Gotham Locavores Rejoice

Robin Shulman’s Eat the City is a cheerful account of the idiosyncratic passions that allow for the making of food in New York City. Lightly mixing history with contemporary interviews, Shulman makes it clear that the city has always been a place where some make, find, grow or catch their food. Further, while many of us no longer thing of New York City as no longer playing that role, it is.

Broken into chapters by food group – bees and honey, meat, wine, sugar, vegetables, fish and beer – the books nimbly covers the geography and history of the city. Shulman is more interested in people and tastes than production or society. Restaurants rarely rate a mention and it is mighty difficult to find a recipe in the pages. It is difficult to tell is Shulman is motivated by curiosity or a deeper love of food. I would have wished for the latter, even at a price of her professionalism. Her subjects all display a singular passion for their pursuits, be they ale or smoked pig from a Queens farm.

The book’s structure reflects the long shadows of John McPhee, for narrative description, and Michael Pollan, for argumentation and structure. But this is no polemic. Shulman’s text is grounded in close observation. A practicing journalist who has spent extensive time overseas, Shulman has an eye for detail. Implicit in the work is an ideological agenda, however, these people are doing something important and interesting. But that raises questions. Are the locavores merely characters? Hipsters?  Or do they represent something larger or something more important?  I would argue that they do, but Shulman shies away from bigger arguments. She could have – but reading this one has the sense that she never really settled down with a clear of idea of what she wanted the book to say.

It is, however, a tasty read – particularly the chapters on bees and meat. And a welcome addition to the study of the world’s most interesting city.

How’s a Flaneur To Get Around Today?

Taras Grescoe is a travel writer and flaneur for the 21st century. A Canadian-born global citizen, Grescoe has authored five books of non-fiction:  Sacre Blues, an unsentimental study of Quebec; End of Elsewhere, a tale of his journey from one end of the planet to another; Devil’s Picnic, Grescoe pushing the limits of fun all around the world, Bottom Feeder, a query into whether or not one can eat seafood ethically, and most recently, Straphanger. Grescoe is an engaging writer whose curiosity and excitement carry his ideas and prose. It is clear that Grescoe greatly enjoys traveling and writing. It is easy to imagine coming across him at a restaurant or train station and having a very interesting conversation.

Straphanger is a study of mass transportation systems and their cities. An avowed user of public transportation, Grescoe avoids cars whenever he can. Grescoe is also an urbanite, drawn to the juxtapositions of dense city living. His book is a first-hand journey to twelve cities – New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Paris, Copenhagen, Moscow, Tokyo, Bogota, Portland, Oregon, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Montreal – through the lens of the cities’ mass transit. History, politics, economics and urban studies are sprinkled lightly into the mix, as are interviews and chance encounters.

The subtitle, “Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile,” addresses a recurring theme. Grescoe aims to give a compelling account of better ways to live and to get around. Here he is less successful, but not for want of trying. The book is helpful and informative, but far from authoritative or even particularly insightful. Grescoe’s argument is grounded in the excitement and expertise of a well-read tourist.

Hovering around the narrative are harder to answer questions. Was it particular conflations of leadership and opportunity that led to the development of certain cities and certain systems? Or are there lessons and models to consider? Compounding the queries is Grescoe’s approach itself. He’s an unencumbered man about to become a father. His responsibilities, as they are, consist of journeying to interesting cities, riding their mass transit systems and asking a few folks along the way some questions. Of course he doesn’t have to drive – and one wonders if he ever really grasps the day-to-day of the workers in the cities he describes. Accessing a bus or subway to get to an interview is one thing; to use mass transportation to try to juggle work and child care is another.

I, like Grescoe, feel at home in cities. I welcome density and the stimulation that comes from urban environments. I also readily acknowledge the multitude of costs that accompany driving an automobile on a regular basis. But I don’t believe that any of the above would make for supporters of public transportation. That assertion has to based on something harder, more universal, and much more practical. And that argument requires one to sit down, take root, and really learn about a city.


Sam Spade on ADHD – Mystery or Farce?

The blurb on Greg Palast’s latest book, Vultures’ Picnic, describes him as a cross between Sam Spades and Sherlock Holmes. Throw in Karl Kolchak of the Night Stalker and Inspector Clouseau and it’s a more accurate appraisal. Sporting a fedora in his head shots and incessantly veering off-topic, Palast may have serious investigative skills, but there well-hidden. The Vultures’ Picnic stands as one of the most frustrating books to cross my desk in while.

A vulture, Palast tells us, is a billionaire investor/financier who holds a nation hostage for its national resources. Palast’s book is a global kaleidoscope, through space and time, chasing down the relationships between global finance, multinationals and the exploitation of oil, gas and minerals. It is an extraordinarily important topic with consequences for how we think about economics, politics, the environment and energy policy. So why cannot Palast write about it?

Vultures’ Picnic is a mishmash of notes, anecdotes, assertions and asides. Palast is so in love with the image of what he’s trying to do that he never actually does it. He may have worked with top news organizations at one point but it’s clear why he is not now. The book would registered as such a disappointment had it not consistently referenced nuggets and germs of truly important ideas.

In Praise of Dinner Parties

Civilization may be a freighted concept, worn down by cultural criticisms and an imperial legacy, but it nonetheless has its benefits. And one of my favorites is the dinner party. I’m not talking a fancy dinner party – no servers, please – and I’m not talking about eating with children and one’s fingers. Rather, a good meal prepared by adult hosts for adult guests. Food, drink, conviviality and above all, conversation. A well-considered dinner party envelops its participants in a civilizing aura.

I usually try to arrive at dinner party with a bottle of wine. It shouldn’t be too expensive – that would be showing off, but it must not be cheap, either. The right bottle show that you have given the event some thought.  Perhaps a lesser known vintage that is a personal favorite? I’ve learned many a good vineyard from the gifts of guests. If the wine poses too much of a challenge, there are always flowers, or maybe a sweet. Never arrive empty-handed. It would be inconsiderate and one of the values that makes for a successful dinner party, for successful adult friendship, is consideration. If you want to make an even bigger impression, you could even consider surprising your hosts with a stunning video wall hire from this site at

Different hosts have different approaches to hors d’oeuvres. Cheese, olives and crackers define the broad middle, with dips, salsas and chips equally prevalent. The aim is not sustenance, but to keep everyone’s blood sugar high to remain active and to make sure that all have something in their stomach to slow the potential impact of alcohol. Inappropriate behavior may be tolerated, but never before dinner.

When the guests are engaged, the environment comfortable, and the food and drink tasty, dinner parties offer adults a rare chance to socialize at a leisurely pace. Work does not have to be a topic of discussion; nor need it be politics, religion or family. The boundaries of the conversation can be set mutually, and in fact often are implicitly. Almost never, though, is real estate neglected. Real estate, in one or more of its many forms, is a topic of discussion in virtually ever dinner party I have ever attended.

Enjoyable dinner party conversation pings from query to disclosure, from sincerity to humor, from objectivity to flirtation – all of which should be practiced without too much zeal. Everyone should talk. And although one voice invariable is louder and longer than the others, as long as it does not dominate, love and unity will prevail. Dinner party conversation is not argumentative, persuasive or declaratory; it is collaborative and an end in itself.

Conversation does not have to zip at a good party, either. It can meander, focus, and then split away and forge in new directions. Rarely can it be mapped. If the food is particularly good, relaxed pauses are exceptionally welcome. They also assure any anxiety on the part of the host.

Pundits and curmudgeons regularly bemoan the poor behavior of younger generations. It’s a well-known complaint, for pundits and curmudgeons have been making it for decades. Yet even with years and years of decline, dinner parties seem to have remained a fixture in adult socializing. Thank goodness. And yes, I will have another glass of wine and I’m looking forward to some dessert. Thank you so very much for the invitation.

Modeselektor at an advanced age

Modeselektor was recently in town and I was fortunate enough to catch their show at the Royale. Three musicians – two front and center, one tucked off to the side with a keyboard; two screens and a some hardware. All in all, very good, very dance inducing kind of show. Their music is neither harmonically brilliant or poundingly house. It’s a mixture of light hip hop and happy German dance. They’re funny and fun, meaning that above all, the show is fun, especially so when played loud with strobe lights. So while I didn’t leave humming any of their tunes (relatively short on hooks), I did go home sweaty, tired of dancing and quite happy – and I’m spotifying Modeselektor at the gym.

The wikipedia entry notes that Modeselektor is a favorite band of Thom Yorke from Radiohead, which made me think of the ways in which musicians plump for other musicians. They don’t write book jacket blogs and it takes a bit of digging to determine who likes who. And even if they do like [insert name of obscure band/musician here], that’s no guarantee that you will. In fact, musicians almost always go out of their way to celebrate a musician that often doesn’t fit. It’s as though when queried, most musicians feel obligated to name someone really different or really obscure. If not for other musicians, would any Captain Beefheart music ever be sold?

When I was a young man, I trucked in the lesser-known. Pick your punk, your new wave, your alternative to the alternative, and I more often than not had a mix tape. Fabulous Poodles, anyone? It takes time and effort, though, and rarely results in much social capital. As I’ve matured, my tastes have not – I tire very quickly of music that I heard 10, 20, or 30 ears ago – but my acceptance of what I like and listen to has shifted and broadened as well. So while I do still fancy the unusual (Afropop to German electronica), at long last I am completely at home and comfortable with much of the popular. Chris Brown may be a violent human being who doesn’t sing all that well, but he sure knows his hooks. I like Katy Perry and I think that Jessie J. is a fine song writer. Give me my Ludacris and Kanye. My street cred may suffer, but if music makes me smile, I have to like it.

I like Modeselektor.

I’ll Take My Big Ideas Bite Sized, Please

I live in Brookline, MA, and before that I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Both are high-density urban environments filled with highly educated families keen on providing their children a good education. These kinds of environments feature specialized coffee stores, independent bookstores, organic food and many places to eat and drink. They are gay-friendly, supportive of the “creative class,” and better able to handle serious financial problems; they are cities central to Richard Florida’s conception of where the economy and society is headed. I like Park Slope and Brookline – as do many of my friends who share my demographic – but I’m not nearly as certain as Professor Florida.

The Great Reset is another opus in the ever-productive, market savvy Florida. His themes are well-known and juicy: the creative economy has overtaken the traditional manufacturing economy and that this urban, cosmopolitan, well-educated “class” represents the future. In Reset Florida takes the longer view, emphasizing how the Great Depression reshaped internal and external landscapes of work, home and values. He sees such a transformation resulting from the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

What happened? Housing values plummeted, many were thrown out of work, and different areas were affected differently. The larger, more “creative class” metropolises, he writes, weathered the storm more effectively. As for the consequences, people are starting to value conspicuous consumption less and instead seeks status through other means. It accelerated the decline in popularity of cars and cities dependent upon sprawl and housing prices. In contrast, the mega-regional cities, marked by large cities, government centers and the presence of large universities, fared relatively well.

The appeal of these big, broad statements is that they seem – at least to those of us who have graduate degrees and live near universities – is that they validate our choices. Florida’s future is in many ways our future. The difficulty with Florida’s arguments is that they are supported at times by the weakest of reeds. In this book, in particular, he jumps about without developing a sustained argument or marshaling facts in a systematic way.

For example, Florida posits the decline of importance of the car. Really? Just because some suburbs are emptying and a subset of younger Americans who live in certain cities are eschewing automobile ownership does not spell the demise of the automobile. I’d suggest that automobiles, in one form or another, will remain an extraordinarily important part of our economy and society for decades. They may be powered by alternative fuels, look different and ownership structures may change (more Zipcar options, for example) – but it would be foolish to think that the car-free future is around the corner.

Amid all the conjecture, however, are very worthwhile observations – about gender and jobs, and work and meaning, and about the broad shifts in our society. Further, his underlying assumption that something really important is forcing deep change in America is probably correct, too, though I believe we’re still way too early in the process to know what it means or where we are going. Florida writes well, too, and that cannot be discounted; you would want him on your panel, around your table, or at the bar. He would give you something to mull over, to chew on – just as he has done in this book.

Declining Industries on Declining Industries

Call me idiosyncratic, or nostalgic, or foolish. It’s true – I am. I subscribe to The Atlantic. It read it, too, and increasingly I ask myself “why?” 

Magazines like The Atlantic used to popularize complicated intellectual or political issues, framing them in ways that nearly anyone could grasp. More than time-fillers while waiting for the dentist, these middlebrow publications piqued curiosities and gave the reader a sense of broader understanding about the world. The daily paper might keep on up-to-date, but middlebrow magazines kept one informed.

It’s been a while since an issue of The Atlantic gave me any real sense of being informed. Ten issues at the newsstand sets you back $59 and a subscription runs to $24. Even with the discount, it is worth the time?

The January/February issue is an odd mishmash, a well laid-out assembly of pieces that lack a recognizable shared point of view. The short pieces are not memorable and beg the question: does one read a magazine for snippets?  Too much theme and it’s tiresome; too random and it does not make sense. Strength in such a publication has to come from the longer articles, where perspective, depth and sheer journalistic wisdom drawn in the reader.  No heft in the features and a magazine fails. The irony for this issue is that question at the core of the issue is working in America.

The cover article is on jobs – who makes what – using Standard Motor Products, a manufacturing company in Queens, NY, with a factory in Greenville, South Carolina, as the lens with which to look at a larger question. Maddie Parlier, an employee in the factory, is the lens that makes the challenges real. Maddie’s job is low-skill, though still requiring attention and thought. The factory makes injectors and it is more efficient for them to be made by hand for the near future. However, as technology continues to improve, the price of the machine that can make the pieces will drop, making Maddie uneconomical. The long-term trend for many other low-skilled workers, the author notes, is equally grim. It is not viable. The article is solid, but not particularly perceptive. It does not give a broad picture or tug at our hearts.

The other lengthy piece in this issue is a feature on John J. Mearsheimer.  Who? The article’s teaser is “The political scientist’s start has fallen in recent years, as critics have branded him an anti-Semite. But his doctrine of “offensive realism” provides what could be the wisest strategy for managing China’s rise. OK, but who is engaged by this? I’m up on political scientists and the idea that Mearshimer’s start, rising or falling, would be the cornerstone of an article in the popular press is odd at best. The article recounts Mearshimer’s waning and waxing influence as one might look at a musician’s career, breaking into pop stardom for a while and then touring for an audience that wants more of the same.  But who is invested? Only three people come to mind: Mearshimer, Robert D. Kaplan, who wrote the piece, and the editor. And of the three, the only one I can see it really mattering to is Kaplan. The article does a poor job making itself seem relevant.

Weird articles and odd magazine. If it was a low-skilled worker, I wouldn’t bet on its future.


Natural in Tooth and Tax Code

The process by which one becomes a citizen is called naturalization. It’s an intriguing term; implicit is the assumption that someone who does not hold citizenship is unnatural. Yet it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine a time not so long ago when citizenship was not quite so formal. And it is also easy to think of place where the inhabitants wear the identity of citizenship very lightly.

A recent The Economist editorial praises the value of a second or third passport, which is very much in line with the values and wants today’s global, multi-cultural populace. Drawing on its nineteenth century liberal heritage, the publication argues for more free migration of peoples, just as does for goods. Restriction of dual or multi-citizenship, a trend in some countries, is likened to protectionism by the magazine.  “A better approach,” goes the argument, “would be to use residence (especially tax residence) as the main criterion for an individual’s rights and responsibilities.”

If only citizenship – and naturalization – was governed by rational actors and economic issues. For many, the very potential of lightening the burdens and obligations of citizenship pull at the very fabric of national identity. Tax codes may drive decisions for some; for many people, the idea of changing citizenship is extraordinarily traumatic.

I anticipate increasingly freighted debates about citizenship in the future, particularly as the culture of educated people moves farther and farther away from those that are less educated. Education in a developed country today is synonymous with access via the internet to information, people and ideas of almost incomprehensible complexity. The boundaries of space and time are much different for the educated and connected than from those that are not – and here will see ever greater tensions. And those that feel threatened with the loosening bonds will demand ever greater national compliance.

Indians and Insulators

Sam Grunewald, my great-grandfather, spent much of his life as a farmer in Van Wert, Ohio. I spent some time with him when I was a child and my memories are very much of his age and his direct connection with a different time. Indians, to Sam, were not from Westerns, but from life. He deplored their drinking and talked of their poverty: “poor folk.” He told me, one night looking at the moon, that an Indian in Oklahoma had explained to him that the shape of the moon was a good indicator of whether or not it was worth hunting. “If you can hang your bag on the moon,” he said, then one shouldn’t go out. He was a child of the 1800s.

When he kissed me good bye, his whiskers, even when shaved, bristled.

I asked him once if he was a good kid or whether or not he got into trouble. This was shortly after I was punished for a small infraction and Sam told me about a bad competition between him his brother: breaking glass insulators. I had no idea what he was talking about until he showed me on, a glass dome about three inches tall. These were the insulators on electricity and telegraph lines and a boy with a rock and a good arm could shatter one with a pitch. Sam told me he got pretty good at it but that he stopped after he was caught. He felt pretty bad about it, he said.

The insulators are now collected. I see them, every now and then at an antiques fair, and I think of grizzled Sam as a young boy, whipping rocks at them. He hoped that they hit and he hoped that they missed.

And thus, another space is cleared

in the proverbial digital forest. Or perhaps, more appropriately, a claim is staked.

My great grandfather, Sam, was part of an Oklahoma land grab as a young man. I remember him talking about it: leaving Ohio with his father, taking the train to Oklahoma and then riding on a flat car until suitable land was found. There are still many Grunewalds – his family name – in Oklahoma. Sam liked it, but preferred Ohio.

I wonder what he would have made of all this. Probably not much unless he could see the use of it.

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