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Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Don Giovanni and the Human Tragedy

Some years back I tried to figure out what I would have to give up if I moved from Chicago to Indianapolis. I came up with only two big things, clothes shopping and world class opera. The internet took care of access to fashion in short order. And world class opera got fixed by the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts.

Most opera lovers know that you can now see the Met Opera in high definition in movie theaters around the country. It’s not exactly being there, but it’s pretty good. And it’s a great way for newbies to try out opera without breaking the bank. Your max burn is less than $20 vs. upwards of $200+ at the opera house, so the price/performance can’t be beat.

But what even many opera folks might not know is that London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden is now also into the movie theater game. It’s not as ubiquitous as the Met, but pretty widely available (see end for details).

The next Royal Opera House production to screen in the US is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which is coming up this week. I want to take this opportunity to promote it. Selfishly, if these things aren’t patronized, we’ll lose them, and I’d like to make sure this opportunity sticks around.

Don Giovanni is considered by many – including Yours Truly – as the greatest opera of all time. It tells the story of Don Juan (Giovanni in Italian), the mythic Latin lover many of us have heard of, but may not know much about. In fact, Mozart’s version has become the definite telling of the Don Juan myth. The music is also spectacular and easy on the ears. This makes Don Giovanni an ideal choice as a first opera to see, so this week is your big opportunity if you’ve never done it.

To get you in the mood, and to help you make sense of what you’re seeing, I’ll give a bit of an explanation of the opera. But first a musical sample, “Protegga il giusto cielo” (Protect us, O righteous heaven – click here if the video doesn’t display for you).

The Plot

First the plot, which it helps to know in advance. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

After an ambiguous offstage sexual encounter, Donna Anna chases a disguised Don Giovanni from her home. Anna’s father, the Commendatore (Commander) insists on fighting the Don. Reluctantly, the Don is forced to fight, kills the Commendatore, then escapes. Anna’s boyfriend Don Ottavio arrives and Anna makes him swear vengeance against the at this point unknown Don Giovanni.

The Don and his sidekick Leporello come across a woman singing of betrayal by her lover. The Don decides she’s to be his next conquest. But as they approach it turns out she is Donna Elvira, whom the Don had already used and discarded, and he’s the one she’s singing about! The Don bolts for the exits, leaving Leporello with Elvira. He tells her not to waste her time on the Don, singing the famous catalogue aria regaling her with the Don’s thousands of prior conquests – 1003 in Spain alone! Here is a concert version (click here if the video doesn’t display):

Elvira swears she’ll get revenge. Meanwhile the Don and Leporello stumble across the celebration of a pending peasant wedding between Masetto and Zerlina. The Don decides to seize his opportunity, inviting everyone back to his castle to celebrate. He forces Masetto to depart with Leporello, leaving him alone to woo Zerlina with promises of marriage.

The Don is on the verge of closing the deal when Elvira barges in and steals Zerlina away. Then Anna and Ottavio enter. Not knowing that the Don is the one they are seeking, he persuades them he’s on their side. As he leaves, Anna realizes to her horror that the Don is the one who killed her father.

Back at the Don’s castle, Leporello informs him that everyone’s there, but that Elvira had brought Zerlina back and had caused trouble. The Don is unperturbed, and anticipates the fun ahead with his so-called champagne aria (click here if the video doesn’t display).

At the party the Don pulls Zerlina aside to continue his seduction. But Masetto is watching and when the Don discovers him, he’s forced to back off. Meanwhile, Ottavia, Anna, and Elvira have put on masks and come to the party. (Their praying for God’s help in their mission is the first trio above). While Leporello distracts Masetto, the Don drags Zerlina off to have his way with her. But she screams for help, and to cover himself the Don grabs Leporello as if he’s the assailant. The masqueraders reveal themselves and tell the Don they know the real score, but he escapes again.

Act 2 opens with the Don convincing Leporello that they should switch identities. He leaves the disguised Leporello to try to seduce Elvira, while he goes off to try to find Zerlina again. It turns out that Elvira is still in love with the Don, and so responds to Leporello’s serenades. Meanwhile the Don runs into Masetto who, not knowing who he’s really talking to, reveals his desire to kill the Don. The disguised Don, offended at this, beats up Masetto and leaves.

Leporello dumps Elvira but ends up running into Masetto, Zerlina, Ottavio, and Anna who are going to kill him. Elvira arrives to try to protect her “lover”, but Leporello unmasks his true identity, apologies, then escapes in the confusion. When Ottavio and Anna are alone, he begs her to marry him but she refuses to until her father is avenged.

The Don and Leporello regroup in a graveyard near a statue of the Commendatore adorned with an inscription promising revenge against the person who killed him. Leporello is freaked out, but the Don only laughs and tells Leporello to invite the statue to dinner. Much to their surprise, the statue accepts.

The Don and Leporello go back to the castle and throw a lavish banquet. Elvira shows up and tells the Don to change his ways. He only laughs and sends her packing. But as she’s leaving she screams as she sees the statue of the Commendatore arriving for dinner. Leporello goes to investigate but likewise is terrified. So the Don himself goes to the door and invites in the statue.

The Commendatore takes the Don by hand and demands that he repent of his sins. The Don refuses multiple times, upon which with fires of hell erupt through the floor and suck him down to his doom. All of the characters rush in as Leporello explains what happened, and they sing a festive song of celebration explaining their future plans. Elvira will retire to a convent. Leporello says he’ll go in search of a better master. Zerlina and Masetto are to be married. Ottavio wants to marry Anna, but she puts him off for another year, this time for mourning.

Interpretation

What then are we to make of the opera? At one level, it’s simply supremely beautiful music, maybe the best ever written. French opera composer Charles Gounod said of it, “I regard it as a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.” GB Shaw said it was “eminent in virtue of its uncommon share of wisdom, beauty, and humor.” Kierkegaard’s Aesthete in Either/Or said, “Anyone who wishes to see Mozart in his true immortal greatness must consider his Don Giovanni, in comparison with which everything else is incidental, unimportant.” This is all true even just considered as great music, to which you can simply listen and enjoy.

But opera is a dramatic medium as well, and there’s much more to be gleaned from this opera than simply pretty notes. In fact, there’s a nearly inexhaustible supply of things. As with all classic works – Hamlet, Plato’s Republic, and so many others – Don Giovanni is pluripotent. It carries an infinitude of meanings. It’s also highly problematic and impossible to decipher. Just as it’s been said that there’s never been and never will be a perfect singer in the role of the Don, there never will be a perfect interpretation.

My personal view is encapsulated by the diagram below, which I call Don Giovanni In One Chart:

Don Giovanni is a contrast between the world as we would like it to be, and the world as it really is. In our idealized world, the contrast is between the Commendatore and the Don, between the honorable man and the rake. Alas, this is not the real world. In the real world the Don’s opposite is not the Commendatore, but Ottavio, the pathetic, feminized man. This speaks to the nature of masculinity, but also to the human condition itself and the tragic dilemma we face.

Don Giovanni is a scoundrel. Some have tried to paint him as a sort of Enlightenment hero, one liberated from the prudish constraints of a more primitive age. And there is in truth some of that. The Don is living the Sexual Revolution well before his time, and maybe as a 1%er too. Yet, he is exploitative towards women, whom he treats as objects of his lust, he abuses his social status, he’s a liar, he breaks any promise when it’s convenient to do so, is a complete coward, someone who sucker-punches his opponents, and probably much more I don’t recall at the moment. He is pure appetite, pure impulse, completely unreflective, with no self-denial and no self-control. He lives according to man’s more elemental, animalistic nature. Kierkegaard’s Aesthete sees the Don as representing the fleshly sensual nature of man within the context of medieval Christian though, and thus an embodiment of the demonic. Given that he was sucked down to hell at the end, it’s hard to argue with this.

The Commendatore we know little of, but he appears to be a perfectly honorable man. He was a noble, had a prestigious position, defended the honor of his family, was fearless and godly (going to heaven when he died, presumably with his sexual fidelity intact), his quest for justice enduring beyond the grave. As the inscription on his statue shows, he was a man who made plans, ones rationally conceived and patient in their execution. Like a genuine Christian, his first call is to repentance, not judgment.

The Commendatore then is what a man should be, the Don what he should not. It’s tempting them to see them as opposite potentialities within the heart of man. Choose wrong and become the Don, right and become the Commendatore.

However, this is not the case. Except at the very beginning and end, the Commendatore is absent from the scene. He’s literally a ghostly, otherworldly figure. Instead, we are treated to three other men who exist along a continuum extending from the Don. There’s Leporello the sidekick, a potential Don in training though with a conscience. There’s Masetto the peasant. And there’s Ottavio, the pathetic, feminized suitor of a reluctant Anna.

These men display progressively lower levels of masculinity, awareness, and power. Leporello knows the score and is capable of taking action, if only within the Don’s parameters. Masetto also knows the score but is impotent to do anything about it. Ottavio is clueless. Each of these is paired with a woman in the opera – Elvira, Zerlina, and Anna, respectively. Notably, while the Don is irresistible to women and has power over them (even Elvira is still in love with him), these women have progressively greater degrees of control over the other men. Elvira is a somewhat loose match to Leporello and exerts but little influence. But Zerlina has Masetto wrapped around her finger. And Anna is actively deceiving, exploiting, and abusing the hapless Ottavio as an almost inverted female version of the Don. Whereas the Don takes what men stereotypically want from women – sex – without marriage, Anna takes what women stereotypically want – loyalty, support, protection,and commitment – without marriage. Clearly in progression from the Don to Ottavio, there’s a progressive increase in bonding to, dependence on, and control of the men by women.

Of these additional male characters, who comes closest to being in the mold of the Commendatore? Clearly Ottavio. In fact, Ottavio, with his half-drawn sword, excessive devotion to Anna, and promises of revenge, is almost a parody of the Commendatore.

Given that the Commendatore is absent and Ottavio is present, what does this say? It tells that Ottavio is what happens when we try to civilize the rake. In taking away what’s bad from the Don, one also takes away what makes him great. He even loses his attractiveness to women at a sexual level. Anna may sleep with the Don, but she’s never going to marry Ottavio.

Looking at the chart, the oppositions at the bottom are those between evil and good, except for the last. Masculinity and femininity are different but not opposites and don’t map to good and evil. There’s no obvious reason why as we move from evil to good, from appetitive to rational, from the flesh to the spirit that the Don would become Ottavio instead of the Commendatore. But that’s what happens. And therein lies the tragedy. It’s impossible to remove the worst in a man without also removing the best. They are too deeply intertwined one with the other. Civilizing a man is tantamount to unmanning him. It’s why stereotypically nice guys (boring) finish last, and women want to date the jerks (exciting).

This dilemma is also made manifest in the incompatible existences of the Don and the Commendatore. When they come into contact they obliterate each other like matter and anti-matter. They aren’t capable of inhabiting the same universe. It’s not just that in the first encounter the Don killed the Commendatore and in the second vice versa. Rather, both were destroyed in the first encounter, of which is the second was but its completion. The Don never put another entry in his famous catalog of conquests after it. His power was finished. Like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, he was already dead, he just didn’t know it yet.

But what makes this more than a male tragedy but a human one is that the Don represents more than just the male gender. He represents here our more primitive, beastly nature as a species. In that regard, Don Gionvanni tells us it’s not just a man like the Don who becomes enfeebled and pathetic through civilizing, it’s also humanity as a whole.

It’s been observed that the Don is the animating force of the entire opera and all the characters in it. As Kierkegaard’s Aesthete put it, “With the exception of the Commendatore, all the characters stand in a kind of erotic relation to Don Giovanni.” When the Don is removed from the scenes, the wind goes out of the sails of the other characters. Elvira is off to the convent, her life figuratively finished. Leporello becomes a wanderer in search of a mythical better master. Anna and Ottavio enter a type of stasis. Only Zerlina and Masetto seem to have a normal future in view, albeit an utterly pedestrian one – no more adventures for them. One wonders how happy these people will be with the Don no longer around. (I think this point would have been made less ambiguously had the opera ended with the Don being pulled into hell, as Mozart originally wanted it to).

How many over civilized and decadent empires have fallen to barbarians? It is not because the life force of humanity comes from its barbarian nature, not its civilized side? Shorn of its more primitive nature, how long will any society endure? This is the reality that underpins Machiavelli’s famous dictum that, “A man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”

Especially in the modern age of technological wonder we have this conceit that we can perfect humanity, that if we can only eliminate the bad, we can achieve a just society and human flourishing. Don Giovanni says not so fast. It doesn’t go quite like that. But the opera does so in a way that goes even beyond the Christian concept of original sin. Whereas medieval Christianity says damned if you do, Don Giovanni says damned even if you don’t. Even if you live righteously or successfully repent, the results won’t be what you’re imagining. The defect is too deep in our natures and in the cosmos to be eradicated even by truly walking the straight and narrow. Humanity is caught between the Scylla of its savage animal nature, and the Charybdis of the enfeeblement of over-civilization. Only a new heavens and new earth indeed can ever truly resolve this dilemma.

Don Giovanni is in US theaters starting March 27th. Cities, theaters, dates, and times are available at Screenvision. Many European opera companies are infamous for obscure modern stagings of operas and unfortunately ROH’s Don Giovanni seems influenced by this, and it got mixed reviews. But the music is fantastic so this remains a good one to go see. For more information on the production, see reviews in the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

My Presence Is a Provocation

The urbanist internet has been a ga ga over an article by artist and musician David Byrne (photo credit: Wikipedia) called “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here.” Now David Byrne himself is at least a cultural 1%er, and at with a reported net worth of $45 million, isn’t exactly hurting for cash. In fairness to him, he forthrightly admits he’s rich. He also is bullish on the positive changes in New York in areas like public safety, transportation, and parks, and does not fall prey to romanticizing the bad old days of the 70s and 80s. However, in his assigning blame for New York’s affordability, he points the finger squarely at Wall Street, neglecting the role he himself played in bringing about the changes he decries, changes in which he was more than a passive participant.

Back in the early 90s I liked to hang out in a neighborhood called Fountain Square in Indianapolis, a down at the heels commercial district near downtown largely populated by people from Appalachia. I enjoyed browsing the low end, marginal shops and eating at diners where the food was mediocre and the waitresses sassy but not all that attractive (not that I let that stop me from flirting with them). Today, Fountain Square is not exactly gentrified, but is seeing a lot of investment and new residential construction. It’s a long way from unaffordable, but it isn’t impossible to conceive of a day when it features almost entirely higher prices (by Indianapolis standards) in the way some other zones downtown do.

About that time I also liked to drive around the city and take pictures of various neighborhoods in the inner city. One time I was on the East Side and was walking around taking snaps of streetscapes. I apparently pointed my camera too close in the direction of a white minivan whose owner took umbrage. The driver, who was white, long-haired, with a bit of a redneck air about him, circled the block and pulled up next to me to berate me in a semi-menacing way, alternately demanding to know why I was taking pictures of his van and warning me I should never do it again. (I generally take pains to try to avoid including people in my photographs when possible, and things like this are one reason why).

I’m not going to claim there was any hidden agenda here other than this guy being directly suspicious of my pointing a camera his way. But I can’t help but wonder if subconsciously he was aware of a more subtle but potentially more dangerous threat that I posed to his neighborhood and way of life.

I’m not taking credit or blame for neighborhood change in Indianapolis. But I do know that I’m part of the dynamic of the city I’m in. And when I guy like me walks into a neighborhood, my mere presence can be a provocation. Cities are inherently dynamic places, and we are agents of the forces of change whether we want to be or not. (Which is as true for the poor as for the one percent, we just label it “fair housing” when poor people move into rich neighborhoods, but “gentrification” when the reverse occurs).

While I am a writer and observer on cities, I’m an endogenous not exogenous observer. All of us are players in the development of the places we live and visit, event if only bit players in some cases. And oftimes in the complex world of the city, our actions are part of forces or trends we are not event aware of, ones that may have consequences we would never have desired. That does not absolve us of our role.

As for David Byrne, the role of artists and musicians in paving the way for gentrification is so well known as to be conventional wisdom. Similarly today the hipster. And what’s one of the original signature markers of the hipster? The fixed-gear bicycle.

Just as reductions in crime obviously have an effect of dramatically raising property values (and thus rents) in a place as intrinsically attractive as New York, so do other quality of life improvements such as bicycle infrastructure. By making New York an even more desirable place to live, these improvements, wonderful as they may be and which I would heartily endorse, clearly attract more well-off residents and drive up prices.

Byrne has even taken a direct role in this. He created a series of nine public art type back racks from the city, all but one of which is in Manhattan, and which even includes this delightful example from Wall Street:


Photo Credit: Flickr/zombiete

These racks and his activism with regards to bicycles are what give Bryne his standing an urban commentator.

I for one am glad he made the bike racks as they are fantastic and I’m a fan of New York’s improved cycling infrastructure. But I also recognize that this sort of quality of life improvement contributes towards New York’s attractiveness to the wealthy. It’s just not realistic to think one can clean up the crime, the parks, improve infrastructure, etc. and then expect that prices will remain what they were back in the 70s when Bryne moved to the city. Rather than pointing the finger at the Other, the finance industry in this case, it would be more helpful if those of us who advocate for better urban environments would recognize the inevitable side effects many of our proposed policies would produce, and our own role in bringing them about.

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Is Detroit the Next Berlin? by Justin Fox

[ Given the emergence of an artist movement in Detroit, the comparisons to Berlin are obvious. However, in this piece that ran over in Techonomy last year, Justin Fox argues the comparison is invalid. I'm glad to be able to repost it. And I'd also suggest that you might want to check out more of the material from Techonomy Detroit - Aaron. ]

After the fall of the Wall in 1989, Berlin had very cheap housing and industrial space, some in spectacularly grand old buildings. Years of division—with repressive communist rule on one side of town and isolation and economic stagnation on the other—had left the city depressed and underpopulated. Reunification initially only made things worse, as uncompetitive Eastern-side state-owned factories closed en masse.

This translated into, among other things, apartment rents much lower than in any other major Western European city. The low rents and post-industrial landscape drew artists and other bohemian sorts. Then low rents plus a burgeoning cultural scene drew young college grads who couldn’t find good jobs anywhere (German unemployment was high in the 1990s). They could get by in groovy, low-cost Berlin. This influx eventually translated into economic revival. Now Berlin is a boomtown, and everybody’s complaining about the skyrocketing rents.

Detroit’s roughly the same size as Berlin (measured by metro area population). It’s got a lot of cheap real estate, some of it spectacularly grand. It’s got abandoned factories. It’s got great cultural history (mainly on the music front). So … let the young bohemians come and the boom begin, right?

Uh … no. I’m moderating a panel at the Techonomy Detroit conference titled “Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” but I just don’t buy it. Sure, I’m rooting for Detroit’s revival. And the revival seems real, although still in its early stages. Studying and learning from the struggles and successes of other cities (as WDET did with its series on the Detroit-Berlin Connection) is never a bad idea. But the notion that Berlin could be a model for Detroit strikes this outsider as wrongheaded and a bit dangerous. It is an aspiration bound to be thwarted. Here’s what makes Berlin so different from Detroit (and vice versa):

1) Berlin is a political and cultural capital. The economic impact of becoming the capital of a reunited Germany in 1990 was actually a disappointment for Berlin at first, as some government agencies stayed away, and corporations did, too. But the reality of becoming the capital city of a major economic power, and the construction boom that went with that, eventually had a big impact. Berlin also was quickly able to regain its pre-World-War II status as the country’s artistic and cultural capital—thanks in part to massive federal subsidies. So it became Germany’s New York (minus finance and media) plus its Washington, D.C. (minus the huge defense and homeland-security industry). With super-cheap rents. That’s a lot of magnetic power, and by the late 1990s Berlin had become the default destination for creative, ambitious, educated young Germans. Detroit has none of these dynamics going for it except the real estate. Bringing in a few curious artists is great, but expecting a mass inflow of hipsters from all over America is crazy. It would already be a huge victory if lots of creative, ambitious, educated young Michiganders began moving to the city.

2) Berlin reunified. Detroit never had a Wall, but it’s been riven by its own division over the past half century, a stark racial and political separation between the city and the rest of the metropolitan area. There’s clearly been progress made in recent years, with new stadiums and other development downtown, and an apparent shift—born of shared economic desperation—toward more of a we’re-all-in-this-together regional attitude. But the divide is undeniably still there, and it means that even a successful revitalization will of necessity have to take a much different, less-centralized shape than in Berlin. Three quarters of metro Berlin’s 4.4 million people live within the city limits. In Detroit it’s the other way around; more than 80% of the 4.3 million inhabitants of the metro area live outside Detroit proper. Finding ways to tie city and suburbs together remains one of the area’s biggest challenges.

3) Berlin has good public transit. Yeah, its air connections have long been something of a joke, but that should improve dramatically with the opening next year of a new airport. The city is also linked by high-speed rail to the rest of the country’s major cities. Detroit’s got a great airport, but beyond that it’s built quite literally around the automobile. The millennials who would have to begin flocking to Detroit to make a Berlin scenario real don’t seem to like cars much. There’s no easy way around this: Detroit simply can’t afford to build a mass-transit infrastructure right now, and a Berlin-style, youth-oriented metropolis is almost inconceivable without such an infrastructure.

4) Detroit knows business. Yes, the city’s main business has been through a really tough time lately, but metro Detroit is full of private sector expertise—not just in automobiles—and seems to be growing a new entrepreneurial class. Berlin has a startup scene now, but that’s been driven mostly by newcomers. When its long, slow return to prosperity began it was a city of bureaucrats, former communists, and the long-term unemployed. Detroit has a huge advantage over Berlin here, an advantage that should be exploited and emphasized.

5) Detroit has better immigrants. Sure, now Berlin is attracting jet-setters from all over—and has attracted hard-working immigrants from Turkey and Eastern Europe for years. But Detroit, and U.S. cities in general, have two big advantages over their continental European counterparts in attracting ambitious, entrepreneurial newcomers from other countries: (1) we speak the global language, English, and (2) despite occasional problems we have a deserved reputation as a nation where newcomers can thrive. The Detroit area has of course already benefited from its status as destination No. 1 in the U.S. for immigrants from Arab countries, and any realistic comeback scenario for the area and the city proper has to include a big role for overseas immigrants.

There’s an echo here of the competing visions of urbanists Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin. Florida is of course the progenitor of the idea that a new, urban “creative class” is the key economic driver of our time—and that cities (like Berlin) that can attract young creatives will thrive. Kotkin argues that this simply won’t work for most American cities, and that messy, immigrant-filled, strip-mall sprawl is an equally vibrant and more realistic model. Florida, who married a Detroiter, has been talking up the creative-class link to the city’s revival. Kotkin, in a recent newspaper profile of Florida, scoffed that “There’s not enough yuppies on the planet to save Detroit.”

In the case of the Detroit area, they’re both right. Locavore restaurants and design studios aren’t going to bring back the regional economy. That’s going to require other, more mass-scale kinds of business success, and possibly some big-time government investment. At the same time, returning the city of Detroit to its rightful position as economic and cultural heart of the region—which seems like an essential prerequisite to any truly sustainable revival of metro Detroit—will take exactly the kind of building-by-building, restaurants-and-galleries-and-cool-little-creative-businesses entrepreneurship that Florida loves so much. Detroit is not the next Berlin. But it may still get a little bit of that Berlin spirit.

Justin Fox appeared at Techonomy Detroit in a session entitled ”Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” For complete coverage of the September 12, 2012, conference, click here.

This post originally appeared in Techonomy on September 11, 2012.

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Nashville Symphony Near Bankruptcy, Concert Hall in Foreclosure

Update 6/24/2013: The Nashville Symphony reached a deal with Bank of America to avoid foreclosure. Full coverage of the Nashville Symphony financial saga is available on this special web page at the Nashville Tennessean.

Nashville has been on a roll in recent years, with a rapidly growing population (including a rapidly expanding immigrant base), robust job growth (#1 among large cities in 2012 on a percentage basis), and lots of positive national press. I’ve been visiting about once a year in recent years and have always had a good time and been very impressed with the ambition level and positive change and growth.

But one symbol of the coming of age of Nashville, the nearly new Schermerhorn Center, home to the Nashville Symphony, is now an emblem of trouble, though perhaps less for the city than for classical music in general.

In short, the building is in foreclosure. Bank of America, which received more government bailout money than any other bank, is threatening to seize and auction the building for cash on June 28th. The Symphony’s auditor has given it a going concern warning, and bankruptcy is looking likely.

This would appear to be a strange turn of events for a town and a symphony on the rise. The Nashville Symphony was nominated for a slew of Grammy awards, at least one of which they won. Just last year the symphony’s president was talking about “a golden age of classical music” in the city. The Schermerhorn Center was a symbol of both the orchestra’s and the city’s ambitions to be taken seriously.

But there were warning signs from the beginning. A planned major endowment never materialized. With only $9.2 million in the endowment, the Nashville Symphony is effectively a pay as you go organization. Other orchestras can get up to a third of their budget from large endowments. The symphony also apparently borrowed a significant sum of money to build the structure and did not pre-fund it with donations. As noted by the University of Chicago report “Set in Stone,” cities across America pumped vast sums into cultural facilities in the last decade. Many of these are struggling in a post-crash world.

Also, as I’ve noted before, classical music is troubled, and the symphony orchestra is the most difficult type of classical music organization to reinvent because of its lack of multimedia experience a la opera, and its high costs. If orchestras struggle even in boomtowns like Nashville, that augurs poorly for their success elsewhere.

Also, it appears that outside of truly top tier cities like New York and Chicago, the symphony is no longer considered a must-have civic marker. At least not to the extent that local elites are willing to part with their own money to fund them. As we’ve gone to an ultra-casual world, and theories on urban success like creative class move explicitly away from traditional high culture, orchestras seem increasingly expendable. Cities want to keep one around to avoid looking bad, but they aren’t willing to ante up for true excellence.

In any case, this is one to watch, especially considering how great Nashville as been doing otherwise.

Here is more complete coverage from the Nashville Tennessean:

Nashville Symphony at risk of being silenced
It’s time to start freaking out about the symphony situation
Nashville Symphony faces a future of unknowns

More on Nashville from the Urbanophile:
Is Nashville the Next Boomtown of the New South?
Nashville Rolls On
Impressions of Nashville
Pedestrian Deaths, Nashville Style

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

Viva Las Vegas! Part 2 – Will the Downtown Project Succeed?

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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…

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Berlin: In the Belly of a Whale

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.

h/t BMW Guggenheim Lab

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

Viva Las Vegas! Part 1 – Tony Hsieh and the Downtown Project

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:

  1. A true live/work/play environment
  2. The most community-oriented downtown in the world
  3. 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).

Project Highlights

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.

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Global Cities Don’t Just Take, They Give

Creativity for the world or for your city gives something back – Charles Landry

I had an interesting conversation about Washington, DC with Richard Layman a few months back. One of his observations, rooted in Charles Landry’s, was that great global cities don’t just take, they give. To the extent that Washington wants to be a truly great city, it needs to contribute things to the world, not just rake in prosperity from it.

Affecting the world, often for good but unfortunately sometimes for bad, is a unique capability that global cities have because they are the culture shaping hubs of nations and world. When an ordinary city does something, it can have an effect to be sure. But things that happen in the global city are much more likely to launch movements.

For example, Chicago did not invent the idea of doing a public art exhibit out of painted cow statues. I believe they copied it from a town in Switzerland. But when Chicago did it, it inspired other cities in a way that Swiss town did not. In effect, ordinary cities influence the world usually by influencing a global city, which then influences the world. Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere. Thus the role of the global city is critical. But we shouldn’t assume that all ideas originate there or that other cities can’t profoundly influence the world.

We might also think of bicycle sharing, which was around in various forms for quite a while. But it was the launch of the massive Paris Vélib’ system in 2007 (which according to Wikipedia was inspired by a system in Lyon) that made bicycle sharing a must have urban item the world over.

Similarly it was the High Line in New York that has every city wanting to convert elevated rail lines into showcase trails. New York is really the city that made protected bike lanes the new standard in the United States as well.

Beyond simple urban amenity type items, global cities can also launch profound cultural and social transformations. A few examples.

The first is from Seattle, a sort of semi-global city. It was in such a depressed state in the 1970s that someone put up a billboard that’s still pretty famous: “Will the last one leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” Yet in Seattle there was a coffeehouse culture that spawned a movement out of which came Starbucks which literally revolutionized coffee drinking in America and event pioneered the entirely new concept of the “third place.”

A lot of people like to attribute the emergence of Seattle as a player to Microsoft moving there from Albuquerque in the late 1970s. However, I think the coffee example shows that there were interesting things already happening in Seattle long before that. It was a proto-global city waiting for a catalyst.

Another example would be the emergence of rap music out of New York City. Or house music from Chicago.

Or consider the 1963 demolition of Penn Station in New York in 1963. The wanton destruction of this signature structure horrified the city and led to the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance. This was not the birthplace of historic preservation in the United States, but this demolition played a key role in bringing historic preservation to the fore, not just locally but nationally.

Lastly, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 clearly played a signature role in the gay rights movement in America. Many pride parades today are scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the event.

Who knows what might have happened with coffee in America without Seattle. But I think it’s clear that both the historic preservation and gay rights movements would have emerged at some point anyway regardless of what happened in New York. However, the events in New York clearly provided a sort of ignition and acceleration.

How many historic buildings in America were saved because Penn Station was lost? (Think about how many might have been destroyed had the historic preservation movement emerged later).

Think about a state like Iowa where gay marriage is legal. How many people in Iowa 40+ years ago had any idea that an obscure incident in New York City would ultimately transform the social conventions of the rural heartland?

I think this shows the power of the global city. I’m sure that there are things happening underground in New York and elsewhere that right now that we don’t know anything about yet that will ultimately transform our world 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. It’s crazy to think about.

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Replay: Building New Audiences for Our Classical Music Institutions

[ I had a discussion with some folks this afternoon about, among other things, how to build new audiences for classical music. That reminded me I'd written this post, so I decided to resurrect it from the archives - Aaron. ]

Drew McManus, who runs a blog called Adaptistration, is publicizing Take a Friend to the Orchestra Week (TAFTO). The idea is that an existing patron, by sponsoring someone new to orchestra attendance, will create another classical music fan. It’s an excellent idea and one I heartily support, though one I think is likely to bear only limited fruit in building sustainable audiences for the long term.

The premise if TAFTO seems to be that if we expose people to classical music, they will like it. This is based on two assumptions that I think are both flawed:

1. Gaining an appreciation for classical music requires no work or effort, merely exposure. (There is some debate on this point, granted. Guest blogger Marc Geelhoed suggests having your guests listen to a recording several times casually before attending, suggesting at least some effort. I certainly support this. Alex Shapiro suggests that a raw, unmediated experience, where the music does the talking for itself, will do the trick).

2. Large numbers of people, probably a majority of people, are likely to enjoy classical music and even become big fans if they can only be introduced to it.

The easiest refutation of these is merely to look at what existing classical music fans listen to. It’s a largely static core repertoire of the major symphonic composers. There is little music frequently programmed prior to the time of Handel and Bach. Very little contemporary music is programmed. Even when these items are programmed, they are not nearly as popular as the traditional pieces.

The logic of TAFTO would suggest that we should have a classical music fan base that enjoys the full spectrum of Western art music. Home CD collections should be equally as full of Josquin and Palestrina as they are of Beethoven and Brahms. Modern compositions should be widely listened to and appreciated. Yet neither of these are the case. Why might that be? Some possibilities:

- Concert goers are not familiar with this work. That seems dubious. It is unlikely that regular symphony patrons have never encountered any works in these styles before. Remember, the logic is that attending once can hook you.

- Early and contemporary music are of lower quality and desirability than the Classical and Romantic eras. This is a defensible position, but I’ve yet to hear anyone seriously advocate it.

- Early and contemporary music is far more difficult to appreciate than the core repertoire. Again, defensible, but anyone making this argument has some explaining to do to convince us.

If seasoned classical music fans won’t try something new, or don’t like substantial amounts of music outside the core repertoire, why would we think someone with no background at all in classical music will attend a symphony concert and get hooked? I wouldn’t take that bet.

I suppose one could argue that existing concert goers are more conservative or set in their ways than total newbies, but this suggests that the public at large is actually more musically discerning than the existing classical music patron base, and somehow perhaps represent a better audience. (If that’s the case, then don’t start them with Beethoven, go straight to Boulez and let your audience for new music be made up of total newcomers to the field). Again, this is a position one can argue, but I’d like to see someone explicitly make it.

I for one believe that gaining an appreciation of classical music takes time and effort. Not a Ph.D. in musicology, but at least some level of desire and investment of time to make it happen. We live in an era that is divorced from the aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and social context of the time that music was created. That creates a chasm that has to be crossed in order to access the riches beyond. Remember how people reacted to Beethoven’s works when they were expecting Classical era compositions. And even then the public had the advantage of familiarity with much of Beethoven’s musical language. For someone who’s never really listened to a classical piece before, there are some things it would be helpful to get up to speed on first.

Try to image someone whose musical background consists entirely of classical music. Now drop that person into a hip hop show cold. How likely is it that person is going to come away a fan? Not likely. That doesn’t mean this person can’t gain an appreciation for hip hop. But dropping him into an Eminem show with no prep probably isn’t going to do it.

I also don’t believe that, due to reasons of taste and inclination, the majority of the public will ever have any serious interest in classical music. Yes, they might enjoy hearing the William Tell Overture, or attend an outdoor summer performance of Beethoven’s 9th every now and again. But they are unlikely to be your core, engaged audience going forward. The sad fact is that with limited exception, the high arts have always largely appealed to a fairly select audience, usually those whose social position gave them the impetus (or obligation) and freedom to indulge it.

Let’s put this aside for now and just say that everyone can learn to appreciate classical music at some level. If they won’t be your regularly masterworks series subscriber, maybe they will at least come once or twice a year. The key is, given that there is no longer a social expectation of familiarity with classical music as part of being a generally cultured person, how do we build the interest?

I’ll use my own person path to exhibit this. I grew up with almost no exposure to classical music and never played an instrument, not even in high school band. In college, I ended up working for over two years at a classical music radio station, a position I pursued only because of my interest in audio engineering.

My favorite time to work was during the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday. You see, the opera was a continuous three hour chunk of network time, and I could just turn the monitor down to a low level to make sure we were still on air and read a book or study. In my entire time working at the station, I never gained an appreciation for classical music, even though I was exposed to countless hours of it. I was not only surrounded by it, I was surrounded by people from the music school who were obviously passionate about it. But it made no impact.

How did I learn to like classical music? Well, later in my 20′s I dated someone who loved opera and had a subscription. I went with her for two seasons. Later, after breaking up, I subscribed myself. Why I don’t know, because I didn’t like it all that much, truthfully. But by my fourth season, I finally “got it”. Part of this is because I got a course on tape (courtesy of new girlfriend who was now attending with me!) about opera that explained to me what was really going on and gave me my bearings. It was almost as if I had a zen-like flash of insight. It was like flipping a switch and somehow it all made sense. From there I branched out into other areas of classical music.

I think to really make a classical music fan, you need to get someone to the point where their switch flips, and this requires both a guide and some willingness to study and keep at it until you get it. I don’t think mere exposure is the answer. (Perhaps learning to play music will take you there – as a non-musician, I don’t know). I do think it takes some amount of desire and work on the part of someone to learn to appreciate classical music. Even to this day, when going to see an opera for the first time, I buy a CD and listen to it three times: one to just put the music in my head, another with the libretto in hand to follow along with, and a third to drive it all home.

Most people, I suspect, aren’t willing to make that investment. So I believe the classical music base will continue to be made up of a relatively small segment of any given community. Naturally arts groups will never say that, because without a mandate for serving the broader community, a lot of their funding would be in jeopardy, but it is the truth just the same. So these orchestras will duly spend time and money on outreach and putting on mini-operas for the kids. While this is good PR, I doubt it will have much long term impact on attendance. They are soil fertilizing techniques that I approve of, they set the stage later for possibly tuning in, but they won’t be sufficient by themselves.

What else is needed?

I do think there is something to this notion of an apprenticeship, of being guided to it by someone who is already “in the club” so to speak. This is both to get over the intimidation factor (e.g., understanding the protocol of concerts) and to explain what the heck is going on (e.g., a bit about who Mozart was, the classical era, and the basis of the symphonic form). But contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe that accessibility is all that important and may in fact be harmful. Rather, we should try to play up the idea of exclusivity, albeit an exclusivity that is available to anyone who wants to put in the effort. Look at almost any activity or interest that appeals to a limited group: pens, high end bespoke tailoring, modern furnishings, raw denim, mechanical watches, wine, skateboarding, you name it. All of them rely on a sort of insider knowledge to render them the province of a self-selected elite. But they are reasonably approachable. They create the idea of this exclusive club, use that aspiration to attract you, then slowly guide you in, letting the committed through the door while weeding out the pretenders.

In short, classical music should sell itself as a luxury lifestyle product. That doesn’t mean superficial consumption for the rich, it means appealing to the connoisseur in a spirit of genuine connoisseurship. And the great news is that if someone is a connoisseur of one thing, they are much more likely to become a connoisseur of another. So you’ve got a ready made audience out there of people who enjoy all the things I listed above and way more I didn’t. And what’s more, once people like this get into something, they really get into it and really do want to understand the ins and outs in a deep and rich way. In fact, they often become obsessive. (Sound familiar to any classical music folks out there???)

You might also notice that luxury brands apart from the ultra-elite usually have a few products that are accessible financially to the masses to get people interested and hooked. Then people can move up the food chain as their wallets and inclination allows. Similarly, classical music has to be able to find some entry level membership that lets people get in the door and gives them a path to move up. But you can’t lose site of the exclusivity factor. Positioning classical music as a totally mass market product “for everyone” only diminishes its appeal. You need exclusivity, the entry point, the “guide” to help you in, and the upwards path. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is an almost universal template.

I should also note that this approach is very in line with the trend that hit in earnest in the mid-90′s of the fragmentation of the great American common culture in favor of a multiverse of niche cultures.

As always I can’t promise this is the answer, but the way I figure it, it can’t work any worse than what we’ve got now. And by the way, the same logic applies to getting existing classical fans to try new things as well – though I suspect that really is an even harder journey given the number of years current listening habits have been “burned in” for many of them.

This post originally ran on February 25, 2009.

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Never Built Los Angeles

The video below, Never Built Los Angeles, was from a Kickstarter campaign for an art exhibit looking at things that were proposed (at least at some level) but never actually built in LA. It’s a fascinating look at what might have been. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

h/t New Geography

Here’s a bonus fun one of LA. It’s a time lapse of the space shuttle Endeavor crossing LA to reach its new home. This actually gives a better look at the city than you get out of a lot of time lapses that are specific city features. If this one doesn’t display, click here.

h/t Likecool

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