Sunday, June 19, 2011
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
For instance, I've always loved this quotation from Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities," sent to me courtesy of artist Linda Luise Brown:
"The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls."
This inspirational quote from artist Georgia O'Keefe:
“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.”
That quote lived on my cubicle wall for years, next to photographer Nancy Pierce's snapshot of roadkill (possum) she came across that – I am not making this up – had been painted with a double-yellow stripe by some not-so-observant road crews.
I found my notes from an Oct. 15, 2003, editorial board interview with then-candidate Kaye McGarry, who was running for an at-large seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School board. Someone (notes aren't clear) asked which of the sitting school board members she'd emulate if sh were elected. McGarry answered: Molly Griffin and Lee Kindberg.
If you follow the school board you will understand that regardless of how you feel about her school board service, McGarry has not in any way resembled Molly Griffin or Lee Kindberg.
Of course, amid the very nice notes we all occasionally get from readers, you sometimes get emails like this one to me (from 2006):
"let me say first and foremost that you are the signpost for stupidity...i can go further you ignorant slut.." And the writer did, including phrases like .... "by the way i pray daily that williams [former Editorial Page Editor Ed Williams] will be called to a higher calling somewhere other than charlotte ....."
I found an old headline from The State in Columbia -
Death Toll 3.5 Million
In Fire At Cricket Farm
And, from the Testy Copy Editors website, this poem.:
Roving bands of youths
limped into port
after an intensive manhunt
by a disgruntled postal employee
in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood
of modest red-brick single-family homes
off tree-lined streets
in a shallow grave
in a densely wooded area
and were rushed to the hospital
in a firestorm of protest
by the Texas billionaire
and the slain civil rights leader
and the financially ailing tabloid.
In the hushed courtroom
the defendant showed no emotion
at the all-important loss column.
After Friday, I'll still be blogging but at a new site: nakedcityblog.blogspot.com. It's still under construction but should be operational by early next week. See you at the new site.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
I've chronicled some of my pedestrian adventures in my weekly op-ed columns, such as ("The foot challenge for Sun Belt cities" and "City walkability goal hits an icy patch" and "Walk this way. If you can."
This morning, I thought – not for the first time – about the possibility of a little guerrilla, tree-planting campaign. I tend to think of this as I walk up South Tryon from Morehead Street to the Observer building at Stonewall Street. The N.C.-owned right-of-way alongside the I-277 bridge, where those odd witch-hat/Klan-hood sculptures sit, is bare grass. It's a bleak trek across that bridge, let me tell you, and once you get past it, you sure could use some shade. What you get, though, is grass. And some "art." (To be fair, the sculptures do offer a bit of shade at the right time of day.) But what about it? Someone want to sneak onto some of our fair city's spots-that-need-shade-trees and just plant some trees? Come December, if you see someone out there with a shovel and some oak or maple saplings, it might just be me.
After June 17, if you want to read The Naked City blog, don't look for this URL (marynewsom.blogspot.com) because it will be disabled when I leave the Observer. Instead, seek out nakedcityblog.blogspot.com. Right now it's in the process of being designed (using the word "design" quite loosely). That's where you'll find me after my last day at The Charlotte Observer.
Friday, June 10, 2011
So that's why I've been digging through old files and various email folders tucked here and there. And I've found some tidbits of things you'll enjoy.
I'll do anything, officer, just make the mimes go away ...: This article from a 2010 edition of City Journal (produced by the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute) discusses one of my favorite urban stories ever – how Bogotá, Colombia, used mimes to make people obey traffic laws. The article tells "about former Bogotá, Colombia, mayor Antanas Mockus’s use of mimes to mock jaywalkers, reckless drivers, and other scofflaws. ... The mimes had a noticeable impact on compliance with traffic laws. The mayor reported that traffic fatalities fell by more than 50 percent between 1993 and 2003." Want to see a photo of the mimes, and more about Mockus? (He also donned a Superman costume and acted as "Supercitizen," using humor to get residents laughing, but behaving better.)
I wonder if Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe has considered hiring a mime troupe to enforce (or scare) misbehaving youths at uptown's next street festival? Or would roving bands of chamber musicians serve as prevention?
Maybe, sometimes, a pencil really isn't just a pencil: Another fun story: "Tall buildings, short architects" from Slate magazine last December. From what we've seen in Charlotte, short bank CEOs also seem to have an affection for tall bank towers. And those tall buildings that claim to be so green? Here's a look at evidence that after a certain point, those high-density towers are less environmentally sound than mid-rise buildings.
Monday, June 06, 2011
But never count a highway out. I-526 was revived with a new council vote last month that rescinded the vote to scrap it. Its future remains unclear. (Here's Post and Courier columnist Brian Hicks on a mysterious pro-highway campaign.) Monday night, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley Jr. spoke to Charlotte City Council about historic preservation (talk about a day late and a dollar short, or maybe three decades late ...) at the invitation of Mayor Anthony Foxx. Riley was gracious enough to let me buttonhole him about 526. He has been a 526 supporter, and I wanted to hear why a guy who seems to understand good urbanism would want another big ole ugly interstate boring through his city. How, I asked him, could the city prevent the typical highway sprawl if this road gets built?
Riley contends the highway is needed because of the growth in motorists trying to get to and from Folly Beach and Seabrook and Kiawah islands at the far end of Johns Island. That sends too much traffic into the neighborhoods west of the Ashley River, he said. The highway will divert that beachbound traffic.
And to control the sprawl? Riley said the city and county had adopted a plan about 10 years ago to create an urban growth boundary. They downzoned a lot of land on Johns Island – even winning a landowner's federal lawsuit over the downzoning – and, at least inside the city limits, there aren't any more large commercially zoned tracts available. But, I persisted, land can be rezoned. It's not that hard. "A lot of blood was spilled," he said, over those downzonings. "The community's invested in this."
Additionally, plans are that the 526 extension won't be a typical interstate, but an at-grade, four-lane road with a tree-lined median and bike paths. It will have only two intersections, no cloverleafs, and, he said, "zero" development.
Although I'm of the belief that keeping sprawl development off a new highway is about as easy as turning lead into gold, I admit part of me thinks it would be interesting to see if this road can offer a model for a tamer way to build urban highways. It's what I (and many others) have said for years: Don't build highways inside cities. Build boulevards designed to move a lot of traffic but that add beauty, not ugliness. Cities need transportation connections, and that includes street networks. They don't need interstate highways gutting them.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Rails No, Roads Yes Part: Remember Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker? He's the one who became the hero/villain for, among other things, turning away $800 million in federal funds for a high-speed passenger rail project because it would have required the state to spend up to $8 million in yearly operating subsidies. Just to make sure that voters get the point that he believes Rail Bad-Roads Good, he has since proposed four dubious new highway projects that could end up costing Wisconsin taxpayers over $2 billion. The Wisconsin PIRG (Public Interest Research Group, a member of the U.S. PIRG coalition) has issued a report, "Building Boondoggles" that says that despite a $3.4 billion state budget budget shortfall, the Wisconsin governor has proposed a 13 percent increase in road project funds, with four large projects of dubious necessity. Read it for yourself at the link above.
Dylan and Infrastructure. Infrastructurist.com, in honor of Bob Dylan's 70th birthday last Tuesday (Yeah I'm a week late. It was a busy week) put together its Top 10 Dylan infrastructure songs.
Take that, you ignorant journos: Courtesy of colleague Tommy Tomlinson and his @tommytomlinson Twitter feed, here's a great video from Grand Rapids, Mich. – the city's video response to being dubbed "a dying city" by Newsweek magazine. If you don't love it, you may have no heart.
Grin and bear it: There's been a boomlet of bear-sightings in the Carolinas in recent weeks, including a black bear that wandered onto the third hole at UNC's Finley Golf Course. Another was killed on a highway near Charlotte. Check out this video from the Greensboro News & Record, of what one resident found in his back yard. THIS JUST IN: A bear was shot and killed today at the Piedmont Triad International Airport. And the @GreensboroBear1 Twitter handle just switched to @GboroBearGhost.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Tuesday, a national transportation advocacy group, Transportation for America (T4 America) released its report, "Dangerous by Design 2011," looking at what it called an epidemic of preventable pedestrian deaths. From 2000 to 2009, it said, 47,700 pedestrians were killed in this country – the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing roughly every month. More than 688,000 were injured. Nearly 12 percent of total traffic deaths are pedestrians, but, the report says, state departments of transportation have pretty much ignored pedestrian safety if you look at how budgets are allocated. Only 1.5 percent of available federal money goes to projects to retrofit dangerous roads and streets or create safer alternatives.
The report uses a pedestrian danger index based on a variety of factors and ranks the U.S. metro areas. The most dangerous, in order: Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Miami-Fort Lauderdale (all in Florida), Riverside-San Bernardino Calif., Las Vegas, Memphis, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas-Forth Worth. All are Sun Belt cities, and all but Memphis saw major growth booms in the last half of the 20th century, when suburban-style development catered almost exclusively to automobiles.
Atlanta was No. 11. Raleigh-Cary was No. 13. Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord hit No. 17.
Fully a third of Americans can't or don't drive, and for most, being able to walk places is important. They are our children, our young teens, our elderly and our disabled. The City of Charlotte has pushed hard, and admirably, in the past 10 years to make the city better and safer for pedestrians, by ordering sidewalks to be built in new subdivisions, building sidewalks where they're lacking in earlier developments, and retro-fitting intersections to add crosswalks and pedestrian refuges. Here's to an even lower spot on the next ranking.
One of those retrofitted Charlotte intersections (at top) got national display at npr.org, with a Tuesday piece on "Morning Edition" – "As America Ages, A Push To Make Street Safer." The piece talked about efforts to improve safety for the elderly, both pedestrians and drivers. Although Charlotte isn't mentioned in the piece, see that photo at the top? That's Rozzelles Ferry Road, redesigned by the city to add bike lanes, crosswalks and extended sidewalks.
Photo credit: NPR and National Complete Streets Coalition.
Friday, May 20, 2011
The council's committees essentially divvy up the workload, vetting issues before they reach the full council. So his committee hears and gives preliminary approval to many – but not all – area plans, land use policy changes, etc. The so-called focus areas are the issues the council makes its top priorities. He said planning has never been a council focus area, "because it's infused in everything."
Since I was fortunate enough to have the chairman of the Transportation and Planning committee on the horn, I asked him about another tidbit I had spotted while burrowing through Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton's proposed budget for the next fiscal year. This is on page 70. Deep in the text accompanying the summary of the Planning Department's accomplishments and focus, etc., under "Service Delivery Challenges," is this:
In other words – and if you follow my writing this will sound familiar because I have been beating this drum for years – the city-county zoning ordinance needs a top-to-bottom rewrite. The types of development it allows and in some cases requires can all too often completely undercut the city's adopted plans and policies.
I asked Howard about that. He said he had had conversations with Planning Director Debra Campbell about that issue while he was on the planning commission. I asked if the idea of a comprehensive re-do of the city's zoning ordinance had come up at the City Council level. "It hasn't come up to that level," he said.
As a postscript I'll note, just because Charlotte and Raleigh NEVER compete, that Raleigh has in the past few years finished a massive re-do of its comprehensive plan, adopted in 20090, and is embarked on the huge task of rewriting its whole zoning code so that it upholds the plans. That process is in the public comment period.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Of course you can make the case that "planning" is embedded in many focus areas, such as environment, transportation, housing, etc. For the record, the focus areas are: Community Safety, Economic Development, Environment, Housing and Neighborhood Development and Transportation. Other committees are Budget, Government Affairs [no silly, this does not include Schwarzenegger, Edwards, et al] and Restructuring Government.
Pardon my bias here, but I want to stand up for the idea that planning, in and of itself, is important for a growing city such as Charlotte.
The City Council should make clear, as part of its focus areas, that planning is important. Aren't the city's plans a valued resource for the council and the whole community? If they aren't, why not, and what needs to happen to make them so? A comprehensive city plan, drawn up with massive public involvement, builds buy-in from the community toward a vision for the city's future, lays out a road map for policy changes that help get there, and builds buy-in as well for making those changes.
Planning should again become a visible part of the City Council's focus.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Looking globally, the report says that “Canada and Australia have leapfrogged the United States in confronting aging and crumbling networks, as well as employing public/private partnerships." Here's a quote from from the Executive Summary: "The United States notably continues to lag its global competition – laboring without a national infrastructure plan, lacking political consensus, and contending with severe federal, state, and local budget deficits that limit options. Some metropolitan areas appear better positioned when they can forge plans and pool resources for new transit lines and road systems across multiple jurisdictions."
The Washington Post report on the study includes this tidbit: "The report envisions a time when, like Detroit, U.S. cities may opt to abandon services in some districts and when lightly used blacktopped rural roads would be allowed to return to nature."
Tuesday, May 03, 2011
The report from the nonprofit Good Jobs First grades North Carolina a C+ but ranks the Tar Heel state No. 3. South Carolina rates an F and is one of 14 states clumped at the bottom of the rankings. Is it something in that weird mustard-based barbecue sauce?
Monday, May 02, 2011
If that sounds like Huntersville, or maybe Indian Trail, well it isn't. It's Olive Branch, Miss., about 20 miles south of Memphis. Here's the Memphis Commercial Appeal article. And here's the Businessweek article.
The analysis looked at year-over-year growth in households, 2000-10, and other factors, such as the 2010 average length of residence and the change in average household income from 2000 to 2010. But household growth was the dominant factor. The Businessweek article notes that it didn't go strictly by city or municipal boundary lines. By its measures, the fastest-growing city in North Carolina was Cary. The site notes that the Raleigh-Cary metro area was the fourth-fastest growing in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010.
And the fastest-growing city in South Carolina is Charlotte's just-over-the-line neighbor, Fort Mill.
"This show, if we do it right, is an argument for the city. For the idea of American urbanity, for the melting pot, for the idea that our future can’t be separated from the fact that we are all going to be increasingly compacted into urban areas, though we’re different in race and culture and religion. And what we make of that will determine the American future.
I listened during the last election cycle to the rhetoric about small town values and where the real Americans live. I thought to myself, “I’ve never heard such b-------t in my life.” Rural America’s not coming back. That idea was lost with the Industrial Revolution. And yet with more than 80 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas, there are still demagogues who want to run down the idea of multiculturalism, of urbanity, being the only future we have. We either live or die based on how we live in cities, and our society is either going to be great or not based on how we perform as creatures of the city."And here, he talks about why New Orleans is unique among American cities:
"... Corruption is endemic. Yet, people came home and they continue to come home. This city comes back because it's New Orleans.
The rest of America, with some small exceptions, has been bulldozed and rebuilt and then bulldozed and rebuilt again. Our places have become interchangeable. Here, everything from the architecture to the way in which people eat, the way in which they talk, the way in which they do business, the way in which they dance, the manner in which everything is set to a parade beat, they're all from here. There's no place like it.
What city has given the world more in terms of American culture than New Orleans? There is none. Not New York. Not L.A. Not Chicago. Not anywhere, in the sense that African American music has gone around the world twenty times over, and it's continuing to evolve. It is our greatest cultural export."
Friday, April 29, 2011
Here's an update on the piece I did Tuesday, which mentioned that the clock tower on the new Little Sugar Creek Greenway at Kings Drive and Morehead Street was not keeping the correct time.
It came in response to a question from Joe Mattiacci of Charlotte, who wrote to the Observer Forum, asking, "Why do we need a huge clock tower on the new greenway at Kings Drive and Morehead anyway? Everybody in Charlotte seems to have their face in some sort of electronic device much of the day where the time is readily available."
And, he asked, "Why do we have a clock that hasn't kept the correct time since it was erected? Who is responsible for this episode of another public waste of money?"
Answers: It's not public money. The Rotary Club of Charlotte raised the money for the clock tower, which was designed by LandDesign. Gwen Cook, a planner with the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department, said a recent electrical storm had affected the clockworks (by the Verdin Company in Cincinnati, Ohio), which was working with the county department to fix the problem.
This morning, reported, "The clock is working correctly. It's a feature that we'll keep an eye on to be sure it's not affected by storms. There is good surge protection. ... [We] Will continue to monitor."
Oops. About 6:15 p.m. she emailed to say the clock was lagging again. She said Verdin is sending a service technician next week.
Photo credit: Mary Newsom.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
I've just returned from one of those events that perks up not just your day, but your whole outlook. I am here to report something that many of you know, but that too many pundits, experts and so-called reformers seem not to: Urban public schools are not universally failing.
Further, if you want to promote strong teaching, consider putting this into your reformer toolkit: Support teachers, instead of attacking them.
The event was a fundraiser for East Mecklenburg High School's All-Star Teacher Initiative, part of the school's 60th anniversary this year. The initiative, funded by a half-million-dollar donation from a grateful 1973 graduate, Bob Silver (above, at top of tree), aims to attract, reward, train and retain excellent teachers.
If you don't know the story of East Meck and Bob Silver, here's the short version: Silver, after having made a lot of money on Wall Street and grateful for his high school education, called the school in 2005, telling then-principal Mark Nixon he wanted to make a donation. Nixon told him they sure could use a new overhead projector. No, Silver said, you don't understand.
He offered $500,000 – challenging the school to raise enough privately to match it. The school did, including raising $265,000 in one hour at a 2007 fundraiser luncheon.
East Meck, opened in 1950, today has 1,700 students, about 60 percent from low-income families. Principal Rick Parker read some demographics: 48 percent African-American, 26 percent Caucasian, 15 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian. A third are in the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program; 95 percent of graduates go to college.
The All-Star Teacher Initiative every year gives each teacher $200 or $300 for classroom supplies and equipment not provided by the school system. Cards on the luncheon tables highlighted some of what the money does: 60 teachers have taken Spanish so they can talk with non-English-speaking students and their parents. Teacher Robin Kolodziey wrote about ASTI helping buy "lab materials for our Enzyme lab, DNA extraction, Osmosis and Diffusion, and cell model building. All of these things used to come out of my family's finances! These things are fantastic!"
Teacher Connie Wood wrote, "You lift us up when it seems everyone else is putting us down. Thank you."
The school chorus sang, as did a gray-haired a capella trio, Class of 1953 – Sam Biggers, Charlie Crabtree, Verner Jordan, who got their start harmonizing in a school bathroom. A new Eagle mascot costume was unveiled to replace the bedraggled one. The crowd was clogged with alumni, including former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot ('58), Moira Quinn ('73), former City Council member Velva Woollen ('57), WCNC TV anchor Sonja Gantt ('83), and of course, Silver.
Why, I wondered, can't other schools do this? As ASTI coordinator Joan O'Brien will tell anyone, it doesn't require a half-million. This city, this country, are crawling with proud alumni from Charlotte's public schools. Wouldn't it be grand if foundations could be set up for ALL Charlotte-Mecklenburg public high schools, and then all the middle schools? (OK, I'll stop thinking big.)
None of this willing fundraising should get the county commissioners and the N.C. General Assembly off the hook for putting enough money into public education, even if it requires keeping a "temporary" sales tax, or asking property owners to pay a wee bit more.
But, as I wrote in 2009, "After all, plenty of local wealth routinely pours into the city's private schools. Charlotte Country Day holds, among other things, the Levine Center, Claudia Watkins Belk Hall, another Belk Hall, Gorelick Family Theater, Bruton Smith Athletic Center and Rea Hall. Charlotte Latin has Thies Auditorium, Belk Gymnasium and the Beck Student Activities Center. Among the buildings at Providence Day is the Dickson-Hemby Technology Center. I hope the example of Bob Silver ... will inspire many of the accomplished CMS alumni to try, in whatever way they can, to help their own alma maters."
Our public schools, many of them, are succeeding. They need our support now, more than ever.
For more information, contact Joan O'Brien - firstname.lastname@example.org, or 980-343-6430, ext. 312. The East Meck High School Foundation website appears not to be functioning at the moment, but here's its address: http://www.eastmeckfoundation.org
Photo: Students from East Meck's class of 1973 pose in a tree: (From left) Mike Kastan, Bob Silver, Bill Adams, Moria Quinn and (front) Mike Bennett. Photo courtesy East Mecklenburg High School.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Are we cutting our way to wealthy consumers living in filthy communities?
I'm clearing out the inbox after several days out of the office. Here's some of what I've found:
Cutting our way to filth: Lanny Reavis of Gastonia sent along a quote from John W. Gardner, in response to my op-ed from last Thursday, "A bright city future dimmed by cuts." Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, was secretary of health, education and welfare under President Lyndon Johnson. It's from Gardner's "The Recovery of Confidence" (1970):
Gas tax = user fee? Think again: Friend and fellow writer Alex Marshall sent a link to his recent piece in Governing magazine, in which he argues that the gas tax is NOT a user fee. And, he responds to a rail critic, Kenneth Orski, who wrote: “Pres. Eisenhower’s ambitious plan for the interstate highway system was placed on a sound fiscal basis by being backed by a user fee (a.k.a. the gas tax).” But high-speed rail, Orski said, “burdens the states with continued operating subsidies.”
Er, no, says Marshall. He writes, "President Eisenhower put the interstate highway system on a sound fiscal basis by burdening states with a continued operating subsidy for it in the form of the gas tax."
That Clock Tower of Babel: Joe Mattiacci of Charlotte sent this query to the Observer Forum. He titled it, "Clock Tower of Babel":
"The first question one might ask is why do we need a huge clock tower on the new greenway at Kings Drive and Morehead anyway? Everybody in Charlotte seems to have their face in some sort of electronic device much of the day where the time is readily available.
"The second question would be why do we have a clock that hasn't kept
the correct time since it was erected? Who is responsible for this
episode of another public waste of money?"
The answer: You may not like it, or think it was necessary, but the clock was bought with private, not public money. The Rotary Club of Charlotte raised the money. Gwen Cook, a planner with the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department, explains: "The clockworks were provided by the Verdin Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, and paid for by the Charlotte Rotary Club, a gracious gift to the new greenway. Verdin has been in business for over a century."
She said the electrical problem with the clockworks began with an electrical storm a few weeks ago. They're working with the vendor to diagnose the exact problem, in order to fix it. The repair costs aren't on the taxpayers' dime.
And for those curious about why the clock tower looks as it does – I've heard some grousing by designer-types about the stonework, balustrades and urns – the designer was LandDesign, which designed that whole section of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.
Ride with (and lobby?) your mayor: Friday you can bike with Hizzoner and whichever other local celebs/pols decide to come along.
Arrive at 7:30 a.m. (no need to don spandex though you may if you wish) to ride from the lot behind the Dowd YMCA, 400 E. Morehead St., to a free breakfast at the plaza next to Two Wachovia Center uptown. It's all part of BIKE!Charlotte activities from April 29-May 15. For more information: Ken Tippette, email@example.com or 704-336-2278, or Neal Boyd firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-503-0138.