Thursday, April 30, 2009

One more entry for National Poetry Month

Musee des Beaux Arts W.H. Auden About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters; how well, they understood Its human position; how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 1940
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Pieter Breughel c. 1558; Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 73.5 x 112 cm; Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

This brilliant poem by W.H. Auden turns a painting by Breughel into words. Look, if you missed it, at the lower right hand corner of the painting where you see the leg of Icarus disappearing into the water.

On the evening of September 11, 2001, it came to mind and I sent it to a couple of friends. It explained the way I felt in the wake of that tragedy. Later I found out that not just myself, but thousands of people across the country had sent this poem to one another on September 11, 2001.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Pieter Breughel c. 1558; Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 73.5 x 112 cm; Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

This brilliant poem by W.H. Auden turns a painting by Breughel into words. Look, if you missed it, at the lower right hand corner of the painting where you see the leg of Icarus disappearing into the water.

On the evening of September 11, 2001, it came to mind and I sent it to a couple of friends. It explained the way I felt in the wake of that tragedy. Later I found out that not just myself, but thousands of people across the country had sent this poem to one another on September 11, 2001.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

“It’s not time to panic.”

Once again the government has told me it’s not time to panic. It’s the same thing it told me when the terrorists attacked, when the banks all failed and now that a swine flu pandemic is threatened. In fact it’s the only thing that both the Bush administration and the Obama administration seem to agree on.

It makes me nervous. I’m afraid the time to really panic will come and no one will tell me. I’m also worried that I haven’t been given any instructions what to do when I’m supposed to panic. My wife thinks panic means a run on the banks—just like It’s a Wonderful Life. I sort of think it means that you need to go buy water, canned goods and a generator—just like the turning of the millennium. We all panicked then and I think it brought us together. Of course I already have enough canned goods to feed us for a year. I think it’s hereditary. When my grandmother died, we found enough canned goods set aside for another decade. If you have enough canned goods, then you never need to worry about panicking.

In Mexico the government cancelled all the bullfights. That’s a satisfactory act of panic, but I don’t think it would work as well here. Although cancelling something you don’t have certainly smacks of panic.

Anyway, since it isn’t time to panic yet, I just went into work this morning like always. Otherwise the swine flu wins—or something like that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Who Shall Bell the Cat?, Part III

[The first two parts of this discussion appeared on March 13 and 14, if you are interested in going back to read them.]

For the past month, since I wrote the first two parts of this series, I’ve been thinking about where Dallas needs to build its permanent supportive housing. This isn’t a new topic for me—we’ve been working for more than four years on building permanent supportive housing. No matter how long I think about it, I come to the same conclusions. The only places that work are near downtown, or near excellent mass transportation.

We’ve looked at permanent supportive housing projects all over the country, and have yet to find a successful project that isn’t located in one of these two ways. There is a story about a man in Tennessee (I think Memphis, but I’ve heard different cities so the story may be apocryphal) that tried to solve homelessness on his own. He owned a large tract of land about a dozen miles outside of the city, so he built a tent city, installed porta-toilets, a mess tent and arranged to have food brought in. Then he invited homeless people to move there. Only a few came, and the people that did soon left. They were isolated, without transportation and had no reasonable way to access the services they needed.

Saying either near downtown or near excellent mass transportation doesn’t even begin to pick a specific location. It only rules out most locations in most of the City of Dallas. Now we need to think about not only what both of terms mean—what is “near” and what is “excellent”, but about neighborhood influences, political realities and, most importantly, cost and financing

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wallace Stevens: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, Part II

Continuing, in honor of National Poetry Month, our discussion of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, I’d like to take a few moments with my other favorite stanza, the last one, Stanza XIII:

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat In
the cedar-limbs.

This verse comes to my mind often whenever I have time that I just have to pass. A rainy Saturday when I can’t work in the yard, a time when I’m sick and feel bad, or a boring meeting that I have to endure all bring it to my mind (although since I’ve moved to Texas, I often remember it as “It was raining; And it was going to rain”).

The bird in the tree, protected beneath the cedar limbs is the image of patient endurance. It can’t move until the snow stops, and the snow shows no signs of stopping. I think of it hunkered down within itself at the mercy of outside events over which it has no control. I find in this image the proper attitude (at least for me) to take in the face of unpleasant times of waiting.

There are simply times in life when you can’t do anything but wait. If you have to wait, then I think it is best to do so as unemotionally as possible. Frustration or anger won’t accomplish anything. Go inside yourself and wait for the time to pass.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Wallace Stevens: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, Part I

Wallace Stevens has always been one of my favorite poets. Partly for his work, but partly for his life as well. He worked most of his life, full-time, at an insurance company after graduating from law school. I like the idea that he didn’t feel that he needed to live as a poet (whatever that might mean) to write poetry.

So, in continuation of the celebration of National Poetry Month, I wanted to talk a little about his iconic poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. The first thing you notice about the poem is its modernity. Like most modern poetry it’s not so much about the thing itself as about how we think and talk and look at the thing—here a blackbird.

In keeping with the title, the poem has thirteen stanzas, each containing one image of a blackbird, each distinct, almost Japanese in the sparseness of its aesthetics. One of my favorite is Stanza II.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The image is extremely spare. Only fourteen words are used and only the last one, blackbirds, has more than one syllable. The idea, however, is as complex as the language simple. I think we often don’t admit the extent to which all of us hold different and contradictory opinions at the same time. We feel more than one way about the same event or idea. Pollsters take advantage of this fact by asking a question that taps directly into one of those opinions without giving rise to the opposing impulse—all kinds of studies have shown that the answer may depend on how you ask the question. I find the most interesting ideas are in exploring those contradictions.

I know that on some issues that I have gone years without resolving the issue in my own mind. The poet John Keats named this idea “negative capability”—the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time. If we want to learn about ourselves, then I think we need to make those contradictions manifest so we can explore why we believe as we do and whether the contradictions in our mind can be resolved.

In any event, Wallace Stevens gives us an image to stand for our contradictory mind: a tree with three blackbirds. The tree is one thing and the birds are within its space. But the birds are distinct, individual and capable of taking off in their own direction at any moment. Our opinions exist similarly within our mind.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Read FiveThirtyEight

I read two blogs every day—there are a bunch I read most days, some more that I read occasionally, but only two that I never miss. One is Larry James’ Urban Daily ( I read it for two reasons. First, it’s good and it is entirely specific to the world I live in. Second, he’s the chairman of my board of directors, which means he’s as close to a boss as I’ve got. I don’t know about you, but if your boss is kind enough to let you know every day (and Larry posts every day) what he is thinking about, then you need to take advantageous of that opportunity to look at his or her thoughts.

(BTW: I find more and more that when someone comes to interview for a job or even just to volunteer, that they are likely to have read not only our website but my blog as well. The first time that happened, it was a little uncanny. The person seemed to know more about me than was reasonable. But all of us better take notice in these difficult times. The bar on research before a job interview has gone up again. Not much is more important than doing your homework.)

The second blog I read every day is Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight ( Nate Silver writes a political blog from a leftist perspective, but so do lots of people. I read Nate Silver because he teaches us how to think in a new way. He started analyzing baseball statistics and became, by almost everyone’s opinion, the best at it. Now he’s switched to political analysis but retained his emphasize on rigorous compilation of information and sophisticated statistical analysis of that information. His predictions in the last election cycle were uncanny—so uncanny that he now is treated with awe in some circles.

One example: Nate Silver predicted that Al Franken would receive the most votes for Senator in Minnesota once all the votes were counted—at the time Norm Coleman was leading on election night. Time and time again Nate Silver shows that the obvious is wrong and that the facts are there to determine what will happen if we just put aside our biases and look.

A great example is his blog from last Monday (April 22, 2009), “When does close become too-close-to-call?” If you think you can’t determine who won a close election at some point, because there will always some uncertainty, then you’re right, according to Nate Silver. But what he does is lead you through an analysis of error rates and size of voting leads to let you know exactly when an election becomes too close to call and with what margin of certainty you can know the winner.

After reading Nate Silver, I always feel lazy. I know if I just thought harder about things and put my prejudices aside, that I could make better decisions. Nate shows me how.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Registration Closes for Re:Vision Dallas

Last week (on tax day) was the last day to register for the Re:Vision Dallas competition, the design competition for a sustainable city block that we are conducting in partnership with the City of Dallas, Urban Re:Vision and the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP. It was a big day for us because we and our partners have put a lot of effort into Re:Vision. We think it could not only be a catalyst for the rebuilding of the southern part of Downtown Dallas, but could also put Dallas at the top of the list of cities in sustainable development.

As is, I’m told, entirely typical for such contests, nobody registered until almost the last day. We were on pins and needles hoping for a good showing.

We got one. We had about 175 registrants for the contest. That included more than a dozen from Dallas and entries from at least ten countries. On May 18 and 19 I’ll go to San Francisco to observe the jury, which includes some very distinguished architects (I’ll only be observing because I’m not anywhere near qualified to be a jury like this).

I’m excited. I think we will get designs to build at the southern edge of downtown just as brilliant, if different in purpose and kind, as the designs at the northern edge of downtown (like the Winspear Opera House) that are making Dallas a real center of modern architecture.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Central Dallas CDC’s Office, Part I

Almost every time someone walks into our office they say “This isn’t what I expected.” Nobody has every told us what it is that they do expect, but I thought I should describe our office, so if any of you reading this ever visit us, you, at least, won’t be surprised.

Central Dallas CDC’s office is located in Deep Ellum, a near downtown area once famous for its music venues. Now it’s home to a number of eateries, some bars, just a few music venues and a lot of tattoo parlors. Lucky’s Tattoo parlor, located directly across the street from us, is painted bright red. It makes a good neighbor. Lucky’s doesn’t open until we’ve gone home for the evening, so we never compete for parking spaces. Lucky’s is also a good landmark.

There’s also an eclectic selection of businesses in the area: the Mozzarella Cheese Company, a fine maker of handmade cheeses; Rudolf’s, maybe the best butcher in Dallas (which is owned by a friend); a butcher supply shop; Reel FX, a big special effects maker; and many other businesses that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

Deep Ellum is in one of its periodic down periods right now—a far way from the times when Stevie Ray Vaughn and Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians were playing the clubs. It’s even farther away from the day when it was a great center of African American blues music.

More people live in the area than you would ever think. Homes are tucked away in courtyards, off alleys and in the second story of buildings. Everyone hopes that Deep Ellum will recover beginning this fall when light rail begins running through it.

Our office is in a building called the Carson Warehouse and is over one hundred years old. We rent suite 102. Suite 101 is leased by a photographer, who lives upstairs. Hal is a great photographer, but like most artists he’s a little eccentric. He has a Bulldog named “Cash”—so he’ll never be without Cash.

When Cash was being housetrained, we found out that Hal’s floor was our roof and that it was in the slightest waterproof. It wasn’t a pleasant discovery, but fortunately Cash seems to have things under control now.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Buyer’s Remorse?

Am I pleased with what I got for my federal tax dollars? Yes and no. (See yesterday’s blog for a chart of where the federal government spent my family’s income tax last year). On the whole, I think the priorities are about right. We need a sufficient military and we need to take care of our poorest citizens—and since we’ve already borrowed the money, then I guess we have no choice but to pay the interest on it.

On the other hand, I don’t doubt that a fair portion of money is wasted. I’ve worked at enough company’s to have a pretty good idea how efficient we are in general, and I’m pretty sure government isn’t any better than the private sector when it comes to efficiency. I am afraid we’re limited by the human condition as to how efficient we can get. I doubt much is possible to improve.

There are some costs that just seem too high to me, and a few that seem too low. Defense takes over one third of my tax money. Couldn’t we try to get that number down a little—maybe to twenty-five percent of the total. That would open up money for a number of other areas. I don’t have a problem with the amount spent on welfare benefits (you’ve got to take into consideration where I work), but at some point I’d like to look carefully at just where it’s going.

The amount spent on Medicaid and SCHIP drives me crazy though. Our whole medical system costs twice as much as it ought to, and we don’t get the benefits of good public health that we should. That affects productivity and the economy, so we lose twice.

I think we should double what we spend on Veterans—easily affordable if we cut the Defense budget a bit. I’d like to see more spending on foreign aid, if we could figure out how to do it without too much waste and corruption. I’d like to see more spent on energy (let’s find a way not to have to buy so much foreign oil). If NASA would do something cool, like send a man to Mars, then I’d be willing to pay more there. I would easily being willing to double what we spend on the Interior Department—I love the National Parks.

A friend suggested that we ought to be allowed to designate where our taxes are spent. I don’t know that that is a practical idea, but it would be interesting to see where people would put their money if they had a direct choice, rather than the indirect one of electing representatives.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What my income taxes bought

I finished my taxes last night in time to take a look at what my family “bought” with its tax money. I was only interested in expenses funded by our federal income taxes in 2008 (because that was what I was paying today), so I excluded items like social security and Medicare (paid for through payroll taxes) and roads (paid for by the gas tax). The Greenan family (my wife and I and two adult children, both full-time students that work as well) paid a total of $27,011.23 in federal income tax. Between us we worked for six employers and ran one small business.

Here’s where our money was spent (ignore the rounding errors):

Tomorrow I’ll muse a little bit on where I think I got my money’s worth, where I didn’t and where I’d be willing to pay a little more, but the immediate thought that strikes me is that I’m glad I’m not trying to balance the federal budget. Out of the total of $27,017.08 we paid in taxes, $20,649.09 is committed to defense, interest and basic welfare protections. Any of those would be tough to cut, so there isn’t much money left to cover all the remaining functions of the federal government.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Entry 58—Tax Day

I take a pleasure that most people would find perverse in doing my taxes. Every year I wait until April 14 to do them—except when I wait until April 15. Then I do them entirely by hand by myself. No accountant, no tax software, and not even a calculator.

Instead I sit down with a legal pad, the tax forms and instructions and do everything by hand. One set of calculations per page. Everything is neatly in order.

It’s hard even for me to say why I enjoy this—and maybe impossible for other people to understand. But by the time I’m done, I know just what my family made this past year. I know what expenses were deductible; how much we spent on interest for our mortgage; how much we gave to charity and a whole host of facts that I ignore for most of the year.

My wife gathers all the records, and then leaves me alone to do the calculations. Usually I do them right. Once in awhile I do them wrong and the IRS and I have a little discussion. But at the end of the process, I always feel I understand just what we are paying in the way of taxes and I like knowing that.

I suppose the other reason I enjoy it is that, even alone with my numbers, I feel engaged with every other American in a great civic enterprise. Amazingly enough, almost all of us voluntarily file and pay our taxes every year. It’s an unbelievable showing of civic virtue and, as long as we keep doing it, I’m pretty sure we will do fine as a country. I’m proud of all of us.

BTW: If any of you haven’t noticed and haven’t filed yet, your tax return is due today. I hope you enjoy filing yours as much as I did mine.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hey! That’s My Son on TV

My son is the bass player for Here in Arms. Last week the band performed live on Good Morning Texas. Check out the video here for some good old rock and roll!

That’s my son standing to the right of the lead singer.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Capitalism without Capitalists, Part I

I grew up in Michigan and my father and brother still live there, so the fate of the automobile companies is important to me. It’s hard to realize just how dependent the economy in Michigan is on the automobile companies. Even in the northern part of the state where I grew up, more than 250 miles from Detroit, our economy rose and fell with the car companies. When GM and Ford did well, then more people vacationed in the northern part of the state, the price of land for second homes went up and jobs building and developing land for cottages were available.

Of course when the automobile companies did poorly, so did everybody else. It may not be true that “What’s good for GM is good for the country”, but it has always been true in Michigan.

This preamble explains why I’ve been thinking a lot about why the automobile companies are in such difficulty, and why Ford is doing relatively well while GM is in miserable straights. Both companies have almost the same cost structure and the same opportunity to succeed or fail. I think I have a theory for Ford’s relative success and GM’s relative failure.

Ford is still, to some extent, a family-run business. William Clay Ford, Jr. is Chairman of the Board and Edsel B. Ford II is also on the board of directors. William Clay Ford, Jr.’s great-grandfather was Henry Ford, the founder of the company. (I think Edsel is his cousin, but I’ve never been good at family trees. Check for yourself here: General Motors lacks any such family connections. I think this makes a difference in the way the companies think.

When your family name and most of your fortune are tied up in a business, then I think you look at its long-term viability, not just its short-term success. On the other hand, when you are in the end only an employee of the business (no matter how highly compensated), then you look at the shorter term.

A business owner whose life and fortune is inextricably connected with his company is a capitalist, putting his own fortune at risk with the success of the business. If the owner of the business isn’t at risk personally, then he really isn’t a capitalist—and I don’t think our market-based system works properly when the person running a business doesn’t have the extra edge that comes from having his own money at risk.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sour Milk

We’ve had some milk go sour at home this week. Something I’m sure almost all of you have had happen to you. Of course I won’t throw it away. I’ll find a way to use it. I don’t believe in wasting anything that you can use. But it’s started me thinking about a bit of food history.

There are dozens of old recipes that call for sour milk. Part of the reason is that before refrigeration, when the cows were producing a lot of milk, then you had to find a way to use it up. Cheese (“milk’s leap to immortality”) was one result. Milk didn’t keep very long before going sour.

But using sour milk wasn’t only a way of using up food resources that you couldn’t afford to lose. It was actually necessary to make certain kinds of breads. Back in the good old days, before sliced bread and preservatives, if you wanted bread then you had to make it. Everyone wanted bread, it was one of the basics of life, and it had the advantage that, in the form of flour, it could be stored indefinitely (or until the weevils got into it). Making yeast bread, though, is a big effort and somewhat unpredictable. You have to proof the yeast, mix and knead the dough, let it rise, punch it down, and then let it rise again before you can bake it. Even if everything goes well, the process takes a couple of hours and you can’t wander away while it’s going on, although you can do other work and check back from time to time. The results depend on the temperature, the humidity, the amount of moisture in your flour and dozens of other unpredictable factors.

Contrary to family histories, most of your great-great-grandmothers probably couldn’t make very good yeast bread consistently. Ingredients weren’t uniform and trying to get an even heat in a wood stove for baking is extremely difficult.

Even the hardest working cook (almost always women in the early days of this country) would find it difficult to make yeast bread every day. This is especially true when you think about how difficult it was to do all the other every day tasks by hand—laundry, making butter, making soap, etc. There just wasn’t time. In Europe and the larger and older cities in the United States you could buy your bread from the baker. Many of the traditionally homemade bread that we have were only made once per week—on the baker’s day off. But on the frontier and in the small towns of America, there wasn’t a baker, so you were on your own.

The salvation of many cooks was “quick bread”. That’s bread that is leavened by use of a “mechanical” leaven rather than yeast. The earliest quick breads were leavened with ashes. But wood ash (at least the one time I tried it) leads to a heavy, dense loaf
that tends to taste gritty. Baking soda was an enormous step forward. It’s pure sodium bicarbonate and when combined with moisture and an acid, baking soda releases carbon dioxide and causes rising.

If you try to make soda bread with regular milk, it won’t rise. The milk is not acidic enough. But if you use sour milk, than the baking soda will react with the acid in it and you can make a nice chewy loaf that rises. Of course there are other sources of the acid you need to combine with baking soda to make bread, but for our forefathers sour milk was no reason for worry. Sour milk meant soda bread (yes, I’m Irish by descent) and that was a good thing.

The next time you have milk go sour don’t throw it away. Think of your ancestors and the nutrition they got from bread made from sour milk. Nutrition important enough so that if they had thrown out sour milk; they may not have survived and you might not be here today. Instead, in their honor, make yourself a loaf of soda bread. Here’s a recipe:

Irish Soda Bread

3 cups white flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 ¼ cups sour milk (you can also use buttermilk)

Mix all the dry ingredients together, then add the sour milk all at once. Stir the ingredients with a wooden spoon until just mixed. Turn out and knead for a brief moment. Divide the dough into two round loafs, place each on a baking sheet and let rise for ten minutes. Slash a cross in the top of each loaf in honor of St. Patrick and bake in a 400 degree oven for about forty minutes. It’s best eaten within a day, and even better eaten with sweet butter while it’s still warm.

P.S. Not all milk that has gone bad is sour milk. Make sure you know the difference between “soured” and “spoiled”.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Party’s Over at the Plaza

Last Saturday, our friends Larry and Ted Hamilton finally made the decision that the plan to convert the old twelve-story Plaza Hotel (built as a Ramada) into affordable housing wasn’t going to work, at least for this year. After Central Dallas CDC couldn’t get neighborhood support, Larry and Ted did great work in getting the neighborhood behind their revised project and even getting approval from the Dallas City Council.

But in the end, the effort to revise our original proposal sufficiently to satisfy the Hamilton’s ideas and the neighborhood’s needs just couldn’t be completed. Every effort to make it work for the neighborhood meant pushing one more rule of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to the limit. Finally, a point was reached where we just couldn’t satisfy both sides.

I was the official contact person with the State, so even though it was the Hamilton’s project, not Central Dallas CDC’s, all the notices came through me. I felt a little like the ball in a tennis match—batted from one side to another without any control over where I was going. I was amazed at the ability of Larry Hamilton to innovate on the run to make the project work and with his persistence, but in the end there was a problem he couldn’t solve. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs won’t allow efficiency units smaller than 600 sq. ft. unless a project is permanent supportive housing, and the community wasn’t ready to accept permanent supportive housing—but the neighborhood association did indicate that it might reconsider next year.

I don’t know whether Larry and Ted will wait and try again next year, or try to sell the property (as we all know it isn’t a good time to try to find buyers). But unless the TDHCA changes its rules or the community decides to accept permanent supportive housing, I think it will be hard to design a workable plan to renovate the building. Smaller units generate higher per square foot revenue and, at least when I ran the numbers, I couldn’t come close to making a project with all the units 600 sq. ft. each or larger cash flow.

The last thing Dallas needs is another vacant building, and one of the things Dallas needs most is affordable housing, so let’s all hope that a solution can be found.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

National Poetry Month

This month, April, is National Poetry Month (following last month, which was Irish Heritage Month and February that was Black History Month—we may need more months!).

It’s ironic because, of course:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

No doubt many of you recognize T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Waste Land. In honor of National Poetry Month (and the decade I spent in graduate school studying poetry), I’m going to spend some time discussing poetry this month, but not very much today on The Waste Land, which I find almost too difficult to be worth the work.

The opening passage, though, isn’t too bad. April is cruel because it reawakens hope. Usually, at least in the climes Eliot was familiar with, for that hope to be dashed with the return of cold weather—even here in Dallas we have a frost threatened for tonight.

[BTW: Lilacs are the plant most emblematic of spring in the north—sort of Wisteria for Yankees. Lilacs smell wonderfully and I was disappointed when I found that they didn’t grow in Texas.]

I think most of us know that it isn’t failing that hurts so much as the elusive chance of success. When you have no hope, then after awhile you quit hurting. The glimpse of a better life reinvigorates the pain. The freeze after a few days of warm weather hurts more than another week of winter.

This is one reason why when we start a project that we commit ourselves to see it through to the bitter end. People at the bottom are hurt much more by false hope than by no hope at all. Sometimes organizations with great hearts but limited resources end up doing more harm than good because they don’t realize how difficult community development work is. Promises are made that can’t be kept. Hope is stirred up and then cruelly dies in spring’s last frost.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Dangerous River

In the summer of 1927, R.M. Patterson decided to explore an empty section of the map in northern Canada, through which the South Nahanni River runs. In 1953, he wrote the book Dangerous River about his year long adventure. It’s a fascinating tail of exploration among the characters living on the edge of the known world among almost unimaginable hardship.

I cannot imagine loading everything that you would need for an entire year into a canoe and setting forth alone into the wilderness. When I go on week long canoe trips, with a number of friends, many people think I’m living on the edge, but even I can’t imagine a year alone in the wilderness.

R.M. Patterson wrote about his journey many years later, in 1953, using as source material the journals he kept. He met people on his trip, build a cabin where he lived for the winter, almost perished from cold or snow or the river several times, but none of those dangers are the most remarkable thing in the book for me.

The most remarkable thing is his matter of fact attitude towards his extraordinary adventure. Here’s how he describes his decision to go:

I had had a run of luck lately, and I could afford to make this journey this very summer if I wished. The homestead would be safe; my nearest neighbour would keep an eye on it for me, and the horsed could run out on the range.

No more deliberation was necessary for R.M. Patterson. He was ready to travel unmapped lands and be gone for an entire year.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

When should you quit?

I am notoriously hard headed about giving up on something. When I was a boy, neighbors warned their children against playing games against my brother and me, saying something like: “The Greenan boys will kill themselves rather than lose.”

Setting aside just how bizarre a warning that is, I’m afraid nothing has changed. My brother has completed the Au Sable Marathon twice (a straight through 120 mile long canoe race—something else that I’ll write more about—for now here’s a link --still plenty of time to sign up for the 2009 race), including last year. I insisted on giving a tour of CityWalk last week with a broken rib—even though I went from the tour to the emergency room.

But even I have to admit that at some point, you really just have to quit on a project. Watch a basketball game in the final minute or so, and if a team is close they may foul and hope that they can catch up if the other team misses its foul shots. But at some point, the team behind will quit fouling. They are too far behind to ever catch up. Continuing to try is futile.

Lately I’ve been working on a number of projects that probably will never be completed. They aren’t quite dead, but any chance of success looks pretty remote. I have to think about when it’s time to cut my losses and move on to something else.

But my nature is to keep trying until the bitter end. Also, it’s hard to judge when one of our projects becomes impossible. All of them start off with only a remote chance of success, so I am used to living in a world where you have to always believe you can accomplish the very difficult, if not the impossible. Otherwise, you would quit before you ever started.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


At Central Dallas Community Development Corporation, we’ve always depended on interns for a good portion of our work. Sometimes they are paid; sometimes unpaid; and with a wide range of experience and knowledge. Since, like most nonprofits, we operate on a shoestring, interns provide a source of cheap labor to let us get more done.

Most of the time we have had good experiences with our interns. They work hard and let us get more accomplished then we could otherwise. A few have been absolutely brilliant—the type of people that only lack experience before they will be amazing contributors to society. Of course, a few have been disappointments as well.

But I have never seen anything like the applications I have gotten this year. I have an M.B.A., architects, a lawyer, law students, a couple of people with masters degrees and, for the first time ever, someone with a doctorate in a related field! Each of these candidates has an impressive resume and can write well enough, at least, to submit an acceptable letter. All of these applicants for the one position I have open this summer, and no guaranty that the positions will pay. I’d like to have more people, but we’re so crowded I wouldn’t even have a chair in which

I hope to go through them all this weekend and make a choice quickly, but I am somewhat baffled by the strength and number of applications and by how to weigh such different credentials against one another. Baffled enough that I’ve been slower to act than I should be, and if any of the interns who have contacted me are reading this, please accept my apology.

The applications do make two points to me. First, the job market must be very bad. Second, a lot of people would like to do community development work, if only there were a way for them to make some kind of living doing it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Night on the Town

Think nothing is going on in Downtown Dallas? I wish you’d been able to tag along with my wife and I last Friday evening! We started with attending a lecture at Booker T. Washington by the renowned Austrian architect Peter Fattinger. He and his students have built innovative and experimental buildings in Vienna, South Africa and Indonesia. He was the opening speakers at Stuctures for Inclusion 9 (SF9), about which I may have more to say later.

By the way, if you haven’t seen it yet, the new Booker T. is spectacular, and the setting is even more spectacular. I walked over from the center of downtown, passing Mariachi’s playing in front of the Cathedral and losing myself staring at the new Winspear Opera House.

After the lecture, we met our adult children at CityWalk@Akard so they could see the latest progress on the construction.

Then it was off to the King Tut exhibit. If you haven’t been yet, I’d recommend that you join the other 500,000 people who have taken advantage of the opportunity. It is a real wonder and delight to see the artifacts of a culture that flourish 3,500 years ago.

By the time we finished touring the exhibition, it was almost midnight (last Friday was one of the Dallas Museum of Art’s late nights, so the Museum was still open). Finally we went down to the West End for something to eat before all heading home.

It wasn’t just last weekend that stuff was going on downtown. This week it’s the Dallas AFI film festival—I went last year and it’s very worth while. All of us who live in the city need to start taking advantage of what’s going on. I know I’m not gong to regret missing a couple of nights of staying home and watching television.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How to revitalize a neighborhood—The Congo Street Green Initiative

In the Congo Street Green Initiative the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP (founded and run by my friend Brent Brown) pioneered a new approach to revitalizating distressed urban neighborhood. Prior revitalization efforts relied on one of two approaches:

1. Slum clearance—The slum clearance approach, now largely outdated and abandoned, treated entire neighborhoods as a blight, acquired relatively large tracts (often through eminent domain), which were then cleared of all existing structures, and attempted to create a new neighborhood on the old site. While there was some value in the comprehensiveness of this approach, it failed to value the existing social and built structure of the neighborhood. It treated people and social structures as fungible. Even when successful in creating a new neighborhood, those neighborhoods often did not include the former residents of the site and the new neighborhoods often had little or no social cohesion and as a result suffered from high crime rates and an entire lack of social cohesion. Think Cabrini Green.

2. Urban Infill—The urban infill approach emerged as a reaction to slum clearance. In this approach vacant lots or houses in need of demolition are filled with new construction, one home at a time. This approach respects the integrity of the neighborhood and its existing physical and social structures. Sometimes this approach is couple with efforts to improve or repair existing homes. The problem with the urban infill approach is its lack of comprehensiveness. One new house does little to reclaim the neighborhood (and may be difficult to sell) if it is located between two decaying structures. In many cases the rate of construction of new homes fails to exceed the rate of decay of existing structures, and the neighborhood as a whole fails to improve.
3. A new Approach: The Congo Street Green Initiative—Working in partnership with residents of Congo Street in South Dallas, the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP has developed a new idea for neighborhood revitalization based on the concept of the “Holding House”. The Holding House is a new infill home built in the neighborhood, but rather than being sold to a new or existing residence, the Holding House is used as a temporary residence within the neighborhood for neighbors to live in while their home undergoes repair or replacement. After a two or three month stay in the Holding House, the neighbor will return to their own, newly refurbished home and the next neighbor will move into the Holding House while work is done on their home.This strategy combines the best features of the two previous methods. It is comprehensive, although its strategy to become comprehensive is temporal rather than spatial. It keeps neighbors in their own neighborhood, retains social cohesion, makes as much use of the existing physical structure as is feasible, and benefits the current residents of the neighborhood, not some hypothetical new residents.

In short, it’s the first promising new idea to revitalize distressed urban neighborhoods in many years. We are now working with Habitat for Humanity, Central Dallas Ministries and, of course, the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP to bring this idea to scale. If the is as promising as it first appears, then Dallas will become the new thought center of urban revitalization.