At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Henderson, Kentucky’s Riverwalk Along the Ohio River Shows Value of Public Investment

Henderson's three-mile long Riverwalk spans the southern bank of the Ohio River three hours downriver from Louisville.

Henderson’s three-mile long Riverwalk spans the southern bank of the Ohio River three hours downriver from Louisville. Photo/Gabrielle Gray

HENDERSON, KY — The 981-mile Ohio River Valley, which extends from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill. is full of surprises these days. Pittsburgh shed its sooty industrial coat of the 20th century to emerge as a center of engineering and biomedical innovation. Cincinnati, battered by race riots and disinvestment, is building a $1 billion riverfront neighborhood and a streetcar line.

Louisville’s days as a meatpacking hub are long gone. Now it’s the growing capital of the American bourbon industry, home to one of the country’s fine urban universities, and experiencing a boom in hotel construction to accommodate all the interest in its new stature as a hub of exceptional restaurants supplied with fresh locally grown food.

Further downriver, Owensboro, KY. passed a local tax increase to invest in downtown redevelopment that yielded a new convention center, rebuilt streets, two hotels, an office building, dozens of new residential units, restaurants, and a riverfront park complete with jet fountains designed and built by the same guys who shower Las Vegas in thrilling curtains of water.

Then comes Henderson, an Ohio River city of such grace and idealized mid-continent whimsy that you almost expect to see riverboats docked along the banks and trolleys at the center of the 100-foot wide Main Street. Tall trees shade the city’s residential streets. Beautifully maintained Victorian homes keep a vigil on the river and Henderson’s business district. In the early 1990s, film director Penny Marshall arrived with Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donell to use the three-story brick mansion with the lovely porch at 612 North Main as the set for “A League of Their Own.”

The newest piece of Henderson’s small town landscape is its three-mile Riverwalk, which spans the rolling bluffs of the Ohio River’s southern bank. The Riverwalk, in early evening, is bathed in the pink and purple of Kentucky’s characteristically beautiful setting sun. During the day the rumble of coal trains, and the vibrating bass of the big engines of river towboats form an attractive soundtrack for a city of 29,000 that was founded in the Kentucky wilderness in 1797. The city’s Riverwalk affords such views of the Ohio, the flat fields beyond, and the thick forests on the Indiana banks that it’s possible to imagine the stunning display of flora and fauna that drew John James Aububon here in 1810 to spend nine years studying and painting.

Henderson, KY., founded in 1797, offers an amazing collection of beautiful Victorian era homes. Photo/Keith Schneider

Henderson, KY., founded in 1797, offers an amazing collection of beautiful Victorian era homes. Photo/Keith Schneider


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Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ Is Fun and, Perhaps, Something More

Pharrell Williams was born and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where his friends and family knew from his earliest days as a percussionist in the school band, and his singing performances in school plays, that the artist with the top song on worldwide pop charts for the last 10 weeks would amount to something rare. Even before Pharrell posted the ‘Happy’ dance video last October, he’d won seven Grammy Awards for songwriting, production, and performance, composed the soundtrack to Despicable Me and its sequel (which included ‘Happy’) and performed, produced, or composed alongside an A list of pop stars ranging from Beyonce’ to Miley Cyrus to Robin Thicke to Kanye West and Snoop Dogg.

With the ‘Happy’ video, and the enormous reach of the wired world, Pharrell has transcended boundaries of geography, class, and ideology. ‘Happy’ displays the powerful influence of music, verse, and video to attract and inspire a global audience. And though ‘Happy’ asks no more of its viewers than to laugh, dance, clap, lipsynch, and produce a video for YouTube, it proves just how quickly people, especially young people, can shape a global movement when they’re motivated.

On Christmas Day 2013 ‘Happy’ had 5 million views on YouTube. By May 10, 2014, it had 232 million views. Young people from nations on six continents had posted their own versions, many of which had attracted hundreds of thousands of views.

Now imagine, just for a minute, if that kind of global community could be called to come together to act on trends in a way that would make us just as happy.

One of the powerful unarticulated messages of ‘Happy’ is that it recognizes, ever so obliquely, that the world and its human community is a bit lost, what Pharrell describes as “a room without a roof.” His solution, emphatically stated, is “happiness is the truth.” Read More

Luka Lesson and ‘Exit’ Enter Global Realm With A Rapper’s Reach

Luka Lesson, one of the southern hemisphere's great rap artists and poets, released his 'Exit' album earlier this month. Photo/Keith Schneider

Luka Lesson, one of the southern hemisphere’s great rap artists and poets, released his ‘Exit’ album earlier this month. Photo/Keith Schneider

On Thursday, May 15, Jacksonville, Florida hosts the World Arts Film Festival, a three-day exploration of 21st century short videos, discussion, workshops, and creativity. One of the stars of the weekend is Luka Lesson, an Australian hip hop artist, poet, and activist. Three of Luka’s videos will be among the 100 or so shown at the festival.

This is turning into a big month for Luka Lesson. On May 1 he also released ‘Exit,’ his second LP, which Lesson produced in Beijing in collaboration with Jordan Thomas Mitchell, an American musician and composer.

‘Exit’ is a triumph of insistent rhythm, and tremendous writing. Its 11 tracks are evidence of a maturing artist’s skill in expressing passion, love, anger, and urgency. Check out ‘Celebrate The Storm’ here.

One of the joys of my life these last fives years reporting and speaking around the world is to meet the impressive people doing their part to change what we’re doing. I met Luka last year in Beijing, where he performed at a conference of high school students from across Asia.

I followed Luka that day. And as I told those kids, Luka and I come from different continents, different generations. But we do the same thing. We look at the confusion of what we face and translate it into language and images and narratives that help people understand.  We make the complex simple.

Luka’s worked hard on his craft. It’s been two years since his riffs on love, the playful prose on fate and birth, the gifts of lyricism and rhyme, the easy charm and apparent intelligence, touched so many audiences that Australia, almost by consensus, named the Brisbane-born artist the nation’s slam poet champion.

It’s also been two years since Lesson released ‘Please Resist Me,’ a high wall of slam poetry that at times is slick hip hop ice blown to high ridges by the strong grooves of such songs as “Killing Time,” and “The People.”  The album’s other tracks form emotional caves and cultural crevices jammed with politics and personal pain, love and anger, and learned critiques of custom and society.

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The Michigan Land Use Institute Considers Changing Its Name — For What?

At the height of its statewide and national influence, the Michigan Land Use Institute's 15-member staff gathered outside the new home office in Beulah.

At the height of its statewide and national influence, the Michigan Land Use Institute’s 15-member staff gathered outside the new home office in Beulah. Back row, left to right — Gail Dennis, Charlene Crowell, Kelly Thayer, Doug Rose, Mac McCelland, Mary Ellen Pattyn, Patty Cantrell. Middle row, left to right — Johanna Miller, Jim Lively, Arlin Wasserman, Andy Guy. Front row, left to right — Jim Dulzo, Keith Schneider, Hans Voss, Betsy Alles.

BENZONIA, MI — On April 16, 1995, in one of my last articles as a staff correspondent with the New York Times, I wrote this assessment of American environmentalism’s evolving challenges. “The movement that changed the nation’s environmental ethic a generation ago is reshaping itself, and the most important aspect of that effort is a new openness to what works and what doesn’t in environmental protection.”

Six days later, on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, I met at Beulah’s Brookside Inn with Traverse City environmental attorney Jim Olson and a few more regional green heroes and formally incorporated the non-profit Michigan Land Use Institute.

The Brookside closed its doors a few years ago. And earlier this year, as MLUI approached the 19th anniversary of its founding on today’s 44th Earth Day, I received notice and a survey from the organization. It asked for my thoughts on a branding project that may very well conclude with a change in the Institute’s name. Holy focus group, Batman! What works and what doesn’t in environmental protection may include an alteration in identities.

Now, right here, allow me to acknowledge that an MLUI name change is personal. But it’s not sour grapes. I was 38 years old in 1995, and a year into a life-changing scrap with the state’s natural gas industry over drilling practices in northern Michigan’s Antrim shale. Benzie in the 1990s also was Michigan’s second fastest growing county. Among the legion of proposals popping up around here was one to turn US 31 north of Luddington into a four-lane highway. I was convinced that a professionally staffed group that focused on the ecological and economic consequences of development could do important work and prosper financially.

I put $13,000 of my own money into the organization that first year. Ted Curran, an important ally and supporter, added management guidance and welcome funding. Florence Barone and Arlin Wasserman put their keen intelligence to work. We got lucky in the summer of 1995 when 27-year-old Hans Voss, the MLUI executive director since 2000, showed up at our door looking for work. We had an active board that included Gary Appel, an educator, and whose wife, Mimi Appel, helped with development. These and a host of other people — Dick Hitchingham, Gerard Grabowski, Jack Gyr, Marty Jablonski — helped get the joint rolling in a way that steadily built our record of pragmatic advocacy, and keen communications skills.

In 1998 Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and a close friend, called the Michigan Land Use Institute the most successful new environmental organization in the United States. We were smart and fearless. I was with Hans when conservative Governor John Engler announced in 1998 that there would be no natural gas drilling in Antrim County’s Jordan River Valley, which we described as the Yosemite of northern Michigan. I was with him again several years later when the state Legislature and Congress, in separate votes, outlawed drilling for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes. Hans led both campaigns. Read More

The Society of Foolhardy Folly: Anglers and Hunters Against the Environment

Ice and snow make their final appearance this week in northern Michigan. Fishermen put their hooks in clean water even as their votes supported lawmakers devoted to dismantling safeguards. Otter Creek runs cold and clear in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore this week. Photo/Keith Schneider

Ice and snow make their final appearance this week in northern Michigan. Fishermen put their hooks in clean water even as their votes supported lawmakers devoted to dismantling safeguards. Here, Otter Creek runs cold and clear in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMPIRE, MI — Days before ice crowded back into Lake Michigan’s Platte Bay late last week, the shallow waters opened and fishermen planted their poles in the soft sand at the mouth of the Platte River and waited for steelhead and maybe a brown trout. Clean, cold water is abundant in our region in large part due to the safeguards contained in the 1972 Clean Water Act, arguably the most important environmental protection statute in history.

The law set limits on multiple pollutants from multiple sources. American courts enforced its provisions. Governments around the world enacted their own versions of the clean water law. And in the United States cleaner water gave rise to multi-billion dollar fisheries, new shoreline development in the nation’s cities, hundreds of thousands of businesses and millions of jobs in the recreational economy, and the untold satisfaction that the United States once was capable of responding effectively to a big national problem.

But when I wandered up to the parking area the pickups sported troubling evidence of how estranged we are, how politically disembodied we’ve become. The anti-EPA bumper stickers were apparent. “Defund the EPA.” “Regulate the EPA.” The men so intent on securing the fish that swam in the clean water of Lake Michigan also were engaged in a political abstraction. They very clearly voted for the right’s insurgent lawmakers, men and women in our state Legislature and national Congress not at all interested in advancing a tradition of environmental safeguards.

Disagreement about the scope and intensity of environmental regulations is a half-century old in the United States. What’s more — if you ask GOP voters what regulation they’d like to weaken — one that makes the air and water dirtier, opens the meadow next door to toxic waste dumping, allows the favorite wetland to be filled — they most often don’t have an answer. That’s because most Americans appreciate the cleaner and safer country we’ve produced with our environmental protections. I know a Republican family in Kentucky who took a trip to China, breathed the filthy air, smelled the putrid water, and returned home with this vow: “I’ll never complain about the EPA again.”

Platte Bay in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last week. The park was established in 1970 at the height of American passion for protecting its best natural places. Photo/Keith Schneider

Platte Bay in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last week. The park was established in 1970 at the height of American passion for protecting its best natural places. Photo/Keith Schneider

Environmental regulations and the EPA, though, are part of the nihilistic GOP message machine that asserts nothing really matters except shrinking the government, lowering taxes, ending regulation, opposing gun control and hating Obama. That’s a management menu, while provocative, that offers not a single cogent response to the economic and ecological storms that are battering us now. The Democrats are less dangerous, but also not nearly as articulate and determined.

Neither party is ready to describe the risks of what we face, and the many changes that are required to build a new era of safety and prosperity. Certainly, defending the nation’s existing environmental safeguards is a priority. Read More