Friday, May 22, 2015

The Value of Fostering Early Memories

In the image in this essay, I am holding my middle sister who was born two years and ten months after me.

For three and a half years, it would be just the two of us.  I was three years and 10 months old when that family photo was taken.

It had become separated from thousand of other family photos and resurfaced in a box my mother left for me to organize in January when she died.Reyn and Raem

Nine months before my first sister was born, when I was two, my parents had very briefly separated.

All but four memories from before I was five or six, which is when my second sister came home, faded away because, as researchers have learned, before that age we really haven’t developed the capacity to retain them.

That’s why we are rarely able to recall memories of events before the age of three or four.

The three I can recall are flashes that were later filled in by my parents.

One is from around when that photo was taken at 3 years, 10 months when I recall being thrown over my dad’s shoulder while being carried into the house late one night after returning home from visiting our grandparents.

Another is when I was three and a half being pulled on a makeshift sled behind my parents who were on snowshoeing up to play cards one night with friends.

The third flash I recall from that period is when I was four and riding between my parents early one morning to get my tonsils removed in the new hospital in Ashton, the closest town to our ranch.

A fourth is being pushed to the floor boards of an old jeep I would later inherit as my first vehicle.  I was five and the jeep was slowly overturning on the corner leading down to the ranch after my dad failed to negotiate a huge snow berm.

No one was hurt but I remember walking down to the ranch house where my mom was furious with my dad from fear.

I’m not unusual.  Researchers call our inability to remember much before we are three or four, “childhood amnesia.”  Theorists today believe we can recall information for weeks or months as babies.

But retaining memories involves linking them to verbal cues.

A study published a year ago by researchers at Emory University compared rates of forgetting among children college students and middle-aged adults.

It also replicated earlier research into childhood amnesia.

Results showed that in children the earliest memory tended to be 3.67 years.  There was no difference for different age groups or for college students or middle aged adults or even for older adults (ahem!)

In her coverage of that study and others, WSJ Work & Family columnist, Sue Shellenbarger explained that there are three kinds of memories we recall.

One relates is to events that help us feel continuity with who we are or how we’ve changed.  Another type serves to guide behavior such as things we want to avoid repeating.

A third type is “social-bonding memories” that involve relationships.

Shellenbarger continues in her review of these studies, “The ability to draw on all three types of memories predicts higher psychological well-being, a greater sense of purpose and more positive relationships.”

They also help shape better “choices in adolescence and adulthood.”

Parents, especially mothers but often fathers can aid these memories when they use a style that includes asking opened-ended questions versus just repetitive reminiscing.

My daughter manifests this elaborative style with my two grandsons.  These studies show that this is more worthwhile than just taking millions of photos.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Just Missing By A Hair A Monumental Shift

Our local paper speculated this week that the downtown “loop” has been a matter of “civic discourse for at least a couple of decades.”

Actually, it has been more like six decades if you count the discourse leading up to creating it in the mid-1950s.

It took a couple of decades to create it but after a little more than a decade in use, the same group that pushed for it, now under a different name, began advocating its demise, ironically using the same rationale used to create it.

Tragically, it’s too late for the hundreds and hundreds of historic structures that were destroyed to create the “loop,” including the iconic Durham Union Station (shown in a County Library photo below).

But the story of the “loop” is not only the story of a near miss but that of an era.

More than three decades before the early 1990s founding of today’s Downtown Durham Inc., a predecessor was formed, first as a committee of the Merchant’s Association, then as the Downtown Development Association.

When I arrived in 1989 to jumpstart Durham’s first community destination marketing agency, I gathered intelligence by interviewing many of those earlier bygone commercial activists.

Refreshingly, they were willing to look back on regrets as well as achievements.

The “loop” was meant to save downtown Durham when it was envisioned in 1958.

Forest Hills Shopping Center had just opened on the southern outskirts and by the next year, even the increasingly “Black” neighborhood to the east would have a new shopping center, Wellons Village.

Rumors, soon founded, were that the Rand family was planning another to the north.

Of course, we know now that it was television that was changing the retail landscape by promoting to viewers the misperception that vast regions were centric.

This included the notion of driving a hundred miles to buy something consumers could easily find at home, thereby robbing their own local business climate and tax base.

But it wasn’t just competition that worried downtown advocates in the mid-1950s.

Durham had been the fastest growing county in North Carolina during the 1930s and second fastest during the 1940s, just behind Mecklenburg.

But what had Durham leaders worried was how fast Durham still continued to grow into the 1950s, while the number of jobs hadn’t grown since the end of World War II, more than a decade.

Poverty had first taken root in Durham in a neighborhood now called Edgemont in 1938 after a mill closing there brought on by the Great Depression.

But Durham continued to grow economically during the war years, thanks in some part I supposed to four cigarettes including Lucky Strikes and Chesterfields being included in each WWII ratio kits.

However, that growth abruptly ended in 1947, while the flood of people moving here didn’t.

There is evidence that this imbalance is the root of Durham’s generational poverty rate today.

By 1960, when downtown advocates formally proposed creation of the “loop” to local officials, 1-in-3 Durham residents lived in poverty, as did 1-in-4 North Carolinians and about the same proportion of Americans.

One rationale used for the “loop” back then was that it would make the Research Triangle Park more attractive to tenants.

It was a new project carved out of southeast Durham pinelands just four miles from downtown that Durham leaders such as George Watts Hill and Yancey Milburn, members of the downtown group, had been furiously working to create.

The report was shaped in the immediate aftermath of a transition from federal grants for Urban Redevelopment, which had been pushed in the late 1930s, finally passed in 1949 and then re-branded as Urban Renewal in 1954.

The program, which had to overcome opposition from rural lawmakers, incentivized communities to tear down old buildings to make way for parking lots and then sell surrounding parcels to private sector developers.

However, Urban Renewal was already in disrepute by 1956, when architectural journalist Jane Jacobs gave a presentation at a Harvard conference leading up to creation of a new discipline.

It was called urban design, a fusion of architecture and planning that would focus on overall settings rather than icons.

As downtown Durham advocates began meeting to plot its salvation in 1958, they should have been reading a new book based on a series of articles that Jacobs and others had been writing in Fortune Magazine.

Entitled The Exploding Metropolis; A study of the assault on urbanism and how our cities can resist it, the essays in the book might have helped Durham not only avoid a huge mistake but leapfrog to a new paradigm.

Economic development was just beginning a transition from the 20th century’s obsession with “what you don’t have” to what urban researcher Edward T. McMahon calls the 21st century model of focusing on “what you do have,” a transition even today that so many communities have failed to make.

Instead, Durham’s downtown advocates issued a report in November, 1960 based on the falling-out-of-favor Urban Renewal, just as Jane Jacobs was putting the finishing touches on a book that would be published a year later entitled, The Death and Life of American Cities.

It rewrote the book on rebuilding cities.  In fact, Durham’s Downtown Development Association members would have had access to excerpts published months earlier in Harper’s and the Saturday Evening Post which were very popular at the time.

Jacobs advocated an organic understanding of how districts evolve, the way Ninth Street evolved in Durham during the 1970s and the way downtown Durham evolved before WWII.

She articulated the importance of innate character and what would two decades later be christened as sense of place in an essay by Wallace Stegner.

By a matter of days if not hours, Durham was caught instead on the far side of the paradigm shift and soon set about destroying vast swaths of its organic character only to discover that Durham was able to populate RTP and become an economic engine again without it.

But a decade later, what I term a sense of place revolt dramatically slowed the destruction and birthed historic preservation here, just as the movement swept across America, as much in reaction the carnage of Urban Renewal as the nation’s upcoming bicentennial.

Within a few years a new breed of private developer including a couple who taught business at Duke emerged and began to adapt historic structures to new uses rather than destroy them.

By the 1980s they were populated with offices, galleries, restaurants, artists studios, apartments, music venues and stores.

The last Durham project predicated on the destruction enabled by Urban Renewal was a convention center and adjoining hotel, which opened in 1989 just as I arrived.  They looked as though they just didn’t fit and still do.

As a seeming nod to that bygone era, every decade or so since, Durham has continued to erect an icon that doesn’t fit.  It is as though the developers, often the local governments that should know better, are still defiantly objecting to sense of place.

They seem to forget, to quote from Witold Rybczynski in Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, that “The real challenge for cities today is not to create more icons, but rather to create more such settings.”

But as downtown advocates regrouped in the early 1990s to complete the task of revitalization, they were still plagued by the same inertia faced by predecessors nearly forty years earlier.

Back then a survey found that 76.9% of Durham residents community-wide supported the redevelopment of downtown including 57.7% who would support a new tax levy to do it.

But ironically only 41.8% of the merchants and property owners downtown were positive in regard to either redevelopment or a tax to fund it.

Fast forward four decades and the biggest suppressant to bringing downtown fully alive were landowners who didn’t have the means or interest to do so but were sitting on properties hoping others would.

This time, fortunately, the federal government came to the rescue with a new secret weapon, New Market Tax Credits, which when joined with historic tax credits and tens of millions of dollars in local government funds, created the turnaround.

Even as this second renaissance of downtown Durham took root, many were clearly still under the spell of outmoded Urban Renewal thinking such as the need for icons and very slow to grasp what Jacobs saw so clearly about the importance of sense of place and organic evolution.

In a twist of irony, Durham ended up preserving the highest proportion of its historical assets and converting them to adaptive reuse of any of North Carolina’s urban areas and most nationwide.

Yet officials, even today, seem prone to fixate on big projects rather than the little things that facilitate organic revitalization and sense of place such as the upkeep and overall community appearance noted in that 1960 downtown report.

They fail to understand that Americans, regardless of age, prefer protecting neighborhoods to revitalizing them.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Solution to Poverty is Both/And

I didn’t see his name on the program, but I wonder if the buzz among those attending the ecumenical and bipartisan-intended poverty summit held at Georgetown was regarding the new book edited and mostly written by Dr. Orlando Patterson at Harvard.

The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth, published several weeks earlier is not for the casual reader, not only because it is a little pricey but because it is dense with data and scientific findings associated with poverty.

It should be required reading for anyone who is serious about this issue or who gives it news coverage or those who flippantly betray their cynicism.

But be sure to have a fresh highlighter ready.

Black himself, Patterson is what is called a historical and cultural historian.  He is one of those sociologists who having unwrapped the intricacies of poverty believes in a mix of structural and cultural solutions to poverty.

One of the unfortunate obstacles to eliminating poverty is that people in general have divided into two camps advocating for what have become stereotypical and simplistic avatars for not having to delve into more nuanced and integrated solutions.

On one side are “structuralists” who view the solutions to poverty around structural improvements to society such as jobs, housing, addressing institutional racism, and improved access to food, education and healthcare.

Lately, this is the camp that has been all about pointing the finger at law enforcement as the impediment.

On the other side are “culturalists” who have closed their minds to anything but improved values and rooting out learned behaviors and traditions.

This, I think, is what some people are trying to say when they use those judgmental fighting words - “a culture of poverty,” which is a perversion from what this description meant when coined in 1970.

Of course, as Patterson points out, there is no such thing. That doesn’t mean that unwrapping and eliminating poverty shouldn’t involve a deeper understanding of cultural as well as structural and social justice influences, though.

Moderates like me are probably capable of irritating both camps.

The well-intended but underfunded “War on Poverty” was structural in nature.  Conservative opposition dating to the Great Depression and earlier was given stereotypes to cling too during the 1980s by President Reagan’s non-existent, “Welfare Queen” have been a brittle form of culturalist by nature.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and several Presidents since - both Republican and Democrat - including Barack Obama have tried to weave together both structural and cultural solutions.

I read Dr. Patterson’s new book after reading a fascinating op-ed he penned in the New York Times just days before this month’s poverty summit convened at Georgetown.

Entitled, The Real Problem With America’s Inner Cities, it reminded me of when I first arrived in Durham to jumpstart community marketing here.  I was still inventorying the community when I was appointed to the board of the chamber of commerce.

Having heard some disparaging remarks both about Downtown and a blighted inner city neighborhood to the East, I invited a long-time Durham resident on a field trip.  It is an area planners have re-christened North East Central Durham by planners, although it is not really north or central, to distinguish it from those further east.

My counterpart who headed the chamber accepted my invitation to drive through both neighborhoods.  My point was to show him how bustling Downtown was at night in 1990 but to also disavow him of the impression that disadvantaged neighborhoods nearby were composed entirely of jobless poor people.

We drove down several streets with well maintained for homes and lawns.  Patterson points out twenty five years later that on average, 20 to 25 percent of residents of neighborhoods such as these are “solidly working class or working poor” who are for the most part conservative when it comes to values.

In his book, Patterson notes that another 25% of disadvantaged neighborhoods are comprised of people he classifies as “ghetto middle class,” though constantly exposed to what he calls the toxicity of a core “problem minority” that varies from 12 to 28 percent.

It is a small group, whose influence often reaches into surrounding middle class neighborhoods, spawning downward mobility among youth.

This ratio explains why in surveys more than 40% of people living in or near poverty cite a decline in the desire to work among their neighbors, a view consistent with the majority of Americans.

The remarkable advantage of the book Cultural Matrix is how Patterson and co-editor/contributor and doctoral student/researcher Ethan Fosse weave longitudinally the findings of hundreds and hundreds of studies, both quantitative and observational into a readable narrative.

There are also very practical tidbits in this extraordinary book.  For instance, those hoping to unwrap the opinions of the poorest of the poor may be misled when they espouse the importance of education and work.

This minority in the poorest minority poor neighborhoods can appear to resemble conservatives as most of them espouse values such as individual effort, personal responsibility, the American Dream and being a good parent.

They also similarly express and demonstrate negative views toward government, business and institutions (especially criminal justice,) even hip-hop.

Studies show that these normative values come from a vastly higher consumption overall of media including television and contrast greatly to a reality of “structural disconnection and cultural divergence” that results in even greater suffering.

We are all vulnerable to espousing values disconnected from our actions, regardless of where we fall on the ideological spectrum, especially it seems those who claim to be the most conservative.

It is just that our hypocrisy, but for the grace of God, does not result in our own suffering.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My Posts 20 Years from Now

I’ve been wondering what North Carolina will be like 20 or 30 years from now.

Growing up, my daughter was always intrigued that there were 25 years between her grandfather’s age and mine, the same span that separated the two of us.

That curiosity probably culminated the year she turned 25 just as I was turning 50 and my dad turned 75, just two years before he was gone. 

I don’t know how other people feel, but turning 67 this summer I still perceive myself in my mind’s eye as I was when I was 25 or 30.

However, the Census views me as an “older” American although, I won’t cross that threshold for another year, when I reach the age that Americans, on average, view as “older,” according to a Pew study.

But how we see ourselves in our mind’s eye is different than how we feel.  People feel about the age they are until they reach 24 and then a gap occurs gradually widening on average to people my age who feel on average almost 10 years younger eventually rising to 13.

Studies show that beginning after age 40, we grow to feel 20% younger than we are.

I’ve never been one of those people who gets anxious as they near various age benchmarks when they are adults.  But the percentage of Americans who say they are very happy doesn’t really vary much as we grow older.

A third of people my age say they are “very happy,” which is about average for all Americans.  However, the percentage who say they are “not too happy” is twice that of people who are ages 18-29. though lower than those 50-64.

There are now about 1.5 million North Carolinians who are 65 and older, classified as “older” Americans, just less than the national average.

But just as the state inched past Michigan in population becoming the ninth most populous state overall, the ranks of “older” Tar Heels has inched up two percentage points since 2010 as a share of population.

If I am fortunate enough to live to be older than my mother was when she passed in January, I will see that number increase by more than a million people over what it was in 2013 according to Carolina Demography.

That won’t be for another 20 years when “older” North Carolinians are more 21% of a population projected to be well north of 2 million people larger than today.

If I still live in North Carolina by then, I will have lived here for nearly 50 years and well more than half of my life.  I will have witnessed the state doubling its population over that time.

The jury is still out as to whether the state’s appeal will have been sustained. Will it have recovered from its recent regression?  Will it have recovered the unique sense of place that has rapidly been eroding over the past 70 years?

Will North Carolina have reclaimed its roadsides from the final vestiges of billboard blight?  Will the state and its counties be reclaiming clearings to restore their forest canopy?

Will a new generation rise up in my former field of community destination marketing, possibly from among those who hear my guest lectures, determined to reclaim and fulfill their role as guardians of unique sense of place?

Or will I be writing about its continued demise and further decent into mainstream sameness?

Will North Carolina continue on its course to The Geography of Nowhere, a “tragic sprawlscape of cartoon architecture, junked cities and ravaged countryside” forewarned by John Howard Kunstler?

Or will our state and communities have rediscovered that “chronological connectivity lends meaning and dignity to our lives?”

As Kunstler reminds us, “A land full of places that are not worth caring about will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending.”

God bless America!  God bless North Carolina!

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Origin of All Too Rare Sensibilities

You could fit nearly 182 Durham’s in the land area of North Carolina.  In land area, it is the smallest urban county in the state, yet home to the fourth largest city.

So it is surprising to visitors that there are 232 working farms here, many supplying meats, dairy and vegetables to Durham’s nationally-recognized foodie scene.                                  

This may not seem like many given that North Carolina is still a largely rural state with 50,218 farms and livestock operations according to a census regularly conducted by the US Department of Agriculture.

Throughout the four-county metro area centered around Durham, there are about 2,410 farms and livestock operations, nearly half in Chatham County.

Unlike Durham, its metro counterparts have not set aside a third of their land area in watershed and areas where working farms are safeguarded.

This area is an important part of Durham’s sense of place, which in any place where it is still preserved and fostered, always includes not only “built” and “cultural” place-based assets but “natural” as well.

Durham “farms” include 46 livestock operations raising nearly 1,000 head of beef cattle.  The ancestral ranch where I was born and spent my early years in the 1950s in the shadow of the Tetons along the Henry’s Fork raised about that same number of cattle.

In that Fremont County nook, ours was not a large operation but still more than twice the size of the average farm or ranch there today and 8 times the median for operations there.

There are still 181 ranches there growing more than 9,000 head of cattle.  But many operations have turned to farming instead using the pivot irrigation common in northeastern North Carolina now.

As an adult, I spent four-decades in a field tasked as the guardian for sense of place in three different parts of the country, including Durham, but I trace my sensibilities for that work back to our ranch.

I was reminded a month ago of a time when my daughter helped bring this into focus for me when I read of the passing of Ivan Doig a month ago.

Doig was a native Montanan who was born about two hours north across the Centennials and nine years earlier from my roots in the Teton-Yellowstone nook of Idaho.

After earning degrees at Northwestern and the University of Washington (PhD.), he worked for The Rotarian, a magazine, which is where I first read his byline.

My daughter’s Dad #2 passed Doig’s memoir, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind to her and she, in turn, passed it to me knowing how closely it paralleled some of my early influences on the ranch.

It had been written in 1978 when she was five but I was half way through my career when she passed it on to me. It was when I was going on a decade past when I became one of the first in my field to incorporate sense of place as a foundational strategy.

But it wasn’t until I read This House of Sky that I realized how early my sensibilities for sense of place had been shaped.

I have the DNA of five generations of Idaho cowboys and horsemen.

But Doig grew up a sheepherder, along the Rocky Mountain Front, just south of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, an area I’ve crossed while crisscrossing the country with Mugs and which I wrote about a few months ago.

We both shared the 1950s under the big sky of the Mountain States before migrating to urban surroundings.  But one of the reasons Doig’s memoir resonates is that it more accurately portrays the reality behind what has become the cowboy mythology of the West.

It is tempting to think of This House of Sky as a true-story Lonesome Dove, written a few years later by Larry McMurtry, a contemporary of Doig’s who can also capture landscape, but in my opinion House is far more nuanced and relatable.

I still dust off the copy my daughter gave me and read it for inspiration.  It is also a reminder that there may be no greater gift than a child who, while it is foreign to her own background, truly grasps the essence of a parent’s.

As I conclude this essay, my finger fell on a quote from House, “Memory, the near neighborhood of dream, is almost casual in its hospitality.”

And so it seems with sense of place.