Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dead by 27

The Internet can be as much as a throw back to the past as it is the cutting edge of communications. There are a couple of dozen people I regularly correspond with, it's a little bit like in Victorian times when it was fashionable to have a pen pal and not unusual to have several at once. One person I share music with sent me this Youtube clip.

On this cold grey day listening to Amy Whinehouse  has morbid feel to the experience. In the old Celtic traditions ghost stories were part of the Solstice celebration. Trying to survive through the winter in a windowless hut with barely enough food and fuel not only made a person more vulnerable to sickness and death but psychologically each frigid, damp and miserable day must have been a heavy morose weight to bare. Okay, I'm not a winter person.

Part of the ghost story tradition remains with us in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The Industrial Revolution sweep through England and really did radically change everything. England before the steam engine was more Medieval than Enlightened. By the 1840's the changes were so fast and broad that there was a counter current of nostalgia and romanticizing the bygone past. It's one reason why the Brits appear to be on the surface a culture steeped in tradition, it was copping mechanism. If anything Dickens was a sharp observer of his times and his story A Christmas Carol was instrumental in forging old customs into new ones that looked and felt like they had a historical pedigree. One history professor credited Dickens as the father of the modern Christmas celebration.

In pre-industrial England the cities were small and most people lived and worked on agricultural estates. Part of the Christmas celebration was Mummery where the farm workers would go up to their Lord's manner house disguised in rags or costumes. The Lord of the estate was obligated to entertain the crowd (and many times mob) with food and drink. With the frightening thought of industrial workers roaming the streets of London, Manchester and Leeds; the Victorians replaced Mummery with a more sanitized Boxing Day and Christmas Pantomime or Panto. Dickens established the office Christmas party, the Christmas bonus (or at least a gift of a turkey to the employees) and the expectation that the workers would spend Christmas with their families enjoying a relatively sober dinner together.

I hear they still have traditional Mummery is some parts of Labrador. Someday I'd like to go and I'm open to invitations.

As cheery and bright as Christmas can be the ghosts of our lives still seem to be just on the other side of  the frosted windowpane as we look out on a winter's night. Which kind of gets back to Amy Winehouse, dead at age 27. It was almost a year and a half ago, I was hanging out with local radio guru Rockin' Rob Lentz when we heard the news. It was sad but not a total surprise -it was obvious her song Rehab wasn't entirely ironic. Rockin Rob felt if Amy could have stayed out of trouble for another two months she would have turned 28 and been safe -"it was the curse of being 27".

On the face of that statement I thought Rockin Rob was stretching a point. True... Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died at age 27. Rockin Rob said don't forget Kurt Cobain. Here's where the internet comes in handy, on a Wikipedia entree there's a list of 41 prominent musicians who didn't make their 28th birthday like Robert Johnson, Brian Jones and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan.

Theories abound on why 27 might be a dangerous crossroads in a musician's life. After ten or more years of sex, drugs and rock&roll a person's luck is inclined to run out. At age 27 a musician has either achieved  a respectable level of success -or already quit, got a day job and is living a sane and safe lifestyle. One old barfly mused in between shots and beers that if you're single at age 27 you feel like a loser, and if you been married a few years by age 27 -"you're ready to pull the pug on the starter marriage".  He claimed to be the voice of experience because he was married four times.

It could be more than coincidence. That in all the multi-rhythmic experiences of mortal existence maybe age 27 is one of those junctures where everything converges. And like James Joyce's The Dead (and yes that's also a Christmas Story) the ending has the metaphor of the falling snow on the landscape -as though the mysteries of life lie hidden but perceived, under that blanket of snow.    


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What we don't see

Have you ever been in a strange town and looked an old classmate, distant cousin or friend you lost contact with?  You might meet up someplace or come over for dinner and have that pleasant conversation reminiscing the past and catching up on the present. After that I usually ask the question -what do you do around here for fun? It's more of a rhetorical question but I'm still surprised with how many people are lost for an answer.

As we settle into our life's routines the blinders go on. It's eat, sleep, work with two weeks vacation and as a rule the vacation has to be as far away you can possibly afford. You can live in a community for years and not have a clue of what exists only a few miles away. Once on a trip through Denver I looked up my old college roommate. We had a fun time at his favorite watering hole, a place called the Sarcastic Lounge but he was totally oblivious to the fact that Denver has a world class art museum only a few blocks away.

Over the last four years several friends and neighbors have been hit hard with the economic recession. Their big vacation has been replaced with the stay-vation. It does save money and it's more ecologically sound than flying overseas -and it's also a chance to discover what's practically in your own backyard. It's a shock what we don't see or hear around us because we don't believe there is anything special about the town we live in. Even New Yorkers I have know develop a bored and jaded attitude to their own homecity -just ask any lifetime New Yorker if they have ever been to the Statue of Liberty?

If you had to -I mean like if you became the new tourist director of your hometown what would you show people? If you were on vacation and could only go thirty miles from home, where would you go? People lose their sense of place when they stop looking at where they are. It's easy to get caught up in the nostalgia of the past or some hopeful expectations of the future and forget that moment to moment we live in the present.

Once again quoting Calvin and Hobbes "there is treasure everywhere" . Once I dated an archaeology student and she pointed out how rare it was to find anything gold or silver, that the biggest discoveries were the bits of more ordinary things.

Here are a few pictures of Pottstown PA, courtesy of David Pollack -a local photographer.

Pottstown was once an factory town with a steel mill and several heavy industries. Those industries are long gone and Pottstown is in the process of recreating itself..

Like David Pollack, I've taken the time to walk the streets of the town. In some ways Pottown reminds me of the type of town you would build for your Lionel Train Set. Pottstown even has the rail lines running parallel to High St (the main commercial district). Once Pottstown had a direct passenger line to Philadelphia 45 miles away.

Maybe it is human nature to put a premium on the foreign and exotic. It is like having visitors from distant country and all they want is cheeseburgers and Coke-a-cola. I certainly would not go to Paris and want a Royale with cheese.

Honestly I would like to know about your hometown. tell me where you're from and what it's like there. I would like to share what you say in a future posting.   

I was going include Sprinstein's My Hometown but it's kind of depressing. Haven't heard anything by the Super Furry Animals in a long time and here's Hometown Unicorn.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Artist Defined

The Artist defined, it makes for a great existential question -are you an artist? I can't really say yes, at least I can't put it down on my tax forms because I never made any money at. At one time it was easier to answer that question because the primary consumers of art were also the financial patrons. If the Pope hired you to paint his ceiling then you were an artist. Before the industrial revolution paint and canvas were just too expensive for most artists to paint on speculation or for self indulgence. Rembrandt was well recognized as a commercial success in his life time but I remember reading a translation of one of his letters saying how he had to carefully budget his money in between commissions to pay for his other art projects. Up to the 20th century even the rich didn't have all that much except through the accumulation of stuff over generations.  

I do miss the days when I had a portfolio and three or four sketch books of figure drawings. It's a powerful ego boost when a young woman looks through your collective works and says "that's pretty, would you draw me too". Art has never been more available to the masses since the days of cave paintings where the materials and media were right there for everybody. Instead of having to mix your own pigments into linseed oil by hand, all you need is a credit card and to go to a website like . As a bit trivia I was told the sky in the Sistine Chapel was lapis blue. The pigment came all the way from Afghanistan and was more expensive than gold leaf.

Another bit of trivia was good paintings were done on the more expensive canvas, cheaper painting and knock-offs were done on wood panels. If you ever notice most surviving painting in museums are on wood panels.

As artists broke away from being pets of rich patrons they took on other roles such as social critics, bohemian thinkers, cult figures and starving martyrs rendering truth for the ages. As art became more impressionistic and abstract it became like derivative bonds -it had some association with the real world but not everyone who was buying the product understood that connection. Art became a product instead of a creation. You might not understand the art but if the artist died that created rarity -and rarity was usually a safe investment. Therefor dead artists are sound investments, a good example is Keith Haring. His work is simple with a childlike exuberance and has sky-rocketed in value since his death in the 1990's.

The egos of Popes, Kings, Emperors and Nouveau Riche have been supplanted by the market place. It makes an interesting historical footnote but very few of us will be caught up in the professional art world. Some of the more talented (or maybe just successful) artists I know like James Hilderbrand or John Gwyn have a second source of income. Their paintings are in demand and sell for thousands of dollars each and yet it's not enough to give up their day job.  

Art is part of my personal campaign to draw people away form the most passive forms of entertainment. Not that I'm somebody who advocates killing their TV but it's worth asking how many hours a week the average person wastes in front of it. One reason why people produce so much less folk art is because of mass media.    One person had documented how the art of hand made rugs disappeared from the Middle East as TV became available to even the most remote villages.

TV isn't all bad. Think of how many popular cultural references we can share through TV. And for me, when I'm in pain and can not sleep nothing puts me into a narcoleptic stupor like an info-mercial or the syndicated re-runs of some old sit-com dreck. It's better than any prescription medication.

There seems to be a direct correlation between loneliness and the number of hours in front of a TV. It seems to be the same for obesity and depression. Art is just one way to break people free and get them to interact with one another. Our time on Earth is short and any excuse to share that time together is a good thing.

In the day of our lives, in the brilliant light of an afternoon, we can convince ourselves we are Ozymandias, and blissfully ignore the fact, the stone that bares our name will crumble, crumble away to beach sand, and be washed away on an out going tide.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Life of Brian, and other Christmas movies

Several of my old cohorts back in Jersey have been reading this blog; with one suggestion of renaming it after the Monty Python movie and another suggestion of writing an "artist" manifesto. Considering both characters are tail twisting practical jokers so any suggestion from either should be approached with same caution as hunting for mushrooms on a moonless night in cow pasture. Since we are talking about one of the best films on religious faith -asking the subversive question of what do you believe and why? - I'm just not sure if it's a good Christmas film or is it more appropriate for Easter? It does start with Brian being born two mangers down from Jesus but it ends with the crucifixion of Brian after he's mistaken for the Messiah. If you're a student of Biblical history, you know Jesus wasn't the only person identified and executed for being the Messiah.

As far as manifestos go... really? I usually associate those things with people that have views that are more rooted in theory than real life. It doesn't matter if it's the musings of Karl Marx or the rants of Ayn Rand -it's a little bit of truth swaddled in the bombastic. Manifestos are the opiate of anger people who would want the world recreated in their image. The closest thing I have to a manifesto is a few guidelines and mottoes -like every sacred cow makes great hamburgers. Once more The Life of Brian comes to the rescue.

Again I'm digressing. What I wanted to write about is stocking up on a few DVDs for the Christmas / Winter Holiday season. Life of Brian might not be the best Christmas selection for the entire family. You might have young children to entertain, personally I like to burnish my reputation as the eccentric Uncle and nothing says eccentric like French cinema.

A Cat in Paris (2010), funny and sharp but it does have a few scary moments that could upset the very sensitive five year old. For the  8- 12 year old crowd this movies should keep them entertain. And yes -the movie on DVD has an English version with no sub-tittles.
A Town Called Panic (2009) is as silly and surreal as they come but if you were once a fan of Gumby and Pokey you might sit down with the kids and watch along with them. Unfortunately the dialog is in French with English sub-tittles (the big deal breaker with foreign films) but don't let that frighten you off. There isn't that much dialog and the story is very visual. It helps if your audience has an appreciation for the unconventional but don't be surprised if the kids are chanting Cheval, Cheval as the ending credits roll by.
The Triplets of Belleville (2003) When a young boy is kidnapped during the Tour De France his grandmother, her dog and three elderly sisters -that preformed together on stage back in the days of jazz and big bands, all go on the search.

As a warning it is rated PG-13 and there is a scene where the Triplets remember their act on stage mixed in with appearances of a few celebrates from the Parisian nightclubs -including Josephine Baker. Josephine Baker was an African-American who danced on stage topless in a grass skirt. It might upset very sensitive adults as un-PC.

Now what would be Christmas without A Christmas Story (1983) ? Of course we all know that Ralphie finally gets his Red Rider BB Gun though most kids today are shocked to think there was a world before video games. As I tell my nephews, nieces and other children of my extended family "before games like Halo we use to shoot things for real". For me and my friend Captain Bob this was the Christmas of our childhood. We listen to Jean Shepherd on WOR out of New York and the gritty little industrial town in the movie was just like out hometown in New Jersey -except I don't remember any cars on the street with clam shell fenders.

For the best in old school comedy there's always Laurel and Hardy. No Christmas was complete without Babes In Toyland (1934) later re-issued as March Of The Wooden Soldiers. Laurel and Hardy seemed to have dropped off the radar for many people. Some of their other movies like Flying Deuces and Sons of the Desert are entertainment for children of all ages.

                                     In The Mailbox

On one past posting "When realism isn't real" I got an email with a link to the song God Isn't Real by Robbie Fulks also known as the Hillbilly Atheist. You can find the song on Youtube.

From the posting HEMP ! , Edam had pointed out that the chorus in the Beatles song I Am The Walrus is really singing "got one, got one, everybody got one" instead of "smoke pot, smoke pot, everybody smokes pot" .  Edam backed up his claim with a link to a magazine interview with John Lennon. I have been doing an very unscientific survey, so far 7 out of 10 think they are singing "smokes pot" with the remaining 3 out 10 unsure. I plan to someday see if I can isolate the track and listen to it without the music.

The best email this week end was from an artist in Phoenixville PA. Every Thanksgiving weekend the Colonial Theater has a special presentation of Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Just say the tittle and I can hear the coconut shells clopping through the Middle Ages. If you want that sound for yourself and can't afford a serf to trot along side you cantering the pace with half a shell in each hand then go to because this device is for you.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Of Men and Twinkies

The last two days have been both restful and hectic. As I mentioned in my last posting me and my family were off to see the grandparents and the rest of the kindred relations of aunts, uncles and cousins. Sad to say  on the long drive back that night we past two Wal-Marts and from the road we could see the parking lots were packed. The shoppers had a choice and could leave any time they wished but employees reminded me of how sailors were once "pressed" into service a couple of centuries ago.

You never think of how peculiar American culture is until you try and explain to somebody who has no idea of what you're talking about. Black Friday is the day when many business ledgers go for red to black. Can you imagine that -going eleven months with an operating loss and finally making the entire years profits in about 35 days? No matter how big the discounts are, I have no desire to even be near a store on Black Friday.

Which gets to another American iconoclastic image - the Twinkie. All of Friday morning I had several errands to run and met up with a few of my neighbors that I refer to as my "circle of Bubbas" When you hear Bubba you might think of the red neck variety in bib overalls with John Deere tractor cap shooting motorcyclists with his shot gun out the window of battered pick up truck (like at the end of Easy Rider). No my local Bubbas are more or less the suburban kind. They're still pretty bummed out and bit volatile over Obama's victory.

Instead of talking about the newest threats to gun ownership, the subject of the day was Twinkies. You may not have been following the news story but just after the CEO of Hostess Bakeries gets a 300% pay raise and the next nine top executives get 60% - 100% bump up in their paychecks, they turn around and ask the hourly workers to take an 8% cut in pay and 32% cut in benefits. The hourly workers didn't want to seem ungrateful for their jobs but felt this was more than unfair and called a strike. The executives of the company were shocked by the worker's resolve, so they declared bankruptcy.

"Labor unions, the only parasite stupid enough to kill off its host", that was the big catch phrase amongst the Bubbas. I'm kind of at a loss to understand their thought process on this. First what is a Twinkie? - a cream filled snack cake with no dairy products in it. The "cream" is made of chemicals that are use in explosives and fire retardants whipped into high fructose corn sugar and bunch of other stuff not found in nature. It might be one of the only foods where the nutritional value goes up when it's battered and deep fried at a county fair. America and the world might be better off without Twinkies but my Bubbas are reacting to the end of Twinkies as though France was demanding the Statue Of Liberty back (and they don't like being reminded that it was France who gave the Unites States the statue in the first place).

Next you would think their would be nothing more American than working to provide for yourself and your family. That forming a union with your fellow workers to protect your common interest would just be good common sense. But not in the world of a Bubba, all these guys are incredibly anti-union. They claim all these organizations are filled with gangsters, labor racketeers and socialists  None of my Bubbas belong to a union and tell me they would turn down a union job if one was offered to them. Even if it was double the money with a health care package and a pension included they would turn it on principal -or at least so they say.

Looking at these guys I can't imagine a group of people that would benefit more from being in a union than them. None of them have a union job but I know the majority of them (10 out of 13) had fathers who worked their whole adult lives in jobs with union representation. Also only 2 out of the 13 are financially better off than their parents. Still they don't see the connection between a strong labor movement and their own well being. They would rather save the Twinkie from the lazy Bolsheviks that refuse make an honest living and accept what they're offered. 

I don't know about the future of the American worker but I'm sure that the Twinkie name will be sold for lots of money any somewhere in the world Twinkies will be made again. Maybe there will be a big product tie in with the movie Zombieland 2 when that gets the green light.

Yes Twinkies were found in the tombs of the Pharaoh, 3,000 years old but still fresh. Forty years ago we were so much more innocent. We never imagined that a snack cake could hurt you and what could be so bad about those cupcakes with the plastic like frosting that could be peeled off in one piece and eaten separately.

After I finished my errands and said goodbye to the Bubbas I spent the rest of the day with my wife.  To avoid the orgy of consumerism known as Black Friday we took a trip to Conowing Damn. The damn is on the Susquehanna River in Maryland. The top of the damn is also the bridge for Route 1. It's only a few miles south of the Pennsylvania / Maryland border or less than 30 miles (50 km) due south of Lancaster PA.

At foot of the damn on the west bank going south is the northern end of the Susquehanna State Park. For bird watchers and sports fishermen this is the place to be. Now I could not care less about bird watching but my wife loves it and have no problem with doing some little gesture to make her happy. Actually she was ecstatic. Though the course of the year over 170 different species can be seen with large groups eagles and great blue herons (up to 100 at a time) feeding on the fish.

I'm a bit of an architectural junkie so the damn and the hydro electric generating station were pretty cool. It would be easy to see them used in some retro sci-fi horror film.
 Even the trees were filled with large birds. Unfortunately I only had my dinky pocket camera. There are several perches along the river bank for the avid birder with the kind of cameras that could get a mug shot of a bird from over 300 yards away.

At the water's edge the fishermen mingled with the birders. It was a nice mix of families with children and people who took their outdoor activities very seriously. One person has his Harley decked out in his favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles.

These images where taken off the internet but it gives you an idea of a what kind of pictures you can take with a real good camera.    

After coming home from Conowing Damn we had dinner and watched the movie The Big Year (2011) with Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black. A mildly funny comedy that centered around three birders and their year of competitive bird watching. As a piece of advice to any guys reading this, it's always good to have several DVDs or movies that you can access when you want to make your significant other happy or you're entertaining at home somebody you want to be romantically involved with. We can talk more about that later.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Safe travels to you

As the old song goes "over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go". Though it's really a Christmas song in the weird merging of the Thanksgiving Holiday and the Christmas shopping season  few people seem to notice. Besides in the next few days it seems like half of America will be travelling to meet up at their parent's or grandparent's house.

A staple chestnut of comedy is the dysfunction side of this very American holiday. How travel plans go a wry  through delays, mis-communications and unreal expectations. Or how grown children chafe under the obligation of having to come home to aging parents that can't resist at least this one day to lord over their offspring as thought they're pre-teen dependents. Comedy is funny because it has some kernel of truth to it but lucky as a nation we are not that neurotic.

I know other countries have their holidays where the childhood home and hearth is made sacred and it all gets celebrated with a reunion and feast of traditional dishes.

Thanksgiving has been compared to the great migrations of animals across the plains of Africa, except here it's herds of bewildered-beasts as one friend puts it.

No matter how disjointed modern life becomes, or how far family members get separated by work and career, an inner need always calls us back. Thomas Mann claimed you can't go back home again but that does stop us from trying by harvesting some scrap of nostalgia.

One disturbing trend about Thanksgiving is the further commercialization of the holiday. Okay this is America where making a dollar is done with almost religious fervor but a line has to be drawn somewhere. Today in barroom trade it's known as Black Wednesday. Tonight a wave of college kids will return to their old hometowns ready to hook up with old friends and high school classmates. Tonight the sales of alcohol will spike as well as DWI arrests and car accidents involving alcohol.

After Thanksgiving comes Black Friday when every merchant has extra special discounts and sales to start off the Christmas shopping season. Twenty years back the sales started at 9 or 10 am Friday morning which was the normal time most store opened. Eventually the stores would open earlier and earlier on Black Friday so that ten years ago people would camp out in front of the store in the middle of the night for a 6 am opening. Things could only get more ridiculous in the mercantile arms race when big department stores would open at 12:01 am just a few years ago. Now Wal-Mart plans to be open on Thanksgiving afternoon. There are planned protests by Wal-Mart employees. Seriously I think we should all question why we need to buy some discount imported trinket instead of being with our families or at least letting other people have the day off so they can be with theirs.

Saturday is Shop Small Business Day. I actually approve of this, partly because it's not such an in your face event and partly because small businesses are anchors for the rest of the community. Big businesses only seem to get more creepy and pernicious as small business disappears.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving has been taken yet but I'm sure that marketers are working on a campaign to convince us to compulsively spend our money on more things we don't need and only think we want.

So are you travelling today or during this weekend? One of the best ways to keeping one's sanity or at least stay distracted while waiting for a connecting flight to come in or traffic jam end, is to have music. The right music at the right time can make bad moment tolerable and good moment nirvana.

In my past I had a weekly show on college radio. I probably remember the show as being better than it really was -I mean if I was actually good at it I'd probably still be doing it. On college radio there is no playlist and it's wonderful place to broaden one's musical horizons. My personal tastes in music leans towards the experimental but here are three suggestions for your MP-3 player that are unusual but not weird.

Ska music is fantastic. Upbeat with the blending of jazz, rock&roll and reggae. So Ska music from Japan? Yes! The Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra plays this music with the kind of enthusiasm that comes from an outsider looking in.

Laika and the Cosmonauts. Again another group of outsiders, they are from Finland but have true appreciation for Californian surf music.

One time on my radio show I played a couple of Hispanic flavored songs. It was on the mild side -like Los Lobos and the Pontiac Brothers but I got tremendous response back. Slowly a half hour segment of Hispanic rock&roll got incorporated into the show. The Mexican groups really rocked with a "back to the wall", "go for broke" attitude that could not be matched. If you don't know Spanish the music could be intimidating. Los Straitjackets is an instrumental band, dressed in suits and Mexican wrestler masks. They add a special twist to familiar pop songs of the 1960's. Big Sandy is a singer in his own right and will often be the front man for Los Straitjackets, you don't need to know Spanish when Big Sandy sings.  If you totally get into Los Straitjackets, look up their Christmas album. It's a novelty album that you can enjoy even after the novelty wears off.

If your loading up your MP-3 player take this opportunity to mix it up and add in something completely different.

As one circle of friends would say "safe travels to you" .


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Building the better Main Street -part 3

Main Street is one of the last places where an individual can start a brick and mortar business. Main Street is one of the only places where commerce and public space come in direct contact with each other.

Compare Main Street with any Shopping Mall. Almost every shopping mall is dominated by a handful of generic franchises that make any mall interchangeable with any other. Malls have become so predictable dull they are no longer the guaranteed generators of profits and dividends. The strip mall has risen as a cheaper competitor to the enclosed mall, it promotes the consumer to make focused purchases. The focused purchased brings the consumer to a specific destination for a relatively short period of time. The interaction between the consumer, the store and and the community are all keep to a minimum -it makes things logistically easy but it's also even more sterile than the mega-mall.

This is not a new question but do people really need another alienating experience in their lives? Commerce has made it possible to get more and more stuff with less and less human contact. I am afraid that many people are so deprived of human contact that it's scary when offered (sort of like when chickens that are exclusive raised in sealed henhouses and are finally allowed out) . There's a sizable portion of the population that sees other people as too messy and too complicated to get involved with. Henry David Thoreau lamented over those who "live lives of quiet desperation". I can only imagine what he would say about the person who sees the world through a windshield while commuting, a computer screen at work and TV at home.

A viable Main Street remains a place where people meet. As a public space, it's a place where people can speak up and voice their opinions. I was in West Chester PA last weekend, a town with a very vibrant commercial center. The shops and restaurants are almost exclusively family owned businesses. In front of the the County Court House in the center of town were two opposing groups of peaceful protesters. You'll never see this in front of a Wal-Mart -actually Wal-Mart is one of many companies that shun urban locations unless they can surround their stores with a mote of parking spaces so they can keep protesters and any kind of political activity away from the store's entrance

Because of the car dominated suburban lifestyle and change in shopping habits many Main Streets are not what they use to be. The empty store fronts seem to attract the wrong people and shoppers outside the community don't go there because they see it as dirty and dangerous. As tax revenues decrease, the local police have less money do their work and a downward spiral begins.

Focusing on dirty and dangerous is misleading. I grew up outside of New York City in the 60's and 70's. New York was rocked by huge changes caused by the suburban sprawl of Greater New York and middle class flight out of the city. New York was very dirty and dangerous -but it was exciting. One of the reasons why New York has been able to economically revive itself is because it has remained exciting. And though it's a persistent misconception that New York is still dirty and dangerous -in truth it is one of the safest and cleanest cities in American.

A BORING STREET ATTRACTS CRIME - boredom and blight go hand in hand . In my past travels I would always ask "what to do in this town?". Once in some backwater crossroads on the edge of Appalachia I asked that question and was told "nothing much, just fighting, stealing or buying drugs... so what do you want?". He gave me a look -the kind of look a hungry wolf would give a lamb. Lucky for me I was with a friend and shepherded me out of there. Years later I got pretty much the same answer to that question on a demolition project in Newark NJ, again I was in a boring crime ridden neighborhood.

One of the best projects to help preserve a town's commercial district is Ithaca Commons. Two streets were changed into a pedestrian mall and parking around the town was expanded. This set up promoted walking and casual shopping. The average time a shopper stayed in town got longer and the longer a shopper stayed in town the more money they spent. The commons also became a center for open air entertainment, community events and social activities. The extra foot traffic reduced crime and a night life of restaurants, cafes and music venues developed.

In Ithaca off from the center of Ithaca Commons is the start of the Sagan Planetary Walk. It's scale model of the solar system that has you walk through town to get a real feeling of how big outer space really is. It's no surprise either that Pluto can be found right at the entrance of the local science museum. This "free" activity must have returned millions of dollars to the businesses of Ithaca, I know that being the father of two science oriented kids the experience was priceless.

In a past posting I wrote about CBGBs. In the 1970's everything from Wall Street to Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan was pretty foreboding. The majority of the blocks were filled with half empty industrial buildings from when New York was a manufacturing city. The first artists and urban pioneers that moved in did it because of the cheap rentals. When those people started to generate enough interest in what they were doing, that it brought other people to see what was happening. The foot traffic totally changed the landscape from a city desert to a financial oasis.

To go back to the days of Imperial Rome - think Bread and Circus. For over 400 years that made Rome a working center of the civilized world and first city of over million people. Bread and Circus should be part of any strategy to revitalize and maintain Main Street. Any activity that gives people a reason to visit is a good one. Family friendly events, political protests, parades, performance art projects -anything that brings people in is a potential opportunity. Once the perception of being boring is broken, the investments will follow. Money always follows enthusiasm and activity.

I also mentioned two local towns, Pottstown and Phoenixville. Both were industrial towns centered around a steel mill. The steel mills in both towns closed and most of the other industries followed. Phoenixville has made the transition into a center of entertainment, art and culture. Pottstown has not.

Phoenixville is visibly more prosperous and safer than Pottstown. Even though Phoenixville is half the size of Pottstown, Phoenixville has almost three times as many businesses. If you were to go to Phoenixville at 7pm you would find about 60% of all the businesses open, in Pottstown more than 60% are closed by 7pm.    

Give your hometown a change by giving other people a reason to come in and visit. The suburbs are filled with bored people, they might be a little rusty with their social skills but many of them are looking for something to do.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Are you a potential terrorist?

                 Yes, only you can prevent suburban sprawl.

Down load this picture and message, share it with your friends and in the United States you might be labelled a domestic terrorist. After the horrific events of 9-11 the Bush Administration expanded the definition of foreign terrorism and began to expand the definition for domestic terrorism as well. One notable target was the Earth Liberation Front and several other more militant green activist organizations. They were given the label "eco-terrorists". Without going through several long play by play timelines you the reader can do the research and make up your own mind. Start with the SHAC-7.

The United States government has defined a problem and its chosen course of action is a heavy-handed increase in enforcement and surveillance. I might not have any sympathies for people that commit arson, deface SUVs or smash up laboratories that do animal testing but I am very fearful a government filled with self righteous vengeance.  

It strikes fear in me for two reasons because any one who even listens to the "terrorists" can be declared guilty by association; and reason two, surveillance promotes conformity. Conformity is the enemy of creativity and free thought. Not that everything in life should be a puzzle, a riddle or an conceptual art project because a little bit of conformity and organization makes civilization possible -but a little too much quickly becomes oppressive. Recalling a past lecture I sat in on, one economist pointed out the vast social resources that a nation like Japan has. Through the 1990s Japan slogged through a decade of economic and social stagnation partly because of it's lack creative talent. Creativity in Japan (and to a lesser degree in India and China) is discouraged, stigmatized and even criminalized.    
This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in America. It's a family holiday where even estranged people will tolerate each enough for one meal together just to re-create that perfect Norman Rockwell moment. For the last several years part of the price of the trip home has been the "Freedom Frisk" at the airport.

Air travel should be safe but is this really necessary? Is this for our own protection -or it to scare the average person into submission? When a TSA agent says "let me put my hand down your pants -or you don't love America and we have a room in the back for people like you" -what else are people going to do but obey. If you obey here then why not at the bus and train station? And that's okay why not during a traffic stop or on the street corner? The lose of freedom isn't always an on-off switch but often a dimmer switch where the reduction comes in smaller increments.  

It's easy to make anything into a conspiracy theory and yet I believe there is a clear erosion of person freedom. Recently there been Supreme Court Justices that question if there is specific right to privacy. On the surface this is an attack on the Roe v Wade, the decision that made abortion available across the country. The original legal logic was a woman should be able to make her own healthcare choices privately and without interference from the government. 

But what if we do only have limited rights to privacy? Not only could Roe v Wade be struck down but almost everything we do could be watched, recorded and questioned to prevent or ferret out any criminal activity. When I was a kid it was inconceivable that there could be a surveillance camera in almost every store and on almost every street corner. That soon overhead there will be thousands of police surveillance drones with the ability to trail our movements outdoors. For now we can say "that if you done nothing wrong then you have nothing to worry about -or that in the big crowds of people most individuals would slip by unnoticed. Is this really a world we want to live in? 

The internet is kind of that world without privacy. Personal information is not protected. Anything I do on a employer's computer is open for scrutiny, it gets more problematic if I do company work on my personal computer. Employers can still ask for Facebook passwords but they are more likely to friend you under another name. Whenever I phone or email my wife, we both assume somebody is listening.

Every artist to some degree is an outsider and is always a potential criminal when the social boundaries are too narrow. 

I think this picture was taken at Comic-con. If you don't recognize the costumes, it's from the movie They Live (1988). It's an over the top grade B classic of sci-fi schlock but it does leave you with the nagging feeling that maybe the movie has some true in it. That the average person is controlled and manipulated to live the kind of life that first and foremost benefits the powerful and rich.  

Think about it if you're at an airport and notice which people don't get intensively screened by TSA. Think about it when you recognize which 1% frights in Iraq and Afghanistan and which 1% owns 50% of all the assets in the United States. Think about it the next time somebody tells you the rich need more tax breaks because they don't have enough money to invest with. Think about it if you start sharing the picture of Smokey Bear with the anti-development message... some one will notice.

From the movie They Live  -a quote from a lone street preacher "Outside the limits of our sight, feeding off of us, perched on top of us, from birth to death, are our owners! Our owners! They have us! They control us! They are our masters! Wake up! They're all about you! All around you!"    

Is it too late to say Happy Thanksgiving?