Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Price for Being Quiet

I could smell Spring as it sprung a few days ago.  It is an early morning smell I recall from my job as a morning delivery paper boy fifty six years ago.

It is the quietness I also remember from my youth.  This map of the quietest and noisiest places across the contiguous United States shows that my native Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho is still very quiet.

In fact, it is amazing how quiet the West is compared to the Midwest, Northeast and South, as show on the map in this blog.  I’ve been intrigued since first spotting it in a blog posted last month on Discover and now in High Country News.

Durham, North Carolina where I have now lived for 39% of my life --longer than any other place -- is relatively noisy, but you wouldn’t know it on our early morning walks down through a city park and then up the steep slopes of what we affectionately call Mt. Rockwood.

About a mile and half from downtown Durham, Mt. Rockwood is a ridgeline that appears to be the highest elevation between Chapel Hill and the even higher Red Mountain in northern Durham.  Where I live now is not only noisier, it is also 4,789 feet lower than the ancestral ranch where I was born.

Durham County is the 17th smallest land area in North Carolina but created for a city of the same name that is now the fourth largest in population.  It has been the epicenter now for two different manifestations of the New South.

Initially, proponents lobbied to name it Mangum County in honor of a Willie P. Mangum, a U.S. Senator from here who had stood firm against hardliners in the state legislature, in favor of a national compromise regarding slavery.

In his day, it was Democrats who had been the regressives in control.

Durham was selected as the name making it synchronous for the city for which it was created, the only place in the state where a county and city by the same name are both found in one location.

While much of the state was overrun by marauding gangs of the KKK, Durham had emerged after the Civil War as a center for the progressive South and an accepting sanctuary for people fleeing the violence in rural areas.

In the 1950s, northern Durham spawned another U.S. Senator William Umstead, this time elected as governor of North Carolina who before he died in office set in motion the development of Research Triangle Park here.

Building on a long history here for innovation, RTP marked Durham’s emergence as the center for creativity it is today, and a magnet for talent and relocating businesses and corporations from around the world.

Today, another wave of regressives, Republicans this time, are devoted to dragging Durham in reverse along with other urban areas by pitting rural against urban as a metaphor for when those of this mindset in another political party, pitted white against black.

Regressives also tried this approach in the 1920s, pitting rural against urban, rolling back voting rights and openly being hostile to women and immigrants.

Public opinion polls show that only about 18% of Americans today think this way but is it coincidence this is also the percentage of Americans who deny climate change and worry “not at all” about the environment?

They sure make a lot of noise.

Probably also not a coincidence, this happens to be the same percentage of the American workforce in general as well as in North Carolina specifically, shown to be “actively disengaged,” meaning they are:

“employees not just unhappy at work; these employees undermine the accomplishments of their engaged coworkers.”

Maybe a quick follow up or cross-tab would confirm that all of this noise comes from the same 18% of Americans.

Protected by clever redistricting, those in elected office here are doing everything possible to deconstruct cities such as Durham by overriding popular ordinances to curb blight such as billboards as well as design guidelines to protect neighborhood property values and sense of place.

Now they have their sights on tourism, also known as visitor-centric economic and cultural development. Cities such as Durham work hard to be appealing including to the millions of North Carolinians who visit here annually on daytrips.

The purpose is twofold: fuel the local business climate and expand the local tax base, something the state’s largest cities forget when they provide subsidies to draw events in excess of the tax revenues they will generate.

People live in rural areas instead for many reasons, the quiet, being closer to nature but also to avoid paying taxes for services urban dwellers seek.

Now regressive want to redistribute the wealth cities generate by letting rural North Carolinians “have their cake and eat it too” - enjoy the benefits of trips into cities without helping to provide for that environment and then take their sales taxes back home.

So how does 18% of a population pull down the other 82%?  Clever redistricting for sure.  And a lot of voters who fail to hold their elected officials accountable for harm they do to others including fostering warfare between lifestyles.

But even more enabling are other elected officials who fall for clever introductions written for bills but fail to read for legislative intent and consequences, settling instead for horse trades.

In the end, tyranny and regression in this country never work for long.  But it always takes decades to repair the damage.

We need a little more noise in North Carolina.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Thoughts From A Roadside

Several thoughts raced through my mind yesterday while viewing the roadside of a freeway interchange in Durham, North Carolina, where I live.

These parcels are very park-like when well-maintained, as members of a public-private coalition called Durham Appearance Advocacy Group (DAAG) is trying to do by forging alliances between local governments, businesses and groups such as garden clubs and Scenic North Carolina.

The one we discussed yesterday is meant to serve as a template for every interchange in Durham.

But ironically, regressives in the State Legislature have been working at odds, filing bills to disable state management of these roadsides and permitting out-of-state billboard companies to wantonly deforest them in order to prop up an obsolete technology few Americans use now.

Now they have even filed a bill, with an innocuous misleading intro, meant to override wildly popular democratically enacted bans on this form of desecration marketing and blight that have stood in communities such as Durham for more than three decades and ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This tyranny by representatives not from Durham reminds me that revolutionaries founded our democracy not in opposition to taxes but due to corporate loopholes granted by the feudal systems of governance then in place.

In opposition at the time and ever since stood regressives trying to pull the country backwards.  One wonders, will another revolution soon be sparked?

In the 1930s, roadsides such as those I was standing alongside yesterday were already battlegrounds between the forces of blight and the forces of scenic preservations.  Jobs, jobs, jobs was the mantra then too but it was both/and when it came to scenic preservation.

Highway 100 was one of the first, if not the very first beltlines in the country.  It patched together a series of existing roads south and west of Minneapolis but included new construction of a stretch of more than 12 miles including what we now call clover leafs.

It was deemed the “Lilac Drive,” lined with 30,000 plants including 8,000 Lilac shrubs and 7 roadside parks.  It became a recreational destination and living proof that Americans are drawn to scenic character over commercial blight along their roadsides.

It was in the middle of nowhere back then but had the support of development interests and billboard companies eagerly pushing for sprawling suburbs that would soon gobble up acreage at a rate many times the rate of population growth, as it still does today in Durham.

Emily Badger reported in The Washington Post this week about a new study that that concludes that sprawl costs the U.S. economy now more than $1 trillion a year.

The reason deficit hawks are not licking their chops is that $400 billion of this is pushed off on other people, something economists call negative externalities, which is a fancy word to describe when the free market doesn’t incorporate its true costs.

Only a portion is found in inflated costs for public services.  We absorb the rest sometimes in our lungs and often while stuck in traffic, but all in all it is very similar to the tax loophole that led to the original Boston Tea Party.

Billboarders and their legislative allies aren’t the only ones who want to shift even more of those costs onto unsuspecting Tar Heels including millions of us “hard-working taxpayers” we so often hear regressives talk about.

Over the last five decades (1960s-2000s,) the NCDOT has carefully reforested and afforested more than 5 million trees along the state’s roadsides, in part, to mitigate for many times that number which had been destroyed during road constructions.

The trees were also meant to bolster a signature ingredient of North Carolina’s brand.

This included lining the state’s roadways with spectacular understory trees such as native Redbuds and Dogwoods, the state tree.  Then, without thinking, another unit enabled private maintenance contractors to destroy most of them just for their convenience.

During our cross-country road-trip a few months ago for my mom’s funeral, Mugs and I took I-64 through Saint Louis.  This included a 10 to 11 mile stretch through the heart of that area that had recently been rehabilitated.

Some even call it that community’s front door.

The area is sea of concrete and buildings leaving almost no roadside.  But the Missouri DOT has carefully carved tiny slivers of planting areas where possible along this stretch and recruited businesses and organizations as landscape sponsors.

It too, I suspect is meant as a pilot project for a more strategic approach going forward.  An example of the discreet but very visible signs erected for sponsors is shown as the image in this blog.

Research shows that less than a fraction of 1% of consumers still use billboards.  It takes less than six seconds to decipher one but consumers only give them an average of three, even when digitally flashing on and off intermittently to draw attention away from the road.

Yet billboard companies now want to deforest even interchanges in hopes that someone traveling past them or focused on exiting or merging onto the highway will have twice as long to look.

Yes, it is obscene and possibly the spark for another revolution, if not with torches, pitchforks or midnight rides, a roadside revolt.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Looking Out 35 Years From Now

Frankly, I was always a bit puzzled, back in the day, to hear myself introduced as innovative or strategic.  I still am whenever I guest lecture college students, including many who are pursuing my former career.

On reflection, I have probably always been more of a “repurposer.”  Studies show that less than 14% of Americans are strategically inclined. 

However, according to experts who study strengths, inclinations such as this, otherwise known as talents, are “naturally occurring patterns of thought, feeling and behavior.”  They are building blocks that can be refined and amplified through education and skill development.

For the rest of us, talents such as being strategic don’t come as naturally but we can still develop a certain level through practice and study.

Studies show that learning to see things strategically is also the secret to why some people can juggle multiple priorities making it is just as relevant to working through a daily list of assignments.

My first brush with thinking strategically probably began in 1970 when a history professor recommended that I read a newly published book entitled, Future Shock.

A quote that has stuck with me through the years is, “The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read.  It will be the person who doesn’t know how to learn.”

But it is the co-author’s second book entitled, The Third Wave which I refer to students today who are serious about learning to think strategically, more than 35 years after I read it for the first time.

It isn’t just because so many of the possibilities the authors concluded have come or are coming to pass today.  It is because it is written to show how they arrived at those conclusions by understanding the patterns of the past.

For instance, the book foretold the “collapse of consensus” we are experiencing today but it also sheds light on where we might go from here.

The revolutionaries who founded this country revolted against the feudal systems of governance then in place.

Societal headlines today reflect those who want to move forward to a more sustainable path and those who are trying to pull us back into another era or at the very least keep one foot in the past.

By looking at past patterns, the authors of The Third Wave, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, were also able to predict the change in how we will view being employed or unemployed in a world with more and more people but fewer and fewer jobs.

A blog I enjoy reading is Carolina Demography.  A recent post noted that of the nearly 4.5 million North Carolinians (age 16 and older,) 3.3 million or nearly three-quarters are of prime working age (25-64.)

That definition is slightly more broad than the norm.

Experts who have suggested that unemployment analysis would be much more relevant if it focused on the prime working age population, generally use ages 25 to 54 for this cohort.

A poll published three months ago by the Kaiser Family Foundation with the New York Times and CBS found that a little more than half of the U.S. population age 18 and older falls in the prime working age.

About 18% are prime working age but unemployed.  This group includes 26% homemakers but able to work outside the home, 34% disabled and unable to work and 24% unemployed and able to work.

Of the 24% who are unemployed but able to work, 5% don’t want a job now or in the future, 8% will want a job in the future, leaving 19% who want a part-time job and 67% who want a full-time job.

When this group is asked which factors are a major or minor reason they aren’t working, 52% cite family responsibilities, 32% cite health problems (although they are not disabled,) 38% note lack of education or skills, and 34% say their job was replaced by technology.

Other factors listed are 32% jobs because jobs are going overseas, 28% because of discrimination and 35% apparently don’t need the income.

Of the 78% who are unemployed, able to work, and have looked in the last year, 86% are open to entry-level in another field, 81% are willing to return to school or job training, 77% are open to non-traditional hours, 64 would take minimum wage, 45% would move to another city, 46% would commute more than hour each way, 69% would take 10% less than the last job and 37% would take 25% less.

There are some smart people across the full length of the ideological spectrum who are noodling about what we do as it becomes more and more a privilege to have a job.

One is called a universal basic income that would replace the myriad of safety net programs and a better option for the 25% of all workers including 40% of those in restaurants or food service who need public assistance on top of what they earn.

Ben Schiller makes a good argument that this is also a better way to eliminate poverty.

People who dismiss the ability to look ahead any more than three years if that, including many serving on governing and elected boards, as well as far too many executives are well advised to read or reread The Third Wave, but for process rather than content.

The exercise may be not only be inspiration to look back for clues to the possibilities lying beyond the horizon – perhaps another 35 years.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Safeguarding A Community’s Story

I posted a recent essay in recognition of an unsung hero who saved Durham’s beloved Bulls baseball team as a favor to a friend who passed away last fall.

It was not on my radar then but within a month, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park which, in part, resulted from his actions would be celebrating the 20th anniversary since hosting its first game on April 6, 1995.

I had begun to write that post five months earlier but the topic was sensitive and it took me time to not only get the tone and timing right but to research documents to make certain that my memory was accurate.

Seth Godwin reminded us a few days go that “Human Beings are story-making engines, and when confronted with randomness, we make up an egocentric version of what happened and it involves us.”

In fact, this is how legends and other myths evolve over time, often even polluting news stories and official accounts, claiming reporters and editors as victims if they don’t fact-check conclusions drawn from interviews including the use of archives and timelines.

It is akin to a “gentrification” of stories, a term used to describe what happens to neighborhoods and organic commercial districts when they become so hip that the original residents and businesses are forced out, identifies are rewoven and sense of place is lost.

As the owner of the Bulls mused with me while at will call after he had read my account, the story of how Durham almost lost the Bulls and his remarkable and deserved redemption from villain to hero is very complex.

He reminded me that before trying to poach (my word) the Bulls from Durham, the mild-mannered Mayor of Raleigh at the time, Avery Upchurch, had given Durham’s mayor a 30-day ultimatum.

He recalled that Durham’s mayor at the time was Harry Rodenhizer but having recently checked time frames related to the unsung hero post, I was able to clarify that the mayor at the time would have been Chester Jenkins, who also happened to also be the first African-American Mayor of Durham.

Based on the tendency now of some Republicans in Congress to cross lines of decorum to disrespect President Obama in ways unprecedented with other U.S. Presidents, I wondered as I walked to my seat if the fact that Mayor Jenkins was black had somehow empowered that ultimatum.

But in my dealings the issue of race wasn’t Harry’s motivation to run for another term in that office, defeating Jenkins.

He was among tens of thousands of disheartened Durham residents who not knowing what three individuals were doing behind the scenes had felt Durham had been too passive in the fight to retain the Bulls.

We remained friends until his death and he was equally incensed whenever he felt officials had passively failed to rise in defense of the organization I led whenever it seemed to become a lightning rod for resentment due to its role during that period, a small price to pay.

Harry, a fiscal conservative who had sent his children to predominantly black city schools back when nearly all white students were in all white schools, hated injustice of any kind.

It didn’t matter to him when I would explain that once a turnaround such as keeping the Bulls is achieved, it is common for those that took stands to experience some retribution, while others rush to be sycophants as redemption creates a new alignment.

To me, being respected was always more important that being liked or given credit.

But by the time Harry was elected in late 1991 the two unsung heroes I wrote about last month had already rallied enough pressure to send Raleigh officials in retreat including opposition to poaching from state legislators, state tourism related coalitions and local taxpayer groups there.

Harry was greeted in April 1992 by a new ultimatum, this time from the new owner of the Bulls, to “build a new stadium by 1994 or else” but that really wasn’t necessary.

One of the three people in the room back then who had worked behind the scenes to back Raleigh off had also been busy searching for a way to finance a new Durham stadium for the Bulls.

By May 1992, less than eight weeks after the second ultimatum, financing for the new ballpark was approved by the City Council and within five months the Bulls had signed a new lease.

Last year, two local news stories surfaced, with a few weeks of one another, mistakenly crediting an organization with the new stadium that was not in existence at the time.

Although that organization’s formation papers were filed within weeks of the time the stadium being approved, ground had already been broken ground by the time that organization commenced its startup.

I suspect that sources for the story were very uncomfortable to read what had been inferred and may have tried to call or email clarification.

But this is much harder than it sounds, especially when reputations are at stake and particularly with a story this complex.  Unless investigative in nature, even at its best news is but a crude snapshot of the real story behind an event.

I learned during my now-concluded four-decade career leading community organizations to be very careful when using the term “we.”

Humorously, a friend with whom I worked in the 1970s and 1980s at my first two destination marketing organizations would often quip when seeing misattributions or takings of credit:

“It is like having (fill in the blank) in high school.  Those who say they did probably didn’t and those who say they didn’t probably did.

But it is more complicated than exaggerating or downplaying resumes.

Often when telling aspects of the community’s story, good reporters would stop me and stop me when I was rattling off information and ask for clarification of my use of the word “we:”

  • “we” meaning you personally?
  • “we” meaning your organization and stakeholders?
  • Or “we” meaning Durham overall?

I learned to be more careful but sometimes I wouldn’t see how misled they had been until the stories appeared in print and/or over the air.

Those two recent news stories dealing misinterpreting facts from nearly 25 years ago may have resulted from making the wrong inferences from an interviewees use or mistaken use of the word “we” assuming that rather than the editorial “we,” as in Durham, the reference was personal or organizational.

But the errors in those news stories also represent a breakdown in process now increasingly more common in short-staffed newsrooms.

Customarily, rather than leaping to a conclusion if a use of “we” wasn’t clear, newsrooms would not only call back to clarify but they would be sure to conduct a quick scan of their publication’s archives from that period.

That is why it is crucial that these two stories be flagged with clarifications so future stories are not contaminated.

Newsrooms should also be sensitive to the human tendency to unwittingly reweave memories with other fragments of peripheral or later involvement resulting, in the words of Godin, in a far more “egocentric versions.”

According to Harvard researcher Dr. Daniel Gilbert in his book and blog entitled Stumbling on Happiness, our memory doesn’t actually retrieve information.

Memory is rewoven or fabricated from the bits of data scooped up by our personal NSA.  This is why it is so important for organizations, especially any type of community organization, to appoint a staff archivist.

Unless corrections to those two recent news accounts are made, those rewoven versions will contaminate news reports for many decades to come, even contemporary histories, until such time that deeper historical analysis comes to bear.

This is why it is crucial for destination marketing organizations such as where I made my career to take seriously their role not only to tell a community’s story but to have the courage to stand up as that story’s guardian by calling or emailing reporters and editors with clarifications, even corrections.

This includes the responsibility to question other community organizations whenever they are tempted to provide egocentric accounts of the past.

A sense of historical accuracy and the importance of delving into archives is crucial to telling a community’s story in the present.

Understanding how easy it is to be credited with things you didn’t do or in which you only played a minor role may also be why I find myself often in retirement leaving breadcrumbs with many of these essays that hopefully provide broader context to those accounts.

I know it is disappointing to those who trade on information to curry favor or perpetuate perceived wounds or settle old scores but I have purposely not linked to those mistaken accounts or sources.

Instead, I have alerted others who can give them a gentle heads up.  “There but for the grace of God go I.

So, as Annie paraphrased to Crash at the end of the movie Bull Durham from a quote attributed to Walt Whitman in 1888, “…baseball is our game: I connect it with our national character.”

Or appropriate to how quickly legends become repurposed, “Man, that ball got out of here in a hurry.”

Happy 25 to DBAP!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Looking Back To Detect the Future

One of the signature artifacts of Durham, North Carolina’s past that has been lost during the eight decades of neglect since a local history museum was first proposed is a calliope.

Beginning less than a decade after the Civil War ended here 150 years ago next month, this musical instrument sat atop the now repurposed Old Bull Building and simulated the sound of a bull at each factory shift change and other special occasions.

I grew up on a cattle ranch in the Rockies so when I first read about this famous calliope, I had no trouble imagining the sound it played (click here to hear a bull.)  It celebrated Bull Durham tobacco and the “Bull City” it was soon to make world famous.

It is important to remember that in 1870 as plans were being laid to erect the Old Bull Building, now a National Historic Landmark, Durham was already very different than the rest of North Carolina.

At the time, Governor W.W. Holden was standing up against gangs of Ku Klux Klan riders who were marauding through nearby counties committing public murders and whippings while intimidating officials from doing anything about it.

Several counties were declared to be in a state of insurrection and state militia were deployed.

These gangs of terrorists were targeting “blacks who did not know their place” and whites who advocated for the rights of blacks.  In fact, maybe the sound of a Bull blaring from Durham was meant to ward them off.

Seriously, this is when Durham residents began talking privately about formation of a separate county which got its unique shape when several pieces of land were lopped off during passage of the controversial 1881 bill in the legislature, enabling voter approval.

But Durham’s industrialists and merchants were divided on another issue, bonds to build graded schools.  Republicans were opposed, arguing that education by families and in private and parochial schools was enough.

Opponents sued to overturn voter approval so voters approved the bonds again while proponents started a “moonlight school” for factory workers.

Artifacts such as the now lost “bull calliope” will be crucial to a fully-functional Museum of Durham History, should officials ever make it the priority public opinion polls have shown for decades.

The compelling essay entitled “Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History,” notes that artifacts reflect and symbolize changes.  Had the old calliope survived, it would today serve as a clarion reminder that Durham is different, and proud of it.

There are people who dismiss the past by claiming they only want to think about the future.  This is the kind of thinking or lack of thinking that leads quickly to a surrender of sense of place in so many communities.

It is by understanding the patterns of the past that we see into the future.  It is why a class in historical analysis should be required as a prerequisite in business schools for one on strategic thinking and/or strategy making.

With each passing day, Durham loses more and more of its history in exchange for mainstream culture that can be found anywhere.

For those still puzzled about why we should care and in need of lists to check, below are just a few reasons a Museum of Durham History, stocked with both artifacts and the latest technology, is crucial:

  • Story Telling. It will give children, students, newcomers and relocating executives a place to get in touch with Durham’s story. People who grasp that stories are more inclined to be engaged as activists, volunteers and philanthropy.
  • Synergy. It will augment Durham’s historic sites by providing exhibition space to stir interest in those locations, making them more sustainable. It will complement rather than undermine other cultural facilities and programming.
  • Preservation. It will be a vigilant testimony to what makes the community distinct and unique and insulate its character and personality from the pressures of development and “generica.”
  • Future Generations. As a repository of innovations and artifacts, it will inspire future generations to build on the temporal qualities that make Durham, well, Durham…creative, entrepreneurial, caring, innovative, accepting, etc.

Maybe it is because I am something of an artifact myself, that this has now become so clear (smile.)