Street Smarts for Smart Streets

Samuel I. Schwartz is a quintessential Brooklynite. If he wasn’t a real person, a screenwriter would have invented him. Raised in Bensonhurst in the 1940s and 1950s, he played on the street, loved the Brooklyn Dodgers (hated Walter O’Malley when he moved them to Los Angeles), and worked hard at school, encouraged by his immigrant parents to get an education and make something of himself. Brash, smart, opinionated and not at all afraid of taking a stand, Schwartz parlayed his mathematical talent into an engineering degree at Penn and his love of Gotham into a job with the New York City Department of Traffic.Street Smart

Schwartz proved to be no ordinary civil servant. As he recounts in Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, Schwartz’s battles – both wins and losses – mirror many of the broader transportation questions facing the United States in the past fifty years. Buildings come and go, he writes, but roads last forever. Now the head of his own international engineering company, Schwartz is in a unique position to explain what is and is not possible when it comes to urban transportation planning and implementation. He knows that cars are not going away and that they will play an important part in transportation for the foreseeable future. Schwartz, however, also understands that the trends for humans for the future are for more walkable cities that do not depend upon automobiles. He is a closet cyclist. Much of Schwartz’s professional career has been about reorganizing transportation networks to decrease the preeminence of automobiles. He is fundamentally a pragmatist who writes with great humor and charm. If you were a mayor, you would want Sam Schwartz – “Gridlock Sam” to the New York City tabloids – on your team.

In a variety of positions in NYC, Schwartz consistently worked toward traffic decisions that would give more options to pedestrians. Jane Jacobs only receives a brief mention but she and Schwartz share a similar point of view about the urban environment: it is best when it is actively shaped by people.

Engineers have a special set of tools when it comes to defining a problem – like slow-moving traffic – and designing a solution – like adding more lanes. Schwartz learned these tools, studied them, and decided at a relatively early age that they missed the big picture about how transportation systems can shape a city. People often mistake and misunderstand their environment, he writes, and engineers can compound the problem.

Take congestion – Schwartz makes it clear that reducing congestion is never a simple process and that in some situations, congestion can lead to an improved quality of life. It can also be a massive headache. In a multi-modal transportation environment (cars, buses, trains, light rail, etc.), with the right planning and options, congestion can lead to smarter public transportation choices.

For New Yorkers, some of Schwartz’s anecdotes will memories and flashes of recognition. “So that’s why that road in the park was closed off. . . .” His account of the options that the city faced when the Williamsburg Bridge approached failure is telling. Schwartz took a decisive role in rejecting a new bridge, which would have flattened several neighborhoods. His plan, accepted by the city, called for smaller, less dramatic repairs. It saved money and communities. Schwartz does not believe that more money for infrastructure necessarily has a good return on investment.

Schwartz also provides insight into how and why certain decisions about transportation were made. Mayoral preferences are extremely important. A mayor who does not see the value of the subways, for example, is not going to support multi-modal transportation. Schwartz asserts that any changes in the transportation system will ruffle feathers and demand leadership.

The book covers much more than New York City. Schwartz references other cities, other problems, and other strategies. He sees several key trends: reduction in the attraction of automobiles for millennials, people seeing environments in which they can walk, a heightened frustration with long commutes, and the value of transportation systems engineering. He believes that ongoing improvements in technology, from GIS to Uber, will allow for greater innovation and more people-friendly designs.

Most importantly, he believes that these tectonic shifts in how we live will not be driven by ideology or politics (in fact, they may be delayed by politics), but by a basic human desire to live socially. I would wager that Schwartz believes there is a little Brooklyn in everyone.

David Potash

Mayoral Musings

With the drama and politics surrounding Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel, I have been thinking about mayoral leadership and what it takes to be a successful mayor. It is not an easy job. Mayors offer an unusual kind of elected political leadership. They face challenges and opportunities very different from representatives at the state level or in Congress. Mayors are almost never as partisan as governors, though the may share some similar traits. Effective mayors are relentlessly pragmatic, an uncommon characteristic of elected officials. As New York City mayor Fiorella LaGuardia once quipped, there is no Democratic or Republic way to pick up the garbage.If Mayors Ruled the World

Scholar and political theorist Benjamin R. Barber thinks that the future of effective government lies with mayors. He believes that nation-states will become increasingly unreliable in future years. The mayors of mega and major cities will find ways to solve problems and enhance the lives of those who live in their cities. He explains this and highlights successful mayors in If Mayors Ruled The World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. In Barber’s mind, the key issues we face: terrorism, environmental collapse, poverty and public health can be best addressed though cities led by mayors with a pragmatic bent.

It is a provocative concept. Can mayors save democracy? The book meanders and there is no appropriate mechanism for aligning mayoral priorities. Barber’s interviews and research lead him to high-concept issues and the mundane, like how to get rid of abandoned cars. The challenge is that the urgency of the pragmatic is far from inspirational. Barber has high expectations for those that have to find ways to make sure that the garbage is removed.

A mayor who understand this is former Miami mayor, Manny Diaz. The son of Cuban immigrants, Diaz is a local boy who succeeded. A strong athlete in high school, he attended FIU and then the University of Miami School of Law. Diaz was involved in local politics behind the scenes until the Elian Gonzalez case made him a national celebrity. He ran for mayor in 2001 and again in 2005.  Under his leadership Miami’s finances stabilized and many meaningful reforms took place. Diaz championed transportation focused design, clean streets and sustainability. He received several awards and much positive press as mayor. When he left office, he headed to Harvard, where he wrote a book about himself and his time in office: Miami Transformed: Rebuilding America One Neighborhood, One City at a Time.

Diaz and Miami TransformedDiaz’s autobiography is resolutely positive. He sees progress in his family’s journey (his father was imprisoned in Castro’s Cuba), in his childhood in Miami, and his professional life. He writes that he beat poverty through education. He believes that others can do the same. Diaz’s hope is that his focus on the pragmatic – solving problems and getting things done – will inspire others. He sees a need for greater involvement, especially among the young, in public service. Not everyone viewed Diaz as favorably, of course. He has his share of critics and a few scandals did mar his time in office.

When Diaz writes of a grand vision, it is of Miami several decades in the future. He imagines greater educational opportunities for all, a thriving economic base, and a city that keeps its inhabitants safe, secure, and happy.

It seems to me that the traits that successful mayors bring to the table might very well be what we need in other leaders in other arenas. Less of an imagined Nirvana, perhaps, and instead solid incremental improvements. I do not believe that global leadership necessarily demands a focus on the small bore, but it isn’t a bad way to run a complex organization. In fact, in can be quite effective. We could do much worse than turn government over to mayors.

David Potash

Theodore Roosevelt and an Historian’s Obsessions

Tell someone you want to be a history teacher and you’re likely to get an old joke: if you’ve studied it once, you don’t need to study it again. History, after all, doesn’t change.

If only.

When Trumpets CallWhen you really dig into a historical subject, start to obsess about it, write about it and argue it, you see it in new ways. You don’t tire of it and instead, re-interpretation and re-re-reinterpretation becomes natural. Interest leads to curiosity, which in turn catalyzes ever more curiosity. It’s a strange feeling and a good one, too – humbling.

I had that sensation when doing graduate research on the early part of the twentieth century in American politics. It emerged slowly, over years of work. Reading primary sources complemented secondary sources, which in turn gave me insight into different primary sources. I read and read and read, to the point when I was working on my dissertation that I dreamed of living in the early 1900s. Reading newspaper from the period again and again will do that. Even though today I do not teach or write history, I find myself pulled to that period out of interest and familiarity. It has become part of me.

Recently I finished When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House – another biography of Theodore Roosevelt. There are many biographies of the man. The broad outlines of Roosevelt’s life are well-known, as is his over the top personality, and his emergence as a popular culture icon. It’s no accident that Robin Williams played a touching TR in the Night at the Museum movies.

Roosevelt is a fascinating figure to study and there is much to admire in his early years. His post-presidency rhetoric, though, and his strident militarism can make for a difficult subject. O’Toole – a writer, not a professional historian – renders him with patience and deep appreciation. Her research was with direct sources, so her reading of Roosevelt’s correspondence and those of his colleagues helps to flesh out the man’s complexities. She is a skilled author. O’Toole is able to add drama and impact to the history.

That said, O’Toole does not add anything really new to the study of the man. This is no closely argued academic tome. She comes to the subject with no broad argument, no ax to grind, and no key thesis to prove. She writes for understanding and to sell books. In these goals, she succeeds.

What is missing from the book is the sort of deep appreciation and understanding of a trained historian. She writes history without an historian’s passion. And somehow I doubt that she dreams about what it was like in the summer of 1912, in Chicago, as the Republican Party tore itself apart trying to find a candidate and consensus. As I said, I’m a little bit obsessed.

David Potash

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Conference

SkiosI remember the first time I noticed the difference in the bookstore between “Fiction” and “Literature.” There didn’t seem to be the same distinction in the library. I knew of fiction (the made up stories) and non-fiction (the real stories). But what did make of the sorting of fiction from literature? Literature struck me as older, often written by people now dead, and published by Penguin. It was more English. Fiction, on the other hand, was newer and often came in hardcover with dramatic art. Literature was serious. If I wanted something funny, I headed to fiction. This sorting from long ago popped into my head while reading Michael Frayn’s Skios. Frayn is a genius, a British author and playwright that cranks out serious works and interesting plays the way most of us go shopping. Another season, another errand, and for Frayn, another brilliant piece of work. Frayn’s play, Noises Off, is a farce that makes me smile just thinking of it. Written as a play, it was also made in to a movie. It is silly, tightly paced, and pretty much guaranteed to make you laugh. That is no easy task. You will never think of “sardines” the same way after seeing it.

Skios is funny, too, but not in the same way. It is a comedy of mistaken identity, awkward situations, and a gentle satire of the high-flying world of conferences for the wealthy and privileged. Action takes place on the island of Skios, home to the pretentious Fred Toppler Foundation, and a host of Greek nationals. An attractive sociopath is mistaken for the foundation’s visiting speaker and he runs with the opportunity. The actual speaker, a self-important and pompous academic, is routed to a series of proper comeuppances. The joy comes not in the book’s resolution, but in the humor along the way.

Frayn renders the characters with compassion as he gently mocks them. The set-pieces are described beautifully. Though it did not double me up with laughter, Skios gave me more than a few chuckles. I’d wager that the play and the film would do the same. And as to whether it is fiction or literature, I have a sense that it will end up in the literature shelves at some point in the future. Now if there was only an opportunity for a beach read in the chill of December . . . .

David Potash

A Writer’s Writer and His Cats

John D. MacDonald is a brilliant writer. He is a writer’s writer, a master at clear prose and a strong narrative voice. His plots are tight, his humor insightful, and a special kind of wisdom infuses his texts. Something of an American Trollope, MacDonald writes about people but tells us much more. Steven King, Kingsley Amis, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and many other outstanding authors have paid tribute to MacDonald. He is very good. Or was – he passed away nearly twenty years ago. House Guests

Like many other fans, my first MacDonald’s were Travis McGee mystery/thrillers. Over time I expanded to other novels by him, some short stories and the occasional non-fiction piece. The man wrote constantly and consistently well. However, I picked up The House Guests, his book about his cats and other pets, with misgivings. It is a book about his pets – two cats and a goose – or so the cover claims.

People’s fascination with cats puzzles me. Cat people talk cats. The rest of us have little to say. When my inbox features links to cat videos, their only source are the feline-obsessed. Look at rankings and ratings on the internet, though and it’s clear felines are trending. Some say that cats are poised to take over the internet. But why? Cats – and I’ve had good relationships with more than a few – are usually supremely indifferent to us. MacDonald, I was certain, was a dog person.

I had him wrong. He wrote The House Guests, in part, to settle a debt he had with the species, a way of righting a childhood wrong. He also wrote it as a love letter to the animals that made his family life so much richer. I suspect that his devotion to his cats and other pets, stemmed from the same sense of empathy. When we care about our pets, we slow down, think and feel. MacDonald understands that and much more.

Still, it is not a good book in the sense of what a book ought to be. There is no real beginning or end, save the animals’ eventual demise. (Books about animals almost always end with the animal’s death. I don’t know who made that a rule. I recognized it as a young reader after Old Yeller, Charlotte, and a children’s book of animal stories that had me weeping.) The House Guests is series of anecdotes, stories and observations from a very smart and funny man. It is warm, enjoyable, and makes you wish that you had time to visit the MacDonald family and their animals all those years ago. It is a sweet book. And in many ways, it can be easier to hear about a friend’s pets than to hear about their children.

Still, I’m not getting a cat.

David Potash

Serendipity, Fiction, and a Home Away

A friend in publishing told me that every book finds its audience.

If so, the journey taken by Laura McBride‘s We Are All Called To Rise to me is worthy of sharing.

ZappotopiaIt has been a full summer of work. In need of a vacation, Las Vegas emerged as a surprising choice. It is not expensive to fly there and lodgings are affordable. So despite the 100+ heat, we set off to the Nevada desert in August. It turned out to be a successful trip – and not because the heat is dry.

Away from the casinos and the Strip, Las Vegas can be unexpectedly surprising. Zappos, the internet shoe and clothing company, has its headquarters in the former Las Vegas City Hall. It is a wildly successful company with a  particular culture. They give “factory” tours in Vegas, explaining the Zappos story. Zappos knows a great deal about customer service. In fact, they describe themselves as a customer service company who happens to sell shoes.Container Park Visit them and you will bear witness to the power of a vision fully implemented. Zappos culture is impressive to contemplate. After taking the tour, I was wondering: “How did this end up here?”

A few blocks away is the Downtown Project. The brainchild of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, the Project is an outsize attempt to revitalize a neglected part of the city. Hsieh purchased cut-rate property and hand-picked vendors and firms to energize a 60-acre tract. It features restaurants, shops, new companies, and public art. Fueled by optimism, technology and caffeine, the jury remains out as to its sustainability three years on.

Container Park is at the heart of the Downtown Project. An attractive small outdoor shopping center made of shipping containers, it has good food, cold drink, and effective air conditioners. Walking around in daylight without a purpose in daylight makes little sense. Scurrying on the shady sides of the street, aided by apps and a smart phone, led to iced coffee and barbecue. Replenished, I looked at the outdoor playground, the public art and the heat rising of the concrete, and again wondered, “Why here?”

Nearby in the project is a small bookstore – The Writers Block. Talking with the owners, who received backing from Hsieh, I learned that it is the only independent bookstore in Nevada focusing on new books. It is an attractive and Writers Blockthoughtfully curated bookstore. It also had a familiar urban feel. It turned out that the The Writers Block is the creation of the forces who managed the Superhero Supply Store in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I used to live in Brooklyn. I knew Superhero Supply well. For profit stores with a not-for-profit and not terribly secret back-half, the Writers Block and Superhero Supply mix retail with space and support for writers, especially children. It is an intriguing concept originally promoted by Dave Eggers. The Writers Block opened less than a year ago. Like the larger Downtown Project, it is still very much in start-up phase.

So there I was, in a new and different but still somewhat familiar space, thousands of miles away from home, trying to make sense of a downtown that wasn’t fully realized in a city keen on constantly reinventing itself for tourists. There seemed only one reasonable course of action: ask for a good book to help me understand Las Vegas.

I expected nonfiction. Instead, they recommended, McBride’s We Are All Called To Rise. McBride teaches English at the College of Southern Nevada. She is known in the community and had done a reading at The Writers Block. It is her debut novel. Told that it liked by the critics and is selling well, I bought the book.We Are All Called to Rise

We Are All Called To Rise is not about Las Vegas, but it is grounded in the lives of those who live and work in Las Vegas. McBride tells several distinct and related, stories in the book, weaving together a narrative about loss, family, and making meaning. Sentimental but still hard-headed, it is an impressive work of fiction. She is particularly strong on survivors and the impact of trauma. McBride cares about her characters. It is an excellent read.

May your next read find its way to you with an equally interesting journey. I give thanks – to vacations, to company tours, to online shoe shopping, to urban spaces, to independent bookstores, and to the power of coincidence. Many of these resonate in McBride’s world, too.

David Potash

Voyeur Ethnography: Everyone Wants Something

In 1978, while Keith Richards was embroiled in legal troubles, Mick Jagger was living in New York City and working on Some Girls, a superb Rolling Stones album. In the album’s last song, Shattered, Jagger sings of Gotham:

Pride and joy and greed and sex
That’s what makes that town the best
Pride and joy and dirty dreams
Are still surviving on the street

The Stones captured something essential about NYC in the rough 1970s in about three minutes. Much has changed over 35 years, but much has remained the same. It would have been helpful if Sudhir Venkatesh, rogue sociologist from Columbia University, knew this when penning his exploration of the underside of NYC, Floating City. It is a deeply frustrating book, made doubly irritating because hidden away, amid a self-referential narrative, are valuable observations about an important topic. It should be more substantive.

Venkatesh made his academic and literary name with Gang Leader For A Day. That is a compelling study of the South Chicago drug economy made possible through the sociologist’s friendship with a gang leader. Through charm, persistence and a non-judgmental profile, Venkatesh earned a place of privilege in a violent urban subculture. His vantage point provided more than enough material for a provocative book.

Floating CityNow in New York City and with a professorship at Columbia University, Venkatesh tries the same approach in Floating City. Problems quickly multiply. New York City’s off the books economy is very complex. He is unable to define his research or the project. He befriends a drug dealer and prostitutes, but friendship does not necessarily translate into ethnography. His academic peers describe his work as journalism. Venkatesh may embraces a “rogue” title but his confidence rings hollow. His marriage dissolves. His subjects are beaten and arrested. They are all in distress. New York City is not afloat – Venkatesh is.

If we bypass the prurient in Floating City – and Venkatesh’s fascination with prostitution and prostitutes borders on the obsessive and exploitative – and the author’s all too frequent discussions about himself – what remains are some interesting stories of how legal and illegal blur. What makes for cultural capital in a constantly shifting city? It is well-trod ground and reminded me of one of my favorite neglected books about Gotham.

In 1850, a reporter for the New York Tribune, George G. Foster, wrote New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches: With Here and There a Streak of Sunshine. He describes prostitution, drinking, gambling and the evening economy and lifestyle in a rapidly changing city. Foster focuses on more than explaining and exploring. He draws attention to the hypocrisy of respected political and civic leaders who criticize the underground culture while enjoying and profiting from it. Foster identifies with those that work at night. It is a strange book that captures a city becoming modern.

The dynamic interdependence of legitimate and illegitimate is extremely interesting. Patient readers can glimpse it in Floating City. More than the interplay of legal and illegal, it is the interplay of competing economies and cultures. An area of tremendous vitality, that interplay leads to Bronx hip hop becoming a global phenomenon, or Brooklyn street fashion travels European runways. Grasp it and you have a sense of what makes New York City such a special place.

David Potash

That’s A Beautiful Function

Making sense of architecture is no easy task. While we can recognize famous buildings and spaces, making sense of why they are important can be very difficult. Even harder is understanding how good architecture comes to be.why we build

Rowan Moore, an architect who gave it all up to become an architectural journalist, tackles these questions and more in Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture. Moore does so from an inspired and thoughtful perspective. He focuses on people: the people who build and the people who experience the built environment. He grasps that human experience is critical to comprehending a structure and turning it into architecture.

The book is funny, insightful, and a bit of a kaleidoscope. Moore is not bound by a single set program or argument. He tries this approach and that, sprinkling delightful language as he travels the globe. How does a place so like Dubai, so over the top, so showy and yet so empty, happen? Why are the works of Lina Bo Bardi, an Italian architect who build in Brazil, so effective? What explains the interplay of architecture and desire? We read about imagined immortality and seduction, of Loos and Norman Foster, about the World Trade Center and the Freedom Tower, and about follies of design and true fakes (Pompidou Centre).

Moore served as director of the Architecture Foundation, where he worked with Zaha Hadid. His viewpoint is both as architect, patron, and critic. Moore tells us that eternity is overrated and form will follow finance.

I came away with a greater appreciation of the magic in a well-conceived and well-executed design, and gratitude to Moore, who writes about architecture critically in a way that makes me think.

David Potash

The Three Most Important Things in Real Estate Are. . . .

Farnsworth HouseLudwig Mies van der Rohe is considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest architects. Known for his advocacy of modernism – “less is more” – Mies designed many famous structures: the Seagram Building in New York City, much of the IIT campus in Chicago, and a few houses.

The most important of his homes is the Farnsworth House, a weekend retreat south of Chicago. Dr. Edith Farnsworth had money and taste. She wanted the home to be significant work of architecture. The project turned sour, ending with lawsuits and the cessation of communication between owner and architect. The Farnsworth House is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is run as a museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The house is an icon – it is a member of the Lego pantheon.

The house is designed to integrate with nature. Situated on the Fox River flood plain, the house was flooded in 2008 following a hurricane (yes, they can make it all the way up the Mississippi River Valley, though they lose their punch in the journey). We had some heavy rains earlier this week. The house had to be closed. To avoid looking like a house boat, the organization that oversees the house is now considering a plan to relocate it.

Interesting what makes for successful architecture, isn’t it?

On, and it’s location, location, location.

David Potash

Paying To Play – And Illinois Is Still Paying

The recent election of Governor Rauner and the Chicago mayoral election have many folks in Illinois talking about the state’s finances. It is not a happy story. According to George Washington University’s Mercatus Center, Illinois is in the US’s bottom five states when it comes to ranking in categories like cash solvency, budget solvency, and fiscal condition. This is not due to anemic business activity. Illinois has the nation’s fifth largest GDP. Other factors are very much at play.

Pay to PlayTo learn more about Illinois’ economy, I look to history and politics. One solid case study that provides insight into how and why is the legacy of Governor Rod Blagojevich. Leading the state from 2003 to 2009, Blagojevich was impeached, convicted of corruption, and imprisoned. He is currently serving a twelve-year sentence and will be eligible for release in 2024. He also has the dubious distinction of being the fourth Illinois governor to do time in a federal penitentiary. Joining former governors Otto Kerner, Jr., Dan Walker and George Ryan, Blagojevich is an unfortunate example of a long-standing culture of corruption.

In 2009, after his impeachment but before prison time, journalist Elizabeth Brackett wrote Pay to Play: How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption Into a National Sideshow. It is a chilling book, highlighting a amoral political climb and an environment that fostered self-serving leadership. How could it happen? It turns out that it was not all that difficult to elect an ethically empty politician. Especially one who married the daughter of a well-connected and powerful alderman.

Brackett’s book may not be the final word on Blagojevich, who probably is not worthy of the time or effort of a more serious analysis. There is no epic tragedy here. What Brackett does bring to the table is a heightened awareness of how the system worked for politicians and their teams. Self-serving interests were consistently placed ahead of any sense of shared responsibility or stewardship. The consequences were clear and critics pointed them out. But behavior did not change. Politicians awarded contracts, jobs, and resources for personal gain. Graft was prevalent. Future generations were left to pick up the bill. And here we are, today, paying for it.

One of the basic hopes of democratically elected government is that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. The exact opposite was the result under Governor Blagojevich. Many sought what was best for themselves. Few considered the collective interests of the community. The result was a culture and political landscape bereft of a well-funded and considered shared public good. It is a depressing story.

I have to hope for a better future.

David Potash