Thursday, December 25, 2014

Even more Main Street and Christmastime!

Tonight my family and I went to see the new Annie at the Caldwell Movie Theater on Bloomfield Avenue. The street had a dazzling set of lights, but not a single store was open and not a single pedestrian was walking along -- almost a version of "...not a creature was stirring..." The movie theater had a kind set of young men who gave us good advice about popcorn -- "Get the large instead of two small and you can have a free refill." The movie was thrilling -- Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx gave gravitas and joy to the marvelous adaptation -- and we all had an excellent time. We listened to Christmas music on the way home, feeling lucky to hear John Legend and the Stephens Family singing, "Our love don't have to change, no it don't have to change."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

More Main Street and Christmastime

Earlier this year the NY Times published an article with the preposterous title, "Maplewood, NJ: If Brooklyn Were a Suburb." I like Brooklyn and I like Maplewood -- I protest against the reductionism that can equate America's Fourth Largest City with a small suburban town. Putting that issue aside for the moment, Maplewood and Hoboken are my favorite places for Christmas shopping. I hit Hoboken on Sunday, Maplewood today. My grandson Javi and I went to get a present for his aunt. We wound our way through the traffic, found a place to park and thought all the people would be in the toy store. But they weren't. We breezed in, got something special and got out quickly. Instead, all the people of Maplewood were in the BOOK STORE, Words. I ran into a friend and we chatted about last minute shopping as a curse of busy people. Javi and I got on line with our purchases. It was LONG. Not surprising -- the whole town was there. I couldn't resist saying to the woman on line behind me, "I think it says something about Maplewood that there are more people in the bookstore than the toy store." She looked a little shocked, and then replied, "It does say something about us." Then I noticed The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. I showed it to the lady behind me who said she was de-cluttering. I pointed out that it said in the blurb people who used Kondo's method didn't relapse. She seemed a little annoyed by my observation -- we buttinskis get that some times, and I haven't even tried the method so how do I know if it's true? I thought of getting the book, but I've requested it for Christmas, so I didn't. Finally I got to the checkout and had that simple moment of family pride: "Are you Carolyn or Mindy?" This, of course, refers to the frequent buyer bonus program. Returning to the annoying article in the NY Times, Maplewood is great -- it's just not Brooklyn.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Main Street and Christmastime

I like going to Main Street every day, but Christmastime it really gets rolling. On my way to dinner with Common Praxis at Bar Spain, I og on the PATH in Hoboken. I passed about 100 Santas, out for Santa Con along Washington Street. Santa Con has actually diversified, and now includes elves and reindeer, all sparsely dressed. Don't they know it's cold??? I got off PATH at Christopher Street, in Greenwich Village. I had a little time and decided I'd do some Christmas shopping on my way to dinner. I passed carolers, which seemed ironic, given the iconoclastic nature of the Village, but also lovely, music drifting in the city air. All the stores were full of things someone might want, and it raised the question, "Do I want that?" Invariably the answer was "No" as the only thing I want is a case for my new tablet. I got for a $1 when I upgraded my iPhone and I love having a book always at hand. They know this about people who are reading series so that when I get to the last page, it says, "Want the next book?" Well, I have to admit that is something else I want. And then I want time to sit around and read. I am re-reading Ngaio Marsh, one of the classic detective writers. Her values are of another age -- homophobia is all too present. As I was walking down Christopher Street, I passed the Stonewall, and cheered gay liberation. Some men walked by and I was so pleased that nobody would be whispering behind their backs because they violated some stereotype. So something else I want is freedom and equality. When I got to Bar Spain, my friends were upset about the policemen who'd been murdered in Brooklyn -- we all want to restore balance -- but not on the old terms -- on new terms of respect for all human life. So then I realize how much of what I am seeing on Christopher Street is what I want -- beautiful music, historic sites of liberation, a lovely night to be on the way to meet friends. May all your Christmases be bright!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Vermont's Urbanization

I had the great good fortune to spend several days with my medical school classmate, Martha Stitelman. She has lived and practiced in Southern Vermont since the early 1990s. She has a deep interest in the mountains of Vermont, and is not only active in hiking, but also in trail maintenance and other tasks related to keeping the forests welcoming to all. I was delighted to be able to tour with her, given her deep knowledge of the area. She was always pointing out a nature preserve or forest where there were fine trails, cabins, or sights to see. We started our travels with a visit to Angela Miller, who was the agent for my book, Root Shock. In addition to being an active literary agent, Angela, with her husband, bought a farm and developed a cheesemaking business. Her farm, Consider Bardwell, makes a number of different kinds of goat and cow cheeses and has won numerous prizes. She wrote a book, Hay Fever, about her adventures in getting the business going. Behind the serenity of the farm and the great tastes of the wonderful cheeses are the details of getting a business going, learning a new craft, finding the people who can make the business work, and connecting the world to one's products. Angela sells at many NYC Farmers Markets, including Union Square. I think my favorite is the RUPERT, but I brought plenty of cheese home so I can continue to investigate the matter! Among her new projects is the organization of the West Pawlet Community Farmers' Market, held on Friday evenings in the Fish and Game Club building. Angela's urbanism -- which constantly reaches out to neighbors to partner, support, include and share -- is an urbanism I admire. She has invested along many dimensions. While the concept of "urbanism" is not usually associated with Vermont, Angela's work made me think about the state's urbanization in a new way.
After visiting at Consider Bardwell Farm, Martha and I went to Manchester VT to visit the Northshire Bookstore and go to EMS for gloves for me. The bookstore was large and "appetizing," meaning I wanted to buy a lot of books. I restrained myself -- getting only a copy of Danielle Allen's Our Declaration for Martha. There was a whimsical statue of Thomas Jefferson outside, so of course I said to the cashier that the store should feature Dr. Allen's book. She shrugged cynically, promising to pass my message on. "They don't listen to me," she said. She seemed wise, so I think they should listen to her. But then we pushed on for gloves as I found it wretchedly cold. Manchester has 4,180 people in 42.3 square miles, according to the "towns in Vermont" listing in Wikipedia. But the sense of sparse population distracts from the tight organization of the state. People are connected at various levels of scale, beginning with the nearest hamlet, then nearest town, the nearest city and the encompassing region. The heart of the settlement is the post office. Where the post office is linked to a general story, things really start to happen. Martha proposed lunch in Jamaica, which had been badly hit by Tropical Storm Irene. There wasn't any place to eat so we drove on. In West Townshend, we came to the West Townshend Country Store, which boasted a cafe, WiFi, a thrift store, and a post office. We had hit the jackpot!
We had a wonderful lunch of chili and cornbread and learned that the Country Store is run by the West Townshend Community Center. The Community Center raises money to support the store and its community building activities. We heard a story about a lost dog, dropped off at the store by the couple that found it, and then reconnected with its owners who were at the store for coffee and were overheard grieving for their lost dog. This is the same sense as the West Pawlet Community Farmers' Market -- creating a center for life in a very diffuse place. From West Townshend we went to the town of Newfane. It had a massive village square, with a huge Congregational Church and a separate town meeting, equally distinguished. There was a Civil War monument with a 140 names - indeed, Vermont sent 34,000 men to the Civil War out of a total population of 340,000, about half of the population now. Imagine 10% of the population, leaving for war, many killed or maimed, yet the state continued on.
We were able to visit Brattleboro, Williamsville and Bennington the next day, taking in the ways in which the hamlets, villages, towns and cities were interwoven into people's daily lives. Martha told me a story about Home Depot opening a store in Brattleboro. People were angry that Home Depot was trying to put Brown and Roberts, the hardware store on Main Street, out of business. They boycotted Home Depot and eventually it closed and went away. Brown and Roberts is still there. This makes social sense, as a strong Main Street is an important line of defense against the vagaries of weather and farm markets.
Martha constantly drew my eyes to the damage that Tropical Storm Irene had caused as the water stormed down the many rivers pushing stones and trees and dirt and houses in its path. We also saw and crossed many of the bridges that had been rebuilt. The hamlets, villages, towns and cities are hunkered down by the rivers and streams, of which there are many. I am vey skeptical of the current fad of "urban farming." Vermont really has a lesson to teach us in that regard. It is, in its way, a very urban state, and the hundreds of small family farms are tightly connecting to the urban centers. It gives new meaning to "urban farming." I was looking in the Northshire Bookstore for a book on the urbanization of Vermont -- it might not have been written yet but I hope someone will!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fighting Ebola Depends on Unity

Rodrick Wallace and I are co-authors of a book called Collective Consciousness and its Discontents. Rod did extensive mathematical modeling which showed that social schism undermined the ability of groups to solve problems. My contribution was to provide empirical support for the models. I described several studies my co-workers and I had conducted on the whys of the appallingly slow response to the AIDS epidemic. Rod and I always thought that a fast-moving epidemic would pose a remarkable threat to the splintered system of functioning. In particular, I have been haunted by what Beverly Wallace and I called "redlined epidemics." By that we meant epidemics that were ignored because they affected marginalized people. The world's slow response to Ebola, an epidemic in several marginalized countries, is vivid proof that epidemic redlining is real and poses a serious threat to international stability. How do we begin to talk to each other? The New York Times, in an editorial today, described Cuba's "impressive role on Ebola," and urged the US to begin to talk to Cuba, at least about the epidemic. The Times argued that the US should stand ready to evacuate Cuban health care workers who become infected. The editorial concluded by noting, "In a column published over the weekend in Cuba’s state-run newspaper, Granma, Fidel Castro argued that the United States and Cuba must put aside their differences, if only temporarily, to combat a deadly scourge. He’s absolutely right." This is a great idea. And Rod and I believe that, when we work together, we create extraordinary opportunities. Danielle Allen writes in her remarkable book, Our Declaration, "This is the third facet of equality: we can strengthen our individual and collective capacity to analyze the relation between present and future by drawing everyone into the work of understanding the course of human events. We can build collective intelligence superior to what any individual or even a closed group of experts can achieve, by developing egalitarian approaches to knowledge cultivation." (p. 238) People are dying needlessly, but we can change that. Our collective salvation lies in cooperation.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

People Matter

People Matter: The Human Impacts of Planned Development, a global symposium held at MIT this weekend, was a welcome conversation held on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marc Fried's landmark paper, "Grieving for a lost home." Fried's paper had a major influence on my work. It was the basis for my argument that place attachment was a fundamental psychological process linking people to their near environment, and that the disruption of that connection could lead to the psychiatric illness, nostalgia. The fifty years of work since Fried and others demonstrated that people suffer when they lose their homes has brought extensive corroboration of those observations, but no let-up in the pace of displacement, and all the psychiatric and medical complications that follow. This has serious implications for the future. The UN predicts that we will build 900 billion square feet in the next 15 years. As Don Chen of the Ford Foundation put it, 60% of the built environment we will have in 2030 has not yet been built. That building will move people one way or another. We urgently need this discussion of the implications for human communities, which are fragile and do not tolerate moving very well. It's all well and good to proclaim that people are "resilient," but in fact, they really prosper in communities that are swathed in generations of connection to the land. Generations means decades -- time -- in place. That can't be bought or manufactured -- it has to be lived, together with other people, and in light of the intricacies and particularities of place. Given such massive shifts as global warming and massive construction, we need an equally massive interdisciplinary conversation, based on a real respect for ecology. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us about the "interrelated nature of reality" which means that "I can't be what I ought to be unless you are what you ought to be." We have a lot of homework to do to really master this lesson and to bring every profession, every religion, every community, every person into this ecological conversation for the 21st century.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Architects find our way

William Morrish, professor at Parsons The New School for Design, told me that, while in La Jolla at the American Institute of Architects' Board Meeting, I should see Rudolph Schindler's Pueblo Ribera. The AIA was taking us to see The Salk Institute, Louis Kahn's masterpiece and surely a wonderful place to do science. Schindler's project was down the way, along the beach. Not a "Cathedral of Our Culture," as apparently Robert Redford, himself a sufferer from polio, has dubbed Salk's Institute, but some modest houses, close to the rocks and surf. I needed a ride and asked Julia Donoho AIA, an avid architectural historian and critic, if she might like to go. Carl Elefante FAIA, whose practice focuses on historic preservation, joined us. I like traveling with architects, as they know how to pack cars, find their way, get to the best restaurants, and interpret buildings. As we drove up to Gravilla Street, I was searching for the number on the left. Julia, looking to the right, said, "I see architecture." Schindler's buildings were definitive and distinct. Its pleasant neighbors were cast in the shade by its cool design. Carl explained that Schindler, working in the 1920s, had a great influence on the emergence of American modernism. When other modernists arrived from Europe, Schindler was already busy showing the way, working with new forms and new materials. His use of teak, concrete and open spaces overlooking the ocean foreshadow the essence of Salk, although Salk is meant as a grand statement, and Schindler's Pueblo Ribera was an inexpensive set of beach shacks. But both mean to be rich in space for living and in celebrating the ocean.
We walked a block down to the ocean, where huge flat, smooth rocks served as the beach. We started looking for ice cream, but found a section of La Jolla Boulevard that Carl said reminded him of Route 22 in New Jersey. I agreed -- wide, car-oriented, slightly downtrodden -- which was surprising, given that the houses just steps away were selling for millions of dollars. Carl and Julia proposed going back to the area around the restaurant where we'd eaten Friday night - George's at the Cove in La Jolla. Mostly Julia followed her instincts about space, with occasional assists from Carl, looking for a restaurant overlooking the ocean. Somehow -- I would say by magic but they would say by architecture -- we got to the Terrace Restaurant at La Valencia, a hotel on Prospect Street, overlooking the ocean. We had sumptuous food while watching the sunset and debating the contributions of various architects to the modern world.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Get the military off Main Street!

The horrific scenes of civilians confronted by military might on a suburban Main Street have shocked us all. We didn't know that the military had given weapons of war to local police departments all across the nation. And we didn't know the next images of war we'd see would be on our own Main Streets. It's bad to see these horrors in Gaza or Iraq -- but Ferguson is Home! It seems to me, from looking at Main Streets over the past 6 years, that actually Main Street is where strange shifts pop up. It is the center of the city and things can't float around in the culture without bobbing up on Main Street. This is a thought I call "Main Street Beach." When I told Tony Hiss, the great writer about place, that I thought Main Street was a beach, he said, "I've thought the same thing." I pulled out my father's book, Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People's Power, and found good advice:
“In the struggle to build pure coalition we learned many lessons… Our experiences--the lessons of this book--are desperately needed in today’s world to help humankind learn to live together… We have no more time for war, or exploitation, or poisoning the earth. We must learn to live together now.. These tasks are too crucial to be entrusted to the warmongers and the profiteers. The money-changers must once again be driven from the temple so that the people can prevail, for only the people can be entrusted with their own future.”
My dad, Ernest Thompson, was an organizer with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, and then became a community organizer in Orange, NJ, where I grew up. You can see more stories of Orange and its lessons on the Facebook page of the University of Orange. A group of us started the University of Orange so that the people's voices could be heard in making the future city. I learned from urbanist Michel Cantal-Dupart that we create the city we want by finding the intersection of REASON, MEMORY and IMAGINATION.
It is our collective work, examining the city, that yields this vision of the future. In their history and day-to-day living, the citizens of the city have acquired the wisdom of ages. The city as a collection of buildings and streets and parks and statues and stores and schools embodies our past decisions -- it is the path we are walking. The path, as we see in Ferguson, is broken by injustice and oppression. If we do not throw the money-changers out of the temple, and shift our path towards equity and invention, we will be in for more of the same: quiet desperation broken by shots and shouts. "Hands up, don't shoot" will echo everywhere. But the people CAN be entrusted with their future. In 1968 -- at time where riots were rocking hundreds of American city -- the citizens of Orange faced a severe challenge. The powers-that-be opposed urgent investment in the city's schools. People mobilized and put pressure on every possible arm of government. They expressed their will that excellent schools be built. They won. Because of the volatility of the moment, Councilman Ben Jones told me that there were tanks in the high school football stadium in case a riot broke out. It did not and the schools' crisis was resolved in the best possible manner. The University of Orange, which I am proud to serve as president of the Board of Directors, sees the essential work of our era as mobilizing the citizens to grapple with REASON, MEMORY and IMAGINATION to come up with the city of future. Needless to say, we will get the military off Main Street!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What's a box, a circle, a line and The American People?

I've had the pleasure of working the Jake Izenberg -- soon to be a graduate of Yale School of Medicine -- in thinking about the Main Streets of Essex County. What variation there is! From the density and intensity of Ferry Street in Newark to the quiet emptiness of Northfield Avenue in Livingston, we've seen all sorts of variations on the theme. Yet it takes multiple lenses to sort out why we're seeing what we're seeing. While puzzling over Main Street, I realized we were trying to solve the riddle, "What's a box, a circle, a line AND the American People?" The answer: Main Street. By looking into each of these images of Main Street, we have begun to map out some solid ground, moving ever closer to the goal of understanding how Main Streets help to make healthy cities and thereby healthy people.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hard times on the main streets named for "Dr Martin Luther King"

Comedian Chris Rock made the famous joke about someone being on a street named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. " You're where? Run!" he screamed. We all laughed because those streets are famously blighted and in disrepair. Melvin White, a 46-year-old postal worker in St. Louis has a different approach. He founded a non-profit to fix up those streets and restore them to greatness, the Star Ledger reported today. Mr. White's quest is a good one. These "Main Streets of Black America" are a useful thermometer of the state of Black America, just as Main Streets everywhere reflect the health and vitality of the surrounding urban tissue. How healthy is Black America? Here's how I see it. Last night I was at an event on Valley Street, the Main Street in my neighborhood. It was a release party for the local zine, masConsumption, edited by Patricia Rodgers. As the clock reached 9, young people dressed to impress and ready to celebrate started to pour into Hat City Kitchen. I loved the outfits and the sense of style, but what struck me was the earnestness, the dignity of these young people. Many of them, I know, work two or three jobs at minimum wage to support themselves and help their families. They struggle with terrible transportation, lack of family resources, and limited access to help when they are sick or in need. These struggles did not keep them from gathering around this expression of their hopes, the Music Issue of the zine. If we need to boil that down, we'd quickly get to, "And still I rise." This is often shortened further to buzz word of the day, "resilience," but that word irks me. People with money get a smug smile on their face and say, "They're so resilient," as if to say, "and therefore it's OK for them to work two-three jobs, with terrible transportation, no safety net, no health care." In my view, this is NOT OK. Therefore, I will avoid the people-can-take-any-amount-of-oppression-because-still-they-rise trap posed by resilience. Instead, I want to say that Black America today is fragile and hurting, hopeful and energetic. We need decent jobs, stable communities and fabulous education. We need limits on carbon emissions and corporate greed. We need clean air and water, and plans for the extremes of everything that are gathering around us. We need opportunities for expression and parties to celebrate it. We need the foot of oppression off our necks so we and those that are oppressing us can be free -- in the words of the Great Man we remember today -- "Great God Almighty, free at last!"