Monday, March 31, 2014

NLRB to NCAA, "Take That!"

A recent ruling by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board reminds me just how out of control college sports is, and the NCAA basketball tournament is the perfect time to rail against the multibillion dollar entertainment industry that college sports has become. 

In a case filed in Chicago involving the Northwestern University football program asking whether college players had the right to unionize, NLRB regional director Peter Ohr found that "Northwestern’s scholarship football players should be eligible to form a union based on a number of factors, including the time they devote to football (as many as 50 hours some weeks), and the control exerted by coaches and their scholarships, which Mr. Ohr deemed a contract for compensation.

"It cannot be said that the employer’s scholarship players are ‘primarily students,’ ” the decision said.” (NY Times, 26 March 2014)

This is the right stance to take on the matter.  Given the huge dollar amounts flowing into the system through television contracts, including a $7.3 billion contract to broadcast college football playoffs and a 14 year $10.8 billion deal to broadcast the NCAA basketball tournament, some change in the system is clearly needed. The notion of the scholar-athlete is nothing but an anachronism in much of college sports, and certainly in the marquee programs (men's football and basketball) at the country’s largest (if not best) schools. 

When universities reap huge financial rewards off the backs of 18, 19, 20 year old athletes who may lose their college career in an instant by an injury, who are steered through college not for their benefit but to maintain their eligibility to play, and who are spending the majority of their time on developing skills that are not transferable to the workplace, then something is broken.  It is time for universities to acknowledge that big time college sports at certain universities has nothing to do with their academic mission.  It's entertainment and money.

If we needed any reminding how perverted the system has become, this map does just that.

Today's Diane Rehm Show had an informed, lively discussion on the topic.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Grab Bag: Flags at Half Mast; Midnight Train to Georgia

It’s a Friday, which means it’s a Grab Bag Day.

Flags At Half Mast
I look out on the Longfellow School and I see that the flags are at half-mast. For a moment, I pause, then, of course, it’s the two fire fighters who died in the Boston blaze.  I say flags because the American flag is always paired with a black POW-MIA flag flying beneath it.

Those POW flags I think were a political compromise to get the Vietnam veterans to desist from their contention that American prisoners were still being held in Vietnamese prisons long after official hostilities had ended. 

They aren't a bad metaphor for the impact of Vietnam on America — black, accusatory, mournful, remembering, slightly paranoid, and always flown in conjunction with the stars and stripes.  It’s about as a good a graphic symbol as any of what that war meant to this nation, certainly in retrospect. 

But I still want to know, when does this cultural reference point become part of the history of a bygone era?  At what point do we officially say that all our Vietnam-era combat troops are either dead or home?  American helicopters flew off the roof of the Saigon embassy 40 years ago next April.  How much longer should those black flags continue to fly from our flagpoles? 

Midnight Train to Georgia  
Later next month, I will travel to Atlanta for the American Planning Association conference.  The trip is in part to refresh my thinking on planning, but it will also be an interesting chance to see a city I don’t know.

Most interesting of all, however, will be how I get there.  I plan to take Amtrak all the way from Boston to Georgia.  That’s 19 hours on the rumbling rails, with only one train switch, in New York City’s Penn Station.  It’s a roll back into the past. 

I’ve only taken one other long-distance train trip in America, a 2.5 day journey from Oakland, California to New York City.  I made that trip in 1986 with Colley Wheeler.

While it made for a good memory, I also remember the profoundly uncomfortable seats with cushions so worn down that you could feel a metal bar running across your back just below your shoulder blades.  I remember walking into the observation car with its large picture windows curving up to the ceiling to show the grand American landscape rolling by — the Sierras, the Rockies — but the bigger impression was of old grey-haired ladies filling the car with cigarette smoke while gripping their gin and tonics tightly at 11 o’clock in the morning, a bit of a damper on an otherwise nice experience.  By Chicago, we were all ready to jump off a moving train, having been cooped up for so long, but it was a treat to order a pizza from a train phone (cell phones were still unknown then) and have the delivery guy meet us track-side.   We felt as though we were almost home, having crossed the majority of the American landmass by that point. 

This trip will be experiment — to see about Amtrak’s long-distance operations and what if any future there is for distance train travel in the United States.  It also will be part of my quirky commitment to explore life and land by a road less traveled.  When time and money are available, one has two of the great riches one could ever hope to have (health is another).  It would be a shame not to use them well. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The gourmetization of pizza.

There are two persistent facts about today's Cambridge:
  1. Our knowledge workers are becoming smarter, more innovative, and more valuable in today's economy.
  2. Pizza is becoming more expensive.
In Inman Square, a slice of cheese pizza now costs $3 at All Star Pizza Bar. 

Three dollars for a slice of pizza?

"That'll be $3, please."
Clearly, All Star has found a way to break through that precarious barrier, the one that said pizza was only a basic urban food item -- quick to get, cheap to buy. 

Entirely new, exactly like you remember it

What All Star so correctly saw is that a sufficient amount of flattery can make the price of pizza rise from a greasy commodity to gourmet pleasure -- not by changing pizza but by changing people's sense of what it means to eat it.  When pizza becomes cool, people will pay for cool.  Cambridge, a city of over-education, is also at times a city of over self-congratulation. 

The place to be

To the cynic, H.L. Mencken's bitterly brilliant quip comes to mind, that no one ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.  In a city with so much intelligence, it's a good bet that a lot of dough will be raised with just that additional pinch of praise.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Andres Duany at MIT.

Andres Duany has been making waves in the urban planning world for quite some time now.  A founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, he along with his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk played a fundamental role in the reassessment of American land use patterns starting in the early 1990s, away from auto-dependent sprawl and towards denser urban redevelopment.  In that sense, Duany, Plater-Zyberk, their firm DPZ, along with CNU, augured a more urban-centric logic that has only grown more forceful over the intervening two decades.  For urbanists, this change was welcomed warmly and elevated Duany's name to household usage at least in the households talking about American urbanism. In other words, Andres Duany is surprisingly well known in a profession not particularly known for creating well-known names.

But anyone who is out in front in a field as mild-mannered as planning also deserves a second look, to assess what makes them stand out in the peculiar world of city thinkers and city builders -- a world burdened as it is with endless non-sexy details, loads of public meetings, and very precise debates on subjects like parking ratios and building heights?  What underlies Duany's reputation and who exactly is he?  Most importantly, is he truly reshaping our thinking on the pressing issues of the day?

Duany gave a talk MIT last week, which gave me the opportunity to hear the man and gauge the case.  By way of full confession, I knew little about him prior, except my recollection that he was instrumental in the creation of Seaside, a community planned by DPZ based on New Urbanist principles that promoted higher density living in new construction along the Florida coast.  I thought I should do a little more reading about him before I sat down to pull together this post.

I was struck that Duany and Plater-Zyberk, along with Peter Calthorpe, another noted leader in American urban planning and urban author James Howard Kuntsler were all born within two years of each other, Kunstler in 1948, Duany and Calthorpe in 1949, Zyberk in 1950.  All except Kunstler are graduates of the Yale School of Architecture.

The closeness in age (and the shared school) may explain some things.  Their generation, born immediately following the Second World War, spent their youth in the fat years of American global dominance: America victorious, personal incomes rising, standards of living going up, the engine of democracy that had won the war transforming back to civilian production.  Huge investments, both public and private, were being made to increase the American housing stock and to expand the auto industry, both of which had huge implications on our national psyche and on our landscapes.

Yet by the time Duany got to college, Vietnam was raging and undoubtedly formative.  Fundamental authority and assumptions were under question.  In that light, his later activism makes sense.  By the 1990s Duany and his cohort, now in their early 40s, tackled those ills in their society they finally had the power to change.  Not unlike their fellow baby boomer Bill Clinton, it was their turn.  With this as a backdrop, examining Seaside, the Florida planned community, is even more disquieting.

Seaside has a postcard perfectness that conjures up the worst of American traits -- the capacity and willingness to use money and power to distance unwanted things.  Photographs of it beg the question, what was Duany's design aesthetic? "I spent several summer vacations here growing up, and it so peaceful and quaint.  The town is filled with cute boutiques, great restaurants, and a beautiful beach" writes one blogger.  I don't know that I've ever run into an urbanist who was trying to create "peaceful", "quaint" communities filled with "cute boutiques".  This is not a description of urbanity.  It is really a definition of urban failure: the ghettoization of the rich, not the successful mingling of an increasingly multicultural society. If higher density suburbanity is where DPZ was going, then Seaside may be considered a success, but the two are not the same.

Duany is very interested in Ebenezer Howard, the progenitor of the Garden City Movement, a point he made explicitly during his talk at MIT.  Howard at the end of the 19th century looked at how the city and the country could be joined to reap the benefits of both and minimize the downsides of each.  To Duany, this is an organizing principle of his own examination of both landscape and the built environment.  For some reason, Howard's treatises from 1898 are not worrisome.  Duany doing the same in 2014 is nerve-wracking.  In our complex and rapidly changing world, the melding of city and country seems horribly out of date and an incredibly inefficient land use pattern in a time of continued environmental degradation, resource constraint and population increase.

Nevertheless, I realize that Duany deserves more time to make his arguments and upon reflection, he is very right about some things. Here are some of his points, and some of my thoughts about them:

Urban succession is real and cannot be ignored.  Urban succession, the notion that cities evolve over time on the same ground is very important both to urban design and to urban politics, especially since urban politics is often played out as a battle of the blind fighting the blind over minutiae.  The physical aspect of cities, their buildings and infrastructure, exist over much longer life spans.  For this reason, knowing whether large scale changes to the urban fabric are beneficial can be very difficult, which reminds me of Mao's alleged response when asked in the mid-20th century what he thought of the French Revolution, "It's too soon to tell."  The challenge is finding the right balance between what needs to get answered right now, and what only will find an answer years from now.  The more pressure people feel from change, the more they demand concrete answers to their worries and concerns immediately.  Succession says, remember, this land is part of a much longer story.

Succession happens not only over time but over space.  The oldest part of the town will have seen the most phases of development over time.  As you move away from this central point, you get simpler forms of development.  This is an important observation about urban morphology that implies change is a constant, which has huge implications for urban decision-making.

Our public discourse is broken.  Duany addresses one of the great challenges about urban land use today -- the neighborhood has a tyrannical grip over the reins of decision-making.  This often leads to short-sighted, unimaginative, reactive, fearful and ultimately deeply conservative approaches to our urban challenges, even in "progressive" and "smart" communities like Cambridge.  Much of the protections built into our current system were established in the 1960s and '70s to protect the interests of poor people who had not been represented in the public discussion to that point.  These same tools now are used by wealthy communities and neighborhoods to thwart changes perceived to adversely impact them.  This only further entrenches segregation, privilege, opportunity and control over the shape and development of the city in the hands of a few -- usually well-healed, white, older.    Often, the exercise of this power is expressed in the language of community empowerment, but it is actually a modern version of the Old Boys Club.  Power continues to be distributed unequally, it just happens more in the light of day.  To be sure, the errors, overreach and failures by planners of yesteryear got us to now, but today's system is deeply flawed.  Duany is right to argue that our adherence to back-breaking public process in the end turns a planner into a mere messenger, a go-between.  He's right that unlike doctors and lawyers, planners have no final say or authority in the profession they are trained in.

Decisions are not handled at the right level.  He claims that one of the problems we have is that decisions are not often delegating to the right level of authority.  As a theoretical construct this may be true, but seems disconnected with the messy process to get to local land use decisions.

Economists have insulated themselves from their failures, planners have not. 
He sees this as an insightful observation -- that economists don't pay the same price for being wrong in their predictions that planners do for theirs.  Actually, it's a weak observation, but his answer to it is even more unsettling:  Planners need to create a standard model.  As it so happens, this happens to be his model.  He doesn't appear to see how terrifying a notion this is.  Thankfully, in practicality, it's a laughable notion. 

The transect is the all.  This is Duany in toto as far as I can tell.  It's Howard modernized, looking across the landscape.  It deserves greater time and attention, particularly since the specifics of this are very hard to judge from one talk.

Zones of urbanity are the way to think about cities.  Zones of urban intensity relates back to his conception that urban succession happens across geographical space as well over eras of time.  His vision is that one zone automatically moves to the next higher zone of intensity in period of 15 years, meaning that the next phase of urban intensity is possible automatically after 15 years, which he points out is half a generation.

Urbanity doesn't happen in a vacuum, and it doesn't happen without a cost.  New York City can only exist because its streams are not, nor will ever be day-lighted. He's right to observe this obvious fact and to emphasize the point that we can't have it all always.  Choices needed to be made.

Agriculture is important.  In concept, this is a beautiful idea.  In practice it seems very difficult to realize and has worrying implications about resource allocation among income levels.

Seaside too will see a collapse. Seaside will not be immune from urban blight, and will almost certainly become a poor community at some point.  This is a refreshing insight into the life of cities.

In the end though, whatever his insights, I'm not a Duany fan.  There is something too convenient about his arguments.  They always resolve so neatly.  It's contrary to experience and in that sense, raises questions about his judgment.

That's one problem I have with him.  The other problem I have is actually a bigger issue: to accept Duany's argument is ultimately to accept his vision of what the future should be.  His vision is ultimately disquieting.  In a country that is finally witnessing support for higher densities, decreased auto use and annual increases in public transit uses, with all the related benefits, whether they be environmental, societal, urbanistic, he seems to stop at this unsatisfying half-way point.  Howard's vision of these areas that were both town and country were plausible answers to the conundrum of both in the first decades of the 20th century, but they don't make sense now.  The second decade of the 21st century is one of urban rebirth at a scale unseen for generations.  It presents its challenges to be sure, including exploding costs and large-scale displacements in the housing market, but why Duany with his urban creed would want to stop at a way station, a place that is neither city nor country, doesn't make sense.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A House on Beacon Hill, or Walking Across the Common on a Snowy Day.

On Thursday, I had reason to travel into Boston though it was a very cold day.  Upon my return, I made these notes. Some facts I report are erroneous, based as they were on what I'd heard from people that day (which might, in and of itself, be an interesting comment on how history gets transmitted).  William Prescott's biographical details, for example, are completely wrong.  He was not yet born at the time of the American Revolution.  Though he did live in the house, it wasn't until 1845.  The house was built in 1808, designed by Asher Benjamin, which means it did exist in Jane Austen's lifetime (she died in 1817).


From City Hall, I ran down to the Central Square T stop to hop on the Red Line to get into Boston to give my little Kendall Square talk.  The day was bitter cold and snowy, and I arrived in Boston with about 20 minutes to spare for the 1 pm engagement, so I thought I’d get a coffee before heading over to the place.  A quick walk down Tremont Street quickly disabused me of this idea. The howling wind and the biting cold convinced me tout de suite to forget about it, and I just decided that I would get there early, which demanded a walk across the Boston Common to 55 Beacon Street – the Prescott House is what I think the place was called – where the talk was to be given. 

When I turned to cross the Common, all I could observe was that the wind had been sent to send the midday snow swirling, a white veil of depth that gave a third dimension of challenge to my pilgrimage across this colonial ground, a walk across time in some of the oldest American land.  The Common would not relinquish its dead without a fight.  The Common would not relinquish its history without a fight, and would not reveal its stories without the same.  Winter would not relinquish Massachusetts either.  And they were all fighting.  Little me, arrogant me, brave me, I wanted to cross this land, reach my safe harbor over there, in that house, over there.  I cursed the heavens.  I am not a stranger in a strange land, I shouted. This is my land.  I am from here.  Not Massachusetts to be sure, but New York.  I know this land.  I know this history.  Welcome to the 17th century my friend.  Here is winter.

Prescott was a colonial governor and a general in the Revolutionary War, and clearly a man of means and capacity, who made out quite well in the process of war and the founding of a nation, and with all his accumulated wealth built himself a house on the hill near his new capital.  The house is grand, not of a Versailles scale obviously, but large enough in a Beacon Hill context – screw that, in an American context – to give one serious pause.  Unlike the Hooper-Lee-Nichols house on Brattle Street where the Cambridge Historical Society is housed, where one feels one is walking into a relatively primitive construction from a rather rugged time, this Prescott house gives quite the opposite sense – early 19th century splendor and opulence from a time of wealth and sophistication that presumably matched what was happening in London or Paris at the time.  The house now is home to the Society of Colonial Dames or Daughters of the American Revolution or some such, which means that it has an owner and a landlord, but the space can be rented for 2 hours on the middle of a Thursday. 

What is so odd about this house is that it feels so out of place in America.  It is so obviously European in its references, but unlike the faux French chateaux that the Rockefellers and the Fricks and the Vanderbilts built along Fifth Avenue, this house feels authentically American at the same time.  It’s an odd combination of the dominance of the English culture in the former colony, a dominance that extended into post-Revolutionary America, and yet at the same time the undeniable truth that we were an independent nation.  In this way, the house is odd not for its architectural detailing, which is not so uncommon and found in other houses of the era along the eastern seaboard, but for its size, its grandeur, the height of its ceilings, the breath of the cavity of the central staircase that winds up the middle of the house in a large square pattern, the intricacy of the details on the balustrade, the paneling on the walls.  

This place is also so clearly a city house, not a country house.  It goes up rather than out, which is also fairly unique in the American context for that time.  There was so much land that could be built upon, but Mr. Prescott wanted to be close to the centers of power, so he chose an urban architecture.  It is undeniably part of what makes it feel so European, where both Paris and London for exactly the same reasons saw grand houses sprawl upwards not outwards while still retaining the grand meeting spaces, the ceremonial gathering rooms and social rooms.  Fascinating to think about. 

Though we’re in America, we could be in a Jane Austen novel. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Metaphor for Art

This is a video of two people extemporizing music on a sidewalk.  They are in the midst of a creative act, even more so since what they play exists only because they play it.  

While they play, people wander by, apparently uninterested, not bothering to stop for a moment to watch and listen.  By an accident of filming, most of these passers-by are faceless to us, only sets of legs.  Yet unmistakably they are clad in a kind of universal uniform, baggy shorts, running shoes, little variation one to the other.

It is to me an almost perfect metaphor for art in society, the artist amidst the crowd.

The buskers are BlakeAbyss and Amy Alvey.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"Wishful Thinking"

Q: Name one thing that makes the Boston region so special?

A: College radio.

Live here for one day or longer, and you'll conclude it too: college radio is one of the great delicacies of this region.  Not simply its existence, but its abundance.

The call signs are great, the institutions are too, and they are many:

  • WBUR (BU)
  • WERS (Emerson)
  • WHRB (Harvard)
  • WMBR (MIT)
  • WUMB (U Mass Boston)
  • WZBC (Boston College) 

That's a partial sample of what you can pick up on any given day either at home or in your car.  It's a lot of real estate on the radio dial, but it's all good.

Of course, college radio can range from the sublime to the ridiculous, depending on the hour of day and the day of the year, but in the end, it's just a celebration of youth.  In a part of the world that is filled with 'em, there is plenty to celebrate.

Here is a most recent gift, courtesy of WUMB.  I heard it while driving down a snowy Belmont road on Saturday and made a mental note to look it up.  It's a lovely tune by a duo from Jamaica Plain called Hoot and Holler, also known as Amy Alvey and Mark Kilianski.  Their song is called "Wishful Thinking" and we wish them well.