Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Not-so-glad tidings on Washington Street

This used to a flag and costume store.
For 25 years Washington Street in Hoboken has been a favorite place to stroll and shop, especially for Christmas.  It hosted a bookstore, toy shop, chocolate store, knitting shop, clothing stores, favorite jewelry story (Sedona) and more.  Yesterday, in making my annual visit, I was sad to learn from the owners of Sedona that they fear their rent will rise out of sight and they will be pushed off Washington Street.  "It's becoming more corporate," they explained, "with no room for small boutiques."  My granddaughter Lily, who went to school in Hoboken and was on Washington Street every day, explained the changes as we walked along.  It was hard to keep track of them all.  She was a little stunned, I think, that so many landmarks of her childhood were now gone.  Commerce is a keystone of Main Streets, but it is under huge pressure: commerce can be a constant but the mix of stores shuffles all the time.  One historic place -- the old flag and costume store -- had a wreath on the door but was empty inside, waiting for its next iteration.  In the meantime, it was shockingly warm.  While pleasant, the unseasonable warmth is frightening in its implications.  These two processes -- the instability of Washington Street and the instability of the weather -- are linked.  The 64-thousand-dollar question is: What do we do?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Changing the narrative on Roma

The stereotype poster
I spent the past week in Salzburg, Austria, as part of the faculty for a seminar called, "Changing the narrative on Roma in Healthcare Settings." There were not many Roma people in Orange, NJ, when I was growing up there, yet we had lots of ideas about them, ranging from "Gypsies steal babies," Gypsies "gyp" you, to "Gypsy" as a great Halloween costume. Before going, I learned a fuller story, one of a people migrating from India to Europe 1000 years ago, and facing constant abuse and exclusion between then and now. In the course of a remarkable week, we examined how we might change the narrative that justified Roma oppression.

For me, the stereotypes interfered with getting to know people.  I really wanted to ask stupid questions, like "DO Gypsies steal babies?" And that would have set up an adversarial relationship, forcing them to defend themselves, and causing pain and disappointment.

What we did with the stereotypes was collect them on a piece of paper that hung at the front of the room during the week.  Instead of the downward spiral of interrogation and defense, I got to hear stories of people's lives -- so many of them stories I know all too well -- a mother slipping money into her son's pocket so he could have a coffee at school, though she would go without lunch; a young man afraid to tell his non-Roma girlfriend that he was Roma; and a non-Roma girl wondering what her boyfriend was holding back.

The big news on my return was the struggle against racism at the University of Missouri.  One of the student groups involved was called "Concerned Student 1950," named for the first year black students were admitted to the university.  The New York Times found a student from that year, 89 year-old Dr. Gus T. Ridgel, a retired economist.  He was admitted as a result of a law suit, but didn't have enough money to attend.  Friends raised the funds for one year, but he learned that it was a two-year program.  The department chairman said he could graduate in one year, if he did all the coursework and wrote a thesis, something no one had ever done before.  He succeeded, and went off to the University of Wisconsin to do his doctoral work.

I found in this story deep resonance with stories I'd heard about Roma life.  I was liberated from stereotypes and able to identify, rather than compare.

The 'real people' poster
Ilona Notar, a Roma member of the seminar faculty, hated our stereotype poster.  On the last day, she proposed that everyone write qualities of real Roma people on Post-Its and stick these over the stereotypes.  This was a joyous exercise for all of us -- we "subjugated" the false knowledge of the stereotypes to our new narrative -- nuanced, authentic, and universal.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Root Shock in Rio

I recently read a review of my book, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It. Written by David Robertson, and published in the online Rio On Watch, it examined the issues and ideas in Root Shock for their relevance to understanding displacement in Rio. Absolutely fascinating!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Pope Francis has a great understanding of the perils of the sorted-out city

Pope Francis said, "It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighborhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others. Interventions which affect the urban or rural landscape should take into account how various elements combine to form a whole which is perceived by its inhabitants as a coherent and meaningful framework for their lives. Others will then no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a 'we' which all of us are working to create."

Thursday, September 24, 2015

How ya gonna keep em on down on the farm after they've seen Paree?

The post World War I hit song, about the changed expectations of the returning soldiers, raised a profound question for the anti-change "Main Street," depicted by Sinclair Lewis in his great novel of that era.  But what happend "over there" that changed people?  One remarkable story was found in Paris Noir, by Tyler Stovall on the Washington Post website, relating to African American soldiers, who were relegated to menial tasks but astounded everyone by carrying them out in a superlative manner.  Here's a part of the story:
In contrast to the poor opinions the army leadership expressed about their abilities, black laborers in France often performed impressive physical feats, especially black longshoremen. To an important extent port workers formed the linchpin of the entire American military effort in France. The United States Army had never before fought such an extensive campaign so far away from home. Unloading and deploying both soldiers and war material in French ports had to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to ensure an Allied victory. By the middle of 1918, large numbers of black longshoremen were busy unloading American ships in French harbors like Brest, Saint-Nazaire, and Bordeaux. Many of these workers had never even seen a ship before coming to France, much less worked on one, and yet their accomplishments frequently astonished French and white American observers alike. One compared their speed to that of Noah loading the Ark, and another commented, "They are the finest workers you ever saw. One Negro can do four times as much work as any other man, and have fun doing it. The French stevedores stand by and watch with amazement at my hustling gangs. The way they handle a 100-pound crate makes the Frenchman's eyes bulge." In one instance, African American longshoremen unloaded five thousand tons of material in one day, when French officials had estimated that six thousand could only be moved over an entire month. During the month of September 1918, black stevedores set a record by unloading an incredible twenty-five thousand tons of cargo per day for several weeks.
These achievements are astounding -- the question I'd like to pose is: what is it about agricultural work that the men brought to this new task and that allowed them to excel?  At any rate, what we do know is that when they got back, they were intolerant of abuse on the farm and many moved to the cities.  Jacob Lawrence's magnificent paintings of the Great Migration, recently shown in their entirety at MoMA offer a way of understanding the decision that people made to go to the cities and start a new life.  That is a major story of Main Street, at least as Sinclair Lewis sees it.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Coherence in the midst of confusion

For three days this past week, September 15-17, I walked Main Street in downtown Rochester. First, I walked west to Susan B. Anthony's house.  Then I walked east to the Eastman Concert Hall.  I saw many remarkable and wonderful sights.  I was struck, however, by a certain choppy quality -- most Main Streets cohere -- this one seems more like a set of beads, loosely strung together.  For example, I saw Civil War-era stores, a monument to transportation, the famous Powers building, the river with its beautiful park, lots of photos of the history of Rochester, the former Woolworth's building, the ticket office for the upcoming Fringe Festival and the Eastman Concert Hall.

It seemed like it should be a great Main Street, but the whole belies the promise of the pieces.  In that state of confusion, I passed a calm-looking young man, standing with a blue paper.  He did not hawk it or intrude: his pose was the offering.  But of what?  Curious, I approached him to ask.  Brother Brian Lee Griffin, chief assistant to Minister Lawrance Lee Evans,Sr., offered me a copy of "Doology Notes in Case Management," aka "Black Coptic Press Release."  He explained upcoming cultural events that I might like to attend.  "Doology" was invented in Rochester by Minister Lawrance, and it teaches that positive action is valued more than just complaining.  Brother Griffin, by adding to the coherence of Main Street, was certainly practicing doology.
Brother Brian Lee Griffin on Main Street.

Can a bridge save the rhinos?

This photo shows kids walking home from school across the
viaduct.  It needs repairs, but is threatened with demolition.
Photo by Christopher Miller/Erie Times News
During my visit to Erie, PA, back in August, I had the opportunity to meet Abdullah Washington, aka Bigg Wash, a poet and commentator on the local scene.  He wrote a wonderful article on the need for the viaduct on the city's East Side. I advocated for that during my visit.  I was particularly grateful that he mentioned my plea for "urbanism-informed" decision-making.  Our nation has not had a particularly happy attitude toward its cities.  As a consequence, we have carried out a long series of policies that have taken quite decent cities and messed them up.  If we all had some understanding of urbanism, we would do a lot better at managing the critical resource of having people live in close quarters.  Aside from being more sustainable and fun, cities are sites of invention and there is nothing we need more at this moment than invention.  We need to invent jobs, peace, and protection for all the species with whom we share the planet.  The new UN report on the massive rise in population makes me fear that the rhinos and the elephants aren't going to make it.  But who knows what we might invent if we make great, inclusive cities as sites of co-existence?  What is a bridge? asks Washington.  "A bridge is connection. A bridge is hope. Save the viaduct."  I would add, "Learn the lessons from saving the viaduct, and save the rhinos."

Monday, September 14, 2015

Reinventing Sunday

     I go to church at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County, right off Main Street in Orange, NJ.  I went to church there when I was a girl and love that it is a place from my childhood largely unchanged.  It is unchanged as a building and a place of spirit, but the number of congregants has fallen so far that last year we talked of closing the church -- we might have to, but for now we are reinventing it as a campus for community life and a new kind of potluck worship.  Darcy Hall is the lead inventor.  She has a keen ear for spiritual readings and knows how to link them with things to do that adults like.  Last night, we had our first Soulful Sundown Service on the topic of friendship.  She read a lovely essay about the challenges of friendship and then proposed that we write haiku.  This was just great, as the essay had brought up so many thoughts and people each had their own slant.  We did a lot of singing -- Bill Stafford got great music out of the upright piano in our Parish Hall.  Though we were not many, we sang with gusto and filled the room.  It was fun, too, because we were liberated from the burden of the order of service.  People kept interjecting ideas and that was just fine.  Instead of failing to produce a service in the sanctuary, we succeeded in having a spiritual moment in the Parish Hall.
     We are also doing lots of work on our property, at the urging of our sexton.  We've upgraded the outdoor lighting and we're putting in a new walkway and entrance.  It's going to be grand and wonderful.
     Three cheers for reinvention and reinvestment!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Main Street of Monticello

We were standing, our guide, Bill Bergen, said, on the Main Street of Monticello, along which were lined the homes of slaves and the many workshops where they made cloth, nails, furniture and other necessities of life in the young state of Virginia.  The slaves of Monticello made it possible for Jefferson to be a man of leisure, amassing the largest library in the United States, reading in seven languages, serving as a statesman and revolutionary.  I have always adored Thomas Jefferson, so I was shaken to my core by Bill's description of the experiences of slaves on Jefferson's plantation.  Bill, a lawyer, Civil War buff and retired UVa faculty member, is a stickler for data.  He shared with us material from slave narratives, Jefferson's letters, letters of other family members, and observations of visitors like the Marquis de Lafayette.  Jefferson, on one occasion, said that a slave was to be punished in a manner that would terrorize the other slaves on the plantation.  And he was to disappear in the night -- no one knows what happened to that man.  On another occasion, Jefferson, responding to the news that Jupiter, a man he'd known since they were boys together, had died, said that was too bad, but who was to look after the stables?  Bill had that genius of the storyteller to share the data with us in a way that helped us to see and feel what this treatment meant for the enslaved people.
I knew, of course, that slaves built Monticello and their work maintained it.  I also knew that slavery was horrific.  I had not connected all slavery with Jeffersonian slavery as in the syllogism:
Premise:  Slavery was horrific.
Premise:  Jefferson participated in slavery.
  Conclusion: Jefferson's slavery was horrific.
Bill urged us all to grapple with this much more complicated view of the man, the times and the nation.  This is hard emotional work, as we let go of cherished illusions.  It gave me new sympathy for people who are further away from the reality of slavery than I am, because I did not want to know that Jefferson's overseers were brutal, that his slaves got two pieces of clothing a year and were expected to raise their own food if they wanted to get along.
Thank you, Mulberry Row, Main Street of Monticello, for educating me.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

High Streets (that's Main Street in Merry old England) are not just for commerce

In a terrific opinion pieceGeorge Ferguson argues that High Streets/Main Streets are not just about commerce -- they will prosper if they also serve a social purpose.  In Bristol,  where he is Mayor, they have instituted a program called, "Bristol Make Sunday Special" which closes off the street cars, and welcomes all kinds of musicians, water slides and magic.  People have embraced the program -- no surprise.  Actually, I've come to believe that the reason people go to High Street/Main Street is not to shop but to sightsee.  They are there to see and be seen.  And what better time to do that than when thousands of others are doing the same?  They will also shop, because people like to do that too.  It's a two-fer, a point that Ferguson makes -- economic recovery needs social recovery.  I saw him speak once, and all of the ideas he put forward were exciting and sound.

In the opinion piece, Ferguson wrote,
There are untold benefits to unlocking the potential of public spaces and putting high streets back at the heart of the community. A strong shared identity, greater civic pride and a sense that our retail centres can be much more than just temples of commerce, providing a sense of place and community is the reward for an imaginative approach that will lead to a real social recovery.
Today, the NYC Parks Department put on a festival to celebrate the reopening of the High Bridge.  Thousands of people turned out to walk the bridge and see the sights.  While there were small tables of organizations that have been part of the reopening, it was not a commercial event or a "health fair" or anything other than making a Main Street that ran from Amsterdam Avenue across the Harlem River to Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx.  It is Pop-UP Main Street, as all good festivals are.  Our CLIMB contingent sashayed across the bridge with two enormous giraffe heads made by Tony Gonzalez and the artists of Creative Art Works.  The little children were struck with wonder, and the adults grinned -- they couldn't help themselves.   It was exactly what Mayor Ferguson was describing, only on a Pop-UP, not a quotidian Main Street.  It works.  We should try it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Changing the heads on the statues

David Brooks wrote his NY Times column about the "Robert E. Lee Problem."  I rush to add that for me, there has never been a Robert E. Lee problem.  Asked to write a precis of a poem about Lee when I was in high school, I refused.  The teacher wanted me to say that he was a great man, but I refused to do that either.  What is about being a "courtly" person that excuses leading the fight to preserve slavery?  I really appreciated David Brooks' point that Lee's father-in-law left his wife 196 slaves to be emancipated on his death but Lee did not emancipate them.  That's two strikes against Lee -- he ignored last wishes and he kept people in slavery -- and there's a third -- he was an officer trained at West Point but took up arms against his country, otherwise known as treason.  So I do not have a Robert E. Lee problem, but David Brooks is right to point out that "we" have a Robert Lee problem in that some people, this includes my English teacher, think Lee was a really nice guy.  Brooks proposes a kind of compromise -- keep some, get rid of others -- arguing, "This is not about rewriting history. It’s about shaping the culture going forward."

It has certainly occurred before, that statues once venerated have been toppled.  It doesn't ensure that the problem symbolized by the stature is actually addressed.  In essence, the map is not the territory.  This is a key issue for Main Street because the street is such an important site of symbolic conversation.  Recently in Orange, a new building owner decided that the historic gargoyles were causing her bad luck so she had them chopped off, much to my dismay.  I don't know how her luck has fared but I know that the symbolic conversation on the street is different.  Similarly, somebody decided to put up a mural of black woman jogging.  She is heroic in proportions -- is she meant to balance the great white soldiers that stand guard up and down the street? Is she running towards them or away from them or just for her health?  If it's just for her health, why does she have that scary look on her face?
Running Jane on the YWCA, Main Street, Orange NJ

This is just to say that Running Jane changes the symbolic conversation -- but how?  Have we simply added another heroic character without changing the lives of the vulnerable?  Have we possibly made it worse by signaling it's safe to jog and therefore safe to gentrify????

It's not the flags or heads on the statues that are the problem -- it's the nitty gritty stuff, like paying a decent hourly wage and investing in all neighborhoods and making sure all schools prepare children for the world of work in the 21st century.  

The real "Robert E. Lee Problem" is that he wanted to be able to own people and not pay them for their labor.  People can't be owned -- ok, that's taken care of -- but they also can't be deprived of good pay for good work.  We have a lot of work to do on the substantive issues.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Magic's in the Music

In my book Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America's Sorted-Out Cities, I wrote about Ironworks, home of the ORNG Ink, and other creative endeavors.  Today I had the opportunity to attend the "Creative Musicianship Recital" led by teachers Doug and Jessie with their three "graduating" students, all Orange middle school students.  I had no idea what creative musicianship might be, but it started with all of us clapping to the beat of our individual hearts and then shifting until we were all clapping together.  It got better: the five of them joined together to play a "Drum Concerto."  After it was over we in the audience clapped our hands off with the joy and surprise of it!  Then Molly asked some questions: what did you like best?  Shudnuk -- who stars in a video about factories in the Valley -- told a story about dividing into two groups and practicing in two different rooms and then having the experience of seeing how it worked when the groups were brought back together.  It's hard to go wrong with kids and music, so I don't want to appear silly and sentimental.  It's not that that got my heart.  It is that the kids had been led into the structure of the music and were inventing it in concert with their teachers.  That's like kids doing robotics or 3-D printing.  In fact, Shudnuk is joining the Robotics Team at Orange Preparatory Academy, a team that went to China and won first place.  The dad of the drummer was as overwhelmed as I was.  He kept thanking Doug and Jessie for making something positive -- he was beaming with joy.  In a city like Orange, there's not a lot of money -- our wealth is in Shudnuk and all of the kids.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Podunk, VT

I was visiting Dr. Martha Stitelman this past weekend with the goal of seeing the Strolling of the Heifers on Main Street in Brattleboro.  I loved the parade, and the many ways in which the town expressed itself and linked urban and rural.  I realized that they make much fuller use of their spirit animal -- the cow -- than Hike the Heights does of our spirit animal -- the giraffe -- and we have some room for exploration.  Martha proposed that she take me to the train in Albany via a longer, scenic route through the forest on a road that had been washed out by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 but has recently been reopened. Vermont is a great state for questioning the rural-urban divide, because it is modestly urban and highly structured rural: here is no mountain or state park that we pass that Martha does not point out the excellent paths that traverse it.  But passing "Lower Podunk Road," I said, as people before me have, "There's really a Podunk?"   It turns out there's more than one -- small towns that passed their peak.  But here's the rub -- right near Lower Podunk Road is a marker that Martha pulled off the road to show me -- in the middle of the woods it says that Daniel Webster spoke at that spot to a gathering of the Whig convention in 1840.  We looked around the woods and wondered how 15,000 could have gathered there.  But the answer is that small towns like Podunk were functioning places -- Vermont was cleared of forest at that time, and the forest I see has grown since Daniel Webster was there.  Martha pointed out that there are lots of markers of habitation as one walks through the woods -- cellars and stone walls and gravestones.  Just as with the heifers strolling on Main Street, Vermont shifts the focus so that we can see the urban and the rural flow into and out of another.
Marker where 15,000 people once gathered but now we see a forest.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Michael Lally and the "Swing Theory" of Main Street

I had lunch with poet Michael Lally the other day.  David Lehman, reviewing the book on the blog, "The Best American Poetry," says, "Michael Lally scores big with his new collection, Swing Theory, just out from Hanging Loose Press." It is a wonderful review of the book -- though touching largely on poetic form and schools of writing.  Here, I am simply arguing that Michael's poems are essential to reading main street.

The question on my mind was, "As a poet, what are your thoughts on Main Streets and symbols?" That's about as vague as a question can get. I was a little clearer in my elaboration -- at any rate, I think I was clearer -- that I have come to understand that everything about main streets is symbolic of our way of life.  "Think about the two main streets in Maplewood -- the one so 'village-y' and quaint, and the other quite different, part of Springfield Avenue and blending into Newark."

Michael smiled wryly and talked about the threat posed to the village-y main street in Maplewood by a new complex planned for the post office site and cheered on by the Springfield Avenue businesses who thought it would generate money to help them. "This has been a pleasant place for artists and writers and others to come, feel at home.  But the new complex is going to shift the place, driving those people out, except for the financiers, who'll be able to stay.  When we sit in this diner and look out we won't be able to see the blue sky because the building will be in the way."

In Swing Theory, Michael has a poem called "November Sonnet" which reads the symbolic moment as much as his story of the two main streets.  It opens with a memory of cars pulling over to the side of the Garden State Parkway, and drivers sobbing -- it turns out that this was when they learned President Kennedy had been killed.  "But it's not even a poem about Kennedy,"  Michael said.  "It's about the black guys" -- fellow enlisted men whose faces relaxed when they learned that "Lee Harvey Oswald" was white.  From the twitch of a facial muscle to the height of a building -- this ability to speak in the language of symbols is what makes Michael such an important poet for those of us wanting to create a sane America.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

MDW DTS!* *Memorial Day Weekend Down The Shore!

In Jersey, we say "down the shore," as in "I went down the shore on Memorial Day."  It is as much of a conjunction as the disparate parts of the state are ever likely to have.  My "down the shore" is mostly Asbury Park/Ocean Grove, a juxtaposition that says it all.  The Asbury Insider -- and people I met -- talked about how empty Asbury was in the 1990s, and how long it took for life to return to the city.  This made me reflect on the ways life and money move in the American city, stranding some, drowning others.  The waves of investment are coming back to Asbury now, as they are in Jersey City and Brooklyn -- it might even reach Orange NJ.  This seems like it should be good but what distorts it is the amount -- it's an all-or-nothing process that wreaks havoc on either end.  Slavery was similar, in an odd way, to this system of real estate investment: it was designed for maximum profit and paid no attention to the needs of the people and the land.  But people and land have needs -- among the need for continuity.  New Jersey needs the shore, not just as a place for a dip and some ice cream, but as the place in which we get to know ourselves.  As the site of our collective soul, if souls are located in landscape.  As the place where we see the horizon in the far distance and remember that the world is full of wonder.  Waves of water, waves of investment might wash us away -- but perhaps there is some Jersey Strong that we might exert, and find a way to stay?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Main Street through Salzburg's Meadow

I spent the last several days at the 50th annual meeting of the Salzburg Congress on Urban Planning and Development, which was held at the Schloss Leopoldskron, famous as the site of the film, Sound of Music.  The Schloss is a 15-minute walk from the Old City of Salzburg, so I took a walk with a friend to see what I could see.  The beginning part of the walk went through a meadow.  It seemed an unlikely main street, because it was so, well, meadow-like.  But there was a road and sidewalks and people were going through non-stop.  We walked over a canal, and through more meadow which ended at the foot of a hill topped by a fortress.  We walked around the hill and on the other side was the Old City, nestled at the foot of the fortress.  We noticed a funicular, and so decided to go to the top -- wonderful and quick way up!  At the top were panoramic views of the surrounding valley.  It was easy to imagine defending the fortress from hostile forces.  A small city was tucked into the walls and alleys up there.  But my favorite sight was the meadow criss-crossed with paths, filled with people coming and going, and leading -- not so distant -- to the Schloss.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Poem to Read

Friday, April 24, 2015

Poem of the Week: Ross Gay


A Small Needful Fact

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

Used with permission.

Ross Gay is a gardener and teacher living in Bloomington, Indiana. His book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, is available from University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

Please feel free to share Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this post, including this request. Thanks! If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What Baltimore's UNHEARD are SAYING

Every time there are riots we are reminded of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 statement,
It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
Riots are effective at drawing attention -- rioters are heaped with the scorn of those in power -- but less effective at stating what is going on that is so intolerable.  A remarkable quote, from Aisha Snead who grew up in West Baltimore and reported in The New York Times 4.29.15, captures the essence of the problem that must be heard:
This is the land time forgot.  They want to act like the CVS [which was burned] is the Taj Mahal.  They have dilapidated buildings everywhere.  They have never invested in the people.  In fact, it's divested.  They take every red cent they can from poor black people and put it in the Inner Harbor.
The New York Times's coverage also included a map showing low life expectancy and high poverty in the areas of unrest.  They might have usefully added maps from the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health examined Baltimore neighborhoods.  The maps show how accurate Ms. Snead is in saying "this is the land time forgot."  Using the 1937 redlining map of Baltimore, the Center was able to show that areas that were poor and segregated then -- and marked for low (or even no) investment were statistically more likely to poor, have low rates of home ownership and to be segregated in the present.  As Ms. Snead observes, Baltimore is not sharing the wealth.  The assets they are frantic to protect are not for the poor.

There are many ways to measure racism.  Along some of those dimensions, racism has largely disappeared.  On other dimensions -- notably how we distribute resources among neighborhoods and peoples -- we are worse than ever.  Because we don't have the same kind of racist thinking our forebears had, we wonder how the effects of racism can still be getting worse.  That is why this study from VCU is so important.  They are telling us that our forebears made a RACISM MACHINE that still operates -- even if it no longer has our permission.  We must dismantle the MACHINE.  

The rioters are expressing their RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE -- our very survival as a society depends on hearing this message -- because that machine is placing all of us at horrendous risk.  And this may be the dimension of racism along which almost all of us still fail.  Consider this question: 
Who is hurt by racism? a) black people b) people of color c) white people d) all of us
 If you picked D-All of us, you got it right.  But ask around in your network.  The usual answers will be a and b.  We still don't get that oppression of some hurts all.  This is a fundamental piece of the MACHINE that we can dismantle today.  Spread the word: Racism is bad for the nation.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Cherry Blossom Season

I was in Japan in mid-March, just as the plum trees and a few cherry trees were beginning to blossom.  The nation was preparing for the cherry blossoms, the way we prepare for Christmas.  There were wreaths of cherry blossoms on light poles, and signs for celebrations in various cities.  At the National Museum, every exhibit featured art and design using cherry blossoms.  One of the exhibits I passed was of swords from the samurai era -- the swords were exceptionally beautiful, but displayed without their hilts -- as if the metalwork was the point, and indeed, it was extraordinary.  The coincidence of blossoms and hilt-less swords reminded me of a poem that my mother used to read to me from The Anthology of World Poetry.

An Old Song
Yehoash (translated from Yiddish by Marie Syrkin)

In the blossom-land Japan
Somewhere thus an old song ran.

Said a warrior to a smith
“Hammer me a sword forthwith,
Make the blade light as wind on water laid,
Make if lone
As the wheat at harvest song.
Supple, swift
As a snake, without a rift,
Full of lightnings, thousand-eyed!
Smooth as silken cloth and thin
As the web that spiders spin,
And merciless as pain, and cold.”

“On the hilt what shall be told?”

“On the sword’s hilt, my good man,”
Said the warrior of Japan,
“Trace for me
A running lake, a flock of sheep

And one who sings her child to sleep.”

I promised to send this poem to Haruko Takasaki-Fullilove, my daughter-in-law, and she promised to send a photo of the weeping cherries over a canal in Tokyo.  Here's the photo.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Poetry and Main Street

This is national poetry month -- you can sign up to get a poem-a-day in your email. In the meantime, I want to stake a claim for the relationship between Main Street and Poetry. I've been researching Main Streets for a long time now and I've only just figured this out -- but how cool that I'm just in time for National Poetry Month! While there are poets from Walt Whitman to Michael Lally that I could cite to prove my point, I just came across this poem from Edgar Lee Masters' The New Spoon River and I think it is right on point. Main Streets are full of signs -- signs from today, signs from yesterday, signs on bulletin boards, signs in store windows, signs in graffiti, signs in chalk -- advice, ads, personals -- the density of communication on Main Street is testimony to what Main Street is all about.  Ahh, but what does it mean?  Is all just shouting?  That's where poetry comes in!  Thanks, Poets, for helping us get the meaning, the soul, the frivolity and the sublime.

Max the Sign Painter
Edgar Lee Masters

When Spoon River became a ganglion
For the monster brain Chicago
These were the signs I painted, which showed
What ruled America:
Vote for Patrick Kelly and save taxes;
I am for men, and this is the cigar;
This generation shall not see death,
Hear Pastor Valentine;
Eat Healthina and live;
Chew Floss's gum and keep your teeth;
Twenty-five dollars for a complete funeral;
Insure your life;
Three per cent, for your money;
Come to the automat.
And if there is any evidence
Of a civilization better,
I'd like to see the signs.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Main Street Soul

I had a lovely visit to Cleveland last week, and a great tour with Neighborhood Connections. We drove down 105th Street in Glenville, once a center of Jewish life and more recently a center of the African American community. Dr. Martin Kohn, one of the my hosts, told me a story about 105th Street where his grandfather attended shul in a plain brick building. The building was long since taken over by an African American congregation, but Marty decided to connect with that place as part of arts fellowship he's in. He described what it was like to go back there, to connect with the minister and the congregation, and to be in touch with deep memories -- from early childhood -- of this place that so important to his grandfather. I have been in many places on Main Streets that were endowed by people who come there no more. Christ Episcopal Church on Main Street in East Orange is one -- so finely endowed by the people who used to worship there, but it doesn't seem as if their heirs revel in the beautiful stained glass windows or fine furnishings. I was so deeply glad to hear what it was like for a descendant to see the place that had such meaning in the life of his ancestor. Maybe this is the most transcendant fact I've learned about Main Street -- Main Street has soul.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Main Street Attic

I am gearing up to write about all these Main Streets I've visited. Jake Izenberg and I are finishing up a paper about the model we've developed. I've launched a project to make a design sketchbook of the key ideas. And I've updated the list of cities I've visited -- there are 105 that have informed my thinking up to this point. I hope to visit Japan, Austria and South Africa in the course of this year and that will add immeasurably to what I know. Part of this assemblage has been to do with reviewing the thousands of photos I've taken and pulling out those that mean the most to me. Given this selection criterion, it is possibly just my taste in Main Street stuff, but I was thinking this morning that Main Streets are a lot like an attic, filled with stuff we might not use but don't want to throw away. I usually think of an attic as some place out of sight, out of mind. Once I put some boxes in an attic in Berkeley, then inadvertently forgot them when insulation was blown in. They are possibly still there. Main Street is not out of mind, except in that way that we stop seeing places to which we're accustomed. We don't necessarily think about the old stuff, unless somebody messes with it. It is horrible when they do. A building owner got the idea that the gargoyles on her building were bringing her bad luck so she chopped them off. I was stunned and horrified -- but ask me the last time I'd thought about the gargoyles or even if I ever thought about it. (I don't think I ever did.) Going to Main Street and seeing the ghost signs, and fading window decorations, the old stone work -- these things anchor us in space and time. I met a woman the other day whose family had owned Moskin's Pharmacy -- they have a wonderful sign that I love to see each time I'm on Palisades Avenue in Englewood. It's not just the familiarity of that sign, but that the style of the sign reminds me of all the signs on all the buildings when I was growing up. It is a part of the signage of my life. There are lions of all sizes on Main Streets all over the world. And not only lions but other cats as well. Why so many? I have no idea. But lions and Main Street go together. I mean, you don't see pandas or rhinoceri on Main Streets, do you? Sonia Sanchez has a book of poetry that has the title, "My house has lions, does yours?" I love that title and eponymous poem. My babysitter had two lions flanking her stairs and I take such comfort from seeing lions. So lions are stored all over Main Streets. When we touch something on Main Street -- whether we like it or we don't -- we ought to have in mind that this is a FAMILY attic -- and the thing we might want to throw out is dear to someone else -- good to check, and not to just chuck it as useless clutter.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Path dependence in urban history

Architect Walter Street III passed along an article in Smithsonian Magazine about Vanport, Oregon's city largest city, built 1943 and was washed away in one day 1948. It is a stunning story of racial discrimination in housing, and the author draws the lines from then to the present-day lack of diversity in Portland and Oregon. A stunning story.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Locking others out, locking ourselves in

In a brilliant article on "hostile architecture," Alex Andreou makes the point the spikes that keep a homeless person from sitting on a low wall also keep a pregnant woman or an elderly person from doing the same thing. People know when they've been excluded. People know when they're doing the excluding. None of this makes the kind of society we need for longterm survival of our species.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Unusual leaders come forward to help us in tough times

It is not every day that the head of the FBI and the head of the NYC Department of Health come forward with similar appeals, but that's what we've seen in the past few days. James B. Comey, director of the FBI, made an unusually direct address on the subject of policing and race. According to the NY Times report, "Mr. Comey said that his speech, which was well received by law enforcement officials, was motivated by his belief that the country had not 'had a healthy dialogue' since the protests began in Ferguson and that he did not 'want to see those important issues drift away.'" Mary Bassett, MD, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, said, "As New York City's health commissioner, I feel a strong moral and professional obligation to encourage critical dialogue and action on issues of racism and health." Her comments were also triggered by the events in Ferguson and Staten Island, and the ongoing protests those events had triggered. I am greatly encouraged by this powerful leadership urging us to keep talking. Charles Blow, NY Times columnist, brought some humor to this issue, urging us to recognize that, while we might not be involved in the perfect Truth and Reconciliation Meeting, we are having a "kaffeeklastch on race" that is moving us forward. In a social emergency, it is essential that leaders show the way. In response to a plea by the Design Studio for Social Intervention, architect Randy Collins sketched what we need to do: Cry for the victims, Contemplate the act, Cry out for Justice, Advocate for Change. I think we are moving on that path now.

What "MainStreeters" Want

According to William Morrish, architect and professor in Urban Ecologies at Parsons The New School for Design, "MainStreeters want their ideas to become mainstreamed and accessible to the widest audience." Of course. That's why you need to be on Main Street, where everybody passes by. Check out the crowds on Fayette Street in Raleigh NC at the Moral Monday protest in this superb article by David Swerdlick in The Root.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Way to help, guys!

Redlining is an honored practice in the US. The University of Orange, as part of the 2015 Jan term, led a trip to the National Archives in College Park to collect maps and survey forms as part of a national project to get all the redlining maps online. This will enable all of us to understand what happened in 1937, when the federal government sent surveyors out to 200 American cities, looking for "undesirable racial elements" so that banks could be warned about neighborhoods deemed unworthy of their money. This damnable process has long since been outlawed as such, but racism is a clever germ, and constantly mutates. One scientist compared it to HIV, which is the fastest mutating organism we know. What's the latest mutation? Instead of warning about "undesirable racial elements," Movoto Insider warns against crime, with an article, "These are the 10 most dangerous places in New Jersey." Hint: you don't want to buy a house there and if you live there, LEAVE. We, at Movoto, can help you get a home in one of those safe cities for which New Jersey is famed. Of the top 20 cities for Black population in NJ, 10 are listed in Movoto's top 50 for crime. This is another way of redlining, calling out these cities for their troubles, unbalanced by their history, strengths or hopes. This is the old wine of redlining in a new bottle of "danger."

Sunday, February 1, 2015

What the "Main Street Kiss" teaches us about Ebola

In 2009 Matthew Aune and Derek Jones were strolling through Main Street Plaza. Aune gave Jones a kiss on the cheek and they were immediately stopped by security guards, thrown to the ground, handcuffed and arrested. While "Main Street" seems like a fine place to show a little affection, one block of Main Street in Salt Lake City was "bought" by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and is private property. No kissing, short shorts, sunbathing -- only strictly modest behavior allowed. Aune and Jones protested and LGBTQ community of Salt Lake City supported them by holding a "kiss-in." This opened the door to private talks between leaders of the LDS Church and the LBGTQ community. The talks gradually led to increased understanding and paved the way for a historic breakthrough and protections for gay rights in Salt Lake City. What is so interesting about this story is that it illustrates the kind of magical transformations that can occur in cities -- and which I think of as "urban alchemy." It helps us understand the remarkable report in today's NY Times that people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea found ways to manage the Ebola crisis. The Ebola epidemic has been worse than it needed to be, but much smaller than at one point we thought it might be. It was worse because of international disarray. But it is smaller that it might have been because people, faced with an impossible situation, took matters into their own hands and developed strategies for epidemic management. The Times article points out that people changed their behavior and this was particularly powerful in the urban settings. One story seemed to capture of lot of what on the ground. A neighborhood health group took charge of protecting people from Ebola. "In September, as the epidemic widened, the group’s chairman, Jeremiah Fahnbulleh, 27, another technical college graduate, proposed two measures that many communities would adopt in one form or another: outsiders would not be allowed to spend the night in Parker Paint; and residents leaving Parker Paint for more than two consecutive nights would be placed under quarantine upon their return. Standing under a mango tree next to his family home, a transistor radio at his side, Mr. Fahnbulleh said he came up with the idea after listening to the radio during a sleepless night. 'The thought came to me that Ebola came from one place to another, from house to house, from community to community,” he said. “Listening to the radio, I got to know how people got infected.'" People in cities, confronted with serious problems, get ideas for how to solve them. This can lead to changes that defy our predictions and that promote the general well-being beyond our wildest dreams. This is a profound lesson about the ways in which change can happen at blinding speed and with extraordinary power.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Amazing Pastrami in Newark!

Molly Rose Kaufman, Provost of the University of Orange, leads food expeditions all over Northern New Jersey. Today she took Rachel Bland and me to Bragman's, a deli and catering establishment in Newark. Bragman's is old-time Jewish food from back in the day when Weequahic and other sections of Newark were heavily Jewish. After the riots many moved away, to suburbs, taking the synagogues and the delis with them. Bragman's stayed. And oh my God, the pastrami!!!! While some say there is better pastrami, what I want to say is, how great does it have it get? On any given day that I could eat that pastrami, I'd be so happy -- as I am today! We sat on the sturdy chairs at the friendly deli table and ate -- I mean Pechter's Rye and Dr. Brown's Cream Soda and Utz Potato Chips. In the half hour we were there, the line never got short. One guy placed himself in the wrong position and then was cranky when he was skipped over. "I been here half an hour." It wasn't true -- I'd been there half an hour. But we all enjoyed his complaining and the way it was ignored by everyone. Outside, it looks a bit bleak. Bragman's is anchoring a street that is more unemployed than employed. But its constancy is the stuff of legends.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"No one goes there anymore; it's too crowded"

What does Times Square fear? Maybe it's ferocious success. According to today's NY Times, Times Square is so choked with visitors that regular people -- like office workers and New Yorkers who like the theater -- don't want to go there any more. The situation brought to mind the famous Yogi Berra quote, "No one goes there anymore; it's too crowded." David Chapin, Hirofumi Minami and I strolled Broadway a couple of years ago, and we spent an hour at Times Square. It was pretty empty of people, so we got to study the billboards, and the crowd amusements. There are other spaces like that, I've found. The Ramblas, in Barcelona, can get so packed with people it's hard to move. Even the small street where I lived one summer in Paris -- St. Andre des Arts -- could get so full of folks going back and forth that it was hard to move. St. Andre des Arts has been packed with people for as long as Paris has been a city -- it was the route from the center to a market that was just outside the walls. That market was tax-free which attracted shoppers. There is still a market in the same area, now swallowed up by the city. The history of the enceinte, obscured by time, lives in the ways people use the street. Times Square has a different history and a different dynamic, but appeals to the same instinct to be with the crowd. Except for the paradox that we don't always want to be with the crowd. Nobody really wants to go to work through the crowd. We want the crowd for special occasions, like New Year's Eve, but not every day. So the crowd is not the people who live or work in the area -- it's the tourists. My friend and colleague, David Jenkins, lived near Times Square as it was making the transition from red light district to Disney. He was exhausted by the growing crowds, and eventually moved away to Philadelphia. Apparently others are making moves out of the area as well. When the good folk who support the everyday move away, the character will begin to change again, the hustlers growing in number and power, attracted to the crowds and the dreams of crowds. Times Square, then, might change again, its spaces claimed for new uses and new celebrations. Cities swing between this crazy abandonment to the needs of the crowd and the more quotidian respect for the lives of the inhabitants. Cities need both -- but they can easily let one or the other slip away, creating imbalance and danger.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

YIKES! My neighborhood is gentrifying!

Thanks to Khemani Gibson for passing along this article from The Root, Eleven Signs Your Neighborhood Is Being Gentrified. He mentioned it as we were driving by the new 7-Eleven, which opened right opposite the well-established and beloved Krauszer's. Once you look at the list, it's impossible not to check off others -- "Yup, we have that, we have that. We don't have that." Happily, the interminable recession has given us time to rethink the whole convert-the-factories-to-lofts-and-become-a-suburb thing. An urban design firm, Designing the We, has been working with us to consider how we do economic development, including putting some of those old factories back to work as, well, factories. Somebody wants to make something that could easily be made in Orange, NJ. Doesn't "Made in Orange" kind of make you just feel good? Orange -- great color, great fruit, great drink -- all healthy. Let's NOT gentrify and say we did. Let's PEEL OFF (ha ha) and go in another direction. What do you think?

Monday, January 5, 2015

What were we thinking?

On this remarkable website, you can see before and after of American cities by playing with overlays of aerial maps from 60 years ago and today. Rodrick Wallace as aptly titled this process the "desertification of the American city." The conversion from tight urban fabric to urban desert is shocking. It underscores that our cities aren't simply food deserts, many of them are just deserts. And as they are being reinvented, the threat of gentrification grows. Much to do as we work for inclusive and effective urban restoration.

Are malls main streets?

Malls and main streets are often mentioned in the same sentence, so the relationship needs to be sorted out. I have been thinking about the proposition that a mall is to a department store what a main street is to general store. This is possibly true, but it is insufficient to get at the difference. As I've noted in earlier posts, main streets, as centers of commerce and social life, have to be understood as a box, circle, line and the America people. Malls don't function on all of those dimensions. And, thinking about it that way, I am really really happy that we don't refer to the American people as "The Mall." Malls, because they are a monoculture created for shopping, are ecologically fragile. What makes main streets work, among other factors, is the manner in which they are embedded in cities. Malls, by contrast, are ringed by parking lots and can't possibly be interwoven. That doesn't mean that they might not be useful. When it comes to variety, there's more stuff at Home Depot than at the neighborhood hardware store on my neighborhood main street -- sometimes I need to go to Home Depot. But I can't walk there and I don't know the guys there and I don't catch up on local gossip when I go there. It is interesting to read in the NY Times that quite a number of malls are dying, especially those for middle-class shoppers, those who've been hit hardest by the recession, and are still waiting for the recovery. But, in the meantime, the 1% have taken so much of everything, recovery for the rest of us is slipping further away. Short Hills Mall will survive, Livingston Mall will struggle. In sum, malls are malls, not main streets. Both have their uses. Main Streets occupy a better niche for long term survival.