Thursday, March 6th, 2014
Trailer for CNN series “Chicagoland” – click here if the video does not display.
As part of his plan to boost sagging ratings at the network, CNN chief Jeff Zucker commissioned an eight part reality series about Chicago and its mayor called Chicagoland that premiers tonight at 10pm ET. The show is produced by the same people who did the Brick City series about Newark Mayor Cory Booker, with support from mega-star executive producer Robert Redford.
Rahm and the Media
Given that Brick City seems to have only helped Booker’s reputation, cynics in Chicago have already noted the fact that show’s producers are represented by the William Morris Endeavor Agency, which just so happens to be the home of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ari. This is as much because of as in spite of a well-publicized move by directors Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin to ask the agency to recuse themselves from representing them when it comes to the show.
One need not believe in such a conspiracy to see this show as yet another example of Rahm’s media power – and his fearlessness in pursuing high profile opportunities to get his message out even in venues where he’s not in complete control. Rahm has had significant success in getting high profile national and global attention – for example, a glowing profile from NYT columnist Thomas Friedman – since taking office. He didn’t shy away from getting out there even when a spike in murders made global headlines Chicago of the type Chicago didn’t want – a time when many mayors would have crawled into their bunkers. And although he’s been in office a while now, Rahm fatigue seems not to have set in. Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg has a lengthy piece on him in the March issue of Esquire with the colorful title of “And Now For the Further Adventures of Rahm the Imapler.” The Financial Times recently ran a mostly positive piece called “Rahm Emanuel: Mayor America.” It even includes a high production quality six and a half minute video that will give you a flavor of it (if the video doesn’t display, click here):
With his ambition for Chicago as a global city, Rahm clearly sees global media as the ones that really count. Chicago’s status as a media center afterthought means few out of town reporters actually know that much about the city, hence Rahm has a huge opportunity to shape the message. This must infuriate the local media, which to a great extent Rahm is free to ignore because of his ability to go direct at the national and global level. Chicagoland should thus be seen as part of Rahm’s global media push, both for Chicago and for himself.
Reality TV vs. Journalism
The series is probably as good for Rahm and the city as it could possible get. Certainly the problems – high crime, poor schools, and labor troubles – are not glossed over. But given that they’ve been well publicized globally, it’s hard to imagine how they could be without sacrificing all credibility. Within the context of realism, this is a big win for the city.
Whether it’s a big win for journalism is another story. Like most modern documentaries or reality TV shows, Chicagoland is non-fiction in a sense, but also heavily scripted and edited to provide a compelling narrative. This makes for great TV drama and characterizations, but whether it represents truth as a reporter would tell it is much more doubtful.
Just as one example, the producers clearly had extensive access to Rahm and he’s frequently shown as concerned about crime, battling with unions, boosting the local economy, talking to school kids and even mentoring an inner city kid he brought on as an intern. But is that a fair representation of how Rahm Emanuel spends his time? The Chicago Reader did a two part series analyzing Rahm Emanuel’s schedule and published a two part series about it called “The Mayor’s Millionaire Club” (see part one and part two). They show that access to Rahm is heavily dependent on your wealth, influence, and donations. Yet that doesn’t come through in Chicagoland at all. Instead when the occasional powerful people are shown, they are always doing a good turn for the city, such as a group of tech executives donating products to schools.
I’m not suggesting this series should have been a bulldog investigative piece. However, I strongly suspect that CNN’s actual journalists will be seething at seeing their network and its relatively strong reputation being used for what is clearly not the type of work they themselves would undertake. Right or wrong, the CNN brand carries an expectation of a certain type of journalistic standard that the Sundance Channel (where Brick City originally ran) doesn’t. Right now on CNN’s Chicagoland page there’s an ad for Anderson Cooper 360. Something tells me that were Anderson Cooper in charge of Chicagoland, it would look quite different.
Compelling Drama and Characters
However, taken on the terms of a Sundance series, Chicagoland succeeds, and my guess is that Rahm will be overall pleased. The show sets up the drama by structuring the series as battles between opposing forces. In the first couple episodes, this is the battle between Rahm and Chicago Public Schools leadership on the one hand, and the teachers union and some affected parent groups on the other over plans by CPS to shutter 50 schools. Frankly, I thought it overly portrayed Chicago as if it were Newark. The segments were introduced by short positive vignettes of some aspect of Chicago (like the Stanley Cup playoffs), followed by more extensive coverage of the school closing dispute, and educational and crime problems in Chicago’s impoverished South Side. It would be like doing a flyby of Times Square before doing a deep dive on some of the worst blocks in Newark. While I myself have written on the two Chicagos theme, I was feeling that Chicago was being unfairly stigmatized.
I need not have worried. After the initial focus on the school closing dispute, the focus shifts. The drama is now between the good guys (basically every single person featured in the show) and the bad guys (gangsters and such who exist almost entirely offscreen, or so we’re led to believe). Almost without exception, the good guy characters are shown as 100% white knight types. Instead of positive vignettes followed by something Newarkesque, there’s a more balanced take in time allocation and the threads start merging across the two Chicagos. The show also starts laying the Chicago sales job on with a trowel. In Chicagoland’s coverage of things like the food scene, the music scene, the comedy clubs, or even footage of Rahm protesting a neo-Nazi march back in the 70s as a teenager, it’s hard to see how this could have been any more positive in its portrayal of the city if it had been produced directly by the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. This is a huge win for the city.
The show also manages to create several compelling characters. One of them is the surgeon who leads the trauma unit at Cook County Hospital, a job I certainly would not want. How that guy manages to balance family life in Roscoe Village (my old neighborhood) with the reality of what he deals with every night at his job is beyond me.
But the star of the show is clearly Elizabeth Dozier, principal at Fenger High School in the South Side neighborhood at Roseland. She’s shown fighting not only to only educate her students, but keep them safe over the summer, and even invest in their lives after graduation when they get in trouble. (Dozier trying to help a former student who’s in jail for robbery realistically shows the need for “retail” 1:1 or N:1 investment in the lives of specific troubled people, not just programs, to make a real difference in a troubled person’s life – and even so the difficulty in seeing life change happen). Her obvious passion and dedication in the face of tough odds clearly come through. Yet even here there’s a sense of manufacture. Dozier is a young, attractive, stylish black professional who not only runs a South Side High School, but also gets personal face time with Rahm, knows Grant Achutz of Alinea, and hangs out with Billy Dec on his boat. How much of this A-list hob-nobbing was happening prior to Chicagoland coming to town I wonder? Regardless, it makes for compelling TV.
While I have my quibbles, I think on the whole Chicagoland is an enjoyable watch that will end up being good for the city and the mayor. Just don’t go in expecting journalism. This is first and foremost reality TV style drama. With that caveat in mind, I recommend watching it.
Takeaways From the Chicagoland
Watching Chicagoland made me think again two bigger picture issues.
First, in watching gangs take revenge on each other in an endless cycle of retaliation that literally stretches on for years and in which no one can actually recall the original offense, I was reminded of Hannah Arendt writing on the role of forgiveness:
Forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered course. In contrast to revenge, which is a natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.
Forgiveness is not the only way to put a stop to a cycle of revenge. Arendt posits official punishment as another. But forgiveness is clearly the fastest and surest route. Until either the police are able to impose order and mete out genuine justice, or the grieving family and aggrieved gang compatriots of these murder victims are able to forgive and forswear vengeance, the cycle is unlikely to ever end.
I don’t want to judge too harshly teenagers in a ghetto living out the only life script they’ve ever known. But what’s our excuse? We too often live out in miniature the same process ourselves. How often do most of us forgive genuine wrong done against us, even of a much less consequential nature? Tune into the internet any day of the week and see untold amounts of shrieking over some offense or another, real or imagined. I suspect the vast majority of us would be behave no differently from those gangbangers in similar circumstances. We are blessed not to be there, however. But will we use that privileged position to end or perpetuate cycles of wrong in our own lives?
Secondly, Chicagoland made me think about the bigger picture of leadership in our cities and the major problems they face. I voted for Rahm as mayor, for three reasons. 1) I saw him as like his mentor Bill Clinton, namely someone to whom getting elected and staying in power is more important than pushing any ideological agenda. In short, I saw him as a pragmatist, not an ideologue with a policy ax to grind like Bill de Blasio. 2) Rahm spent a lot of time outside of Chicago. He’s got a global perspective and a global network that’s critical in this era. He’s also got the gravitas to interact at the highest levels of power in America, which is something few mayors can say. 3) Rahm has no natural constituency in Chicago. So if he wants to be re-elected, he needs to perform. He clearly has future political ambitions, and flaming out as mayor wouldn’t be helpful in pursuing them.
Looking back, while I’ve criticized Rahm for an excessive focus on the elite, I believe my judgment then was correct and on the whole I think he’s done a decent job in a very difficult situation. Apropos of point #3, if Chicago thinks differently, the popular and competent Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is waiting in the wings. Whatever you think of his neoliberal policies, it’s clear Rahm is an actual leader, one with a ton of intelligence, drive, power, and the will to get things done.
Yet watching Chicagoland, it’s evident that even leadership ability of Rahm’s caliber struggles mightily with the city’s huge challenges. Chicago has a massive fiscal hole, and a very serious problem with a two tier society that has left vast tracts of the city behind. It’s by no means certain that Rahm will be able to make Chicago soar in the way that Daley did in the 90s, or even get re-elected if a there’s any stumble and a credible candidate like Preckwinkle gets into the race.
When I think about the difficulties in solving the problems in Chicago, which has not only Rahm’s leadership but a massively successful global city economy in the Loop and hundreds of thousands of well-heeled residents, it makes me pause. If Chicago struggles with its problems, how much more so other cities facing similar or worse problems but with much weaker leadership and no global city money and firepower? It really makes me wonder if a lot of places are simply going to die a slow death barring some lucky break from a change in the marketplace.
This ultimately is what I’d challenge the residents of other cities to think about when watching this show. Look at Chicago and what it is dealing with. Think about your own problems and your resources for combating them vis-a-vis Chicago. If that doesn’t make you sober up, I’m not sure what will.
Tuesday, March 4th, 2014
[ It's frequently alleged that Wal-Mart is a destroyer of small towns. Today Eric McAfee of American Dirt takes a look at Wal-Mart's home town of Bentonville, Arkansas to see what its effect has been there - Aaron.]
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, from the perspective of urban sociologists and planners at least, major discount retailers such as Walmart have thrived on the destruction of commercial activity in traditional town centers. No doubt my assertion borders on exaggeration, but it would have to, considering I’ve cribbed Jane Austen’s famous (and equally ironically hyperbolic) first seven words to Pride and Prejudice, in which a man’s search of a wife sets a blithe tone for much of what follows. By contrast, the unceasing diatribes against Walmart from urban advocates are rarely whimsical. And while not every high-profile writer/blogger on urban affairs excoriates Walmart, the general tenor of the discussion ascribes much of the decline of downtown retail to the much-maligned megachain. After all, virtually every freestanding small city in America over 20,000 people that is not part of a larger metropolitan agglomeration can claim a Walmart, perched at the edge of the municipal limits. And yes, the burgeoning of Walmarts does more or less coincide with the near abandonment of historic, pedestrian-scaled main streets in favor of car-oriented commercialization consolidated into big-box department stores.
But did a corporation—or the corporation—really cause all this?
If the average American consumers genuinely cared enough about Main Street or the courthouse square, wouldn’t they have shunned this commercial cataclysm before it radically altered the entire landscape? Wasn’t it the consumer that ultimately fueled Walmart’s meteoric growth, by opting for the convenience of everything under one roof, abundant free parking, and (perhaps the most objective factor) those famously low prices? Some might argue that I’m unreasonably throwing Walmart a bone, since the folks at the boardroom table clearly knew what would happen to Main Street, as department-store big-box shopping encroached on communities that commercial developers had previously perceived as too modest in size to support this retail typology. And, yes, I recognize the firm’s historic opposition toward unionization, its eventual reneging on a long-standing “Made in America” pledge, and even the management of logistics/merchandising favoring the automatization of functions that once provided communities with stable jobs. Maybe I am cutting Walmart some undeserved slack. But I also think the corporation’s biggest critics fail to recognize that Walmart didn’t become a leviathan overnight, any more than these towns devolved from flourishing to failures with the flick of a light switch.
My own articles on main street America have explored the topic routinely. But it took a visit to Bentonville, Arkansas to develop a more nuanced understanding of Walmart’s approach to community engagement right at the belly of the beast.
My suspicion is that, until probably around the year 2001, 98% of Americans hadn’t heard of this well-scrubbed little municipality in the northwest corner of the state, just a stone’s throw from the rugged topography of the Ozarks. Even today, if people are familiar with the town, it is only because it hosts the corporate headquarters for the world’s largest retailer. And there’s nothing wrong with this seemingly simplified association: after all, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Bentonville who would argue that the city is better known for something else. But what sort of impact has Walmart’s presence exerted on what otherwise would likely be a nondescript, mid-southern county seat?
Not surprisingly, the influence has been formidable. I mention the year 2001 because, upon publishing the results of Census 2000, the nation learned that the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area (consisting of the primary cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville) had become the sixth-fastest growing region in the nation. While a Census update isn’t the sort of news item that necessarily grabs the public by its lapels, it can flirt salaciously with the unconscious and, eventually, through mimetic repetition, penetrate to the conscious. With each passing year, Bentonville has grabbed the headlines more often, as decisions from the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Home Office exert a greater impact on the global economy. I would hesitate to assert that the name “Bentonville, Arkansas” is common knowledge to the same level that a similarly-sized city such as “Beverly Hills, California” might be, partly because the similarities between these two places basically stop there. But its star is rising on both the national and international horizon, since many of Walmart’s foreign retail ventures have proven just as successful as their domestic efforts. And Bentonville, predictably, has enjoyed its share of the region’s growth: at over 35,000 people in 2010, it more tripled its population since the 1990 census, and, as recently as 1960, it was a quiet village of barely 3,500 people.
The impact on this growth is obvious, particularly when viewing the street configuration.
The shift from a conventional grid to a more hierarchical arrangement is conspicuous and unsurprising.The oldest part of the city adopted the grid, which was customary for shaping virtually all communities in the 19th and early 20th century. Yet 80% of Bentonville’s city limits (which extend in all directions beyond the boundaries in the image above) fits the more expansive, automobile-oriented configuration, in which streets curve and wend, sometimes into hairpins, sometimes into full loops. Often they terminate as culs-de-sac. For a municipality that remained a modest village until the 1950s, this growth pattern is normal and broadly characteristic of numerous Sunbelt communities.Thus, the city of Bentonville has decentralized considerably in the last fifty years, in addition to hosting the global headquarters to the retail behemoth most regularly flagged as the culprit in expediting the demise of downtowns. Given these two factors, one prevailing question remains: what on earth does its beleaguered town center look like?
Chances are, you’d be as surprised as I was.
It looks terrific.Nearly 100% occupancy, clean sidewalks, a well-manicured streetscape. And virtually of all the retail mix—from bike shops to brasseries, yoga studios to yogurt cafes, tea rooms to trattorias—caters to an upmarket clientele, suggesting that the leasing rates are fairly high.
The culminating attraction, however, is the humble storefront that spawned it all:
Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime now serves as the Walmart Visitors’ Center and a mini-museum, with interactive exhibits and the recreation of a soda fountain.
These pictures date from a summer festival on the central square, taken a few years ago, in 2010. Though they are obviously a bit faded by now—not all of the visitor attractions were open yet during my visit—I can say with a fair amount of confidence that downtown Bentonville is even stronger today. After all, most estimates show the city has continued to grow another 10% since the 2010 Census results, and, considering that it was demonstrating considerable resilience during the peak of the Great Recession, the downtown is likely only to build on a momentum it had established long before the bubble burst. A detractor might challenge my assertion by arguing that I captured the city during an atypically vibrant time, when out-of-towners had flocked to the city for the summer celebration on the courthouse square. But how could the downtown support a high concentration of restaurants, cafés and boutiques if it weren’t lively during the other times of the week as well?
The fact remains that downtown Bentonville boasts a number of civic associations that have worked tirelessly to boost its cachet, including Downtown Bentonville, Inc, a nonprofit association that promotes, attracts investment, and plans activities for Bentonville’s historic downtown, as well as the Bentonville Merchant District, which seeks to attract upscale traveling merchants through the provision of Class A office space and furnished loft-style apartments close to the city center. The city also has a Convention and Visitors Bureau and a Chamber of Commerce. These organizations have no doubt worked tirelessly to re-centralize investment in Bentonville’s small downtown, even as the vast majority of the population growth over the last two decades has taken place in the purlieus. By most metrics, their efforts have paid off. But plenty of other similarly sized cities can claim the same business associations without these results; I blogged about Jefferson City, Missouri earlier this year, a small city whose civic leaders have collaborated to promote the downtown. However, the results in Jefferson City, while palpable, have been much more modest than Bentonville—and it is nothing less than the state capital.
Bentonville is simply part of a region that is enjoying a persistent economic boom. The other primary cities in this unusual metropolitan area—Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville—are also growing like mad. It doesn’t hurt that the region is home to two other nationally prominent companies: Springdale’s Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat producer, and trucking giant J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., based in the town of Lowell, which abuts Rogers. But the real cog in the wheel remains the world’s largest retailer, headquartered in Bentonville, and I still suspect the corporation and its numerous investments has more to do with downtown’s vibrancy than the tourist bureau. Walmart undoubtedly prefers to associate its name with a municipality that enjoys a profile of prosperity and high quality of life; the company will do what it takes to maintain that image within Bentonville.
So what is the visual evidence that this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill boomtown? Beyond from the picture-perfect courthouse square, the air of plentitude permeates the city.
However, it isn’t just the park spaces that distinguish the more recently developed outer reaches of Bentonville; all the spaces in between have received above average treatment as well.
So a city street has sidewalks. Big deal, some might say. But it is out of character for low density, hierarchical, auto-oriented development in the South to make any concession for pedestrians, let alone a full network of sidewalks along all of the major streets. Compare Bentonville to just about any other city in Arkansas (outside of the Northwest) and you’d be hard pressed to find sidewalks on any arterial or collector roads beyond the historic original
street grid. Both the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Planning in Bentonville have determined that core pedestrian access remains critical, even when the development pattern is sparse, in keeping with the preferences of the majority of people who settle in this part of the country. The former of the two aforementioned departments reveals that it has conceived network of parks, greenways and biking trails rivals that of a community three times its size.
Meanwhile, the latter-mentioned planning department has several aces up its sleeve as well. While it isn’t unheard of that a city might support a 76-page Bicycleand Pedestrian Master Plan, a Smart Growth Guidebook, or a Traffic Calming Guidebook, it certainly places the city well outside the bell curve when juxtaposed with its peers. After all, even the neighboring city of Rogers (pop. 55,000) shows no evidence that its planning department has the resources even to conceive of such initiatives.
The aforementioned features are hardly likely to elevate anyone’s pulse; they aren’t exactly competing with Manhattan’s High Line for infrastructural innovation. And it’s unreasonable to surmise that Walmart had any real influence on what remain purely publicly owned assets. But one structure in Bentonville is likely to turn the head of even the most skeptical coastal snob: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The structure was not complete when I visited Bentonville in 2010, but it opened to the public in late 2011, and made international headlines for both its novelty (first major American art museum to open in 50 years, and the only one in an over 100-mile radius) as well as its magnitude (over 200,000 square feet of space on 120-acre grounds and a collection valued in the hundreds of millions). The striking edifice reaches Bentonville courtesy of internationally recognized Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Perhaps most importantly though, it is resolutely the vision of Alice Walton, daughter to founder Sam Walton and heiress to his fortune. In one of many interviews she offered at the time of the museum’s opening, Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, acknowledged that she wanted to make a difference in this part of the world by bringing “something we desperately need”. She contributed over $300 million to the project, built on family land. Admission to the museum is free, but because of its destination status, visitors will typically linger, travel the grounds, shop, buy a meal. A Huffington Post article from the museum’s infancy concluded that the museum would skyrocket past its estimated 250,000 first-year visitors, based on the success after just three months open to the public.
If Crystal Bridges Museum lives up to its promise as an attraction of national or even international caliber, Bentonville clearly needs the tourist infrastructure to support those visitors. But it would appear it already has it. Just down the road, in neighboring Rogers, an Embassy Suites Spa and Convention Center flanks one side of the interstate; the Pinnacle Hills lifestyle center sits on the other. And, earlier this year, the sleek 21c Museum Hotel, famous for the prominent positioning of contemporary art, opened right off of Bentonville’s courthouse square – only the third of its kind in the country. (Louisville and Cincinnati claim the other two.) Many of the amenities that have sprouted across Northwest Arkansas over the last twenty years are in keeping with a metropolitan area of nearly a half million people; of course it has a mall, convention center, and a seasonal symphony orchestra. But while growth trajectory of the metro might resemble that of Phoenix or Las Vegas, no single municipality has spawned everything here in Arkansas. As of 1950, only college town Fayetteville had even 10,000 people. The other towns—Lowell, Rogers, Bella Vista, Johnson, Springdale, and of course Bentonville—were isolated villages that boomed simultaneously, swelling their incorporated boundaries until they touched one another. As a result, Northwest Arkansas may be the country’s youngest conurbation: a 35-mile string of small cities—a microlopolis. (The only comparable phenomenon I can think of domestically would be the Texas border towns along the Rio Grande, but even Brownsville and McAllen were more than villages fifty years ago, and they’re big cities over 100,000 people now.)
The rapid ascension of these communities into a regional economic powerhouse—with the amenities one might from a single, medium-sized city—may very well neatly manifest the multiplier effect. But it still doesn’t explain how Bentonville, the epicenter of Walmartlandia, has managed to hold its own with a lively downtown, when plenty of other fast-growing big cities struggle to keep it all centralized (Houston, for example). After all, in one of the most famous journalistic explorations of Northwest Arkansas, Financial Times’ “The Town that Wal-Mart Built”, Jonathan Birchall observed in 2009 that he always found it “hard not to be hit by the irony in this Bentonville Renaissance. Wal-Mart’s football-stadium-sized supercentres are, after all, the epitome of the chain store culture that has destroyed small town centres and homogenised communities all over America in the past three decades.” But it sounds like he took the bait.
The town that Walmart built has either proven itself immune to the main-street-murdering forces that afflicted most American cities, or it has recovered from that ailment magnificently. Bentonville also boasts a regional airport that offers year-round, nonstop daily service to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; Alice Walton’s money helped build the terminal, which serves a population that had no regular airfare until 1998. Bentonville Public Schools have offered the prestigious International Baccalaureate program since 2007. And yes, Bentonville has a Walmart not so far away, in what probably was the edge of town not too long ago.
By this point in such a lengthy analysis, it’s obvious what has happened: Bentonville has responded to the fact that it hosts a multinational corporation by offering the sort of amenities needed to attract talent to the region—talent that, its current leadership presumes, will propel Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to another fifty years of unprecedented growth.
Most MBA grads trained at Harvard, Wharton or Kellogg are going to need enticement to move to an area not recognized for its urban offerings. On top of all the talent in multinational retail, Bentonville and its neighbors most also graciously host the satellite offices of 1,300 suppliers whom Walmart has lured due to its vast trade network—ranging in size from one sales exec to something as large as Procter and Gamble, for whom a few hundred employees call Northwest Arkansas home. The elite business class that routinely visits the Walmart headquarters expects top-tier hotels and shopping, while many of the executives who make it
their permanent home will inevitably seek sophisticated eateries in an attractive, walkable setting. How much of all this was funded directly by Walmart is anyone’s guess (though I’m sure at least someone out there has the numbers). The fact remains that the corporate culture in Bentonville fueled a demand for a Parks Department that builds a network out of its green space, or a Planning Department that performs traffic calming studies.
The hardened cynics can read about this serendipity in the Ozarks and offer an acerbic rebuttal: of course Walmart is going to prop up its hometown, but does that absolve it from the devastation that has taken place virtually everywhere else? This assertion would be valid if every town with a Walmart suffered an equally moribund Main Street. But they clearly haven’t. And there remain villages too small or too remote for a Walmart, which have confronted the exact same decline of entrepreneurism in their historic centers. Arguing from that same angle, the City of Bentonville did not enjoin Walmart to revitalize downtown—or force Alice Walton to build Crystal Bridges—any more than existing laws compelled Cornelius Vanderbilt to endow a university in Nashville, the capital of a state he never even visited. No doubt some of Walmart’s boosterism in Bentonville is self-serving, since a desirable community only helps to improve Walmart’s reputation as both an employer and corporate citizen, which in turn can attract further investment. However, viewing all corporate altruism as suspicious requires a labyrinthine recontextualization that is just as distorted as saying “Walmart killed our downtowns”. Or its equally hyperbolic counterpart: “Walmart has had no impact on the way we shop on main street”. Clearly it has, but the forces compelling consumer behavior remain complicated—baffling even. For while most of us can understand that we abandoned our old downtowns out of convenience and lack of foresight,
no one will ever truly be able to explain want prompted many American consumers
to give up their cars so they could return to bicycles. And if you don’t think I’m concluding ironically, I’ve got a Jane Austen novel to sell you.
This post originally appeared in American Dirt on October 16, 2013.
Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
PBS ran a documentary last week on the American Experience called “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.” Here’s the video if you missed it. I suggest watching it on your TV since it’s long (it’s available through the PBS Roku channel if you don’t have a computer hookup). If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
This covers much more of the rise than the decline, and leaves many questions unanswered. But the look at the personalities, the technical challenges, and the daring that went into this was very good. On the whole I really liked it except for one of the talking heads who kept going on about how rare it was to have a private investment like this that actually benefits the public. He was the walking embodiment of why conservatives want to defund PBS, and his claims were both unsupported and dubious.
I also think they could have done a better job of explaining the financial decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Yes, the rise of autos and planes played a role. But the feds continued to regulate railroads as if they were still the only game in town. And if you wanted to make the case for government intervention, this was a great one. Long before the demolition of Penn Station, governments had acquired most urban transit systems if not commuter railroads. So there was already a precedent in place for the government buying out Penn Station, which is what should have happened. Merely landmarking a structure and leaving it in the hands of a bankrupt railroad might have equally have led to its destruction through neglect. Grand Central Terminal shows that this facility could have been reborn under government stewardship.
Yet it’s clear that a shift in the values not just of railroad barons, but also of society had occurred from 1910 to 1963. Much of this was for the worse, but let us also not forget much of it was for the better. We don’t just accept dozens of workers dying on job sites anymore, for example. Yet it’s undeniable that the type of American ambition which built Penn Station, that of a rising power wanting to send a message that this would be the American century, no longer exists. Today the very idea of an “American Century” is outright hateful even to many Americans.
A friend of mine watching this wrote me to say, “My Deep Thought was ‘where have the great minds who produced this kind of magnificence’ gone? Answer: Weapons design… military industrial complex. There’s a reason huge swaths of the country look like crap but drones look so cool.”
There’s clearly a lot that goes into this question. Some of it is as my friend said; this creative daring has been channeled into other fields than the civic. We’ve suffered no decline in our ability to blow stuff up, that’s for sure. And as I’ve said before, in the Great War and the Great Depression, something in the human spirit was grievously wounded. I’m sure there’s more.
But in part it’s simply a deficiency of love, or at least the right kind of love, for our cities. If Penn Station was inspired by the greatness of Rome, then as G.K. Chesterton put it:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
Sunday, February 23rd, 2014
Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has a chapter entitled “Why Among the Americans All Honest Occupations Are Considered Honorable.” In it he noted that because America lacked an aristocratic tradition of leisure, labor had not been stigmatized as something inherently degrading to man:
In America no one is degraded because he works, for everyone about him works also; nor is anyone humiliated by the notion of receiving pay, for the President of the United States also works for pay. He is paid for commanding, other men for obeying orders. In the United States professions are more or less laborious, more or less profitable; but they are never either high or low: every honest calling is honorable.
Not only was work not inherently degrading, anything one did, whether it be serving as president or pushing a broom, was equally as valid as anything anyone else did. They may have been economically distinct, but they were ontologically identical. If you put in the proverbial honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, if you provided for yourself and your family, then you and your work were worthy of the honor and respect of your fellows. What’s more, in America to not work was what indicated personal degradation of spirit. Per Tocqueville:
The notion of labor is therefore presented to the mind, on every side, as the necessary, natural, and honest condition of human existence. Not only is labor not dishonorable among such a people, but it is held in honor; the prejudice is not against it, but in its favor. In the United States a wealthy man thinks that he owes it to public opinion to devote his leisure to some kind of industrial or commercial pursuit or to public business. He would think himself in bad repute if he employed his life solely in living. It is for the purpose of escaping this obligation to work that so many rich Americans come to Europe, where they find some scattered remains of aristocratic society, among whom idleness is still held in honor.
This idea of the honorableness of work held sway in America for a long time, but that time is past. In America today, the very concept of work qua work is increasingly held in contempt, as in the aristocratic age.
This surely began before I was born, perhaps in the 60s era of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Yet I have personally witnessed a major sea change in the perception of labor in my own lifetime over the course of several signal events.
The Volcker Recession
America has long been the industrial powerhouse of the world, reaching its apogee in the 50s and 60s. By the 70s era of gas lines and stagflation, it was clear something was wrong, though not exactly what. Yet on the whole America conducted business as usual. Arrogant management continued to be more or less indifferent to product quality and inefficiency. Labor continued to engage in frequent strikes as if there were still massive gains to appropriate.
In the late 70s things started to change. Jimmy Carter began a major deregulation of key industries. Reagan came into office in the 1980s promising supply side tax cuts. He was also hostile to unions. Early in his administration, he fired every air traffic controller who had gone out on an illegal strike.
But it was Fed chairman Paul Volcker who had the most profound impact, jacking the prime rate (the most widely reported figure of the time) north of 20% in order to break the back of inflation, sending the country into a steep recession. Here’s a chart of the fed funds rate that gives a picture of the extremity of these rate hikes:
This sent the country into a steep recession that caused massive industrial layoffs. It also did destroy inflation up until the present day, and cleared away the debris of the 70s to create a long and powerful expansion that lasted pretty much up to the dotcom recession of 2000.
The Idea of the McJob
When I was a high school student my first real job was bagging groceries at Winn-Dixie. This wasn’t an unusual experience. I remember as a kid that many adults would tell me with no apparent embarrassment that their first job had been at McDonald’s. Holding a job like this was just part of the cycle of life, much like going into the service used to be.
Two events changed this in the 1980s. The first was the recession, which shattered the illusion of American industrial dominance forever. The whole idea of a good job for life on the assembly line was now seen to be dangerously naive. This is the era when “you absolutely must go to college to succeed in life” meme took hold. It was already clear that the long term trajectory of manufacturing and a middle class job with a high school diploma (or less) was heading to the scrap heap.
The second was the closing of the bootstrap frontier. By this I mean the severe curtailing of the ability of people to work their way up from the bottom in business. How many old school Wall Street types started in the proverbial mail room? A lot of them. My father’s wife started work at age 17 as a teller at a small savings and loan in Louisville. Twenty five years later she was running all of mortgage lending for Fifth Third Bank’s Kentucky operations – all without a college degree. Even today you hear CEOs – usually in their 50s or older – talk about how they started with their company by driving a truck or something.
Those days are largely gone now. While in some industries like retail you can still work your way up, it’s less common, and you’re almost certainly not going to make it without getting a college degree along the way. Nobody on Wall Street is starting in the mail room today. Techies who drop out of school to start companies are starting in effect at the C-level of their organization, or in an otherwise high status position, not a traditional entry level job.
With formerly entry level jobs increasingly ones with no to a limited career path and low pay and benefits, and the only way to career success seen as being through college, a new concept of work started to emerge. In 1986 it was given a name, the “McJob.”
The phrase “McJob” was designed to label a real and important effect, and presciently so as we see today. Namely the bifurcation of the economy. Nevertheless, it went beyond a critique of economic conditions to something more fundamental; it said these were jobs not worth doing and unworthy of human dignity to hold. It eroded the idea of work itself as honorable.
Today I’m amazed how many teenagers and college students don’t work at all, especially not at old school grocery bagging or burger flipping jobs. It seems that you’re better off getting in more extra-curricular activities or doing volunteer work to burnish your resume than actually working, which says something profound.
Strauss and Howe’s Generations
In 1992 Neil Howe and William Strauss published the book Generations. This book took a Vico-like cyclical view of history in which four generational archetypes repeated over time in an endless cycle. This cycle was presented as de facto deterministic unless some severe outside shock interrupted it.
Howe and Strauss coined the term “Millennial Generation” to identify a current instantiation of one of their archetypes. In their cyclical theory, the Millennials were a reincarnation of the Greatest Generation that lived through the Depression and won World War II, leaving modern American prosperity in their wake. The Millennials, they said, would achieve similarly great things. Because of their cyclical theory, this result was presented as an almost historic inevitability, even though the Millenials were still small children.
This concept captured the public imagination in way that led to a change in the way that generation, much of it as yet unborn, was to be raised. Howe and Strauss had already observationally described the “helicopter parenting” of Millennials vs. the latch key kids of Generation X (they would say think “Baby on Board” signs vs. “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Damien Omen II” in which children were literally Antichrists or demonic). This was already underway.
What changed is that Millennials began to be told from nearly birth that they were destined to be nothing less than the salvation of America, that they are more moral, more community spirited than any previous generation, and like the Greatest Generation they would slay the dragons threatening our country, leading us forward into a better brighter future. When Barack Obama said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” he was flattering a particularly Millennial conceit. It’s no surprised they loved him.
The effects this produced in the Millennials have been much written about. But one key one was the sacralization of their own personal desires. After all, if you’re really destined to change the world for the better, society needs to adapt to you, not you to society.
That’s why workplaces in America have bent over backwards to accommodate Millennial preferences. We also see a generation that wants not just to have a job, but a job with meaning. People who would rather do something that creates some sort of public good (like teach in an inner city school) or pursue a particular personal passion than to engage in the soulless search for money.
There’s much that’s good and noble in this. On the other hand, it has redefined work into just another lifestyle accoutrement. Work is no longer primal, central. Rather, it is part of the portfolio of your life. The role of work has become, ultimately, self-actualization and the satisfaction of Millennials’ sacralized personal desires. In that regard, the line between work and play and life have blurred. In part that’s because the notion of work as something you just have to do, something that is part and parcel of being a fully formed adult, no longer exists. Work properly so called must be an extension of your being. Yes, if forced financially, Millennials will work any job they need to. And they are more than willing to engage in productive labor. But their idea of a job is to somehow promote personal growth or self-actualization. You can do work that doesn’t, but it’s second rate – a McJob. Again, this shows the bifurcation not just of income, but in views of work. Some work is worth doing, other work is not.
Though I’m not a Millennial, I should be sure to include myself as well, since I’m writing this blog instead of running multi-million dollar technology projects like I used to. So guilty as charged.
The Dot Com Boom
The last hurrah of the Volcker boom was the dotcom bubble. This was a Gen X and Boomer phenomenon, but it paved the way for the Millennial expectation of work as a fun and fulfilling place, not just a workplace.
Prior to the dotcom boom, I wore a suit to work every day and sat through terrible traffic driving to a client in the suburbs. I can assure you that I would have much rather have been downtown in casual clothes. This desire to be in the center of town didn’t originate with Millennials. But that was simply the way the world worked. We obviously wanted fulfilling and high paying jobs, but we realized that work was after all work. That’s why they paid us – to do things we didn’t want to do, like sit in traffic for hours every week. What’s that they used to say? – that’s why we call it work.
The dotcom bubble changed that. The desperation for talent was so high that anyone who could spell .com could get a job as a programmer. The Silicon Valley tech culture and catering to employees became the norm. It was insane in some ways. My employer used to have a beer cart come by on some afternoons, and that wasn’t unusual. While some of it got dialed back after the collapse, this permanently changed the culture of work.
Perry’s Deli in downtown Chicago used to put up “celebrity boards” of photos Perry took of his customers. In the 1997 board, about 75% of the people were in suits. By the 2000 celebrity board, it was more like 75% casual. It flipped almost overnight like dominoes falling.
This established the idea that employers must cater to the whims of fickle employees or they will cross the street to somewhere better. This concept has persisted as an ideal (e.g, in the “creative class”) even though the bargaining power of labor has collapsed since then. It’s no longer seen that workers should have to endure unpleasantness as part of their jobs or conform to employer expectations around dress, location, or hours. They may do it, but again such compromises are seen as defects, and generally in the employer. An enlightened employer, we think, should instead cater to the desires of employees.
Proletarianization of the Middle Class
The truth is, the economy never really recovered from the dotcom crash. The 2000s recovery was anemic, and we are de facto still in the Great Recession. The macro trend of bifurcation has so proceeded that the income and wealth gaps are now major public issues. This has in effect created two labor markets. One is the narrow high end market which still lives in like it’s the dotcom bubble. The other is everybody else, increasingly squeezed and increasingly low wage, a phenomenon Joel Kotkin has labeled the proletarianization of the middle class.
Those at the bottom are increasingly seen as exploited, and in a sense they are, though mostly by the system rather than by individual employers who are only responding to the new marketplace realities, albeit one in part created by those selfsame firms. But what’s more, in effect any job that doesn’t exhibit the self-actualization ethic of the top tier positions is now viewed as a McJob, regardless of pay. The values of the dotcom bubble and the Millennials have become normative. Work that does not live up to those ideals is seen as unworthy and impugning rather than affirming the dignity of the worker. In short, work itself as traditionally understood is now held in a form of contempt.
We see this in various ways. For example, many of those who advocate for more low skill immigration say that immigrants perform “jobs Americans won’t do.” But Americans did those jobs not long ago. What’s changed about those jobs? The jobs actually haven’t changed, just our attitude towards them. What’s more, if that new attitude is valid, is it moral to expect brown skinned foreigners to do work we think is beneath our dignity? I am a big champion of immigration, but not based on this type of logic.
Or consider the reactions of some on the left to the Congressional Budget Office finding that Obamacare will cause the equivalent of two and a half million people to voluntarily stop working. Europhiles have long bemoaned that America’s don’t take the whole month of August off, but the suggestion of the New York Times that this is “a liberating result of the law” seems a bit extreme. It may well be that there are some with such an extreme hardship that this does make sense, but the whole idea that people need to be liberated from unpleasant choices or tradeoffs related to work implies that work itself is not of that much value. To them it’s better to support people indefinitely on benefits of one sort or another than for people to be forced to work at Wal-Mart or something. The New York Times ideal is an aristocratic one; the aim is not to have to work at all, at least not at anything that isn’t inherently attractive to do.
I think there is indeed a serious problem out there with the quality of jobs and the two tier economy. In fact, I myself recently wrote that some people realistically will need to be supported on benefits indefinitely, and that terminating benefits to force them into $9 an hour is building a plantation economy, something too many on the right have no problem with. So I’m in the mix here. But in attacking legitimate problems, I’m concerned that we’ve undermined a core philosophical underpinning of American success, namely the view of the dignity of work and the ontological equality of labor.
We absolutely must focus on upgrading the quality of jobs. But apart from proposals to increase the minimum wage, there’s been precious little in the way of ideas to boost the fortunes of the middle and working classes. And even there the problem in seeing the inherent value of the worker remains. I don’t see those who advocate a higher minimum wage ever saying a kind word about working for McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, no matter how much those firms pay.
I believe the decline in our view of work is a consequence of economic change more than a philosophical movement per se. Yet the problem is not inherently an economic one. Even if we reverted to the status quo ante in our economy, it’s unlikely we’d change in our basic attitudes.
In my view one of the keys to actually working to change the quality of jobs is to see the worker’s performance of them as again having inherent dignity and worth, that workers are dignified in their labor no matter what job they happen to hold. The people who go to work at Wal-Mart or a warehouse every day reliably, who do their best even at a less than exciting jobs, ought to be seen earning a type of honor. This comes not from the work being done, but the person performing it and the idea of work itself. The difficult choice to take a less than self-actualizing job and doing it well ought to be seen as a better path than benefits or drugs or other alternatives. Of course receiving assistance shouldn’t be stigmatized (I’ve had government benefits myself). Many of those on drugs had circumstances that made it difficult to escape, etc. But ought we not see avoiding that and finding work, even difficult or dull work, as the normative path people should aspire to, not something from which we need to be “liberated”? I think we should.
One organization that figured this out is the military. Why do they make soldiers and such show such exacting performance and attention to detail on ridiculous tasks like making a bed, polishing boots, or swabbing decks? Part of it is instilling discipline no doubt. But part of it is teaching that the nobility of the task comes from that of the warrior, not the nobility of the warrior from that of the task. That’s why generally speaking military roles are held in high esteem both by those performing them and by the public at large, even if our military is often deployed for dubious ends.
Heck, even the communists got it, in their elevating the nobility of the farmer and the laborer, in propaganda if not in practice. This is no doubt part of its great appeal, something we might learn from.
The dignity and honor of work itself needs to once again be held in esteem by Americans. We should rediscover our inner Tocqueville. We must again see all honest occupations as inherently honorable, even McJobs. Work must once again be seen as “the necessary, natural, and honest condition of human existence.” Perhaps then we will actually set about the difficult task of making the work worthy of the regard in which we hold the people in their doing of it, not just moan about it.
This concept of the decline of work first struck me many years ago when I saw a TV commercial that I believe was urging people to go to college. I can’t find it on You Tube and the details are a bit fuzzy, but I believe it starred Larry Bird working as a clerk in a hardware store paint department, presumably a megastore like Home Depot. While mixing paint he would wad up paper and throw it perfectly in the trash can every time. The moral was that if you don’t develop your talents, you could end up mixing paint, and what a terrible fate that would be. But what’s inherently wrong with being a clerk in a hardware store? There was a day not long ago when nobody would have thought twice about it. It was then that I realized something had fundamentally changed in how we looked at work. Update: A commenter informs me that this was actually a commercial for Prodigy internet service from 1999.
Thursday, February 20th, 2014
I’ve got to admit that when I moved to New England from the Midwest, it was a bit of a disappointment. The Midwest tends to get dismissed as flyover country, and to the extent that people have formed an opinion of it at all, it’s generally not super positive: post-industrial, boring, narrow-minded, etc. New England by contrast enjoys a very high reputation and standing in the world as an intellectual and cultural center, as well as a bastion of progressive thinking.
I had spent very little time there, and that mostly in Boston. But my image of it was pretty much what you’d think of as Old England from Masterpiece Theater or something: quaint villages (albeit with Dunkin’ Donuts on the green), manor houses, and sophistication, though perhaps overlaid with an veneer of Boston hostility. In other words, my expectations were pretty high based on New England’s reputation.
Imagine my surprise when I moved there and discovered that it’s exactly like the Midwest in a surprising number of ways. Much of New England is a post-industrial landscape not that dissimilar to the classic Rust Belt, though occasionally with most attractive mill architecture and such. Its village centers have seen better days and even the town centers of places with big reputations are usually nowhere near the league of say Chicago’s nicer suburbs. Though voting Democratic, New Englanders largely display the same sorts of provincial attitudes ones finds in the Midwest. Many places are characterized mostly by lifers and people who don’t get out much. It has an aging population notably lacking in diversity.
I actually found Rhode Island surprisingly similar to where I grew up in Southern Indiana near Louisville. The state’s topography (oceanfront aside) is much like Southern Indiana – rolling hills and trees. Providence is like Louisville, with a smallish super-creative and talented core surrounded by a sea of blue collar communities. The two cities even seem to brag about many of the same things, like top quality restaurants. My brother made a nearly identical observation when he came to visit, exclaiming of West Warwick, “This is just like New Albany!” And he was right.
The same is true of much of the rest of the place. Most of Mass and Connecticut are similar. I grew up in a town called Laconia, Indiana. So naturally I had to visit Laconia, New Hampshire. During one visit to the lake district I took a drive home on US 3 and observed one depressed small town after another, no different from what you’d see driving through the Midwest. Northern New England’s mountains are more scenic than Midwest hills, but there are still plenty of places in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin – including many high quality lakes – which hold up very well.
I should note that the lakes are one area I did see some differences. Midwestern lakes tend to be nouveau riche as it were. Whereas something like Squam Lake has older cabins and such that have often been in families for generations and which were designed to be mostly hidden from view of the lake. People there tend to also love their classic wooden boats, which is definitely old school. This is one place the air of old money elite came through.
But for the most part, I was not overwhelmed. This is not to say that New England is no good. After all, I like the Midwest a lot. So saying that New England is like the Midwest isn’t necessarily an insult coming from me. But what I do find interesting is the radically different reputations of the regions, when they are far more alike than you might think – certainly more alike than say the Midwest and West Coast (or Texas). Clearly history plays a role here. But the present day realities are far different from the era of the Pilgrims. From a civic branding perspective, this shows that marketplace reputation can be in a sense divorced from reality for an extended period of time.
Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
Here’s one that’s been making the rounds of a guy going snowboarding through the streets of New York City. Not as cool as the Detroit urban skiing adventure, but still fun stuff. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
And this week a music break courtesy of Drag City recording artist Joanna Newsom. I’m not sure how to describe her music, but it’s good stuff. This track is called “Good Intentions Paving Company” (a Saul Bellow quote, I believe), from her 2010 album “Have One On Me.” If the You Tube embed doesn’t display, click here:
Tuesday, February 18th, 2014
[ Providence, Rhode Island was spared some of the worst of the urban renewal disasters and has a lot of intact neighborhoods. But there have still been some not entirely positive changes in the urban fabric in others. One such neighborhood is Olneyville. As you can see in this aerial, there's an old mostly intact neighborhood commercial center at the core, though with areas of demolition. The area is also cut off by a freeway.
In the piece below Jef Nickerson discusses a proposal for a strip mall in the area that would further degrade the urban fabric. (It's near the bottom left of the photo above). This is sadly what happens in many struggling areas where a desperate city approves suburban style "redevelopment" that's actually destructive to the only things giving the neighborhood appeal in the first place.
As an aside, I believe this development is across the street from the legendary Olneyville New York System Wieners. Somewhat oddly, the term "New York System" actually means "Rhode Island style." Here's a picture of the classic, complete with cheese fries and coffee milk (like chocolate milk, but made with coffee flavored syrup - another Rhode Island classic).
Rendering of proposed McDonald’s and Family Dollar store on Plainfield Street in Olneyville.
After learning of plans for a drive-thru McDonald’s proposed on Plainfield Street in Olneyville, I requested plans for the proposal from the Planning Department.
The developer is seeking master plan approval from the City Plan Commission for the construction of a McDonald’s and Family Dollar store in a separate building on a site which was cleared of existing structures last year.
Per the CPC agenda, the applicant seeks relief from front yard setbacks (they are requesting to set the building further from the street than allowed) and also for a special use permit for a drive thru for the McDonald’s. The applicant plans for a total of 56 parking spaces on the site (per the plans, 19 parking spaces in two rows between Plainfield Street and the Family Dollar Store). The McDonald’s is situated on a corner lot (Plainfield and Dike) with the drive thru lane wrapping around the building between it and the sidewalk. Pedestrian access to the McDonald’s is proposed to be via two crosswalks across the drive thru lanes and a third crosswalk from the Family Dollar store across the parking lot. Direct off-road pedestrian access to the Family Dollar store is only provided via crosswalks from the McDonald’s or via sidewalks crossing a driveway entrance on the Atwood side of the parcel.
According to ProvPlan, as of the 2000 census (the most recent data available) 59.5% of households in the Olneyville area have automobiles this compares to 52.5% Downcity. With such low car-ownership numbers, the residents of Olneyville are highly dependent on public transit, walking, and bicycles. Buildings separated from these forms of transit by parking lots with drive thru lanes are not the best way to serve this population. Olneyville is a major traffic artery to points west where car ownership rates are much higher (~80% in Hartford and Silver Lake). The residents of Olneyville should not be further burdened with automobile infrastructure catering to people outside their community.
The removal of the buildings at this site has widened a widened a gap in the street-wall along the south-side of Plainfield Street and Olneyville Square which only had small gaps between the Route 6 overpass and the eastern end of the square. For generations Olneyville has fallen victim to the automobile, first the highways, them the retail mindset that set in in the middle of the last century with places like the former Price Rite plaza, the car wash on Westminster, the Burger King with a drive thru and 60 parking spaces, and the gas station across from this site.
The Olneyville community has been working hard to bring street-life back to the square and Olneyville Housing are providing homes for residents who can walk to this area. Allowing auto-centric design at the southwest side of the square will make that area dead to walkability for generations more, just as we’re making progress on reversing prior generations of damage.
This isn’t about the proposed retailers (though I’m sure we could have a long discussion about the food choices we have in lower-income neighborhoods), this is about their physical manifestation in the neighborhood.
This post originally appeared in Greater City Providence on January 15, 2014.
Wednesday, February 12th, 2014
Rust Wire pointed me at this video from mid-2012 called “Saving East Cleveland” that was created by residents of that community. Angie Schmitt was struck by the lack of outward blame residents have, and so was I. Before getting to the film, a few of my observations and takeaways.
First, as noted there is a singular lack of blaming of outside forces for the decline of East Cleveland. While Angie highlights the sprawl narrative, I think there’s a more important element at play: race. Clearly race relations played a huge role in how East Cleveland ended up in its current condition. Yet this video shows a remarkable lack of animus about that, even where it might be legitimate. I found this a profound rebuke of those who stereotype black America as walking around looking to play the race card.
I see the attitude and approach of the people in the video as grounded in a clear-eyed, realistic understanding of the fact that no one is coming to save East Cleveland (a separate municipality, not the east side of Cleveland). Though it appears to be not that far from the university, medical and cultural district of Cleveland, this isn’t a place that seems likely to attract the attention of local billionaires or regional bigwigs or state government. All those actors are focused on saving Cleveland itself, and as is commonly the case, only select districts of that. If there are any solutions for East Cleveland, they are going to have to come from inside the city.
There’s a standard Rust Belt narrative of loss. But what we see here, unlike with white flight suburbanites, is a keen sense of the loss of social capital as embodied by their grandparents’ generation and the values it held. They understand the pernicious effect this loss of social capital has had on their community. (Incidentally, we witnessing the exact same dynamic of loss playing out in many parts of white America today – I even see it in my own family).
What then is left to start turning around East Cleveland? Only one thing: self-improvement. I see the film maker as trying to recreate that lost social capital by calling people to accept responsibility for their lives and their community. The lists of accomplishments recited before the interviewees says it clearly: these are successful role models from East Cleveland. It is possible conduct yourself well and succeed as a man or woman here. This is what we need to be as a community. Step it up.
In a sense, while a tougher road, neighborhood improvement through internal development may be more beneficial for the residents. How is neighborhood “improvement” generally implemented in America today? By substituting new residents for the old (gentrification). This might improve real estate values, but I’m not sure it improves the lives of those who originally lived in the area, unless they managed to reap windfall real estate gains.
Instead of gentrifying the neighborhood, the film maker says we should in effect gentrify the people. This is evident in how they view as successes – not traitors – those from East Cleveland who made it in life but ended up leaving.
This documentary is 40 minutes so you may want to watch it on TV. Unlike the typical film of Detroit or wherever filmed by (often out of town) upscale whites, this is a film by and for the black residents of East Cleveland. Definitely worth a watch. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Pete Saunders also posted a take on it.
Wednesday, January 29th, 2014
The American Bible Society does an annual survey related to what they call “bible mindedness.” The latest results were just released and I was surprised at the amount of media airplay it got, including sites like Time Magazine and Likecool. But perhaps it should be easy to see as this is the type of analysis that can appeal regardless of where you stand on God.
But I found their results and methodology questionable in terms of supporting the conclusions the media drew from it. Here’s the chart (click to enlarge):
Time called this a list of “the most godless cities in America” but in fact it is nothing of the sort. The survey measures instead “bible mindedness,” which they measure using frequency of reading it and a degree of belief in its accuracy. In order to be considered “bible minded” you have to have read the bible within the last seven days and strongly agree that it’s accurate.
This immediately raised a caution flag to me. Obviously it is Christian oriented (though the question set is designed to capture Jewish scripture reading). But the bible minded definition is clearly Protestant-centric. Perhaps I generalize, but historically even devout Catholics tended not to read the bible regularly. My Italian grandfather may have been the most devout Catholic I ever met. Until his very old age he went to mass every single day, said the rosary three times a day, and other things like that. But I never once saw him read a bible.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that the least bible minded metro in America in this survey is Providence, because Rhode Island is either the first or second most Catholic state in America, depending on the survey you use. Whereas the most bible minded city, Chattanooga, is in the least Catholic state. (See this HuffPo piece for some stats. Pew says Rhode Island is 43% Catholic, though how many are practicing is another question).
Practicing Catholics believe in the bible, but don’t generally interact with the text in the same way Protestants do. As a result, surveys that focus heavily on personal bible reading shouldn’t be used as a proxy for Christian religiosity in general, hence most of the conclusions that have been drawn from it are likely wrong.
Thursday, January 23rd, 2014
My latest post is online over at New Geography and is called “How Houston’s Missing Media Gene Hobbles Its Ambitions.” In it I contrast San Francisco and Houston as representative champions of two different models of both urban development, and future vision for the US economy. But while San Francisco has risen to the challenge, Houston has largely not because it has failed to tell its story to the world. That’s in part because it feels no need to self-promote and especially focus on getting its narrative out via the media.
Here’s an excerpt:
The second big divergence relates to media. After all, the media, understood broadly, is how we come to have knowledge about or opinions of many things. Simply put, San Francisco and the tech industry get the power of media, while Houston doesn’t.
The content creators may still prefer a New York, LA, or DC but the tech moguls are circling the last redoubts of entertainment and information. Apple now has a dominant position in content distribution for music and is expanding in other areas. Google generates huge advertising revenues that are greater than the entire newspaper and magazine industry. Despite its many troubles, Yahoo remains one of the most-visited news sites. Meanwhile in just last year or two, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has bought the venerable New Republic while Seattle’s Jeff Bezos recently bought the Washington Post. Pierre Omidyar, founder of Ebay, recently announced a $250 million new media venture featuring Glenn Greenwald.
Houston, by contrast, has close to zero media influence or impact and seems not to care. It’s much less an influencer of media than one whose reputation has been shaped by it, and often not in a good way. Though there are many sprawl dominated metropolises in America, it’s Houston that has become the bête noire of urbanists.
One commenter highlights a point I wish I’d made. Gary B contrasts Houston with Atlanta, where Ted Turner built a media empire. Here’s what he had to say:
To my mind, the more interesting straight-up comparison is Houston to Atlanta. They are both new cities, roughly comparable in size (in the 5-6+ million range) and growing at roughly the same rate; they share much the same Southern background and climate (though Houston is more diverse, drawing immigrants from a much greater portion of the world) and political orientation (thoroughly conservative leadership class, but emerging liberal demographics beneath, at least in the central cities). So why has most national press about Atlanta over recent decades been glowingly positive while those about Houston have been mostly negative? A great deal of it has to do with media presence. Atlanta has had Ted Turner’s media empire, and to a great extent has broadcast its own version of its story nationwide; Houston has left its image to be determined by often envious media empires located thousands of miles away.