Sunday, October 4th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

The Other Side of the Tracks

If you like Midwest Miscellany and would like to have more good links, I suggest subscribing to Reconnecting America’s daily email blast called “The Other Side of the Tracks”. It focuses on transit oriented development and is an interesting collection of 6-12 of the best pieces from around the web that day. To subscribe, just email and ask to be added.

The Lake Wobegon Effect

A reader emailed me an interesting response to my open thread about the best and worst Midwest characteristics. It was about my personal pick of the active discouragement of the pursuit of excellent as the worst characteristic, and some of the reactions that spawned. Here’s an edited version of the note:

I subscribe to, and yesterday there was a little essay by Garrison Keillor, who, as you may know, had a stroke recently [he’s fine]. Point being, it made me reflect a little more on the Midwestern mindset and how close he gets to capturing it. It’s the place where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Don’t know if you’ve been a fan of “A Prairie Home Companion.” I read “Lake Wobegon Days”, which was and is to this day, IMHO, the best description of the best and worst of the Midwest mindset I’ve ever found.

The point is the “Lake Wobegon Effect“. Wikipedia describes it as “the human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others.” The article, with citations, goes on to say, “The effect has been found repeatedly by many other studies for other traits, including fairness, virtuosity, intelligence, and investing ability, to name a few. It is similar and may be related to in-group bias and wishful thinking.”
Got me thinking about this in terms of Midwestern cities and the Midwestern mindset — under the surface modesty, there is a quiet smugness and complacency — arrogance, even — the Lake Wobegon Effect — that overestimates the quality of Midwestern life. As you and some other commentators have pointed out, Midwesterners are quick to blame external forces for the demise of their cities, which is entirely consistent with a core conviction that we in the Midwest secretly feel ourselves JUST FINE — maybe not quite as smart or modern as the coastal folks. But certainly better than average. Yes, we have our problems, always have, always will. But don’t focus on the negative. We never claimed to be PERFECT — just above-average. Whatever our problems, we’re better off than most, and, when you come right down to it, things are, basically JUST FINE. We get Gentlemen’s C-pluses.

Which, when you think about it, is all anybody should want, because if you get too big for your britches or think TOO BIG, you’re sure to get a comeuppance. Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered. Pride goeth. Etc. We’re not show-offy, always drawing attention to ourselves like the over-achievers. The quarterbacks, prom queens and class valedictorians all must have “something to prove.” They’ve got to be over-compensating for something we have that they’re missing. Only logical explanation. They’re the type who gets all worked up about things instead of appreciating what’s right under their noses. They’re belly-achers with Bad Attitudes who won’t ever accomplish anything because they don’t respect how Things Get Done Here. Why, they can barely hide their scorn for their neighbors, the rest of us. With such a superior attitude, their subscriptions to the New York Times (don’t think we don’t know) and their worrying about things going on in places that don’t affect us at all, who’s going to vote for them? Who do they think they are, anyway? Or, they’re day dreamers who come up with Big Schemes rather than do what everybody else does, which is Work Hard — Work Hard and Save. The ones who sing “Over the Rainbow” instead of feeding the hogs. You know what they lack? COMMON SENSE. They don’t understand that if this new idea of theirs was any good, somebody would’ve already figured it out and put it in place. They just don’t get it, that, in this town, IF YOU BUILD IT, PEOPLE WON’T COME; They’ll stay away to make a point — or maybe show up once, just for a good laugh. And you know what? The prom queens and valedictorians, the know-it-alls with the superior attitudes who want to change things just for the sake of being different — they usually come to a bad end. They’re never satisfied, they get divorced, they lose their business, their kids get dangerous ideas and end up on drugs or pregnant. Or they move away (another form of coming to a Bad End), which is fine with us. They never really did belong here. Probably best for all if they do move somewhere else.

And yet, these are the people who are going to show up with casseroles and jello molds when somebody in your family gets sick. They’re the ones who can spot a phony a mile away, and are There When You Need Them. Aargghh. These are the people whom Dorothy missed so much that she clicked her heels and gave up Oz and Technicolor to return to. (Wish the “Wizard of Oz” had been one reel longer. Would love to know if Dorothy lived to regret her decision. Wonder if she settled down happy, tried to challenge Miss Gulch and start her own broom factory, or ended up trying to conjure Glinda nightly and pray for another cyclone.)
If you haven’t read “Lake Wobegon Days”, think about doing so. In it, Minneapolis figures as Sodom [read: NYC]. The tension that gets set up between the good decent, hard-working people in Lake Wobegon, and those who leave for Minneapolis and return from time to time with foreign uppity strange ways, dubious morals, get-rich-quick schemes and all the rest of it — good and bad — you’ll really get a kick out of it, and, perhaps, get a better handle on articulating what it is that makes us love this region enough to get so damn exasperated by it.
Also brings to mind the lyrics of the great ode to the Midwest — Professor Hill’s “Mothers of River City” number in “The Music Man”, using the pretext of the pool table in the community as a basis for starting the boys’ band (for which Hill will provide uniforms and instruments) — “List’nin’ to some big out-a-town Jasper, hearin’ him tell about horse-race gamblin’. Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no! But a race where they set down right on the horse! Like to see some stuck-up jockey’boy sittin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil? Well, I should say!”

Of course, “Music Man” is the success story that your blog keeps rooting for — out-of-town slick salesman comes in ready to fleece the locals with some fancy, useless ideas. Local intellectual dissident, the librarian, with her Dangerous Books is naturally seduced by the guy, too foolish to see through the scam. City Fathers and Mothers set out to expose the the rip-off and protect the populace. So far, not looking good. But, somehow, miraculously, the good values rub off on the outsider, Marion the Librarian is exonerated, and the town ends up with the damned marching band and a parade. Template for your happy ending. Toledo is saved!

The Next Youth Magnet Cities

The Journal ran an article this week that made the rounds asking six experts to pick the next “youth magnet” cities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was an utterly conventional wisdom list: DC, Seattle, NYC, Portland, Austin, San Jose, Denver, Raleigh, Dallas, Chicago, Boston. Did the Journal really need to convene a panel of experts to come up with this list? Why not ask six random people off the street if you aren’t going to go off the menu, as it were.

Are these really the big stories of tomorrow? As we see from bubble mania and other things, humans have an incredible tendency to simply project present trends indefinitely into the future. The reality of change has a way of sneaking up on us, however. Jim Russell is right to call this “yesterday’s news”. What matters is where the hockey puck is going.

I’m not surprised, but also not discouraged, to see so little Midwest representation on the list. I happen to think the future is one of wide open possibilities. Tomorrow’s winners are yet to be chosen.

Wisconsin Bio-Tech Boom

Wisconsin is doing so well in bio-tech that Minnesota is very concerned about falling behind. This prompted the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to do a two part series on it. Part one is called “A bio border battle“.

Wisconsin has become the regional biotech equivalent of traditional high-tech powerhouses like Boston, Silicon Valley and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, thanks to strong political support, an influx of investor capital and what is arguably the most formidable university technology transfer program in the country.

“Wisconsin is a very exciting place,” said Peter Bianco, a former executive with Nerites Corp. and a current scientific advisory board member at Flex Biomedical in Madison. “You just get this sense of forward motion. Wisconsin is doing something right.”

The article gives a slew of facts, including noting that since 2007 three biotech spinoffs from UW-Madison sold over over a $1 billion – more than the combined total of the 107 spin-offs from the University of Minnesota in the past 25 years – and that the UW research park currently houses more than 115 companies.

The second part is “Badger state’s biotech boom“. It talks all about the streamlined and entrepreneur friendly IP policies and processes of the University of Wisconsin. Definitely worth a read.

Detroit to Demolish Lafayette Building

Perhaps there is something wrong about valuing the fate of buildings over that of people. Yet most of us cannot helped but be moved by grand expressions of the human spirit, often given corporeal form in the great buildings created by civilizations of all ages. Often our grief is greater for lost architecture than for lost peoples.

Detroit has one of the best and largest collections of pre-war skyscrapers anywhere in America. It is simply one of the 2-3 most important. Yet so many of these buildings have fallen victim to neglect and demolition, as they are functionally obsolete and market demand will not support renovations.

The latest victim is the Lafayette Building, scheduled for demolition soon. It is the twin tower structure in the background:

Here’s a shot of some roof detailing:

Yes, this building is in terrible condition. There are actually trees growing on the roof which led to much of the damage. This interior shots will give you a sense of how bad a shape the building is.

If you want to see more, just click this flick search link.

I understand that in a place like Detroit hard choices have to be made. But the loss of historic structures like this isn’t just a loss to Detroit, it’s a loss to America and the destruction of a piece of our shared heritage. And for the city, this isn’t just a loss of the past, but of the future as well. As we look across America at where urban revitalization has happened, it is often historic areas. Detroit is facing a challenge unlike any other. But I’ve got to believe that the answer doesn’t lie in demolishing precious historic buildings like these.

More coverage on this demolition is available over at Detroit Blog.

Time: Assignment Detroit

Time Magazine is already filing stories from their new Detroit bureau. Here is a link to their series home page. And here are some selected pieces to give you a sense of what they are up to:

The New York Times took a look at Time’s effort in a piece called “Time focues on Detroit, a city sicker than journalism

More Detroit Agriculture

The Toronto Star has a major piece on urban agriculture in Detroit called “From Motown to Hoetown“. Here’s an excerpt:

“Detroit might seem an unlikely champion of urban agriculture, as the birthplace of the automobile and its farm-devouring offspring – urban sprawl.

But, it has become ground zero for North America’s local food movement.

Last year there were roughly 550 gardens in the city’s urban farming network. This year there are more than 850.

Driving around the city, you can see everything that will make up your dinner – chickens, goats, mushrooms, plum trees, honeybee hives. I passed a whole block growing shoulder-high corn. A horse grazes outside a barn behind a high school. Edith Floyd parks her tractor behind her house – 12 kilometres from city hall, where bureaucrats are scrambling to catch up with the collard greens sprouting on street corners.

Here, a locavore doesn’t eat food that’s travelled 100 kilometres. She eats food that’s travelled 10.

“I picked these this morning,” Floyd says, carrying a laundry hamper filled with watermelons to her stand at the Wayne State University farmers’ market. The chalkboard propped in front reads “Grown in Detroit.”

The article also talks about a person who is looking to do full blown industrial agriculture in the city, though he is running into neighborhood opposition. I think again goes to show that there are some possibilities for the future that exist moreso in Detroit than in any other city.

I’m also interested to see the intersection of urban agriculture with more traditional inner city concerns like food deserts, neighborhood empowerment and social justice. When you look at it through this lens, it is not hard to imagine agriculture as a catalyst for bringing together whites and blacks in a city where racial healing is a prerequisite to civic renewal. You think of terms like local agriculture often in terms of upscale whites buying their organic regional produce at Whole Foods and farmers markets. But in Detroit we also see it as a vehicle for African American empowerment. Can these two very diverse groups somehow find ways to collaborate and start building relationships? It will be interesting to see.

“We’re not just into farming. We’re into community self-determination,” says Malik Yakini, one of the leaders of Detroit’s nascent farming movement. The self-described “social architect” runs an Africentric school and chairs the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. He talks about food justice – where the community reaps both the nutritional and financial rewards of the food it buys.

His D-Town Farm spans two acres of city parkland on Detroit’s western edge, where little bungalows with rusted awnings still line wide streets and a faded ice cream truck does laps of the yellowing boulevard. The volunteer team running it sells its leafy greens and radishes to local restaurants and farmers markets. Next year, it plans to hire two permanent employees.

“We’re trying to create an economic model, to show how agriculture could contribute to the economic recovery of Detroit,” Malini says, pushing into the brush to reveal a plastic greenhouse where oyster mushrooms will soon grow.

Stay tuned. (h/t @gosner)

Kansas City Arena Turns Profit

Here’s one you don’t see every day. Kansas City is about to get a check for $1.8 million in profit sharing from the Sprint Center arena. The arena was built with the idea that KC would attract an NBA or NHL franchise, but that has proven elusive. Interestingly, the lack of such an anchor tenant actually means the arena itself is profitable. As the article puts it:

“When it comes to visitors, concerts and gross revenue, the building, from that standpoint, is an overwhelming success,” he said Tuesday.

Leiweke said the strong, concert-fueled profits at the arena during the fiscal year that ended July 31 means AEG can be more selective about pursuing an NHL or NBA franchise for the facility.

Any professional team would likely demand big chunks of the facility’s revenues from luxury suites, concessions and sponsorships. That would cut the arena’s ultimate profits.

“The economic model of this building is quite successful,” said Leiweke, who was in town for a preseason NHL match Tuesday night between the Los Angeles Kings, owned by AEG, and the New York Islanders.

“The last thing we or the city want to do is throw away that model and make the arena a loss leader with another tenant,” he said.

“It’s a tougher scenario with a professional team,” he added. If there were a team there now, “I’m sure we wouldn’t be able to write a check to the city for $1.8 million.”

While landing a professional sports team as an anchor for the arena remains the ultimate goal for AEG, Leiweke said the presence of a team also could diminish its popularity as a concert venue. Now, the arena has an abundance of options to offer concert promoters.

The team’s games at the arena would remove up to 50 dates from the calendar and also would likely put much of May and June on hold because of potential playoffs, Leiweke said.

“We want an anchor tenant, but the right tenant and the right time,” he said. “We’re going to have to be patient.

“There’s a lot going on with both the NBA and NHL … I think it’s best for us now to stay focused on keeping this a great arena, and the leagues will sort themselves out over the next two years, and when the time comes, we’ll seize the opportunity.”

It’s rare that you ever hear anyone publicly state that an arena is designed to be a loss leader for a community. Kansas City already has two professional sports franchises, which for a city of its size is probably enough. They already get the branding and entertainment benefits of pro sports. It is worth it for them to go for the trifecta? Is there another region as small as KC with all three major leagues?

National and International Roundup

GOOD Magazine has an interesting look at rethinking cities.

Sid Burgess gives us his “7 Blunders of Sidewalkdom

Six key lessons from Portland’s urbanism.

Squeeze on tax rolls set to tighten in Atlanta. (via @OtisWhite) and Atlanta Beltline feasibility rises to the forefront.

Oklahoma city MAPS out big plans. Yes, OKC too wants to build a downtown mini-Millennium Park.

The Guardian asks whether California will be America’s first failed state.

Long Island’s Changing Face (NYT). Article on immigration to Long Island.

In parched Los Angeles, the streets suddenly run wet (NYT)

Here’s an interesting piece on the high percentage of non-natives in Seattle. This is a huge difference versus the Midwest and explains a lot. (h/t @OtisWhite)

The Guardian: Gordon Brown signals commitment to high speed rail

Unplanned cities could be the future of urbanism (via @GenslerOnCities)

More Midwest

The Columbus Dispatch has a database of Ohio stimulus projects.

Midwest Home takes a look at Lustron homes. (via Worth Your Attention)

A Louisville blogger compares his city’s biking infrastructure with Indianapolis. (via The Indy Cog)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: America’s Finest Orchestra (The Telegraph)
Architectural review of the Trump Tower (Blair Kamin @ Tribune)

About Cincinnati and how I ended up there (Walking Green) via VisuaLingual

Cleveland Orchestra to establish New York residency (NYT)
The Gay Games are coming to Cleveland in 2014 (Plain Dealer)

More minorities leaving Detroit (Detroit News)
Michigan is singing the white collar blues (WSJ) – via Rust Wire
In defense of Detroit (Forbes)
Five one way tickets to Michigan please (Jeff Bocan @ Huffington Post)
Detroit mayor’s tough love poses risk in election (NYT)
Can Detroit stop the bleeding? (Jeff Gerritt @ Free Press)

Kansas City
Kansas City has lost top three convention (KC Star)

Milwaukee lands federal grant to develop water cluster (BizTimes)

What’s at stake for Pittsburgh? (Bruce Katz)
Google CEO: Pittsburgh’s economy a model for others to follow (Post-Gazette)

Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation
Cities: Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee

3 Responses to “Midwest Miscellany”

  1. Sid Burgess says:

    Thanks for the link up! Great list of stories today. It is amazing how many communities are starting to wake up and yet there are so many cities that still have no clue. The great divide in America is over the shape of our built environment.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    My girlfriend, who grew up in a New York City suburb, could tell you almost exactly the same stories as your correspondent. The students at her school were not motivated to do much, and she was basically a persona non grata because she was too weird. The attitude toward her was no different from the attitude your correspondent describes toward valedictorians. In general, even the smarter people there ended up going to college and then coming back to live on their parents' dime, or else got a low-paying job nearby. People who grow up near New York have this conception of the world where moving away is like moving to another planet.

  3. the urban politician says:

    Absolutely horrific news regarding the loss of another historic tower in Detroit.

    Detroit seems to be moving in the exact opposite direction that it should be.

    Just another sign that Detroit is one of the big losers among the field of American cities.

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