Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Changes in alcohol laws are the second thing Carbondale, Illinois and Hopkinsville, Kentucky have in common. The first? Each town is the tourism hotbed for an upcoming solar eclipse.
On August 21, a total solar eclipse will begin in Oregon and end in South Carolina. It’s the first since 1776 to only be visible in the U.S. At its point of greatest duration—where the eclipse will last the longest—you’ll find Carbondale. And the point of greatest eclipse—where more of the sun will be covered—centers on Hopkinsville.
Evidently, a total solar eclipse is something to travel for. Because 80 percent of Americans live within 600 miles of the eclipse path, Carbondale expects 100,000 visitors and Hopkinsville 50,000.
Some of those people may want a drink. In anticipation of the eclipse—and the tourism dollars it can bring—both areas have reassessed their liquor laws.
In January, Carbondale’s city council “passed a resolution that temporarily suspended the public possession of alcohol,” says City Manager Gary Williams, explaining people can buy alcohol in a plastic cup and carry it around downtown from 11:00 am to 11:00 pm. But before you grab your Tupperware stein and pack your bags, be aware that the new resolution only covers eclipse weekend—and you have to buy your beer from a downtown merchant.
In Christian County, Kentucky—of which Hopkinsville’s the seat—County Judge/Executive Steve Tribble also looked into an eclipse-weekend-only change. “The [Christian County] Chamber of Commerce is putting a full-court press on,” he says, explaining that local business leaders want souvenir bottle sales permitted at craft distilleries on Sundays. With the eclipse on a Monday, the chamber hopes Sunday sales will increase tourist spend.
So why alcohol? Carbondale and Hopkinsville aren’t in cahoots. In fact, neither Williams nor Tribble knew the other’s government was considering changes until contacted by your correspondent. When given the same opportunity, why did two similarly-sized towns in two different states independently reconsider their liquor laws? “I don’t know” is the initial answer of both.
The deeper answer is about identity: What do Hopkinsville and Carbondale want to be?
In the past, says Mayor Carter Hendricks, Hopkinsville’s nickname was “Little Chicago.” When asked what that means, he answers, “Not positive…That we were poor…that our diversity was an issue, not a strength.” The eclipse, though, is Hopkinsville’s chance to rebrand. “If I said ‘Little Chicago’ was the old brand, I’m saying we wanna be ‘Little Nashville’ as the new brand.”
Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, is slightly more than an hour’s drive from Hopkinsville and the smaller city hopes to emulate its neighbor by becoming an arts and music hub. Christian County Fiscal Court recently passed a transient room tax that benefits—among other things—The Alhambra, a performing arts theatre. And the city’s Little River Days festival has been reengineered as Summer Salute, which Carter hopes will become “a signature, regional music festival.”
Carbondale’s holding its own eclipse music festival as well, and music is the identity trait Williams focuses on. He hopes the city’s open container change will become a permanent one. “What we want to do is get back to where we are more of an entertainment destination for the region,” he says, sharing that decades ago Carbondale was known for drawing national acts. Elvis and Bob Dylan played there, “and a lot of people within the region talk about that and they wonder what happened and why doesn’t Carbondale have these types of events anymore, so the current council is focused on getting back to that.”
Beer and concerts are synonymous, Williams says, just as bourbon and Kentucky are, according to Tribble.
According to Williams, Carbondale’s change has been embraced by the community. When asked if any residents had religious or health objections, he answers no, explaining how loosening the open-carry law actually makes eclipse weekend easier for Carbondale police. Now officers “don’t have to worry about bar checks as much” and can focus on more important matters.
Carbondale used to have a Halloween festival where open container was the norm, so its change brings the city back to that. But Sunday distillery sales would be brand new for Christian County. Hopkinsville has Sunday liquor-by-the-drink, a loophole common in the South that allows restaurants to sell alcohol in proportion with the amount of food served and how many seats they have. Before this passed, Tribble says, “Those that were opposed to it said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna have so many wrecks and we’re gonna have so many DUIs’…Not one thing happened. There hasn’t been a single arrest because of it…All of that negative just didn’t happen.”
Despite prior success, passing the new law still isn’t easy. “We’re in the Bible Belt,” says Tribble, “That’s just the way it’s been,” highlighting how civic and individual identity can be at odds. Towns want progress, but people hate change.
With six months between now and the eclipse, the fiscal court’s voting window is open-ended. “[The Chamber] certainly would like to be able to do it by the time the eclipse gets here because we’ll have such a huge crowd and influx of people.”
Alcohol or no alcohol, neither music city expects tourists to get too crazy. “They’re scientists,” Williams says. Ask him if alcohol will make a difference in their decision to come to Carbondale or Hopkinsville, and he says no. And Tribble? “For some people it does.”
Terena Bell is a freelance journalist writing most often on tech, entertainment, public affairs, and the Great American Total Solar Eclipse. A Kentucky native, she is based in New York.
There has been a lot of publicity about how the imposition of “growth boundaries” on metropolitan areas often succeeds mainly in driving up the price of land within the boundaries. But companies and employers often impose their own “growth boundaries” by where they choose to locate, or not locate.
A person with a car will be unlikely, for example, to drive to a job more than two hours away—and many will avoid driving more than one hour! A person without a car either depends on the punctuality and reliability of their transit system, or if that is not an option, is perhaps limited in her job choices to a six-mile radius, if that. (That’s rather arbitrary. I don’t think we need to have affordable housing absolutely everywhere, but I think we need to have it within six miles of everywhere. There are a few locations, like coastlines and view lots, that will never get that affordable no matter how much we build.) And in today’s economy, people other than very young adults probably change jobs more often than they do residences.
In the 1970s and ’80s, “edge cities,” which were usually not urbanist or only minimally so, sprouted outside many of our cities. The granddaddy of them all was, of course, the Irvine Ranch. The central and eastern half of Los Angeles, that is downtown and the San Gabriel Valley, was half drained of much of its business and its higher-end workforce as they relocated to “edge cities” of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, and Irvine.
In 1977, Los Angeles Magazine did a feature story on “The Ripening of Orange County: How It’s Stealing the LA Dream.” East Side Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley did recover, to become something different from what they had been before, thanks to mass immigration, the installation of a Metro system, and the changing tastes of young hipsters toward a more urban style of life—at least before they have kids! (What they will do after they have kids is up to debate, but there is always another younger generation coming up.)
I have called this vast movement to the Irvine Ranch and nearby areas the Secessio Patriciorum, or the Secession of the Patricians. It also had the effect of giving Hollywood and the entertainment industries greater political and cultural dominance in Los Angeles than they had had before. Before the Secessio, finance, insurance, and real estate dominated downtown and San Gabriel Valley life and were a serious political and financial rival to Hollywood.
But then growth and affordability issues caused the urban frontier to advance into the Inland Empire and the Antelope Valley. There are some innovative malls and urban centers in the Inland Empire’s northern portion, most specifically Victoria Gardens. There is a lot of industrial and warehouse space around Ontario Airport, but we have not seen the kind of higher-end employers that cluster around John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Temecula has secured some jobs, but still large numbers of its people have to drive in both directions, north and south, to find work. And Lancaster-Palmdale had its aerospace plants, but I think they have not added jobs, to say the least. Nor are there that many good jobs in the Victorville-Apple Valley-Hesperia urban cluster; many of the working people must cross Cajon Pass to work, and often another range of hills.
The situation, as usual, is even starker in the Bay Area. There is a cluster of commuter suburbs around Stockton, Manteca, Tracy, and Modesto. Some have raised concern about “destruction of agricultural land,” but even if there is a shortage of good agricultural land, there is to the east of the agriculture territory a long stretch of rolling grassland that has never been of much use for crops. But I don’t see the good burghers of Silicon Valley jumping over the hill with their job sites to follow many of their workers who live there. If anything, the up-and-coming place for employment in the tech industry is now the city of San Francisco.
Back south, there is a huge stretch of flat and developable land stretching from Palmdale past California City and as far as Barstow. There is plenty of room there (though water may be an issue). But unless a lot of good jobs head out that way, it will be too far to commute. So employers, by no longer following their workers to the more affordable suburbs, are actually imposing their own “growth boundaries” by the limits of a sane commute.
Christopher Leinberger may have originated the theory of the Favored Quarter, which has to be taken into account. This idea says that high-end employers and the affluent do not disperse from the central city in all directions, but rather in one specific direction; suburban expansion in other directions is geared to the less affluent, and there are not likely to be Edge Cities or a lot of good jobs outside the Favored Quarter. The theory of the Favored Quarter needs to be taken into account by anyone dealing with urban issues.
Los Angeles has shifted its Favored Quarter between the two world wars. In the early 20th century the Favored Quarter clearly ran northeast from downtown through Pasadena and along the foothills. A mark of this is the line of colleges that still remain; starting with Occidental, then Cal Tech, Azusa Pacific, La Verne, the Claremont College complex, and on to Redlands University at the far end. But by mid-century the Favored Quarter had shifted westward, through Beverly Hills and toward Santa Monica. (Despite the high-end nature of Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica was considered quite uncool as late as my youth.) Now the spillover of the high-tech industry (by Bay Area standards, Los Angeles is a little bit “affordable”) in the form of Snapchat and others, has formed Silicon Beach, in precisely that part of the city that is harder to reach from most of Southern California than downtown is. Silicon Joshua Tree, anyone?
As far as I know, Los Angeles is unique historically for having shifted the direction of its Favored Quarter, but I am willing to be corrected on this. Perhaps some other American city has had the same experience.
Howard Ahmanson lives in Orange County, California, and has a passion for urbanism and housing issues.
Once the urban freeway was unmistakably part of a vision of the future, one in which personal automobiles zipped through neighborhoods without having to stop or interact with the streets above or below. But over the past two decades, many cities have found that running highways through dense areas has done more harm than good—and they’re increasingly opting to tear them down.
Late last month, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) released its latest edition of “Freeways Without Futures,” a report on efforts to remove parts of underused highways in ten American cities. The study underscores the role locals are playing in the replacement movement and also outlines the many benefits of having fewer highways running through dense urban areas.
The report contends that the cores of American cities have seen a massive hollowing out since the passing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956. “As highways were built through existing communities,” the report begins, “residents were cut off from social and economic centers, key resources and services, and the nearby destinations of their daily lives.”
Today, many of those highways are reaching the end of their design life and cities are facing what CNU calls a “watershed moment.” Instead of rebuilding and repairing old highways, the report suggests cities should replace them with infrastructure that is pedestrian friendly, density prone, and extremely profitable. “Cities are waking up to a simple solution: remove instead of replace.”
CNU highlights the replace movements in ten cities across the country, many of them driven by everyday citizens who don’t want to see certain highways expanded or repaired. Suggesting alternatives to expansion isn’t easy. In many cases, activists must conduct their own research, design a replacement plan, and recruit local officials. Then begins the lengthy process of securing funding and ironing out implementation logistics.
Each city included in the report is at a different stage of removal. While activists in Oakland and Dallas are pushing steadily through the research phase, efforts in Detroit are stuck for a lack of funding. Meanwhile, fill-in construction on the Inner Loop in Rochester started last 2014 and should be completed by the end of this year.
Each city included also faces a unique set of challenges. In Denver, citizens are battling their state Department of Transportation to prevent an expansion of I-70. They’ve proposed an alternative that—unlike the city’s plan—would not involve expanding the derelict highway (at a cost of $1.8 billion) or destroying dozens of houses and businesses in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But the city is fighting back, arguing that the highway is essential for commuters. In Buffalo, efforts have been more successful. The citizen-led initiative to redesign parts of the Scajaquada Expressway earned the attention and financial support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who directed $30 million towards the effort last March, telling local press it was time to “undo a mistake.”
Tearing out a highway is costly on many levels. Coordinating various agencies requires political flexibility. Fiscally, replacement proposals cost millions of dollars and require an ability to focus on long-term over short-term gains. Culturally, they require a shift in design priorities: fewer cars on the street, more people. The report explores these struggles, yet also emphasizes the many benefits of replacement.
First, there’s the potential of significant economic gain. In Dallas, researchers found that replacing parts of I-345 would generate $4 billion for the city over fifteen years and bring 22,550 jobs to the area. In Trenton, if efforts to replace Route 29 with a riverwalk are successful, the city’s downtown could attract up to $2.25 billion of investment. Replacing highways could also make possible more mixed-use development and affordable housing, desperately needed in places like San Francisco. It could also improve neighborhood safety and decrease pollution.
CNU also suggests that replacing underused highways could be a chance to undo the damage they have wrought upon “the physical and economic health of low-income and minority residents.” But while reconciliation is indeed a possibility, so also is displacement. Sam Warlick, the communications director at CNU, acknowledged this possibility. “Any kind of positive change in a neighborhood (also) runs the risk of cultural and economic displacement,” he said. Communities that embrace replacement, he explained, could prevent drastic displacement by pairing their infrastructure investment with community investment. “We would hope that anti-displacement efforts and initiatives to share the prosperity would be baked into the process from the beginning.”
Tiffany Owens, a journalist currently based in Providence, R.I, is a New Yorker at heart.
The American dream used to involve a house on a green lot with a white picket fence out front. But increasingly many homeowners are opting for six-foot-tall privacy fences, completely screening their residences from the street. Taken singly, such a practice would be harmless eccentricity, but as a larger trend is indicative of the increasing isolation Americans experience from each other, as well as a blight on their neighborhoods.
Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass. runs west from Harvard Square towards Watertown. It’s known as Tory Row because before the American Revolution the few Massachusetts colonists who were Anglican gentry built their estates on it. During the Revolution they remained loyal to Britain and were largely forced to go to Canada. But some of the houses they left, as well as houses built by the later elite of Cambridge, still exist—and are sterling examples of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture. Or they would be if they could be seen.
Many of the houses along both sides of the street are hidden from view by tall privacy fences or dense plantings. The exceptions are a more recent-looking building which is home to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and a National Historic Site—a house that George Washington used as his military headquarters and that was later the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
It’s difficult to understand why. Sometimes it would appear that such fences are built against the noise of a busy road, but this is not the case with Brattle Street or other slow and quiet lanes. One house in the area has a four-foot fence in the front, but the street-facing windows are narrow and about six feet off the ground. They are eerily reminiscent of the embrasures or arrowslits of Medieval fortifications.
Some people have chosen to fence off their homes for security purposes. Anna Daniels of the San Diego Free Press wrote in 2013 that she and her husband built a fence in the front of their property to protect against theft and keep out hostile people asking for money. But this explanation again fails to satisfy in Cambridge, where crime is low and people almost never close the gates across the driveways anyway.
According to Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune, front yard fences prevent neighborhood children from playing games and provide an “illusion of added security” while making “the streetscape look like a collection of mini-compounds rather than a community.”
Rather, the phenomenon seems to indicate a withdrawal from public life. A fence stops people from looking in, but it can also prevent people from looking out. One need not concern oneself with anything on the street if one cannot see it. Social ties born of proximity and place become irrelevant. There are few “third spaces” in the neighborhood of Brattle Street and even if there were more, the automobile allows the residents to avoid interaction with each other just as if there were none. A house ceases to be a castle and becomes its own self-contained universe.
Is an area of such kings of infinite space bound up in nutshells even still a neighborhood? Maybe not.
Again, all these walls might be harmless eccentricities, but they have consequences. For one thing, we are all deprived of the ability to view fine historic architecture and by replacing it with what amounts to a featureless curtain wall, the street is made boring. This discourages walking, encourages cars to speed and, as neuroscientist Colin Ellard wrote in Aeon in 2015, boredom increases stress, addiction, and disease, and decreases intellectual activity.
“The real risks of bad design might lie less in unhappy streets filled with unmotivated pedestrians, and more in the amassing of a population of urban citizens with epidemic levels of boredom,” Ellard wrote.
The uses of trees and bushes as privacy fences can also encroach on public life by actively taking away pedestrian space when property owners don’t take care of their plantings that face the street. Pedestrians should not be forced to step into the street because cedar trees or creeping vines are taking over the sidewalk.
In less wealthy neighborhoods than Brattle Street, such fencing not only prevents there being “eyes on the street,” (in Jane Jacobs’ famous phrase), but quickly attracts the signs of blight from graffiti and litter, making walking not only boring but potentially unpleasant or dangerous.
The interaction between buildings and street life are no less important in residential neighborhoods than they are in downtown and mixed-use districts. Liveliness might be a quality reserved for downtown, but that doesn’t mean all neighborhoods can’t be friendly and pleasant to walk through.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
When I hear the term “smart cities,” I think of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film, Metropolis. The 1927 classic portrays an Art Deco landscape of wealthy industrialists reigning from high-rise towers over masses of catacomb-dwelling uniformed workers who labor underground to keep the city’s huge turbine-driven machines humming. (If you’ve never seen it, it’s visually fantastic, especially with the new soundtrack.)
The builders of contemporary master-planned cities—the Middle East’s Dubai, Asia’s Songdo, or India’s Gurgaon—are smart in some sense. To be sure, these places draw on top talent in their architects, planners, and environmental consultants. They in turn create luxury districts where technology enables a gleaming and growing mix of oligopoly, exploitation, and surveillance.
These arrangements create stark contrasts. As architect Douglas Kelbaugh told James Howard Kunstler, he spent two years in Dubai designing billion of dollars’ worth of “perfume bottle” (beautifully vapid) skyscrapers and abandoned urban projects the size of Manhattan Island—all while encountering daily the thousands of low-wage workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China needed to create this immense Ponzi scheme of the most luxurious city-state on the planet.
But Dubai’s private buses full of mostly manual workers paid $5 a day are only superficially different from Songdo’s legions of programmers and developers: both groups are meant to be invisible and disposable elements in the workings of a neoliberal urbanism with endless ambitions to create a city-state which looks like—in Kunstler’s sardonic phrase—“yesterday’s tomorrow.”
A key aspect of the “smart cities” movement is the promise of personal technology to create new economic opportunities. But the fact is that no sharing actually goes on in most of what’s called the sharing economy—companies such as Uber, AirBnB, Lyft and TaskRabbit extract value from contract employees, not in the service of some dewy-eyed mutualistic scheme, but rather for the benefit of perfectly conventional Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The latter process is sometimes called “Uberization.”
It turns out that the sharing economy is mostly about exploitation of workers and earning yourself an enforced membership in the precariat, that mass of short-term (“flexible”) contract employees who now make up about 40 percent of the worldwide labor force.
These are people who live precariously with no guarantee of a job beyond the short-term, generally less than 40 hours of paid work per week, as well as no unions or industry regulation to speak of, given the dramatic disparity in bargaining power here. Where is this all going, we may well wonder.
To take only one set of dark projections, in Average Is Over, economist Tyler Cowen foresees a future in which a tiny meritocracy makes millions while the rest of us struggle on anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. It already works quite well in Mexico, Cowen quips.
If you happen to be a millennial or know one, then you’re probably familiar with the issues around digital work. But this economic threat to our democracy—the Internet as an inequality machine—is bigger than one generation. It’s in the process of overturning the traditional rights of workers going back to the 19th century. And it’s quickly scooping in oceans of our personal data—a form of personal property—in order to leverage that asset into creating even more value for the few owners of the digital platforms now driving a large proportion of our lives (Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc.).
Thus we see the rise of a new movement employing an old rallying cry: platform cooperativism, a marriage of the historic cooperative model of business and digital platforms aimed at bringing genuine democracy to the internet, especially in the form of distributed ownership. The urgent goal of these activists and entrepreneurs is nothing less than to reset the norms and culture of work.
What if Uber drivers set up their own platform, or if a city’s residents controlled their own version of Airbnb? How about if enough Twitter users got together to buy the company in order to share its ownership?
The latter idea comes from Nathan Schneider, co-editor of one of the best guides to this emerging area Ours to Hack and To Own. It’s a fascinating collection of not-all-that-techy articles on cooperative initiatives to resist the cooptation of the Internet.
Platform cooperativism is simply communal ownership (with roughly 170 years of cooperative movement history) brought together with today’s notions of democratic governance. The term platform, as the editors explain, “refers to places where we hang out, work, tinker and generate value after we switch on our phones or computers.”
Principles of cooperativism are well developed and plenty of impressive examples exist worldwide, from the Mondragon Corporation in Spain (actually a network of coop enterprises employing over 74,000 people) to the dozens of consumer, agricultural and healthcare coops in Italy’s economically resilient Emiglia-Romagna region. In this country, some 30,000 coops contribute an estimated $154 billion to our national income.
Further, coops—values-based businesses that operate for member benefit—have a lower failure rate than conventional businesses, are more likely to promote community growth (via local ownership), can have low startup costs, and help stabilize communities in their role as business anchors by multiplying local expertise and social capital.
We’re talking not about socialism but a form of capitalism—algorithmic capitalism—and how to create more capitalists, people who are genuinely owners. We’re also talking about formulating the first charter of workers’ rights for the growing but invisible digital labor force.
Another important topic addressed here—and a key part of “digital commoning”—is that of countering the corporate, surveillance-driven model of the smart city being promoted by big tech companies. Thus models of public ownership of civic data are needed in order to foster new forms of social innovation.
Notable contributors to this collection include Douglas Rushkoff (Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus), Juliet Schor (Plenitude: the New Economics of True Wealth), Yochai Benkler (Wealth of Networks), Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation), Saskia Sassen (Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy), David Bollier (Think Like a Commoner), and co-editor Trebor Scholz (Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy).
(To follow developments in the platform cooperativism movement, I recommend the clearinghouse website platformcoop.net, which is loaded with resources.)
Building cities that enable true human flourishing—and utilizing new technology to make it happen—is possible. But we must recognize the pitfalls of handing control to a few unaccountable companies. The city that can capitalize on platform cooperativism may yet outsmart the master planners.
Elias Crim is the founder of Solidarity Hall, a group blog focused on renewing civil society.
The typical upper-class Englishman is as near to a Perpetual Schoolboy as can be imagined. At Harrow, they go in for the following expression of lacrimae rerum:
Forty years on, when afar and asunder
Parted are those who are singing today,
When you look back and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play,
Then it may be there will often come o’er you
Glimpses of notes, like the catch of a song;
Visions of boyhood shall float them before you,
Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along.
(Refrain): Follow up! Follow up! Follow up! Follow up!
Follow up, till the field ring again and again
With the tramp of the 22 men!
(The reference “22” denotes two cricket teams, it being almost impossible for an upper-class Englishman to differentiate reality from cricket, as it is totally impossible for numerous Americans of every class to differentiate reality from Hollywood.)
In even the most Anglophile of Australian boarding schools, such singalongs are probably unknown. Nonetheless, the particular pathos that clings to the end of a school year knows neither economic boundaries nor geographical limits. A modified version of it can afflict even that lowliest of educational phyla, the Melbourne school crossing guard. Which is where I came in.
As I write, the Southern Hemisphere is now experiencing early summer. (It would be a useful exercise to ascertain just how many policy wonks at the State Department, how many presidential candidates, have discerned this simple truth.) This means that the Australian school year finishes in December, and the great chunk of down-time which Americans and Europeans associate with the middle of the calendar year is in Australia inextricably tied with Christmas. (Australians have no Thanksgiving, the concept of gratitude being basically so alien to the national ethos as to resist all attempts—however otherwise successful—at Coca-Colonization.)
Sports teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, mathematics teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, science teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, history teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, so what does the mere school crossing guard get? If he is lucky, he will get a Yuletide bottle of wine and an invitation to the school barbecue.
He is paid solely for the hours that he works, so when there is no work, there is no pay. Not altogether surprisingly, this increases in his eyes the general end-of-year pathos.
That the school administrators have expressly informed him of their desire to have him return in 2017 does not noticeably ameliorate his financial unease. He hopes that enough office-cleaning employment or some other remuneration in the service industries will tide him over until the little tykes trudge back, protesting, to their classrooms on January 31.
What, then, have five months as a school crossing guard taught me about life, the universe, and everything? In my answer to this question I can do no better than quote Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, who, in a supreme expression of what Alistair Cooke once called “diplomatic fuzz,” responded to an urgent inquiry with the words “It depends.”
Perhaps, though, a few disjointed thoughts can, if expressed in point form, do duty for a reasoned disquisition on the topic.
That silliest-sounding of 1960s bromides has surprising validity still: “The kids are all right.” I have not encountered a solitary instance of genuine rudeness directed at me by kids at the school crossing. Actually I have encountered very few instances of genuine rudeness directed at me by anyone, but I had previously assumed that with the youngsters there might be a Lord of the Flies—or, if female, Mean Girls—element controlling their behavior. After all, Victoria’s education system did not need Lake Wobegon to convince it of the insane fallacy that “all the kids are above average.”
Not a bit of it. I made a particular holiday in my heart when one boy, who appeared to be no more than six or seven years of age, told me (apropos of absolutely nothing) “You’re doing a good job, keeping people safe on the road.”
But the single most memorable, and most moving, comment directed at me came when, one afternoon, another lad—also no more than six or seven—saw me putting away my STOP sign and my children-crossing flags. Mindful of the fact that in Australia (as in Britain) the STOP sign’s similarity to a gigantic lollipop causes the school crossing guard to be colloquially known as a “lollipop man”—or, if female, “lollipop lady”—this lad grinned from ear to ear and yelled: “HELLO, LOLLIPOP DUDE!”
You can fool adults, and goodness knows you can fool millions of American (or Australian) voters purporting to be adults; but as every actor, conjurer, and daycare center manager knows, you cannot fool kids. General James Wolfe, famously, is supposed to have said that he would rather have written Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard than conquered Quebec. I would rather be known as a Lollipop Dude than as any kind of writer, however lucrative, or any kind of guru, however worshiped.
Most Melbourne drivers appear to have obtained their licenses from cornflakes packets. Many of the mothers I encounter, far from validating the myth of female drivers as indecisive and slow—a myth which has more to do with the ancient Bob Newhart comedy sketch about driving lessons than with the visible world as it turns in 21st-century Australia—are the most consistently reckless behind the steering wheel.
To watch these mothers careening past is to recollect P.J. O’Rourke’s description of the car horn as “the Egyptian brake pedal.” Often their motoring aggression will be exacerbated by the way in which they have only one hand on the wheel, the other clutching a cellphone.
The existence, clearly signposted, of a 20-kilometers-per-hour speed limit at this school crossing —as at all Melbourne school crossings—is not for a moment suspected, let alone perceived, by more than about 10 percent of drivers. I fail to understand why Victoria’s cash-strapped left-wing state government does not simply conceal a speed camera at the school, thereby assuring itself of endless revenue-raising. It need not fear a political backlash, since no-one in the relevant suburb will ever vote for a left-wing administration anyhow. The locals’ idea of financial hardship tends to involve after-hours repair costs for a malfunctioning spare jacuzzi.
At this school crossing, angry white men have stopped being angry white men, but they still can’t dress properly. The more bizarre sights afforded each day to a crossing guard in this neighborhood include the spectacular contrast between the women and the men in terms of attire. Granted, the difference is more apt to reveal itself in Australia generally than it is in America. In my experience of American environments, males and females dress either equally well (as in the average Beltway office) or equally badly (as when pillaging Walmart).
Yet where I serve as guard, the contrast becomes fantastically well marked. One is tempted to wonder how sexual congress between the two categories can be tenable at all.
With a few exceptions, the kids’ mothers look as if they are doing a good imitation of Taylor Swift. Never is a hair or a fingernail out of place; never is a blouse un-ironed; seldom will even the most cynical eye be rewarded with the sight of a wrinkle. And then we have the male of the species, whose limited grooming, usurious debt to the national tattoo industry, Hieronymus-Bosch-like notions of dental hygiene, and (in many though not all cases) vast expanses of pallid midriff bursting forth from under torn and dubiously washed shirts all suggest the mindset of a Trump voter whom the Trump voters are afraid of.
Whilst there are males who do not conform to this stereotype, you need to look for them. Only after several months did I solve the mystery.
These males—invariably amiable, I must point out—were not, as might be concluded from their appearance, escapees from a Queensland public-housing project. They had very demanding jobs, far more demanding than any which I have ever performed. The advertising on their vans proclaimed them to be welders, tilers, road-menders, electricians, plumbers, and swimming-pool installers. But of course. Outside politics, the legal profession, the highest reaches of certain sports, and maybe the more glamorous types of medicine, these are the only fields in present-day Australia where one can earn enough money to pay the school’s fees in the first place.
My school crossing career, it will be appreciated, has thus far been marvelous in the strict sense of that word: superabundant in marvels, even when unpleasant ones. Any danger of growing jaded at it came to an abrupt halt when, near the term’s end, I found myself introduced to the school’s headmistress.
First of all, she was slim, no more than three-quarters of my height, and looking like a slightly insomniac 34-year-old. Second of all, when I addressed her as “Ms. [surname],” she immediately responded: “You can call me [given name].”
This is not the type of headmistress I am used to. This is not the type of headmistress any Australian of my age is used to. Our upbringing bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the old joke (Billy Connolly’s?) about the Glasgow slums, where mothers were proverbially so tough as to scorn even breastfeeding: “Yer mammy would jest hand ye the milk-bottle and tell ye to git on wi’ it.”
Accordingly our notions of what constituted a headmistress were—I was about to write “spartan”, but that would suggest a groupthink incompatible with any example from our own predominant Social-Darwinist experience. The main visual qualification for being a headmistress in our day was the ability to interest Central Casting as a candidate for the next biopic about Gertrude Stein. (Some would say that the main temperamental qualification for being a headmistress in our day might have consisted of fantasizing about life as a guard at Dachau, but we won’t go there.)
To be bandying given names with a headmistress … it’s all very well for the whirligig of time to bring in his revenges. But can’t the revenges be at least a bit predictable?
See you at the school crossing in 2017.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne.
“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
[T]he same citizens who grabbed the electoral megaphone to voice their displeasure must now begin to rebuild their own places. … Thriving cities need to lift barriers to keep housing affordable; struggling cities need to remove obstacles that make it hard for people to create value. And any federal infrastructure money would be better spent on maintenance and on undoing the mistakes of past urban-renewal boondoggles, not on building new vanity projects in front of which politicians can cut ribbons and receive plaudits. [More…]
—Jonathan Coppage, National Review
… [T]here are some serious limitations to using municipal boundaries to distinguish between cities and suburbs. A common practice is to treat the largest municipality in a region as the “city” and everything else as “the suburbs.” In some places–Phoenix, Austin, Jacksonville–great swaths of low density development are in the city limits of the largest city. Its also the case that in some metro areas, the largest city represents only a tiny fraction of the metro area–the cities of Atlanta and Miami are only about 10 percent of their respective metros, for example. ….
Cities have grown faster than suburbs in the 2010-2015 period; close-in urban neighborhoods have attracted a disproportionate share of young adults, and cities remain more diverse, in the aggregate, than suburbs. [More…]
—Joe Cortright, City Observatory
… [A]ll the evidence points toward development restrictions being a big reason for high rents. Allowing more market-rate housing in large established cities is a good way to bring down the cost of living, not just for high earners, but for the poor and working class as well. Progressives should support higher density, not more restrictions, if they want to help the most economically vulnerable city-dwellers. [More…]
—Noah Smith, Bloomberg View
By-right zoning is getting a lot of buzz these days as a needed tool to help solve the affordable housing crisis many communities are facing. For those unfamiliar, a zoning code is considered “by-right” if the approvals process is streamlined so that projects that comply with the zoning standards receive their approval without a discretionary review process.
Housing advocates and developers rightfully claim that discretionary review processes are contributing to housing crises across the country by increasing the cost and delivery rate of housing, and often directly preventing needed housing from getting built. [More…]
—Karen Parolek, CNU Public Square
My all-time favorite moviegoing experience took place at Le Champo about six years ago. I was not then living in Paris but my father was, having decided to spend his first year and a half of retirement within walking distance of the Seine. When my brother and I visited in December, the weather was uncommonly cold. It’s unusual for it to snow so early in the winter, and yet, a few days into our visit, we woke to find pale petals softly falling into the courtyard outside my father’s window. Expecting that it would melt right away, we were shocked, upon stepping out the front door, to discover that the city was swaddled in a blanket of pure ermine white. Fluffy, virgin snow powdered the conifers in the Champ de Mars, piled on the balustrades of the Quai Branly, and carpeted the Pont Bir-Hakeim. By evening, the three of us were chilled to the bone, and so we ducked into Le Champo to get warm, resigned to watch anything but thrilled to find that the theater was playing The Dead (1987), John Huston’s adaptation of the short story by James Joyce.
I mention these details because they are, for me, inextricably linked with the experience of watching the movie itself, a perfect frame for it. Never, in all my trips to the cinema, have a day and a movie been so impeccably paired. [More…]
—Graham Daseler, LA Review of Books
“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered in the last week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
The Geography of Middle Class Decline | Richard Florida, CityLab
The large metros where the middle class is smallest are a combination of superstar cities, tech hubs, resource economies and poorer places. L.A. has the smallest middle class overall, followed by San Francisco, New York, and San Jose. Houston, Miami, Boston, Sacramento, New Orleans, and Hartford round out the top ten. That said, the places with the smallest middle classes are mainly smaller metros such as Monroe, Louisiana; Midland, Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, and El Paso, Texas; Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia, and El Centro, California; as well as college towns such as Auburn, Alabama; Champaign, Illinois; and Morgantown West Virginia.
Federal Regulators Will Let U.S. Railroads Run Faster, More Efficient Trains | Angie Schmitt, StreetsBlog
Why are American trains so expensive and yet so slow? One factor that rail advocates often point to is the Federal Railroad Administration and its rail safety regulations — rules that are finally on the verge of changing.
Antiquated regulations that date all the way back to the late 1800s (they were updated in the 1930s) compel American passenger rail operators to use trains designed like “high-velocity bank vaults,” as former Amtrak CEO David Gunn once put it. While European and Asian railcars became lighter and sleeker in recent decades without compromising safety records, FRA rules continued to insist on heavy, slow, outdated, and expensive equipment.
That finally appears set to change with the FRA’s release of new draft safety rules for traincars.
Why America’s Roads Are So Much More Dangerous Than Europe’s | Norman Garrick, Carol Atkinson-Palombo, and Hamed Ahangari, Vox
Much of the disparity seems to arise from how we build communities and the types of roads we design and construct. In the US, we drive more than any other developed country in the world, which goes some way toward explaining the higher traffic fatality rates. But even when we correct for vehicle miles traveled, we still have higher fatality rates. What we are learning is that the countries with the best traffic fatality records are different from the US in the following ways:
a) they live more compactly,
b) their road design favors more vulnerable users such as bikers and pedestrians, and
c) they have enacted laws and regulations that also favor these vulnerable road users.
Where Small Is Possible | Hank Dittmar, Brian Falk, CNU Public Square
A Pink Zone — an area where the red tape is lightened — is the locus for implementation of Lean Urbanism strategies and improvements,. The Pink Zone identifies a specific area where new protocols are pre-negotiated and experiments are conducted, all with the goal of removing impediments to economic development and community-building. It will be developed and refined in a series of pilot projects, and then released to the public. Yesterday Public Square ran an article on the first Pink Zone pilot project in Detroit.
Bright Lights, Small Government | Max Holleran, New Republic
[T]he great, unaddressed subject in Jacobs’s best-known work is gentrification. Specifically: Did her work, in part, serve as an economic and philosophical rationale for the wave of bohemian gentrification that overtook the West Village? If so, it would give new meaning to her much-lauded appreciation of street life: We would have to read Death and Life as the document of a neighborhood going through extreme economic change, with results that inevitably pushed some residents out. The West Village is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States today.
JACKSON, Mich.—With a renewed interest in Middle America, it is a good time to examine both the plight of our Rust Belt urban centers and their untapped assets.
The Great Lakes region in particular is characterized by classic downtowns sporting Italianate-style buildings made from the venerable Chicago Common brick. Some even feature architectural works of art by famed designers like Detroit’s Albert Kahn. Today this once vibrant part of our country—filled with hard working, second-generation Americans and underutilized downtowns—is experiencing a quiet renaissance spurred by unlikely sources.
Despite going through one of the toughest economic downturns since the Great Depression, the Great Lakes region still has a fair amount of large businesses and corporate headquarters in hundreds of medium-sized urban centers. Yet these companies are fighting a revolving door: new hires cost them excessive amounts of money to train, and too soon they find themselves retraining replacements. Why? According to Governing magazine
…the millennial generation, adults 34 and younger, many of whom continue to express a preference for walkable neighborhoods with bike lanes, public transit and a mix of recreational amenities. Last year, millennials became the largest component of the American workforce. … In 2013, the Urban Land Institute found that 62 percent of millennials preferred a home close to shops, restaurants and offices.
Smaller urban areas suffer from vacant storefronts, lack of dining and entertainment options, and, most importantly, market-rate housing. Since the 1970s, businesses have fled to malls and highway interchanges as well-meaning but misguided planners turned much of the existing downtown residential inventory into federally-subsidized, low-income housing. Because of the lack of housing choices, new millennial hires often choose to live a long commute away—in bigger urban cores where they can find the lifestyle they prefer. But after driving through the snowy Great Lakes winter, many quit and instead find employment they can easily walk or bike to in larger cities. In short, this new workforce prioritizes their living environment over job loyalty.
So how does a town attract businesses to save their Midwestern Main Street? There are five key ingredients:
Creating the Perfect Storm
These tactics are beginning to be carried out here in Jackson, a Michigan city of 34,000. In this metropolitan area of 160,000, corporate leaders Consumers Energy and Henry Ford Allegiance Health helped form The Anchor Initiative. According to the Michigan Municipal League, “the program’s three-pronged approach stresses the value of living, investing and innovating locally. It also emphasizes the important role that private sector anchor institutions can play in developing the physical, social and economic conditions that can help the city thrive.” Some of the strategies used include rental incentives to encourage employees to live downtown.
Around the same time, the city appropriated matching funds to completely redo the streetscapes and add trees, bump outs, lighting, signage, and additional on-street parking. Part of Jackson city manager Patrick Burtch’s plan included purchasing property and razing non-historic buildings to offer developers attractive parcels for only $1. The city is also working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to return downtown bypass streets to their original two-way design, incorporating additional landscaping and bump outs to allow traditional on-street parking. A new downtown park is currently under construction with a multipurpose art gallery and amphitheater, and the urban core was just connected to over 14 miles of paved biking and running paths.
This all got a boost from an unlikely source. In 2013, I renovated a run-down, empty, graffitied building in the heart of downtown Jackson and opened Grand River Brewery. This risky new venture offered a 220 seat restaurant, 80 seat community event room, bakery, craft brewery, craft distillery, and winery. The complete renovation of this 12,000 sq. ft. former bus repair garage and 1980s mini mall earned us a “Brick Award” by the local Chamber of Commerce. My facility became the social hub of the downtown, hosting weddings, rehearsal dinners, baptisms, church services, retirements, wakes, corporate meetings, political rallies, special events, and even public radio shows.
Then a funny thing happened. Due in part to overwhelming local support, we started to grow at a 30 percent annual clip. I was able to prove that despite naysayers, one could launch a new business in downtown Jackson and be successful. That revelation had a profound effect on the community, and a new optimism about downtown was born. Businesses that had faithfully remained there felt confident improving their buildings and services, and entrepreneurial groups became interested in developing new projects.
Three and half years after I opened the brewery, my business partners and I are building a new mixed-use, luxury apartment building. (I am still looking for a grocery store for the first floor.) Our group is also restoring an 1868 Italianate building that was formerly an iconic city restaurant, with more market-rate apartments on the upper two floors and a steakhouse on the first floor. Since our brewery launch, the downtown has added five new restaurants and five new retail stores, signed a development agreement on an old vacant Albert Kahn-designed hotel and another mixed-use apartment complex. A major engineering firm is planning to build their headquarters downtown.
Jackson is proof that the best way to revitalize a downtown is with a progressive master plan, passionate local entrepreneurs, and a good brewery thrown in.
John Burtka III, who was formerly involved in the global automotive industry, now acts as a Lean-Six Sigma business consultant, winemaker, distiller, restaurateur, entrepreneur, and county commissioner.
I knew my involvement in civic matters in northwest Indiana would eventually take me to Gary, about 25 miles from my town of Valparaiso. As I’ve driven along Interstate 90 heading to and from Chicago, I’ve often peered down from the expressway into the city’s empty streets and dilapidated neighborhoods. For many long-time residents of the area, the town’s very name is an epithet for a landscape of failure and fear where it’s thought that no one stays who can find a way to leave. I admit I have not been in a hurry to visit the place but in recent months I’ve come to see it quite differently.
Gary was created as a kind of company town (U.S. Steel basically built the city out of dirt in 1906) and reached a population of almost 180,000 in 1960. Today the city (with a geographical area about the same size as downtown Boston’s) has just under 80,000 inhabitants and is about 85 percent African-American. The Gary Works steel plant went from a peak of 25,000 employees to today’s 5,000. Approximately one-third of the city’s housing stock today stands empty and Gary’s public schools have slowly been closing for a number of years.
And yet. The city has an energetic and popular mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson(Harvard Law grad, former attorney general of Indiana). It has an artsy neighborhood called Miller with the obligatory brewpub, a gallery and some nice restaurants. And it has—if it can find more ways to leverage the asset—Lake Michigan.
The friends of a revitalized Gary include the PlaceLab at the University of Chicago, where social practice artist Theaster Gates is deploying a substantial Bloomberg Philanthropies grant to create ArtHouse, “a social kitchen” in downtown Gary. The grand opening was last weekend and an artsy, mostly African-American crowd of 200 listened to Gates, Mayor Karen (as everyone calls her) and the architects talking about why social practice art (you need to know what this is if you don’t already) can achieve placemaking—even in Gary.
I hope that’s so, as I’m bought in. I want our civic incubator, the C-Lab, to host community microfunding dinners (called SOUPs) at ArtHouse. And I’ve met several great Gary people just networking around this project.
But there’s more. The Diocese of Gary got a new leader, Bishop Don Hying, about a year ago. He has a very genial manner and spent his first two or three months personally visiting every one of his 70-plus parishes. I gradually figured out he was a radical in a Boy Scout uniform, so to speak.
Now he’s leading a discussion group (held at the rectory of the cathedral in Gary, where he lives) on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement with the aim of collaborating on a Catholic Worker house somewhere in town. Note the term “collaborating”: the Diocese of Gary will not be officially sponsoring the house—such an arrangement would probably not be feasible for various reasons—but Bishop Hying does want to help make this happen for Gary. And we’ve got supporters chiming in from Chicago, South Bend, and elsewhere.
Some of our Catholic Worker team think we should publish a blog about the process of creating a Catholic Worker house, as we consider all the different dimensions to this kind of project.
Elias Crim is a civic entrepreneur in Valparaiso, Indiana.
This post originally appeared at Solidarity Hall.