Thursday, December 29, 2016

What the hell, Chicago?

Source: Chicago Tribune
Eleven people were shot to death in Chicago over Christmas weekend, bringing the total number of murders in the city in 2016 to over 750 (Bosman and Smith). It has been a distressing year, to say the least, in the Midwest's largest city, and it casts doubt on the whole urbanist project.

The murder epidemic comes after a 25 year decline in violent crime in the United States, including in the State of Illinois, where the rate per 100,000 population dropped from 1039 in 1991 to 370 in 2014. Nationally, violent crime in 2014 was 51.3 percent of the 1990 rate (Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports, aggregated at As I wrote in August, there are at least 11 explanations for this decline, which is too many to be encouraging, particularly when crime comes roaring back as it has in Chicago this year. And if that's not enough to worry about, consider this: the number of people shot in Chicago in 2016 exceeds 3,500 (Bosman and Smith again). Were it not for advances in medical science the number of deaths by murder would be much higher, wouldn't it?

Confoundingly, but happily for the rest of America, Chicago's year has not been replicated across the country, and indeed most of the homicides have occurred on the South and West sides. The Times article notes that neither Los Angeles nor New York has had anything like Chicago's experience; in fact Chicago's 2016 total exceeds those of the two larger cities combined. Smaller cities, too, have had widely varying experiences. So, what is going on? And what can be done?

Arthur Lurigio of Loyola University, cited in the Times article, suggests Chicago's suffers from a combination of easily available guns, persistent poverty, and escalating gang violence exacerbated by social media. One of my students who grew up on the South Side has written feelingly of how his neighborhood became increasingly unsafe beginning around 2006, when he would have been eight; his conversations with law enforcement suggests that a mid-decade scrambling of public housing residents put members of rival gangs in close and dangerous proximity to each other. Meanwhile, the police feel hamstrung by politicians critical of police shootings of black youth.

Chicago's experience is of national interest, because when a lot of people hear "urban" the image they get is not walkable, sociable neighborhoods with opportunity for all--or the commercial meccas of Michigan Avenue and New Bohemia--but the image of crime-infested, dirty streets filled with drug addicts. Whether the issue is sidewalks or affordable housing, design form or corner stores, at the root of pushback is: Don't bring the city to my neighborhood. Because we know what cities are like! (See above.) I can relate to this, having spent an embarrassing proportion of my suburban youth scared to death of Chicago. And, frankly, if there are going to be 750 murders somewhere, I'd rather it not be in my neighborhood.

But the deadly ghettos of Chicago need urbanism; they are not examples of  it. The poor areas of America's inner cities and first-ring suburbs are the flip side of the suburban development pattern that created well-off areas on the metropolitan edge. Those left behind need urbanism as much or more than anyone else.
People struggle, and on top of that, in many instances, people have lost hope in their government. They've lost hope that something is going to change for them. And if we can't keep hope alive, then you don't have to wonder whether things are going to get better or worse: They'll get worse. --ALD. DANNY DAVIS, quoted in Bosman and Smith
Everyone needs access to economic opportunity--a difficulty even for the middle-class in these times, much less for the poor who have been cut off for decades by the suburban development pattern. That means redesigning, or undoing a lot of the design of the last several decades, in order to make our cities more inclusive. That means, in part, breaking down barriers and encouraging more spontaneous interaction. There are dangerous people out there, and they should be in jail, but even justifiable fear does not justify cutting off huge chunks of the population. And then blaming them when they don't prosper.

Investment in our cities is fine, but must be aimed at ensuring opportunity for all. Which brings us to the the interesting case of City Center DC...

...a development in downtown Washington with high-end shopping, fancy restaurants and super-luxury condominiums. Backers of the project point to the flow of tax revenue to the city from sales and rents; apparently at these prices it doesn't take many of either to generate some nice cash flow. But, as a discussion last week on WAMU's "Kojo Nnamdi Show" pointed up, the area has not seen the foot traffic you'd expect from a successful retail area. But more popular stores would not be "driving value upstairs," because condo buyers would rather live above Louis Vuitton than above McDonald's or Wal-Mart. All this proves, I guess, is that a lot of people don't want to live around a lot of other people, and some are able to pay handsomely for the privilege. I hope they're paying very handsomely, enough for Washington to upgrade its education, transportation, small business resources and social services.

But CityCenterDC is not a model for urban development. It's another example of what Michael Mehaffy (cited below) calls the "trickle-down" approach to development--"concentrating attention at the top and in the core, in the hopes that it will 'trickle down' to all"--albeit CityCenterDC was financed by a Qatari sovereign wealth fund rather than the local government itself. He calls, in the spirit of Jane Jacobs, for cities to shun quick fixes and instead
to diversify geographically and in other ways--to move into a system of polycentric complete neighborhoods, and find ways to catalyze more beneficial growth there... In addition, diversity in types, ages and conditions of buildings is also important to maintain diversity in populations and incomes.... Furthermore, while public investment is still important under this approach, it is not used as a way to "socially engineer" problems like affordability through direct expenditures, but rather, it is a catalyst for an alternative kind of pervasive growth that is more beneficial. This is an approach that treats the city as an organic whole, rather than a top-down money-making machine that can be tinkered with at will. (non-italics mine)
I'll admit to being often the pessimistic voice in the crowd, but I think, in spite of such Chicago-specific factors in this year's upsurge in homicides, that Chicago is probably just the first sign of fraying in our national fabric. President-elect Trump's bluster notwithstanding, we can't shoot our way out of this mess. Nor, the urbanists argue, can we blast our way out through big civic projects, no matter how many jobs they allegedly create. The only way out is by making great places by solving the puzzles of economic opportunity and inclusion. Maybe we could start with ice cream?


Julie Bosman and Mitch Smith, "Chicago Tallies Grim Accounts of Violent Year," New York Times, 29 December 2016, A1, A13

Michael Mehaffy, "A Tale of Two Futures," Public Square: A CNU Journal, 15 December 2016

Jonathan O'Connell, "D.C. Got Everything It Wanted Out of CityCenterDC--Except the Crowds," Washington Post Magazine, 8 December 2016

Pete Saunders, "Something Amiss in Chicago," Corner Side Yard, 1 April 2016

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Urbanist existentialism?: "At the Existentialist Cafe" and other stuff I've recently read

Works discussed:
Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Other Press, 2016)
David Bosworth, The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America: The Moral Origins of the Great Recession (Front Porch Republic, 2014)
Ben Kaplan, "I Love You, Cedar Rapids," Corridor Urbanism, 28 September 2016
Brandon Kendhammer, Muslims Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy and Law in Northern Nigeria (University of Chicago, 2016)
Katie Kennedy, Learning to Swear in America (Bloomsbury USA, 2016)
Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Paragon, 1989)
Kate Wagner, "A Pictorial History of Suburbia," Welcome to McMansion Hell, 18 December 2016

Heidegger and Sartre, drinking poppy tea
I could have sworn last night I passed out in my van
And now those boys are pouring one for me

I first encountered existentialism in high school French class--L'Etranger by Albert Camus--and it was not a happy encounter for either of us. Learning an unfamiliar worldview in a foreign language magnified its apparent weirdness to this Midwestern suburbanite. In In Search of Authority (Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), Henry S. Kariel describes Camus's "ideal of the absurd man" as the ultimate realizations that we are unable to impose meaning on our lives, that "there is nothing in the end except extinction," and that "our plans are simply ours and not derived from God, History or some transcendent Rationality" (pp. 172-173). I don't know what would have happened had I adopted those realizations at age 16, but I was not willing to risk even giving them serious consideration. My high school experience probably had more in common with the unfortunate M. Mersault than I was willing to admit; simply to make it through the absurdity of each day I needed desperately to believe it would somehow make sense in the end when my efforts would pay off. So, no existentialism for me!

That lesson unlearned, I've come to urbanism with a strongly utilitarian-positivist bent. I always want to know what things are good for, what works, to see the data. When I first read Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, 1961) on how cities work and the disastrous effects of urban renewal, it was her piles of evidence that spoke to me. When Jeff Speck in Walkable City (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012, pp. 179ff.) commends one-way-to-two-way conversions because studies have shown they're better for businesses and safer for pedestrians, that speaks to me. I like books like The Smart Growth Manual (McGraw Hill, 2010) and Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic (Knopf, 2008) and websites like Strong Towns and Place Makers and Human Transit, and speakers like Ellen Shepard of Community Allies. Alongside the utilitarianism are the ethical concerns of my Christian upbringing, though truth be told I think my utilitarianism has influenced my religious beliefs as much or more as the opposite.

But there remains some of the urbanist message that speaks to a soul I wasn't sure I had. Thanks to Sarah Bakewell's lively and intelligent At the Existentialist Cafe, I'm thinking I might have at some level been speaking existentialism all this time without knowing it. Urbanists, take note! The story of existentialism even begins over drinks at a third place, the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Paris. Bakewell's biographical approach to the story highlights the conflicts among this group of philosophers as well as individual twists and turns, but one theme that runs through all of this is the quest for authentic existence. On the other side of the same coin, to be truly and fully human is to be free. Moreover--unlike the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who found his freedom in the isolation of his cabin in the woods--for most of the existentialists authentic existence required not only engagement with other people as individuals but with rectifying conditions in society. It was surely difficult to remain in a free state of consciousness while engaging publicly, if only because public action requires compromise, and they were many of them difficult people. Bakewell pulls no punches in this respect, but it's inspiring to see great minds at work getting toward the root of things amidst the noise and harangue of conventional wisdom, and then trying to live their conclusions.

Existentialists might agree on one thing: There's got to be more to freedom than driving your SUV to Wal-Mart to buy a gun. Or being able to deny your employees health insurance coverage for birth control.

In Katie Kennedy's young adult novel, Learning to Swear in America, physics prodigy Yuri Strelnikov is summoned to the United States from his native Russia to help save us from being wiped out by an asteroid. He faces threats to his freedom from governments: American security agencies have decided he's learned too much and are determined to prevent his leaving, while at home Putin's government has helped itself to credit for his advisor's research. But the biggest threat to his freedom is his own lack of authentic existence, because he's been living in a scientific bubble (to which is now added a security cordon). It's an unplanned encounter with an eccentric girl--an urbanist event that is set in a very un-urbanist parking lot--which begins his quest for himself that drives the story. "You gotta learn to live life, not just save it," she tells him on page 108.

Photo accompanying Ben Kaplan's essay. I will probably get around to asking permission soon.
The non-fictional Ben Kaplan knows this. Ben has a mind like a steel trap, and can cite the relevant studies on any urbanist topic. But at the core of his connection to his city is the authentic experience of ongoing engagement with his neighborhood:
It felt like as I grew up the city grew up with me. A futon and Ikea tables got replaced with real furniture from Mad Modern. I met people who owned their own businesses, who volunteered, who had great big dreams for what this place could be. I got to follow the first cohort of the Iowa Startup Accelerator as an embedded journalist. I’ve had two serious boyfriends while I’ve lived down here. I’ve stormed out of CSPS during intermission in anger and I’ve watched the sunrise paint the skyline pink from my balcony while I rested my head on someone’s shoulders. I have a built a group of friends whom I love and who I can’t imagine my life without. I have learned that I will never make better falafel than what I can get at Zaytoon’s.
Authentic existence through engagement with others drives Ray Oldenburg's urbanist classic on third places. Oldenburg bemoans "the lack of community life in our residential areas" (p. 4) as American counterparts of the Bec-de-Gaz fell victim to the suburban development pattern and longer work hours. (They may well be making a comeback, though, which he celebrates in a later work, Celebrating the Third Place [Marlowe, 2001].) The negative aspects of this loss are partly empirical--higher levels of individual stress including heretofore-unheard-of childhood depression, crime, marital stress and divorce--but also spiritual: "The processes by which potential friends might find one another and by which friendships not suited to the home might be nurtured outside it are severely thwarted by the limited features and facilities of the modern suburb" (p. 8). Too much structure, however willingly accepted, means a less free and less authentic existence.

David Bosworth's book is about virtue not being, and he doesn't call himself an existentialist, but as he documents the many ways "Evangelical Mammonism" has perverted America's core principles ("virtue"), they invariably involve a gradual surrendering of engaged, authentic existence. Writing in the wake of the 2008 recession, which surely was as much a moral failure as a financial one, he dissects ways that the stories we tell ourselves obstruct us from authentic existence by pretending that the most imminent threats to our freedom aren't making our choices for us.
The problem hasn't been just a few "bad apples," nor even a mismanaged orchard on the left or the right, but the long-term revision of a cultural environment whose "moral field" we all share and for whose current ill health we are collectively, if not equally responsible. To make sense of that decline, we need to consider instead a broader set of ruling ideas, managerial decisions, and architectural designs that, taken together, have slowly revised the underlying logic of everyday experience and so, too (if often cryptically), our conventional beliefs about the good, the true, and the beautiful. (p. 2)
We have medications to combat sadness (ch. 4) and aging (ch. 7) which may not make us feel any happier or younger but surely are making some people richer when we buy them. Disney World (ch. 3), nostalgic political ideologies (ch. 5) and various stripes of electronic media (ch. 8) all peddle fantasies of how good life could be when purged of the messiness of other people.
The virtue of [Disney's] moral logic depends, finally, on the truth of its Mammonite claim that more (profits for the seller, consumption for the buyer) must equal better. It requires that we agree to believe in the Magic Moment and in the Fable of Innocence, and that we heed the crooning voice of its animated conscience that "no request is too extreme." (p. 77)
 And so much manufactured noise penetrates public spaces, like the banks of televisions in the airport lounge where he tries to read, that the clear message is "THANK YOU FOR NOT THINKING" (p. 17).

Swiped from
Urbanists trying to mitigate the suburban experiment will note the marketing of housing developments similarly elevated consumption at the expense of virtue: clean, leafy and safe spaces in which you could build your dream house with its dream den and dream television. The Federal Housing Authority and local zoning, as well as official eagerness to flatten neighborhoods to make room for interstate highways, bear a lot of responsibility for the suburban development pattern we've inherited (Wagner). But a lot of people were eager to buy what they were selling. (And, I've been finding, are pretty defensive about how what they've bought is responsible for the state of the world.)

The struggle for free, authentic existence also goes on in the predominantly Muslim sections of northern Nigeria, where Brandon Kendhammer did the fieldwork documented in Muslims Talking Politics. His interviewees are voting to impose Islamic law on themselves, seemingly an odd choice from a Western perspective. Yet these Nigerians are working out in their political conversations what it means to be both democratic and faithful to Islam. While rejecting a society unmoored from what Bosworth calls "virtue," they also reject the more imminent threat to their freedom represented by the would-be totalitarians of Boko Haram. (See chapters 6 and 7. By the way, Kendhammer's early chapter bring Americans up to speed on political Islam, particularly shariah law which has been made a bogeyman in our security policy discussions. You're not thinking freely if you don't understand what you're being made to be afraid of.) Kendhammer concludes: "Based on the evidence I've gathered here, what Nigeria Muslims seem to want from a reconstructed system of Islamic law is not (with the exception of Boko Haram's small community of participants and supporters) the creation of an 'Islamic state' governed according to some harsh reimagining of the Arabian past but a political and legal system that renders the outcomes of a new and unstable democratic government a little less uncertain and a little more just" (p. 22).

The threat to freedom in the West does not come from radical Islamists--although, just to make sure, some state legislature (Oklahoma?) has recently barred the use of shariah in the state's legal system. Our Boko Haram is a more subtle enemy, the cultural messages that seduce us away from seeing the probability that our freedom--our most authentic human experience--lies outside the gates, physical or psychic, that we've bought for ourselves. We can invite people into our homes, however remote their location, but a hand-picked group of friends in a private setting is hardly all there is to life. In the gospels of the New Testament, the risen Christ almost always appears to people outside of their safe spaces (outside an Empty Tomb, after a long night of fruitless fishing, on the roads to Emmaus and Damascus). Can it be that authentic engagement with others, like authentic engagement with God, also requires us to get out of spaces where we think we are in control? Our consciousness needs to be free from government coercion, but also from seduction by commercial power, and maybe most of all from our own desire for comfort! And from ambient noise.

Bakewell shows us the existentialists didn't agree on much, changed their minds a lot, and were often wrong. That's all okay, as long as we take on the strenuous work of asserting our free consciousnesses against corporations who are selling us individualism and politicians who are selling fear. That's a project for each individual, but implies a role for government in removing those barriers (one-way streets, lack of sidewalks, exclusionary zoning, commercial policies that disadvantage small businesses, and so forth) to walkability, which is prerequisite to engagement with others.

"Existentialism," The Cry,
C.S. Wyatt. "The Existential Primer,"

Friday, November 25, 2016

Black Friday Parking 2016

Entrance to Westdale off 33rd Avenue...
Decidedly unwalkable
In 2013 the City of Cedar Rapids awarded $11.7 million in economic development tax breaks for the redevelopment of Westdale Mall, a 1970s creation that had fallen on hard times what with the Internet and an even grander mall down the road in Coralville. Two years later, the city provided guarantee for an $11.5 million bank loan. The original plan had a fair amount of greenwashing in it--walking trails, affordable housing for the elderly--that disappeared over time as costs mounted.

This year's Black Friday Parking walk reveals what taxpayers helped buy. While there is still ongoing construction, what remains on the site are stores but without the public features the mall used to offer: a place to walk (albeit one you had to drive to get to), a common area, public restrooms, and a warm place to wait for the bus. When the Super Wal-Mart is kicking your ass on walkability, you've got problems.

What also remains on site is parking. A lot of parking. J.C. Penney's was doing a brisk business Friday afternoon, but even so there was plenty of parking outside.

The parking lots of Westdale were at best 50 percent full. While it's true that the Black Friday phenomenon may be losing its commercial mojo, and that the highly popular University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team was playing archrival Nebraska this afternoon, it's fair to say that the new Westdale has vastly overbuilt parking. I don't know whether it's due to city requirements or the developer's choice, but either way there are civic costs to overloading the town with parking lots. Someone is on the hook for keeping them in repair, plowing them, &c. The adjoining streets are a dreadful mix of car traffic and unattractive shopping plazas full of chain stores and restaurants:
Edgewood Rd looking north from 29th Street

Edgewood Road view of one of the plazas that comprise the new Westdale
Down the street at the big box stores, the Black Friday parking story was much the same, albeit the parking lots were somewhat less frightening to walk across. Wal-Mart's parking lot was about 55 percent full.
Near the store

Farther out
Plenty of parking at the strip mall next door
Target's lot was I'd guess about 40 percent full.

Westdale Mall-That-Was sits on a triangle formed by three stroads that truly are traffic sewers: Edgewood Road, Wiley Boulevard and Williams Boulevard. That's a lot of accumulated bad planning, and a lot of surface parking, but now that's all water under the bridge. Those costs are sunk, that ship has sailed. It can't have been worth $11.7 million to polish it, but I'm pretty sure it's not worth trying to impose urbanism on it either. It should at least serve as an object lesson for future development: Let whatever you do be human-scaled, let it be walkable, and let development decisions rely on market mechanisms like price signals instead of how much pull a given developer has with the city government.
A cold-looking blogger waits for the bus.
To quote our new state motto, "Suck it up, buttercup!"
"Black Friday Parking," Strong Towns, 25 November 2016
Sarah Kobos, "Black Friday Proves We Have Too Damn Much Parking," Modern Cities, 23 November 2016, 
B.A. Morelli, "'Open for Business,'" Cedar Rapids Gazette, 20 November 2016, 1A, 7A

LAST YEAR'S MODEL: "Black Friday Parking," 27 November 2016

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Election and Our Common Life

I am, I’m afraid, not ready to make nice.

Despite calls from such worthies as Barack Obama and ChuckMarohn, and the rather clear results in the Electoral College count, I find myself unreconciled to the results of the 2016 presidential election. President-elect Donald J. Trump ran a campaign that was relentlessly antithetical to the notion of a common life, and his election stands as a repudiation of the core of that concept. This appalling result is the more hard-to-take because it was unexpected, but even a previously-expected Trump victory would have been a calamity.

I began this blog 3 ½ years ago in an effort to corral all the material I was reading about the concept of place. The more I read and wrote, the more I was led to an understanding of place that is centered on people, and so the challenges places face in the 21st century are precisely those faced by people: economic opportunity on a broad scale hasn’t caught up to globalization and automation; environmental challenges (pollution, climate change, &c.) both threaten and are threatened by life as we know it; and governments everywhere are sinking into ever-deeper financial holes. All of this means, at a fundamental level, we must accommodate ourselves to diversity—we simply cannot afford financially or environmentally to live apart from all the people we don’t like—and then to celebrate the wealth of ideas and practices it brings. The better-off might declare themselves exempt from the realities everyone else faces, but sooner or later prosperity in the 21st century comes down to successful, inclusive, sustainable communities.

So for all the issues and scandals and corrosive rhetoric that made the 2016 election the most unpleasant in anyone’s memory, the core issue for me was inclusion. That meant, of course, looking past the very real weaknesses of Hillary Clinton: the scandals, her frequent personal ham-handedness and naked ambition, her lack of vision, and her inability even to resemble a change agent to an electorate screaming for change. Chicago blogger Pete Saunders notes:
Set aside Hillary Clinton's vast political and public policy experience; I agree, there's probably been no one more qualified to step into office and hold the reins from day one.  But that's precisely what the electorate was saying it did not want.  Hillary Clinton is about as establishment as establishment gets -- a political insider with close ties to Wall Street, and a hint of corruption thrown in.  She was never going to be a change agent, and in retrospect she shouldn't have been asked to try to be one.  That led to lower energy among traditional Democratic supporters, who couldn't match the intensity of Trump's followers.
That having been said, Clinton seems to me no more compromised personally or ethically than the average politician, albeit in somewhat different ways. She’s no saint, but neither is Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Bernie Sanders or anyone else you can name. A lot of her enhanced bad reputation is thanks to WikiLeaks and the relentless efforts of congressional committees to discredit her. Compare the amount of scrutiny she’s received over her political career with Donald Trump, who didn’t even release his tax returns. Thanks to a multi-million dollar out-of-court settlement of fraud cases involving Trump University announced this week, his business dealings will remain mysterious.

I understand conservative policy preferences—I used to be one, and still have some sympathies in that direction. We don’t have to agree with everything they’re selling, but surely limited government, traditional values and a strong military are occasionally nice to have around. I understand people attached to the Republican Party. But I find it difficult to swallow that any of that can take precedence over Trump’s repeated middle finger to America. What needs to be clear to conservatives is that to the extent their ideas are connected with racism and other equally noxious forms of bigotry—and Trump’s campaign prominently featured them all, and his naming Steve Bannon as his chief strategist is far from being a hopeful sign—it discredits the whole set of ideas. It may not be immediately apparent, what with Republicans dominant in all branches of the national government and in most states, but in the longer term it is not a successful strategy, much less a moral one. (Says who? asks Trumpworld, noting that exit polls gave him 34% of the Latino vote and a majority among white educated women.)

Donald Trump on women: video video more videos 

Donald Trump on immigrants: video 

Donald Trump on judge in his fraud case: video   

Donald Trump on Muslims: video video video

Donald Trump on the Khans, gold star parents  video

Donald Trump on John McCain video

Donald Trump's collection of Twitter hates

Donald Trump on climate change

Donald Trump on torture

Add in the name-calling (Lying Ted, Crooked Hillary, Little Marco) and that's a lot to overlook. If only Overlooking were an Olympic event, right?

Trump supporters in St. Clairville, Ohio. Source:
Some people found Trump’s spewings refreshingly alternative to “political correctness,” whatever the hell that means. Other people don’t approve, but are able to overlook it so they can get tax cuts, or an end to Obamacare, or the right kind of Supreme Court (pun intended). Those seem like issues that can wait, that we can discuss after we’ve first decided to live together in community. If the price of stricter policies on abortion, or tax cuts on upper incomes, is sidling up to Trump and his friends, that may not be worth it. I sure hope it isn’t anyway.

So I can’t agree with Chuck Marohn, in his recent podcast “Elections 2016”, that both Clinton and Trump were “despicable.” Interestingly, Marohn then discusses a moving interview with the church historian Fr. John Dominic Crossan, motivated by Marohn's understanding (which I share) that America is headed for a rough patch, and that only by looking past our differences to higher ideals will we get through it. On that point, surely, Trump and Clinton are not equivalently despicable. It was Trump who repeatedly provoked division among Americans, who legitimized hateful rhetoric, and who used those to promote his own candidacy. It is not enough to say, hey, the election’s over and Trump won, time to move on. No other major party presidential candidate of my lifetime remotely resembles the campaign he just ran for opportunistic nastiness. Because of Trump, the fabric of America has been torn and will be a long time healing.

Kristen Jeffers, "Election Breakdown (and a Call for Self-Care)," Black Urbanist, 15 November 2016 
Leonard Pitts Jr, "Trump Presidency Means Mourning in America," Miami Herald, 11 November 2016
Pete Saunders, "'Whitelash'," The Corner Side Yard, 9 November 2016
Steven Shultis, "This is Also What Democracy Looks Like," Rational Urbanism, 13 November 2016

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A silent but needful protest

At Coe College, where I teach, nearly 100 members of the community responded yesterday to a call by the student organization Multicultural Fusion to stand in silent protest during the noon hour. Late last week, a poster like this one...

...was defaced with swastikas. The group's call was spread by David McInally, President of the college, and Kristin Hutson, college chaplain, and the protesters included faculty and staff as well as students.

I counted about 30 there shortly after I arrived, but then a whole bunch more came so we might have had 100. We stood in a mass in front of the Union; those in front, the first arrivers, held posters of the type that was defaced. We stayed silent, though I smiled at people I knew, and a reporter for the campus newspaper went about interviewing some of us. People on their way to the cafeteria mostly ignored us, but a few smiled. One young (white) man shouted twice with evident irony, "All white people are racist!" Not all seeds bloom at once.

On one level, this response might seem like overkill, an excessive reaction to what surely was a petty act by a maladjusted young person. But I don't think it is overkill. Our common life, in Cedar Rapids, in America, on planet Earth, depends on our ability to live with each other, arguably moreso than ever before. That's what this is all about... not casting individuals or groups as victims, which can only lead to the pointless competition I call the Victim Olympics. Let's not play that.

An act against any part of the community, whether it be the act of a young vandal, or any of the vile and disgusting things Donald Trump has spewed about assorted groups he wants to stigmatize for fun and profit, is an act against the whole community. And so it's right the whole community should rise up and condemn it, because in doing so the community reaffirms its own existence.

MORE ON DIVERSITY: "Strength through Diversity (II)," 9 March 2014,

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Community Allies: the virtue of locally-owned businesses

Ellen Shepard of Community Allies
As Cedar Rapids prepares to welcome two more strip malls on the edge of town, and one of our malls announces a new franchise tenant, it's instructive and inspiring to hear evidence that the most potent tax-gathering areas in towns of any size are downtowns and Main Streets, and that locally-owned businesses contribute far above their weight when it comes to developing strong communities. Those messages were crisply presented by Ellen Shepard in a talk Friday at Loyola University's Center for Urban Research and Learning. Ms. Shepard is the founder and CEO of Community Allies, which works with communities to develop organizations and leadership, facilitate community engagement, and "to grow stronger from within." Prior to that she headed the chamber of commerce in Andersonville, a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago.

I said in an early piece for this blog that I believed local businesses like Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse were more valuable to the city than national chains like the Caribou Coffee a block away. But I didn't have the evidence to tell me whether that was intuition or prejudice. Shepard presented a plethora of evidence from recent studies to back up that intuition:
  • A 2005 study in Andersonville by Civic Economics found of every $100 spent at locally-owned businesses, $68 stays in the area, while $32 buys supplies that must be imported from elsewhere. Of every $100 spent at a non-local business, $43 stays, $57 leaves. She used the example of Starbucks, "a pretty good chain" in terms of how they treat their employees, and one that doesn't demand subsidies or infrastructure, but the corporation uses one firm for accounting and one law firm, and one graphic artist, and those are probably not located in the town where you're patronizing Starbucks.
  • A study of businesses in Lane County, Oregon, found the cost to government of a job produced is many times larger for non-local than for local businesses.
  • Old Pasadena, California (local businesses, traditional development pattern) outperforms New Pasadena (national chains, suburban development pattern) 2-1 in sales tax revenues.
  • A relatively high ratio of firms-to-workers in a town correlates with better economic growth (Harvard Business Review, 2010) and per capita income growth (Economic Development Quarterly, 2011).
  • A study by the University of Leeds found increased imports of consumer goods in Britain had created a 38 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions during the period studied.
Shepard spoke on the eve of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but didn't refer to it at all; in fact, she argues, "the solutions to many of our most entrenched problems are likely to come from the bottom up not the top down." She urged people to "go to our communities, to our local elected officials, and to our landlords to champion locally-owned small businesses." In practical terms this means having:
  • access to capital
  • a level playing field i.e. governments should stop favoring big corporations through subsidies, infrastructure and awarding contracts
  • laws against monopolies enforced
  • laws that allow cooperative ownership of real estate and community investments. While somewhat off topic, she also suggested the effects of gentrification also could be mitigated by community land trusts which, if formed early enough, could buy up properties to control the rise in rents
  • easing business licensing, permitting and zoning, which are nearly impossible in Chicago due to the strong effect of political influence
I would add that citizens need to insist on more long-term thinking from their governments and less emphasis on instant results (see Kobos 2016Our craving for “new” tax dollars combined with cheap land has resulted in a misguided 50-year habit of continuous greenfield development), and in their capacity as consumers to consider the destructive impacts on their communities of choices based on price, habit and convenience.

I'm not opposed to national policies like minimum wage laws, and I am not opposed to seeing Donald J. Trump's bilious campaign get decisively defeated, but I think this community-based approach could go much farther to develop strong, inclusive local economies that would in turn help us face other seemingly intractable 21st century issues like climate, energy, diversity and government finance.

The Coffee Shop near Loyola's campus.
Within a block are a Starbucks and two Dunkin Donuts.

Civic Economics,
Community Allies,
Democracy Collaborative,
Institute for Local Self-Reliance,
Strong Towns, "The Wal-Mart Index: Results of Our Big Box Data Collection Are In," Strong Towns, 3 August 2016,

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Snout houses? In Oakhill-Jackson??

Oak Hill Jackson is a historic neighborhood located south of downtown Cedar Rapids. Through most of the 20th century it was home to many of our town's African-American citizens and several thriving congregations. It's in a low-lying area near the river, and suffered considerable damage in the 2008 flood.

Now Oak Hill Jackson stands to benefit from its proximity to the burgeoning New Bohemia commercial and residential district. How the process of gentrification will play out here remains to be seen, but some infill housing construction has begun. I was rather shocked to see two houses going up on 9th Avenue, next to the historic church that now houses New Jerusalem Church of God, with garages in front. This anti-social design has been widely derided. Andres Duany and his co-authors, in Suburban Nation (North Point Press, 2000) say garage-front houses work against traditional neighborhoods in two ways: removing the "eyes on the street" that make streets feel safe to walk, and removing the signs of human presence and activity that make neighborhoods interesting and thus desirable to walk.

So why is this style of house still being built? And why in this historic neighborhood? Could a form-based code prevent this?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One successful triangle

A recent PBS News Hour story examined the development in three cities--Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco--of triangular spaces created by streets (like Broadway in New York City) angling across the city's grid pattern. These odd little patches have been transformed into pedestrian-friendly plazas including places to sit as well as walk.

The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II in Washington, D.C., is another creative use of triangular space. Installed in 2000, it is located in a triangle created by New Jersey and Louisiana Avenues and D Street NW.
This 1960s plan located at the National Building Museum
shows the triangle (at left) and its relationship to the U.S. Capitol
Open on two sides, it presents an oasis to passers-by in the form of a water feature with continuous flow, creating visual interest as well as white noise against the din of the surrounding city.

Once within the memorial a person definitely feels enclosed within sacred space, apart from the street just a few feet away.

There is a soft bell to ring, albeit appeared to be tricky to operate.

Those who wish to stay awhile have the option of benches, though on this rainy day no one was using them.

Unfortunately some of the engraving is wearing away, or at least is hard to read.

Despite that unfortunate glitch, this memorial uses the irregular space in the street layout in a way that soothes passersby, offers a place apart, and is a fitting tribute to a resilient and worthy group.

Cedar Rapids, too, has successfully developed some odd patches created by diagonal streets. Anderson Park, in a triangle created by 5th Avenue, 21st Street and Knollwood Drive, was creatively enhanced about 20 years ago with the addition of playground equipment.

Whatever the histories behind streets that slash across urban grids, a number of cities have shown the potential for creative and productive transformations of the odd spaces they create.


"Urban Images in Art: Gustave Caillebotte," 7 October 2015
"In Search of Old 45s" (Adams Morgan), 7 October 2014
"Shutdowns and Sillypants (and the Statler Brothers)," 8 October 2013

Monday, September 26, 2016

Paying attention to the suburban development behind the curtain

Source: Business Insider
As the presidential candidates confront each other in the first so-called debate of 2016, Cedar Rapids and other towns along the Cedar River worry about flooding, and the country ponders gun violence in Houston and Seattle as well as two more police shootings in Charlotte and Tulsa.

My first-year class on The Future of the City is reading Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zybek and Jeff Speck (North Point, 2010). For many of them it's their first exposure to critical appraisals of the suburban model of development. One of my first-year students, Dominic Parker from St. Louis, asked why, if suburban sprawl "is as big of a problem as it seems, then why am I just (now) hearing an uproar about it?" I first said it was partly because people tend to see the suburban model of development as part of the natural order of things, as opposed to (what it is in reality) a created situation.

More importantly, the suburban model of development is an important component, though certainly not the sole cause, of problems on which we do focus. The two worst floods in Cedar Rapids history have been 2008 and 2016; this "new normal" is exacerbated by climate change and loss of open land, to both of which the suburban development pattern is a major contributor. Analysis of police shootings tend to put primary responsibility either on the police (for being racist or overreacting to tense situations) or on the victims (for being disorderly and dangerous punks). Without denying individual responsibility, why are there high crime areas, isolated from economic opportunity, into which police are repeatedly thrust, thereby exacerbating the probability of violent confrontation?

It's jarring to hear the candidates debate at the same time that the river is bearing down on Cedar Rapids. The grass-roots efforts by hundreds of Cedar Rapidians this past weekend to protect their fellow citizens' homes and businesses speak to the best potential of our common life. The candidates just don't. Clinton is no visionary, and has a fondness for national programs that will at best nibble at the edges of problems; though the few moments in the debate where the public had a chance to be illuminated were hers. I wish she had more answers like hers on urban crime and fewer attempts to match Trump as an insult comic. Trump, whose campaign has been a toxic stew of racial innuendo, vacuous comments and personal insults, has nothing to recommend himself to anyone who cares about our common life.

Can any good come out of this dispiriting election campaign? Will it cause Americans at last to take a long look at our ongoing political divisions? And if they do, will the answer be to retreat to a private life? Or will we look around and see the potential for our neighbors--all of them, white and black and Latino, Christian and Jewish and Muslim and nones--to deal with our problems at the local level?

Cindy Hadish, "'In God's Hands:' Czech Village, New Bohemia Prepare for 2016 Flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa," Homegrown Iowan, 25 September 2016,
Ben Kaplan, "Photos from New Bohemia Prep,"Corridor Urbanism, 25 September 2016,
Charles Marohn, "It's Time to End the Routine Traffic Stop," Strong Towns, 25 July 2016,
Bruce Nesmith, "Gleanings from the New Urbanism," Holy Mountain, 19 April 2013,

Monday, September 5, 2016

Let's hear it for Cedar Rapids

A great city has places to go and ways to get there, and Cedar Rapids celebrated both this Labor Day weekend. One of the city's most treasured places threw a party for itself Thursday afternoon as CSPS dedicated its courtyard. All that was missing were the bricks recognizing donors, which will be installed near the current entrance at a later time.
F. John Herbert, co-director of Legion Arts, which now owns CSPS, noted that this is not only the 125th anniversary of the building begun by the Czech and Slovak Protective Society, it is the 25th anniversary of Legion Arts, which has brought a variety of music, art, theater and dance artists to New Bohemia. The building re-opened in 2011 after the flood and subsequent renovations, with "more to come" promised (although in conversation afterwards he admitted to being tired of renovating). The courtyard, along with the public parking lot between the building and 2nd Street, "complete the CSPS campus," he said.

John recognized the contributions of many people to this milestone in the building's story, including volunteers from CSA, the successor organization to the Czech and Slovak Protective Society, who were outfitted in natty blue shirts.
Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett was recognized for the city's contributions. He in turn said many people through the years have kept the New Bohemia neighborhood "vital," including John Herbert and his Legion Arts partner Mel Andringa, who "never threw in the towel" and "always believed in this neighborhood."

Jack Evans, head of the philanthropic Hall-Perrine Foundation, praised Legion Arts and CSPS for "uniquely contributing to the quality of life in Cedar Rapids." He called Mel and John "entrepreneurs in the arts" just as the foundation's original benefactor, Howard Hall, was an entrepreneur in industry.

Finally, Tom Torluemke, who designed the mural which anchors the courtyard, "Current: The Pulse of Life," talked about the mural's design and meanings.
Your humble blogger stands before the mural "Current: The Pulse of Life"
The fire house next door, which will serve as a studio for visiting artists...
...was open with various memorabilia from CSPS's life on display. This cozy-looking arrangement...
...was installed by local artist Jane Gilmor.

The celebration continued all afternoon with music and an opening reception for visiting artist Blair Gauntt.

Monday was about celebrating ways to get to places, with the annual Mayors' Bike Ride put on by the Linn County Trails Association. Weather was sunny and summery, and a large crowd gathered (365 according to the Gazette story).

State Representative Art Staed was the first elected official spotted:

We did the traditional 8-mile route, through downtown and up to Cedar Lake and back. Riders saw infrastructure old...
Trail between 1st St NW and the Cedar River
...and new...
Protected bike lane into downtown on 3rd Avenue Bridge well as signs that may be helpful.
Past the end of the bike lane on 3rd Avenue SE
It is increasingly possible to ride safely to many places around town, such as historic and multi-use Ellis Park:
This picture shows swimming pool, playground and picnic area...
there are also hiking trails, a golf course and a Shakespeare garden
You can even ride to church! Looks like First Lutheran is expecting you:

At the LCTA booth, riders could score coffee and snacks and study the metro area's future plans for commuter routes in town...
Marion Master Trails Plan
...and recreational trails:
CVNT improvements entering Center Point
Bit by bit, bicycling and walking are becoming more common around town. Provisions for bicycles and pedestrians help by making people feel safer, and encouraging more people to try it. What the best types of infrastructure are, and where they're most appropriate, are subjects for another day. Today let's celebrate what they do to bring people together, take people to where the action is, and make a stronger city.

SEE ALSO: James Q. Lynch, "Mayors' Bike Ride a Chance for 'Happy' Bike Policy Input,"
B.A. Morelli, "After Sidewalks Installed, Some Cedar Rapids Critics Admit They Are Better Off," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 4 September 2016,

"Labor Day Weekend," 7 September 2015
"Indulging in Urban Fantasy," 6 September 2014
"Mayors' Bike Ride," 3 September 2013

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...