Monday, January 19, 2015

Speakers raise tough issues at Coe MLK celebration

Issues of diversity and inclusion were front and center in a day-long celebration of Martin Luther King Day at Coe College. Featured speakers included Geneva Williams, a local civil rights attorney who used the 1955 murder of Emmett Till to frame contemporary race relations; and political scientist Rebecca Stonawski, who discussed civil rights aspects of immigration issues.

Geneva Williams
Williams argued today's racial issues exist in the context of (and in spite of) substantial progress since the 1950s, including the end of legal disenfranchisement and the election of a President of color. She characterized today's problems as primarily economic disenfranchisement, as well as a "culture that dehumanizes each other." It is harder for events like the several 2014 shootings of unarmed black males to touch "our collective conscience," and easier to blame victims like Eric Garner when "we no longer see ourselves in the other."

She commends voting and inter-racial dialogue as means of healing this breach. During the Q-and-A section, she quipped that it's "harder to talk about race than to have the sex talk." I think there are two huge obstacles to dialogue, and one to voting:
  • In an America marked by widening economic inequality (which is principally class-based but has strong racial elements) and sprawling metropolises, it is unusual to have acquaintances that cross race and/or class lines. Acquaintance creates the opportunity for dialogue that may not occur all at once. If I greeted a black person with "So, what's it like being black in Cedar Rapids?" or "Bummer about Tamir Rice, huh?" they would justifiably dismiss me as a presumptuous lunatic. Only contact over time can create the context for productive dialogue, and American society is designed to avoid rather than facilitate that contact.
  • Whites have swung in a generation or two from obliviousness if not outright offensiveness to great fear of offending. I know I have. Perhaps this is true of blacks, too? We can't manage dialogue if we're so self-censored we sound like politicians under investigation. Similarly we can't expect anyone to talk candidly to us if we seize on the slightest offense. New York police union leader Patrick Lynch's rejection of any criticism of police tactics gets points for loyalty, but has done real damage to American race relations that were not in great shape to begin with.
  • Voting is an obvious solution in towns like Ferguson, where neither the City Council nor the Police Department is close to representative of the town's population. But beyond that, it's not clear to me there are readily-available policy solutions to the problems of the under-employed, much less political candidates advocating them. So what's a poor black voter to do?
Rebecca Stonawski
Stonawski commendably took on the challenge of explaining immigration policy issues and terminology, culminating in the current stand-off in Washington. She described the current administration policy as [a] providing a path to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants currently in the country, with a reprieve from deportation in the meantime; [b] strengthening enforcement both at the border and workplaces; and [c] clearing the backlog of visa applications, which according to has now exceeded 20 years for Mexican applicants. The proposals face uncertain prospects in Congress, with the House last week voting to block funding to implement Obama's interim executive order and the Senate likely to follow. [Incidentally, Obama would be the third straight president to have immigration proposals blocked by Congress, suggesting the institutions are playing out learned roles. My amateur transactional analysis won't get us to a solution, though.] Stonawski urged students and others in attendance to inform themselves further and then to become actively involved on behalf of your preferred solution.

No one, as far as I know, supports the current immigration situation. People have very different goals, of course, but that doesn't need to be a barrier to a solution that advances all of their different interests. (Obama's, or George W. Bush's, proposals could serve as the basis for such a solution.) The major obstacle is that many people who are already actively involved in the debate over this policy are unwilling to acknowledge two truths which I think are unavoidably true: [1] immigrants currently in this country illegally are drawn primarily by job opportunity, and play an integral role in our economy i.e. to expel them all and prevent their entry is a fantasy; [2] no country can admit everyone who wants to live there i.e. even a liberalized policy is still going to exclude people. One of the most compelling sections of King's Washington speech was the vision he described of a future of racial harmony.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.... I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!
Of course there were those who saw that vision as morally repugnant. But there had to be others who heard those words and thought it described a way more appealing world than the one they inhabited, and decided: "Let's do it! It's way past time for this shit to stop."

Until someone paints a similarly compelling vision that incorporates the realities of immigration, of "come heres" and "been heres" working side-by-side and treated with dignity, we are going to be stuck with the current policy stalemate, mired as it is in (depending on your perspective) idealism or rigidity. And we're going to need executive action to keep the situation on the ground from completely breaking down.


"Strength Through Diversity (II)," 9 March 2014
"Strength Through Diversity," 1 March 2014
"The Race Card Project," 12 February 2014
"Race Matters, Damn It," 16 April 2013

Sarah Goodyear, "White Privilege, On a Bicycle," City Lab, 18 January 2015
Allen Vandermeulen, "Sermon: Making Room," The Here and the Hereafter, 18 January 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

New Year's resolutions


One goal of mine this year is to engage in more public discussions of urbanism, particularly its role in local public policy. I think this will require more focus than I'm used to blogging. I like being able to choose subject matter, and to ignore news distractions like partisan politics, scandals, and kerfluffles-of-the-moment (like the current bleating about whether President Obama should have gone to the march in Paris). That still gives me a lot of topics to hop between, and being from and of liberal arts education I do enjoy hopping between topics. But somehow I doubt that variety is the spice of productive meetings.

All of which has me thinking about setting priorities. This means developing a short list of ways the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area could move towards urbanism, defined most succinctly on the wise North Bay Design Kit blog as building and operating communities in ways that make them "fiscally viable and environmentally sustainable." What follows are the results of the first round of brainstorming. Note that I'm torn between processes that I understand (like metropolitan government) and goals that I value but am not sure how to achieve (like improving career opportunities for the poor). Still not ready to focus completely, I guess.

100 4th Ave Sw #401 401, Cedar Rapids, IA, 52404 -- Homes For Sale
New condo development, 100 4th Av SW, swiped from
1. Develop a 24-hour downtown. Downtown and the New Bohemia area to its south have come a long way since the 2008 flood, with more attractions than they previously had. Their development should continue in ways that include all income levels; include residential as well as commercial property; welcomes bicycles and pedestrians as well as cars; and radiates outward to connect with the working-class "core" neighborhoods. A city center that is vital around the clock is more safe, more economically successful, more interesting in a variety of ways, and more environmentally sustainable. Particularly, it provides a base for both economic opportunity and arts-entertainment life that are essential in retaining talented young people.

But young people eventually age. So we need more than condos.

The city should favor economic development that builds connections and creates career opportunities
2. Include the poor. Those in or near poverty have suffered most from the recent economic downturn, but also didn't benefit from the long periods of economic growth that preceded it. Communities need to build connections to them. Mostly I think this means not excluding them, physically or economically, from participating in the development of the city. (There are pockets of poverty in Cedar Rapids, on Johnson Avenue SW or Pioneer Avenue SE for example, that are so remote from economic activity as to be absurd.) I think it probably should also mean considering, at each stage of the city's development, how specifically any project supports connecting the economically vulnerable to jobs and eventually careers.

Cedar Rapids has a number of important services aimed at lower-income citizens, including food banks, free clinics and housing options. These are helpful, even crucial, to people in poverty. But they don't get people out of poverty. That requires, in the words of Michael Dukakis's infamous presidential campaign, "good jobs at good wages."

Route 9, from
3. Improve public transportation. The metro area has an earnest bus system that stops running at 6:20 p.m., and runs looping routes out of downtown that all take exactly an hour. It's hard to say whether the town is over-served or under-served. My hunch is that rationalizing routes and schedules--running buses from where people are to where they want to go, at times they need them--might be revenue-neutral, or even revenue saving. Right now that's not an issue, as the system is mainly funded by federal grants, but that shouldn't be our main consideration.

Intercity rail is on hold as long as Terry Branstad is governor--he's rejected federal rail funding, and in last week's Condition of the State address advocated infrastructure improvements, by which he exclusively meant roads and bridges--but we might at least think about what we'd need to do to prepare for this possibility.

Dlask's Grocery, swiped from Erin McNamara-Ankney via Pinterest
4. Neighborhood stores, preferably locally-owned. Economics seem still to favor gigantism, with Wal-Mart the extreme though certainly not the only example. It would be nice if most neighborhoods had stores people could walk to (grocery, hardware, e.g.), with doors open to the street and parking lots behind. The stores would carry a modest selection of core goods at reasonable prices i.e. not the mark-ups common to convenience stores, New Pioneer and Fresh Market. It would be advantageous if we could somehow favor local entrepreneurship instead of relying on chain stores (and restaurants, to a considerable extent).

The Regional City argues for empowering metro regions as well as neighborhoods
5. Regional governance. Revenue sharing, a no-poaching (of each other's businesses) agreement, and maybe an urban growth limit for the communities in the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area might not immediately affect the landscape, but would have important long-term effects on area density as well as government finances. Residents of Cedar Rapids and the surrounding towns share interests in the metropolitan economy, traffic, parks and museums, among other things. There should be a shared level of government that represents those interests.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The future of religious spaces

Grace Episcopal Church in Carthage, Missouri, pictured above (from its website), has a small, lovely sanctuary that dates from 1890. It's small, dark and cozy, with well-crafted woodwork and stained glass windows. When I visited there last fall, I felt immediately that I was in a sacred place. But that's the perspective of a late-middle-aged, lifelong church-goer, who admires the Episcopal liturgy (though I'm not sure I could do it every week). As times and expectations change, sacred places across America face change as well.

The quarterly publication Faith and Form is out with their 2014 religious art and architecture awards, which is as good an occasion as any to take stock of sacred space in America. Religion, mainly Christianity, has been part of the American landscape since the earliest permanent settlements of Europeans in the 16th century. Most towns of any size have a number of churches, and perhaps a temple or mosque, in prominent locations in their downtown areas. They are typically, in my unsystematic observation, buildings of beauty--sometimes simple, sometimes ornate--that are compatible with their surroundings.

John Kenneth White (Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, Oxford University Press, 1964) states that houses of worship have two basic functions: (1) to provide a location for group religious expression; and (2) to inspire individuals with a sense of the presence of God. The first could be fulfilled by any physical space, though White argues at length the structure of that space says a lot about hierarchies as well as expectations of individual participation. What makes for a sense of sacred place varies with the individual, but often involves features like apart-ness from the everyday world, peace and quiet, beauty and majesty. The common element of sacred space is, to quote Roger W. Stump (The Geography of Religion, Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), a "manifestation of the cosmos defined in [believers'] world views" (p. 301).

There might be other functions White doesn't highlight: the prominent physical presence of churches states a claim of social importance. Think of Fourth Presbyterian Church on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, or century-old First Lutheran and Immaculate Conception Churches planted opposite each other on one of Cedar Rapids's busiest intersections.

These days churches face a number of challenges that would have been unthinkable to my parents and grandparents, not to mention the 19th century founders of my town.
  • Worship attendance is decreasingly a social norm. It has decreased so much, in fact, that one could argue the norm is not to attend worship. This is not the world in which my grandfather preached. Church members who might pride themselves on welcoming visitors and new members are nonetheless ambivalent about actively recruiting new adherents.
  • As members age and the economy putters along, many religiously-active people have fewer resources on which to draw for donations to churches, synagogues and mosques. Giving USA reported last summer that religious donations have been unusually slow to bounce back from the Great Recession. It would be interesting to compare religious donations as a percentage of GDP over time (currently it's 1.9 percent); does anyone know if such data exist?
  • Concurrent with these revenue challenges, religious houses confront some rather imposing cost burdens: energy costs fluctuate wildly, maintenance costs probably accelerate with age of building, and in prosperous areas opportunity costs undoubtedly beckon. As a result of all these factors, two lovely and historic downtown Cedar Rapids churches have fallen to the wrecking ball in the last five years. Other churches have moved in order to accommodate actual or anticipated growth, leaving buildings in urban neighborhoods for campuses on the edge of town with gigantic buildings and parking lots.
  • In some areas, religion is seen as a regressive force. From the inside, a doctrine on birth control or homosexuality that has long since passed its expiry date can be seen as something we hope to see change. From the outside it's just ugly. It's not my tradition or culture, but the public face of Islam today can hardly be attractive.
  • Social needs may take priorities over institutional needs, even for loyal members, and surely do for outsiders. "Jon," a commenter on the Religious News Service article I linked to above, argues: Giving to religious houses of worship is not charitable giving. We’ve seen time and again that a tiny fraction of that money goes to actual charities, while nearly all of it goes to the house of worship itself – salaries to paid employees, the building, etc. Without knowing Jon's perspective, it seems fair to argue he'd rather donate to food banks, schools and environmental groups instead of maintaining an awe-inspiring sanctuary. But places that evoke a sense of sacred immanence aren't free.
The upshot is that the qualities of sacred space that are highly valued by core members are likely to be irrelevant, or even off-putting, to the unchurched. Moreover, in many cases they may not be affordable.

In the face of all this, the Faith and Form report indicates considerable vitality. Their 2014 contest received 134 submissions, and made 32 awards in nine categories: new facilities, restoration, renovation (I'm enough of an amateur not to know the difference between those two), liturgical/interior design, liturgical furnishings, visual arts, ceremonial objects, sacred landscape, and student work. Journal editor Michael J. Crosbie noted that religious art and architecture are flourishing throughout the world, and that artists, architects, liturgical designers, students, and others are exploring ways to balance tradition with new demands of religious practice. The landscape of sacred space is changing, along with dramatic shifts in organized religion.

One clear winner in all this is what White years ago called the "church of light," reacting against 100 or so years of dark sanctuaries (which I find cozy, but that's just me). Light, lots of light, usually natural light, literally pours into a lot of these pictures.
Proyecto Clamor de Paz, Honduras, swiped from
Most of the pictures are outdoor shots, so it's hard to gauge the worship atmosphere, but I really like the simple style of this renovated Massachusetts church, as well as how it fits with the surrounding buildings.
Christ Church, Cambridge MA, swiped from
To me that front door screams accessibility, but is that enough to get strangers to enter?

I also love the grandeur of this Colorado sanctuary, which received an award for visual arts. It's clearly among the churches of light, and the pipes at left suggest potential for great liturgical music. (My church, as it happens, has organ pipes that are purely decorative i.e. they're not attached to an actual organ.) But now I'm wondering about their heating bills.
Our Lady of Loreto Catholic Parish, Foxfield CO, swiped from
On the other hand, this church doesn't appeal to me at all. It's showy, conspicuously expensive, and sprawling. I bet it's not within walking distance of anything, and that its parking lot is big enough to land planes.
Watermark Community Church, Dallas TX, swiped from
I am being snarky here, which is hardly called for, but I did just look them up on Bing and I'm right. On the other hand, if they're attracting members in this day and age, who am I to carp at them?

At the same time that this energetic construction and reconstruction is occurring, other religious institutions are dealing with change by retrenching: shrinking congregations are cutting services, merging or just closing down. Maybe the buildings can be re-purposed, but in the process the sacred element of the place is frequently lost. In the same issue, Crosbie reports on a group called Partners for Sacred Places, which has a program to match cash-strapped churches with non-profit groups who need space. I don't know how much revenue those arrangements might generate, but it has the obvious up-side of bringing people into the building who might not otherwise get there. In time they may come to value the space for its sacred qualities as well as for its utility.

Michael J. Crosbie, "Scattered Treasures," Faith and Form 47:4 (2014),

Michael J. Crosbie, "2014 International Awards Program for Religious Art and Architecture," Faith and Form 47:4 (2014),


Timothy W. Martin, "Window Pains: Stained Glass Faces Dark Days," Wall Street Journal, 22 December 2014,


"Homes, Church Homes and Hometowns," 15 September 2014
"Sacred Space," 27 April 2013

Friday, January 2, 2015

Book review: "The New York Nobody Knows"

One of the most fascinating books I've read recently is a sociologist's study of an American city in which I've spent exactly four days. It says a lot about our cities and how we relate to them.

Helmreich, who teaches at the City College of New York as well as the City University Graduate Center, is a lifelong New Yorker whose love of exploration through walking was instilled in him by his father. So he was already very familiar with the city when he began, a few years ago, the project of walking every block of its streets. The book is not the story of those walks, but is informed by them: the chapters deal with typical topics of urban sociology like gentrification, immigration, economic life and safety. His anecdotes are lively, but with qualitative data his conclusions are cautious: When all is said and done, gentrification is a complex issue.... By observing it on the ground, it becomes possible to see these complexities from different angles, many of them positive, some not necessarily so (pp. 294-295). Those looking for the answer to gentrification issues will be frustrated, but those who are willing to walk with him (mentally, at least) will find their understanding of the issues enriched.

One aspect of New York that Helmreich openly challenges is that most outsiders' concept of the city is primarily Manhattan, and Lower Manhattan at that. (I'm probably guilty there, or at least I was before I read this book: all four of my days in New York were spent on the island. Mets tickets that might have at least gotten me into Queens were useless because the players were on strike. At the same time, I wonder how accurate are the mental maps even of city residents?) Tourist attractions, Greenwich Village, Central Park and the 1990s TV series Friends are hardly ever mentioned, as Helmreich walks us around the other boroughs, into neighborhoods that are as uncharted to Midwesterners as, say, the Bowman Woods subdivision of Cedar Rapids is to New Yorkers. An encounter with an Orthodox Jewish worker at Meal Mart in Kew Gardens Hills gets him and the students with him invited to the gentlemen's succah. He talks gentrification with residents of Dumbo/ Vinegar Hill. He literally stumbles upon a parade in honor of St. Theresa in Pelham Bay, and chats up parade-goers. "Are you kidding? Do I look rich?" he says as he laughs off a man trying to shake him down in Red Hook.

After reading this book, I have a lot of admiration for Helmreich, both as a person and as a writer. He makes social science research readable, which I can say from personal experience is not as easy as it might appear, and using qualitative research (which a lot of social scientists look down their noses at) speaks intelligently to social problems. His keystrokes make the whole city live, and I'm determined to get out of Manhattan next time I'm there. I might stay out of Red Hook, though.

Beyond New York, The New York Nobody Knows has a number of points to make to those interested in urban issues and improving their cities.

1) Look at the whole city. I think there's a lot to be said for focusing on downtown, an area which is (or should be) common to all city residents, and the core around which the city will contract if necessary. If you can't solve all problems at once, it makes sense to start here. Yet this shouldn't blind us to other parts of the city that might be interesting in any number of ways. My concept of my own city consists, admittedly, of predominantly residential areas occasionally interspersed with shopping plazas. But who knows what hidden gems some serious exploration might uncover?

2) Emotional intelligence helps. Helmreich seems able to strike up a conversation with almost anyone, anywhere. It's important to note that, completist though he may be, this project was about more than covering territory. You can learn something about a place by walking it, but you can't learn what it's like to live there unless you talk to people who do. Gulp. For Pete's sake, isn't there an app for that? Helmreich cannot teach us how to be as cool as he is, but he does advise: I never began an interview with a standard: "Excuse me, could I ask you some questions about this community?" Instead, I would say something like: "How come you're dressed like this?" or "Is this neighborhood safe?" or "What's a horse doing in that guy's backyard?" (That really happened, in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn.) (pp. 4-5)

3) You can't beat walking. Driving through, or even biking through, occurs too quickly to acquire deep knowledge. As Helmreich cautions: You need to walk slowly through an area to capture its essence, to appreciate the buildings, to observe how the people function in the space, and to talk with them. Driving gives you nothing more than a snapshot. More to the point, it creates a physical wall between you and the neighborhood. (p. 10)

4) The elements that make neighborhoods succeed are similar. In describing the renaissance of the city since the 1970s and 80s, Helmreich repeatedly returns to the fact that most areas of the city have seen a substantial decline in violent crime. That's worth celebrating, but it's a little disturbing that many people have opinions on why that occurred, but there's little definitive to go on. So we hope the trend will continue, but can't appropriately predict with confidence that it will. Besides safety, all-day activity, residential stability, access to transportation, economic prospects and things to do are hallmarks of successful neighborhoods that come across throughout the book.

Helmreich's book is a landmark, not because it breaks new ground in how we think about cities, but because it adds so much raw material to the conversation.


William B. Helmreich, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6000 Miles in the City (Princeton, 2013)


"The 'New Normal' Economy and Place," 20 November 2013,

"Taylor Area Neighborhood," 14 August 2013,

"Walking Down to the Edge of Town," 2 August 2013,

Will we ever stop being angry?

(Source: Wikimedia commons) Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) has a new book out, subtitled "Why We Hate Each Other--and How to Heal....