Friday, August 29, 2014

Is Thinking Critically, Nature or Nurture?

A close friend’s experience in a criminal trial this summer brought back memories of what turned me off to that profession in law school.

Before I get to that I am reminded that it was a desire to bring about social justice that fueled my interest in going to law school.  However, that isn’t what made me stand out on aptitude tests from the 50% of all first year college students back then drawn to law as an interest.

Manifest on tests to determine aptitude was an applied skill referred to back then as “thinks critically” and “reasoning.”

Many today argue that this skill can’t be taught in school contending it must be fostered in the family or by a combination of “nurture and nature.”  These naysayers may also fail to see the link of this critical skill to humility, integrity, perseverance, empathy and self-discipline.

Anyone who knew my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles back in my preschool years would have said this ability was directly descended from the “Neeley” branch, a lineage mix with Shumways, Grahams, McCrorys and many others back beyond those five generations.

But I have evidence that for me it was also honed in school beginning in the first grade (kindergarten didn’t exist then where I lived.)

These family members were great arguers and if you tried to agree with them, they changed sides and kept arguing.  No sentiment was ever expressed without requiring immediate and reasoned justification.

It wasn’t enough to watch them at dinner on Sundays, my dad would continue it during the week around our own dinner table.  He would describe current events, ask for our opinions, followed by your rationale and then engage you in debate.

But I also know it was taught in school and that I still had a lot to learn.  My first grade teacher wrote on my report card to my parents, “reasoning poor in workbooks.”

Later it was found across from my course grades on a page with other “soft skills” under headings such as “desirable habits and attitudes.”

Turns out as I will show later that this skill is “foundational” in the workforce.

Today, there is a cool little guide for teaching critical thinking in K-6 classrooms entitled The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking for Children.

By high school, my extracurricular activities involved sports.  But my dad who starred in four sports encouraged me to also join the debate team.

Debate as well as Model UN and similar activities are a ways to learn how to structure arguments, understand both sides of a controversy, identify the logical reasoning or lack thereof in an argument or statement, critique your own thinking, spot contradictions and identify factual or logical flaws in sources, etc.

As to the question of “nature vs. nurture,” I tend to agree with systems biologist, Dr. Michael White in an article in Pacific Standard, who also writes at The Finch & Pea, that too often we approach issues as “splitters,” but “we should recognize that the factors that drive our social behavior can, as found in Zen koans, be two things at once.”

In workplace vernacular, experts define “critical thinking/problem-solving as sound reasoning, analytical thinking, using knowledge, facts and data to solve problems.”

Surveys of educational professionals back when I graduated from college found that 97% believed critical thinking should be the primary take-away from a college degree.

Nearly 9-in-10 members of college faculties still identify it as the primary objective of any degree but many struggle with it themselves.

But researchers find that many “teach content only for exposure, not for understanding.”

NYU researchers found that 45% of college students made no significant gain in critical thinking in the first two years.  After four years, 36% showed no significant gains.

A study this year of executives in America responsible for workforce development by The Economist found critical thinking and problem solving far and away the most important workplace skill.  This is also the aim of employee training for 76%, more than so-called foundational skills.

But critical thinking is much more even than understanding.  It involves learning many other thinking-related traits including:

  • “intellectual humility,”
  • “intellectual integrity,”
  • “intellectual perseverance,”
  • “intellectual empathy,”
  • “intellectual self-discipline,”

I changed over to my lifelong career in visitor-centered economic and cultural development (community-destination marketing) because I found I could make a difference.

Throughout my career I was continually amazed at not only the lack of critical thinking in the general population including those in high office or others also working to effect change but because so many also seemed determined to prevent it.

There are some incredibly bright and well-meaning people in this world for whom any question of their ideas or reasoning is taken as criticism or insult.

They are threatened by critical thinking when it isn’t their own or in lockstep with what they want.

It is astounding how often phenomenally expensive decisions are made with a proverbial piece of paper in the file while some very simple and effective alternatives are required to provide reams of backup.

But I also turned away from the law after seeing far too many defense attorneys illustrate that the our justice system isn’t about justice and being a defense attorney involves putting the victim on trial, assassinating their character when the facts of a case don’t go the way of the defense.

Juries are ill equipped to sort out facts from theater.  It is a very slimy world where critical thinking takes a back seat.

But unfortunately, as I would find throughout my career, so can be community development, all for want of critical thinking.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Investment In Sense of Place

We may be a bit smug in Durham, North Carolina where many take retention of sense of place as a given.  But we can learn from the observations of a New York entertainment journalist transplanted to Raleigh, a city to the south and east that has taken a path not so fortunate:

“Once this kind of development gets started, it is hard to stop it.  And all of a sudden you wake up and wonder what happened to your city.  How did it start to look like every place else?”

Several decisions in Durham have nudged it in the direction of a “Disney-fied theme park with no character” by chipping away at those natural and “built” elements that have made it distinct.

National surveys show that by 9 to 1, Americans believe their community could benefit from a community plan while only 17% believe their community should be left alone.

When it comes to neighborhoods, more think they need protection than revitalization.

Only a fourth believe elected leaders are best able to understand changes that will make a community better compared to fully one third who view community planners that way, perhaps saying more about perceptions of the undue influence of developers.

Rated highest – neighborhood representatives.  More than half of Americans, including 54% of Republicans “want to participate in local planning decisions for their communities.”

In what should send a strong signal to regulatory-obsessed regressives in state legislatures across the nation, water quality and protecting neighborhoods rank as top priorities, just after schools and before roads at the local level.

One of the intriguing things revealed in a recent analysis of feasibility studies and related correspondence by community leaders (don’t be misled by the title) is the primary justification for public funding of mega-cultural facilities such as theaters, stadiums and civic centers.

As a community leader confided to me years ago after a controversial theater project, these facilities are first and foremost a way of propping up property values usually to appease private development lenders, but often to block the encroachment of nearby blight.

Ironically, as disclosed in this excellent overview of the revitalization of Downtown Durham, the pivotal secret, as it has been in most downtowns since their advent 14 years ago has been the use of “New Market Tax Credits” from the federal government.

Interestingly though, a qualification for a lender (but obviously not the eventual development) is a “primary mission of providing investment capital for low income communities or low income persons.” Investing In Place

This intermediate lender then recruits investors, including financial institutions, with a 39% tax credit to, in turn, make marginal development projects feasible while increasing capacity to help truly low income neighborhoods.

According to reports, many types of tax credits including, perhaps, historic tax credits if granted for the adaptive reuse of an old factory, for example, can be used as collateral to leverage a loan.

Propping up or increasing adjacent private property values with a publically-financed theater, stadium or convention center is often needed as well for the same reason.

This federal program has resulted in $40 million of tax credits to date issued to 836 projects, and between 2003 and 2006 alone, Durham ranked sixth in the nation for New Market Tax Credits, first on a per capita basis, with 90% going to revitalize the 1-mile square downtown.

There is no shortage of people who take or are given credit for Downtown Durham’s current renaissance, but as the report suggests, the most credit of all, both here and across the country, belongs to every day taxpayers across the nation.

As I mentioned, national studies show that Americans prefer protecting neighborhoods to revitalizing them.  They also have different ideas about economic development.

Half believe the ideal community will have “locally owned businesses nearby,” the ability to “stay in their neighborhood as they age,” as well as sidewalks, transit options and neighborhood parks.

Only a third cite a unique character and/or culture.  Sense-of-place is about being distinct, not unique, coherent as though temporal, not manicured or “Disney-fied.”

Jobs are important to half, but two-thirds believe investing in schools and features such as transportation, walkability and diversity are a better way to grow the economy than investing in recruiting companies which nearly always require tax subsidies.

Quality of life features such as cultural and sports facilities are cited by just 1-in-5, on a par with having friends and family live nearby.  A third view “centers of entertainment” a high priority but only 1-in-10 view professional or college sports that way.

Top priorities for public investment by Americans are new sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, upkeep of existing roads, new roads and of course, education.

When it comes to economic development, regardless of size or type of community or region, Americans favor spending on high-speed internet, affordable housing and safe streets.

There is a distrust of turning over decisions to developers, planners and elected officials for the reasons outlined in the op-ed by a Raleigh transplant, not because of development per se, but when developers “show no respect for history, culture or anything else that makes a city special.”

The writer points to a Durham success as something for which Raleigh should strive.  But he could have just as well pointed to several recent examples of what not to replicate.

It is much too soon to “knock on wood,” Durham!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Accepting Part Responsibility Brings Credibility

On cross country drives I mostly listen to music, switching between satellite radio and Pandora streaming stations created around favorite performers.

Periodically, I very briefly check in on news and sports, which during this just concluded road trip, brought to mind a book I was rereading, during overnight stops, about Francesco di Petrol di Bernardone, better known as Saint Francis of Assisi.

Outbound, the news was obsessed with the war instigated with Israel by Hamas, a Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is opposed to the two-state solution proposed in 1987 by Yasser Arafat and the PLO, less than a year before I moved to my adopted North Carolina.

As a college student, Arafat had also fought in Gaza during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War which resulted in the creation of the state of Israel on the same day I was born that year to fourth-generation ranchers Idaho ranchers.

While only 1% Jewish (Iberian) by ethnicity and descended from a namesake Knight who fought alongside Richard “the Lionheart” on the Third Crusade, I’ve always favored Arafat’s solution and social justice for Palestinians.

But a good friend, a naturalized Palestinian-American just back from a visit to his native East Jerusalem, has persuaded me that unfortunately it is doubtful this will ever happen.

Nor is it ever likely that Jerusalem will ever become the International “open” city that the United Nations resolved in 1947 when the issue of two states, bound by an economic union, was accepted by mainstream Jews but rejected by Arab states.

My view Hamas may also be biased, in part because according to Article 22 of its charter, as a former Rotary Club president I am targeted along with Lions Club members and Masons, all couched as part of a Zionist Conspiracy.

Arafat and the PLO were nationalistic in aim but Hamas is also neo-Jihadi, although given to terrorism today it seems more exclusively the latter.

Rarely, if ever, have I heard a representative of Hamas present a dispassionate, balanced and introspective rationale for its position, or accept responsibility for its part, a mistake many aggrieved parties often make, undermining their credibility.

African-American friends of mine have agreed on one of the reasons Americans approve of redress such as “affirmative action” (including 40% of Republicans), but don’t when it comes to its execution.

It may also be a clue as to why Americans overall view a tragedy such as the one in Ferguson, Missouri, which dominated news on the return leg of my trip, as a question of police going too far but disagree that it is racial.

Rarely, if ever it seems, do those in responsibility for management of affirmative action come out in conversation or in news reports against its abuse.

Unfortunately, this reluctance to be objective undermines the credibility and ultimately the usefulness of an excellent program.

I heard the mother of the victim in the Ferguson shooting decry those who used it as cover to infiltrate peaceful protests for the purpose of violence and criminal activity such as looting and throwing fire bombs.

Unfortunately, those using the tragedy to score points dominated news reports and seemed more interested in “them and us” agendas than critical thinking or the subtleties of mutual responsibility.

I often saw this when I served on a crime cabinet here in Durham.  Passionate observers who were African-American often undermined the validity of their concerns by refusing to acknowledge personal or parental accountability, while being equivocal when it came to reducing criminal behavior.

I had been home a day from my cross country trip before I heard an African-American who happened to be a social worker in Charlotte, North Carolina quoted by a reporter on statewide cable news outlet for North Carolina acknowledging mutual responsibility in Ferguson:

“I think it hits home because we have a lot of great people who may not know how to deal with a situation, when they approach a police officer, what's proper procedure. So I think we also need to educate our young people.”

It may seem obvious but more than any amount of street protest, his comment, if it had been picked up nationwide would have opened far more minds to understanding the social justice aspects being discussed.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resonated with people of all races because he was as insistent in his opposition to violence and the responsibility of black leaders to curb it and for all individuals to be judged on the “content of our character” as he was insistent about social justice.

Hamas should take note, as we all could.

A book I read just before I retired at the end of 2009 and again on this trip, as well as parallels in the lives of some my ancestors who experienced officially-endorsed persecution and social injustice was on my mind as I explored a route new to me up the verdant mile-high pastures of the San Pete Valley of central Utah on my outbound route.

At the request of an Ute Indian chief, the valley had been first settled in 1850 by one my great (x3) grandfathers, Charles Shumway who over the next two years also managed to serve as a member of the 1st Utah Territorial Legislature.

By then Charles was 44 years of age.  He had already helped create four settlements including three in the Midwest including Nauvoo, Illinois which was as large as Chicago at the time and served there as a police officer and on a governing council.

He had been a body guard for Mormon prophet and founder Joseph Smith and served a mission to the Cherokee Nation just as factions erupted there in civil war and then another back to his native Massachusetts.

He was driven from his home after the murder of Joseph Smith and led the Mormons across the Mississippi River toward sanctuary in the Rockies, lost his wife along the Missouri River to Diphtheria, and appointed a captain on the vanguard wagon train west from there as well as the first handful to scout Salt Lake Valley.

But he was also outspoken within the Mormon community.  Similar to Muslims after the death of their prophet Mohammed and Crusaders, Mormons had two types of leaders when creating settlements, some ecclesiastical and some secular and some like my great (x3) grandfather, both.

When they disagreed, local ecclesiastical leaders were often quick to trump any introspection or critical thinking by secular leaders with threats of “disfellowshipment”, a form of probation which happened to my great (x3) grandfather once or even excommunication.

No one in my lineage was a saint but The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by career journalist and SUNY-Brooklyn professor Paul Moses is the fascinating account of a peace mission during the Fifth Crusade by someone who would soon be.

Moses cuts through the agendas of various accounts and omissions over time with a journalist’s critical thinking.

Saint Francis, less than a decade from when he would be canonized, was the same age as my great (x3) grandfather when he was driven from his home by persecution when he traveled to the Egyptian front during the Fifth Crusade.

From a wealthy background and once a Knight himself in battle, he had been a prisoner of war for a year after a bloody battle instigated by merchants such as his father for economic  gain.

Ransomed, he set out to join the Fourth Crusade but an epiphany in his early 20s caused Francis to turn back and devote his life instead to living as Christ-like in every way possible including “love they enemy.”

The Pope at the time called for a Fifth Crusade, an attempt to conquer Egypt this time as a means to drive the Muslims from the Holy Land including Jerusalem.  This was the home of Abraham, the patriarch of three great religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

I’m a life-long Christian but I can see the point that Crusaders such as my ancestor were also Jihadists of their time, even terrorists.

Ecclesiastical leaders were loath to ever admit responsibility, and as in the case of the Fifth Crusade, often pushed for violent win/lose solutions such as Hamas does even when peaceful compromises were on the table.

The ecclesiastical leader on the battlefield, in this case a power-hungry and prideful Cardinal, repeatedly trumped the judgment by military leaders that they should avoid bloodshed by accepting an offer of compromise that for several decades would give them control of Jerusalem.

On the Muslim side, there were also two sets of leaders, one religious - the Caliphate and one political/military - the Sultan, a dichotomy established after the Prophet Mohammad’s death.

A nephew of the great Saladin, Sultan Al-Kamil, also a Sunni of Kurdish descent was fighting increasing fragmentation of the unity the Prophet Mohammad had achieved with Islam.  He also practices tolerance of other faiths as his uncle and the Prophet had and calls for in the Qur’an.

Fed up with the slaughter, Saint Francis walked through the lines of both Crusaders and Muslim armies to spend several days in dialogue with Al-Malik who had been knighted as a boy by Richard the Lionheart during a compromise with his uncle..

Unarmed, Francis intended to convert the Sultan, but it was Francis who was deeply affected and converted to the importance of love and mutual respect and understanding to peace.

Francis must have sensed that Muslim leaders such as Al-Malik who had just survived a coup, feared even more than Crusaders the religious extremists among their ranks, something they prophetically saw as an end to the Golden Age of Islam.

In the end Francis achieved more mutual understanding and mutual respect than peace but his humility and courage set an example for the two military leaders who soon did.

It wasn’t the last Crusade and the Crusaders would have achieved far more by accepting any of the previous compromises authored by the Sultan including the one offered to the Pope that would have prevented any bloodshed at all.

The followers then of Islam were far more given to compromise than neo-Jihadists today.

It is an incredible book with deep insight into the issues of personal accountability, compromise, fairness and understanding faced both here in the West and in the Middle East today.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Spurring Memories

Mention of “Spanish Spurs” was made in an essay yesterday that linked to one of the letters where Mark Twain refers to my great-great grandfather, a friend, fellow-Missourian and partner in a short-lived mining venture in the mountains between Nevada and California.

It also brought to mind a story about my father, a third generation Idaho rancher in my native Yellowstone-Teton corner of that state.  My early elementary school teachers were following the custom then of trying to get me to print and write “right-handed.”

I was really a mixed-lefty which make up 7-8% of the population, but I was lefty when it came to handwriting.  As was the custom back then I was “encouraged” to use my right hand.  Even through high school and college, I would rarely find a left-handed desk.

The teacher’s desk, either Mrs. Bratt or Mrs. Spencer, was in the back of the classroom.  One day when we were quietly working on an assignment, I heard the unmistakable sound of my dad’s spurs as they echoed up the hallway.

I didn’t turn around but my friend Arlen did and then whispered to me, “Hey your dad is back there saying something to the teacher, are you in trouble? Did he find out about our Mexican Jumping Beans?”

Soon I heard the door close and next to me was my teacher leaning down to tell me that it was okay for me to use my left hand.

As if sharing a name with a high school legend in four sports wasn’t enough, that day he gave me cachet on the play ground and prompted an invitation to join a fourth-grader’s football game…until I picked up a fumble and ran the wrong direction, that is.

Known first as “Damascus Spurs,” the Spanish brought this style of spur-making with them to North America.  “Damascus” referred to a style of laminated, “one-piece” steel-making that Islamic armies adapted from India to make swords and spurs.

For spurs it meant “one-piece.”  If Twain had been referring to a two-piece version made at the time he would have probably used the term “California” spurs.

It would be another decade before America’s spur industry would emerge.

My great-grandfather probably didn’t give it a thought as he tossed those spurs Twain had sent him after they were worn out.  Nor do I have any my dad wore.

If his predated the Great Depression, they may have been one-piece, but I doubt it.

Today, Spanish or “Damascus” spurs are recreated by artisans for collectors such as those shown in the image in this blog handcrafted by Larry Fuegen using the process shown in this slide show.

The process was used by Persians, and after his death, the commanders of the Prophet Mohammed expanded their Islamic reach by defeating the Byzantines and Persians using cavalry of recently unified Bedouin tribesmen atop Arabian horses incorporating this technology.

We forget that Islam had already reached pinnacles of astronomy, physics, mathematics, literature, technology, governance, architecture and urban development by the time Europe began to emerge from the “Dark Ages.”

Brought back by Crusaders, these advances fueled the “Renaissance.”

We also forget that this golden age in Islam came to an end because of infighting and religious militants, still blinding us today to the fact that Islam’s spread was founded on teachings and practices of Mohammed, now ignored by extremists who dominate the headlines.

The Crusaders from Spain didn’t bring back spurs which had originated with Romans who may have learned their use from “Celts.”

Probably borrowing from the forces of Saladin, they brought back fast Arabian horses and the “Damascus” form of forging them, which on this continent became known as “Spanish Spurs” when imported by Cortés.

Remember, even the famed boots of “Spanish leather” often graced by Damascus spurs are a credit to Muslim Moors.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Retracing Touch Points Along America’s Loneliest Stretch

Nearly 30 years ago, I drove my venerable Porsche 911s Targa out across the Great Basin following a brief visit with my then 14-year-old daughter.

It was along a remarkable stretch of U.S. Route 50, a “blue highway” nicknamed “The Loneliest Highway in America,” a label proudly embraced after first used as a pejorative.

Of course, as they do on paper maps, secondary highways no longer show up as “blue” on digital GPS maps but as more of a goldenrod.  Just doesn’t have the same ring (smile.)

This is a fragment of the 1913 Lincoln Highway, the first automobile route across America, roughly following the old Pony Express/Overland Stagecoach route.

At its coarsest level, the Great Basin is a mild desert that covers western Utah and a tiny corner of Idaho, nearly all of Nevada skirting Las Vegas (Mojave Desert) into east-central California and up into eastern Oregon between the Cascades and Rockies.

The northern Nevada portion, where dissected by Route 50, is more specifically called Basin and Range because it includes a spectacular mix of steep mountain ranges, flat to rolling arid valleys and rangeland, and even alpine forests.

But the Great Basin got its name because rivers there materialize and then dead-end into lakes with no outlet or they disappear into “sinks” (dry lakes), e.g. the Great Salt Lake or the Humboldt Sink where that significant 330-mile river just disappears.

This was foreign to European explorers who understood only divides between watersheds where rivers ultimately opened into seas and oceans.

Part of my most recent cross country trip traced part of the route of an expedition led by two Franciscan priests in 1776.

It set out just as Americans along the east coast declared Independence, to find a trade route from Santa Fe to Monterrey.

They made it north as far as Utah Lake near the location of Brigham Young University but the maps drawn by expedition members reflected a misunderstanding of descriptions from Ute Indian guides.

Illustrations included massive rivers whose mouths had been earlier discovered along the Pacific Coast in what are now northern California and Oregon flowing from as far away as the Great Lakes.

Versions of these maps were in use right up until 1846 when further exploration by Captain John C. Frémont and Kit Carson learned of the existence of the Great Basin.

Accounts reached my Mormon ancestors weeks before my great (x3) grandfather Charles Shumway and his family led the way across the Mississippi in 1846 on what would be a 1,500 mile exodus to a new home in the Rockies above the Great Basin.

At the time of the Lincoln Highway’s conception in 1912, less than 9% of the roadways anywhere in America had improved surfaces such as gravel.

Many states at the time constitutionally prohibited such “internal improvements” forcing cities, towns and counties to go it alone.

Even by the 1920s, when the Federal government incentivized the states to build roads, Utah, still smarting from when a portion was lopped off in 1861 to create Nevada, refused to pave its stretch of the “Lincoln.”

To no avail, Nevada pled and even offered to pay for a portion so for a time the Lincoln Highway bypassed Utah cities.

My primary mission during that Route 50 hiatus from my career was solitude and time for reflection and forgiveness, but a secondary pursuit was to trace a portion of the lives of three ancestors.

My first stop was Fort Ruby, near the terminus of a stagecoach line that two of my great-grandparents, George and Eleanor White, operated for a time in the 1890s.

After their teamster years, my great-grandfather would landscape the upper campus of Brigham Young University which I would attend several decades later.

Fort Ruby would have looked as it does at this link, when one of my great-great grandfathers Tom Messersmith, served in the Union Cavalry there months after the fort was first established in 1862.

A fellow Missourian later joined by his friend Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) as partner on a claim along the Comstock Lode.

But as news about the attack on Fort Sumter and secession by 11 Southern States arrived west, in October 1861, my great-great grandfather had crossed through the Sierra’s to enlist in the Union Cavalry in Stockton simply as “Tom Smith.”

When he had left his home county, an area from Jefferson City down to the Arkansas border. there were 169 slaveholders holding 987 African-Americans in slavery but few in his township.

Most of the state’s 115,000 slaves were concentrated along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

But Thomas Messersmith was a fourth generation German-American descended from Palatine Protestants who had fought for American freedom with the Virginia Militia as early as 1774.

German-Americans were among the small minority in Missouri who were outspoken opponents of slavery including small yeoman farmer/ranchers in the pastures and hills along the Osage River as it slices through the Ozark Highlands.

When he relinquished his claim with Twain to enlist, that area was governed by both California and Nevada, a boundary later settled by arbitration.

In the years before the Civil War, California, while voting to be a free state was staunchly Democratic.  Sympathetic to the South, Southern California had wanted to secede and join the Confederacy.

But Abraham Lincoln carried California in the Presidential election by six-tenths of a percent when the Northern and Southern Democratic candidates split the vote slightly in favor of the North.

Things were anything but settled as Tom enlisted with the Union.  A coup by Southern sympathizers to seize ports and with counterparts in Oregon to form a new “Pacific Republic” had been narrowly foiled.

Militias around the state were embattled both internally and with other militias to hold the Union together as federal troops were redeployed to the east.

A Confederate flag had even been captured flying in Sacramento two month earlier.

But as my great-great grandfather rode down out of the Sierras, Leland Stanford, a Republican was overwhelmingly elected governor over a Southern Democrat.

After enlistment in Company A of the 3rd Regiment of California Volunteers, Trooper Messersmith traveled to the Benicia Arsenal on San Francisco Bay for outfitting, then briefly deployed up to Fort Baker east of Hydesville and about 24 miles south of Eureka.

The assignment where hostilities with Chilula, Lassik,Hupa, Mattole, Nongatl, Sinkyone, Tsnungwe, Wailaki, Whilkut and Wiyot Native American peoples broke out in what is known as the Bald Hills War over disruption caused during a gold rush there.

While here, one of Twain’s letters asks his brother to forward some Spanish spurs he had left hanging in his office to my great-grandfather.

From there Company A was to join the rest of the regiment at Fort Douglas along the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City but they were waylaid at Fort Ruby, Nevada where Shoshone Indian attacks and fear of Confederate militants threatened gold shipments along the Overland Stagecoach Route,  which were desperately needed to fund the Union war effort.

Then they were backtracked to Fort Churchill, Nevada to put down threats from Paiutes, finally arriving at Fort Douglas in January 1864 just as the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is proposed, ending slavery.

Fortunately, his unit did not reach Fort Douglas in Salt Lake until January 1864.

There he would have heard the details of a tragic battle (renamed massacre) on the Bear River less than 12 months earlier.

It took place ten miles north of the ranch owned by two other great-great grandparents who had helped establish the first permanent settlement in what is now Idaho and learned enough Shoshone language to interpret.

Having battled related Shoshone Indians for several months through Nevada, it isn’t clear where Tom Messersmith’s sympathies may have been as he heard about the slaughter.

Nearly 500 Northwest Shoshone men, women and children were trapped and killed by 300 troopers who lost fewer than 20 casualties.

Only after the war was it clear this was largest massacre of Native Americans in a single day ever by the U.S. Army.

But how my great-great grandfather lived the rest of his life and what he taught my great-grandfather tells me it may have bothered him much more than other troopers.

When his enlistment ended in October 1864, he had just turned 30.  He backtracked into the Great Basin along the old Pony Express route to Cedar Fort near Camp Floyd which had been dismantled when troops were called back east at the beginning of the war.

There he settled and was “persuaded” to become a Mormon.  Five months later he married my great-great grandmother “Lida” who had made the trek to Utah as a five year old.

Together they ranched sheep among the Skull Valley Indians, a Goshute band of the Western Shoshone native to the Great Basin, a band my great-grandfather would regularly take me to visit whenever we visited to take them food, something we did more frequently as I attended college along the the mountains across Utah Lake.

I wasn’t much older than my great-great grandfather had been when he settled down as I retraced that ancestral stretch along U.S. Route 50.

The landscape was foreign to anywhere I have lived and yet somehow familiar.

It may be the loneliest stretch in America but I found it ideal for reflection and rejuvenation.

As penned a decade earlier as he crossed that part of Nevada by Missourian and part Osage Indian, William Least Heat Moon, for his autobiographical book Blue Highways :

"The immensity of sky and desert, their vast absences, reduced me. It was as if I were evaporating, and it was calming and cleansing to be absorbed by the vacancy...."

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Core vs. Transient Values of Place

As Mugs and I drive cross country each year via different routes, we average 9 or 10 hours a day on the road and always stop in time to grab dinner, if possible, at a local restaurant and swing through the downtown area.

On this trip stops included Tuscaloosa, Fort Worth, Santa Fe, Richfield (UT,) Salt Lake, Dillon (MT,) Coeur d’Alene, Casper, Lincoln and Nashville before returning to Durham, North Carolina where we live.

I also read or re-read books on the trip, often related to places along the way, including this year, Creating the Land of the Sky, Rising Tide, The Big Burn and West of the Revolution, a horizontal snapshot across North American during the time of the American Revolution.

Usually histories drill down into an event but horizontal histories are fascinating because they link events across context.

I even re-read the fictional This House of Sky, the memoir of an author who grew up ten years ahead of me along the Montana Side of the Bitterroots.

To get “centered” each morning, I randomly read for a few minutes from the life and beliefs of Saint Francis of Assisi.

It was remarkable how similar revitalized downtowns were along the way, almost as if they were following a formula.  They were similar down to the variety of street trees also planted back in Downtown Durham and the near universal application of the description “cool.”

I happened to be re-reading The City: A Global History by Joel Kotkin as I enjoyed my now once-weekly “steak night” by dropping into Misty’s, an acclaimed local restaurant and located in the “P District” of Downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.

It is a local favorite familiar to one of Lincoln’s native sons who will be chef of Nanasteak when three friends open it in Durham’s historic American Tobacco District, lending a touch of Durham authenticity to a section devoid.

Equidistant from Misty’s in downtown Lincoln is a plaza, a performing arts center featuring Broadway musicals, a minor league baseball stadium, and historic buildings adapted for residential lofts and hotels, all seemingly replicated in every downtown now at the expense of differentiation and often obscuring organic traits.

Kotkin, the director of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University is an expert in the evolution of cities over the last nearly 10,000 years.

He laments that the rush of cities now “to convert old warehouses, factories, and even office buildings” into “residential resorts” is not sustainable because “an economy oriented to entertainment, tourism and ‘creative functions’ is ill suited to provide upward mobility.”

He warns that “focused largely on boosting culture and constructing spectacular buildings, urban governments may tend to neglect” what makes cities sustainable including relentlessly fostering a strong and always evolving “middle class.”

These places risk becoming “dual cities,” inhabited only by the rich and the low wage workers it takes to provide for them.

Professor Kotkin makes a compelling argument that historically, cities that continue to thrive over time engender a “shared identity” and “a peculiar and strong attachment, sentiments that separate one specific place from others.”

He would agree with Bill Baker, an expert at helping communities drill down into the values and traits that make them distinct, that these elements of sense of place are far more significant than physical traits such as historic structures.

Fortuitous for Durham where acceptance of differences has historically been a key part of its personality over many generations, this aspect is one of the pivotal and predictive traits Kotkin pinpoints as to why some places rise and fall while others remain vital.

Coincidentally, I first read Kotkin’s book, The City, in 2006, right after Baker had concluded his work over a two year period in conjunction with thousands of Durham residents to distill its overarching personality or, as we say in marketing, brand.

It was also the year I attended a small destination marketing conference of professionals beginning to embrace a strategy I had somehow stumbled onto early in the four-decade career from which I retired at the end of 2009.

Distinguished from idolization of mega-cultural facilities that have proven to homogenize community identity, it is anchored foremost in differentiation and authenticity of sense of place, organically incorporating only distinctive facilities of appropriate scale.

It isn’t easy to revitalize city centers but care must be taken to differentiate, and often that means protecting cultural, historic and natural elements from the very forces of homogenization it unleashes.  Place-making is often more about deciding “what not to do.”

This is why sustainable revitalization is more like “gardening” than “big game hunting.” Once erased, distinctiveness is impossible to “salt and pepper” back into formulas without going through another cycle of decline and resurrection.

At dinner recently, a long-time friend of mine at the very center of Durham’s revitalized core rhetorically asked, “What does Durham need to do to get more of the entrepreneurs it has always spawned to stay and buy homes here?”

“Just be true to who we are at our most temporal level,” I replied remembering Kotkin’s admonition.  People who share and help perpetuate that distinctiveness will be drawn to build their lives here.

Seeking to become something your not or frenetically replicating other places in pursuit of what Kotkin terms the “transient values” of “hipness, coolness, artfulness, and fashionability” is a recipe for losing a community’s soul.

Places “without moral cohesion (shared values) or a sense of civic identity, we are doomed to decadence and decline.”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Blight’s Costly Drag On Business Appeal

City, county and state governments bemoan the cost of litter removal while continually cutting back, but the drag on businesses is 7 times greater.  It is a factor for this sector equal in concern to regulation.

I love North Carolina.  I’ve lived here for more than 25 years, nearly as long as I lived in my native Rockies.

While my now concluded career was community promotion, for me, that always included the responsibility to candidly assess weaknesses in the three destinations I served, including the latter half of my career in North Carolina.

I must admit that based on 35,000 miles of cross-country trips since I retired, traveling roughly 14 different routes, with the exception of states directly south, North Carolina is one most billboard-blighted states in America.

There are exceptions.  As Mugs, my English Bulldog and I departed last month on our latest cross country venture, a Western Tea Party Senator suggested the Federal Government just turn Federal highways over to the states.

No thanks.

That Senator hails from a county in Utah where I attended college.    Back then it was dotted with little towns where sense of place as well as the dramatic landscape was clearly visible even from the highway.

Now it has become the most blighted stretch in the country.  For the most part, that state is billboard free but its cities, towns and counties have ruined vast stretches such as Utah and Salt Lake Counties.

In most states, it appears to be the cities, towns and counties that enable billboard blight, but in North Carolina, the state piles on by sanctioning another 8,000 billboards along its Interstates.

Because of the blight and deforestation they create, billboards are known as “litter on a stick” because they are just a larger form of that same blight.

While enabling greater billboard blight in North Carolina, Republican legislators have obsessed with gutting regulations as a way to help businesses, something to appease the 1-in-3 businesses pressing them about that issue.

Ignored is the finding in another survey of business and economic development agencies finding that roughly that same ratio of businesses cite upkeep and cleanliness as a major influence during decisions to locate, relocate or expand.Litter Costs

An even greater percentage find that litter has an impact on how a site is perceived when evaluated, and nearly 1-in-5 believe it presents a negative picture of the governments responsible for these areas.

If legislators want to lower the cost of doing business, one of the important ways they can do it is to eliminate roadside blight, starting with billboards.

As of 2009 when I retired, businesses nationwide shelled out $9 billion annually to remove litter, nearly 80% of all direct costs associated.  This represents a drag of $80 per employee, a cost 7 times the collective amount spent on litter removal by cities, counties and states.

Many argue that businesses should shoulder the entire cost, like the purpose of regulations, because the market failed to incorporate the cost of clean up from careless disposal of the residue from the products they sell.

A relatively small percentage of the population is responsible for the 5 million tons of litter dumped on America each year, about 17%, 4% intentionally and the rest through carelessness and being too lazy and possibly obese-prone to walk over to a receptacle.

Seth Godwin is the entrepreneur who first signaled the end of “interruption marketing,” also known as “spam” such as billboards.  To paraphrase, he believes the mindset of those who litter see property as either theirs or not-theirs.

To me, this is the same mindset of people who feel they have the right to let their dog poop on your lawn or in public spaces without picking it up.

These are also the folks who ignore a line of merged traffic to bully their way in front, or clear cut instead of being selective when timbering or run their cattle into rivers and streams polluting watersheds or across public lands where prohibited or without paying fees.

Or blighting neighborhoods and roadways with billboards to freeload on publically funded and owned roadways.  They feel free to vandalize because there is no “ours” in their world view, only “screw or be screwed.”

Removing blight does not mean doing with less.  Fewer billboards is about scenic preservation.  As Godwin notes, reducing litter is about the self control to hold on to it until we come to a receptacle.

Over the years, ignoring the importance of appearance has been bipartisan in the North Carolina legislature, dating back at least 200 years right up to the present.

While Republicans have been on a blight offensive in recent years, it was Democrats who stripped the state’s cities of the court-approved ability to utilize amortization for the cost-effective, win-win remove billboards.

Billboards have no intrinsic private property value because they are totally reliant on taxpayer funded roadways for value, something the courts label as parasitic.

The courts had sanctioned their removal by a process where cities seeking to become more appealing could give these out of state companies seven to ten years to recoup their costs before billboards were removed.

The Democrat who led the charge in North Carolina to override the courts, giving cities no alternative but to wait until billboards fall down from disrepair, argued in a meeting in Durham which banned billboards in the mid-1980s that “billboards are good for the economy,” not to mention campaign donations perhaps.

Tourism may be one of the biggest industries in North Carolina and  scenic beauty given lip service as a part of the state’s economic development appeal, but that attribute has been under constant attack from the legislature since at least the early 1800s.

Scenic beauty was the genesis of tourism to North Carolina in the 1820s when it drew wealthy planters from the lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia to its mountains, the highest and most dramatic in the Appalachians as they stretch from New England to Alabama.

But within a few decades, the legislature here sacrificed tourism by selling out to out-of-state timber interests creating wholesale deforestation.  Photos of the Blue Ridge Parkway under construction show the devastating effects four decades later.

By that time, North Carolinians were under siege by another kind of blight, billboards.

In the late 1960s, America cracked down on litter including billboards.  Intensive efforts reduced litter by 60% and billboards were to be restricted to commercial areas already blighted by that time.

But through a mix of legislative subterfuge, regulator complacency and corruption as well as choking off funding, blight continues to drag on home values, neighborhood vitality, public health, scenic appeal and much more. 

Today, even though they are used by only 3% of small businesses with consumers rapidly migrating to GPS including apps on smartphones and tablets for both navigation and local search, legislators continue to enable billboards to deforest the state and undermine its appeal.

We can continue to delude ourselves into thinking our state is somehow inherently irresistible, but visitors, newcomers and relocating business executives can see the widening gap between claim and reality.

If you don’t believe me, just take a road trip.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sensing Place - A Proposal for Digital Mapping

Soon I hope, digital cartographers will add a layer on GPS maps to show ecological regions much as they do terrain now.

Updated research that came out while we were on the road found that 90% of map use now is on a smartphone or tablet with nearly 6-in-10 Americans tapping into GPS on smartphones each month and more than a quarter doing so on a tablet.

We use them even more on vacation where 89% of Americans now take a smartphone along and more than half a tablet.  GPS is used by 77% and local search by 92%, surprisingly with usage by men only slightly less than women (smile.)

Nearly half now use the devices to access visitor guides.  Americans on vacation are now 2.5 times more likely to use GPS over a paper map or printed directions.

Now that my CoPilot GPS app isn’t reliant on cell coverage, I probably won’t order GPS in my next Jeep, although it is cool to look over at any time and see the posted speed limit.

Use of built-in-vehicle GPS is now below 17% and most of those are people my age or older and in the Northeast.  Within three years, smartphones will be used by 84% of Americans while tablets will increase to 71%.

Digital maps today are layers of data using GPS.  When a user runs into inaccurate directions it is most likely because the jurisdiction isn’t updating impedance data or new routes.

Or platforms such as Navtech or Mapquest or Google update at their end only periodically.

One of the roles of destination marketing organizations is to monitor both ends of that process and spur constant updating.

Many people only think of historic buildings when they think of sense-of-place but place based assets also include distinctive culture/history and natural/environment.

I first incorporated ecoregions into my work promoting and differentiating cities in the late 1980s about the time I arrived in Durham, North Carolina to jumpstart visitor-centered economic and cultural development (DMOs often called CVBs.)

At its coarsest level, North America has 15 ecoregions.  Zoom in a level and you see 52.  At level III, the USA has 104.  Zoom into the state level and a state such as North Carolina has 29 different areas of distinct geology, physiography, vegetation, climate, soils, land use, wildlife and hydrology.

Durham, where I still live in retirement, has a very distinct cultural identity and different sense of place than Raleigh, a metro center further south and east with which we co-own an airport, but I didn’t realize that is also true of Fort Worth and Dallas, which are also often lumped together because they co-own an airport.

Fort Worth is in a unique part of an ecoregion called the Cross Timbers, while Dallas is in the Blackland Prairie that stretches down to San Antonio.

Cross Timbers is a “complex mosaic of upland deciduous forest (shorter but post and blackjack oaks with striking habits,) savanna, and prairie” that stretches from north of Austin up past Fort Worth and through central Oklahoma into Kansas.

It is the western most extension of the eastern oak-hickory forests covering nearly 20 million acres at one time and possibly the least disturbed.

When Texas became a state, there was a provision to divide it into five different states but it has an incredible 56 different ecoregions.  It is a much more diverse state than often depicted.

I have a general idea in advance of the routes we will take on each cross-country but Mugs and I don’t zero in on the route we will take each day until we punch it into GPS and take a fresh look at ecoregions along the way.

The day we left Fort Worth for Santa Fe, we were listening to Amarillo By Morning, one of my favorite songs by George Strait, first heard when it was recorded the year my daughter was born by one of its songwriters, Terry Stafford (whose 1964 version of Suspicion is a classic.)

Our route up through Henrietta and Wichita Falls took us up along US 287 through four beautiful ecoregions of Texas.  Amarillo, where we turned west toward the Southern Rockies of northern New Mexico is High Plains, similar to Denver, Fort Collins and Cheyenne.

Overall, we took five unexpected routes during this trip.  More on that later.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The “Outcome Bias” Aversion To Strategic Thinking

There are many reasons organizations avoid creating a strategic plan and even fewer that follow one or bother to update it, but a major reason is what economists call “outcome bias.”

At its most dysfunctional, this is reflected when attention-deficit executives and/or governing boards follow instead of lead.

They seemingly prefer to frenetically leap from “parade” to “parade” hoping to claim credit by appearing to be in lead, no matter how short-lived the trend or short-sighted the outcome.

Sounds a bit comical, but it is surprising how common this is and how undiscerning many policy-makers and news outlets are.  Perhaps the Chaplinesque frenzy more closely resonates with their own daily reality.

Enablers include a world view free of historical memory, context or self-appraisal.

A clue to the behavior is found in studies of what makes some school children thrive and succeed while others don’t.  Key is that the latter’s mindset places far too much emphasis on looking good and appearing right vs. striving to be good by accepting and learning from mistakes.

In decision-makers, to paraphrase business researcher Dr. Gad Saad, this is often manifest in an overconfidence, “a proclivity to attribute events to internal vs. external factors” which severely hinders one’s ability to learn from mistakes.

Related is a study published last month by three economists at my alma mater Brigham Young University.  It presents an overview of “outcome bias” and a new model making it easier to examine.

Essentially, “outcome bias” drills down into “how people hold themselves accountable for success or failure unrelated to the quality of their own decisions.”

Of course, those I describe above don’t hold themselves accountable.  They are much too busy looking good and taking credit for reflection or self-appraisal, a key to achievement called metacognition.

This is why so many who are well-intentioned in community development come to unwittingly destroy the very inherent appeal and distinct sense of place crucial for a community’s strategic differentiation and sustainable success.

They also aren’t likely to read, or are just resistant to the reflection evidence which other perspectives might inspire.

The study conducted at BYU notes how “outcome bias” leads us not only to inflate the accuracy of our judgments and decisions (thus the title in the journal Management Science -Sticking with What Barely Worked”) but it leads to “complacency after narrow wins and excessive switching after narrow losses.”

Researchers first labeled “outcome bias” the year before I was recruited to Durham, NC in 1989 to jumpstart the community’s destination marketing organization.

Then, the year before I retired more than twenty years later, researchers linked it to “ethically-questionable” decisions including choices people make that “benefit one while causing harm to another.”

As a study of Major League umpires by management school researchers found recently, even when not deliberate, we’re all subject to making unconsciously biased decisions.

But an inability or refusal to reflect on one’s decisions is an indication of zero-sum, either/or thinking and an early warning that if someone hasn’t strayed over the line, they probably won’t hesitate to do so, especially if they interpret fortune and misfortunate as deserved.

The BYU economists studied NFL teams and more than 5,000 games as an extremely valid stand-in to analyze “outcome bias” in other management pursuits.

The more consistently successful teams were less likely to jump from strategy to strategy in part, because they factored in the role of luck in both losses and wins.

Policy makers as well as community organizations, especially change agents such as where I spent my career, often overlook or neglect the strategic importance of preserving a community’s distinctiveness and authenticity of sense of place.

This is often because they delude themselves into thinking it will hamper change.

But they miss, to paraphrase Dr. Michael Porter, the world’s foremost strategy expert, that strategy is all about differentiation, it is in essence about choosing what not to do.

Strategy is about continuity and paradoxically “the ability to change constantly and effectively is made easier by a high level of continuity.”

Continual and never-ending improvement and adaptation is essential to communities.  One of my favorite lines by singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, from when I first heard it in his 1965 masterpiece, I’m Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) is:

“…he not busy being born is busy dying.”

But the importance of preserving a community’s inherent sense of place and authenticity is the strategy upon which a community can change and revitalize without losing its soul and sacrificing its distinctiveness.

Clouding the issue is that so many organizations and agencies have merely relabeled tactical plans as strategic plans.

If accredited, as fewer than 17% in North America are, the organizations charged with spearheading visitor-centered economic development (DMOs,) stand out when it comes to strategic thinking, especially compared to other forms of development organizations.

At the essence, the job of a DMO is to strategically safeguard and leverage a community’s distinctiveness, its “there-there,” what’s real and genuine about it, in places where it may still survive.

But standing firm to strategically preserve and promote community sense of place can be a lonely pursuit in the face of so many powerful commercial forces aligned to homogenize it instead.

Even when they fall short or are overrun, those on the front lines of sense of place should take heart from a stanza in that song by Dylan:

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society's pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he's in

The litmus test of each decision is to determine if this will  differentiate my community or make it the same.  “Down in that hole” of mediocrity “misery loves company” but blissfully never learns from it.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Fostering – Framing - Fabricating Authenticity

Two weeks ago while I was relaxing lakeside in the Northern Rockies, a message from a friend popped up making sure I had seen a post earlier entitled “Is authenticity authentic?”

Perhaps he wanted to be sure I read it because he noticed that I tried in an essay a month earlier about authenticity as a continuum,  to briefly touch on some recent research revealing where along that continuum public opinion places various tourist activities.

The data showed that “attraction” visitors overwhelmingly prefer authenticity in the communities they visit, including those who participate in activities visitors rate as least authentic, e.g. sports, musical theater, concerts, theme parks, casinos, etc.

The research drew my attention because it was conducted by PGAV Destinations, a company that since 1971 has helped tourist attractions that fall along the least authentic part of the continuum be more appealing including, well, embracing authenticity.

Another way to look at the data is that more than 86% of attraction visitors view natural attractions like Grand Canyon as authentic compared to the beach at 49.9%.

More than 29% of attraction visitors viewed Biltmore Estate here in North Carolina as authentic (the parts that are still historical such as the house itself rate higher,) shows on Broadway at 18.4% and Six Flags theme parks at 8%.

The message was clear.  Regardless of what may prompt a visit, visitors find authenticity the most compelling attribute.

Coincidentally, as that message popped up, I was finishing an incredible book entitled Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity in preparation for a stop I planned on my way home from a cross country trip in Nashville, home of the still vibrant 1892 Ryman Auditorium.

The author, a Vanderbilt sociologist who recently passed on, reminds us that “authenticity is not inherent” in something deemed authentic.  It is “designated authentic” by a “socially-agreed upon construct,” another reason PGAV’s research is so insightful.

He continues by noting that this agreed upon construct is “continuously negotiated in an ongoing interplay” between various interests and perception.

One of the pleasures of retirement is reflection, something researchers call “metacognition,” a higher level cognition that developmental psychologists labeled as such in 1976, just after I took the helm of my first community destination marketing organization in Spokane.

It is essentially the ability or process of evaluating our own thinking, a form of self-appraisal.  When faulty, it results in the overrating of the influence “our wonderful selves” have on outcomes.

When carefully calibrated researchers have pinpointed reflection as key to learning, innovation, achievement and success.

But I find it interesting in retirement (and on long cross country ventures) as a means to sift through the archeology of my influences. 

Never, I have found, is any success with which I was credited ever due to prescience or “thunderbolt” insights, at least not on my part.  Nearly always it is the result of the good fortune to stumble upon connections and then make use of the patterns.

For instance, what made me connect the strategy of authenticity four decades before it reached buzz word status, as a means to differentiate the three communities I represented and leapfrog competitors?

Conventional wisdom, until recently, was to focus instead on building mega-facilities such as stadiums, civic/convention centers and theaters in a way that we know now tragically makes communities less and less differentiated and appealing.

I was certainly involved in my share of mega-facilities during my career in visitor centered economic and cultural development including three convention centers, three performing arts centers, two stadium/arenas, three museums and numerous other historic and natural interpretive sites.

But what was it that gave me an awareness of the importance of trying to gingerly and coherently feather them into each community’s cultural ecology striving with various levels of success to nestle them into indigenous sense of place while doing everything possible to safeguard authenticity?

Genius? Hah!

Was it growing up on an ancestral cattle ranch and exploring forests, an old family cemetery, and discarded artifacts?  Or the presence of the Tetons looming across the Henry’s Fork?

That may have fostered a proclivity but my first formal brush with the concept of authenticity came in my second semester of college, years before I would back into a lifelong career in community branding and marketing.

An ACT score had pushed me ahead a year in history and one of the readings in a 1967 class syllabus was a book penned earlier that decade by Dr. Daniel Boorstin entitled The Image – A Guide To Pseudo-Events In America.

Authenticity has always been important in historical analysis where its relativity first came to light.  More than fifty years ago, Boorstin was already lamenting the threat of mainstream commercialism to what we known now as sense of place.

Dr. Boorstin researched and wrote this book, his first of more than twenty, after watching the famous television debate between Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy.

His summary of “the dark arts” of advertising and public relations fostered a skepticism that may have been why in my eventual career in marketing, I was one of the first in my field to embrace data-driven marketing decisions and recognize the inherent lack of credibility in advertising.

The third chapter of his book, “From Traveler to Tourist: The Lost Art of Travel,” is still one of the best overviews of the historical foundations of visitor-centered economic and cultural development.

He reminds us all that the inherent value of tourism goes much, much deeper than superficial commercial outcomes such as “heads in beds,” or “butts in seats,” or “feet on the street” or even community revitalization.

At its essence, tourism foremost should be a means preserve and leverage what is truly unique, distinct and authentic to destinations.  And in the words of Dr. Scott Russell Sanders, it should be an educational tool to “preserve and celebrate the commonwealth of the place visited as well as the place to which each visitor returns.”

Boorstin who also forsook a career in the law to instead find history useful for varied career paths may have planted the seed that led me within a decade of reading his book to realize that I was more suited and could make a bigger difference in the field of visitor-centered economic and cultural development.

But Boorstin’s influence on me was not in a vacuum.  I literally came of age during the sixteen years of “See the USA in your Chevrolet.”  “Smokey the Bear” and Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had by then each made patriotic pleas for Americans to travel.

Remember, barely half of Americans had cars when I was born in 1948, less than two decades after mass leisure travel had moved into the mainstream.  By the time I was attending that 1967 history class at Brigham Young University, nearly three-fourths of Americans had cars.

Another reading required in that history course was written by Dr. Earl S. Pomeroy a professor who coincidentally had taught for several years prior to the publication of In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill near where I now live.

Dr. Pomeroy delved into the complex process by which authenticity is negotiated when the “toured upon” assume roles that reflect the perceptions of the West held by visitors from the East.

In the words of Dr. Jerry Frank in a recent doctoral paper entitled, Marketing the Mountains: An Environmental History of Tourism, these perceptions were based on the “testimony of television.”

I may have been hell-bent while taking those history classes in college on being a lawyer but I can see in reflection now how much tourism and the importance of authenticity has seeped into my consciousness.

By 1973, a job in community marketing was my means of working my way through law school at Gonzaga, when I came across a paper by a newly-minted Ph.D. with expertise in anthropology, sociology, geography and landscape architecture entitled, “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings.

Within two years, I had exchanged careers and was head of that DMO.  Dr. Dean MacCannell had evolved that paper into a book entitled Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, and I found myself standing on a floating dock one night (shown in image above) with Mike Kobluk watching the sun set over a historic clock tower.

Mike is my one degree of separation from both the singer-songwriter John Denver who was at the peak of his popularity back then and Roger McGuinn, founder of The Byrds, popular for a decade by then (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn, Turn, Turn.)

Kobluk was co-founder of the popular 1960’s Chad Mitchell Trio (that’s Mike on the Four Winds solo part.)  McGuinn played backup to the trio and Denver performed as a singer for three years, crediting his social and political awareness to that time as well as ideas in songwriting until his tragic death in 1997.

But that night, I was the newly minted exec of Spokane’s community destination marketing organization and after serving as director of performing arts for the Expo ‘74 World’s Fair, Mike was beginning a nearly three decade career as manager for the 2,700 performing arts center and adjoining convention center looming behind us.

The $12 million facilities were a gift from the state after the six month exposition, but stretching before us that dusk was the true legacy of the event, a $117 million restoration of Spokane’s downtown riverfront including two islands splitting its remarkable falls.

I had cut my community marketing teeth with a front row seat to the benefits and drawbacks of mega-events, such as that but we were awestruck by the fabulous park left when all of the exposition facilities were clear away.

As Mike and I looked out over the 100-acre city-center park, he quietly nodded and in that melodic voice uttered something like, “Spokane may have just been the center of the entertainment world for six months, but this park is now the centerpiece of its true visitor appeal.”

Within three years, I had moved on to head my second of three DMOs in Anchorage where his observation that night was still fresh in my mind as I read Dr. Wallace Stegner’s essay on “sense of place,” the first time the term was used.

Mike’s background may have been on the least authentic end of the continuum but he connected the dots again for me that night about the primacy of things authentic.  He definitely had influence on me.

Nearly forty years after his comment, a few years after I retired from that lifelong career in Durham, NC and a decade after Mike had retired from cultural facilities management, two friends of mine in North Carolina happened to conduct research for that DMO I had helped jumpstart in Spokane.

Mike was right.  Visitors not only cited scenic beauty as the destination’s top attribute but overwhelmingly credited the Riverfront Park as the number one attraction not just there but throughout the region.

The Riverfront Park was perceived seven times more powerful than elements found less authentic.

This dovetails with PGAV’s research nationwide.

That research also documents that destinations considered real or authentic tend to enjoy better brand perception, higher satisfaction and greater intent-to-return, but even among attraction/event visitors, fewer than 4-in-10 describe their last trip as authentic (real, natural, original or historic.)

It may be a buzz word now, and my ongoing study and connection more serendipity than destiny, but I still come across a book a year that deepens my understanding including one entitled Authenticity in Culture, Self, and Society that came to my attention as I retired and refreshed my memory to some of my earliest influences.

But it is clear that authenticity is still the most powerful strategy for both appeal and differentiations and history is the leading indicator.

Instead, far too many destinations have destroyed their authenticity, irretrievably cannibalizing it in the words of Dr. MacCannell for the undifferentiating “historylessness” and far less appealing commercial and fantastical tourism features scrambling to monopolize attention.

Authenticity and inauthenticity may be relative but the evidence shows  that the fewer than four-in-ten communities with any “real” remaining that are also willing to make its preservation and promotion a priority will be the only ones with appeal to visitors, even those seeking fantasy.

This in a future where all others will have reached equilibrium of “sameness” and settled for simulation.

If not already too late, which will your community be?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Unique Provinces

My just concluded cross-country Jeep trip with Mugs was 300 miles shorter than last year but still close to 7,000 miles round trip.

This was because we parted company with my daughter and two grandsons after a farewell breakfast at a favorite diner in Lima (pronounced like the bean,) Montana.

Within a few miles as we crested the (western) Continental Divide, they continued their descent down across the Snake River Plain and back to Salt Lake City where they live high on the slopes of the Wasatch.

Mugs and I then cut sharply east via country roads along the Idaho slopes of the 30 + mile Centennials, a uniquely west-east trending range of the Bitterroots, where much further north we had spent a week on a lake in the Northern Rockies as we do each year.

This short but dramatic range ends at my native Henry’s Fork River where the southwestern corner of Yellowstone Park noses between the Centennials and the 40-mile north-south trending Teton range.

When I travel, I consult maps of ecosystem provinces and regions as much as I do roadmaps.  You can view them at the national level and/or then drill down to see more distinctions at the state and even county level.

Their respective states treat them as separate, but both the Montana and Idaho sides of the Centennials and the Idaho and Wyoming side of the Tetons share an ecosystem distinct from other parts of their respective states called the “Middle Rockies.”

In the nook of Idaho that points up into those two states, the “Middle Rockies” ecosystem is a narrow crescent, thinnest below Monida and I-15 on the west, deepest from the Continental Divide to Ashton and then thinning out again between Tetonia and Driggs at a point where a break in the foothills provides a spectacular close up view of the three Grand Tetons.

Down below this crescent stretches the broad flat arch of the Snake River Plain, the only impression of Idaho visible from Interstates 84, 86 and 15.

In my opinion, the ecosystem maps are far more relevant than tourism maps which appear to have been arbitrarily manipulated to appease powerful population centers or make them more relevant.

I assume this is why the tourism map of South-central Montana, divides the Middle Rockies by running a narrow 15 mile wide shaft down the west side of Yellowstone giving it to Bozeman while nudging historic Virginia City under Butte.

Similarly, Idaho’s arbitrary tourism partitions give the misimpression that Idaho Falls down on the Snake River Plain is somehow up in the Yellowstone-Teton nook I just described.

Ecosystem maps such as the one at this link of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are far more useful and relevant to travelers because they are organic vs. political.

Tourism maps may even trip up journalists from time to time.

An otherwise excellent High Country News report I read during the trip is entitled “Idaho’s sewer system is the Snake River.”

It cites Ashton as where the Henry’s (or North) Fork joins the South Fork which had run parallel down the Jackson Hole or eastern side of the Tetons.

But Ashton is actually located less than half way down the Henry’s Fork which doesn’t merge with the South Fork until nearly to Rigby, nearly 70 river miles downstream and just north of Idaho Falls.

Minor distinction, I suppose, for anyone unfamiliar with the area and related only tangentially to a story set more than two hundred miles south and west in Magic Valley where apparently a shift from potatoes to dairy herds is creating problems downstream.

Maybe having spent the final two decades of a career in community marketing helping people grasp that Durham and Raleigh are distinct cities and that the two metro areas that just happen to co-own an airport, I may be sensitive to locations and geography.

If anything though, one would think the report would have pointed out that stakeholders along the Henry’s Fork have shaped a “best practice” plan for its management.

The report was written out of Montana and another condition worth exploring is why, and how so many towns there and in northwestern Wyoming seemed to have caught on to sense of place and the importance and value of being congruous.

While those on the Idaho side seem anything but, seemingly poster children for a statement by sense of place and land use expert, Edward T. McMahon:

“We sometimes forget that every building has a site, every site has a neighborhood, and every neighborhood is part of a community.” (And I would add, every community is part of a setting or landscape).

It is as if, to paraphrase Seth Godwin, that these property owners want to spite the spectacular mountains at their backdrop or they conceive a world where there is only two kinds of stuff, theirs and not-theirs.

More on this later, but this may be at the root of all litter.