Sunday, April 22

The Third Place, Mall Space, and Other Not-So-Random Thoughts

Recently Starbucks (Apr 2018) has been in the news for wrong reasons but also some more positive reasons as the CEO Kevin Johnson asserted Starbucks has long wanted to be "the best third place in our lives." I confess that phrase was new to me. Set that aside for a moment.

Over the weekend much has been made of the closing of Carson's because of the inability of Bon Ton to do whatever it needs to do to keep the stores opening. That has led to hand-wringing over the impact on other retailers which means ancillary impact on shopping malls. Hold that thought, too.

Then I heard and read about warehouses. Warehouse demand outpacing supply. Shortage of warehouse space driving construction. Lots of warehouse projects in the works. Then as I was rambling through the news, I saw some articles about solar farms. Hold that thought as well.

I realize a lot of this news is highly localized, but based on my reading, I'm guessing the Chicagoland area is not the only one with a similar confluence of challenges.

Now, back to the third place. Ray Oldenburg was an urban sociologist who seems to be the one who popularized the idea of the third place. In the early 1990s he noted the need for third places, especially as suburbia became a thing.
Most needed are those 'third places' which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life. Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The phrase 'third places' derives from considering our homes to be the 'first' places in our lives, and our work places the 'second.'
The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends...They are the heart of a community's social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.
For a time, America's malls were the third place for many communities. But then malls started to decline or changed in character, and Americans looked for other places to be that third place.  It became even more evident in 2008 when Starbucks made it clear it wanted to be a community third place.

So this idea of a third place is a powerful one. But I started to wonder why all these folks looking for warehouse space of different type and sizes didn't look at emptying malls. And then I started to wonder why people wanting to build solar farms didn't look at the roofs of emptying malls. And then I started to wonder if there might be a way for malls to be repurposed as storage/warehouse space for some organizations and if their roofs couldn't be converted or used as small solar farms--though I've no idea of the cost involved to build a solar farm or how big it needs to be to matter.

Then I also started to wonder why those emptying malls couldn't become different kinds of third places. Maybe community K-12 schools, along with business, university and/or community college, and public library partners, develop really amazing makerspaces for kids AND adults. Maybe even training locations for adult learners who want to develop or work on literacy skills, computing and coding skills, or other skills that are becoming increasingly necessary.

Maybe solar farm owners/developers/management firms make use of potential labor development as they build their mini-solar farms.

Or maybe some of that roof becomes a rooftop garden that also supports a community college or park program in horticulture, agriculture, and more.

Then I wondered if some of those warehouse projects could be targeted. I've no doubt that places like Amazon keeps track of the predominant kinds of stuff shipped to specific areas so geographically popular items could be stored in those warehouse for more immediate access and delivery. Or even for pickup.

I'm not an urban or suburban planner so I don't know the limitations and I'm sure there are a zillion reasons why some of these ideas won't work. But that's really no excuse not to consider "out of the box" possibilities that focus on the current and future needs communities for services, jobs, and education; for rethinking mall spaces and third places.

Tuesday, April 10

Sliding towards the abyss: What the Sinclair Broadcasting story and others like it MIGHT represent

The New York Times
On April 2, 2018, The New York Times reported that dozens of news anchors read the exact same broadcast. The Times further reported that "[i]t included a warning about fake news, a promise to report fairly and accurately,. . ." and invited viewers to go to the organization's web site if they had any comments.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published the entire script. This is creepy enough--this pre-emptive strike to try to assure viewers that Sinclair Broadcasting is not broadcasting fake news, that its reporting is indeed unbiased and strives not to be one-sided. I know I was not alone in being immediately suspicious that perhaps they protested a wee bit too much.

Then there were stories about employee contracts with unreasonable non-compete expectations. And today Newsweek published a story about an employee's experience of being sued for the balance of her contract. This particular employee, Lauren Hills, noted that she believes some people are afraid to leave their jobs because of the financial penalty. Legal experts are being quoted, noting the lawsuits are "unprecedented" and "punitive."

Many of the stories are similar, likely coming from the same baseline story with each reporter finding its own experts to comment on the situation. But let's say there is some truth to what former Sinclair Broadcasting employees are saying. The scripted message is disturbing enough in my opinion.

As I was reading and hearing the story about people being afraid to leave the company for fear of being sued, for fear of some sort of retribution, I felt sick. I've been reading a lot of novels situated during World War II and I cannot help but reflecting on how similar some of these situations are to the rise of the Third Reich.

I'm not an expert on World War II or the Nazis, but there are eerie similarities to the instances that people are afraid to disagree for fear of some sort of retaliation, that people are willing to go along with the horrible or distasteful because what seems to be good seems to be good and beneficial.

I find myself in the same weird, disorienting, and perplexing situation. This morning I read that the sharks are circling Paul Ryan who may or may not have signaled that he will step down as Speaker. The two who seem to be in positions to be selected to take over are flexing and finding ways to appease the Freedom Caucus to be elected as Speaker.

But then I read a story in the Wall Street Journal that Ryan hopes to overhaul welfare reform "as Republicans prepare to release a new, five-year farm bill that would impose tougher work requirements to get food stamps." Well, part of me applauds that because I would like to see some revamping of the federal regulations for welfare benefits and more incentives for people to get jobs. I agree with the possibility of this Republican position but I need and want more details.

Meanwhile, however, remaining members of a diminished Cabinet are eviscerating regulations that protect the environment and consumers while they pick the pockets of the taxpayers for trips and protection details. The Nazis plundered households and museums of their artwork. Our government officials seem just to be using money in ways that please them and doing so without trying to hide it.

Because there is such a dizzying number of stories coming at us from a multitude of sources, I fear the American public has no more outrage. We outraged out. At this point when it is reported that the Trump brothers may have taken a pleasure trip to Dubai at taxpayer expense, we shrug: "Yea, so what else is new?"

When it is reported by a number of sources that 45 has a sort of "signer's remorse" (Vanity Fair) and "hopes to back off from US$1.3 trillion spending deal with cuts to domestic programmes to offset deficit" (South China Post, but there are others from which to choose), again we just shrug because it is chaos as usual in the White House.

There have already been complaints about the lack of diversity in the Trump administration and then there was the photo of this year's White House interns. I don't know why people are surprised there is little diversity in this group of interns. Some might say, "At least there are young women in the photo!" and others might note there are some darker faces in the photo. Yes, it could have been worse, but it's still bad.

Meanwhile, with the presidential campaign underway--and you know it is, even if you refuse to admit it--there is already shredding and divisive rhetoric. The ugly seems to be our new normal.

So I'll end with two potentially unrelated thoughts because they're something I've been thinking about as I've read my World War II novels. First, Newsweek published a story in which a Buchenwald survivor stated that the United States feels like Germany before the Nazis took over. We seem to be in a twisted place because the whole of our country is twisted up by the extremes of both parties, but their emboldened rhetoric and by the apparent inability of many people to differentiate from that which is bombastic propaganda-like "news" and that which might be actual news. The media hasn't helped itself and still struggles with its breakneck breathlessness to try to be the first to a story that may or may not have legs.

Second, what would it be like if everyone with a drop of immigrant blood in them simply stayed home one day, provided they could afford it. I know that many who have many drops of immigrant blood could not afford not to work and would be afraid not to show up for fear of retaliation, something else that makes me irritable, sad, confused, angry, and fearful for my country. I'd say let's do this on the 4th of July, but many folks get that day off anyway. Although if everyone else stayed home and made it hard for others to celebrate, that would be a statement. Or we could all stay home on September 17. The Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787. So much of what we're arguing about is because of the Constitution (which, in my opinion, far too many people haven't actually read--along with the Bill of Rights or any of the rest of the Constitutional Amendments).

September 17 is already Constitution Day. It was first established in 1940 as "I am an American Day." The movie produced by William Hearst to celebrate American citizenship was, I think, in some response to the Nazis. In 1954, a high school girl wrote an essay titled "I am an American." And in 1966, to try to promote patriotism, a short piece titled "I am an American" was read before every game at Purdue University. Maybe part of what we do that day is focus on what it really means to each of us to be an American.

So instead of making the day about immigrants and immigration, we could make it a day about the founding of this country and what it means to protect and support the Constitution, what it means to try to ". . .establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." If everyone whose family or ancestors came to this country, whether recently or generations ago in the hope of something new and fresh and without fear of tyranny simply stayed home to celebrate the Constitution, what could that say? If everyone whose ancestors came to this country under duress but have, like their ancestors, persevered and fought for the promise of America simply stayed home to celebrate the Constitution because they, too, are "We the People," what could that say? Or what if we gathered in parks as "We the People" and as those who have come in hopes of becoming one of "We the People" and shared what it means to us to be an American AND actually listened to what each other has to say, just listened to each other. What could possibly come of that?