Wednesday, June 5th, 2013
In a follow-up to my recent posts on casinos, here’s a HuffPost Live segment on casino gambling in cities. If features Edward McClelland, Luke Barley, and Richard Layman. Good comments all around. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here, but note that this links to an auto-play version.
Sunday, June 2nd, 2013
This is the second installment in my look at the Las Vegas Downtown Project. In part one I gave an overview of the project and some of the positives and success indicators. On Thursday I looked at some of the commonalities between Vegas and other small cities as a bridge to this installment. And finally today I want to look at some of the challenges I see with the Downtown Project and ask, will it succeed?
As for the answer to that question, some of it is a matter of how you define success. At a base level, there’s already been success. Downtown Las Vegas is now on the mental map and the discussion agenda for urbanists around the country. The product offering is already better. Also, the original concept of building an extended urban campus for Zappos seems likely to succeed. Downtown will certainly be light-years ahead of where it started as a live/work/play environment.
Other goals are more speculative. Can Zappos avoid the sub-linear scaling curse? We shall see, but given that the same leadership is running both the company and the Downtown Project, this is a good laboratory and case study for business schools to look at.
The big, aspirational goals around making Vegas the most community focused city in the world, and the co-working and co-learning capital of the world seem much more challenging. My previous post around common traits of small cities shows why there’s lot of competition in the community department. Also, with NYC having an estimated 50 co-working facilities already, it seems unlikely Vegas is ever going to win in co-working on volume of activity.
Still, better to aim high than low I always say. But looking forward to how Downtown Project plays out, I see three major areas of concern: the conventionality of the program, the fact that it goes against the DNA of Las Vegas, and challenge of curating a city versus running a company.
The Conventionality of Downtown Project
One thing that struck me when I saw Tony’s original talk at BIF-8 is the conventionality of much of what is being done. The project has a reputation for being very innovative, but most of the components of it are conventional wisdom. Or “best practices” if you will.
Car share, collisions, fashion, tech startups, co-working, art, music, coffeeshops, restaurants, etc. Everything is exceptionally buzzword compliant, right down the PBR on tap in the local establishments. All of the boxes are checked perfectly – too perfectly.
I described the project as Ed Glaeser meets Richard Florida which highlights how this happened. They consulted with all the gurus, from Elon Musk to Burning Man. And all the leading edge thinking was incorporated into the program.
But think about Zappos for a minute. If you ever take the tour, it’s obvious that this is a very unique and different company. Here’s a snap:
The scene at Zappos
The Zappos culture and service mentality did not come from taking the best of Seth Godin, Jim Collns, etc. and creating a company culture from them. I’m sure that their HR policies, finance, tech, etc use many methods and tools common to all companies. But the company is not an amalgamation of best practices. Nor is the unique company culture and zaniness just frosting applied to a cake that’s similar to any other. It cuts through everything they do.
By contrast, I just don’t get the same sense of uniqueness in downtown Vegas. What makes downtown Vegas unique is unrelated to Downtown Project (e.g., casinos). There are definitely things I think they’ve innovated on. The Telsa car share and modal integration take that to a new level. The crash pads and sales mentality create a “WOW” experience that’s clearly unique – and probably explain why the project has gotten so much positive press. But those things don’t change the fact that they are basically trying to do what Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida told every city to do.
This I think limits what can be accomplished. Every city has coffee shops, a budding startup community, bars and restaurants, etc. They are all adding livable streets infrastructure and such. They’ve all got a lot of exciting stuff happening. The challenge is how to create the Zappos of cities. That is, a place when you go there you’re blown away by how unique it is and how cool is. And which has a certain polarizing effect, much like Zappos itself, which is not for everybody. Definitely the “WOW” thing they’ve got going with rolling out the red carpet is a great start. A willingness to stay a bit niche and not actually scale so they can preserve the uniqueness might be part of it too (more on this later).
To be fair, given how bleak downtown Vegas is, they pretty much have no choice but to build the basics, which every city needs. Almost by definition, the basics are conventional. So I should probably give them more time to see how this evolves.
Challenging the Vegas DNA
Another challenge is that they are directly going against the brand and cultural DNA of Las Vegas. Vegas is about gambling, etc. While there are definitely regular things in Vegas, including nice boring suburbs, the core of it seems to be in everything centered around casinos.
Downtown Project not only isn’t trying to roll with this but is actively cutting against the grain. The tech fund isn’t investing in gaming technology companies, for example, which is the obvious logical niche. Rather than trying to do cool-urban casinos or some such, they actually bought a casino (the Gold Spike) and ripped out the gambling.
I understand this perfectly because it is exactly what most smaller, unhip cities try to do. You want to join the club, so you think you have to fit in. I have noted how the one thing everyone in the world thinks of when they think of Indianapolis, the 500-Mile Race, is something that’s never talked about by the local urban crowd. To them auto racing is declasse and an emblem of the past city they’d like to think they’ve transcended. Indy is way more than auto-racing today, goes the logic. Almost every city goes through this phase.
One of the things I’ve been most passionate about and that I feel most strongly about generally is the idea that cities need to be themselves. They need to understand who they are and build the future around that, not around junking the past. Yes, change to be sure. But remember who you are. My post “The Brand Promise of Indianapolis” gives the overview of my thinking on that. Cities simply cannot sever their roots and expect to thrive in most cases.
Going against the DNA of your city mean’s you are swimming upstream. As Paul Graham noted in “Cities and Ambition“:
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that.
A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off. One of the occupational hazards of living in Cambridge is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences. But on average I’ll take Cambridge conversations over New York or Silicon Valley ones.
It’s very tough to overcome the message that a city repeats in your ear over and over again. And for Vegas trying to reinvent itself around creative collisions, it’s doubly hard as Richard Florida put it in last place for creative class share among large cities. Trying to go from worst to first is a tough challenge indeed.
I come from a consulting background and so am obsessed with strategery. So my own biases are showing. But what do companies obsess about? Their unique customer segments and their value propositions to it, along with the financial model for realizing value. In short, it’s about the brand DNA. It amazes me to no end that while most companies try to convince you how unique and different they are from every other company in their market (Zappos being a great example), virtually every city is trying to convince you that they’re just like every other cool city (tech hub, creative, etc).
What’s the first thing a new creative director does when trying to revive a fashion house that’s fallen on hard times? Pay a visit to the archives. What is this company all about? It’s the same with cities. What is this city all about? And with most cities that question was asked and answered a long before we got there or were even born. The founding ethos of a city is almost impossible to displace. (The best documentation of this is E. Digby Baltzell’s “Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia” which showed how the founding ethos of the Puritans and the Quakers permeated every aspect of those cities’ cultures up until the present day). So to understand this you have to dig below the surface (which in the case of Vegas would be gambling I guess) and become a sort of anthropologist. I’m sure my surface analysis of Vegas as about casinos is off and that deeper digging needs to be done. But it doesn’t appear to be a creative capital type of place, etc.
So in thinking about how to transcend conventionality, I think aligning with not against the civic DNA is important. In fact, the Downtown Project already has one area where they have done this and it is by far the most compelling thing I’ve seen them do. This is a hybrid of what they call “Subscribe to Las Vegas” and “Las Vegas Makes You Smarter.”
The idea behind subscribing to Las Vegas is that not everyone can or wants to move there. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of the community. Some people are choosing to live or work there part time – say one week a month. The notion is that one purposeful visitor or part timer who is fully engaged in the community and “collisionable” is as good or better than a full time resident that is sitting home watching TV or at work in the burbs.
“Las Vegas makes you smarter” I believe came out of all the people Tony was bringing in to check out Downtown Project. He started asking them to give a presentation while they were in town. Most people said Yes. Hence the downtown speaker series and the notion of Vegas as a place you can get exposed to great minds and knowledge.
These are very in line with the Vegas DNA. First, most people don’t want to move to Vegas. But almost everyone would love to visit. So the idea of becoming a regular visitor to the city is an easy sell to a lot of people. It’s directly in line with the tourism focus of the city. Plus the air connections are superb to it’s easy to get into and out of. The speaker series also goes along with this. On any given day there are already tons of A-list people in Vegas. All you’ve got to do is convince a handful of them to make a community contribution.
So I think finding things like these are critical to building the “Only in Las Vegas” downtown experience that would be best. That’s not to say even this is without challenge. Downtown Vegas does not appear to be an intellectual center. While technology has certainly made it harder to tell, I didn’t see a single person reading a newspaper or book while I was there. There aren’t even that many boxes selling the local newspaper downtown, or a bookstore that I found. The book selection at the Beat Coffeehouse didn’t wow me either. However, I’m told the Inspire Theater that’s being built to house the speakers series will also have Vegas’ largest newsstand and that a bookstore is being looked at.
Can You Curate a Community and a City?
Zappos is known as a company that is very intentional about its culture. The know what they are trying to build, the invest in it, and they take great pains to protect it. But can you apply the same sort of intentionality to the city?
Real cities aren’t just about collisions, they are about conflict. “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” says the proverb. This is different from “Hey, you’re cool. I’m cool. Let’s be cool together and collaborate.” It’s about people with very different agendas and ideas competing for the same space (in every sense of the word “space”). As Sam Jacob of FAT put it, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.”
This is where the blank slate of downtown Vegas is a weakness. Because there’s nothing around but casinos and government, there’s really no vision I see apart from Downtown Project. And Downtown Project is investing in people and projects that are compatible with their vision. In effect, they are self-selecting for a monoculture, or for diversity within a particular worldview or paradigm. People who move to downtown Vegas personally or move their business there are likely going to do it because they are bought into the Downtown Project vision. It’s not exactly central economic planning, but there may actually be too much shared vision. I didn’t run into anybody who didn’t think the current approach was right on.
What’s more, because Downtown Project has been so successful in garnering mindshare and national press, it may have sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Unless a local casino billionaire or something gets attracted, anyone who wants to play in downtown Vegas is probably going to find it hard to gain mindshare unless they sign onto the Tony Show as it were. Another city with more of a plurality of players might actually be a better platform for getting noticed if you want to do your own thing.
This is where I think a city functions differently than a company. Downtown Las Vegas is not Zappos at a larger scale. It’s a fundamentally different kind of organism.
I’m not convinced it’s even possible to curate a community at more than a small scale anyway. Once more and more people come, you won’t have the same level of community because it will just plain be bigger and more anonymous. And what happens when people start showing up who don’t share the ethos, but are just there to consume? The magic starts to fade. This is exactly what Tony himself went through with the post-peak decline of rave culture and the erosion of PLUR.
Perhaps that magic fading ought to be the big goal after all, to create something that Downtown Project ultimately loses control of because it is so successful that others come in and build something on top of their platform that they never imagined. Maybe it won’t be the co-working capital of the world. But maybe it will be just as cool – or even cooler. Many of the best things turn out to be something their founders never could have imagined. It may be that the best tribute possible to Tony would be if his project became something radically different than what he ever thought it could be.
Though I obviously have my differences with some of the Downtown Project vision, you have to admire the chutzpah it takes to bring that much ambition to such as bleak place. What they’ve accomplished in such a short time with so little money and with so meager a starting platform in the city is very impressive, especially in contrast to the taxpayer money pits that exist in all too many places. And a number of the things they’ve done are particularly great, especially the subscriber model and their focus on selling downtown Las Vegas (which is truly the best I’ve every seen anywhere – definitely “WOW”). Clearly it’s a place everyone ought to visit to see for themselves – and to find out if Tony can talk you into moving there and starting your own business…
Friday, May 31st, 2013
Here’s a blast from the past. A miscellaneous news roundup posting with a look at specific transport projects. I don’t plan to permanently bring this back, but had a couple things I wanted to highlight.
Chicago in the National Media
The national media spotlight continues to focus on Chicago, and not entirely in a positive way. The New York Times has a magazine cover piece piece called “The Death and Life of Chicago” and Time Magazine has a cover story as well. I know that more like this are in the works.
I haven’t read the Time piece yet. The NYT does highlight the good that has happened in Chicago recently, but also focuses on a lot of the negatives that remain in the city.
It’s a credit to Rahm that he’s out aggressively trying to defend the city (and himself of course) in the national media given the very negative spotlight that has been shined on it because of the murder problems. He’s definitely not hunkering down.
But more than anything it shows perhaps the sins of the father being visited on the son. Mayor Daley was the recipient of basically nothing but national media puffery despite Chicago suffering a lost decade on his watch. The national media embarrassed themselves in this. Now, Rahm is taking all the heat for a lot of what happened under his predecessor’s watch. I’m amazed that Daley’s reputation nationally remains so strong while Rahm is getting brutualized. One would think the problems of Chicago would at least prompt some re-evaluation of Daley’s record (which I believe on balance was positive, by the way).
This is not to say Rahm should get off the hook. He deserves credit for a lot of things like his aggressive corporate recruitment efforts, budget cuts, and reinvigorating transport. However, the real mark of a successful mayor is in public safety and schools. If he fails to turn these around, then no matter what else he accomplishes Rahm will rightly be judged a failure. So while he shouldn’t get all the blame for how things got here, he’s now the man and is accountable for results.
Chicago Rail Bypass
Crain’s Chicago Business had an interesting report on a proposed $3 billion rail bypass of Chicago. It’s a privately floated plan that doesn’t appear to be backed by any particular organization, but it’s very intriguing. You can download a complete presentation on it at Crain’s.
There’s a proposal on the table to build a freeway called the Illiana Expressway linking I-57 to I-65 on the far southern fringes of the Chicago metro area. No doubt this is a sprawl inducer to the max. But this proposal suggests piggybacking on that to build a six lane freight rail corridor parallel to the expressway. It would be fully grade separated, financed by private backers, and open access to all rail carriers while owned by none. The idea is that it would allow rail traffic that is merely passing through Chicago to bypass the horrific rail congestion there while avoiding a lot of inter-carrier politicking. It would also open up a massive amount of land to rail-oriented industrial development that could conceivably be served by any carrier on an open access basis.
It definitely an idea worth exploring. An aspect I find intriguing is using the same concept to preserve right of way in the Illiana for a future high speed rail service. As a grade separated route, this would enable true high speed rail. Also, it could be used to connect service from both the southeast (Indy, Cincinnati, Louisville) and southwest (St. Louis) to the Illinois Central mainline, which is the clear best route into downtown Chicago given that it’s largely grade separated already and has few interconnect points with other rail lines. Plus it has huge ROW that potentially enables dedicated high speed tracks. I have always said that to serve Indianapolis, and thus points beyond, ideally there would be a new terrain route, and this would be the connector between that route and the IC.
Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes from this.
Freeway Upgrade in Indianapolis
The Indianapolis Star is reporting that north suburban Hamilton County is studying a plan to turn SR 37 into a freeway. This would be similar to projects undertaken in nearby Carmel on Keystone Ave and US 31.
Clearly many of my readers would see this as about sprawl, and it is. But the sprawl is already here. There’s a couple points I want to make though.
1. This shows that the people who invest early in infrastructure win. Carmel’s upgrade of Keystone Ave. is complete and US 31 is underway. This project is comparable but seems to be coming with a much higher price tag. This is the financial price they pay for being late to the party. Investing in infrastructure can be a big elephant to digest in the short term, but in the long term there are big benefits.
2. SR 37 was already limited access. It was an at grade road, but there was no driveway access and with intersections only at major streets. So it served as a good regional transport corridor. Fishers and Noblesville, the towns it passed through, permitted tons of retail along the route and basically turned it into a typical congested shopping street. Many new stoplights were added. This not only drove the price tag up, but also created a business community that actually wants congestion. They don’t want this project because they think gridlock is good for their business. The good of motorists or the rest of the community doesn’t seem to be on their agenda. This goes to show how catering to certain types of businesses and such can not only create direct problems like traffic congestion, it also creates a constituency opposed to broader community interests.
3. The rich get richer. Carmel is the most upscale suburb in the region. It put in place high end infrastructure and has attracted significant high end office development and residents. Nearby Westfield is seeking to imitate that model. Fishers and Noblesville will struggle to get this project done, even if they take it on. But if they abandon it, they’ve left themselves stuck with a typical strip mall type retail infrastructure that will quickly age and leave them with redevelopment challenges down the road. They will have built themselves out on a model is that already proven not to age well (as shown by the township areas of Marion County/Indianapolis, for example). This shows the various decisions that propel community divergence. This goes with point #2 above as places tend to attract constituencies that perpetuate the current direction.
This project looks excessively priced to me. There are clearly too many interchanges, including new ones where there aren’t even cross-streets today. I think there’s plenty of opportunity to cut costs out of here, or build incrementally or along only a portion of the route. The complaints from various parties that are already coming out of the woodwork bode ill for these towns building what is in fact a critical piece of infrastructure they need for future success.
You can view a project summary here. You will need the actual Adobe Acrobat Reader to view it.
Thursday, May 30th, 2013
This is both a standalone piece and a bit of a bridge between the first installment in my Las Vegas Downtown Project overview and the second one.
One thing I consistently heard from the people in Vegas was their pride about the sense of community they had downtown. Tony Hsieh says it is the most community oriented place he’s lived. One of the Downtown Project official goals is to make Las Vegas the most community-oriented downtown in the world.
There’s certainly a big sense of community in downtown Las Vegas. I don’t want to diminish that in any way. And there’s a ton of enthusiasm about the city. But there are four things I think are nearly inevitable in any small city like Vegas. They are ubiquitous in the places I’ve seen. Those are boosterism, community, cross-pollination, and a sense of creating the future of the city.
This is the easy one since it exists everywhere. I just want to add that people who choose to live in a place like Las Vegas have an extra incentive to be evangelists for their city. That is, they have to defend the decision to live there, maybe even to themselves.
When I tell people I live in Providence, nearly 100% of the time they ask, “Why did you move to Providence?” Some of it is understandable curiosity. But part of it is a sort of challenge to defend a decision to move to a place that isn’t in the cool kids club. If I’d moved to one of the usual suspects places, say Boston or New York, I bet I’d get that question a lot less.
Some of the biggest skeptics about a move to a smaller region are often the natives. Natives tend to kvetch about where they are from, which irritates those who are there by choice to no end. It’s like a friend of mine in Indy said one time when she got fed up: some of us chose to be here.
It’s generally newcomers who are the most passionate cheerleaders for any smaller city. Beyond general boosterism, there’s an added chip on the shoulder and something to prove.
Community is another hallmark. As I noted previously re:Providence, different scales have different virtues. One of the things about a small scale city is that because the various communities that make up the urban scene are so small, they have no choice but to hang out together.
Firstly, the small urban crowd and the cut against the grain choice I mentioned above generally create a bit of “us vs. them” solidarity by themselves. Then there’s the small number of venues, so you’re always running into people you know. Of course everybody in downtown Vegas runs into someone they know at the Beat – it’s the only independent coffeehouse downtown. And there’s nowhere to hide if you are a jerk or burn bridges. You’ve got to show your face among your peers. Clearly a “strong sense of community” is always the sell on bona fide small towns, and the generally sparse populations of most downtowns creates what is functionally a small town within the city. For all these reasons, strong community is nearly inevitable.
Cross-pollination is also a huge benefit of small cities in general. The indie rock scene in Chicago is so big, for example, you could easily spend your time hanging out inside that community. Dittos for the architecture community and so on. In smaller cities, that’s not feasible. Because each group is too small to be self-contained, cross-functional collaboration and interaction is standard operating procedure.
Along with community, this makes small cities ideal for the type of serendipitous encounters we always hear are so valuable. I never once had a serendipitous encounter of value in all the years I lived in Chicago. But I had multiple of them in Indy.
Being a Producer Not a Consumer
Lastly, another common feature of small cities is what I term being a producer, not a consumer. People aren’t just there to soak in what the city has to offer, but they are part of building the product in a very real and tangible way that can’t be replicated in larger places unless you’re a billionaire. Again, no need to belabor this as I’ve covered it many times before, such as this piece discussing a New York Magazine article on Buffalo.
Some of the things I heard people say in Vegas are things I hear people in all similar sized cities say. Like running into people you know. For example, a couple months ago a guy in Providence told me that if he had a list of people he needed to meet, he could just spend a day in various coffee shops downtown and would probably run into most of them without even bothering to set up an appointment. Even today every time I’m in Indy I run into someone I know walking down the street. You can’t escape the collisions!
All this to say, while I love what they’ve got going in Vegas, it might not be quite as unique as they think it is. Certainly there’s competition out there for the title of top community oriented city.
Where I do think they’ve got a window of having a genuine leg up is the idea of creating the future of a city. Downtown Vegas is almost literally starting from nothing. The “Providence Renaissance” already had a book written about it. If you’re looking to get in on the ground floor, Vegas is probably one of your better options.
Wednesday, May 29th, 2013
Here’s a test to see how many of you are actually serious about attracting creatives and building a creative economy in your city: will you actually watch this 53 minute documentary about Berlin that’s in German with subtitles?
“In the Belly of a Whale” is a great film that consists of talking head style ruminations on the art scene and life as a creative in Berlin. The people featured are “all in” as artists and fully part of that scene themselves (though as you’ll see most of them wear many hats). We get to see plenty of their often very cool art as well as hear some cool tunes.
Given that Berlin has attracted more artists than any any city in the world, it’s a case study worth looking at if you plan to try attracting any sort of creative base. Nobody has succeeded like Berlin.
First the video, then some additional commentary on what I saw in it. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.
I have generally argued that talent migration is not a zero sum game. However, according to these folks Berlin really has hoovered up a good chunk of Germany’s artists. This makes it more difficult to be an artist today in second tier cities than it was in the past. How true this is I don’t know. The people here clearly take a “global elite” type view. They frequently refer to places like New York and London. They clearly recognize that Berlin is in the top echelon by reputation in the global art world and don’t hesitate to act like it (though they candidly recognize Berlin’s weaknesses).
How does this play out elsewhere? I do think there are certain industries that are extremely centralized. Art and fashion are two of those. There are only real commercial markets in a handful of places. So while secondary cities can perhaps attract more artists and creatives than they did in the past (just as they have more coffee shops than they did back in the 80s or 90s, for example), building a real economy out of this will be extremely difficult. While this might seem insulting, the art would in a smaller city is to some extent scenery or decoration, not the integral part of the city and its economy that it is in Berlin.
This is probably doubly true since even in Berlin there’s no money in art. None of these people really make much of a living from it, except one person who seems to exhibit internationally. They all admit people in Berlin want cool stuff, but don’t want to pay for it. You need international representation to get paid. But what Berlin lacks economically, it makes up for in dirt cheap rents, abandoned buildings without clear title (even today), and an unmatched richness of interaction with other creatives.
I do think it’s fair to say that while perhaps the artists haven’t profited much from their work, the city has. The art scene and the techno scene (which seem very inter-related) have put Berlin on the map and drive huge tourism dollars. So I’m guessing the economic impact is much higher than direct art spending. However, having a collection of artists unmatched anywhere in the world has certainly not succeed in turning Berlin into an economic dynamo, and the city remains “poor but sexy” as its mayor once said.
In any case, if “creativity” is on your city’s agenda, then this is a much watch video. Also must-watch is Real Scenes: Berlin that I previously posted. That one is a nice complement that covers the rise of the techno scene and the reasons behind that.
Monday, May 27th, 2013
The Downtown Project in Las Vegas, an attempt to completely reinvent downtown Las Vegas spearheaded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, is one of the better known downtown revitalization initiatives in America. I’ve been planning to write on it since I saw Tony speak about it in Providence last fall. I was kicked in the pants to finally do so by a trip I took to Vegas last week to check the Downtown Project out.
Before going any further, I should disclose that I stayed there for free in one of the project’s “crash pad” apartments (more on those later). I also previously had a small financial relationship with affiliated entity. And I bought my running shoes on Zappos and might have gotten a free upgrade on shipping. But while this article will be very positive on Downtown Project, please stay tuned for part two before dismissing me as a shill. That’s where I plan to cover the negatives.
What Is the Downtown Project?
There’s nobody better to tell you want the Downtown Project is than Tony Hsieh himself. Here’s the talk he gave on it in Providence at BIF-8, a sort of TED-like conference. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
In brief, Downtown Project is seeking to reinvent downtown Las Vegas as a community oriented innovation hub. The genesis was Zappos’ purchase of the old Las Vegas city hall as a headquarters. Rather than a traditional tech campus like you might try to find in the suburbs, Tony wanted to build an urban campus more like NYU where Zappos was integrated into the city.
Here’s a picture of City Hall/Zappos future headquarters:
This was not an entirely altruistic move. Research shows that corporations have sub-linear scaling. That is, they become less productive for innovation as they get bigger. But cities have super-linear scaling as they get larger. That is, cities get more productive for innovation as they grow larger. Part of the idea of Downtown Project is to preserve the innovative and productive capacity of Zappos as it scales by hybridizing the company with the urban environment of downtown Las Vegas.
If you’ve read Tony’s book Delivering Happiness you know that customer service is Zappos differentiator, and its company culture is the foundation of making service and everything else they do happen. So unsurprisingly, culture is a big part of what the Downtown Project is setting out to do. There are three project goals. They want to make downtown Las Vegas:
- A true live/work/play environment
- The most community-oriented downtown in the world
- The co-working and co-learning capital of the world
The strategy to accomplish this is basically Ed Glaeser meets Richard Florida. It’s about density, creative class activities, collisions (aka serendipitous interactions), and openness (aka tolerance). From there, as Tony puts it, “The magic will happen on its own.” Or that’s the theory. The magic is intended to be happiness, luckiness, innovation, and productivity.
To make this happen Tony raised $350 million for the Downtown Project. It’s a separate entity from Zappos though it isn’t clear who the investors behind it actually are. (The information may be out there somewhere. Some have suggested Tony is paying for the entire thing himself. Once before he took every penny he made from selling a startup and rolled it into Zappos, so I guess it’s possible. He certainly has a huge appetite for risk. However, when I’ve heard him describe the project, it has only been as “privately funded” which suggests other investors. Given that this is in effect a Zappos campus buildout project, one would hope the company is actually contributing, especially as Amazon now owns it. Whatever the case, clearly Tony is calling the shots and is personally involved at the most intimate level).
Now that sounds like a lot of money, but you could easily spend way more than that on just one real estate project. So instead of just trying to build a bunch of apartments or something, a good chunk of the money is penciled in for “software” type of activities. The allocation is $200M for real estate, $50M for tech startups, $50M for small businesses, and $50M for education, arts, and culture. The real estate money seems to be going quickly as the Las Vegas Sun has reported that the Downtown Project has already spent at least $93 million just on land acquisition, buying 28 acres, mostly along Fremont between Las Vegas Blvd. and Maryland. Their ability to transform the city through purely building would appear to be limited.
The software consists of two venture capital funds. One is going for traditional tech startups, many of which Tony is personally recruiting to Las Vegas. So far there have been about 30 takers, though these are mostly very small enterprises. The other is for small business infrastructure like boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants with a focus on owner-operated businesses that are unique or best in class.
Natalie Young, owner and chef at Eat, a Downtown Project funded breakfast/lunch restaurant (and a very good one too!) – Image via Eating Las Vegas
The Beat Coffeehouse. (Not a Downtown Project funded venture AFAIK) – Image via Timothy Dahl
Both of these are bona fide investment funds, but the focus is not necessarily short term profits. Rather, Tony likes to talk about “Return on Community” as their metric. This is really an investment mindset of necessity. Downtown Vegas has a huge chicken and egg problem. It won’t be attractive to business and residents unless there are cool things to do and the services people want. But the service oriented businesses won’t open until there’s demand. The Downtown Project is trying to solve this by in effect being a source of “patient equity” by pre-funding the services until critical mass is achieved. And of course the demand side is in part being addressed both by the Zappos move and the tech startup initiative. The goal is basically acceleration of what might have happened organically, though it’s too early to tell if there will be success.
I’m not sure what all is in the arts and education fund, but there’s plenty going on in those areas, including a downtown speaker series (with a theater to house it), the purchase of public art from the likes of Burning Man, and a major music festival called Life Is Beautiful. This category seems to be a catchall for filling in the gaps between the others. I’m not sure what fund these fall into, but there are also co-working spaces for fashion (Stitch Factory) and tech (Work in Progress) with a Tech Shop like space coming soon.
The project focus seems to be principally business attraction and programming. There’s little purely residential development to speak of, in part because that type of bricks and mortar project is so expensive. I’m sure the hope is that the environment will draw developer interest to provide the housing as demand is stimulated.
To sum up, Downtown Project is Tony Hsieh as real estate developer + venture capitalist + philanthropist. In effect, he is trying to be a curator/impresario for downtown Las Vegas.
Project Success Factors
I think there are two main things that the Downtown Project has going for it: the guy behind it and the city it is in.
The first is the man himself, Tony Hsieh. First, he’s a successful, proven serial entrepreneur. He also clearly isn’t scared off by massive risk. Beyond this, he just has general gettitude on cities, which is something that too few people calling the shots in the redevelopment efforts of similar sized cities can say. Because he runs basically the highest profile non-casino business in down, he’s got the gravitas (and the money) to convince the civic establishment to go along with way he wants. Or at least to get out of his way. In too many cities, the people who know what’s up are marginal and uninfluential versus traditional power players. The knowledge capital is there, but it’s not paired up with clout like it is with Tony. And as a superstar entrepreneur, he can command massive attention outside Las Vegas, as well as be very influential in recruitment of startups, etc. Tony H. is clearly the indispensable man on this project.
But Vegas is also the right city. I come at this as someone who has been a champion for overlooked post-industrial cities in the Heartland. So I’m guessing my reaction when I saw downtown Vegas is pretty similar to what advocates from other similar sized cities would say: This is it!?
Let’s be honest, what’s actually been physically achieved in downtown Las Vegas to date is quite limited. The Downcity Arts District in Providence is better than Fremont East. Over the Rhine and downtown Cincinnati blow Vegas out of the water. Downtown Indy already has more tech employees than Vegas will even after Zappos makes the move. Honestly, it’s a bit infuriating as a guy who lived in Indy, Louisville, and Providence to see a place where so little has happened garner such massive press and accolades when most other regions the size of Vegas have done more while getting far less attention.
However, I think we need to get a sense of perspective. The first thing to understand is that for all intents and purposes there is no such thing as “downtown” Las Vegas. What they call downtown has some older casinos and some government buildings, but that’s it. There’s no traditional employment or commercial core. There’s a grand total of one decent sized office building in the entire place. Here’s a picture:
That’s basically it. Most of downtown is either vacant or has marginal business activities at best. This old boarded up hotel is typical:
The streets of downtown are nearly deserted even in the middle of the day. You could shoot a cannon off and not hit anything.
By the way, that new building is the federal court house. The tall buildings further away are on the Strip. Here’s what you see across the street from Zappos:
Las Vegas has the single most savagely bleak downtown of any major city I’ve ever visited. The Downtown Project is almost literally starting at zero. There are practically no assets. So anything that the Downtown Project accomplishes needs to be seen against that backdrop. Most of these other cities have been at the downtown redevelopment game for 30+ years, have massive architectural and institutional assets, and have already been the recipients of untold billions in investment, much of it public money. There’s next to none of that in Vegas. Frankly when you see what’s already been done and is being done with $350M – and so quickly – it almost makes you weep to think about the billion dollars or so in taxpayer money that has gone into stadiums and arenas alone in so many other smaller cities. Oh, what could have been done with that instead!
Fremont East, an exception to the rule of bleakness. Most of the establishments on this block are not gambling oriented. The core of the Downtown Project is to extend this several blocks to the east. Image via Flickr/davelawrence8
At this point you may be wondering why I say this is a success factor. Simply, because it’s clear the elite of Las Vegas have completely abandoned and turned their backs on downtown. If they had even a smidgen of pride in their city, they would never have let it get like this with no effort to change it. This leaves the institutional playing field clear for people who actually know what they are doing.
I was chatting with one of the Downtown Project employees who is from Rhode Island. He compared the ease of getting things done in Las Vegas with the near impossibility in Rhode Island. In most places, there’s a spider web of competing land interests, power brokers, politicians, etc. all fighting over what happens downtown (especially who gets to receive all the subsidies). This seems to be immeasurably less true in Vegas. All of the action is on the Strip, so the downtown playing field is wide open. This is one place where the term “blank canvas” might really be appropriate. There’s probably an ability to execute in Las Vegas that simply doesn’t exist in other cities because of the lack of competing interests. (This is also a huge problem for Downtown Project, which I’ll cover in the next installment).
I want to wrap up this part with a look at some of the highlights of what Downtown Project is doing.
Actually, the most compelling thing that they are doing, a combination of what they call “Subscribe to Las Vegas” and “Las Vegas Makes You Smarter,” I’m going to save for part two so I can use them as the exception that proves the rule. However, there are some other very interesting things.
One is that Las Vegas is the only city I’ve ever visited that actually has sales and not just marketing. Let me explain. Every city in America obsesses over talent and spends beaucoup dollars on various talent initiatives, etc. Similarly, we hear about startups and building tech communities. But while everybody says they want this stuff, and while everyone has a web site and well-funded booster clubs, what nobody actually tries to do ever is actually recruit people unless there’s a specific job opening they are trying to fill.
I always like to do my “Urbanophile test” when I go speak somewhere. Obviously if people are willing pay me to come speak to them, they must think there’s at least some value I bring. But how many places I visit will actually attempt to sell me on their community as a place I might want to live? The answer is zero. I’ve talked to more than enough people to know this is a common occurrence. Nobody is actually selling their city.
Vegas is different. Downtown Project, and Tony personally, are aggressively involved in sales. They leased out 50ish units in a residential high rise called the Ogden (one of only a handful of residential properties downtown). They use these as what they call “crash pads.” They are for people who want to come check out downtown Vegas and the Downtown Project to stay free. They also make sure to showcase what they are doing. And they are going to try to show you how downtown Vegas could be a fit for you or your business. Tony himself is personally involved with this. I was able to take a small group walking tour with him, and part of his agenda was trying to sell a small retailer on setting up shop in a retail development they called Container Park. Here’s this guy who is a multi-mega-millionaire personally recruiting a small business. Hard to imagine there’s a lot of that going on in other places. Think having a tech rock star personally making the ask helps bring small tech outfits to Vegas? You bet it does. Unlike 99% of other cities in America, the downtown Vegas crowd is actually asking for the business.
The Ogden, home of the Downtown Project “crash pads” and what Tony calls the project’s “secret weapon” – Image via Business Insider (lots of good photos of downtown Vegas and the Downtown Project on that page)
Another item, as I highlighted earlier, is capital efficiency. It’s basically the Zappos do more with less ethos. A major retail development will be made out of shipping containers. A new hotel will be Airstream trailers. A casino called the Gold Spike is getting a fairly lo-fi makeover instead of getting scraped and replaced with a Taj Mahal. All of these are stretching $350M at lot further than it would go in most cities. Part of this is obviously of necessity, but is has big benefits. As Jamie Lerner of Curitiba put it, “If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeros. If you want to make it happen, do it fast.”
The car share program they are setting up is also interesting. Firstly, the backbone of the fleet will be 100 Teslas. How cool is that? They are planning to do an entirely electric fleet. Also, the idea is to integrate bike share and every other mode of transport you might need into the same system, and have it accessible from your phone.
Lastly, a couple of the projects – the container space and a school – are oriented towards children. This is very rare to see, as families and children are simply not part of the equation in most cities that are targeting the “young and restless.” While the ubiquity of sexually oriented material in downtown Vegas means this will never be a truly kid-friendly environment, there’s at least an effort being made.
That’s a look at the project and a number of the positives about it. If this seems like too much puffery for a traditional Urbanophile post, stay tuned. Thursday I’ll take a brief look at the nature of community and collisions in small cities. Then I’ll follow-up with part two of this series where I examine my reservations about the project and the challenges it faces. Stay tuned.
Thursday, May 23rd, 2013
My latest post is up over at GoLocalProv and is called “How White Providence Really Is.” I contrast the strong diversity of the city and some other urban core type places versus the extreme whiteness of the rest of the region. New England generally is lacking in diversity. Boston, for example, is by far the whitest tier one type city in America. I’ve got a chart on that as well. Here’s an excerpt:
The city of Providence is a very diverse place. In fact, it’s over 62% minority, making it a so-called “minority majority” city. However, the city of Providence is only a very small part of the overall state and region.
Metropolitan Providence is one of the whitest major regions in America. Looking at metro areas with more than one million people, Providence ranks third in the country for the total non-minority population. The percentage of the population that is “white only, non-hispanic” – Hispanic people can be of any race – is nearly 80%. Only Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are higher.
Minority population growth actually bailed out the entire region. During that 11 year period metro Providence actually lost over 81,000 non-hispanic white residents. Without minority population growth, the region would have actually shrunk in population.
Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013
This week I’m featuring a promotional video for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was part of a series of videos Atlantic Cities highlighted about the city. They say this is played at the stadium before every home game. I can see why. It’s a fantastic piece. The way that it captures gritty Pittsburgh while also throwing in slices of more traditional “cool urban” (like skyline shots) and lots of average, everyday people instead of the Beautiful or the Bearded Ones is great. The lessons of this videos should be absorbed by the tourism teams of most cities which as a rule continue to churn out work that actively makes me not want to visit those cities. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
I’d like to contrast the Pittsburgh with a video called “Here Is St. Louis.” I pick that one not because it’s bad, but because in many ways is actually very well done. It’s not a tourism video, but what I’d call an explicit “city video” of the type I often post here. This video does indeed show many only in St. Louis type landmarks, shots of people, etc. But where this video falls flat is that it tries too hard to make St. Louis look like a super-cool city. Coffee shops, microbreweries, cool restaurants, record stores, etc. It checks all the boxes. But substitute in your city’s equivalents for everything shot in the video, and you’d probably come away not really being able to tell the difference. This doesn’t tell a truly compelling story of St. Louis, though it’s certainly well done and conveys the city positively. I just think the Pirates did a much better job of capturing the unique spirit of their city. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
h/t Chris LeBeau
Monday, May 20th, 2013
[ Given that a major transit expansion in Indianapolis is dead for the moment thanks to the state legislature, I thought I'd dust off this list of no help needed recommendations to start improving transit immediately. It's nearly five years old and so some ideas may be dated, but the thinking of ways to start making change right now for cheap I think is still valid.
By the way, please don't interpret this post as criticizing the mode mix in the Indy Connect plan. That was released after quite a bit of detailed analysis long after I wrote this post - Aaron.> ]
This post originally ran on September 25, 2008.
I’m passionate about public transit. For those of you who know me primarily through my posting about rail transit being a bad idea for Indianapolis, you might not believe me. But I’ve long been a transit rider. In fact, in a previous life I published a transit newsletter for three years. I try to ride transit in every city I visit.
Where I differ from many transit advocates is that I believe that transit should be primarily about rider mobility, and I think we need to take a realistic approach that looks at the facts around development patterns, cost, likely ridership, etc. and not just rely on conventional wisdom from the transit hymnal and build it and they will come logic. As I said in my really, really cheap manifesto, it’s about results, not how much money one can spend.
In light of that, I will lay out a series of ideas about how to improve transit in Indianapolis today, not years from now, that won’t cost much money to implement. Some of them are conceivably even free and can be implemented with existing staff and budgets. I can’t say these are all the right things to do, but I believe all of them are worthy of serious consideration.
- Run bus service every ten minutes to Fountain Square. To have real bus service, that is to say, where you can just show up and wait for the next bus without consulting a schedule, you need ten minute headways or better all day, maybe 15, but that’s pushing it. Indygo currently operates on 30 to 60 minute headways, which is a non-starter. To really start proving the transit concept locally, Indy needs to start piloting with enhanced service at ten minute headways to see how to make it work or if in fact it can be made to work. The perfect place to start is Fountain Square. This is one of the city’s official cultural districts. Its downtown area is already “transit oriented development” and there is plenty of opportunity for further infill. A segment of the population there is tightly connected to downtown. However, the distance is a bit too far to walk comfortably in bad weather (about 1 ½ miles to the core of the Mile Square). Today, Indygo’s web site tells me there are three routes that go through Fountain Square: the #12-Beechcrest, the #14-Prospect and the #22-Shelby. These three bus routes run on 30 minute headways. Today, they all get to Fountain Square at the exact same time. For example, the #12 arrives at Virginia/South at 7:13am, the #14 gets there at 7:14am, and the #22 also gets there at 7:14am. It looks to me like three buses come in a row, then there isn’t another bus for half an hour. That’s insane. If Indygo simply staggered the routes, a bus could come through Fountain Square every ten minutes – right now, today – without spending an extra dime to add any new service. Now perhaps things are set up this way to facilitate downtown transfers, so perhaps this isn’t a slam dunk decision to make. But I think it goes to show that you could make dramatic transit improvements in an emerging neighborhood that primed to take advantage of it today without spending anything other than the cost of printing new schedules. And for people in Fountain Square, you wouldn’t even need a schedule, which is the whole point.
- Get a new domain name. indygo.net has to go. A .net domain name is completely bush league. If you can’t spring for a real domain name, no one will take you seriously. If indygo.com is too pricey, at least do indygo.gov or something. Dittos for cirta.us for the Central Indiana Regional Transit Authority.
- Implement mobile phone bus tracking. Chicago has a system called “Bus Tracker” that uses GPS in buses to feed an online service that tells you how long until the next bus arrives. Right now this is a mobile web app only, but soon they are rolling out a texting solution where you text your stop number to a special number and it texts you back the next buses arriving. This is hugely beneficial to riders on the go. What’s more, even large percentages of poor people have cell phones, so it isn’t just targeting the MacBook crowd. My idea: just contact with the CTA to ride their system. The cost is basically some GPS devices, route mapping, and setup. It’s a win-win. The CTA gets a revenue source to amortize their fixed investment over, and Indygo gets the advantages of economies of scale (i.e., lower unit cost) and speed to market. Imagine what a game changer this could be for Indy. With some buses running only once an hour, people have to get to the stop very early to avoid missing that bus. If you knew exactly when it was arriving, you could cut your wait time with confidence.
- Leverage texting for emergency messaging. The CTA is also rolling out texting for communicating to riders about service disruptions and other problems. Again, just see if the CTA will let Indygo pay them on an incremental cost basis to ride that infrastructure. (By the way, one source of potential funding for Chicago transit improvements is simply to spin off some of these things into a service bureau / hosted service for other transit providers. Be the “Google Transit” of this stuff before Google is. Eventually they could even float the thing – or just plain sell it to Google for Big Buck$ to pour into capital improvements. Just my free business advice).
- Start a “Friends of IndyGo” group if one doesn’t exist already. There are all these people who say we need better transit, why not give them the opportunity to see if their deeds match their words? Actually using transit, given the existing service levels, might be a bridge too far. But see if any transit advocates will actually step up to the plate and do something else tangible. A Friends of Indygo group could conceivably take on some of the items I have listed here as volunteer projects, with official sponsorship from the agency.
- Get integrated with Google Transit – right now. (Potential Friends of Indygo project)
- Create a better “How to Ride the Bus” guide. I suggested this one in my Pecha Kucha presentation. I’m a hardened transit guy, but even I don’t like to ride buses in cities I haven’t ridden in before because I’m afraid I won’t know how it works and will end up a mark for criminals, or, at a minimum, just plain look like an idiot. What’s needed is a very simple, explicit, step-by-step how to ride guide – both a brochure and a video – that shows exactly how it works, exactly how to put the money in the box, how to signal for a stop, etc. No question is too stupid or obvious to cover. (Potential Friends of Indygo project).
- Get serious about design. Indygo has a terrible image problem with the public. Transit is stigmatized in Indy in a way that it isn’t in NYC. Great design is something that is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary to create the customer experience and impressions to get people to even consider Indygo. This includes everything from the color scheme, the logos, the web site, signage and shelter design, everything. Consider Indygo’s colors. Who thought that color green looked good on anything? I get the “green” thing, but is that consistent with any other colors used in Indy? (Heck, it isn’t even consistent with the color palette used on the bus shelters downtown). The web site design is mediocre. Even things like good letterhead and a well-chosen font can make a difference. Some of the things are serviceable already (the “I” logo isn’t bad, for example), but could be better. (There’s no reason Indygo couldn’t create a logo that became as iconic as the Boston “T” for example). The large bus shelters are quite nice, but could be tweaked a bit. And the neighborhood shelters are not very nice. Good design frankly doesn’t cost much if anything more than merely serviceable design. It just takes an absolute commitment to creating something that is a) world class and b) both unique to and an expression of Indianapolis. JC Decaux, which usually gives cities bus shelters for free in return for advertising rights (or even pays for the privilege of putting them out there), has an entire subsidiary that designs these, including unique designs for many European cities. Indygo could work with them and insist on a totally world class design that is consistent with Indygo’s revised branding scheme (i.e., good colors). Also, it seems like every other person I stumble across on the internet in Indy these days is a graphic designer or artist. They could do a Friends of Indygo project to do this for free in return for an official credential or something. Similarly, why can’t Indy’s aspiring fashion community design a kick-ass bus driver’s uniform?
- Own the green agenda, live it internally. Don’t just talk about the sustainability of the bus as a transport mechanism. Look at every aspect of your operation and try to become the signature government agency in the state and a leader nationally in green operational practices. As a small government agency, Indy is positioned to more rapidly change. I sense another Friends of Indygo project coming on. Some local green enthusiasts could review operations, even things like office supplies, and look for areas to improve. Source that locally designed bus drivers uniform I mentioned from a small local producer and use sustainable materials (provided the economics are there, of course).
- Look for operational synergies with the rest of Marion County government. Is Indygo buying its own fuel, running its on HR policies, etc.? Some things are obviously unique to them, but as the Mayor’s 100 Day Report indicated, there are still duplicative services all over Marion County. Every dime that can be saved through economies of scale or reduction of duplication is a dime that can be invested into the on-field product.
- Evaluate outsourcing of all functions. Perhaps Indygo could eventually not operate any services directly at all. Privatization isn’t a slam dunk, but it works well for the management of the water utility, so why not here? Again, every dollar saved is a dollar that can go back into core services. London’s famed double-decker buses are contracted out to private companies. If they can do it, so can Indy.
- Run transit every ten minutes on College Ave. I figured I’d bookend this list with another service improvement. Unlike the Fountain Square idea, this one would require increasing service hours. However, College already has the best service out there, every 15 minutes at rush hour. All you need to do is to increase this to every ten minutes all day (maybe a bit more frequent at the 7am and 5pm hours). Indygo could have already done this with money they got earlier this year. On Feb 7th they issued a press release touting 20,000 new hours of transit service paid for by a $1.6 million state grant. Almost all of this went into point extensions of route at the existing awful service levels. It’s time to stop the “more of the same” approach and start changing the game. If Indy can’t make high quality bus service work on College Ave, it has no business trying to do anything else. Start this ASAP and you can start figuring out what it is going to take from a routing, service, and marketing perspective to get people on the bus. Also, the route should be adjusted to go from downtown to Broad Ripple to Glendale to Keystone Crossing. This links several destination districts with the residential in between. Combine the new service with the new design elements and rider notification systems and you have something to really start showing off.
Waiting around for three years to start a commuter oriented, peak period only rail service with limited stops on one corridor – and that’s in the best case – is a very limited and modest way for Indianapolis to start playing at a different level in the transit game. There is a whole lot that can be done in the mean time to make Indygo better and start delivering benefits to riders, starting right now. It doesn’t take a lot of money, it just takes creative thinking and the help of the community to pitch in and make it happen. Waiting around for some big regional taxing authority to make transit happen is the equivalent of saying transit is somebody else’s problems. If motivated citizens were willing to step up and actually pitch in to make things better, along with targeted improvements paid for by Indygo, the city could start down the transit path faster.
Friday, May 17th, 2013
My latest post is online over at New Geography. It’s called “Why Gentrification?” and in it I look at why in pretty much every city in America, gentrification is not only welcomed, it is the urban core redevelopment strategy pretty much every place is pursuing. I argue people want gentrification both because it’s one of only two models that have been demonstrated to actually work (at least in some places), and because many other forces converge to make it the preferred pattern. Here’s an excerpt:
In a modern America where income equality and class divisions are a huge problem, it’s definitely mission critical for America to restart the middle class jobs engine and renew our metro regions as engines of upward mobility. But that’s easy to say and hard to do, at least from an inner city perspective.
The manufacturing jobs that previously supported a middle and comfortable working class lifestyle are gone and likely are not coming back. Public sector employment, traditionally another way to a middle class life in the city, is under extreme pressure due to fiscal mismanagement. Key services like the public schools remain intractably broken in most places. Segregation remains entrenched. What is the basis on which a middle or working class life will be re-established in the city? It isn’t clear. Untold billions pumped into various Great Society type programs accomplished little that was sustainable. Indeed, many programs like urban renewal, yesterday’s urban planning conventional wisdom, turned out to be disasters for cities. Community organizing may have launched the career of President Obama, but it’s not clear how it has helped Chicago’s marginalized communities. Given the paucity of models other than gentrification, it’s easy to see the attraction.