Saturday, June 30, 2012

Michael Herr. Dispatches. 34 years later.

A great book was published 34 years ago.  Dispatches by Michael Herr is his rock n' roll disquisition on Vietnam.  It's what a war feels like when you walk through it -- its sights, sounds, smells -- what it means to be out there, way out there.

My editorial mind forces me to add that I pulled this book off my shelf to see just how distanced we have become from war today. This kind of reporting is no longer found in American English.  It doesn't even seem possible.  As a result, we skirt a truth -- the full cost, fury, madness, pathology, death and dare I say it, humanity of what we set in motion when we ring the clarion bell to arms.

In early December, I came back from my first operations with the Marines.  I'd lain scrunched up for hours in a flimsy bunker that was falling apart even faster than I was, listening to it going on, the moaning and the whining and the dull repetitions of whump whump whump and dit dit dit, listening to a boy who'd somehow broken his thumb sobbing and gagging, thinking, "Oh my God, this fucking thing is on a loop!" until the heavy shooting stopped but not the thing: at the lz waiting for the choppers to Phu Bai one last shell came in, landing in the middle of a pile full of body bags, making a mess that no one wanted to clean up, "a real shit detail." It was after midnight when I finally got back to Saigon, riding in from Tan Son Nhut in an open jeep with some sniper-obsessed MPs, and there was a small package of mail waiting for me at the hotel. I put my fatigues out in the hall room and closed the door on them. I may have even locked it. I had the I Corps DT's, liver, spleen, brains, a blue-black swollen thumb moved around and flashed to me, they were playing over the walls of the shower where I spent a half-hour, they were on the bed-sheets, but I wasn't afraid of them, I was laughing at them, what could they do to me? I filled a water glass with Armagnac and rolled a joint, and then started to read my mail. In one of the letters there was news that a friend of mine had killed himself in New York. When I turned off the lights and got into bed I lay there trying to remember what he had looked like. He had done it with pills, but no matter what I tried to imagine, all I saw was blood and bone fragment, not my dead friend. After a while I broke through for a second and saw him, but by that time all I could do with it was file him in with the rest and go to sleep. (p. 66-7)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Memories of the 1970s

The closing of the Harvard Square Cinema on Church Street is <begin list now>:

  • A loss
  • A marker of time's passing
  • A symptom of today's entertainment economics
  • A harbinger of things to come
  • An opportunity to reflect
  • An ...

I'll chose "an opportunity to reflect", and dwell there just a moment.

When the doors of the theater close, the Rocky Horror Picture Show will be made homeless.  A regular feature since 1984, 28 years ago, the great movie with its flamboyant twist on a hackneyed plot line -- a couple's car breaks down in a storm, "Didn't we pass a castle on the road a couple of miles back?", you get the rest -- will be seeking a new roof over its head to get out of the rain.  Of course, any Rocky Horror veteran knows that no matter how enjoyable the movie, you go for the show -- the floor show -- the real life humans who dress up in their own versions of costumes of the characters on the screen and act out the film in front of your very own eyes.  The gags that fall to the audience make it good too -- rice thrown at the wedding scene, handfuls of it; playing cards at "cards for sorrow, cards for pain", and no one can forget "Where's your f*ing neck?!" 

It all comes back to me now.  Like every kid originally from the Big Apple, I'm impressed that Harvard Square has hosted Rocky Horror since the mid-80s, but I remember -- oh God, here we go -- I remember going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the old New Yorker theater on Broadway and 89th Street in Manhattan six years earlier, in the late 1970s.

It was a wild time, to be out so late -- all shows start at midnight -- in this slightly subversive world. My friends and I were all of 11 or 12 years old at the time.  But it was New York, and it was the 1970s.  The New Yorker was a long distance from where the others lived -- they were all East Side kids -- but I wasn't far from my father's, who lived just up Broadway.  Was it dangerous?  Who knows.  Certainly, there was the blue haze of smoke in theater -- it was the 1970s after all -- but I am sure most of the kids in the theater, and they were mostly kids, slightly older than my gang, but still kids, were just like me.  Adventure and excitement.

Of course, the film is an odd twist on Frankenstein's castle, with a cross-dressing Dr. Frank-N-furter (Tim Curry) and his creation Rocky (Peter Hinwood), who prances around in nothing but gold shorts. Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) are the starchy, straight-laced lost newlyweds.  Add to this one of the great characters in film, the handyman Riff Raff (Richard O'Brien) and his wife Magenta (Patricia Quinn), sprinkle in the singer Meat Loaf, and it all comes to life.  Every Friday and Saturday night at midnight, it all came to life.

The New Yorker Theater has long since succumbed to the wrecking ball.  I don't remember when it was exactly -- probably around the time Rocky Horror was opening up in Harvard Square -- but it was sad nonetheless. Manhattan was gentrifying. Land values on the Upper West Side were going up.  There was a higher and better use of the land.  That means housing. Down came the old, and up went something new.

With the theater went a bookstore too, just around the corner.  It was also called the New Yorker, I believe.  I remember standing in front of the plate glass window of the bookstore one morning.  I want to say it was a cold day, but that may be mistaken.  I was with my father.  I think we were walking the dog.  The bookstore had a display of neighborhood authors in the window.  There was my father's newly printed book, Sunrise.  That dates this memory to around 1980.  Next to it was Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel laureate.  A little outpost of authorship in a little bookstore on a small side street amongst the canyons of Manhattan. 

That West Side is gone now.  Like all eras, it was, but went. Yet it lingers as a little memory in the canyons of my mind.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Culture of Innovation

Looking out over the roofs of Kendall Square from a 14th floor window, the unmistakeable absence of meaningful urban design greets the eye.  The buildings, boxy, blocky and red brick, mimic too closely the architect's drawings from which they emerged decades earlier.  In that, they resemble a cartoon depiction of themselves.  The resulting urban space feels unfulfilled.  It is a victory of function over form, of plan over design.  All of it leaves the palate tasteless. 

It also confirms the hypothesis that people who fill these buildings didn't come here because it looked good.

But then, why did they come?  What is it about Kendall Square?

Often is it heard that the mixing and mingling -- the chance encounter -- is the important aspect of what drives innovation.  In this respect, proximity and design matters a great deal, and Kendall Square's ability nurture  a creative environment in spite of its design limitations requires asking what else is at work.

The success of Kendall Square must come from a cultural component.  Innovation is as much about a mindset as it is about a set of external factors.  Pascal Marmier, the Swiss consul located here in Cambridge, pointed toward some of these components in an interview he gave back in May: "I think it is a story of people who are thinking bold, who are thinking outside of the box.  People who are young and are encouraged to be thinking about this.  It is something that is strong in the culture.  It is something that makes you creative or willing to explore what people call 'white spaces' where not a lot of people are going."    Marmier goes on to talk about "the ability of people to deal with uncertainty".  Some words jump out here: bold, young, in the culture, willing to explore, 'white spaces', ability to deal with uncertainty.

  • Universities develop capacity in students.  Presumably, universities are the first place where the mindset is established, the first step on a ladder of innovation.  The level to which the university embraces this role must be important, not just in allowing risk taking, but in encouraging it. This embrace can be programmatic, offering opportunities for students to embrace this risk either as individuals or as groups, in and out of the classroom.  
  • Universities leverage their position to bridge the gap. It may also be a reflection of the university's own willingness to adopt risk, to capitalize on its most important asset, its people.  MIT, for example, maintains that its off-campus building projects are a reflection of its willingness to step in and bridge the gap between the university and commerce.  To use one of MIT's own examples, the presence of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences building, a university-funded project, resulted directly in a privately-funded development on Main Street in Cambridge to house Pfizer.  From a strategic development perspective, this is an interesting claim, and if accurate -- that a university development spurred a non-university development -- important. 
  • History gives some clues. The 1990s must be a template for what we are witnessing today.  An era of true upheaval with a multitude of outcomes, it represented a time when a 22 year old might become a very rich CEO overnight.  The world has changed significantly from 15 years ago, but that effect lingers on.  
  • People are the ultimate network technology.  Something truly novel to today is the highly networked nature not just of networks, but of people themselves. In some ways, the new internet is not the electrons flying around in and behind your computer screen.  The actual internet is your network of friends and acquaintances, professional and personal, who support, challenge, inform, share with you and with others.  In an odd twist to our information-saturated world where we spend more of our days staring at screens, the personal has become much more valuable.  The human component is reasserting itself in a highly detached world. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

And I thought this was car country!

Last night, while considering a trip to Dallas, Texas, I got on Google Maps to see the location of the Magnolia Hotel in downtown.

I began to notice the number of airports listed on the map and it seemed like quite a lot.  So this morning, I did a quick survey.

I count 22 separate airports within 40 miles (or so) of downtown Dallas.  Twenty-two, and I have no illusion that this is a complete list.

Who needs a car anymore, I ask you?

Dallas Executive Airport
Dallas Love Field Airport
Mesquite Metro
Grand Prairie Muni
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport
Lakeview Airport
Airpark-Dallas Airport
Northwest Regional
Fort Worth Alliance Airport
Hicks Airfield
Kenneth Copeland Airport
Meacham International Airport
Sycamore Strip
Fort Worth Spinks Airport
Arlington Municipal Airport
Lancaster Airport
Ferris Red Oak Municipal Heliport
Terrell Municipal Airport
Airpark East
Rives Air Park
Rockwall Municipal Airport

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Hard and the Soft of Planning for Innovation

The interest is global, and the question not a difficult one to ask: what makes Kendall Square tick?   Answering it is nowhere near as easy. 

The underlying question is what are the component parts of a successful innovation cluster.

I spent this past week recording my observations as I toured the place with visitors who are eager to see an innovation cluster spring up in their part of the globe. Witnessing this peculiar Cambridge phenomenon through the viewpoint of others impelled me to organize my thoughts into categories. 

The most basic formulation was a split between what I call “hard” and “soft” planning. 

“Hard” planning refers to physical planning – tangible things – roads, transit, buildings, open space, heights, proportions, widths, etc.

“Soft” planning has more to do with the culture of innovation and the less tangible components of creating an eco-system that can flourish organically.

Indeed, what struck me most was not the physical planning challenges as they exist in Kendall Square, but the cultural planning challenges associated with the innovation economy. 

Here are some of my observations:


I put the soft planning issues first because I feel those are the more important ones, and the more difficult ones to instigate, cultivate, nurture, and make real.

The least experienced are the most important.  This one might be called Support the Students – the young talent. In the end, they drive much of the model.

Turn hierarchies on their head.  In some ways, the innovation economy turns typical hierarchies on their head.  The most important input into the system is the young, energetic, inventive, creative, risk-loving entrepreneur.  They are the most important piece in part because life hasn't taught them to be cautious, to be wary, to be prudent.

Design for randomness. In this model, chance and randomness play an important, indeed critical role. It may sound funny, but for cultures where the word “serendipity” doesn’t exist, it needs to be invented.  It is actually a big issue. Cambridge Innovation Center is a place where the mantra of serendipity is repeated everyday.  The amount of financial resources dedicated to encouraging these random interactions is truly staggering. The theory is that the placing of skills and talents in one dense location and encouraging their mixing will produce the random encounter that will prove to be the most valuable meeting of the day.

Do not fear failure.  It was striking how often we heard on this tour that failure is an important part of the system of the innovation economy.  It is the willingness of the whole system to accept failure and not judge it that is important to the success of the system as a whole. 

Don't punish failure.  The most illustrative example of this phenomenon can be found at the Cambridge Innovation Center, where they operate everything on a 30 day lease.  Your busy grows, you rent another 30 days.  Your business fails, you're out of your lease in 30 days.  You don't have to worry that even if your business fails, you're stuck with 6 or 12 months on a lease for space you don't need.

Encourage risk taking.  Reducing the downside to failure promotes this upside, the slightly reckless abandon of belief in oneself and one's ideas and their ultimate worth and their capacity to be implementable.

Banish the bureaucrats.  There is a strong need to break the traditional hierarchies of bureaucracy and bureaucratic power.  Running into a cultural barrier of power and privilege can and will prevent creating a truly innovative environment and workspace.  We were told repeatedly that the role of government at any level -- local, state, federal -- in Kendall Square is almost nil. 

Add other amenities. I believe there are correlated aspects to this innovation world.  In other words, where you find one, you find the other.  Here are a few:
  • Bike culture – as noted elsewhere on this blog, biking has increased 150 percent in ten years. 
  • Local food (locavore) and community gardens is another. 
  • Industrial arts should be nurtured.  There are very similar ideas and common themes found in places like the Artist Asylum in Somerville and in the Cambridge Innovation Center. The point is -- where you have true innovation clusters, you find these other things in conjunction.

Let demand drive the model. 

There is wisdom in crowds.

And finally …

Know thyself.  Just as Plato urged almost 2,500 years ago, it is very important to know who you are in this world of innovation.  These spaces and places have/get an identity over time. It is important to realize your niche, both within your regional context, and in the global context. 


Of course, there are many hard planning components to this.  Indeed, most of the attention seems to focus on the tangible items.  These are a few that readily come to mind.

Put it on/near public transit.  As part of the anti-car culture, the need for easy, quick ways to move lots of people in an environmentally-friendly way.

Build it dense. If you need to go to a meeting, you hop into the elevator and go to the 11th floor, you don't hop in your car and drive 30 minutes to San Jose (as in, the Silicon Valley).

Slow down the cars.  Our sense of urban streetscape has become increasingly focused on getting people out of their cars, and putting them on the streets, either on foot or on a bike.  One way to do this is to slow the cars. 

Enhance retail.  Streetscape and street life have become increasingly important and one mechanism to do that is to promote the strength of ground floor retail.  More than anything else, an effective retail plan needs intensive management and persistence in doing it. 

Let the street layout work FOR you, not against you.  In the same way that interior spaces are designed to support mixing and mingling that is so important to this world, the exterior (street) layout should create those places to meet and mingle too.  This calls for non-regularity of the overall street pattern to increase the interest and the vibrancy of the outdoor space, and allow for natural pause points where people might gather organically.

Don't forget the housing.  Housing without question is a major issue.  In Kendall Square, the place was originally developed in any way it could be.  One need only look at the aerial photo of the Square in 1970 to realize the depth of desperation landowners must have felt at the moment.  But over time, and over many cycles of economic activity the housing has begun to arrive. Tastes have changed over time. A renaissance of urban living leads to the Live + Work + Play equation whose importance grows. 

Give it time.  Any urban plan takes years to realize.  Very little happens in short time frames, and iterations and modifications are very important to getting it right. Fads come and go, as do economies.  The willingness to roll with the punches of the ups and downs of the market, along with the births, lives and deaths of technologies and their related industries is an important component to the long-term viability of the concept.

And perhaps the most important "hard" planning truth --

Have an anchor tenant.  You cannot do any of this without an "idea generator" somewhere nearby. Boston is trying to get in on this game that Cambridge is doing so well at.  The big question in Boston is: without MIT right there, can Boston replicate the Cambridge model? To be seen, with a lot riding on the outcome.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Murder in June in Cambridge

The murder of Charlene Holmes ten days ago on a Cambridge street wears out our soul in the many ways that bitter tragedy has a knack for.  She - youth and hope - is dead at 16 in a drive-by shooting.

Her killing debases the future and leaves but misery in its wake - her inalienable life ripped from her by a bullet that cost less than 50 cents to manufacture, her parents left but to grieve and grasp at what was, her friends only to wonder how such hope and promise, hers and theirs, could be robbed from them with such violent and bloody disdain.

And Thanailee Cotto Felix lies in critical condition in a hospital bed trying to recover from this same awful moment.

We think of them now and want the shooter caught.  Reset the balance so weighted down by Wrong and Loss and Grief.  Undo whatever will allow itself to be undone and mourn the rest.  That is the all. Destructive violence is upon us so quickly when a handgun is to hand.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Who Owns the Past?

This question has vexed me for quite some time - who does own the past?  He who gets to tell the narrative gets to do more than simply tell a narrative.

And then, in what felt like perfect pitch irony of happenstance on my front deck yesterday, New York Times Book Review in hand, I saw Lloyd Grove expound on the subject of Gail Collins and her new book about the Lone Star state, As Texas Goes ...

History, of course, is written by the victor.  In the case of Texas, the unexpected victor of tomorrow will be anointed by the demographic shifts away from a majority white population.  What will it mean when Hispanics re-interpret the Anglo lore about the Alamo? 

Rosie Castro has already told us.  Grove notes that she grew up learning "that the 'heroes' of the Alamo were a bunch of drunks and crooks and slave-holding imperialists who conquered land that didn't belong to them."

And yet the best in all of this was truly saved for last, a cosmic alignment of sorts. Grove ends by quoting the master, as if in answer to the burning nub of my question: "As George Orwell noted in a different context, 'Who controls the past controls the future.'"

Friday, June 8, 2012

Alex MacLean: Genius from the Air

In a small art gallery last week in Lincoln on a road thick with the green of Massachusetts trees in June, photographer Alex MacLean talked about the rooftops of New York City and it was marvelous.

(All photos by Alex MacLean from Up on the Roof)
MacLean is famous for his many landscapes -- photographs of the earth's surface that he takes from the air. He flies around in a small plane and creates these works of magic with his camera.

He recently turned his mind to the rooftops of New York and he produced a celebration of the incidental art that humans create when they are focused on something completely else.

Rooftops, the Bronx
MacLean explains his motivation as fundamentally environmental.  According to him, 30 percent of the land area in New York is actually rooftop.  That's not surprising when you think about it.  So many buildings means that many tops of buildings.  That many tops of buildings means that much impervious surface.  That much impervious surface means that much stormwater during storms, that many hot sticky tarry roofs during hot sunny days.  In the end, that many tops of buildings means a whole lot of untapped land area in a city that doesn't have any land not spoken for.

His desire was to observe it and record it and his plan of attack was simple: Rent a helicopter with pilot; fly out of New Jersey on runs over the city, mostly Manhattan with some of Brooklyn thrown in for good measure; see what you see.  And photograph it.  Although he describes getting access to the airspace over New York as not the difficult hurdle you might assume, the busyness of air traffic flying in and out of the region's four airports makes flying there safely the challenge. 

New Yorkers are famously inventive.  Put that many people in such a small space, and you're likely to see some creative solutions to some unique problems.  Well, fire extinguisher art is hardly a problem, but it is both creative and unique.  Here's how it works: find a rooftop, preferably large and flat -- there are many in the city.  Get a hand-held fire extinguisher.  Empty out the fire suppressant contents and fill with "better" material.  "Better" means "better to paint with".  Use the extinguisher to paint an image of your choosing on rooftop.  Target audience: viewers of Google Earth.  Really.

Fire extinguisher art next to the High Line

MacLean will be talking at Porter Square Books in Cambridge on Monday, June 11 at 7 p.m.  If you like cities, go.  It's worth it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sister Cities, Just Sayin'

The border that unites these two neighboring communities is also the line that ensures that they live very different realities.  Can you find the key statistic?

Somerville, MA
Population (2010): 75,754
Land Area: 4.1 square miles
Density: 18,148 residents per square mile
Annual Budget: $171.7 million (2013)
Per capita annual spending: $2,267

Cambridge, MA
Population (2010): 105,162
Land Area: 6.4 square miles
Density: 16,422 residents per square mile
Annual Budget: $488.3 million (2013)
Per capita annual spending: $4,643