Friday, January 29, 2016

It takes a what to raise a genius?

An article in Next City has the humorous title, "It May Take A City to Raise a Genius."  The story discusses the book The Geography of Genius by EricWeiner.  He is a travel writer who became intrigued by the idea that certain times and places produced clusters of genius.  This required several factors: diversity of population, openness to new ideas, and "third spaces" in which people could cross paths and rub shoulders, maybe share some strudel as they did in the coffee shops of Vienna.  One wonders did they have baklava back when Plato and Sophocles were hanging out in the markets of Athens.  This raises the question: couldn't we create similar conditions everywhere?  I noticed a great stirring of imagination at Ironworks, a youth arts center in Orange NJ.  It was amazing how this rippled out over space and time, evolving, engaging more young people, and pushing the conversation about art.  "Finances" reared their ugly head and the youth arts program was exchanged for architects with moolah.  What have we done to history?  Can we fix it?  Echoes of Flint ring in my head.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Where did the term "gerrymander" come from?

A Very Helpful Article in today's NY Times explained the history of the term "gerrymander."  I'd grown up with the word because the schools in my hometown were gerrymandered, and my parents led the fight to undo that policy of segregation.  But when and where did the term arise?  Article author Carl Hulse explained that the term referred to Boston voting districts which in 1832 were drawn in bizarre shapes that gave advantage to one political party.  Governor Gerry signed this into law.  A newspaper published a cartoon saying the shape was reminiscent of salamander, indeed, a "Gerry-mander."  You learn something every day!  And what a cartoon!
According the NY Times: "This 1812 cartoon in The Boston Gazette
skewered twisting legislative districts in Massachusetts and helped
give rise to the term 'gerrymandering.'"

Saturday, January 23, 2016

What is an Iowa caucus?

It's a very blizzardy Jan 32rd here in New Jersey during Winter Storm Jonas, and I have time to do all sorts of things, like click on the links in The New York Times.  I found this link to a video of an Iowa caucus.  It was a Des Moines caucus in 2008--I don't know if this more than one.  In this video, the Democrats gathered in a large gym.  They counted themselves, and then divided up by candidate.  Candidates with less than 15% of the crowd were considered "non-viable" and then their supporters could scatter to other candidates.  It was quite a process of people engaging in the political process.  One woman was trying to convince some men to support Obama.  One man with a Hilary sign got hysterical, shouting that Obama didn't raise his hand to salute the flag. Another man said to the woman, "Could you give him a Valium?"  It is a fascinating look at what will be happening in Iowa, as Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton go toe-to-toe.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Chaos in Cologne

The chaos in the streets of Cologne on New Year's Eve is provoking lots of second thoughts about permitting large numbers of refugees into Germany and elsewhere in Europe.  The police expected, and prepared for, the usual, and when the unusual happened, they made a series of bad decisions which escalated the situation.  Not good.

It's easy enough to see the problem of a clash of cultures.  But it's not as if the countries that young men are from traditionally allow drunken, rowdy behavior and mass attacks on women.  It's the lack of culture, the sudden upheaval, the joy of being out of danger and the lack of a sense of boundaries in the new place that put all in danger.  It is easy to assume that, having offered asylum, all will be grateful and behavior in the "right" way.  Most have -- there are a million refugees in Germany, for example, a some hundreds that mobbed the New Year's Eve crowd.  To blame the whole for the bad behavior of a few is always a bad idea.  But the point is that it demonstrates that the assumption -- be grateful, be proper -- is not sufficient.

What else has to be considered?

First, what is the history in Germany or the other host countries of treating people from the Middle East who have settled there?  Are they well-integrated into the culture?  Are they connected to the new arrivals?  This kind of history is crucial for beginning to think about what will happen next.  A well-integrated immigrant group can quickly help fellow immigrants connect -- the "Soviet" era Jewish immigrants in New York, for example, have been stalwarts in integrating others from "Russia."

Second, what is the history of upheaval from which people were fleeing?  What kind of behaviors did they see and participate in or suffer from?  In periods of upheaval, people see and do all kinds of things that have to do with cultural traditions and everything to do with the struggles for power, survival and hegemony.

Third, what is the setting into which people are welcomed?  Are they able to start to work, to learn the language, to develop a future?  Are they in refugee camps?  What are the camps like?  The more unstable and marginal the situation of the refugees, the more chaos can be expected.

These are only some of the serious questions that have to be answered before predictions can be made or judgements of behavior reached.  The crisis is serious, the chaos a symptom that must be taken seriously.  Using one incident to set policy, without a thorough assessment of its context and meaning, is shortsighted and can only aggravate the larger global situation in which we find ourselves.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Buying their Main Street

This thrilling article from YES! Magazine details how a group of neighbors in Minneapolis got together to improve their Main Street.  Many of the stores were vacant and it had a gloomy air.  They pooled their money and bought up some of the stores.  Then they sold or rented the spaces to enterprises that needed affordable space, like a bicycle store, a bakery and a brewery.  These new enterprises created jobs and injected vigor into Main Street.  This is a model that has resonance for many places whose Main Streets are slowly sagging into obliteration.  I had the opportunity to visit Mount Morris, a town in upstate New York, revitalized by the efforts of Greg O'Connell, a New York City developer who loved the area.

Here's another great story about transforming a lost piece of Main Street: the Nebraska town of Lyons transformed a building that was only a facade into a pop-up theater.  This project, developed by artist Matt Mazzotta, re-created the front of the building so that it would be lowered, revealing bleacher seats.  Then, they used a tractor to put a large movie screen in place.  For the inaugural event, they played a movie about the history of downtown Lyons, starring several local residents.  It reminds me of the wonderful film "Be Kind, Rewind," in which a community makes a movie about itself.

So if your Main Street looks pathetic, considering buying a bit of it and remaking it!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Main Street Stories

Here's the thing about Main Street stories: they are stories of our collective life. When I first started studying Main Streets, I never thought of Saturday afternoons at the Embassy Theater as anything other than a really pleasant memory of childhood.  But, especially as the University of Orange had worked on "Unearthing the Future: the Reverse Archaeology of Route 280," I've heard so many people's stories of the Embassy -- and they're all more or less like mine.  Fran McClain told Chris Matthews, chief reverse archaeologist,
Embassy Theater on Main Street, Orange, NJ
There were so many movies here. We had the Hollywood [theater], which was right out here on Central Avenue …. We’d roller skate there. It was only a quarter to get into the movies. We saw the cartoons, two features, then we would roller skate back home. There was also the Embassy Theater on Main Street by the library and the Palace theater on Main Street by East Orange. I remember seeing Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Westerns with John Wayne.
We have the same memories, because we all went there together.  And that is the power and mystery of Main Street.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea -- such a strange movie!  How did that shape our young minds?  What did it say about America?  What kind of delicious life did we have on roller skates?  I love the song "Brand New Key" by Melanie:
I got a brand new pair of roller skates,
You got a brand new key.
One day I found a roller skate key in a pile of junk and I added it to my keychain.  I was partly imitating others in my family who have exotic collections on their key chains.  But I was also remembering how precious it was to have a roller skate key, as the skates had to be tightened all the time.  And this is the magic of Main Street: it opens our eyes to the shared part of our existence, woven with our culture, our times, our keys.