Friday, April 29, 2011

'Clock Tower of Babel' now fixed, now broken again

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

Grateful East Meck grad's gift keeps giving

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 -, 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:

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

It's NOT a user fee, it's a gas tax. And other tidbits

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):

"Tax reduction has an almost irresistible appeal to the politician, and it is no doubt also gratifying to the citizen. It means more dollars in his pocket, dollars that he can spend if inflation doesn't consume them first. But dollars in his pocket won't buy him clean streets or an adequate police force or good schools or clear air and water. Handing money back to the private sector in tax cuts and starving the public sector is a formula for producing richer and richer consumers in filthier and filthier communities. If we stick to that formula we shall end up in affluent misery."

Of course, to be balanced I must also report another email, either from Don Caudle (sorry, he didn't include where he lives) or from someone using his email: "Just what part of 'there is no money' do you liberals not understand...."

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, or 704-336-2278, or Neal Boyd or 704-503-0138.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

20 cities to avoid - or not? has put together an interesting slide show of 20 cities you don't want to live in ... yet.
With each are a few paragraphs about that city's problems and its good points, too. Not surprisingly, Detroit tops the list. Flint, Mich., is on there, too. And Fresno and Stockton, Calif., as well as Jackson, Miss., Little Rock, Ark., and Birmingham, Ala.

But I started looking at the unemployment rates listed with each of the so-called loser cities – and I don't think they're loser cities, but certainly troubled ones in many cases. The Charlotte regional jobless rate tops those of Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis, and possibly even Detroit. The blurb just said Detroit is "above 10 percent." As is this region's jobless rate: 10.7 percent in February. Mecklenburg's rate in February was 10.2 percent. Hmmm - unemployment worse than Detroit? That would not be a Charlotte Chamber slogan you'll be seeing anytime soon. Though it does portend sinking pay and desperate workers, which might attract some jobs ...

Seriously, it's a quick and interesting snapshot – based on someone's set of criteria – of some cities. As the article quotes Bert Sperling of saying, in many cases young urban pioneers are moving back into the distressed cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and New Orleans, attracted by the housing prices and urban opportunities.

(Naked City is taking another long weekend break. I'll be speaking Thursday in Beaufort, S.C., at 6:30 p.m. at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, 921 Ribault Road. The lecture's free and open to the public so if you're in that neighborhood, come on by. Sponsors are the Beaufort chapter of CNU Carolinas, the City of Beaufort, and Brown Design Studio.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why high-speed rail debate's a disaster, how to fix it

Bruce Babbitt, the former Interior Secretary (1993-2001) and Arizona governor 1978-87, thinks the national debate over President Obama's push for high-speed rail "has, to put it mildly, been a total disaster."

In terms of marketing, he told a group of journalists today, Obama goofed in comparing a new national high-speed rail initiative to the intercontinental railroad in the 19th century. That infrastructure initiative, Babbitt noted, is inextricably linked in history books with a huge corruption scandal, the Credit Mobilier. A much better comparison, Babbitt said, would have been the interstate highway system.

Today many people look back on the interstate highway-building project as if it was a unanimous hug-fest. In fact, Babbitt said, many governors opposed it when it was first proposed. They rejected the idea of a federal tax. Major businesses such as the concrete and steel industries didn't like the federalization. Eventually, though, after "protracted discussion," agreement was forged to raise the gas tax and create a trust fund – the product of "a lot of good, solid brokering."

Why not, he proposes, bring something of that process to a high-speed rail venture in the only region that, today, has a sound network of passenger rail – the Northeast? What about a regional compact for a regional gas (or other) tax, for regional high-speed rail? It might be a model for other regions. (Or not, as he pointed out.)

But he was also a bit pessimistic that seven regional governors could get together even on this kind of project. Someone asked why. "I was a governor," he replied.

The conference sponsors are the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Nieman Foundation, and Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

Larry Summers - Debt ceiling politics 'unconscionable'

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Turning the issue of raising the debt ceiling into a political tool is "simply unconscionable," economist and ex-Obama adviser Larry Summers said this morning.

Speaking at a forum for journalists at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy , Summers said using the debt ceiling issue for political reasons "is the moral and practical equivalent of inviting children to play in a room full of dynamite."

Summers, ex-president of Harvard, ex-Treasury secretary (1999-2001) and director of National Economic Council for the Obama administration, 2009-11, said the U.S. economy is coming back, noting how rarely you hear people talking about a double-dip recession anymore. Corporate profits are healthy, and so on and so on.

Most of his talk was about what it was like to be inside the Obama team after the 2008 election and early in 2009. Things were so bad that jobs were being lost at a faster rate per month than at any time since those statistics had been kept.

The basic economic theory that you learn in Econ 101, about markets and the way the economy works as an equilibrium (Demand up? Supply goes down. Supply up? Prices down; demand up. Etc.) is "basically right most of the time." But, he said, "two or three times a century a different dynamic takes hold." The self-equilibrating function gives way to an avalanche of de-stability, a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to a downward spiral. (Less consumer spending? Jobs go away. Fewer jobs? Less consumer spending. Etc.)

Obama decided that confidence could be the cheapest form of stimulus. He decided it was more important to boost confidence than exact "vengeance" (interesting word, especially from a guy like Summers) against the people who caused the problems, e.g. the banking, mortgage and financial industries.

Then began a fight over how best to use stimulus money. Summers described the tension between people wanting projects that could get done quickly and the visionary projects.

" 'Shovel-ready' is the great American lie," he said. Bureaucrats knew that projects always take longer than you want, he said, noting that the "Hoover Dam" opened in 1937. (Hoover lost the presidency in 1932.)

When the stimulus money arrived at state governments, he said, "It can only be described as a urinary Olympics between the governors and the mayors." The governors tended to think the mayors were "a bunch of useless slugs."

Summers essentially defended the decisions the Obama administration made - no surprise. And he said the lack of criminal prosecutions for the financiers who brought our whole economy down is likely because no crimes were committed. "Being stupid is not a crime," he said. "Lending money unwisely is not a crime."

He did make something of an exception for the former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo, whom he noted was being criminally investigated, and then the investigation was dropped.

Next up to speak is ex-Mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty. The conference sponsors are the Lincoln Institute, the Nieman Foundation, and Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Atonement: Bringing Gumby back

If you read my Thursday op-ed, "Some good ideas, in need of patrons," you may have noticed the end section, about getting Gumby back.

The whole sordid episode involving New York sculptor Joel Shapiro – whose career in 1987 was just starting a sharp upward trajectory – was embarrassing at the time and helped firmly entrench a national image of Charlotte as a city of rubes and rednecks.

Our city art commission had chosen his proposal for a 22-foot bronze work, a collection of rectangles resembling a human in motion, for the front of the to-be-built (and now demolished) Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road. But one art commission member, Robert Cheek – who later went to prison for cocaine trafficking – didn't like the choice. He helped whip up popular scorn. Either Cheek or deejays John Boy and Billy dubbed the figure "Gumby," after the green clay animated figure.

Ultimately the City Council, which in those days had final say on public art purchases, nixed it 7-4. History note: Voting against the work were Richard Vinroot (later to be mayor), Ann Hammond, Al Rousso, Ron Leeper, Roy Matthews, Gloria Fenning and Minette Trosch. Trosch said she feared repercussions on the public art program if they accepted the art. Voting for it were Cyndee Patterson, Pam Patterson, Charlie Dannelly and Velva Woollen.

Of course, the "Angels in America" spat 10 years later didn't help. Just as people elsewhere were starting to forget how many Charlotte folks were keen to make fun of art, we reminded them that many here were also so homophobic they'd kill funding to the arts because a theater group performed a work that depicted gay men.

Cut to 2011. I see the affection people have for Niki de Saint Phalle's "Firebird" – dubbed Disco Chicken by some – at the Bechtler. You can hardly go by (and since it's between my office and Amelie's coffee shop, I go by it a lot) without seeing someone photographing someone else at the Firebird. The temporary exhibition of large Saint Phalle works in the park across from the museum draws a steady stream of viewers, including children scampering through that huge skull. (Be sure to go inside, where it's mirrored and blue and serene.) The Bechtler, filled with modern art, is drawing great crowds.

I think Charlotte has matured. Finally.

The whole episode was painful for Shapiro. He later told the Observer's Richard Maschal it was "a low point" in his career. Shapiro was at that 1987 council meeting. Our old files have a photo from the meeting, with Shapiro looking on as a speaker holds a clumsy wooden contraption saying it was something he made in fifth grade. The photo caption doesn't say that the speaker was making fun of Shapiro's work, but that would certainly be my guess.

Seeing which way the vote would go, Shapiro left before it was taken and returned to New York. Today his work is in major museums all over the country, including the National Gallery and the N.C. Museum of Art. You can see it at Davidson College. You can see it in Greenville, S.C. But not in Charlotte.

So why don't we try to bring that Shapiro work back to where it should have been all along? Although it would have cost $400,000 in 1987, today his works can sell for seven-figure (corrected) sums. This would take patrons with significant money. Queens Table, where are you?

Would Shapiro consent to this? He might not. But maybe he'd see that this city has grown and changed. Sure, there are plenty of people (including some politicians) who think any sculpture other than soldiers on horseback is weird, or who look at a Picasso and say, "My fifth-grader could do that." But that's true in New York as well as Charlotte. The difference is that there are plenty of people here today with a much wider appreciation of art.

Plus, I think there's a reason the name "Gumby" stuck, even among Shapiro supporters who were angry and embarrassed about the whole thing. Even the tiny wooden model had life and spark, and so much personality it demanded a name. So Gumby it became, and Gumby is how it is remembered in local lore.

Now it's time to bring him home. After all, Disco Chicken needs a buddy.

Photo: 1987 Observer file photo of Joel Shapiro with a model of his proposed sculpture. Photo by Diedra Laird.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Our mayor in Spandex?

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, at his regular news briefing Thursday, mentioned that he's been teaching his kids, 6 and 4, to ride bikes and said he went out and bought himself a road bike, the kind with toe clips that he's still learning how to use.

The last few days, he said, "I've gone out at 5:30 in the morning and gone down to the Little Sugar Creek Greenway." He talked about wanting to make the city friendlier to bicycling.

All of which leaves the obvious question, which yours truly was the only journalist in the room willing to ask: "So, are you wearing Spandex?"

Foxx: "I'm not answering that."

Which I think means he must be.

So, dear readers, if anyone wants to volunteer to be a citizen journalist and go down on the greenway at – as my friend Brenda would say, "O-dark-thirty" – and try for a mayoral Spandex sighting, please let me know what you discover.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Devlopers, JCSU want city money for catalyst project

Should the city help Johnson C. Smith University and a private developer with a project on West Trade Street? The council will likely be deciding that question in coming weeks.

Monday night JCSU official Malcolm Graham – a former City Council member whose other hat is to be a state senator – and Mike Griffin of Griffin Brothers showed the council plans for Mosaic Village, which would be student housing subsidized by JCSU, with street-level retail and a parking deck. Griffin said the project has a $4 million financing gap. Coincidentally, that's almost exactly the cost of building the parking deck.

Graham and Griffin didn't ask the council for any specific help, or lay out a specific request. The matter goes to the council's Economic Development committee. Mayor Anthony Foxx noted that the city has a corridor revitalization strategy.

West Trade and Beatties Ford Road have languished as other neighborhoods near uptown began to blossom. But things are afoot. The Wesley Heights neighborhood nearby has had growing numbers of urban pioneers moving in. JCSU's president, Ron Carter, has made a point of trying to better link the school with both its immediate community and the larger Charlotte community. Take a drive up West Trade and you'll see an area ripe for fresh projects – which would raise the tax base and thus, help city and county finances over time. Would this one be the catalyst the area needs? Or money down a sinkhole? Or somewhere in between?

That's what the City Council will have to figure out. Despite the usual crowd of naysayers who object to almost all city spending beyond the bare basics, smart city investments can have a big payoff later. Example: When the city bought the unused rail corridor along South Boulevard. Now it's the Lynx light rail. South End has seen millions of dollars worth of private investment – new building, rehabs, new business. But as always, knowing which investments are "smart" will be tough part.