Thursday, August 19th, 2010
According to an article in D Magazine, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is in financial trouble:
There’s no doubt that the symphony, like many nonprofit groups in North Texas, is struggling to make ends meet in the teeth of a still-sputtering economy. The DSO’s plight is especially vexing to many Dallas businesspeople, however, because of the symphony’s importance to the business community as a symbol of the city’s cultural standing….After four straight years of balanced budgets—and a 70 percent increase in its endowment, to $120 million—the DSO ran into difficulty two years ago after its then-president and CEO, Fred Bronstein, left to head the symphony orchestra in St. Louis. Battered by the stock market crash and the so-called Great Recession, the DSO’s endowment would plummet to $84 million.
Local donors are hesitant in a tough economy and Dallas is having difficulty raising funds. What I find interesting is the juxtaposition of the endowment decline with the $1 billion the city just invested in a performing arts complex:
It is clearly one of the most impressive collections of new arts buildings in the country, designed by some of the finest contemporary architects – Renzo Piano, I.M. Pei, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Foster + Partners, Rem Koolhaas and Brad Cloepfil, whose Arts Magnet High School could provide the daily doses of populist energy that the district needs.
How can a city invest over a billion in buildings but not support the on field product? It reminds me of a previous post on Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the performing arts, whose price tag could have created an endowment that would have funded the entire operating budgets of the symphony, opera, and ballet in perpetuity.
Obviously art is not the primary role of these organizations play in their community, but something else entirely. That’s not to say that expenditures on buildings that seem excessive to some or to have no rational purpose is a bad thing. Man does not live on bread alone. Throughout history great civilizations have raised monuments of a questionable nature that nevertheless continue to inspire to this day – from the Pyramids of Egypt on down. A city that did not have such aspirations, that created a purely utilitarian environment driven entirely by the iron law of cost benefit, would be a place in which the spirit of man was atrophied. Few such places ever achieve greatness.
But there’s a balance to be had. The greatness of Athens was not in the Parthenon, nor Rome in the Coliseum. It was the intellectual, cultural (and yes, military) pursuits that happened in those places. Dallas is a great commercial success. It’s now looking to harvest the cultural benefits that can come from it. But Dallas would do well to heed the lesson of earlier boomtowns like Chicago. As Chicago got wealthy, it didn’t just build imposing Beaux-Arts monuments, it populated them with world class institutions. To this day the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago are among the finest in the world.
Dallas, Kansas City, and others looking to elevate their recognition level and quality of life through the arts should recognize that first and foremost it’s about the art. Building world class buildings populated by second rate, financially starved institutions would send a message to the world about a city alright, but I’m not sure it’s the one city leaders hoped to create.
Thursday, November 5th, 2009
I was in Boston last week for part of Rail~Volution 2009, America’s premier transit conference. I was part of a panel on the use of social media for transit advocacy. It’s clear this is a topic a lot of people are trying to figure out. I don’t want to go too far topic, but maybe I’ll do a post on that in the future, since obviously I’ve got a lot of experience in the space. In the meantime, just ponder this: why are almost all influential blogs and web sites in this space run by more or less independent people instead of agencies or organizations?
Election Results 2009
First, a quick Midwest election rundown in some key races:
- The great news is that Issue 9, the anti-rail charter amendment in Cincinnati, failed. I mentioned briefly before Issue 8, which would require a public vote before transferring the Cincinnati Water Works to a water district. That issue passed.
- Issue 3, permitting casino gambling in Ohio, passed
- Mark Mallory was re-elected Mayor of Cincinnati
- Frank Jackson was re-elected Mayor of Cleveland
- Cuyahoga County, OH approved a charter form of government
- In Indianapolis a referendum on building a new Wishard Hospital passed
- Dave Bing was elected to a full term as Mayor of Detroit
- Macomb County, MI approved a government reorganization
- R. T. Rybak was re-elected Mayor of Minneapolis
- Chris Coleman was re-elected Mayor of St. Paul
- Luke Ravenstahl was re-elected Mayor of Pittsburgh
John Robert Smith
I was able to catch up with John Robert Smith, CEO of Reconnecting America, and he recorded a short two minute video for me. If you only watch one of the videos I post, make it this one. He makes two incredibly important points that are too often overlooked when it comes to the livable cities agenda. The first is that we need to build an urban-small town-rural coalition around a new transportation policy. The other is that these issues are, or should be, non-partisan. (If video does not display, click here.)
Streetsblog and Streetfilms
I got to see an inspiring presentation by Aaron Naparstek, Editor in Chief of Streetsblog, and Clarence Eckerson, Director of Streetfilms. I’ve talked about Streetsblog here many times, but you might not be familiar with Streetfilms. Streetfilms produces short, high quality films on innovative transportation and livable communities projects from around the world. These films can be an extremely effective sales tool because they can show people in a very real and tangible way what a city looks like when it adopts these types of progressive ideas. The videos are under a Creative Commons license, so can be re-used as necessary. It’s a great resource.
I’ll share a couple of them with you today to give a flavor. This one is a ten minute piece on Bogotá’s “Ciclovia” program. This was one of the many innovations by Mayor Enrique Peñalosa and it has been widely imitated, including in the US. Every Sunday, 70 miles of streets are closed to cars and given to people for walking, biking, relaxing, or socializing. Also, exercise classes and other public events are held in the streets. It’s pretty amazing if you are not familiar with it. (If the video does not display, click here.)
This video has been viewed over 200,000 times.
Here’s another three and a half minute piece on students in New York “painting the pavement”. I hear people all the time say that livable cities initiatives are too expensive and that we can’t afford them. Well, something like Ciclovia does cost money for policing. However, there are all sorts of things we can do that cost virtually nothing. Here is the type of project that can be done for next to nothing. There is simply no excuse. (If the video doesn’t appear, click here.)
Here’s a similar example, where people paint wonderful murals in residential intersections. It’s in Portland, so it’s a little crunchy, but even if that’s not your bag, it’s a great idea. (If the video does not appear, click here).
Again, how much does it cost for a few buckets of paint? The video also talks about the practicalities, such as getting neighbor sign-off and working with city engineers. They even leveraged people sentenced to community service to help with the project!
Loyal blog readers know that I’ve written extensively about the challenges of inner ring suburbs in America. One of those inner ring suburbs is Carrollton, TX in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. They are trying to build a future for themselves based around transit oriented development. I also ran into Peter Braster, who is the TOD Manager from Carrollton, and recorded this 40 second teaser video. Anyone looking for lessons learned or someone to network with about TOD in an inner ring suburb, reach out to Peter. (If the video doesn’t show up, click here.
Since the good people in Boston were nice enough to host us, I thought I’d share a few pictures from the city.
Remember the “Big Dig”? This is where it happened. Where once a huge elevated freeway cut through downtown Boston, now there is a park. At $20 billion, it is certainly questionable whether the expense was worth it, but they at least got the results they were looking for.
Boston was home to America’s first subway. Today, the regional transit system is known as the “T”. Here’s a picture of the Red Line as it crosses the Charles River. Note the iconic “T” logo.
Don’t be fooled by the MBTA maps. The Green Line is principally a streetcar. And the Silver Line is a bus.
Here’s South Station. It’s a rail terminal used by Amtrak and commuter lines. There is a North Station as well – located on the lower level of Boston Garden.
A pedestrianized street in downtown Boston.
Beacon St. in Back Bay
The Brutalist Boston City Hall
Sunday, October 14th, 2007
I recently made my first trip ever to Dallas that did not involve transiting in DFW. I was in town for a convention at the Dallas Convention Center. Given that I knew nothing about the city, this was a great opportunity to look at it purely through the lens of the casual visitor. Cities spend lots of dough to lure conventioneers to town, so it is always nice to know what they might see.
What I’m saying is not intended to be reflective of Dallas as a whole. I hear it has very nice neighborhoods, upscale shopping, excellent restaurants, etc. But based on my convention experience, Dallas is possibly the single most disappointing city I’ve ever visited.
It starts with a long, dreary, and very expensive cab ride from the airport to downtown Dallas. As if your wallet doesn’t take enough of a beating, you drive past miles and miles of sprawl hell, auto dealers, strip centers, distribution centers, fast food restaurants, etc. lining both sides of the road into town. It seems like traditional urbanity drops off very rapidly outside of downtown Dallas, only a mere mile or two from the core, replaced by older sprawl. I expect this in smaller Midwestern burgs, but not in a metro area of almost 6 million. On the plus side, this drive takes you past Texas Stadium (unimpressive unless you are a Cowboys fan) and the new American Airlines basketball arena. I thought the arena was extremely nice and the highlight of the trip. It had a retro-20′s look that was reminiscent of an old London train shed done up in red brick – and I mean that as a compliment.
Downtown is full of drab, generic skyscrapers, many lit up with neon. The hotels I saw were likewise very generic. The Convention Center itself was not easily walkable from hotels, and so it took shuttles to get there. The building is a typical hulking concrete structure. Although near the similarly uninspiring Dallas city hall, the area around it appeared to be an urban wasteland. I’ve never seen such a desolate and deserted area in such a high profile downtown area before. What’s more, it was a 4-5 block walk from there to the core of downtown.
I actually made that walk, and once you get into the center of downtown proper, there is good density, pedestrians – albeit still a shockingly small number, and even a few older buildings, though I didn’t see any truly spectacular structures. A light rail line, called DART, runs through downtown, but the station I saw was deserted, as was the train that I saw stop there. I did see a few restaurants and a Starbucks, but nothing that looked like a major entertainment district. Admittedly, I did not have a guidebook, and I didn’t have time to walk up and down every block searching for interesting things – especially not over a mile from the convention center.
Given the size and affluence of the metro area, and the good things I know from talking to others that it has, I was very surprised to see the poor face it presents to people attending conventions there. This is the only time many people will ever see the city. It’s the first and last impression many folks will ever have of Dallas.
On the plus side, the road geek in me loves the freeways in Texas. They’ve got very wide highways and impressive interchanges. As I flew under a four level stack heading back to the airport, it really drove home to me how unambitious the plans of INDOT and other midwestern transportation agencies are. They’d be well served to hire some people from Texas who have actual experience in big city road building to design and run their major urban projects.