Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Greene Square formerly known as Park

OPN Architects Inc.'s rendering of the planned Greene Square
(swiped by me from
Things have taken a strange and alarming turn downtown. Or am I being melodramatic? The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported last week that the Parks and Recreation Department have released revised plans for Greene Square Park that are radically different from what had been earlier proposed. Granted that it's only one square block of a mid-sized American city, but I think the change in plans says a lot about the city's vision for its downtown. I'm not liking what I'm seeing.

There is no question that Greene Square Park is currently underutilized, as indeed is the case for the downtown area writ large. Back in the day, it was called Washington Square, and it was the central park in town, the square bounded by the train station, the high school, the library and First Presbyterian Church. (See George T. Henry and Mark W. Hunter, Then and Now: Cedar Rapids (Charleston SC: Arcadia, 2003, p. 96.) As the town moved outward so did these facilities (except the train station, which was torn down in 1961, and the church which remains). The park lost its importance, drawing crowds for occasional concerts and, in recent years, farmers' markets, but being for the most part empty.

Efforts to revive downtown began in earnest as soon as the 2008 floodwaters receded. A new public library opened across the street from the park in 2013, and the art museum that occupies the original library space got a spiffy facelift. Away from the park, downtown has seen new and rebuilt offices, restaurants and entertainment venues. Ambitious plans to develop the sort-of-adjacent New Bohemia neighborhood have come to fruition, while a similarly ambitious plan for the Medical Quarter are taking shape. No less a luminary than Jeff Speck has been called in to improve downtown walkability.

But walkability requires more than just sidewalks, bike lanes and four-way stops. It requires places to walk to... and that requires people. By that, I mean a lot more people than can currently be found downtown. The next step in becoming a sustainable, walkable city with "vibe" requires round-the-clock residents. As of now, downtown Cedar Rapids is mainly for Monday-Friday daytime office work and some evening entertainment. A few condominiums have been built downtown to appeal to young people who want to be in the center of this action, but there are few if any housing options for families. Nor, if there were, are there facilities nearby to support them: schools (except for McKinley Middle School), grocery and hardware stores, or parks.

The Greene Square plan as of August was to add a children's play area. This would be attractive to visitors to the public library and art museum, but essential to families with children living downtown. As such it was essential to the transformation of Cedar Rapids from a city that requires a car to one that offered a compact urban alternative.

The children's play area could actually still be in the new plan, though I doubt it. I'm uncertain because the Gazette included two architects' graphics that are illuminating but not complete, and if the complete plan is on the city website I sure can't find it. The main impression I get from the architects' renderings in the Gazette  is gaudily pretentious, like Versailles on the Cedar.

Given my lack of artistic taste, we might allow that the sculptures and other gee-gaws in the drawing above are nice to look at. But, as Jane Jacobs famously said, "A city cannot be a work of art" (The Death and Life of Great American Cities [Vintage (1961) 1992], p. 372). A city needs life, which means people. The new design has no use for people other than as amazed spectators, or at most passers-through from the art museum to the library. Tellingly, the space is now to be called "Greene Square" not "Greene Square Park." The plan doesn't even include rest rooms.

What this says to me is that we in Cedar Rapids expect our downtown to be a showplace, for people to visit (particularly those who can afford an upscale restaurant and an expensive concert) but not to stay. To get home from downtown you'll need to drive your car out to your ranch walkout in a suburban development. (No problem, because gas is currently under $3 a gallon in town, which means it is guaranteed to remain under $3 a gallon for the rest of time.) Maybe you'll be living in the suburban area west of town that's sure to develop once we finish our $250 million interstate connector. If, on the other hand, you're interested in sustainable urban living, you maybe should check out St. Paul or Kansas City.


For the early version of Greene Square Park development, see Cindy Hadish, "Greene Square Park Moving into the Future in Downtown Cedar Rapids with New Design; Plan Retains Some Historical Elements," Homegrown Iowan, 28 August 2014,

For the latest version of Greene Square, see Rick Smith, "It's Greene Square, Not a Park," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 16 October 2014, 1A, 11A,

Sunday, October 19, 2014

CROP Walking

Early October in Linn County, Iowa, as in other places, is time for the annual CROP Walk to support Church World Service--a Christian ecumenical organization formed in 1946 to combat hunger and poverty. Numbers on this year's walk aren't available yet, but last year people from 26 churches raised $27,766.59 (including $150 in matching funds from Schneider Electric, and $70.09 "unaffiliated"). [Source is Ellen Fisher of the CROP Walk Planning Committee.]

Iowa weather in early October ranges from sunny and colorful--as, in fact, it is this afternoon as I write this--to miserable. For a long time CROP Walkers were blessed with nice weather, but these last few years it's been rainy more often than not. This year it was cloudy, and rained both before and after we walked, but during the walk itself it was mostly dry.

Why walk instead of just contributing money? I can think of three reasons why it's worth taking the extra steps to have this event.

First, for the donors, it provides an annual focus around which to give. Sure, one can donate money any time, but any time can be no time. Requests for charitable contributions come in pretty constantly, and ignoring them becomes a survival skill. Having one annual event around which to predict and schedule donations keeps time from slipping away. The need itself is hardly trivial--the Linn Community Food Bank served 30 percent more households in 2013 than it had the previous year, on top of a 33 percent increase in 2012 over 2011. Anything that draws attention to the ongoing problem of world hunger, including its Linn County chapter, is a good thing.

Second, for the walkers, it's a festive social occasion.
Departing from the park shelter after Dorothy Higdon gave the blessing
My church was represented by a pastor, several adult members of the congregation, and more than a dozen middle and high school youth.
Some of the Lovely Lane contingent prepare for the CROP Walk
We mingled along the trail with as many or more people from other churches. (In the past, there have also been walkers from Temple Judah, the Hindu temple, the carpenters' union and Coe College. I don't know about this year.) We greet friends and take pleasure in those who go all out, like First Lutheran Church with their matching purple jackets, and these costumed vegetables.
This year's CROP Walk featured walking crops
Finally, it urges everyone to get out and enjoy the metro trails system. A few years ago, the walk moved to the Marion Parks Trail from Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids. This was a good move: Noelridge is a fine and city park, with greenhouse, gardens, playground and outdoor pool, but walking around a track is dull compared to getting off on a countrysidish trail. The CROP Walk starts at Thomas Park in Marion, and follows the Marion Parks trail to Boyson Road and back, about 3.1 miles round trip. (The significance of this distance is that people in parts of the world have to walk this far each day to get water to drink.)
Along the trail, an opening in the woods
(revealing an under-construction subdivision, but as the Vogons say...)
Along the trail, a choice of paths
Water break at Boyson Road turn-around
Along the trail, a view of a mysterious other trail
Almost there... crossing the bridge over Dry Creek
Raising money for a worthy cause, in good company, while we enjoy the wonderful public good a trail provides--what a wonderful local tradition!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

In search of old 45s

Boxes of 45 rpm records at Washington's Crooked Beat
Some free time and lovely weather inspired me to a walking tour of Washington, D.C. record stores last weekend. The stores were interesting, the exercise did me good, and it might have something to say about urbanism to boot.

We begin at Dupont Circle, a wheel of pavement the spokes of which are Connecticut Ave, New Hampshire Av, P St and 19th St. The interior is a nice park, and the exterior has sidewalks on both sides, but I found it confusing to walk, even in light Saturday afternoon traffic. There are lights at each intersection, but the walk times are so few and far between that one is tempted to walk any time there aren't vehicles approaching. This is perfectly rational at a conventional intersection, but probably not at a roundabout.

West of Dupont Circle is Second Story Books, 2000 P St. It mostly sells used books, so its name is somewhat appropriate, although it occupies the entire building, and sometimes even...
..the sidewalk!

They did have a few LPs, mainly jazz, albeit a wide selection of that genre. Note the late Miles Davis album at the front of the middle box.

The 45s were in an alcove, with this inspirational saying posted above them.
What Cicero would think of a music collection without 45s is unrecorded, but I bet if he were alive today he wouldn't think twice about it. The staples of my youth have been overtaken successively by CDs and mp3s, so only the rare collector still traffics in these guys.

Next on our tour: Red Onion, 1901 18th St (corner of T St).

Now we're north of Dupont Circle and into the Adams Morgan neighborhood. The Red Onion is located in the basement of a building, and features mostly funk and hard rock LPs.

Outside, banners along the street celebrate the Adams Morgan neighborhood, and invite people to "Shop," "Eat," "Play" and "Live." This is a good example of place branding. I stayed for two weeks in this area in the 1980s during a short stint at the Brookings Institution, and had no idea it had a name. Now I do!

Up 18th Street at 2116, is another basement shop, Crooked Beat Records.
They claim a variety of genres (see sign at left), and sell new and used LPs and 45s. Their top three sellers in August were Spoon, Ty Segall and Insurgence DC.

Used LPs to the left, new to the right, 45s at the front of the store.

The view across the street.

Our final stop is Smash!, at 2314 18th St. It has new and used CDs and LPs, primarily rock, but as you can tell from the window display is distinguished by its selection of "vintage" clothing.

It also has 45s, but seriously? You couldn't have found another selection for the front of the box?

Three used record shops in a space of five blocks says something about a neighborhood. While each store had a few customers during the time I was there, neither the format nor the music itself is mainstream enough to attract squads of them. Ergo, rents are low in Adams Morgan. 18th Street has quite a few odd shops and little restaurants, but also small grocery stores, drug stores, a locksmith and an animal hospital--in other words, establishments catering to people's everyday lives. In contrast to Dupont Circle, which featured franchises like Panera Bread, Starbucks' and Books-a-Million, Adams Morgan has locally-owned businesses like the coffeehouses called Jolt n Bolt, L'Enfant CafĂ©-Bar and Adams Morgan Coffee Shop. There are places for parking, but the area is not overwhelmed by parking lots.

So, hooray for a walkable, livable neighborhood with locally-owned small businesses. My hometown of Cedar Rapids lacks the population or the density to do this on such a large scale, and it remains to be seen whether it can expand on the few efforts that have begun or will continue to conceive of commercial life in terms of franchise outlets and Super Wal-Marts.

Adams Morgan is a neighborhood that, at first superficial glance based on one walk-around, seems to have found the right equilibrium between gentrification and affordability. Maintaining that is surely tricky. How do you keep from tipping either to excess gentrification or insufficient capital?

RELATED POST: "Local Businesses," June 6, 2013

ON HOUSING COSTS IN DC (not differentiated by area, at least not in ways I can interpret): David Alpert, "How Fast Housing in DC is Growing Unaffordable, in 3 Charts," Greater Greater Washington, 8 October 2014,

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The future of economic inequality

Something is happening in America. Perhaps it might be said that something is happening to America. Maybe we don't all agree on what that is, but the current Real Clear Politics average has 27 percent saying America is on the "right track" and 65 percent on the "wrong track." The Great Recession has long since ended, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average set another record a couple weeks ago, but most of are not feeling it. Poverty continues to hover around 15 percent, worse in regions with a weaker welfare state. Jobs created since the 2008 recession don't pay as well as the ones they replaced. There are serious, in my view justified, concerns about the future of employment, particularly for those of average and below-average skills, not to mention the sustainability of government efforts to enable equal opportunity.

Everyone surely knows that income inequality in America (and elsewhere in the West, but spectacularly so in America) has taken off in the last 35-40 years after long-term declines before that. It may be that we ain't seen nothin' yet. There are three ways of diagnosing this trend. If you'll forgive the straw men in this brief and hurried post...
  1. Capitalist apologetics. Inequality is not a problem. The market has rewarded the productive: The benefits have flowed to those whose work merits them. If you're not among them, you can either strive to join them or writhe with unseemly envy. Meanwhile, our job creators could use another tax cut, not to mention regulatory relief.
  2. Temporary disequillibrium [where I was until recently]. The problem of inequality is temporary. The gains for the working class in the mid-20th century can be attributed to efforts of labor unions and government regulation, which were made possible by settled methods of industrial manufacturing. The shift to a post-industrial economy created all manner of dislocation, which obsoleted labor unions and a lot of government efforts as well. But once things settle down we can figure out a new scheme to provide justice for all. In the meantime get all the education you can.
  3. Handbasket to hell. The problem of inequality is here to stay as long as we allow it. People of great wealth have used their economic and political power to achieve even greater wealth, and are trying to lock in those gains for themselves and their posterity. For most people, economic opportunity is becoming increasingly elusive.
With all this, the release of French economist Thomas Piketty's new book could not be more timely. It is worth reading, albeit his painstaking approach to his complex argument probably requires reading it slowly. It is the culmination of decades of data collection on Western economies. Its sales figures--#202 on Amazon as of this writing--are probably due more to the urgency of his subject matter than to his scholarship, but it remains an impressive work.

The data marshalled by Piketty suggest we're in situation #3; while he suggests a policy remedy he thinks would be effective, he admits that enacting it is unlikely. A number of other economists, like Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, have taken him to task for focusing on economic inequality, and to a degree they have a point: If a rising tide is or could be lifting all boats, who cares if some boats are rising faster than others? Inequality is an outcome, and we're all about opportunity not outcomes, but here's the rub: There isn't a good metric for opportunity independent of outcome. And additional data from Piketty's vast collection suggest that the superrich are sucking all the air out of the economy leaving less opportunity for everyone else... even if educational attainment becomes more widespread. "Education isn't doing it," said University of Wisconsin economist Timothy Smeeding (quoted in Porter).

Piketty argues that population growth and the dislocation of the two world wars, along with pro-labor government policies, produced the exceptional outcomes of the mid-20th century West. With populations in the West mostly stable, and no more world wars, we can expect growth rates in the 21st century to be close to the long-term average of 1-1.5 percent annually, not enough to fuel great waves of economic opportunity or inter-class mobility. The driver of inequality is not so much incomes as it is capital, with the landed elite of 18th century novels replaced by owners of buildings, business capital, and financial capital (p. 118). Capital ownership, now as ever, "is always more concentrated than the distribution of income from labor" (p. 244), whatever salaries are being claimed by CEOs and financial wizards. Currently in the U.S. the approximate distribution of capital wealth finds the top 1 percent owning 35 percent, the next 9 percent owning another 35 percent, the rest of the top half 25 percent, and the bottom half 5 percent (Table 7.2). Concentration of capital wealth is further exacerbated by the tendency of capital to grow faster than the economy as a whole (which Piketty repeatedly refers to as r > g), meaning inherited wealth has huge cumulative effects (p. 246).

The last quarter of Piketty's book consists of policy analysis and recommendations. He makes a largely moral argument for addressing the situation through policy, to wit, that increasing concentration of wealth denies the "meritocratic hope" (p. 422) of the West to provide economic opportunity and a political voice for all citizens. Life was not pleasant for folk in the 18th century, unless you were Mr. Darcy or in a position to marry him. He (Piketty, not Darcy) argues for a global tax on capital, immediately admitting that it "is a utopian idea" (p. 515), which would require systematic and accurate financial information, and coordination among countries. This will help to keep the wealth of society churning, and to keep governments solvent so they can continue to provide social benefits of education, health and security.

Piketty's argument is not unassailable. The data are the best that exist, but contain a lot of assumptions and holes. If you believe that inequality in America is driven by productivity or some other measure of merit, he's not going to convince you. If you believe that government screws up everything it touches, a tax on capital is not going to be floating your boat any time soon. The coordination among Western countries required to enact this tax and the infrastructure to support it seems impossible.  But Piketty does provide the best documentation yet that economic trends in America and the rest of the West are driven by forces bigger than individual-level variation; that addressing them requires frontal attack not tweaking what we have now; and that if we fail to address them they are likely to continue until they become intolerable.

John Kenneth White (Barack Obama's America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion Ended the Reagan Era, University of Michigan Press 2009, p. 115) quotes from Benjamin Disraeli's 1845 novel Sybil:
"Well, society may be in its fancy," said Egremont slightly smiling; "but say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed."
"Which nation?" asked the younger stranger, "for she reigns over two... Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws."
Is a common life, or even a country, possible if economic worlds and destinies are so separated?


Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap/Harvard, 2014) with additional materials online at
Eduardo Porter, "Income Inequality and the Ills Behind It," New York Times, 30 July 2014, B1, B8

Do bicycle boulevards need a purpose?

I was surprised last weekend to find the place where we were staying was on a bicycle boulevard. A bicycle boulevard is "a street ...