Showing posts from January, 2014

State of the Union and places

(President Obama, from
By the standard to which I held Iowa Governor Terry Branstad two weeks ago--"Someone in a poor section of town, or a town that is seeking to be stronger and more resilient, would find little encouragement in this speech"--Tuesday's State of the Union address was not much, either. President Barack Obama justifiably spent more than two-thirds of his 65-minute address on the topic of economic opportunity, which is a huge problem at the core of most issues affecting American communities. He was right to do this, and his introductory theme was strong: Noting the widely-known contrast between super success at upper-income levels with the lack of opportunity in the middle and bottom, he appealed to American values, saying "Opportunity is who we are... The defining measure of our generation must be to restore that promise." He articulated the problem in a way that makes clear he gets it. But what followed consisted of quick d…


(Pete Seeger, from

If there were a community-building hall of fame, Pete Seeger, who died Monday at the age of 94, would be in it. Seeger, with a very average voice but a genuine way with people, began performing around 1940 with the Almanac Singers which also included Woody Guthrie. Even as a solo act, his concerts were never solo performances, but were built around teaching songs to the audience so they could be done together. The songs he brought--children's songs, work songs, early American songs, South American songs--had simple melodies and often powerful messages. Anyone could sing, he preached, and in fact everyone should sing. If you weren't hitting the same notes as your neighbor, well, that was harmony.

Seeger is also valued because he displayed public passion for things that matter, the things which enable us humans to live with each other: a clean environment, justice for the downtrodden, not taking ourselves too seriously. He lived for a long time in u…

Dogs on blogs

(Rufus, from
I discovered a new (to me) blog this week, "Another Place for Me," which is written by Gracen Johnson, a recent graduate student now living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. She makes excellent short videos illustrating current issues. A few of them feature her adorable small dog. Rufus.

In the most recent video, "Another Place for Me Winter Special: Dogs in the City," Rufus and Ms. Johnson illustrate how dogs can add to the life of the city. In a nutshell, dogs in a city means people walking dogs, which adds life (and eyes) to the street. This increases the potential for businesses to open where people can walk to, and by people we mean people with dogs and people without dogs. The more people, the more life, and the city becomes a better place to live. And we meet people, as I can regularly attest, having become acquainted with any number of dog walkers I regularly see in our neighborhood.

It's worth mentioning that in her vi…

Bibles and places

Aunt Clara kept her Bible right next to the phone In case she needed a quote when she talked to someone --"CHILDISH THINGS," JAMES McMURTRY
Christians in Cedar Rapids got a shock this week, if they were paying attention, when the American Bible Society ranked our city 96th out of 100 in "Bible-mindedness." Used to thinking of ourselves as a typical, upstanding, not-terribly-exciting slice of middle America, we find ourselves sharing space with such bastions of liberalism as Boston and San Francisco, down the list from Las Vegas and New York City. And we're below Madison? Seriously??

The American Bible Society was founded in 1816, and appears from its website to have an evangelical orientation. "Bible-minded" is a crude measure of fundamentalism. According to the post on the ABS website, the survey was done of 46,274 households between 2006 and 2013. Respondents were classed as "Bible-minded" if (a) they had read the Bible in the previous seve…

Condition of the State

(Terry E. Branstad, Governor of Iowa, from

Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad addressed the new session of the state legislature Tuesday, giving by my count his 19th Condition of the State address. (He's entering the final year of his fifth non-consecutive term, and is expected to announce his candidacy for re-election soon.)

The speech was matter-of-fact, honoring the state's traditions and making some non-controversial proposals. Branstad is not a dramatic person, Iowa is not a nation-state on the order of California or Texas, and Iowa culture doesn't seem to go for drama. To this blog's core question, what can we do to develop our common life, the answer seems to be: In Iowa we have a common life, and we prefer that no one messes it up. Even the Senate Democratic leader, Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs, found little to quarrel with in a post-speech interview with Dean Borg of Iowa Public Television. Borg had to probe hard to get Gronstal to allow that he wou…

Nothing says community like...

...a great big pile of Christmas trees! This has been a Cedar Rapids tradition for as long as I can remember. We take our trees to the Sac and Fox Trail parking lot off Bertram Road. The Indian Creek Nature Center uses the mulch to build trails.

Non-places, places of cloning, and virtual places

(shopping mall, from
One of the major themes in writing about places is variously called "the end of place," "non-places," and "placelessness." Beginning with Edward Relph in the 1970s, some observers have noted that as the world has gotten smaller, places have become less distinctive. "Supermodernity" (Marc Augé's word for the world we're living in) means:
the ease of transportation and communication means we're often more involved in getting from one location to another, and/or talking across distance, than in being in any one place;the surge in home construction in America that followed World War II has led to housing and area templates that are relatively inexpensive to build and easy to replicate; andas we move more, and travel more, we crave the comfort of familiar sights. So we get interstate highways, airports, shopping malls, motels, subdivisions and office parks that are virtually indistinguishable, and a w…