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Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Technology Assimilation and Generational Change by George Mattei

[ This week a guest post from George Mattei on technology and generational change - Aaron. ]

I remember clearly the first time I saw the internet. It was circa 1992, I was in my late teens, and my best friend’s uncle had just installed an early version of Prodigy internet service on his computer. He showed it to us – describing how you could look up news, get weather and even send letters all electronically. It was a really neat service, and I immediately saw that it would be popular. However, I’m not sure if I realized how transformative the internet would be.

Looking back on that moment, and projecting forwards to the golden years of my life, I can’t help imagining that one day I will be like those old ladies you would meet every once in a while that would tell the story about the first time they saw a “horseless carriage”. Those are great stories, if only because of the context – it’s interesting to imagine what life was like back when cars were a rare and fascinating and before they had permanently transformed life as we know it.

I has been rare so far that a truly transformative technology appears that absolutely revolutionizes our everyday lives. 70-80 years ago it was 2 things – automobiles and the infrastructure they begat, and alternating current electricity – which suddenly empowered people to live in far flung locations and still have access to all of the amenities that previously were only reserved for those in the cores. In recent years clearly the internet and communications innovations have revolutionized how we live and work and play.

A hallmark of these technologies is that few realize at first how transformative they will be, and it takes at least 20-30 years for their effect to be fully realized. After all, by the year 2000 everyone knew the internet was the next big technology, but few realized how powerful social networking would soon become. In the same way few realized in the early 20th century the impact that automobiles would have on depopulating cities and creating vast, sprawling metro areas.

Interestingly, generations seem to react to these disruptive technologies differently, often based on the period in their life cycle when they appear. There appears to be a definable pattern which – in my opinion at least – is as follows:

  • The old guard fears it
  • The new guard embraces it and molds their life around it
  • The children of the new guard moderate it to fit into but not define their lives

We can draw parallels between the Boomers and Millennials, both the first generations to come of age during the blooming of a disruptive technology, by looking at some of the criticisms of these generations by older generations:

  • They are self-centered
  • They are too wrapped up in their lifestyle which is dominated by (automobiles) (the internet).
  • Their embrace of this technology leads to social ills:
    • For Boomers, the love of automobiles and suburbia drained our cities, led to de facto segregation and stretched our ability to fund infrastructure
    • For Millennials, the love of the internet has led to decreased face-to-face social skills, a need for instant gratification and no less than the death of privacy itself.

To some degree these statements are probably correct. This is not to downplay the obvious advantages that new technologies bring to the table – clearly automobiles and the internet have contributed tremendously to our economic and cultural advancement – but to illustrate a cultural phenomenon. A generation raised during the early blooming of a transformative technology tends to embrace it. They seek to change the world, and see technology as one of the main tools to mold their own future and their generational aspirations. The ascendant generation is quite willing to overlook or minimize the detrimental effects that new technology can have. Even more, their blatant disregard for past social norms and constructs is necessary in order to rewrite the world in their vision. Just as the Boomer’s Summer of Love and Woodstock (not possible without cars) destroyed the Ozzie and Harriet/Superman vision of America, the internet is transforming our society today, with all the benefits and risks that entails.

Older generations, on the other hand, seem to see disruptive technology primarily as a threat – after all, they were once young world-changers too, and they formed the world to their liking. And now suddenly here comes this new generation with this new technology that will upend their functional social framework in favor of a new paradigm…a frightening prospect for them. How else to explain the legions of Boomers and older people that cannot bring themselves to become functionally literate with computers? They are often afraid they will “break it”, when this fear is mostly unfounded. Contrast this to driving. It is one of the most dangerous things we do in a typical day, and yet few of us think much about it. Some of this is due to brain plasticity-studies show that younger brains are more adaptable to technology than older ones are. This combination of less adaptable minds and well-established social construct are leading Boomers to join the legions of past generations bemoaning the ills of a new generation.

This “best of times, worst of times” narrative has another act, however. To explore this, we can look at another interesting phenomenon – that is the trend of Millennials to live in urban areas. As an interconnected generation, Millennials truly are more communal. Even though, as some studies show, their face-to-face skills may suffer from frequent use of digital communication, they have an ethos – partly born of the internet – that respects everyone’s ability to provide input and be part of the group – and this bleeds into how they live. For example, it’s much easier to go down the block in an urban neighborhood to visit your buddy that just posted a good new bar on Foursquare than it is to get in the car to drive 5 miles. That kind of interconnectedness and immediate social gratification seems to be driving Millennials’ living choices.

This is not totally unlike – if somewhat opposite from – the Boomer’s drive for independence. Automobiles at the time represented freedom- from public transit, from parents and from general locational dependence. Suddenly the individual’s ability to choose their own path was paramount, and the freedom of driving seemed to represent this best. While this may have led to the depopulation of our urban neighborhoods, it’s also highly unlikely that the Civil Rights movement would have ever been successful without the Boomer’s viewpoints. They may relish the freedom to live far away from those of a different race or lower income, but Boomers also favor the right of a person of any race to achieve all they are able to. This manifested itself in strong support for the Civil Rights acts of the 1960’s which ended legal segregation in this nation.

While the type of technology itself may partly explain this change, there may be another more overarching reason that Millennials are embracing urban living. The automobile is not the Millennial’s technology of choice. To them a car is a utility, much like electricity. They don’t see it as defining their world or their lives, and they will not allow cars to do so. That’s not to say they don’t use them, but the way in which they use them changes greatly from how Boomers used them. This is why services like Uber and Lyft – not possible without the internet and smartphones – are gaining in popularity in urban areas.

So we see the final phase of this pattern – Millennials are reversing some of the ills of the automobile age, while still recognizing their utility. In fact this is not surprising. Having grown up in the maturing age of the automobile, Millennials are much more likely to have a balanced view of the technology. They have seen both the good and bad it can bring, and will likely keep the best parts of the technology while mitigating the worst parts of it.

Since it appears that timing can shape generational proclivities as much as anything else, we can project this pattern forward to the future of the Internet age. Just as we can now see the side-effects the automobile caused in because of the passage of time, the negative side-effects of Millennial’s technology embrace is just beginning to be understood. But we should anticipate that, as with the Boomers, there will be a more critical judgment applied to the Millennials’ choices as time goes on. Furthermore, while today’s Millennials are likely to overdose on smartphone technology, their children may revolt somewhat against this technology and move towards a more balanced integration of these tools into their lives. In truth, this is where the final assimilation of a new technology occurs.

What will the future bring for our cities and for our communications, and hence for ourselves? No one really knows. However, if I were a betting man, I would bet that this pattern of pendulum swings will continue. For our cities, this is good news – it means that the trend towards urban living is not likely a fad and will continue to strengthen over time until cities reach a more balanced equilibrium with the suburbs. However, for those urbanists that believe the suburb is dead and cities will once again rule the day, a note of caution is in order. Modulation is not conquest, and it’s unlikely that Millennials will give up the best features of the automobile and the benefits they convey.

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

When the People Are Corrupted

This is another installment in my series on corruption. The New York Times ran an article last week about Buddy Cianci entering the race for mayor of Providence. Cianci is a larger than life figure in Rhode Island. Dubbed the “Prince of Providence,” he served two previous stints as mayor of the city – both times ending up forced from office due to felony convictions.

I don’t know the details of the first case, in which he pleaded no contest to a felony assault charge over attacking someone with “a lit cigarette, ashtray and fireplace log.” There’s got to be more to that story than I know because I can’t imagine a felony charge resulting from something like that, or that he’s plead no contest knowing it would get him removed from office.

The second time was he was convicted of racketeering charges (though actually acquitted of all but one of the things he was charged with) as part of an FBI investigation called “Operation Plunder Dome” that resulted in a number of convictions. He did 4+ years in federal prison as a result.

Now Cianci is back and running for office again. Apparently he remains quite popular and there is so much fear among many that he’ll actually win – he’s running as an independent – that various candidates have dropped out of the race in an effort to avoid splitting the vote and letting Cianci somehow slip in.

The fact that Cianci is considered a viable candidate for mayor despite being notoriously corrupt shows something that tends to happen in communities where corruption is the norm. Namely that the people themselves become corrupted in the process.

This actually happened long ago in Rhode Island, which seems to have been crooked about as long as it’s been around. One of the most famous pieces of writing about the state is Lincoln Steffens 1905 McClure’s Magazine screed called “Rhode Island: A State of Sale.” Here’s what he had to say about the matter:

And Rhode Island throws light on another national question, a question that is far more important: Aren’t the people themselves dishonest? The “grafters” who batten on us say so. Politicians have excused their own corruption to me time and again by declaring that “we’re all corrupt,” and promoters and swindlers alike describe their victims as “smart folk who think to beat us at our own game.” Without going into the cynic’s sweeping summary that “man always was and always will be corrupt” it is but fair while we are following the trail of the grafters to consider their plea that the corrupt political System they are upbuilding is founded on the dishonesty of the American people. Is it?

It is in Rhode Island. The System of Rhode Island which has produced the man who is at the head of the political System of the United States is grounded on the lowest layer of corruption that I have found thus far — the bribery of voters with cash at the polls. Other States know the practice. In Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, and Pennsylvania “workers ” are paid “to get out the vote,” but this is only preliminary; the direct and decisive purchase of power comes later, in conventions and legislatures. In these States the corruptionists buy the people’s representatives. In Rhode Island they buy the people themselves.

Rather than just businessmen buying politicians, the politicians bought voters, and virtually ever voter in the state was on the take, and in fact became quite peeved if their vote wasn’t purchased:

Nine of the towns are absolutely purchasable; that is to say, they “go the way the money goes.” Eleven more can be influenced by the use of money. Many of their voters won’t go to the polls at all unless “there is something in it.” But there need not be much in it. Governor Garvin quoted a political leader in one town who declared that if neither party had money, but one had a box of cigars, “my town would go for that party — if the workers would give up the cigars.” In another town one party had but one man in it who did not take money, and he never voted. A campaign marching club organized for a presidential campaign paraded every night with enthusiasm so great that the leaders thought it would be unnecessary to pay for votes in this town; few of the members voted. Another time, when no money turned up at a State election, one town, by way of rebuke to the regular party managers, elected a Prohibition candidate to the Assembly.

In this environment, the public is mostly indifferent to corruption and can even embrace it as part of the civic identity. Hence the viability of a known crook as a mayoral candidate.

It’s the same in Illinois. Even many of my highly educated professional friends there actually take pride in the state’s corruption, cracking boastful jokes about how it only proves Chicago is the best or something.

As Scott Reeder put it in an article earlier this year:

Well, another state legislator is heading to prison. You won’t hear much outrage in Springfield. Or dismay for that matter. In the grand scheme of things, the conviction of state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, on bribery charges is picayune. You’ll hear it whispered around the statehouse: “He ‘only’ took $7,000.”

llinoisans have become jaded to criminality among those we elect. A few years back, some Springfield wag printed up bumper stickers that said, “My Governor is a Bigger Crook than Your Governor.” This kind of cynicism has metastases through the electorate leaving political tumors of apathy, inevitability and suspicion.

Derrick Smith, the representative of $7000 bribe fame, was expelled from the House back in 2012 after being indicted, but actually won re-election with 63% of the vote.

And this bit in an article about corruption in Springfield:

Larry Sabato, a nationally recognized political analyst from University of Virginia, adds insight while talking about Illinois in an article written by Dave McKinney for Illinois Issues: “The central and most vital point about corruption is it flourishes where people permit it to, in part because they expect it in the normal course of events. A classic case comes from your state with Otto Kerner being caught solely because the people extending the bribes to him actually deducted it from their taxes as a necessary and ordinary business expense,” he says. “Their argument was, ‘This is how business is done in Illinois.’ That’s what has to change. It’s always up to the people. It’s a democracy. They have to go beyond the images.”

It’s one of the challenges that makes cleaning up corruption so hard. Once it has dug roots deep into the civic soil, the public becomes co-dependent and so there is no constituency for change.

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Thoughts On Eliminating Systemic Corruption

This is the third installment of my series on corruption (see part one and part two). Today I’ll share a few of my thoughts on the matter, particularly with regards to US cities. Please consider these incomplete and a work in progress.

Corruption seems to be incredibly durable where it has taken root. I mentioned before the continued drumbeat of scandal in Illinois, despite a slew of high profile prosecutions there. Chicago is also the homeland of community organizing, but despite all of the tactical successes of Saul Alinksy and his many followers over the years, little durable change has been produced.

But in many cases reform isn’t even attempted seriously. This is for several reasons. Many urban areas have no real partisan political competition. Single party systems (which can include Republican suburbs as well as Democratic big cities) remove a check on abuse. That’s why even though I’m a supporter of local autonomy, I recognize that state oversight is important. Also, in places with lots of corruption, the parties can tend to be more like business partners than competitors. In Illinois, columnist John Kass has appropriately labeled this general environment “the Combine.”

A tough commentator like Kass isn’t always around either. Molotch noted back in his growth machine paper that the local newspaper was part of the growth machine nexus. This means local media is often more civic cheerleader than watchdog. Fiscal distress in the newspaper industry has left most papers a shell of their former self in any case. This is also putting pressure on reporters and columnists to be working on their exit strategy by writing favorable coverage of the establishment in hopes of a job later. So there isn’t necessarily a tough, strong media on watch.

Local prosecutors are elected officials who are part of the political system and are thus not motivated to change things. What’s more, aggressive corruption prosecutions at the local level always have a partisan air about them. Far better would be more disinterested federal prosecutors. However, federal prosecutors are political appointees, and by tradition are selected by senators from the states. This often neuters them as well. (It’s notable and no surprise that it was maverick independent Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald who picked Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) as Chicago area prosecutor. Has a more establishment Illinois Republican held that seat, there’s a good chance Blago and Ryan might not have ended up in prison).

Add this up and there can actually be few voices or players of significant influence who want things to change. How do we make progress in that case?

I think there are two key pieces of preliminary research that need to be undertaken:

One is to create a power map of the city. That is, identifying the power players in a community and the relationships between them. This can be time consuming, but there are ways to do it. For example, looking at interlocking board relationships is a common strategy. Sean Safford did something like this for his famous “Garden Club” study of Youngstown to show the social networks of Youngstown and Allentown. A leftist academic named Dan La Botz used the technique for a study called “Who Rules Cincinnati?” looking at that city. We want to unearth who the real players are (which is not always obvious), what their relationships are, and how decisions get made. As part of this you are filtering out so-called “NINAs” – people with No Influence and No Authority. (Most bloggers are NINAs, for example).

Two is to do the historical analysis I’ve advocated elsewhere. This is important because a lot of political relationships go way back, and you need to get a sense of how the urban regime functions over time. Also you want to understand a bit of the city’s culture, which is fundamental to any change.

Armed with this information, you analyze the system to determine its weak points and design a disruption strategy. I’m not sure what exactly this would look like – it obviously depends on the research findings – but I’ll give three levels of response types: avoiding naivete, avoiding co-dependence, and building a political effort for change.

1. Avoid Naivete. I think too often we urbanists are naive when it comes to politics. We tend to be motivated by some personal vision of the public good, and so assume other people must similarly be so motivated. That’s not always the case. And you can’t take what political people tell you at face value. They excel at telling people what they want to hear or mouthing some of the right words, but don’t necessarily assume they mean them or that if they do they will expend personal capital on the behalf of what they say. My rule of thumb here: judge political people and power broker types by what they do, not by what they say. And then ask what Occam’s Razor suggests about the reasons why they did what they did (which is often self-interest).

2. Avoid becoming co-dependent. A lot of times I listen to people complain about bad decisions or this and that about their local community, but they don’t ever speak out publicly or challenge what’s going on. Their theory seems to be to prioritize their standing in the system (maintaining the relationship if you will) on the idea that this gives them the ability to be an influencer and help nudge things in the right direction. That’s not necessarily wrong. But we see a lot in personal relationships that sometimes we do the same with people who have addictions or other behavioral problems, and then before we know it, we aren’t helping them, but rather we’ve become co-dependent enablers of bad decisions and immoral behavior. I think we need to look at many of our cities as the civic equivalent of alcoholics who refuse to get help. You may still love them, but engaging in their dysfunction is not beneficial. Instead, stand aside let them reap the harvest of what they are sowing. Don’t put your stamp of validation on it. Realistically this is a difficult decision for a lot of people because they aren’t in a good place to put their job at risk, etc. But until there’s a price to be paid for the way people are doing business, don’t expect any change. It may well be that any one individual or organization is of no importance, but you have to start somewhere.

3. Create a political movement for change. Ultimately, change in the political system will require a political movement. As the power broker class is as a rule uninterested in change, this will need to be a populist type movement. I see three templates of this.

One is the insurgent outsider candidate who wins election and proceeds to start cleaning house. An example here might be the election of Antanas Mockus as mayor of Bogota. The documentary about him that I previously linked is well worth watching. Mockus was quite a character, but he had some ideas about eliminating corruption and changing societal expectations that were effective, if unconventional. For example, he fired the entire police traffic squad and replaced them with mimes. The problem is that you need a candidate who can get elected, has high moral fiber and strength of character himself, and who has the chops to make change. Generally speaking, insurgent candidates seem to fail on one of those points. It’s especially hard to govern as an outsider, as you don’t have a posse to bring with you to the job, and so end up dependent on the usual suspects to run things and quickly get turned into their pawn.

Two is some type of grass roots movement. I think it’s clear that the most effective grass roots political movement in the US in recent years has been the Tea Party. It may be that their goals and policies aren’t shared by some, but you can’t deny their impact. This makes them a useful case study.

I happen to believe that the intransigence which is so bemoaned by many is actually the secret to their strength and effectiveness. They are willing to burn down their own party’s house rather than compromise. I once had a senior staffer from Ron Paul’s presidential campaign tell me point blank, “Better a Democrat than a RINO” (Republican In Name Only).

Because of this, the Tea Party has to be taken seriously by Republicans. By contrast, Occupy Wall Street got taken out like the trash and was a completely impotent movement. Nor have we seen any legitimate leftist populist insurgency at the national level. Why not? It’s simple: no progressive is ever willing to defect from the Democratic reservation if it would mean a Republican would win. No matter how much they may refer the President as “0bama” (zero-Bama), they will have his back in any conflict or scandal with the Republicans. Hence, they lose the game of chicken every single time. You only see real progressive movements in places where the Republican threat is non-existent, like New York City, for example.

The lesson in my view is that a local reform movement probably needs to be pretty hard core. But it also needs to intelligently attack the structure based on all that research I talked about earlier, and put some thought into how to effect systemic change and how to effectively govern if it obtains power. Though in this case the ultimate agenda may not be electoral control. The Tea Party seems to have been largely beaten back, but they certainly achieved their goal of shifting Republican policy to the right. The fact that there’s even a debate about reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank shows their influence, for example.

The third template would be some type of lawfare approach. Michael Shakman’s lawsuits over patronage in Cook County, Illinois are a good example of this. This would obviously require a large bankroll and a lot of patience. I tend to as a rule dislike approaches like this as anti-democratic, but clearly lawfare tactics can be effective.

These are just some musings. As I said, I don’t have a fully thought out program in mind, so please share your thoughts.

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Cutting To Invest In Kokomo, Indiana

fairy-tale
A whimsical fairy tale convenience store in Kokomo, Indiana

Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution likes to talk about a paradigm called “cut to invest.” The idea is to cut spending on operations and lower priority items in order finance investments in higher priority infrastructure or other projects. Nice theory, but who is actually doing it?

One example is Kokomo, Indiana. It’s not the mythical tropical island paradise you may have heard about from the Beach Boys. Instead it’s a small industrial city of around 57,000 people about 45 miles north of Indianapolis. After I posted a piece from Eric McAfee about Kokomo’s intelligent rail trail design, someone from the city reached out and invited me to come for a visit. So that’s what I did this week.

What I discovered is that Kokomo has done a lot more than just build a trail. They’ve deconverted every one way street downtown back to two way, removed every stop light and parking meter in the core of downtown, are building a mixed use downtown parking garage with a new YMCA across the street, inaugurated transit service with a free bus circulator, have a pretty extensive program of pedestrian friendly street treatments like bumpouts, as well as landscaping and beautification, a new baseball stadium under construction, a few apartment developments in the works, and even a more urban feel to its public housing. Like Eric, however, I wasn’t just struck by the projects themselves, but they obvious attention to detail that went into their design. And especially by the fact that they’ve done it almost all by paying cash – no debt – in a city that went through an economic wringer during the recession.

A lot, though not all, of this has been pushed by Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who’s gone from factory worker to politician during his career. He also appears to be an urban planning geek, as the stack of books behind his desk shows.

books

I sat down with the mayor and chatted about how the city pulled off this program of investment. After the jump I’ll visually walk you through a number of the projects. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

Now let’s take a look at what’s going on. I mentioned the pedestrian bumpouts. Here’s an example of one:

Pretty much every downtown intersection has a treatment like this, including landscaping. Taking a page from other cities’ playbook, Kokomo has invested in beautification, including not only landscaping of pedestrian bumpouts, but also hanging flower planters we’ll see later. These were actually put into place by Goodnight’s predecessor and were a huge source of controversy at the time, though seem to be well-accepted by now.

Here’s another example on a street heading out of downtown.

bumpouts2

I’m actually of two minds about bumpouts. They do facilitate pedestrian crossings, but also can force bicyclists out of the curb lane into traffic. I’ve generally found them obnoxious when bicycling. The street widths through the bumpouts look ok here, but I didn’t put it to the test. A number of streets have painted bicycle lanes, where this is definitely not a problem.

Eric’s blog post was about the Industrial Heritage Trail. Here’s a shot of that through downtown:

I think this is really attractive. It reminds me of a red brick version of the Indy Cultural Trail. This section actually has a separate sidewalk from the biking trail, but that’s not the norm. Kokomo has really made a point to include some ped-bike protection wherever possible. So the landscape buffer is narrow, but effective and attractive. (It doesn’t use bioswale type green stormwater detention like the Indy Cultural Trail, though). There’s also ample street lighting and street furnishings.

As one nice touch, note the back side of the stop sign. It’s black to match the color of the other items, not just plain galvanized steel. This treatment is done throughout downtown and adds a bit of refinement.

Here’s another shot of a segment a bit south. Note the bespoke bike rack.

There aren’t people in these photos, you might have noticed. I was doing this walking tour on a Tuesday morning, and it wasn’t super-crowded but I did see multiple people out biking and walking on these trails.

On the south side of downtown, the IHT crosses and east-west path called the “Walk of Excellence.” I love the name because reminding Hoosiers that a focus on excellence is an absolute must to survive the brutal global competition. Here’s a shot:

woe3

Again, very attractive. And again, a narrow but nice buffer between the trail and the street, even though the roadway is little more than an alley or driveway. This is very consistently done, in another place even where the trail just passes through a parking lot. That’s what I mean by attention to detail. There’s a stream running to the left of the trail which adds to the pleasant effect of walking along it.

Here’s a street crossing:

woe-intersection

The trail has its own traffic control signs, as well as a street sign near bicycling eye level to tell users what street they are at. In my experience, that’s too rare in trail design. You can also see bumpouts here along with large concrete planters that add beauty and make the crosswalk and street narrowing very visible to drivers.

Here’s another crossing example, showing the different crosswalk shading as well:

woe-intersection3

Here’s a bike route sign, with the city seal on it. That’s another nice touch and one that shows a certain pride of place versus a generic sign.

bike-route-sign

Moving on, here’s a median treatment on a major street. This goes on quite a distance:

median3

Not only is this very nice, including more flowers, decorative street lights, etc, but the metal railings are especially unique. The railings were actually custom fabricated by the high school’s shop class. Not only was this great real world practice for the students, but the city paid for the railings and the students are all ending up with $1,000 scholarships to college out of it. I’m told this was the superintendent’s idea. (Kokomo’s superintendent grew up in Corydon in my county and his wife actually still works part time in Laconia, the tiny town where I grew up!)

Eric mentioned the school district’s International Baccalaureate program. But I don’t believe he mentioned that they also run an exchange student program. IIRC, students from 15 countries attend high school in Kokomo, and a number of them are actually housed in dormitories in downtown Kokomo. This injects life into downtown and creates a more international flavor in the city. I didn’t take pictures, but the school district is also renovating a 1914 vintage auditorium back to its original design that will be very cool (and also paid for without recourse to debt).

Trails and bumpouts have a fairly limited cost, but the city is also doing some bigger ticket items including two recently-constructed fire stations, a million dollar renovation of city hall, a parking garage, and a baseball stadium. Pictures of those in a moment but it’s worth ask how the city was able to pay for them without debt.

The first is that there was no legacy debt. I’m not anti-debt in all cases, but if a mature city like Kokomo is saddled with heavy debt repayments, that’s not good. By not having any legacy debt, the city’s tax base isn’t encumbered by repayments. A good part of our federal deficit these days is simply interest on our gargantuan debt load. That’s a dynamic Kokomo avoided. (The city does have some utility debt, but it’s revenue bond type stuff).

Secondly, the mayor says that he was able to reduce the city’s workforce by close to 20%, going from 521 employees just before he took office to only 415 today. That’s a significant reduction, especially given the fact that during that time the city annexed seven square miles and added 11,000 new residents (though some of them were already receiving some city services). Some of this was achieved through efficiencies. For example, the city went to single side garbage pickup, where all garbage is collected on one side of the street, eliminating the need for trucks to traverse each street twice. The mayor, council members, and department heads have also had a pay freeze during that time, with at least some time in there in which all city employees had their pay frozen during the recession. Keep in mind, the city experienced a severe revenue crunch during the auto bankruptcies, and Chrysler, the town’s largest employer, failed to pay its tax bill. This created an urgent need for cuts.

It’s possible the cuts and freezes have gone too far. I don’t know the full history of what has happened to services. But I speculate that having something like this can potentially act like a forest fire. It allows for longer term, healthier growth, whereas continuous growth in employees and compensation over time leads to serious fiscal problems.

In any case, these reductions freed up cash flow as the city recovered, letting Kokomo allocate a decent chunk of its revenues to capital investment. This is running at about 5% of the overall budget, plus an additional sizable sum (for a city of that size) from an economic development tax. This is an example of the cut to invest strategy in action. Without the cuts and tight budget management, there would be no money to invest. Indeed, some other Indiana community have found themselves asking questions like “what fire station should we close?” as they feel the sting of decline and tax caps.

Here are a few more photos, then some additional observations. Here’s that parking garage I mentioned. (This was originally debt financed, but the city paid off the bonds early when it decided to borrow for the baseball stadium).

parking-garage

This supposedly has some all day free parking, designed to attract downtown employees. There’s also going to be apartments on the top floor. It looks like there’s no ground floor retail, however, which will create a bit of a dead zone.

Here’s the YMCA construction site across the street. You can see the old Y in the background:

ymca

A painted railroad viaduct on Sycamore St. heading into downtown:

viaduct

An alley treatment:

alley

The baseball stadium under construction:

baseball-stadium

Here’s a picture of an older style public housing building. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s done in a traditional duplex style reminiscent of early suburbia.

public-housing-old

Here’s a new development in a more urban form next door:

public-housing-new

I think the fenestration is poor which gives the design a public housing look. Nevertheless, I appreciate that the city is even thinking about the design of public housing downtown as part of its strategy. After all, why shouldn’t public housing residents get to take advantage of high quality urbanism downtown like everyone else?

Overall, I think they’ve done a number of good things, and I especially appreciate the attention to detail that went into them. You clearly get the feel of them walking downtown streets. I would say the commercial and residential development lags the infrastructure, however. That’s to be expected. They do have an Irish Pub, a coffee shop, a few restaurants, and other assorted downtown type of businesses. This will be an area to watch as some of these investments mature.

When I talked to the mayor about this he took the long view, saying that Columbus, Indiana has been at its architecture program for decades, that Indy’s sports strategy is 40 years old, etc. Substantive change takes time. For example, Mayor Goodnight says it isn’t realistic to think that older workers who commute in to Kokomo will uproot themselves out of their established lives in other communities and relocate. But he’s more hopeful that as workers retire and are replaced, he’ll capture the “next generation” labor force.

That’s obviously a more realistic ambition. But will an impatient public buy it? We’ll see. Clearly Goodnight has his critics. More than one of them has dubbed him the “King of Kokomo.” A newspaper article fretted about gentrification (level of realistic concern about that: zero). I didn’t do a deep dive into the other side, so keep that in mind reading this. But the baseball stadium would appear to be the most controversial item as near as I detect.

Regardless of any controversy, when you look at the downward trajectory of most small Indiana industrial cities, the status quo is not viable option. Kokomo deserves a lot credit for trying something different. And regardless of any development payoffs, things like trails and safer and more welcoming streets are already paying a quality of life dividend to the people who live there right now. It’s an improvement anyone can experience today just by walking around.

Historic buildings on Kokomo’s courthouse square. The tenants testify to the industrial heritage of the community.
union-storefronts

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

The Independent City

Last week’s episode of Monocle 24 radio’s show The Urbanist was about independent cities. If you’ve listened before, you’ll know that their episode themes are applied loosely, but there are a couple of specific segments on “city-state” type of constructs, one is the very first segment, which is a hypothetical discussion about London, and the second a short commentary about Singapore starting around 30:00. If the embed doesn’t display, click over to Monocle’s site to listen.

Other segments include a piece about a Liverpool discount program for independent businesses, a segment about Istanbul that immediately follows the Singapore one, and a look at New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood starting at around 43:00.

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Cleveland, LeBron, and the Evolution of Collective Shame by Richey Piiparinen

[ I'm delighted to be able to present another great piece on Rust Belt culture and Cleveland by Richey Piiparinen - Aaron. ]

“Shame is fear of humiliation at one’s inferior status in the estimation of others.” — Lao Tzu

Sitting with fellow Clevelanders at a since-demolished bar, July 8th, 2010, LeBron James, local boy, uttered the words that hurt: “I am taking my talents to South Beach.” It was a shot heard around the world, but felt sharply inside the Rust Belt city’s heart.

“He had before invoked all the connotations of home, only to leave it,” wrote Cleveland sports columnist Bill Livingston the next day, in a piece entitled “By rejecting his hometown team, LeBron James earns his slot on the [Art] Modell list of shame.” Livingston upbraided LeBron for scheduling a cable event to “exploit this city’s suffering.” His words were intent on shaming LeBron for leaving, yet in doing so reared Cleveland’s collective shame for having again been left.

Collective shame is an underappreciated subject. But it, like other collective emotions — think fear and pride — run our societies more than we care to look. “What holds a society together — the “glue” of solidarity — and what mobilizes conflict — the energy of mobilized groups — are emotions,” acknowledged the great sociologist Emile Durkheim.

For decades, Cleveland has been held together by a solidarity in loss, especially the collective shame that came with it. Unlike guilt, which is about what one did, shame is an affront on the self, or what one is. And what was blue-collar Cleveland without a wealth of blue-collar jobs? It was a city of losses — be it of income, population, and a way of life.

2014-07-28-betough.jpg
Photo by Michael Lapidakis

Walk down many Cleveland streets and you can see how this loss has played out in disinvestment. Often, the effect on the viewer is the same: status was here, but no longer. The constant reminders of loss give shame currency. Cleveland is not alone here. Cities the world over are afflicted with the hangovers of history. From the “Geography of Melancholy” in the American Reader, the author writes:

Nearly every historic city has its brand of melancholy indelibly associated with it — each variety linked to the scars the city bears. Lisbon has its saudade: a feeling of aimless loss tied to the city’s legacy of vanishing seafarers, explorers shipwrecked in search of Western horizons. Istanbul has huzun: a religiously-tinged brand of melancholy rooted in the city’s nostalgia for its glorious past.

Instead of seafarers, Cleveland had steelworkers, and others who’ve had their working-class status stripped. Yet while the loss was personal, it was the result of macro forces, leaving many feeling powerless and alone. This aloneness was tied up in the feeling of shared suffering.

“The very fact that shame is an isolating experience,” notes the author of Shame and the Social Bond, “also means that if one can find ways of sharing and communicating it this communication can bring about particular closeness with other persons.”

There are many ways collective emotions are shared. Much of the vessels are informal. Think oral tradition and rumors. Fashion is another channel, like a city’s t-shirts. In fact perhaps nothing says implicit understanding between natives like city mottos emblazoned chest level. Cleveland’s most famous t-shirt said simply: “Cleveland — you’ve got to be tough”. It was made in 1977, in the heyday of the city’s decline. So the symbolism wasn’t. You had to be tough in the face of a post-industrial headwind. Today, iterations remain on this “the world is against us” mentality. “Defend Cleveland” and “Cleveland VS Everybody” t-shirts are worn liberally. Another favorite that tips more toward shame than to a defensiveness against judgment says: “Cleveland Low Life” — a play on “Miller High Life.”

2014-07-28-Clevelandloser.jpg
Courtesy of BCTZ Cleveland

Is all this productive? No doubt, collective shame, according to scholars, can strengthen the bonds between members of a group which, in turn, can lead to a process of self-exploration and restoration of a social identity. Or it can be chronic. Here, you get a city with a persistent inferiority complex — or a city going from seeking esteem in the face of perceived shame to finding esteem in self-shame. Cleveland is well-known for its self-flagellation. It’s especially obvious to folks who aren’t native Clevelanders.

“I have, in fact, never lived in a place whose proud residents so consistently and gleefully disrespect their hometown as Cleveland,” notes legendary Jeopardy champ Arthur Cho in his recent Daily Beast piece “Cleveland Comes Crawling Back to LeBron: The Masochism of Rust Belt Chic.” Cho, a Cleveland newcomer, goes on to write that though he hates to “engage in victim-blaming,” the reason “everyone dogs on Cleveland is that we ask for it.” Why? Cho concludes: “If we weren’t suffering, we wouldn’t be Cleveland anymore.”

But this Cleveland mindset does little for opening the region up to new ideas. Just as the messages become defensive, so do the policies and politics. Nativist culture reigns. Nepotism and patronage become the grease that runs the status quo. And so the communal shrouding effectively disables the possibility of possibility. Hence, the region’s struggles in its economic restructuring in the era of global connectivity.

In that sense, Cleveland’s collective shame can be a source of bad policies which ensure the collective shame. But why would a city want to do that, albeit implicitly, subconsciously?

“Economic struggle can be a cultural unifier in a community that people tacitly want to hold onto in order to preserve civic cohesion,” writes urban theorist Aaron Renn in Governing. Beyond that, those with power can lose it with community change. Continues Renn:

…[I]t isn’t hard to figure out that even in cities and states with serious problems, many people inside the system are benefiting from the status quo.

They have political power, an inside track on government contracts, a nice gig at a civic organization or nonprofit, and so on. All of these people, who are disproportionately in the power broker class of most places, potentially stand to lose if economic decline is reversed. That’s not to say they are evil, but they all have an interest to protect.

Does this mean Cleveland is doomed? Hardly. The region is experiencing a brain gain. The city has incredible assets — namely, its educational, hospital, and cultural institutions — that have been dragging it along toward a point of turning the page. But more is needed. Specifically, more perspective — a perspective that the city’s inferiority complex isn’t about what others think of Cleveland, but about what Clevelanders are compelled to think about themselves.

2014-07-28-lebronmural.jpg
Courtesy of Graney and the Pig

Which brings us back to LeBron. Soon after his announcement that he was leaving, The Onion wrote a satirical piece called “Despite Repeated Attempts To Tear It Down, Massive LeBron James Mural Keeps Reappearing.” In it, the iconic “We are All Witnesses” banner keeps hauntingly resurfacing. At one point in the piece, city workers removed it panel by panel, “only to find an identical mural hanging directly behind it.” The article ends, “As of press time, nobody outside the Cleveland area had seen the mural once since it was originally taken down…”

The takeaway, then: When suffering has become your identity, you have clearly suffered long enough.

The beauty of cities and societies is that they are constantly evolving. Some get stuck in their identity, like Cleveland. Cleveland’s path to progress, then, means letting go of that which has stubbornly remained. There’s hope that the change is coming, largely due to the presence of the new generation.

In many ways LeBron is an embodiment of the next generation of Cleveland and the Rust Belt. His return epitomizes possibility. No, I am not talking about championships, nor the collective Prozac-effects that a parade down E. 9th St. would have on the region’s psyche. Nor the game day economics. I am talking about perspective.

The day LeBron announced his decision he was leaving Cleveland, he was in Akron. According to an ESPN piece, he knew the decision would hurt people, and that nothing would ever be the same for him. “Somehow he got through the final day of his annual basketball camp in Akron without confessing,” the authors write. “By the time [former teammate] Damon Jones drove him to the airport, where he would fly to Connecticut and reveal his infamous decision to the world, there was a lump in his throat.”

LeBron, like all sons and daughters of the Rust Belt, are a product of collective shame, and so his self-battle with leaving is no surprise. But sometimes leaving is the answer. No person should ever self-sacrifice out of a loyalty to place. And sometimes coming home is the next answer. If only because intermittent personal aspiration will often take a backseat to that evolutionary and endearingly human value of needing to belong.

The secret sauce, here, is the perspective gained in the journey. And then bringing it back to a community that could use more than its fair share.

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post on July 29, 2014. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Fixing Corrupt Cities

This is the second installment in my series on corruption. You can also see last week’s post on the city as a decline machine.

This week I’m taking a look at a book Richard Layman turned me onto. It’s called “Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention.” Written by Robert Klitgaard with assistance from former La Paz Mayor Rondal Maclean-Abaroa and H. Lindsey Parris, and published under the auspices of the World Bank, this book is a must-read on the topic of corruption even if, sadly, many of the recommendations are not directly applicable to the type of corruption many US cities experience today. It’s only 150 pages and highly readable.

The book talks about the nature of corruption and how and why it is often so resistant to efforts at reform. We can easily see this in the US, where, for example, despite former federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald sending Illinois politicians in prison at a fearsome rate (including the previous two governors), the drumbeat of scandals in the state continues unabated.

The authors’ basic formula for corruption is simple: C = M + D – A. That is Corruption = Monopoly power + Discretion by officials – Accountability. Resultingly, as they put it:

A strategy against corruption, therefore, should not begin or end with fulmination about ethics or the need for a new set of attitudes. Instead, it should look cold-bloodedly at ways to reduce monopoly power, limit and clarify discretion, and increase transparency, all the while taking account of the costs, both direct and indirect, of these ways.

There is another crucial point in designing an anti-corruption strategy: Corruption is a crime of calculation, not of passion. People will tend to engage in corruption when the risks are low, the penalties mild, and the rewards great. This insight overlaps the formula just mentioned because the rewards will be greater as monopoly power increases. But it adds the idea that incentives at the margin are what determine the calculations of corrupt and potentially corrupt official and citizens. Change information and incentives, and you change corruption.

Much of the book consists of practical steps cities can take in this direction, using two principal case studies: La Paz, Bolivia, and Hong Kong. They also briefly discuss New York City’s successful efforts to root corruption out of a school construction program. Some of this gets quite detailed, such as their description of anti-corruption workshops the authors have run.

The book is also notable for being against what would appear to be one of the most popular responses to incidents of corruption, namely adding more rules. This often just makes it easier for corruption to flourish. As they put it, “Corruption loves multiple and complex regulations.” We also see in the US that more regulation increase the rent seeking returns to corruption and leads to regulatory capture, either by regulated industries or activists (or some combination of both).

They also say that corruption shouldn’t be looked at in isolation or as the sole aim, but rather that anti-corruption efforts should be seen as a tool for reinventing and improving the delivery of public services:

We do not recommend an approach to corruption that emphasizes more controls, more rules, and more bureaucracy. These can simply paralyze administration, and in some cases they can foster new and more deeply embedded varieties of corruption. Instead, especially in cases of systematic corruption, we advocate both restructuring city services and making institutional reforms that improve information and create new and more power incentives and disincentives. A major theme of this book is that fighting corruption in the right ways can become a lever to achieve much broader ends, not only financial survival but also remaking the relationship between the citizen and local government….Fighting corruption should not be considered an end in itself but an orienting principle for reforming urban administration. [emphasis in original]

Among their recommended approaches in the fight against corruption are having a point person with a high profile and public accountability for delivering results, creating an independent anti-corruption office (such as an inspector general type organization), starting by picking low-hanging fruit, eliminating the perception of impunity by “frying big fish” via prosecuting senior officials , working with and not against the bureaucracy, and many other things. They also spend time talking about the downsides of potential reforms.

As one example, they talk about how in some cases a single bidder taking over a contract can obtain so much proprietary information as a result of running a service that they de facto have a lock on future rebids since no one else has enough information to effective compete. Dual source contracting is one possible approach to maintaining long term competition, but has its own limitations such as potential added costs as well as incentives to collusion.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight a few weaknesses. One is that because they used largely foreign examples, some of the solutions aren’t applicable to the US. For example, some countries have so-called “unjust enrichment” statutes by which public officials who appear to have wealth far beyond what their salary would enable them to have obtained legitimately have to prove that they obtained it legally. This doesn’t appear to be a big problem in the US, and that sort of “prove you are innocent” approach wouldn’t fly here in any case.

In another case, La Paz actually implemented a property tax reform with a lot of superficial appeal: self-assessment. My old boss in Indy has long been an advocate for this. The idea is that you declare the value of your own property for tax purposes, but that value constitutes a binding offer to sell at a premium of 10-15%. I get the appeal of this, but it’s easy to see the problems it introduces. La Paz used the soft threat of the state acquiring the property, but never actually followed through, and the courts declared the scheme illegal in any case.

The more important problem is that the book focuses on traditional type corruption of the bureaucracy. It assumes that in fighting corruption there’s a senior leader such as a mayor or governor who is motivated to eliminate it, and their recommendations are pitched at that person. For example, the mayor of La Paz obviously had a passion for ending corruption in his city. The governor of Hong Kong was motivated to clean up corruption in the police department by unfavorable press causing embarrassment back in the UK.

In America today I’d argue that situation is inverted. Local level government employees are by and large honest – you can’t easily bribe your way out of a speeding ticket these days, for example – but the political leadership is corrupt. And the corruption is right out in the open and takes the form of transactions that aren’t illegal.

For example, a transaction to shove millions of dollars into the pockets of a crony is often done completely in the open. It’s championed by the political leadership and often the press as well. (Molotch showed how local newspapers and such were part of the growth machine, and in general these days daily papers often continue to give off the impression of being corrupt institutions themselves who are in cahoots with the politicians). It’s duly voted on by the city council. There was no quid pro quo transaction involved, only campaign contributions, hope for future employment, or various personal connections, thus nothing illegal was done. It’s the same with some (though certainly not all) privatization contracts, various laws and ordinances prompted by lobbyists, etc.

Francis Fukuyama describes this very phenomenon at the federal level in an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs called “America In Decay:”

The trading of political influence for money has come in through the backdoor, in a form that is perfectly legal and much harder to eradicate. Criminalized bribery is narrowly defined in U.S. law as a transaction in which a politician and a private party explicitly agree on a specific quid pro quo. What is not covered by the law is what biologists call reciprocal altruism, or what an anthropologist might label a gift exchange. In a relationship of reciprocal altruism, one person confers a benefit on another with no explicit expectation that it will buy a return favor. Indeed, if one gives someone a gift and then immediately demands a gift in return, the recipient is likely to feel offended and refuse what is offered. In a gift exchange, the receiver incurs not a legal obligation to provide some specific good or service but rather a moral obligation to return the favor in some way later on. It is this sort of transaction that the U.S. lobbying industry is built around.

Reciprocal altruism, meanwhile, is rampant in Washington and is the primary channel through which interest groups have succeeded in corrupting government. As the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig points out, interest groups are able to influence members of Congress legally simply by making donations and waiting for unspecified return favors. And sometimes, the legislator is the one initiating the gift exchange, favoring an interest group in the expectation that he will get some sort of benefit from it after leaving office.

Rules blocking nepotism are still strong enough to prevent overt favoritism from being a common political feature in contemporary U.S. politics (although it is interesting to note how strong the urge to form political dynasties is, with all of the Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons, and the like). Politicians do not typically reward family members with jobs; what they do is engage in bad behavior on behalf of their families, taking money from interest groups and favors from lobbyists in order to make sure that their children are able to attend elite schools and colleges, for example.

We see the same at the local level. In fact, today you almost have to be an idiot to engage in old school bribery. (It’s a mystery to me why it seems to remain so popular in places like Illinois and Rhode Island). You simply write campaign checks and at the appropriate time taxpayer money will come your way. Or you’re a journalist carrying water for the power brokers (or a candidate) who expects to be taken care of later. Or you’re on the government side of a privatization deal and later on take a job with the contractor via the revolving door. Or you run a non-profit that collects bigtime government grants with the unstated expectation that you won’t cause trouble. (I know multiple personal examples of non-profits who had grants revoked or threatened to be revoked by governments in retaliation for having the temerity to tell the truth about some boondoggle). None of these are illegal. They are generally done right out in the open. And the top power brokers and politicians are generally involved and hence have zero interest in reform.

This produces a much more challenging environment for change to say the least. I won’t pretend I’ve cracked the code on it, but will post further thoughts next week on how I might approach the problem.

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

The City As a Decline Machine, or How the Loss of Hometown Banks Paved the Way For Corruption

Today I’m kicking off what’s probably a three part mini-series on corruption. In my view, whatever the structural problems resulting from suburbanization or globalization or whatnot, an overwhelming and under-examined barrier to success in our cities, and especially to reviving the fortunes of the urban cores of post-industrial cities, is corruption.

When we think of corruption we tend to think of a shady character passing an envelope full of cash under the table to a crooked politician in exchange for a a zoning variance or something. But that’s just one form of corruption, and arguably one of the least important. Much more important is systemic corruption, including many practices that are actually legal.

The book Corrupt Cities, which I’ll look at in depth in a future installment, defines corruption this way:

Corruption means the misuse of office for personal gain…Corruption means charging an illicit price for a service or using the power of office to further illicit aims. Corruption can entail acts of omission or commission. It can involve legal activities or illegal ones. It can be internal to the organization (for example, embezzlement) or external to it (for example, extortion). The effects of various kinds of corruption vary widely. Although corrupt acts may sometimes result in net social benefit, corruption usually leads to inefficiency, injustice, and inequity.

And regarding systemic corruption, the authors say:

Systematic corruption generates economic costs by distorting incentives, political costs by undermining institutions, and social costs by redistributing wealth and power towards the undeserving. When corruption undermines property rights, the rule of law, and incentives to invest, economic and political development are crippled. Corruption exists in all countries. But corruption tends to be more damaging to poor countries.

And, one might add, poor or struggling cities.

America has been experiencing problems with corruption at all levels of government. I want to focus on the local level, however.

Cities have long been known as hotbeds of corruption and political machines. They were certainly much more corrupt in the past than they are now. However, because the scope and control of government was so much less in those days – for example, there was no zoning in Gilded Age America – the impact was arguably less than now where the impact of government is pervasive. The Progressive Era brought reforms that cleaned up government to a certain extent, but we’ve seen in the contemporary era an uptick in government corruption. This is not necessarily in the form of petty corruption, but rather the corruption of the instrumentality and aims of government itself.

Even in my own lifetime I’ve seen a tremendous increase in corrupt activities. Sure, cities were always “growth machines” and had “urban regimes”. Some level of corruption may even be necessary for political life to function. It’s generally necessary to build coalitions to get things done, and the types of horsetrading that enables this is often distasteful. I don’t want to pretend that we can ever have squeaky clean politics. And of course cronies of the party in power have long benefited from patronage.

But there’s a big difference between logrolling, or even some crony getting his beak wet through a somewhat inflated price tag for something that more or less needed to be done anyway, and the types of things we see today, in which the levers of powers are used in ways that are often obviously manifestly contrary to the public interest.

I won’t fully support it in this post, but my belief is that increasingly the urban power structures have exchanged traditional growth machine policies for a system of extraction in which crooks, cronies, and criminals are enriched under the guise of the “revitalization” of a community in decline. The principal vehicles for this are a) publicly subsidized real estate boondoggles, b) corrupt privatization and professional services contracts, and c) public employee union featherbedding.*

This looting of our cities in the name of revitalization has been made possible by a severing of the historic link between the economic fortunes of a community’s elite and broader community prosperity. I’m going to show today how that link got severed, and why that has led to subsidized real estate boondoggles as the preferred form of civic “revitalization”, by revisiting and updating a post I originally ran in 2009.

Ed Morrison once wrote that “Cleveland’s leadership has no apparent theory of change. Overwhelmingly, the strategy is now driven by individual projects. These projects, pushed by the real estate interests that dominate the board of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, confuse real estate development with economic development. This leads to the ‘Big Thing Theory’ of economic development: Prosperity results from building one more big thing.”

Morrison could have been describing any number of other cities here. Why is it that so many cities have turned to large subsidized real estate projects to attempt to restart growth, , turning away from strategies that previously made them successful?

The answer lies in structural economic changes resulting from the nationalization and globalization of industry. Up until the 1990’s, many businesses, such as retailing, utilities, some manufacturing, and especially banking operated on a regional or local basis. The meant that the civic leadership of a community was heavily dominated by businessmen, again, especially bankers, whose success was dependent on the overall macroeconomic health of the particular city or region they were located in.

For example, up until the 1980s or so, most states severely restricted banking such that every city pretty much had its three major locally owned banks whose CEOs were the major power players in town.

Because these banks were limited to their own region, often only their home county, they could only increase their profits by seeing their hometown grow with more people and businesses, and thus more depositors and borrowers. If the CEOs of those banks decided to loot the city at the expense of overall civic prosperity – or let anyone else get away with so looting it – it would undermine their own businesses. Hence they had an alignment between corporate (and thus personal interest) and the civic interest. They could only prosper to the extent that the community prospered.

It was the same in many industries. The Public Utility Holding Company Act more or less led to every major city having its own electric utility. That utility could only make more money to the extent that more people and businesses moved to town and thus generated new demand for power. The interests of the company and its CEO were aligned with that of the city as a whole. If the city sickened, the company’s business would sicken with it. Many if not most cities also had their own department stores, drugstores and other retail establishments.

This created what Harvey Molotch called a “land based elite” and underpinned a model he called “The City As a Growth Machine.” He saw the “land” in question as physical land and thus also talked to the primacy of real restate development, but I see “land” as much more representing the constrained operating geography of a wide variety of industries that are not necessarily related to land per se. While growth as a strategy has its problems, you can certainly be stuck with worse.

With banking and utility deregulation, we saw large numbers of hometown banks merged out of existence. Industry after industry has been subjected to national or international level roll-ups as changes in the economy and regulatory environment gave increasing returns to scale. So today we have a handful of major national banks like JP Morgan Chase, major utility conglomerates like Duke Energy, and dominant national retailers like Macy’s, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot, often part of a “two towers” type rollup.

Why is it that “real estate interests” dominate in a local economy like Cleveland? Because, to a great extent, they are among the only ones left. Consider the local industries that have not been as subject to roll-ups. Principal among these are real estate development, construction, and law (though we are starting to see rollups in these industries too).

This means the local leadership of a community is now made up of executives in those industries, and they bring a very different world view versus the previous generation. There are two major differences between these types of firms and the previous types of firms that generated community leaders: the nature of the businesses themselves, and the fact that their profits are not dependent on the success of the community.

Consider the difference between a banker and a lawyer. Banks make money on the spread between what they pay for deposits or wholesale funding, and what they charge for loans. This means the CEO of a bank is making money while he plays golf at 3. He’s got a cash register back at the office that never stops ringing.

By contrast, lawyers get paid by the hour for work on specific matters and transactions. The law partner is only making money on the golf course if he is closing a deal. It’s similar between many other “operational” businesses that were previously prominent in communities, and the “transactional” businesses that are now often dominant.

Not only has the drying up of local and regional operating businesses led to a business leadership community unbalanced in favor of transactionally oriented firms, the loss of those local and regional operating businesses robbed many of the transactional companies such as law and architecture firms of their principal local client base. Large national businesses employ national firms for advertising, law, architecture, etc. If they use local firms, it is in a subsidiary role. (Or, if a smaller firm is fortunate enough to land a contract, it is servicing a client on a national, not local basis).

Richard Florida described this in his Atlantic Monthly article on the financial crash:

As the manufacturing industry has shrunk, the local high-end services—finance, law, consulting—that it once supported have diminished as well, absorbed by bigger regional hubs and globally connected cities. In Chicago, for instance, the country’s 50 biggest law firms grew by 2,130 lawyers from 1984 to 2006, according to William Henderson and Arthur Alderson of Indiana University. Throughout the rest of the Midwest, these firms added a total of just 169 attorneys. Jones Day, founded in 1893 and today one of the country’s largest law firms, no longer considers its Cleveland office ‘headquarters’—that’s in Washington, D.C.—but rather its ‘founding office.’

Where then is the source of transactions these firms can turn to in order to sustain their business? The public sector, of course.

I would hypothesize that many local transactionally oriented services companies have seen the public sector take on a greater share of billings than in the past. With the old school bankers and industrialists mostly out of the picture, the leadership in our communities consists increasingly of the political class and a business community dominated by transactional interests.

When you look at the composition of this group, it should come as no surprise that the publicly subsidized real estate development is the preferred civic strategy. Politicians get to cut ribbons. Cranes always look good on the skyline. Local architects, engineers, developers, and construction companies love it. And there is plenty of legal work to go around.

This is not to say these people are necessarily acting nefariously. And nor were old school bankers and industrialists always acting purely altruistically. But there’s a very different world view between people steeped in operational businesses and those in transactionally oriented one.

On the other hand, that’s not to say that they aren’t acting nefariously, either. Which brings us to the second difference. These newly dominant firms and their leaders no longer have fortunes tied to the overall health of the community. Unlike an old-school banker or utility executive, these transactional companies like law firms can exist on a narrow client base. Thus they can continue to thrive if the community is struggling or even impoverished. If the driving force of the business is government, which can extract significant tax revenues during both good times and bad, this can go on indefinitely, so we see that even in bankrupt Detroit the state stepped in to pump $400 million in subsidies into a new hockey arena for a development backed by a local billionaire.

In fact, what we see is that these firms and their hangers on can even profit from community decline. Why is this? Well, when the community is struggling, that means Something Must Be Done. And it just so happens that this group of people has Something in mind – namely shoving taxpayer cash into their pockets so that they can “invest” in “saving” the city. Somewhat perversely, to the extent that a community is thriving and doing well, the justifications for all those subsidies become harder to make. Thus The Powers That Be actually have a stake in civic failure.

Call this the “City As a Decline Machine” model, as our once-proud urban cores have been strip-mined for subsidies by cronies as population and job levels have collapsed in the greater urban core.

This helps explain why, despite the endless talk about “talent, talent, talent” not many places actually do much that suggests they are serious about attracting it. Why might that be? Because, as I’ve noted before, outsiders are the natural constituency for the new and an inherently disruptive force. That’s the last thing cronies want. Instead what they actually want is to use the pretense of talent as a Christmas tree ornament to decorate arguments in favor of their latest subsidized boondoggle.

But regardless of intent, the personal interest and long term community health of the community elite are no longer strongly linked. Which is why where once local business/civic leaders put money into the community – such as when Melvin and Herb Simon bought the failing and money-losing Indiana Pacers back in the 1983 – today they are more likely to be taking it out via these types of projects.

You might object that some cities kept their banks or have other large companies that are still present. Perhaps. But even where the hometown bank or company did not get bought out, it likely escaped that fate by getting big itself and making large numbers of acquisitions or otherwise expanding. This means those institutions are less dependent on the health of the particular local market they happen to be headquartered in than they are overall macroeconomic conditions. While no doubt they want the headquarters town to be successful, they can afford to take a portfolio view of local markets.

It’s similar for many other companies, such as the tech startups every city seems to be focusing on. These are attractive to a great extent because they can thrive in downtowns of cities where the majority of the urban fabric is struggling because they don’t consume much in the way of services, have a live and let live ethos that has historically been disconnected from and indifferent to government (and so won’t upset the cronies’ apple cart), and sell to a national or global marketplace in most cases.

Interestingly, one place where it seems like the structure of local real estate helps the city is New York City. My understanding is that there are still quite a few local power players whose personal fortunes are deeply tied to the value of Manhattan real estate. Certainly local developers sometimes receive eminent domain assists and such, but the volume of activity necessary to support the real estate industry that is still very key to the city’s viability can only come from genuine market demand. When you combine this with the fact that there aren’t good substitutes for New York, this suggests at least a significant segment of its elite will be highly motivated to see it navigate the formidable fiscal and other challenges it faces.

Most other places aren’t so lucky. Once this type of system gets established it is difficult to uproot, and it acts like kryptonite to outside investors who know they will be operating at a severe disadvantage versus the cronies. That’s why out of town bidders have been taking a pass on bidding on the I-195 land in Providence, for example.

Commercial real-estate developer Richard Miller, of The Pegasus Group, visited Rhode Island in 2011 and again this spring; he liked what he saw enough to pick a potential parcel on the western side of the river near Chestnut Street. But in the end, his team chose not to submit a proposal to the Route 195 Redevelopment District Commission, which controls about 40 acres in the heart of the city, 20 of which are available for development … “I don’t want to get snookered in here where all of a sudden they start hitting you up with fees and you put a bid in and you start meeting with politicians, and the more you invest in the town, the more you’re in the game, and I didn’t get the sense that they want you to make a fair return in the town.” … In other cities, such as New York, he says that there “is a very clear policy about new development. And it’s not subject to a political process in order for you to make a project work. Either you abide by the rules and make a buck or you don’t.”

I’m sure you could tell a similar tale in many cities. As someone once told me, “Political risk is the only risk in real estate development, if you know what you are doing.” Many cities today are nothing but political risk for anybody but cronies, which is one why there’s so little market interest in developing there. But don’t worry. Your friendly local campaign donors and insiders will be there to help “prime the pump” – with a little assist from the taxpayer of course.

Pete Saunders once recounted his family’s prescient observation about Detroit that it “would not rebound until all value was extracted out of it.” This is the process we sadly see unfolding in many post-industrial cities.

* If you require evidence just ask how many urban core real estate projects in your city have been done without subsidies to political donors.

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

Why Contemporary Protestant Church Architecture Is So Poor


New Life Church Worship Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo: myamericanodyssey.com

Visit a city in Europe or even an older American town and see that the church building is often one of the most prominent and architecturally distinguished buildings there. Yet today your typical new Protestant church building, say a suburban mega-church, is dreadful. Why is that?

When speaking at the conference where I talked about suburban sacred space, I ran into architect Duncan Stroik, a professor of architecture of Notre Dame and someone you turn to when you want to build a church that looks like a church. His book on the subject of church architecture is “The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal,” which you can learn more about in the review of it in City Journal.

Stroik is also the editor of a semi-annual magazine called Sacred Architecture. Unsurprisingly, its emphasis is on Roman Catholic architecture, but other traditions are included as well. After an invigorating discussion on the topic, I agreed to write an article about the Protestant church architecture question, which is now online in the most recent issue. Called “Erasing Distinctions,” it looks at eight theological trends in contemporary Evangelical Protestantism that tend towards placing a low value on architecture. Here is an excerpt:

1. Low view of the church and place. The Roman Catholic tradition emphasizes the big-C Church—the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of the creeds—with the local church as a mostly standardized operating subsidiary. By contrast, most Protestants emphasize the small-c church, their local congregation. This is truer than ever, as demonstrated by the rise of non-denominational churches.

This produces a system with no theology of place. Protestants feel a sense of duty to the place and community where they personally live. But if the majority of church members move, say, from the city to the suburbs, then a new church building can be constructed, the old building sold, and the duty transferred to the new place where the members now reside. The original building only served a pragmatic purpose as meetinghouse for the members.

The Roman Catholic Church views its remit as covering the entire globe. So when there is population change in a locale, the church is not relieved of responsibility for it. The church building is an outpost of Christianity in a particular place (the parish concept), not just to a group of people. In short, Protestants see place as ephemeral, while Roman Catholics see it as permanent.

You can click through to read the whole thing.

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Why Modern Architecture Struggles to Inspire Catholics by Julien Meyrat

[ Today architect Julien Meyrat looks at why modern architecture, even when excellent and profound, so often fails to engage with Catholics when used for their churches - Aaron. ]


La Tourette Monastery by Le Corbusier in Eveux, France

Inspired by a recent visit to a Le Corbusier-designed Dominican monastery near the French city of Lyon, I’ve been thinking a lot about the interaction between Catholicism and modernist aesthetics.   It has little to do with whether the Church affects what designers create beyond filling the program.   Instead, I’ve tried to examine how the architect’s religion influences the Church’s own self-image.  I’ve concluded that the Church, an institution that has been the guardian tradition and the patron artistic and architectural development in the West for almost two millennia, never could reconcile itself comfortably with Modernism.

I was reminded of this when I shared with my brother news on the opening of a new convent and Visitor Center buried into the hill on which sits Le Corbusier’s famous Notre Dame-du-Haut Chapel at Ronchamp.  The convent was but the latest creation of the contemporary master Renzo Piano, featuring architect’s trademark manipulation of natural light, spatial simplicity, open views of nature and elegant detailing.  My brother seemed to shrug at these qualities, writing:

Seems more like a fish tank with Ikea finishes than a cloister. I know natural light, rectangles, and windows are nice, but its openness and simplicity feel like some vapid unbearable lightness than a place of spiritual reflection. Zen monks might appreciate it more.

I replied that he seemed to have a very narrow idea of what constitutes a proper place for spiritual reflection, and that lightness and simplicity had a place Catholic doctrine.  I referred to him to a series of pictures  I had taken of Le Corbusier’s monastery, wondering what he thought of his more ‘Brutal’ approach.  My brother elaborated:

Ugh, these architects have no god. That thing (by Corbu) is hideous. Look, meditation takes place in the mind, but more in the soul. Christianity places the priority on man’s soul transcending his surroundings, not blending with it (a la Zen). Man is large, not small. Churches should be ornamented and highly symbolic, teeming with life, not stark and barren. It all has to do with Being not Nonbeing. The church is a foundation, it’s heavy, it imitates the eternal. It’s not some flimsy plates of glass and concrete garnished with random primary colors here and there.


Bedroom of Convent by Renzo Piano Workshop at Ronchamp, France

Though there are indeed gaps in his argument that can be exploited, I think his overall opinion is respectable and shared by many of the Catholic faithful who possess a sophisticated understanding of their beliefs and how to translate them into sacred art.  Often such views completely contrast from many members of the clergy, who have more of an interest in revitalizing the church by embracing contemporary artistic trends than by responding to wishes of their flock.  The Dominican monastic order prizes scholasticism above all else, and finds it fully consistent to hire a leader at the forefront of architectural progress like Le Corbusier.  The nuns were probably thinking along the same lines, wondering less about how sacred life can transform architecture, but rather how architecture can transform sacred life.

Outside a few rare examples such as Ronchamp,  I sense that Modernism has failed to deliver an architecture  that connects with most Catholics and other traditional Christians.  Much of this has to do with fact that Modernism as a cultural movement is inherently atheistic as it is based on a secular materialist philosophy.  Even Renzo Piano admits as much, describing his client from the convent: “She has a profound love of architecture, of landscape, of sacred space – and even of people without religion, like me.  She wanted a place of silence and prayer. I said: ‘I can’t help you with prayer, but perhaps I can help with silence and a little joy.”


Chapel at Convent by Renzo Piano Workshop, Ronchamp, France

And therein lies the crux of the problem: When one has done away with symbols, theology, and the act of worship, there’s little else to inspire a credible work of sacred art or architecture.  Piano, like any committed Modernist, is left with little more than a preference for abstraction, technology  and  some vague nostrums about nature and  space.  For a Modernist, the point of architecture is to convey an image of maximum clarity, in which all elements are related by function and little else.  As long as a space is adequately sheltered and functions for the use of its occupants, there is no need for decorative flourish.  Piano is reduced to checking off boxes for the client’s wish list, from the number of rooms, to furnishings, and to achieving a quality of ‘silence’.  There’s nothing all that particular about an architecture of silence–maybe  a dark room secluded from more socially active spaces.  Given the right palette of materials and details, any space can be turned into something contemplative.  But can this generic approach to design evoke much meaning beyond mere emotional states such as peace?

Sacred spaces achieve much of its effect by emphasizing mystery. This is at the core of any religion, in which divine truth is revealed beyond any logical or rational framework.  As is often said, God is revealed in mysterious ways, and the purpose of any sacred space is to embody this reality.  It is inherent that a secular space is completely  counter to this and thus adopts an architectural language devoid of mystery or even ambiguity.   Secular spaces instead embrace the language of the engineer, someone who works outside the world of art, poetry, and indeed of mystery, by solving problems with the most rational tools of math and science.  There is a lot of work that goes into making successful settings for secular activities, much of it having to do with the science of building, such as lighting, acoustics, and visibility.  There is also a tendency for generating phenomenological effect through technology, such as making walls highly transparent or reflective, surfaces either smooth or deliberately rough.  To the Modernist who puts its faith in technological progress, the more an effect can exceed what can be done by the human hand, the better.


La Tourette Monastery by Le Corbusier, Eveux, France

Such attention to a material’s effects point to Modernism’s essentially materialist philosophy on architecture. In sacred architecture, the building and the spaces within serve  to connect users to a deeper reality that transcends its walls. They function as a gateway from the material world to a spiritual realm–the focus is on the eternal, not the object that portends to represent it.  In a secular context like Modernism, the object is the thing itself, and all meaning is tied directly to that object.   Walking into a exemplary Modernist space, one is supposed to marvel at its lightness, smoothness and simplicity, attributes that are commonly summarized as ‘machine-like’.  If one desires a more ‘humanist’ look and feel, the designer can instill a quality of ‘roughness’ by texturizing concrete, oxidizing steel,  and inserting warmth by using  natural materials such as wood and stone.  Industrialization gives us that much more control to generate a precise effect, and empowers the designers unlimited opportunities in experimenting.  At the same time, it diminishes the role of the craftsman, who throughout most of human history was the guardian in generating material effects, and in  many ways assumed the role of architectural detailing.  Machines take the human factor out of the art of making, thus producing something devoid of passion, feeling that imbues every man-made object.

Piano singles himself better than most of his contemporaries by his ability to reinsert the human touch in his design process. His architectural details are truly works of art and are usually the result of a distinct craftsman-like approach in generating them.  The name of his firm, The Renzo Piano Workshop, harkens back to the time when architecture was realized by stone masons, who would accumulate specialized design knowledge in the development of style details and templates.  Where Piano departs is the end result of his craftsman-like approach: highly refined, ultra-precise, machine-polished building systems and parts.  The structural connections in his projects are beautiful  and poetic pieces of engineering, much like Apple products, but like most industrial artifacts, they cannot express the ancient, primordial aspects of our humanity.  Is that necessary to fully immerse oneself the Catholic experience?

I believe so.  A fundamental assumption in Catholicism is that history is linear and that God was incarnated in the human form of Jesus Christ at a precise point in history to the point that the period before and after this event are neatly divided (BC vs. AD).  Its doctrines and liturgy are part of an evolutionary process that have taken place in the world for two thousand years, and followers actively partake in this history by participating in the mass.  For most Catholics, weekly mass is the only time that they are reminded that they are tied to humanity in throughout the ages, both in the past and the future.  This goes against ‘modernity’, or the idea that the times are so new and different that prior truths or solutions are irrelevant.  In Christianity, Truth is eternal, and the problems that afflict humanity are no different during the time of Christ than they do now. There is no ‘new and improved’. Rather, the ideal was was established two-thousand years ago (the life of Christ) and no amount of social or technological advance (or regression) can change this. 


View of Crypt inside the La Tourette Monastery by Le Corbusier

In addition, Christianity relies on communicating its ideas through allegories conveyed verbally in the Bible, musically in its music and visually illustrated in its art and architecture.  These are designed to make the message accessible to all people, as opposed to keeping revelations close to a self-selected elite.  The message has to be clear, the context must be provided and the characters believable.  Visually, this requires the use of lines and recognizable figures placed in a narrative relationship. These demands don’t lend themselves well to abstraction, the modus operandi of the Modernist.   Abstraction is by nature open to individual interpretation; Christian revelation is not.  Abstraction is deliberately exercised by an individual, driven by their own desire to create original content; Christian subjects and themes are the content, with the artist sharing his visceral imaginings of truths he does not question (like most European art before the 19th Century).

This probably explains why many Catholics feel a certain frustration with the role played by modern music, art and design in today’s church.  The music uses irregular folk beats, vulgar melodies and harmonies, and seem composed to bring attention to the songs themselves rather than acquainting singers to a more transcendent reality.  In contemporary Christian art, Christ is portrayed as a non-descript figure, and often times and rendered in an abstracted archaic style that is flat and lacks feeling.  The cross is abstracted to emphasize its iconic nature as a symbol, detached from any literal representation of what actually happened on the cross.  In most modern churches, seating is arranged as a theater in the round, focusing the parishioners’ attention to the the priest, or the choir, rather than to God as manifested in an elaborately decorated apse wall or a ceiling pointed to heaven. This was vividly brought to my attention when watching the broadcast of Christmas mass from the Vatican–most of the camera shots showed details of the sanctuary’s glorious interior and symbolic art, with the occasional view of the Pope.  Catholic worship is not about the mere men (priests) who help conduct its rituals but is instead is about how God is revealed in them by means of humanity’s most outward expression of what lies within its soul: Art. When there is nothing meaningful or moving to look at, one is resigned to paying attention to a charismatic individual standing on a stage, transcendent beauty is loss, and the Christian message takes on a banal delivery.


Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier, Ronchamp, France

Architects, a growing number of whom fall into agnosticism and atheism, often seem to forget this when visiting sacred yet Modern masterpieces.  Just because Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel makes some of my colleagues cry doesn’t mean it fulfills its ecclesiastical responsibilities particularly well.  They are likely overwhelmed by the chapel’s poetic mastery of form and light and how it provokes a profound yet undefinable emotional response.  I succumbed to this response myself when I went to Ronchamp as well when I toured  Le Corbusier’s monastery of La Tourette.  I was taken aback by his buildings’ abstract forms, its play with light, its vivid use of color, its sophisticated relationship to its site.  In the end, I didn’t develop a more profound appreciation of Christian revelation, but a greater respect for mathematical proportion, abstract formal metaphors, primary colors and geometries–transcendent things nonetheless, but a bit too esoteric for most people.  La Tourette was clearly a more regulated composition compared to Ronchamp, which is probably why is probably why the latter provokes a more emotional response.  In  a sense, the chapel is Le Corbusier at his least ‘modern’ and more archaic, while his monastery is likely intended to feel more academicized due to that typology’s tradition of being repositories for knowledge. Ronchamp’s form sweeps up to heaven, its dark sanctuary enclosed in thick walls reminds one of a cave evocative of early Christianity, while its rounded towers mimick Mary in her veil, sheltering the church below. Though these moves aren’t literal, there is just enough reference to the symbols and ideas of Catholic church that make this more approachable to average followers.


Church on the Water by Tadao Ando, Tomamu, Japan

This isn’t to suggest that modern architecture can’t achieve successful spaces for spriritual contemplation. Tadao Ando’s Church by the Water is especially powerful, manipulating natural light and framing views that heightens the senses and fuses nature into the act of worship. The church is stripped of traditional Christian decoration, illustrations of bibical stories or saints, or any other reference to the history of the church. It works for those who wish to understand God through nature’s primal elements and how they change through the passage of time. There is a sense of ignoring the human presence altogether, as it invites one to blend into the natural surrounding (as my brother’s comment on zen indicates), which may work in more minimalist strains of Christianity and even Catholicism, but will leave many believers hungering for a place rich in narrative objects and a more fully enclosed communal response among people.   There is no altar to focus on, only a highly abstracted cross standing in a reflecting pond, which could have all sorts of meanings, but not one that concentrates the mind of the believer on Christ and his passion.

A truly inspiring space that uses a modern architectural language for catholic worship is extremely difficult to find.  While many architects simply choose to employ a historicist style for even newest churches, it is possible to address the particular characteristics of a catholic church while maintaining a modernist sensibility.  I submit a Cistercian chapel located not far from where I live in Irving outside of Dallas designed by Gary Cunningham. Long an admired designer in the area, Cunningham’s work can be characterized as simple, straight-forward, and sensitive to materials. His award-winning residences follow a rather conventional contemporary style but he also is very accomplished in the art of adaptive reuse, in which he repurposes an existing building by carefully juxtaposing old and new elements.  This consciousness of how time plays a role in the way a building expresses itself is strongly manifested in the Cistercian chapel.  The space is enclosed in rough quaried limestone, cut in massive blocks and stacked in traditional running bond, which instantly strikes any visitor as reminiscent of the Catholic church’s earliest Romanesque sanctuaries with their thick walls and small windows. Its wood roof floating above the nave takes the shape of a traditional ceilings found in these churches, while also resembling the underside of a ship (which is where the word ‘nave’ comes from). Spans are short, further emphasizing the weight of the stone, even as they maintain familiar rhythm suggestive of the old ambulatory aisles with the repetitive row of vertical windows.  It follows more of a classic basilica typology than the popular theatre-in-the round, which indicates a desire to focus on the liturgy as opposed to the priest. But more than merely echoing the churches of the past, this chapel appears as a direct architectural metaphor for the creation of the church itself: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…(Matthew 16:18)”  While obviously an abstract design, Cunningham manages to endow the chapel with an important phrase from the Gospel and thus Christian revelation.  Sleek details and delicate connections between the roof and walls betray its contemporary origins, but the way it highlights the split-faced texture of the rock wed the chapel to the church’s long institutional history, and the countless number of people who dedicated their lives in building structures fitting to God’s glory.


Cistercian Chapel by Gary Cunningham, Irving, Texas

And that, to me, is what is necessary for a compelling Catholic worship space–a connection not only with the divine, but just as importantly with an institution comprised of people throughout the ages. Its walls should reveal human intent, either through a man-made texture or through an ornament that is the work of genuine human input. Machine-smooth de-personalizes this experience.  As any human institution that is an essential part of catholic identity, it carries a rich artistic and architectural heritage that brings with it a kind of unassailable authority not found in Protestantism, which devalues the human institution in favor of interpreting directly from the Bible.  The result of of relying on scripture, however justifiable from a theological standpoint, seems to lead towards a breaking down of a rich visual language and an embrace for abstraction.  A small cultural vacuum subsequently takes root, which grows to consume what’s left of symbols, music, and eventually the walls.  The ultimate result is either a television studio black-box with no windows preferred by evangelicals or a zen-like meditation space with no walls and a subtle symbolic indication that it’s even Christian (such as Ando’s church).

I’m sure that Piano’s and Le Corbusier’s clerical clients were pleased with the result, and fans of high-design with no opinion on proper Catholic aesthetics are moved by their examples, too.  But I wonder if these exercises in abstraction, lightness, and trying to stay relevant in fast-changing contemporary culture win much in the way of converts. People who seek the church want their souls nourished by the church’s message in as many forms as possible. When many of these forms are abstracted or simplified to an incomprehensible level, it leaves such people feeling unfulfilled, and causes many of them to leave the church for a place that offer a richer, more visually arresting environment of the older historic sanctuaries.  At least these modern ecclesiastical masterpieces continue to open their arms to the perennial pilgrimage of people most interested in them: architecture students.

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