At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Do Republicans Hate Cities? Generally Yes

Grand Central Station on 42nd Street is a hive of energy every day using a transport technology that Republicans don't support. Photo/Keith Schneider

Grand Central Station on 42nd Street is a hive of energy every day using a transport technology that Republicans don’t support. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW YORK — In the evenings the sidewalks along First Avenue, between 10th and Houston Streets, are a jammed bustle of young people crowded into bars, lined up for tables at good restaurants, or walking fast with heads bowed and faces lit by incoming smart phone texts.

First Avenue, like so many other neighborhoods in New York, is a tableau of urban revival, an example of what happens when smart investments and informed entrepreneurism foster economic and environmental transition. New York City, you may recall, was in such dire shape in the 1970s and 1980s that crime ruled the streets, fiscal collapse was ever-present, and people and companies left in droves. First Avenue in those days was dirty, dark, and dangerous.

New York is not that place anymore, and hasn’t been since the start of the century. New York is an engine of growth and job opportunities, a city with clean air, ample and safe parks, improving water quality, slim people, improving schools, and an attitude of confidence and hope. In all of these attributes New York also resembles Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Boise, Dallas, Charleston, Cincinnati and most other major American metropolitan regions.

In each of these cities job growth is climbing rapidly, crime is stable or declining, unemployment rates are lower than the state at large, and real estate values are heading up, in many instances swiftly. In other measures American cities are a study in improving social conditions and prosperity. Wages are rising. Young adults attend college and are getting married. And, just as First Avenue’s businesses and watering holes are busy with customers, so too are the mercantile streets of big cities across the country.

Oh! There’s one more distinction. American cities are overwhelmingly filled with adults who support Democrats for state and national offices. They are also filled with adults who not only generally believe that the rest of America is getting along better like they are, they have just the scantest idea of the depth of the dismay, the anger, the resentment that people in the far suburbs and rural regions have for cities and their residents.

The High Line, an elevated park in New York built with public and private funds on an old rail service train line. Photo/Keith Schneider

The High Line, an elevated park in New York built with public and private funds on an old rail service train line. Photo/Keith Schneider

Those divisions now express themselves in dangerous ideas harbored in the Republican party about limiting state and federal investments in transit, education, streets, law enforcement, housing, business loans, and environmental safeguards. But even as they support a risky agenda of tax-cutting and smaller government, many of those very same voters and their families have also chosen you’re-on-your-own results — limited job opportunities, low wages, and hardship.

Nonmetro and metro quarterly employment indices
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White Plains High School 40th Reunion

Patsi Takahashi and Annie Wilson organized a Saturday afternoon lunch. Very cool. Photo/Keith Schneider

Patsi Takahashi and Annie Wilson organized a Saturday afternoon lunch. Very cool. Photo/Keith Schneider

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — “So who’d you see?” my mother asked. We’d just sipped from our drinks – hers a nice white wine, mine an imported German beer — at a fine restaurant on 84th and Madison.

“A lot of people you know,” I said. Recalling names by neighborhood I diligently listed all of the fun, accomplished, and at times trouble making friends that she knew back in the day. “Eddie Weil and Lisa Schwatertzenberg. They’re married. Michael Shames, Jeff Zucker, Mindy Litt, Nancy London, Patsi Takashi. Ann Wilson, Carol Hubbard, Mindy Kaufman, Andy Feinman, Jayne Stogel, John Herzfeld, Peppi Murphy, Gail Bruesewitz, Chris Renino, Al Renino, Bill Wolfram, Amy Stichman.

“And your favorites, Mom,” I said laughing. “Bobby Fargo, Bobby Monahan, Geoff Keenan.”

“Oh my,” she said. “All those people?”

Indeed, all those people she knew. A number from the time we were five and six years old. And so many more people who attended that she wouldn’t recognize. White Plains baby boomers gathered to connect again. And as I explained the allegiances, the desire to convene, the joy of the hugs, the love, the mirth and energy in the room at our 40th high school reunion, I found reasons for Saturday evening’s delight.

Here they are. Let me know what you think.

– Right at the very top of the list is Jayne Stogel Hynes. For decades now Jayne has organized the reunions and provided stylish staging for these events. What Jayne is doing is a gift to our class and to those who attend. In the process she’s part of each of our lives, providing dimensions of community and trust that are unique and extraordinarily valuable. Jayne has played a huge role in deepening lifelong friendships. It’s a selfless, transcendent act of consistency, loyalty, and love. Thank you Jayne.

– We came up during an America that no longer exists. Like virtually all of my friends, my life was a model of family and community stability. Parents didn’t split up. Parents almost never died. Parents expected a lot of their children, and children delivered. Families prospered and almost nobody moved away. In my Highlands neighborhood houses were full of children of roughly the same ages. During weekends and holidays we poured onto Ralph Field to play football in the fall, baseball in the spring, and sled in the winter.
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Corvette Museum’s Crushed Cars, Closing Sinkhole As American Metaphor

One of the eight Corvettes wrecked after a sinkhole opened in February beneath a wing of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo/Keith Schneider

One of the eight Corvettes wrecked after a sinkhole opened in February beneath a wing of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo/Keith Schneider

BOWLING GREEN, KY. — Seven months after a sinkhole opened in the wee hours in a wing of the National Corvette Museum, collapsing a concrete floor and swallowing eight sports cars, museum executives in September announced they would fill the hole, repair two cars, and move on.

In every way, the Earth’s swift unbuttoning of the ground, the muddy ruin it caused to valuable machines, the attention the injury-free event attracted, and the decision to fill the hole represents a useful metaphor of our time.

First is the sinkhole itself. Unanticipated, unheard, entirely direct and assured in its purpose and mastery of the situation, the 40-foot deep expanse of rock and mud is impressive and ruinous. Bowling Green rests in a region of the country astir with subterranean adventure. The “karst” geology underlying the city and its environs consists of water-soluble limestone set in an underground matrix awash in irrepressible hidden streams. In such regions the rock strata slowly dissolves, which is why Kentucky is so famous for its wondrous big caves.

Though knowledge of the risk is widespread in southwestern Kentucky, engineers apparently discounted the potential that the domed addition they were designing for the museum, founded in 1994, might become unstable. Assured that the danger was close to nonexistent, museum directors carefully laid out a display of rare, valuable, and buff-polished Corvettes from various manufacturing years to be admired by thousands. The message of the display was unmistakable — here in an ample theater lit by natural light rested the 20th century engineering and design transport jewels of a great and wealthy nation.
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Showing Off Circle of Blue Colleagues and Reporting in Traverse City

Circle of Blue's Choke Point: China project showed how China's massive energy-consuming urban construction program, like this development in Xian, is producing an urgent confrontation over water in the dry north, where much of China's energy is produced. Photo/Keith Schneider

Circle of Blue’s Choke Point: China project showed how China’s massive energy-consuming urban construction program, like this development in Xian, is producing an urgent a confrontation over water in the dry north, where much of China’s energy is produced. Photo/Keith Schneider

TRAVERSE CITY, MI — On Wednesday evening October 8, 2014 Circle of Blue, the Traverse City-based global news organization, is inviting colleagues and friends to meet our talented staff and learn about the state-of-the-art multimedia work we are doing that is changing the world.

This is no exaggeration. And while Circle of Blue has developed expertise and new digital tools to report on the consequences of the fierce global contest for natural resources, the successes we’ve enjoyed really aren’t that unusual in our home region.

Traverse City, you see, is a civic boil. With its rich diversity of community-shaping groups — environmental, progressive business, new media, local foods, transport, and clean energy — the small coastal city of 15,000 near the top of Lake Michigan is a crucible for new approaches to succeeding in a century of ecological and economic transformation.

Circle of Blue is privileged to be a member of this committed community of change. No other news organization in the world is doing more to inform citizens and global leaders about water security, and what the 21st century holds for national economies and communities, including our own Great Lakes region.

On Wednesday evening join me at the Inside Out Gallery in Traverse City to meet the members of the Circle of Blue staff.  Our team will present exclusive stories and stunning imagery from the world’s tightening water-food-energy choke points. This is an evening to introduce our circle of northern Michigan friends to the critically important work this Traverse City organization is doing here at home and around the world.

We are so privileged to be part of a Traverse region community of such talent and commitment to making a difference. Join us for what promises to be an evening immersed in exploration and good cheer.

Where:
Inside Out Gallery
229 Garland Street
Traverse City, MI

When:
Wednesday, October 8
7 p.m.
with music by Blair Miller beginning at 6:15 p.m.

Your tour guides:

J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue director and co-founder
Keith Schneider, senior editor and chief correspondent
Brett Walton, reporter
Codi Yeager Kozacek, reporter
Kaye LaFond, reporter & data visualizer
Aubrey Ann Parker & Jordan Bates, social media
Matthew Welch, change manager
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In Heart of Rand Paul Territory, Public Investment For Public Purposes

Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident -- Senator Rand Paul.

Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident — Senator Rand Paul.

BOWLING GREEN, KY. – When Gary Ransdell, the president of Western Kentucky University, invites alumni to view this city’s redeveloping downtown from his hilltop campus, the response is almost always exclamations of surprise.

Just below domed Cherry Hall, one of the 108-year-old university’s grandest buildings, are nearly 200,000 square feet of new student housing, built at a cost of $24 million. There’s also a 30,000 square foot, $10 million alumni center, and a 72,500 square-foot $14.5 million Hyatt Place hotel due to open in 2015.

Next door to the Hyatt site is a $28 million mixed use development that is under construction and will house 240 more students on one side of College Street, and a separate building on the other for small businesses, restaurants, and a rooftop pool.

There’s also four new fraternity houses built at a cost of $3 million, and a 450-space parking deck flanked by 30,000 square feet of retail businesses and restaurants that are expected to open next year.

Mr. Ransdell described the projects closest to the 108-year-old university as the latest additions to the $262 million in downtown construction since 2008 that is rehabilitating Bowling Green’s central business district. All of the new structures replace deteriorated homes and ragged retail businesses that for decades formed a barrier between the university and city center.

Bowling Green's new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.

Bowling Green’s new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.

“There’s been a shift in student density at the north end of our campus. With each new project that density increases,” said Mr. Ransdell, Western Kentucky’s president since 1997. “We’re all a bunch of bulldogs in this community. We haven’t seen a deal that we didn’t like. We want to close them all.”

Judging from the scope and progress made over the last six years, it clearly appears that deal making has evolved into a choice skill in this city of 61,000 residents, Kentucky’s third largest. Arguably the most important was the pact that the city and Warren County reached with the state to establish a 383-acre, 52-block, special development and tax district in 2007.

The district pays local governments 80 percent of the increases in payroll, property, sales and other tax revenue generated by new development within the district boundaries. Revenue is devoted to retiring construction bonds, building infrastructure, and assisting developers, including the university.

In August, while on assignment for The New York Times, I reported on Bowling Green’s successful downtown development project, which was made possible its allegiance to the time-honored American principle of devoting public funds for public purposes. It’s that principle of economic development which is under attack from the Tea Party and its adherents in municipal, state, and the federal government. One of the leaders of that anti-tax, anti-spend sentiment is Rand Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, who has lived in Bowling Green since 1993, where he opened a medical practice in opthamology.

I asked Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, what Senator Paul thought about Bowling Green’s progress and how it was achieved. Mr. Gorman told me he was a close friend of the Senator and one evening, at a party the two attended, Mr. Paul pulled him aside to voice his objections to how taxpayer funds were applied to downtown development. “He wasn’t happy about it,” said Mr. Gorman. “I asked him whether he had a better way to do what we were doing? Because this is the best way we know.”

And for good reason. As I reported in The New York Times in August, this year the city’s development district, formally called the WKU Gateway to Downtown Bowling Green, will return to the city and county over $2 million in revenue. Over its 30-year life, ending in 2037, the tax district will deliver $200 million to the two governments, said Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, which oversees the gateway project. “The whole point of what we’re trying to do is to get more people to enjoy our downtown, to live here and work here,” said Mr. Gorman. “If you look around now, it’s pretty clear that people get the point.”

Until the Gateway project began to unfold, Bowling Green was largely known for its university, the third largest in Kentucky, and for the General Motors assembly plant not far away, where Corvettes have been built since 1981. Earlier this year a sinkhole opened in a wing of the privately-managed National Corvette Museum near the plant, swallowing eight sports cars that were on display, and prompting significant increases in attendance.
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