because we're all looking for what we lost. This is the only place that approximates it. The closeness. The connection. Do you understand? It doesn't exist anymore anywhere else.  (p. 208)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Gentrification in the Mission District

(mural in San Francisco's Mission District, swiped from nytimes.com)

One of the key principles of the new urbanism is neighborhood diversity, defined by Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton (The Regional City, 2001) as "mix[ing] different kinds of people and activities in close proximity and provid[ing] places for them to interact" (ch. 2). (Their other core principles are human scale and preservation.) Neighborhoods containing people of different races, social classes, occupations and sexual orientations have more vitality throughout the day, a greater sense of community, and more public involvement. Randolph T. Hester (Design for Ecological Democracy, 2006) urges designers to overcome "shortsighted interest-group divisions" so cities "can be formed as wholes rather than balkanized" (ch. 7). Balkanized, as opposed to diverse, neighborhoods lead to concentrations of poverty which are dangerous and constrict opportunity, and enclaves of the well-off which lead to social isolation and ecologically-damaging car dependency.

The goal for lower-income neighborhoods, such as Mound View, Wellington Heights and the Taylor Area in Cedar Rapids, not to mention downtown, ought to be what I call "gentle gentrification"--attract jobs and people of means to these areas without pushing out the people who already live there. Andres Duany and colleagues (Suburban Nation, 2000) cite some "time-tested" methods of diversifying upper-middle-class neighborhoods, including row housing, mixed-use buildings, granny flats and "location-efficient mortgages," while distributing public or affordable housing as sparsely as possible (ch. 3). Hester notes resistance to such integration, mostly but not entirely from the well-off, and urges planners to "arm the citizenry with an understanding of the critical importance that increased diversity plays in making human habitation resilient" (p. 199). Our fate is collective, suggest these writers, however much we might want to buy our way out of it.

Where gentrification has occurred, however, it has rarely been gentle. When well-off people rediscover an urban neighborhood, the influx tends to drive up housing prices such that it becomes no longer affordable for less well-off people to live there. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that the classes mix uncomfortably, if indeed they do at all. The latest tales are from San Francisco, which seems to be the new Silicon valley. Well-paid employees of high-tech companies like Google and Twitter are moving into urban neighborhoods like the Mission District (Gonzales, Goode and Miller). Stories abound of residents impacted by the new arrivals, most touchingly a 97-year-old woman who received an eviction notice because the apartment building in which she lives is going to be converted into upscale condominiums. There are other complaints about the newly-arrived acting rudely, and rowdily disrupting the neighborhood's annual Dia de la Raza parade.

At its simplest level, what's happening in the Mission District is an illustration of how economic marketplaces work. In a free market, the price of any good reflects (1) how much demand there is for it and (2) how much of it is available. When demand for a good increases, as happens when a residential area becomes trendy, the price goes up to the point ("equilibrium price") where there are just enough willing buyers to purchase the available supply. Others who want the good but can't afford the new equilibrium price now find themselves "priced out" of the market, even if, as in some of the San Francisco cases, they've lived in the neighborhood for many years.

The San Francisco example is complicated by a number of factors that may not apply elsewhere.
  • Rental prices are controlled, though in California controls can be evaded if the property is removed from the rental market and offered for sale. 
  • The City of San Francisco is unusually crowded. 
  • One of the letter-writers to the print edition of the New York Times referred to a metropolitan growth boundary, which would have the effect of constraining supply of housing; according to the law of supply and demand that would put upward pressure on prices, not to mention limit options for people priced out of their old neighborhood. However, it's not clear to me how strong the growth boundary is. Calthorpe and Fulton, while advocating and defending steps taken by Portland, Salt Lake City and Seattle (ch. 6), list San Francisco among those "superregions" struggling with regional issues (ch. 7; see also Hester ch. 9). There has been regional planning since the 1950s, they say, but it has been "ad hoc, decentralized and incremental."
  • Very few cities have to deal with a sudden influx of millionaires, while about 1600 San Franciscans entered that charmed circle when Twitter went public last month.

New urbanists argue that there are public interests in neighborhoods that are vibrant and diverse, not to mention relatively stable, and in restricting metropolitan sprawl, sufficient to justify some government policy action. University of Southern California Professor Kevin Starr notes about San Francisco, "There has to be some kind of public support to make sure you don’t just have a city of the very wealthy, but people to make the city run.... You can’t have a city of just rich people. A city needs restaurant workers, a city needs schoolteachers, a city needs taxi drivers” (quoted in Goode and Miller).

The experience of San Francisco and other cities raises disturbing questions of whether market forces, social forces, and unintended consequences of public policies conspire to make those goals unattainable. If that's so, the poor lose out no matter what's done.


Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (Island, 2001)

Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point, 2000)
Richard Gonzales, "As Rent Soars, Longtime San Francisco Tenants Fight to Stay," npr.org, 3 December 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/12/03/247531636/as-rent-soars-longtime-san-francisco-tenants-fight-to-stay

Erica Goode and Claire Cain Miller, "Backlash by the Bay: Tech Riches Alter a City," New York Times, 24 November 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/25/us/backlash-by-the-bay-tech-riches-alter-a-city.html

Randolph T. Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (MIT Press, 2006)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A holiday tradition

Eli and I were over to the Brucemore Mansion National Historic Site this evening for their members' holiday open house. The rooms of the 1884 mansion are lavishly decorated, there was music on the Skinner organ (soon to be restored), and there were cookies and punch.. The mansion is about a block from our house, and is a Cedar Rapids landmark. We've gone over there before Christmas most years since moving to Iowa in 1989.

From my journal, 12/17/1991:
About 6, we went over to Brucemore Mansion for their Victorian Christmas. There was a contingent from First Congregational Church singing, after 7. When we got there, we were regaled by some performers from Youtheatre. Between acts, we toured the house and looked at the magnificent decorations, as we do every year. The decorations are pitched at the turn of the century, when the house was in its heyday, and give rise to all sorts of fantasizing. The Brucemore guides are able to answer most questions when curiosity strikes.
From my journal, 12/10/1996:
In the evening, we went to the Christmas open house at Brucemore Mansion. I had Robbie [aged 23 months] all psyched about going to the "Christmas house." We had unusual trouble finding a parking place, but once inside found it not too crowded. At first the Washington High School madrigals performed on the stairs, which was beautiful but made it hard to get upstairs. Later an old man played on their huge organ. We got to all three floors; Robbie was interested but couldn't figure out where the toys were. (Last year the lights sufficed for him, but this year weren't too captivating.) It was frustrating not to be able to touch what was there, but he did get to rock in an antique style wicker rocking chair. And he enjoyed the cookies, wangling two more than the one we'd planned to give him. (For the record, I had 5, Jane had 3.) 
From my journal, 11/20/2011:
We enjoyed a holiday tradition this afternoon, attending a members only open house at Brucemore. We walked over about 4:30 and were there at least half an hour. There were quite a few people there. The house is beautiful, and they seemed to have a few more rooms open on the third floor. There were Christmas trees in all the main rooms, and Christmas music playing on the organ. We walked around all three floors, then had refreshments (baked goods and hot apple cider) on the main floor. The peanut butter (I think) scotchies were incredible. I had two. Jim Kern was there, greeting people in his last month as Brucemore director. On the way home, Robbie imagined running Brucemore as an inn, which led to a proposal for a video game to be called "Inn Tycoon."
(main room, from the invitation postcard)

Brucemore's grounds and their beautiful gardens are open to the public, and it hosts a number of events throughout the year including a midsummer balloon glow, a blues festival, and the opening concert of the symphony orchestra season. This qualifies it as a civic landmark, particularly as it's only about two miles from the center of town. (On the other hand, many of its events through the year are pricey enough to be exclusive.)

(upstairs bedroom)

The house will be open five evenings during December: Thursdays the 5th, 12th, 19th and 26th (6:00-7:00), and Tuesday the 17th (5:00-8:00). Admission is $15 for non-members, $12 for members, and $7 for youth ages 6-18. Regular mansion tours are available during the day March through December, and are $7 for non-members, free for members, and $3 for youth ages 6-18.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cedar Rapids City Council runoff

Cedar Rapids voters get a second bite at the apple the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, as they choose among the four top finishers for two at-large seats on the City Council. The top city issues appear to be the budget, flood protection, street repairs and trust in government. None of these is unimportant, but they have pretty nearly crowded out issues of physical design and how we can all live together. For example, none of the candidates pushes discussion of the budget as far as questioning whether spending $10.5 million on buffing up a mall at the edge of town is a good use of scarce funds. Or whether the city's share of a $200 million ring road around the west side (which amount doesn't count maintenance responsibility for the rest of time) will pay for itself, given we're having enough trouble keeping up with the streets we have. None expressed any views on proposals for MedQuarter. None of the four candidates is visionary, though each has something appealing about them.

To the candidates, then! In what follows I rely on op-ed pieces by each candidate that ran in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Sunday 10/20/13, and which are available on the newspaper's website, thegazette.com; follow-up interviews with each candidate done this weekend by reporters Rick Smith and Melissa Roadman; and, where available, the candidates' websites. (Brutally frank aside: None of the candidates takes much advantage of the opportunities for depth offered by the Internet. Four paragraphs by Carletta Knox-Seymour account for over 90 percent of issue discussion on the candidates' sites.)

Carletta Knox-Seymour's Profile Photo, Image may contain: 1 person, smiling
Carletta Knox-Seymour, from her Facebook page
Carletta Knox-Seymour, who currently operates two small businesses (house cleaning and baking),

touches on  urbanist issues more than the other candidates. She told the Gazette reporters flood protection was her biggest issue as well as her top budget priority. She expands on this on her website, focusing her concern on the neighborhoods that need help with "revitalization so they can thrive in business and increase in housing." Her flyer mailed out late last week has three additional bullet points under neighborhoods: "retrofit existing buildings for multi purposes... sustain and strengthen core neighborhoods... [and] encourage land infill development." Her October op-ed cites additional concerns with youth at risk, and inequality in general:  "Far too many people go to work for less than a living wage." She shows awareness of issues of economic opportunity that most candidates (hey, most people) don't mention.

Councilman Ralph Russell
Ralph Russell, from cedar-rapids.org
Ralph Russell is retired after many years as CEO of the Howard R. Green engineering firm. I'm
impressed by his advocacy of economic development agreements with neighboring cities, which he mentions both in his op-ed and this weekend's Q-and-A with reporters. Not only is this approach a good way to avoid costly bidding wars, but it's a step towards controlling metropolitan sprawl. On the debit side he says his biggest issue is lack of trust in government. I'm not opposed to trust in government, but it is what it is, and over the years mainly seems to be a way to appeal to cranks. Yet he is the best funded of the four candidates. Could he be constructing a crank-elite coalition? Under community development he lists working with neighborhood associations in creating the city's comprehensive plan, and developing amenities attractive to youth. His biggest budget priority is public safety.

Chuck Swore's Profile Photo, Image may contain: 2 people, text and closeup
Chuck Swore, from his Facebook page
Chuck Swore has served on the City Council since 2009, prior to which he did business development
for a local contractor. He's proudest of pushing a "buy-local, build-local, employ-local" approach to flood recovery. On the other hand he's also proud of swinging the deal for Westdale Mall. In the Q-and-A with reporters he deferred to the city's professional staff on the big issues, while looking for "backburner" problems like train noise through downtown. This will be critical to developing downtown as a residential area.

Councilwoman Susie Wienacht
Susie Weinacht, from cedar-rapids.org
Susie Weinacht is the executive director of the Iowa PTA, and has served in a variety of civic and

volunteer capacities. She is not, in anything I've read, big on details, but gets much credit for principles. Her op-ed expressed concern with flood protection, as well as making economic development sustainable by "adding new business, and finding new ways to create jobs and encourage investment." She is specifically attentive to NewBo, Kingston and Ellis Boulevard. She told the Gazette reporters her budget priorities are public safety and infrastructure: "We need to infill; we need to have property tax on our rolls." To another question, she added: "We need to prioritize what I'm considering the rebirth of our inner city--urban infill rather than sprawl." Hear hear! Her website's cryptic issues page says she wants the city to "[S]upport and encourage stronger, safer neighborhoods and positive youth development."

In the first round, I voted for Knox-Seymour and Anthony Brown. While each candidate has something to recommend them, Knox-Seymour and Weinacht are distinctive in their degree of attention to urban issues and our common life.

Results from the first round:
Chuck Swore 7950 (24.26%)
Ralph Russell 6334 (19.36%)
Susie Weinacht 6230 (19.01%)
Carletta Knox-Seymour 4931 (15.05%)
Jerry McGrane 3199 (9.76%)
Anthony Brown 2622 (8.00%)
Leland Freie 1187 (3.62%)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The 'new normal' economy and place

(The poor in America face other barriers to opportunity besides physical ones.)

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is flirting with 16,000 this week, which would not only be a new milestone but also about double where it was in the early months of the Obama administration. Part of the economy, at least, is back. The rest seems to stumble upward, slowly: economic growth is running barely 2 percent a year, and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly above 7 percent.

Those of us who are optimistic by nature expect that, sooner or later, pleasant days will return. Unemployment was much lower through most of the 2000s--it was 4.5 percent in spring 2007--and maybe we could get back there? But even the six years of growth between 2001-2007 were less than optimal, as poverty rates rose, and median family income never got back to its 2000 level. For those of us with longer memories, the late 1990s had even better economic indicators: Not only did poverty decline, and unemployment dip below 4 percent for the first time since the 1960s, but the federal government reaped enough revenue from the boom that it ran surpluses for three years in a row. Of course, like the housing bubble of the 2000s, the growth of the economy in the 1990s was fueled in large part by a bubble in the technology sector. In what seemed at the time to be a wonderful numerical coincidence, the federal government ran a $70 billion surplus in 1998, the same year that St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire set a new single-season record with 70 home runs. In a bubble economy, alas, the achievement was as phony as McGwire's androsterone-fueled power surge.

For people at the bottom of the ladder, the 1990s were at best a respite from a long sour period. A number of coincidental changes to the system in the early 1970s--including the end of manufacturing as a major source of American jobs, the end of cheap energy, the decline of labor unions--plunged the poorest third of Americans into a perpetual funk of high unemployment and low-wage jobs. Inequality soared as those at the top were able to become knowledge workers, take advantage of the opportunities offered by globalization, and in some cases work financial wizardry to great personal advantage. The share of income going to the lowest 40 percent of the population dropped from 15.3 percent in 1968 to 11.5 percent in 2012. Poverty rose from its all-time low of 11.1 percent (1973), and through good times and bad has stayed around 15 percent.

All of this has me wondering what, if anything, is economically attainable for ordinary Americans. In October, economist Stephen D. King of HSBC published a troubling New York Times op-ed in which he argued the good old days are over, both for the United States and Europe. King argues the leap upward in living standards in the years after World War II was due to a set of happy circumstances the likes of which we are not likely to see again: acceleration of global trade as tariffs were removed, innovations in consumer credit, social welfare policies ("the safety net"), the entry of women into the employment market, and an upsurge in levels of education. King concludes that what we've got now is the new normal. It's now our choice how to cushion or distribute the pains. He specifically suggests "a higher retirement age, more immigration to increase the working-age population, less borrowing from abroad, less reliance on monetary policy that creates unsustainable financial bubbles, a new social compact that doesn't cannibalize the young to feed the boomers, a tougher stance toward banks, a further opening of world trade and, over the medium term, a commitment to sustained deficit reduction."

This week economist and Times columnist Paul Krugman also addresses the end of the good old days, reporting on a presentation to the IMF by former Treasury secretary Larry Summers. Krugman notes that "our economy remains depressed" four years after the economy began to rise from the bottom, and that it wasn't going so great even before the 2007-09 collapse. To King's list of happy circumstances he adds a sixth, the rise in the working-age population after 1968 when the baby boomers hit adulthood; the current more stable population means demand grows more slowly if at all for things like houses. Household debt relative to income rose from 1985 to 2007, a trend which obviously is unsustainable, yet even with that Keynesian push the economy didn't grow all that fast. A future with stable household debt and working-age population means adjusting our expectations to the reality of "an economy whose normal state is one of mild depression, whose brief episodes of prosperity occur only thanks to bubbles and unsustainable borrowing." He advocates continuing the Federal Reserve Board's loose money policy "for a long time."  

Krugman's prescription, depending on how long "a long time" is, runs up against King's desire for "less reliance on monetary policy." At the same time, while King directly addresses the realities of our common lives, I don't see where the political will is to pull off King's ideas. Which brings us to two implications for the concerns of this blog.

First, persistent stagnation is going to make living together more difficult. It will be harder for good things to be more widely distributed. The most likely political scenario has the rich fighting to keep their benefits, and those who have spent the last four decades at the margins of the economy finding their opportunities even more circumscribed. More diversity, more despair, fighting over thinner slices of pie--this is not a recipe for social harmony.

Secondly, everything I've written this year about the future of Cedar Rapids has depended on using development of downtown and surrounding areas to build connections with poorer neighborhoods. If there are no economic opportunities for poorer people, none of this works. Objections to proposals for development of "affordable housing " on the Monroe School lot may smack of NIMBYism, but they're spot on regardless. (I would prefer neighborhood-friendly commercial development, like a corner store and a family restaurant, which admittedly may not have impressed the objectors.) The stretch of Pioneer Avenue between 30th and 34th Streets already is full of cheap apartments, of widely varying conditions. Putting more poor people on that block is likely to tip it into a ghetto. Worse, there is nothing commercial anywhere near the area. Walkscore rates it 29 ("car-dependent"). The Mount Vernon Road strip, including a Casey's convenience store and True Value Hardware Store, is half a mile away. Where are these people going to work?

That's the question of the century, if King and Krugman are right: Where are these people going to work? Until that gets answered, I feel like the whole urbanism project is built on sand.


Stephen D. King, "When Wealth Disappears," New York Times, 7 October 2013, p. A23
Paul Krugman, "A Permanent Slump?," New York Times, 17 November 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/18/opinion/krugman-a-permanent-slump.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
Rick Smith, "Council Gives Strong Backing to Monroe Plan," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 20 November 2013, 1A, 8A [http://thegazette.com/2013/11/20/cedar-rapids-council-approves-incentives-for-two-new-projects-with-some-dissent/]

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Downtown, where all the lights are bright?

(People's Savings Bank, 101 3rd Av SW;
photo by me of an older photo in their offices, of unknown provenance)

Late last week came news, thanks to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, that this former bank building, occupied most recently by Wells Fargo, is going come April to be an "upscale" Italian restaurant called Popoli Ristorante. This is a triumph for historic preservationists, who worked long and hard to save this building, designed by Louis H. Sullivan and erected in 1912. It's an exciting business opportunity for general manager Brandon Godwin. And it's a first step towards redeveloping the west side of the river in the downtown area.

Popoli will join several other fine dining establishments in downtown Cedar Rapids: Zins', Cobble Hill, and the just-opened Syndicate European Pub (described by its owner, my neighbor Kory Nanke, as offering "elevated pub food"). I wonder how many upscale dining establishments our downtown can support? My friend Niles wonders whether downtown as a whole is going to be an enclave for the smart set?

He has a point. During the day downtown Cedar Rapids offers a variety of lunch places and coffeehouses. At night what stays open are mainly bars and upscale restaurants. (A couple notable exceptions are The Lost Cuban, which is open for dinner four nights a week, and the Blue Strawberry Coffee Company, open every night but Sunday. Both specialize in sandwiches. A pork chop, or spaghetti of the non-upscale variety, are harder to come by.) The theaters and the convention center are usually--though not always--pretty pricey as well.

I think it's premature to criticize downtown, which is in transition. Downtown Cedar Rapids, like any locality, obviously should encourage and welcome business investment, and such as has occurred so far has understandably responded to what is happening there now. The nature of future investment, then, depends on what downtown's in transition to, and also whether both options are still open given what development has occurred.

Right now downtown is a intra-city destination. As yet few people live there, and there's very little surrounding it, so it's an island of culture, food and (on weekdays) offices accessible mainly by car. Will this continue to be the case in the future? Without diversification downtown will remain something of an upscale enclave, vulnerable to downturns in the economy or changes in fashion. (In the early 1990s Cleveland, Ohio developed a former heavy industrial district near the Cuyahoga River into a fashionable destination called "The Flats," but within ten years the smart set had abandoned it for other destinations. Presumably the New Bo folk have heard of this?)

Another, better possibility is that downtown becomes the hub of a connected city. This is going to require filling in much of the empty quarters that surround it, and doing so in a way that attracts a variety of residents and businesses. A reasonable amount of foot traffic would transform, for example, Phong Lan, a wonderful and
(photo swiped from www.urbanspoon.com)

reasonably-priced Vietnamese restaurant in the MedQuarter district that currently seems to survive on take-out orders. A critical mass of people at all hours of the day and evening, the Jane Jacobs formula, would produce a very different downtown than we've got now... one with "vibe," to quote one Coe student's one word diagnosis of what is currently lacking, and one accessible to everyone in town. Very likely it would be able to support intercity rail service as well.

A connected, urban city needs more than a vibrant downtown. It needs lively neighborhoods which are more than collections of houses. Niles and I live in different parts of town, but neither of us lives within casual walking distance of a single restaurant or store. My Coe colleague Bob Marrs suggested that Mound View,
the neighborhood adjacent to Coe (with Dairy Queen, the Tic Toc, and Hy-Vee) is probably the only

neighborhood in Cedar Rapids where it is customary to walk to places. Not all parts of town have the potential to host corner stores and "third places" within walking distance of most residents, but where they can be built they would go far to revivifying our neighborhoods.

P.S.--Notice I haven't said anything about the casino, despite its presence on the near west side, practically across the street from the Popoli Ristorante. I think of the casino as its own planet, where people come and leave without doing anything else in the area. The fine dining establishments downtown, then, will succeed or fail on their own, without regard to the casino. That's probably true of the overall development of the downtown-and-surrounding-area, though given the space the casino will occupy it will be something of an obstruction.

P.S.S.--Mentally, I am woefully understaffed when it comes to local economic development. I hope in the weeks to come to learn more about this topic, specifically what research elsewhere suggests is possible here.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Talking about walking

This week we received a flyer in the mail from a City Council member running for re-election. He counts among his proudest accomplishments the approval of plans for redoing the Westdale Mall property. Well, I won't be voting for him. As I've already written, not only is the city's $10.5 million contribution outsized, but as a pocket bounded by multi-lane streets it does little to resolve issues of the city's future.

Designing a metropolitan area around the free movement of cars has specific negative consequences for people. A big, maybe the biggest, issue in this election is the condition of the city's streets, which are pretty bad in many places. Most candidates have endorsed a "yes" vote on the referendum to extend the one-cent sales surtax, with revenues dedicated to fixing the streets. I'm inclined to discount mayoral candidate Greg Hughes's complaint that the money was always there to keep up with the streets, but was spent on other things. Of course any expenditure has opportunity costs, and some degree of waste is inevitable no matter who's the mayor, but if all that money could be recalled and redirected to the streets we'd be hurting in other areas. Hughes's comments are true, strictly speaking, but not profound or helpful.

The problem is this: a sprawled city requires a lot of infrastructure, and with taxable property spread over a wide area will have trouble generating the revenue needed to keep up with maintenance and repairs. Even if the 2008 flood hadn't set so many things back, we'd be having trouble filling all the potholes. There's an argument to stop building new streets. As someone living less than two miles from downtown, why should my tax dollars subsidize developments farther and farther out? Which brings me back to crabbing about the money to facelift the mall. Let us move on.

Across the country, city planners are thinking urbanism, not redoing malls. All of a sudden, it seems, plugs for walkable cities are coming from a variety of places. "Cars are cars, all over the world," sings Paul Simon, but in the years after World War II the United States got a head start in automobile-focused development. In designing places around efficient car travel, we cut neighborhoods apart to make room for wider streets and interstate highways, made spaces between destinations wider in order to make room for parking lots, and for a long while stopped building sidewalks altogether. A more spread out society has more difficulty sustaining a public life, while those left behind are consigned to ghettos of extreme poverty. Effluents of auto engines pollute the air and contribute to climate change.

"White flight" was driven on the demand side by the hopes of escaping polluted, crime-infested central cities. Now data are emerging that the quiet and leafy suburbs have menaces of their own. A recent column in The New York Times's Tuesday Science section cites a number of studies to the effect that the costs of auto dependence "to both physical and mental health are hardly trivial." Long commutes to work, shopping and/or extra-curricular activities are associated with greater rates of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, exhaustion, stress, lack of sleep and days missed from work. The writer plugs Fortune editor Leigh Gallagher's "prophetic new book" The End of the Suburbs (Portfolio, 2013), which is certainly on my reading list.

I've also read the dangers to suburban children of cars is at least as great as the dangers to urban children of crime. No source I can put my finger on, though.

If future development is more walkable, more human-scaled, one of the heroes of this bend in the curve surely will be William B. Helmreich, a sociologist at the City College of New York who has just completed a book, The New York Nobody Knows, detailing his four-year project of walking every single one of the 150,000 blocks in America's largest city. Helmreich interviewed people he met about their neighborhoods, coming to discover that New York City, while large, is a very connected place. "Every block can be interesting," he says in the Atlantic post. "It's not about covering ground, it's how you cover ground." Walking, and public transit, allow for multiple interactions you can't get in motor vehicles, and so make for a more interesting place. Even cooler, Helmreich began his interest in urban neighborhoods as a boy, when he and his father explored the neighborhoods at the ends of different NYC subway lines. (They called their game "Last Stop." I might try it next time I'm in Chicago.)

(For the record, Cedar Rapids's Stoney Point subdivision lies at the end of the #8 bus line.)

Walkability is also a hot topic in Washington, D.C., where the Zoning Commission is about to begin hearings on proposed amendments to the zoning code that will relax some of the rigid statutes common to many zoning codes. Specifically, they will allow features like accessory apartments ("granny flats") and corner stores that are currently prohibited. Among other beneficial features of the proposals, they have the effects of increasing the population density of neighborhoods and providing practical places for people to walk. David Alpert of the Greater Greater Washington blog anticipates a lot of resistance to the proposals from people who fear changes to their neighborhoods, and is soliciting testimonials from people who need affordable housing, or who would like to be able to walk to stores. More power to him.

For too long our residential designs have valued security above all else, except maybe convenience. These are individual values, and worthy of respect. But we need to live as if the community matters, too.


David Alpert, "Is a Walkable Neighborhood Out of Reach for You?" Greater Greater Washington, 1 November 2013, http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/20655/is-a-walkable-neighborhood-out-of-reach-for-you/

Jane E. Brody, "Commuting's Hidden Cost," New York Times, 29 October 2013, p. D7

Stephanie Garlock, "One Sociologist's Epic Quest: Walk New York City, All 120,000 Blocks," The Atlantic Cities, 1 November 2013, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/11/one-sociologists-epic-quest-walk-new-york-city-all-120000-blocks/7431/

Rick Smith, "How Should We Fix Our Streets? Cedar Rapids Gazette, 3 November 2013, 1A, 9A, http://thegazette.com/2013/11/03/cedar-rapids-mayoral-candidates-find-little-common-ground/

Friday, November 1, 2013

Halloween 2013

We had 145 trick-or-treaters at our house, towards the low end of what is a typical Halloween on our street. (I'm already bracing for next year, when Halloween falls on a Friday!) In our part of town, at least, it is a major civic festival. And why not? Our street is well-lit, there are sidewalks on both sides of the street, and homeowners are both into the spirit of the thing and financially able to pop for piles and piles of candy. For one fall night, at least, the dark street is full of people, making the walk both safe and festive.

There were some memorable costumes. Any number of children, mostly boys I'm guessing, were dressed as Star Wars characters with glowing red eyes (that were, alas, hard for some of them to see through). A little girl and her brother came as Fern and Wilbur from Charlotte's Web. There were a couple box-like characters from the game Minecraft, which we recognized thanks to having teenage game players among us. The excitement was contagious, and I didn't mind contributing a little--well, a lot of--candy to fuel the celebration.

How did our block come by all those children? It is 2013, after all, not 1953. Quite obviously people come from elsewhere to trick-or-treat here. You can tell because they come in cars. That's fine with me, because not every neighborhood is as walkable or as welcoming as ours. Most park and walk, joining in the hubbub, but some drive from house to house, which misses the point by becoming purely a candy-amassing exercise. Join the group, I say!

Occasionally, very rarely really, a parent would ask for candy. Well, all right, I'm not judging. And there were older children who seemed too old for trick-or-treating but were just scoring candy. There were a couple guys who looked about 20 who didn't even dress up. I am not judging, I am not judging. I am, frankly, enjoying myself too much at this point to spend psychic energy on disapproval. So I am not judging. But, really, we should find you some other way to participate.

I saw no evidence of vandalism in our neighborhood, except that our next-door neighbor's sign promoting the public library book sale was ripped down. Even that could have been someone stumbling over it in the dark.

So, hooray for Halloween! And, now that it's the morning after, and I've picked about a dozen candy wrappers off the sidewalk, I have some newfound psychic energy that I can spend on disapproval. I disapprove of Doing Halloween Wrong. That mainly means detracting from the civic nature of the festivities.

My neighbor Lyz Lenz posted earlier this week about "Booing." Booing is where someone leaves an anonymous May basket-like package of Halloween goodies on your doorstep, with the instruction that you are to do the same for two other people. This seems on its face like a way to spread joy; I know some people are into this sort of thing, and if it amuses them they should do it, but don't inflict it on other people. Speaking personally, Christmas and birthdays and Valentine's Day are anxiety-producing enough without adding another shopping festival. Halloween can be for walking the block with your neighbors and their children... or, as Lyz says, "Devil worship and candy." Let that be enough.

More troubling are reports that Halloween is moving into the private realm. A recent post on the Christian Century blog expresses regret over the emergence of "trunk-and-treat," in which the Halloween traditions are moved part and parcel to church parking lots. The writer, Debra Dean Murphy, says:
I don’t want to get too heavy-handed with the theological significance of these rituals but there is something to the idea that we open our door to strangers on a dark, autumn night, a grinning lantern on the porch to light their way. It’s a small gesture of hospitality, a willingness to want to know our neighbors. (Of course it’s also about the candy).
There is room in our world for both private and public spheres, and in fact there need to be both. Whatever security we get in retreating to an enclave is counter-balanced by the loss of community in shared public space.

A Massachusetts correspondent reports all but ten of the children in his neighborhood went to stores instead of door-to-door. Same logic applies, although my first thought was, "You have 'shops right around the corner?' That's mighty cool!"

Friday, October 25, 2013

Filling in an Empty Quarter (II)

The MedQuarter SSMID folk and their consultants, the Lakota Group of Chicago, revealed more of their plans for invigorating this underused area last night at an open house at St. Luke's Hospital. (The first open house, mainly intending to solicit public opinion, occurred in May; my post on that event is here.) I found last night's event encouraging in a number of ways; though several nagging questions remain unaddressed, I am now confident this will be a positive development for Cedar Rapids.

The plan appears very open, particularly facing downtown. The blue dots in the left diagram below represent "gateways," which would consist of signage announcing the district but which otherwise would blend into what's already there. (The schematic drawing of the one across 1st Av from Coe showed a sign blocking a driver's view of Brewed Awakenings, but they assured me that would not happen in practice.) On the right, the yellow shaded area between the medical operations and downtown is projected to be housing, which would go far to connect the two zones and fill in the land space.

The plan also makes use of existing structures, instead of tearing them down; the historic Brewer House on 4th Av, for example, would be converted to office space. (On the other hand, the Knights of Columbus building on 1st Av was taken down last night, while we were meeting, and it's not clear what the plans are for other older buildings.) They propose to work with the existing street system rather than closing any more of them.

The most exciting aspect of the plan for me was the human scale of many of the facilities. In the district now are three enormous health care facilities and a lot of open space. Much of what is now open or featureless or underused would be filled in, and it looked from eyeballing it that the current sea of surface parking would be tamed somewhat. This picture shows what 4th Av might look like at its intersection with 6th St; if you can magnify the picture enough to see the inset you can see what it looks like now and that it could stand some improvement.

Secondly, a lot of what they're proposing would be at a human scale. With the hospitals, PCI, the convention center, and the new federal courthouse, I think this part of town has about as much massiveness as it can stand.
The small features depicted in the schematic above would enhance walking rather than making it more difficult. A green walk along 4th Av from downtown to 10th St would provide a connector that could encourage business development, which would of course lead to further walkability.

All that said in favor of the MedQuarter district's direction, there are some remaining concerns. I'd like to see more about how they propose to orient to Wellington Heights, the working-class neighborhood across 10th St. The PCI building not only closed 2nd Av between 10th and 12th, it creates a barrier between the neighborhood and the medical district (and the downtown beyond). That leaves 3rd, 4th and 5th Aves as through streets that cross 10th. Can they be made more welcoming, not only for out-of-town drivers, but for local bikers and walkers?

Secondly, I wonder about the mix of business and housing the district envisions, and how it will be distributed. Ideally, it would be widely-distributed, not just concentrated in the area adjacent to downtown and along 1st Ave. Wide distribution of businesses would provide a lively atmosphere during the day, and wide distribution of housing would keep the streets alive in the evenings. Thank you, Jane Jacobs.

Third, I'm hoping the completed district will have a variety of building types, including historic and not-so-historic buildings.

(Rental housing in the 300 block of 8th St)

Shiny new buildings are individually nice, but a district that's all shiny aesthetically fails and makes people uncomfortable rather than encouraging them to be out and about. Older buildings are easier for businesses and working-class people to rent. Health care consumers are predominantly older and upper-middle-class, of course, but this shouldn't become an enclave.

My May 2013 post on this subject: http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/05/filling-in-empty-quarter.html

MedQuarter SSMID website: http://www.crmedicaldistrict.com

Gazette story on the open house by Chelsea Keenan: http://thegazette.com/2013/10/25/cedar-rapids-medquarter-plan-moves-closer-to-reality/

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Answer me these questions three

A busy week, culminating in a trip to Skokie, Illinois, for the Midwest Writing Centers Association meeting, kept my mind occupied away from bloggable topics. So, three brief questions that occurred to me while I listened to people talk about college writing centers:

1. How difficult is it to find open spaces in an urban environment? My student Caleb, who is studying off campus in Chicago this semester, said one thing he misses about Cedar Rapids is how easy it is to get out of the city. Chicago has, thanks to its early planners, a run of public space along the lakefront, but that's often crowded, and how accessible it is depends on where you're starting from. I visited the Skokie Public Library for the first time, and noticed that there are very few tables. Plenty of chairs, many of them plush, but few places on which to set papers. I need to compare the new Cedar Rapids library next time I'm there. That night, Caleb and I had dinner at the Heartland Cafe, which has removed most of the shelves from its "general store." Both of these create more space in the rooms. Maybe this is connected to a widely-felt need for more open space.
(The "general store" room at the Heartland Cafe used to look like this,
but now has fewer shelves... picture from Heartland website)

2. Is there an ethic or unwritten law governing non-commercial use of commercial third places? One of the best sessions I attended at the conference was a presentation by four consultants from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Writing Studio. Their presentation drew heavily on The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg, which I have discussed in an earlier post. The Writing Studio aims at being a third place on campus for students, more hangout than tutoring room, and from all accounts they've succeeded. One of the presenters fondly recalled another third place, a coffee shop in his home town where he and his friends would gather after high school. They never purchased anything, nor did they cause trouble. They just hung out on the coffeehouse patio and talked. He reported the owner would threaten every month or so to kick them out, but never did. Oldenburg says in Celebrating the Third Place (Marlowe, 2001), "The best places are locally owned, independent, small-scale, steady-state businesses" (p. 4). Businesses need to make sufficient profit to stay in business. It seems in this story that the owner was being unusually forbearing, and that the teens should occasionally have made some purchases, but is there a line that shouldn't be crossed?
(Paper consultation at the UMKC Writing Studio, from UMKC website.
Putting green is not visible.)

3. Can there be virtual third places? UMKC does some consultation virtually, by e-mail and Skype. As the presentation went on, they discussed how they were trying to use social media to become a virtual third place. This is a phenomenon not considered by Oldenburg, whose books were published before social media became widespread. I would think not... the shared characteristics of the third places Oldenburg describes are (my list):

  • local, easily accessible from home, preferably on foot;
  • comfortable, where you could drop in by yourself and feel welcome;
  • relaxed i.e. you can stay as long as you wish, spending (if it's a business) some but not a huge amount of money; and
  • possessing a steady clientele, so that when you drop in you're sure to encounter people you know.
I suppose all of these do apply to virtual encounters, particularly if your computer's in your basement or your bedroom where you can stay as long as you want for free. Yet I think something is missing if you're not encountering humans in the flesh. And unless you find a quote from Oldenburg that proves me wrong, I'm claiming him for my side.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shutdowns and Sillypants (and the Statler Brothers)

(The Statler Brothers, from their website)

Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C., visiting our Washington Term students. On a Saturday afternoon walk along the Capitol Mall, my thoughts turned as they inevitably do to the Statler Brothers. The Statler Brothers were a top country-and-western group with a string of hits in the late 1960s and 1970s. Along with tight harmonies they exuded an old fashioned "aw shucks" attitude which was a powerful counterpoint to a rather cynical time. One of their less-well-remembered songs, but one that always comes up on the jukebox in my head when I'm touring Washington, is "Nothing as Original as You." The singer tours the sites of D.C., and finds it all amazing... but of course not quite as amazing as his lover back home.

Sitting in a hotel room in Washington, D.C.
Looking out my window at the miles of history
Somewhere in the skyline is the Capitol Dome
And the White House that just a few men have called home

The song was released in 1978 or '79, but there's nothing in here about the Carter administration, or Watergate, or the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Public approval of both President and Congress were at then-historic lows, but the singer found time to be impressed by all the physical manifestations of American history on view.

And today I saw the first airplane that flew
Saw a dinosaur, and a space module too
Got lost seven times on Pennsylvania Avenue
But even here there's nothing as original as you

It's those physical manifestations of American history that distinguish Washington as a place. This remains true in spite of the partial government shutdown, which was going strong while I was there and is still going as I write this. I was neither there expecting to show my children the wonders of Air and Space, nor was I a resident either anxious about the furloughs or guiltily enjoying a suddenly-easier commute. Washington was Washington, as far as I could see. The most immediate physical impression was that it was stiflingly hot.

Part of Washington is the familiar sites, like the Capitol...

...or Union Station

But what keeps me gawking are not the famous sites but the less-well-known ones, popping up in unexpected places. This is the Victims of Communism memorial, a couple blocks from my hotel.

Last year I found Daniel Webster...

...and took this selfie with former Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas:

There's the Old Stone House in Georgetown, the oldest structure in the city...

...and randomly-appearing embassies of countries like Ukraine

I saw a place where George Washington built two cabins in 1798. And on, and on. It may be un-academic to get too gushy about the history here, but it's important to remember this country was founded on ideals, and the story of America has been the struggle to make those ideals reality. All these historical impressions put the current shutdown in a sad perspective.

It is pretty clearly Republicans in Congress who chose the shutdown tactic. Either side could, of course, end the shutdown by making major concessions, but it was congressional Republicans who eschewed a conference committee over the budget, presumably because they thought they could get a better deal at or after the deadline (Wasson). It was congressional Republicans who opted to make their stand, not on a dispute about the budget itself, but on trying to repeal health care legislation they famously dislike (Young and Sanchez). Repealing the health care reform having been an overreach (York), it is now congressional Republicans who are trying to get something out of this, if not delaying or scaling back health care, then maybe some cuts in entitlements. [BN: Boy oh boy, do we need entitlement reform. But it should be seriously considered, not an afterthought at gunpoint.] Maybe take the heat off by passing a continuing resolution to cover only photogenic parts of government, like veterans' affairs and national parks.

House Republican leadership has thus far been resistant to allow a vote on the continuing resolution passed by the Senate, which could draw enough Republican votes in the House to become law. Their side of the shutdown is now about needing to get something to justify the effort they've gone to and the pain that's caused. Rep. Martin Stutzman (R-Indiana) was unusually inelegant when he told the Washington Examiner, "We're not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is" (Cillizza). But less tone-deaf Republicans are saying it is President Obama who needs to compromise, which means what? It's up to him to find a Republican demand he can give in to?

Republicans say they're acting on principle, and I'll grant that. There are ways of pursuing those principles, though, without tearing the building down and threatening the economy. You could try to do better in next year's Senate elections, and support presidential candidates in 2016 who will change policy. You could try to craft legislative changes that would win support from the Senate. You could hope public opinion will turn against the Democrats, and capitalize on that. You could work through state governments and lobby federal agencies to affect implementation. You could come up with your own policy. (Just sayin'.) Any of these steps would honor your supporters as well as the long American project that we are now part of, and to which all those memorials and plaques in Washington testify.

Meanwhile, the shutdown continues, but on a hot Saturday afternoon I had to look for signs of it. This is what those signs looked like...

...at the National Postal Museum...

...the sculpture garden...

...and the mall itself.

Note the energetic soccer game going beyond the little barrier. While I passed by, a man in a National Parks Service vehicle drove by, paused, and drove on.

People gathered on the steps of the Air and Space Museum, though of course they couldn't go in.

The Washington Monument was closed, but that was a long-term closure for repairs. How can we play the Washington Monument Game if the Washington Monument itself is offline?

There was even a chain across the gate to the playground at Stanton Park near Capitol Hill.

Of course the fence is only about two feet high so it was easy to get in anyhow. When one young girl headed for the gate, her mother reminded her the gate was chained closed. "Mommy has to lift you over the fence, because some people are being sillypants." "Me!" the girl announced. "Well, some other people, down the street," Mom answered.

[UPDATE 10/10/13: A list, courtesy of the Washington Post, of previous government shutdowns due to budget stalemates: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/25/here-is-every-previous-government-shutdown-why-they-happened-and-how-they-ended/. Thanks to Lwin Chan Kyaw for the link. Note that most of these were of extremely brief duration if they were even noticeable at all.]

Dan Balz, "The Shrinking Middle Ground," Washington Post, 6 October 2013, A1 & 8 [on congressional polarization]

Jonathan Chait, "How Republicans Failed to Understand the Democrats' Debt-Ceiling Logic," New York, 6 October 2013, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/10/debt-ceiling-and-the-conservative-bubble.html
[institutional stakes in this stalemate]

Chris Cillizza, "Worst Week in Washington," The Washington Post, 6 October 2013, B2.

Derek Thompson, "Why the Government Shutdown Isn't Anywhere Near Over--in 1 Graph," The Atlantic, 7 October 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/10/why-the-government-shutdown-isnt-anywhere-near-over-in-1-graph/280359/ [poll showing partisan polarization on the shutdown]

Erik Wasson, "GOP Blocks Reid from Creating Conference Committee on Budget," The Hill, 23 April 2013, http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/budget/295477-reid-to-seek-consent-to-convene-budget-conference- [Republicans blocked conference committee over budget in April]

Byron York, "GOP Congressman: We Stumbled into War over Obamacare," Washington Examiner, 6 October 2013, http://washingtonexaminer.com/gop-congressman-we-stumbled-into-war-over-obamacare/article/2536874 [thoughtful Republican criticizes his leadership as well as the Democratic response]

Kerry Young and Humberto Sanchez, "GOP Divided Over Spending Plans," CQ Weekly, 16 September 2013, http://www.cq.com/doc/weeklyreport-4343587?wr=RDlYTlRja3lSajVPdC1raFVHdTFKZw [Republican leadership plan to prevent shutdown is blocked by their own members]

Bike to Work Day 2018

This year's Bike to Work observation finds me in Washington, D.C., where it's mostly confined to one day, Friday, which I guess i...