In Montgomery, Bryan Stevenson is Thurgood Marshall’s Heir Apparent For Supreme Court

Montgomery’s excellent jazz musicians highlight the city’s lively club scene. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Montgomery, which has occupied one bank of the Alabama River since 1819, never deliberately set out to distinguish itself as the white hot furnace of American racial injustice, or the historic hearth of reconciliation. That’s what Alabama’s capital has become, though.

Yesterday the city of 200,000, where slaves were sold and where the Civil Rights movement was born, took another memorable step. It elected Steven Reed, Montgomery County’s first African American probate judge, as its first black mayor.

In the age of a maniac in the White House whose words enflame white supremacist hatred, Montgomery is a welcome lesson in cultural evolution. The city’s reckoning with its cruel past, and the opportunities afforded by its civil advance also has produced two more well-earned outcomes.

The first is the flourishing tourism trade centered on dramatic new expressions of racial injustice that are articulated in an emotionally gripping national monument to victims of lynching, and a sister museum of slavery and mass incarceration. Both opened in April 2018. The two attractions express a more urgent and contemporary narrative of bigotry that ties slavery, the Civil War, lynching, segregation, and civil rights to the current era of street shootings and mass incarcerations of African American men.

Dexter Avenue, which ends at the state Capitol, was the end point of the famous 1965 civil rights march from Selma. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

The second is the emergence of Bryan Stevenson as a national human rights hero. Stevenson is a decorated civil rights lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery to defend and liberate wrongfully convicted black death row inmates in Alabama. Stevenson was barely known in the city and state as recently as three years ago, even though he won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the ‘genius’ award) in 1995.

A lot changed since. Stevenson published a best-selling memoir about his work, “Just Mercy,” in 2014. The new museum and memorial, which he inspired and helped to design, are attracting throngs of visitors and encouraging a surge of downtown construction. The Equal Justice Initiative campaign to install historic markers at sites where lynching occurred gains momentum in counties across the country.

This year HBO broadcast a documentary on Stevenson, and Hollywood produced a major motion picture, “Just Mercy,” that stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as one of the book’s central characters.

As if the United States needs another reason to liberate the White House from its current occupant, here’s one more. Electing a Democrat as president would elevate Stevenson as a legitimate and logical nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and decorated civil rights lawyer. (Photo/Equal Justice Initiative)
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Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum Opens in Owensboro, Kentucky

The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, KY., opened on October 18, 2018. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY. — This flourishing city of more than 59,000 residents has occupied the high ground on a big bend of the Ohio River so long that its history includes being the winter encampment for the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. Owensboro’s famous sons include Johnny Depp, who was born here in 1963. Among its notable achievements is surviving the loss of 6,000 General Electric manufacturing jobs at the end of the 20th century, and emerging in the 21st with a rebuilt downtown, a magnificent Ohio River public park, a steadily growing population, and one of the best-managed small city governments in the country.

On October 18, 2018 Owensboro added more luster to its contemporary attractiveness when it opened the $15.3 million Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The 50,000-square-foot building, with the acoustically exquisite 447-seat Woodward Theatre at its center, is the latest addition to a downtown collection of new civic infrastructure that has pitched the old river manufacturing and trade city onto a development path very different from the one it pursued over the last 225 years. Nearby are a riverfront convention center, two new hotels with a third on the way, a new office building, a mixed-use riverfront building, the magnificent riverfront park, and a redesigned Second Street corridor of restaurants, watering holes, and shops.

Gabrielle Gray and Terry Woodward on opening night. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum fits right in. It’s a civic accomplishment that works in several dimensions.

The theater showcases the resonant songwriting and brilliant musicianship of a great and increasingly popular American musical genre.

The Hall of Fame and Museum honors the musicians that developed bluegrass and popularized it across the United States and the world.

And Owensboro can rightfully call itself the authentic capital of bluegrass. The city lies just 37 miles north of Rosine, KY., the birthplace of Bill Monroe, the mandolin player who was the father of bluegrass music.

But even as the ingredients for a new hall of fame and museum were apparent in Owensboro, mixing them to produce a successful formula for construction took years of work. Much of it was led by Terry Woodward, an Owensboro musical entrepreneur, who helped start the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), and recruited the association to open an office in Owensboro in 1986. Woodward also helped start the International Bluegrass Music Museum, a separate non-profit that temporarily closed in 1999 due to funding issues. Continue reading “Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum Opens in Owensboro, Kentucky”

Americans Are Designing Asia’s Future

The scale model diorama at Forest City in southern Malaysia, the largest private real estate development in the world. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

One of the many critical details of 21st century change, learned during a decade of global reporting, is that Asia is the dominant continent of the century. Another thing is that development patterns in Asia’s big cities, the glittering metropolises along the Pacific Rim, are different than they are in the West. And the third essential feature of 21st century change is the big role American architecture, engineering, and planning firms are playing in designing Asia’s future, which is to say designing the century.

Asia’s urban design strategy is forming in an arc of big Pacific Rim cities from Seoul south to Jakarta. Within the arc are Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. I’ve reported extensively in almost all of them, most recently in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The design fosters economic development principles and values that stresses density, public transit, coastal protection, resource reclamation, walkability, energy efficiency, and land and water conservation. The really interesting and important feature that links the cities and the new buildings, transit lines, river reclamation projects, park construction, energy efficient housing and other infrastructure is this: Five big American global architecture and design firms are doing a significant share of the master planning, design work, engineering, and construction management.

The world’s greenest city, Singapore is a showcase of sustainability. Much of it is designed by U.S. firms. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

In Malaysia, for instance, two new Kuala Lumpur automated transit lines (over 100 kilometers and $11 billion in investment) and a $1.2 billion river restoration project were designed and engineered in large part by AECOM. AECOM also is involved in the design and engineering for a $14 billion, 688-kilometer fast rail line that crosses the Malaysian peninsula.

River of Life project in Kuala Lumpur is restoring the health of the Klang River and fostering shoreline development. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

The master plan for Forest City, in southern Malaysia, perhaps the largest private mixed-use real estate development in the world, was prepared by Sasaki, a Boston-based architecture and design consultancy. Sasaki prepared the Beijing Olympics master plan, and was involved in designing a number of its installations. Skidmore Owings and Merrill (Chicago), KPF (New York), and the SWA Group (Pasadena) also have a lot of big transformative projects in architecture, design and master planning in Asia.

What’s so compelling is that Americans are designing urban spaces that are, in large part, a repudiation of the auto-oriented, land wasting, resource-consuming, sprawling land use and metropolitan development patterns of America’s 20th century, which were first introduced in GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. And in really stark contrast to the reluctance to invest in infrastructure that describes America’s experience over the last three decades or so, Asian nations are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the civic equipment that helps make nations and urban centers work. Though the May 9 election trimmed Malaysia’s infrastructure spending there are still over $60 billion in projects that are either under way or about to get started. Vietnam, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Korea and India also have enormous infrastructure development programs.

Forest City, in southern Malaysia, is the largest private real estate development in the world. Its masterplan was developed by Sasaki, a Boston-based firm. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

AECOM’s revenue in its Asian Pacific operations totaled $1.3 billion last year. They also are heavily involved in India Prime Minister Modi’s project to build what he calls “smart cities” between Delhi and Mumbai.

One more signal thought. American design firms are involved in master planning, designing, and engineering installations in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the $1 trillion, 70-country project to establish new trade routes from Beijing and Shanghai to Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In doing so China is completely reworking the global trade and transport system, a system that the United States basically developed and helped to manage over the last 70 years. The White House-sponsored tariffs and trade stresses are pushing China to quicken its plan to develop and dominate new supply and customer markets, which are steadily expanding China’s sphere of influence and accelerating its global trade goals. American architects and planners are playing a big role in shaping what those new Belt and Road installations look like, and how they will perform.

— Keith Schneider

New MRT1 automated metro line in Kuala Lumpur, designed with the help of AECOM, a U.S. firm. (Photo/Keith Schneider

Malaysia. Where’s Malaysia?

A mammoth figure guards the entrance to one of the Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo/Keith Schneider

KUALA LUMPUR — I had no idea what to expect from Malaysia when I accepted an assignment from Mongabay to report on the consequences of a prodigious wave of infrastructure development that is remaking this country’s economy and geography. What I’ve found is a nation contending, like so many others, with political disruption, but fully competent to develop the new muscles and bones to support the contemporary needs of this century.

People here are suspicious of their leaders. But the questions about corruption and competence of Malaysia’s political leadership are infinitely easier to answer than those being asked in the United States about America’s ruling class. The notion that the U.S. is exceptional isn’t a ruse. It’s just changed radically in the last several decades. We’re such a rich nation. But we don’t deploy our wealth to enhance civic well-being. The U.S. is exceptional now for the miserable way our political system has crumbled, our public schools and infrastructure have deteriorated, our sense of confidence and purpose have weakened.

The American century likely ended on 9/11. The Asian century began soon after. It’s more than apparent in Malaysia.

For a journalist who’s spent a decade reporting on ecological and economic transformation around the world, I have one overriding observation about Malaysia. Malaysia is different than China, India, Mongolia, the Philippines and several more countries that are determined to achieve western-level measures of growth. Malaysia did not wreck its land, water, air, and marine environments getting there.

A rendering of the 70-acre Exchange development, with its 106-story centerpiece, which is under construction in Kuala Lumpur. The development is meant to be the country’s new finance center. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Clean rivers still flow here. Half of the country’s tropical forest cover is intact and will remain so under commitments Malaysian leaders made in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Near shore marine environments have not been ruined by mining disasters, as they were in the Phillippines, or soiled in tides of fetid urban wastewater, as they have been in India and China.
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From Malaysia, Expressions of Concern For A Roiled U.S.

The mosque dominates central Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

KUANTAN, Malaysia — Has there ever been a more disturbing time to be an American? Not in my life. And most certainly not in the 10 years that I’ve reported from outside the United States.

On the way by train and auto from Penang on the west coast to this industrial city on Malaysia’s east coast, I had a number of conversations with Malaysians about conditions in the U.S. Malay people are a guarded lot. Polite. Friendly. Helpful. But not open and inviting like people in the West can often be.

Let me tell you. Donald Trump is as much a focus of interest in this peninsula nation as he is in much of America. The view here is a mix of bafflement, scorn, and pity. Sam Heung, a gold jewelry merchant from Penang who engaged me in a long conversation about American politics described how “Donald Trump is turning the United States into a laughing stock.”

A university student I met by the name of Dinesh remarked at how spiteful and small-minded American democracy has become. “How did so many Americans choose this man?” he asked. “He makes no sense.”

On the day we spent touring Penang, our driver expressed concern. “Your country seems like it is in trouble,” he said.

China’s influence in Penang, a west coast island, is strong, as it is in all of Malaysia. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

A teacher from Penang, her name is Eeli, who earned a doctorate from Cambridge University and thought she’d apply for a post doctoral position in the United States, told me she’s thinking differently now. “I’m afraid,” she said, explaining that her black hijab, which covered her head and framed her round face, made her a target. “I have a friend who had a bad experience in New York,” said Eeli. “She was attacked because she stood out.”

That Malaysians pay close attention to events in Washington and the United States is no surprise. This small country of 32 million residents, set at the very end of the Southeast Asia peninsula, and a neighbor to Singapore and Indonesia, has episodically fallen under the influence of the world’s bigger and richer countries. Continue reading “From Malaysia, Expressions of Concern For A Roiled U.S.”