Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A New Way to End up Homeless

During the decade I’ve worked at Central Dallas Ministries and Central Dallas CDC, I’ve met a lot of homeless people and heard a lot of different stories about how someone became homeless, but an article from Reuters in the news today showed me a whole new idea about how to end up in a homeless shelter tonight---just get married today!

Couple marries, wants divorce on same day
Pair had a huge argument right after civil ceremony, wanted annulment

BERLIN - A Polish couple living in Germany fell out after tying the knot and decided to end their marriage on the same day.
"He said he never wanted to see her again and wanted an immediate annulment, and she said the same thing," a spokesman for police in the northern city of Hanover said Thursday.
Right after the civil ceremony Wednesday, the 50-year-old man began rowing with his bride and tried to cut her hair with a kitchen knife, police said.
The 34-year-old woman called police, who issued the man with a restraining order, which he readily accepted, police said.
Two attempts at a rapprochement later that evening by telephone ended in more shouted exchanges before the man went to spend his wedding night in a local shelter for homeless people.
That’s not my idea of a honeymoon, but you have to admit, it would be hard to forget!

Monday, June 29, 2009

White Roofs

I saw a newspaper article the other day about the idea of “white roofs”. The premise was that if all our roofs, at least in the warmer parts of the world, were white in color, then those roofs would reflect back more sunlight, stop global warming and keep our cities cooler in the summer.

The idea sounds too good to be true, so I started tracing it back and pretty quickly you find that the theory comes from an article entitled “Global cooling: increasing world-wide urban albedos to offset CO2” by Hashen Akbari, Surabi Menon and Arthur Rosenfeld. It first was published (online, where you can still find it at http://www.energy.ca.gov/2008publications/CEC-999-2008-020/CEC-999-2008-020.PDF) in Climate Change last November.

I have to admit I missed the article when it first came out. I also have to admit that I didn’t understand much of it when I did read it.

But a couple of statements caught my attention. First, the energy savings every year in the United States by switching to “cool roofs and pavement” would be worth about $1 billion. Second, the reduction in global warming is equivalent to savings in the emission of greenhouse gases that would otherwise cost about $1,100 billion worldwide. That seems like pretty good money just for a change of color.

Of course the idea of painting something white to keep it cooler isn’t exactly new. In Spain, the pueblos blancos have been resisting the hot, dry climate of Andalucia for the last 1,000 years. That’s enough history to make me think the idea might just work. It also looks pretty good.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Call and Response, Part II

Today I’m posting my answer to the email I posted yesterday.

Ms. ________:

Unfortunately, as you have found out, the safety net that should exist to help people in your circumstances is full of holes. Although I run Central Dallas CDC, I am no better than third out of a four person staff in my knowledge of the various programs that exist to provide housing for people in circumstances like yours. I will ask the people on my staff with the most knowledge to see if they have any ideas where you may go for help.

Central Dallas CDC owns or manages a little over sixty units of housing and we have another 200 units that will become available in the next few months. Some of our projects have housing units that might be affordable for you, but all of our developments have waiting lists. I will ask that you be put on the waiting lists, as well as _________, unless she prefers not to be placed on the waiting list, but that is unlikely to provide you with any help over the short term.

I will also give you some advice, which you may or may not find helpful. It appears to me that you might advantageously think of your problem in two parts: short term and long term. In the short term I think it would be best if you took the steps necessary to remain in some type of housing, regardless of the cost. In that regard, I do not think you can afford to pay over $400 per month in storage fees. If I were in your shoes, I would remove any item of purely sentimental value from storage and sell, donate or, as a last resort, throw away the remaining items. I do not know what items you have in storage, but it may be that the value of those items, when combined with your savings on storage fees, is sufficient to keep you in housing for at least some time.

If you can find a source to pay a month's rent or so (we don't provide any monetary aid), I also think you should take advantage of that opportunity. It is much harder to become housed than it is to stay housed.

For the longer term, I cannot recommend much beyond what you are doing. If you have not, I would contact the Plano Housing Authority about receiving a Housing Choice Voucher:

Plano Housing Authority http://www.planoha.org/

1740 Avenue G
Plano, TX 75074
(972) 423-4928

The waiting list may be long, I know it's impossible in Dallas, but the earlier you are on the list, the better. There are also some funds set aside to prevent homelessness in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that was signed into law in February by President Obama. Those funds have not yet reached local agencies, but should reach them in the next several months. When those funds become available, then there should be at least a short period of time when housing assistance for people in your situation should be more available. I think that's another reason to remain housed, if you can do so, even if only on a temporary basis. Finally, if any other organizations have waiting lists for housing assistance, I would ask to be placed on those lists. The more possibilities you have open to you, the better the chances that something will turn up.

I also have a request. If I remove the identifying information from your email, may I post it on my blog? Your statement of the problem is elegant, and we are always looking for ways to bring home the problem with housing to people.

Once again, I will have my staff look into what may be possible, and if we have any ideas someone will be in contact with you.

Until then, may God bless and protect you.

John P. Greenan
Executive Director

Central Dallas Community Development Corporation
2814 Main Street, Suite 102
Dallas, Texas 75226-1551

Telephone No.: 214.573.2570
Cellular No.: 214.681.5648
Facsimile No.: 214.573.2575

I haven’t received any response to my email, but I took silence as acquiescence to posting the substance of this email exchange here. Every case is unique, but a number of the issues that this person has are typical. Illness and medical expenses are a common cause of homelessness—while many homeless people have substance abuse problems (but not all), sometimes it is the result, not the cause, of homelessness. Some people that never had substance issues find that once they are homeless, any escape looks good.

People are also amazingly resourceful. Find a roommate, combine resources and stay housed. But people can also be amazingly slow to adjust to changes in there circumstances. Why keep paying storage fees? My guess is that because letting all the items you’ve accumulated during your life go is an admission that you will never again have what you once had. That’s hard for any of us.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Call and Response, Part I

Every day we receive telephone calls from desperate people with no place to stay and no money to pay for one. Most of the time those calls go to our property manager, Judy Lawrence who does her best to help people, but she was out on vacation last week, so I had to take some of those calls. I don’t know any way to convey to you either the caller’s distress or our frustration about our inability to help.

I also got the email below, however, and it gives you a better idea of what people go through when they are threatened with losing their place to live. This is the email as it came to me, but with all identifying information about the individual deleted.

Dear Mr. Greenan:

My name is ___________, I am 55 years of age and live in Collin County. I have been on Disability since 5/05. I live at the __________. I have lived here with a friend/roommate/caretaker for over two years. We have never been late on rent.

On April 6, I became ill and was taken to the ER unit at ___________ where I then had a gall bladder removal. It went well and I went home within 3 days. Two days later I became very ill and was taken by ambulance back to Plano County Hospital where I was tested for two days before they discovered I was in renal failure and then I developed double pneumonia. After treatment there I was sent to _____________ for the remainder of my recuperation. In total, I was hospitalized for almost six weeks. I returned home on May 18th.

My roommate/caretaker _________, 56 years old was laid off her job
with ___________ in January and has been trying to find a new position since. She is working with WorkForce and was NOT eligible for unemployment. So things have gone downhill as my income is just under $700 a month before medicare is taken out. I also have a $230 monthly storage fee I pay that holds all my belongings. I have been paying that the last four years.

In May, the apartment complex extended a "Plan" to many of it's struggling rentors where May's rent would be deferred and pro-rated over the following four months on top of the regular rental fees. We were unable to pay the rent and May's portion by the 3rd when we normally pay.

On June 12th, my room mate and I were given a "Notice to Vacate" form saying we had to be out by the following monday evening. Without resources over the weekend all we could do was panic and pack. I have no relatives or children to help. Carla has a brother who just went through triple bypass surgery who is able to lend us $600 in order to get our belongings into storage. From there we have no idea where we are to go. I have called legal-aid and have been informed of the process concerning eviction and what we should expect.

Our landlord just called this morning and said she will be going to court today and serving us. She also kindly said that if we were to vacate by the date stated in the eviction notice she would not pursue the eviction so that it would not be on our records. Which we appreciate and she is happy to do.

At this point, we have one income... my $645, which $410 will automatically be deducted to cover our two storage spaces. We have two small dogs and one car between us. We do receive food stamps thank God. I have checked the internet and made over 80+ phone calls to 211 and
other organizations seeking assistance and housing or temporary shelter with no success.

Where do people in our circumstances go or what can we do. Getting a month's worth of rent really isn't the answer as the following month we would be in the same place needing financial assistance. We are at our wit's end and feel we are not mentally at our best and overstressed to
say the least. It seems seniors with other special circumstances, i.e., Katrina victims, Veterans, Physically Incapacitated, etc. have programs to assist them. What about the majority of us who have worked all our lives, have suffered losses and trauma not within the bounds of these programs... where do we turn? A sound voice and grounded guiding light would be a Godsend. Is your organization in a position to help us figure our futures out?


Tomorrow I will post my answer, which I’m afraid wasn’t much help.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Re:Vision Dallas, Selection of the Design to Build

For those of you following the Re:Vision Dallas project, here's a copy of a letter I wrote to the three winning designers that sets out how we're going to conduct the process of determining which design to build.

June 23, 2009

Mark Hogan, LEED AP
david baker + partners, architects
461 Second Street, loft 127,
San Francisco, CA 94107
v.415.896.6700 x119

Antonio Louro
Rua dos Fanqueiros Nº 286 3ºF 1100-233 Lisboa PORTUGAL Office: +351 21 0150837
Cell: +351 919673148

Bradley Bartholomew
5815 Westpark Drive
Charlotte, NC 28217

Re: Re:Vision Dallas Winning Designers


First, I want to congratulate you all on winning the Re:Vision Dallas competition. The quality of the entries was extraordinarily high, and emerging as one of the three best designs out of one hundred entries and dozens of extremely fine designs is a significant accomplishment of which you can all be proud. I was honored just to have the opportunity to review your entries and watch the jury deliberate as it chose the winning designs. I am extremely pleased with the designs chosen by the jury—your designs—and look forward to moving forward to complete the project.

Second, let me apologize for not contacting you sooner. I know you are as eager to get started on this project as I am, but it took us a little longer than we had expected to complete the transition from Urban Re:Vision running the design contest to Central Dallas Community Development Corporation starting work on the actual development.

Third, I know you are all anxious to know where we plan to go from here, so let me explain the process as I expect it will unveil from now on. The Real Estate Council of Dallas (“TREC”) (http://www.recouncil.com/) has agreed to work with us to conduct a thorough evaluation of the winning design to make sure that we understand your designs as fully as possible. The different experts that TREC will make available to this project should allow us to make a more sophisticated analysis of the different systems and costs embedded in your designs than we could perform on our own, and help make this a project owned not just by Central Dallas CDC but by the entire City of Dallas.

As I’m sure you know, summers in Dallas are hot and many people leave for vacations, so putting the review teams together has taken a little longer than we anticipated. We expect to start the review work early in July and spend four to six weeks in the process. It is likely that we will be in touch with you during this process to obtain clarifications or explanations of your designs.

During this process, I will serve as your main contact, and I will try to let you know in advance if someone other than me will be contacting you with questions. In the same vein, unless you let me know otherwise, I will direct any questions we may have through you.

The review process should be completed sometime in the first half of August, and at that point we will schedule interviews with each of you to discuss your designs more fully. I will try to let you know in advance if there are particular issues that we want to address—as beautiful as your designs are, there will always be changes between the early conceptions and the final product.

Our goal is to make a decision and be ready to start on the design work by early fall. We expect to have a showing of the competition entries at Dallas City Hall at that time. As competition winners, all of your designs will be prominently featured, and we hope to schedule a number of talks and panel discussions concurrently with the show. I hope that all of you will be able to attend and participate in the presentation. We will try to get the schedule set fairly quickly. In particular, I hope that a representative of the design we are going to build will be here to accept the award and answer questions, because interest in the project is very high here in Dallas.

Once again, congratulations on authoring a winning design. I am always happy to answer questions. All my contact information is available in the email to which this letter is attached. I look forward to getting to know each of you. Thank you.

Respectfully yours,

John P. Greenan
Executive Director
Central Dallas Community Development Corporation

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Going to Seed

One custom that has pretty well passed away by now is saving seeds from your garden. Of course most people don’t garden for sustenance these days, and if you do garden, then most of your seeds are probably hybrid seeds that don’t come true-no point in saving them. In fact in many cases, farmers don’t even own the seeds they plant—Monsanto does: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/MonsantovsFarmers.php.

But that’s another discussion for another day.

If you do garden, then sometime let one of your plants go to seed rather than pulling it up when it’s quit producing, and you will see something interesting. (Don’t save any seeds that belong to Monsanto, of course) Common plants like radishes or carrots will sprout amazing flowers.

This year I let a radicchio go to seed. If you know radicchio, then you probably know it as the trendy red leaf crop with a bit of a bitter taste that cost you an arm and a leg at the grocery. Botanically, however, radicchio is a chicory, one of a large family of garden crops. Both the leaves and roots are eaten (different varieties) and the roots are ground and added to coffee or used as a coffee substitute—it’s especially popular in coffee in New Orleans.

Chicory has gone feral over much of America. Growing up in the Midwest, the roadside ditches were filled with the beautiful blue flowers of chicory, and some people collected the leaves or roots to eat. Until I let a radicchio go to seed in my garden, I had forgotten how beautiful the flowers of chicory are. It feels good to be reminded.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It’s Dallas, Not Denver!

Apparently some people in the design community can’t believe that Dallas is leading the way in sustainable design. The internet design site dornob featured the three winning designs from Re:Vision Dallas in an article titled Green in 3D: 16 Vertical Farm & Skyscraper Designs, but they put the project in the wrong city:

If this all still sounds far-fetched and futuristic to you, consider this design competition for downtown Denver which involves structures with all of the above: green roofs, vertical vegetation and layered park-and-farm levels throughout.

We appreciate the notice, but it’s bad enough that we had to sit through the Denver Nuggets eliminating our beloved Dallas Mavericks in the NBA playoffs this year, without Denver getting the credit for our design competition as well!

Monday, June 22, 2009

CityWalk: 106 People Working

Yesterday we set a record at CityWalk. We had 106 people on site and working at the same time (it would have been more but the steel subcontractor wasn’t on site and we had only five painters). In the next week or two we expect to top 125 people as we reach the height of activity before we start winding down a little bit as the project nears completion.

What are all these people doing? Project superintendent Randy Allen was kind enough to send me a list of the tasks that people will be working on next week, and that gives you an idea of the type of work being done:

1. Installing the cooling tower;
2. Demoing the 3rd floor storefront for replacement;
3. Installing the outside air unit;
4. Putting the boilers in the basement;
5. Installing the walls on the 14th floor (that means everything through 13 is done!);
6. Sheetrocking the electrical rooms;
7. Installing the electrical meters in floors 10-13;
8. Installing the electrical panel in floors 9-12;
9. Prepare for ceiling inspections on 4 & 5;
10. Sheetrock double sided on floors 7-10;
11. Tape and bed the walls on floors 6-9;
12. Waterproof south windows on floors 10-15;
13. Lay in around windows on the second floor;
14. Replace outside brick where it’s spalled;
15. Install sprinkler system on first floor;
16. Set the tubs on 14th floor;
17. Install house keeping pads;
18. Infill holes;
19. Paving begins on east and west parking lots;
20. Install fire pump system in basement; and
21. Install light fixtures in apartments on floors 4-5.

Each week has a similar number of tasks to be completed, so you can see why we need over 100 people working on the project. The tasks change each week—each day really—so you can also see why Randy and Bobby, our superintendents, have their hands full scheduling everybody and making sure tasks get done in the right order.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Re:Vision Dallas, Interview on Konstructr

Vic Duggal runs the interesting podcast Konstructr. He interviewed me last week and now you can listen to the interview here: http://konstructr.com/dallas-revised-ep-36/.

The interview runs over twenty minutes, so you have to be prepared to spend a little time to listen to it, but in my (totally unbiased of course) opinion, it’s worth it—at least as much so as watching a rerun of The Nanny.

Vic does a great job of keeping the interview moving, and as for me, it’s good practice, right?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

CityWalk, Meeting the Residents

Last Friday, we began interviewing the first residents of CityWalk. This is an informal, first interview, our property management firm will do the real work of qualifying the tenants. We wanted to begin meeting the people who will live at CityWalk so we could answer their questions, start to know them, and know how we could best serve them. So we have asked all prospective tenants to do an interview with us before meeting with property management.

All three of the tenants we interviewed were women, one Anglo, one Hispanic and one African-American. Each of them had a story. One woman was a victim of domestic violence and, after a very difficult divorce, had been living in a shelter for a year. Most amazingly, her daughter had survived all this difficulty and is only one year away from graduating from college.

A second woman had had addiction problems, and was just now getting back on her feet after going through treatment at a well-known and well-regarded local nonprofit. When she left her previous life to get into treatment, she had broken a lease at the apartment where she had been living, so she needed help finding a place to live.

The third woman was caring for a developmentally disadvantaged daughter. She needed safe, inexpensive housing so that she could move herself and her daughter away from their current substandard, dangerous living situation.

I wish all of you who have worries about the danger the residents at CityWalk might present to the neighborhood, or have questions about whether the housing we provide is needed had been able to meet these women. Your questions would have been answered.

Friday, June 19, 2009


I know it is all the rage, but I dislike the very idea of leadership. For me it is an idea dangerously devoid of content. I don’t care whether you are a leader or not. I want to know what direction you want to go.

Victor Hugo said, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” I don’t want to follow someone. I want them to explain their ideas so I can decide on my own to go in the same direction that they are going. I believe in the power of ideas, not the power of personality.

I have an instinctive suspicion of charisma. I have felt, I think all of us have felt, the power of some people’s personality. Some people have the ability to convince you that they are right just by the power of their personality. I think that’s dangerous. We don’t even need to look at some of the more notorious historical cases where this caused a tragedy. Even under mundane circumstances it can be awkward.

I read that during the mid-1990s, the Republican leadership absolutely dreaded meetings between Newt Gingrich, leader of the Republican majority in Congress, and President Bill Clinton. Even as strong as Gingrich was in his principles, the pull of Clinton’s personality was so strong that (at least for the moment) President Clinton would convince Gingrich to make agreements that he would later have to repudiate. The catch phrase of the Republican leadership became, “Tell Newt to say no!”

A few years ago I sat in on a group interview for someone applying for a senior position at Central Dallas Ministries. The applicant gave the best interview I have ever seen and absolutely blew the room away. I didn’t see even the smallest misstep in the interview, but I also realized that I was overwhelmed by the power of the applicant’s personality. When it came time to comment on the applicant, after everyone else had raved about them, I limited myself to suggesting that we carefully fact check their resume. We did and found numerous false statements and exaggerations.

I didn’t know about them and didn’t expect to find them, but I did know that my judgment was impaired.

So I’m not especially impressed by leaders. I’m impressed by people who know the right way to go. I am distressed by the increasing tendency to have leadership training. I don’t want people trained to lead. I want people who know the right way to go.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Clean Well-Lighted Place

What do you need in life? Not much, just a clean well-lighted place, as this Hemingway story that was sent me by my friend Larry James reminds me. Please, as you read it, think about what you—about what anyone—really needs to be happy in life.

To read while you are bored and on hold!

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said.


"He was in despair."

"What about?"


"How do you know it was nothing?"

"He has plenty of money."

They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the cafe and looked at the terrace where the tableswere all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind. A girl and a soldier went by in the street. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him.

"The guard will pick him up," one waiter said.

"What does it matter if he gets what he's after?"

"He had better get off the street now. The guard will get him. They went by five minutes ago."

The old man sitting in the shadow rapped on his saucer with his glass. The younger waiter went over to him.

"What do you want?"

The old man looked at him. "Another brandy," he said.

"You'll be drunk," the waiter said. The old man looked at him. The waiter went away.

"He'll stay all night," he said to his colleague. "I'm sleepy now. I never get into bed before three o'clock. He should have killed himself last week."

The waiter took the brandy bottle and another saucer from the counter inside the cafe and marched out to the old man's table. He put down the saucer and poured the glass full of brandy.

"You should have killed yourself last week," he said to the deafman. The old man motioned with his finger. "A little more," he said. The waiter poured on into the glass so that the brandy slopped over and ran down the stem into the top saucer of the pile. "Thank you," the old man said. The waiter took the bottle back inside the cafe. He sat down at the table with his colleague again.

"He's drunk now," he said.

"He's drunk every night."

"What did he want to kill himself for?"

"How should I know."

"How did he do it?"

"He hung himself with a rope."

"Who cut him down?"

"His niece."

"Why did they do it?"

"Fear for his soul."

"How much money has he got?"

"He's got plenty."

"He must be eighty years old."

"Anyway I should say he was eighty."

"I wish he would go home. I never get to bed before three o'clock. What kind of hour is that to go to bed?"

"He stays up because he likes it."

"He's lonely. I'm not lonely.

I have a wife waiting in bed for me."

"He had a wife once too."

"A wife would be no good to him now."

"You can't tell. He might be better with a wife."

"His niece looks after him. You said she cut him down."

"I know." "I wouldn't want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing."

"Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him."

"I don't want to look at him. I wish he would go home. He has no regard for those who must work."

The old man looked from his glass across the square, then over at the waiters.

"Another brandy," he said, pointing to his glass. The waiter who was in a hurry came over.

"Finished," he said, speaking with that omission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken people or foreigners. "No more tonight. Close now."

"Another," said the old man.

"No. Finished." The waiter wiped the edge of the table with a towel and shook his head.

The old man stood up, slowly counted the saucers, took a leather coin purse from his pocket and paid for the drinks, leaving half a peseta tip. The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity.

"Why didn't you let him stay and drink?" the unhurried waiter asked. They were putting up the shutters. "It is not half-past two."

"I want to go home to bed."

"What is an hour?"

"More to me than to him."

"An hour is the same."

"You talk like an old man yourself. He can buy a bottle and drink at home."

"It's not the same."

"No, it is not," agreed the waiter with a wife. He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.

"And you? You have no fear of going home before your usual hour?"

"Are you trying to insult me?"

"No, hombre, only to make a joke."

"No," the waiter who was in a hurry said, rising from pulling down the metal shutters. "I have confidence. I am all confidence."

"You have youth, confidence, and a job," the older waiter said. "You have everything."

"And what do you lack?"

"Everything but work."

"You have everything I have."

"No. I have never had confidence and I am not young."

"Come on. Stop talking nonsense and lock up."

"I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe," the older waiter said.

"With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night."

"I want to go home and into bed."

"We are of two different kinds," the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. "It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe."

"Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long."

"You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves."

"Good night," said the younger waiter.

"Good night," the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself, It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, it was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all or nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y naday pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

"What's yours?" asked the barman.


"Otro loco mas," said the barman and turned away.

"A little cup," said the waiter.

The barman poured it for him.

"The light is very bright and pleasant but the bar is unpolished, "the waiter said.

The barman looked at him but did not answer. It was too late at night for conversation.

"You want another copita?" the barman asked.

"No, thank you," said the waiter and went out. He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it's probably only insomnia. Many must have it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Canoeing—Trip Reports

One of my very favorite activities is canoeing, especially canoe tripping—a several day journey down a river or through a series of lakes connected by no more than a (relatively) short portage (a portage is where you have to pick your canoe up and carry it across a stretch of land). A tradition among canoeists is the “trip report”. The trip report is a summary of a canoe trip, usually stressing the water level, number of rapids and portages, campsites and other practical matters. The sport is rare enough that these trip reports are an important resource for other canoeists. Sometimes they are the only way that you can know what you may run into on a certain route.

One good friend of mine is extremely diligent about preparing trip reports, and is also one of the most positive, optimistic people I have ever known. After reading his trip report about a trip that I know didn’t go nearly as well as he described it, I wrote the following:

Trip Report--the Donner Party--by P--- K---- Summary In short, although I cannot deny that we had our differences from time to time, I still believe that every person on the expedition made a contribution--in one way or another--to its success. Sure, there were disagreements and even a few people who criticized the route that we took, but in the end the group became almost as one. I wish that I had been able to spend more time with some members of the expedition, but I appreciated in unexpected ways the qualities of even those persons that failed to complete our travels. The scenery was spectacular, even if we did not see as much wildlife as we had hoped. Even though the trip took far longer than expected, I can say that I would look forward to tripping again with those members of the group that were not eaten, so long as we did not do so in winter weather and sufficient supplies were available. I believe that I became a much better person and learned a great deal about tripping from this experience. It may take a little more planning time, but I look forward to using the lessons I learned in even more ambitious trips.

My brother, who has the true Midwestern ability to tell you everything you need to know in the fewest words possible, shortened the trip report to this:

Long trip, Short on food, damn snow. Won't take that route again. Need new recipes.

If any of you aren’t familiar with the Donner Expedition, you can find information here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donner_Party.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Westerns: Stagecoach and The Unforgiven, Part II

As good as the movies are in themselves, I am even more struck by the enduring place the Western plays in American mythos. Even though made fifty-five years apart, both Stagecoach and The Unforgiven treat the west in the same way—almost as a character in the film. The American West has, for almost all of our history, been a place where character is revealed. Somehow the vast spaces and relative isolation serve, in our mythology, to more fully reveal character. Perhaps it is because with people so few that each person becomes more important, magnified and seen fully as an individual.

The west is where we go for a new start. The writer Wallace Stegner said of the American West that it is, “The native home of hope.” It’s the place where Americans go for new beginnings—from Davy Crockett to Tom Joad to Jack Kerouac. Rarely is the west seen as an easy and pleasant place. It is a harsh landscape without water. Monument Valley, the iconic western vista where Stagecoach and many other westerns was filmed, is dramatic and beautiful, but one of the most desolate landscapes in the country.

The inescapable drama of the western background thrusts the character dramas into the foreground. Taken out of any social context, people are free to become themselves, whether that is good or bad.

The choices characters make in there movies, to be brave or to be a coward, to choose violence or to walk away from it, to do or to do evil, are theirs alone. No rules of society, no religion, no counselors are available to guide their actions. America has always placed, more than any other country in the world, the responsibility for what you do squarely on the individual him- or herself. The West is America distilled.

Stagecoach, which is much more an ensemble piece than The Unforgiven, makes its distinctions between characters. Under pressure some characters reveal themselves as heroes, while others are cowards. Some come to fully express their humanity and others show their weaknesses. In The Unforgiven, the tension is much more within each character than between them. Good and evil is mixed in every character, and especially in that of William Muny, the lead character played by Clint Eastwood.

I think it is a particularly American trait to see good and evil as a purely individual expression; outside and independent of our relation to other people. It is, in all probability, both our great strength and our great weakness.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Westerns: Stagecoach and The Unforgiven, Part I

It so happened that over the last week I saw two of the greatest Westerns of all time—Stagecoach and The Unforgiven. I rarely watch Westerns and I had never watched either of these movies all the way through before, so it was an eye opening experience.

For those of you who aren’t movie buffs, Stagecoach is a 1939 John Ford Western starring John Wayne. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including best director and best picture, but won only Best Supporting Actor (William Mitchell) and Best Music. The plot is straightforward. A group of strangers, a sheriff, a wagon master, a pregnant southern lady, a Confederate gambler, a drunken doctor, a traveling whiskey salesman, a prostitute, a banker and an escaped convict all end up on a stagecoach trip together. Complications ensue not only from the interaction of the characters, but because Geronimo is on the warpath and the expected cavalry escort isn’t available.

The Unforgiven is Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western, which he both directed and starred in. The Unforgiven was nominated for nine Oscars and won four: Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman; Best Film Editing; Best Director and Best Picture for Clint Eastwood. Once again the plot is straightforward. Clint Eastwood is retired gunfighter and unsuccessful pig farmer, William Muny, who is raising two children on his own after the death of his wife. He hears about a reward offered by a group of prostitutes to kill a cowboy who has disfigured one of them with a knife. Muny recruits his old partner, played by Morgan Freeman, and sets off to Big Whiskey to earn the reward. At the same time other gunfighters are arriving and the town’s sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, is trying to run the gunfighters out of town.

Even though made more than fifty years apart, the movies share a lot of similarities. Both movies are still very watchable; both have sophisticated character development; both treat minority characters with more respect than you might expect (especially in 1939); and both movies use the western setting for a complicated rumination on the nature of good and evil. In Stagecoach the characters introduced as respectable turn out to be less good than the characters who are not respectable. The whore (of course) turns out to have a heart of gold; the ex-con faithfully keeps his word; and the drunken doctor successfully delivers a baby on the trip, while the banker turns out to be an embezzler and the Confederate gentleman less than honorable.

The Unforgiven does much of the same—the saloon girls unexpectedly band together to avenge one of their own and the sheriff turns out to be a sadistic brute—but most of the drama is played out within William Muny, the lead character. He wants to believe he is not the evil man he once was and honor the memory of his late wife, but he needs money for his family and can justify, at least in part, his actions because the victim deserves his punishment.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Perils of Translation

The Re:Vision Dallas project has generated quite a bit interest around the internet. In fact, my words have been translated into several foreign languages. And, unfortunately, in at least one case back into English.

Apparently when you translate my words first into French, and then back into English, this is what you get:

A townswoman community maturing confederation, the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation (CDC), is the screened the method developer fitted the chuck. It was precise unfolded that a chunk of people had crush their hearts and souls into this championship,’ said CDC Executive Director John Greenan. ‘The excellence of the remembrances and travail of the interest teams is astounding. ‘It was an unmixed freedom spending at intervals with the championship entries and seeing their archetypal mirage.’

From http://mon.vipublog.com/architecturecompetitions/2009/06/04/revision-dallas-competition-announces-three-winners-archicentral/.

I have no idea what it means, but it is surely profound--I've often wanted to enjoy “unmixed freedom” and see an "archetypal mirage".

Just for comparison here (I believe) is the original passage that I wrote, that spawned the version above:

A local community development organization, the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation (CDC), is the lead developer for the project. “The q uality of the thought and effort of the design teams is astounding. It was very clear that a lot of people had put their hearts and souls into this competition,” said CDC Executive Director John Greenan. “It was an absolute privilege spending time with the competition entries and seeing their creative vision.”

I’m still looking for the intermediate French version—I bet I sound even better in French!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Re:Vision Dallas FAQ 6/4/09, Part III

The last of the FAQs, talking about how many new jobs will be created and if anybody is against the project:

2. How will this affect Dallas economically? Will new jobs be created with the building of this project? If so, how many and what types?

New jobs will be created, both during construction and afterwards. I can't tell you exactly how many yet, but they will include not only the usual construction jobs but as well jobs related to renewable energy production--"Green Jobs". Once it’s operating, the project will create the usual jobs related to operating rental housing, and in addition small businesses, maintenance of the renewable energy and even a little bit of urban farming will create more jobs. Once we determine which of the winning designs will get built then we will be able to quantify the number of jobs created, but it will be more the CityWalk project we are just completing downtown and the number should be significant.
The greatest economic impact will come from rebuilding a long neglected part of downtown. There are probably an additional half dozen underutilized blocks in the area of the project, and once we prove up the viability of rebuilding the south central part of Downtown Dallas, I think all those blocks will also be revitalized. What I would love to see is an entire section of downtown notable for innovative, sustainable design--an attraction in the southern part of downtown balancing the Arts District in the northern part of downtown. There are already some interesting, green projects in The Cedars immediately to the south of downtown. a sustainable district that extends from downtown all the way into The Cedars neighborhood is a very reasonable possibility.

3. Has there been any resistance, from the Dallas community, to the building of this block and if so how is the city handling it?

So far we haven't had any resistance whatsoever to Re:Vision Dallas. Instead we've seen a lot of enthusiasm and a great desire to get involved. I think as the project gets better known and closer to completion that that enthusiasm will continue to grow. Dallas is a city that likes big ideas and believes that with commitment and hard work anything is possible. People here, from the Mayor on down, don't see any reason why in ten years Dallas shouldn't be one of the world's centers of sustainable technology.

That’s it for these basic questions. I hope if anybody thinks of something else that needs to be added to these FAQs that you’ll let me know. We’ve only got eight of them, and my ordered mind thinks that we really should have exactly ten—so I’m looking for two more basic questions to add to these. Thank you.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Re:Vision Dallas FAQ 6/4/09, Part II

Picking up from yesterday with the question everybody wants to know and I can’t really answer yet, “What’s the City of Dallas going to put in to the project?”

2. It seems I read somewhere that the city of Dallas was contributing $10m to the funding, is this true?

We are a little early on to be talking about the commitment of specific dollars by the City of Dallas to the project--I haven't even had a chance to show the winning designs to city officials yet. But the Dallas is clearly committed to this project, Mayor Leppert has made that clear, and we've been having discussions with key city officials for some time now. I fully expect the City of Dallas will make a very significant financial contribution to the project--enough to make sure it gets built and is successful. No question $10 million is probably in the right ball park, but it may take more or less. We'll work that out with the city over the coming months. We've already seen some very creative financing ideas from the City of Dallas.

3. What is the specific level of involvement of the city of Dallas within this project?

The City of Dallas has been involved from the very beginning. The Dallas Design Charette was held at City Hall with the Mayor giving the introductory address and city officials from all the key departments in attendance. It isn't just the City of Dallas that was involved, though. A whole range of public and private entities are already involved in this project. Re:Vision Dallas is a community project.

4. The organization behind this is from San Francisco (urban re:vision) why doesn’t Dallas do this on its own?

I suppose Dallas could have, but Urban Re:Vision already had the very specific expertise that we needed--running design contests for sustainable projects. Urban Re:Vision did a wonderful job and attracted an amazing number of brilliant designs to the competition. Remember, the Re:Vision Dallas competition was worldwide in scope. The winners were from Europe, North Carolina and San Francisco. Entries came from fourteen countries and included some excellent designs from here in Dallas--I think at least one, perhaps two, Dallas entrants are going to get special mention from the jury. One of the top six entries did come from Texas, although it was from Houston.
In short, we probably could have run a design contest, but I doubt we could have done it as well as Urban Re:Vision has. As a proud “Dallasite”, I would rather how San Francisco let Dallas get ahead of it on this project.

5. Are any stimulus funds being used for this project? If so, how are those being obtained and will they be put towards a specific aspect of this project?
We are still going through the funding that's becoming available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to see what funding may be available for this project. Many of the programs have yet to issue the rules to access them, so we'll just have to wait and see on those programs. Several programs extended or expanded by ARRA will almost certainly be involved: renewable energy credits; New Market Tax Credits; and Low Income Housing Tax Credits.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Re:Vision Dallas FAQ 6/4/09, Part I

Recently I was asked to answer a series of basic questions about the Re:Vision Dallas project—to create a Re:Vision FAQ. I thought readers might find this information interesting, so I’ve decided to print it here in easily digestible pieces over the next three days:

1. How is the Dallas block being funded? Who will build it?

The Central Dallas Community Development Corporation (Central Dallas CDC) is building and funding the development. Central Dallas CDC is a non-profit corporation with CHDO (Community Housing Development Organization) status from the City of Dallas. Its mission is to increase the supply of affordable housing as part of the diverse, economically-mixed neighborhoods of inner city Dallas. They may partner with a for-profit organization in the building of the block, but that is not confirmed yet. The Re:Vision Dallas project is not much bigger than the City Walk project that the Central Dallas CDC is about to complete so it is not out of the question that the Central Dallas CDC would build the entire project.

Funding will be handled in a three parts, overseen by the CENTRAL DALLAS CDC:

1. Energy-producing components: The cost is estimated between $5 and $10 million. The CENTRAL DALLAS CDC will finance this by creating a limited liability company (LLC), financed by New Market Tax Credits and by wrapping up renewable energy tax credits and subsidies available from energy providers that will own the energy producing capacity of the project. If necessary the CENTRAL DALLAS CDC will obtain grants or investments from foundations, but current calculations show that the CENTRAL DALLAS CDC can pay the capital (outside of the credits, which don't get paid back) back within three years by the sale of the energy produced, which is much better than most investments.

2. Affordable housing: Funding here will be provided by Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), estimated amount is $20 million which could net up to $15 million after sale. Loans and grants will make up any gaps in funding – much like City Walk, which is now being completed.

3. Market-rate housing: Funding will be provided by a combination of Tax Increment District Financing (expected amount is $10 million), loans, city funding and probably a program related investment from a local foundation. The CENTRAL DALLAS CDC is currently in conversation with some foundations about that possibility.

Total cost is estimated at $60 million ($10m for energy; $20m for affordable; $30m for market)

2. What does this project mean to the city of Dallas and what impact will it have, once built?

I think Re:Vision Dallas is going to change the way people look at Dallas. Dallas--like most sunbelt cities--has more to gain than any other area of the United States from sustainable technology. Our period of greatest energy usage coincides with the best period to produce solar energy, the summer when we need air conditioning, so we have the possibility of vastly reducing the needs for new power plants by employing renewable energy sources. Peak power and peak loads come at the same time. Texas already leads the nation in wind production. It's possible that Re:Vision Dallas, along with other initiatives already in place, will help make Texas a leader in solar power as well, and maybe even geothermal energy.

That's just part of what the project will do. The winning designs are so striking--both beautiful and unusual--that we think the project will be a must see destination. The urban farming incorporated in the designs will bring attention to the Slow Food movement and help accelerate the growth of Dallas's Farmer's Market, which is only a short distance away. In the end, I think the project will have more impact than we can even imagine now.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

National Accordion Awareness Month

I’m sure that you knew that June is National Accordion Awareness Month—or maybe not. I’ve always found the accordion to be a fascinating instrument. Where I grew up in the upper Midwest, it was the instrument of Polka bands. No wedding or community gathering was complete without a Polka band, and you could count on hearing one every Saturday night in the local bars. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard “The Beer Barrel Polka”!

The best known Polka musician was Frankie Yankovic, known as “America’s Polka King” after he famously beat Duke Ellington in a battle of the bands in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That’s a serious hometown advantage! I can’t imagine the same result anywhere but in the upper Midwest.

After I became interested in Irish music, I was surprised to find out that the accordion was a staple instrument in traditional Irish music, but the instrument was the button accordion, not the piano accordion used in Polka bands. The button accordion is set to play in only one musical key, so it’s limiting in a certain sense, while the piano accordion is more flexible. But since most traditional Irish music is in one key anyway, it isn’t much of a limitation. The piano accordion has the advantage of being easier to play by ear, and since many traditional musicians don’t read music, that advantage outweighed any disadvantages.

After I moved to Texas, I was surprised to find that the button accordion was also a staple of a lot of Hispanic music, especially conjunto music. Esteban “Steve” Jordan, an illiterate, all but blind from birth, musician is the probably the best known conjunto accordion player—he’s been called the “Jimi Hendrix” of accordion players for his virtuosity. NPR did a profile, including a sample of his music, here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104845790.

The common thread among all these styles of music: polka, Irish and conjunto; is they evolved for a small number of musicians to play, without amplification, before a large audience or at a dance. Wind instruments and drums can easily provide enough volume to be heard in those types of venues, while string instruments usually can’t. If you needed a portable instrument with high volume and the capability of playing more than one note at a time, then the accordion was almost your only good choice before the electric guitar and keyboard. So wherever you have a folk tradition, older than electricity, of traveling bands, you will find accordion players. In addition to the traditions I have mentioned, there are accordion traditions among the Basques and Romas, in France, Germany, Eastern Europe, South America and probably other places I don’t know about.

If you want to hear a great sample of accordion styles, then you should mark your calendar for the International Accordion Festival in San Antonio, Texas, which will be held this year on October 9-11, 2009. The website is here: http://www.internationalaccordionfestival.org/.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

508 Park, Robert Johnson, and the Blues

When you work in an inner city nonprofit, then you get a chance to see a lot of things that most people don’t. Today I got to see the building at 508 Park in Downtown Dallas where in 1937 the blues artist Robert Johnson made his second, and last, recording. Built in 1929, the building’s owner is now considering demolition.

The largest problem with the property is its location directly across the street from First Presbyterian Church of Dallas’s outreach to the homeless, the Stewpot. Since 1975 the Stewpot has been offering a wide array of services to the homeless, You can upload the impressive list of services here: http://thestewpot.org/pdf/stewpotservices.pdf.

Central Dallas CDC also works with the homeless, so I have great respect and admiration for the work done by the Stewpot. I also have sympathy for the property owner. Any place where large numbers of homeless people congregate is going to be affected adversely—that’s one reason why we’re working so hard to create housing for people who are now homeless. It’s good for them; it’s good for the City of Dallas; it’s good for all of us both body and soul.

Still it would be a crying shame to see the place where Robert Johnson recorded classic blues tunes like “Love in Vain”, “Hellhound on My Trail”, and “Me and the Devil Blues” torn down. Robert Johnson’s music was rediscovered in the 1960s and was seminal to the growth of rock ‘n roll, among other musical genres. His “Crossroads Blues” is one of the best known of all blues tunes, and helped give rise to the legend that he sold his soul to the devil in return for his talent.

Robert Johnson’s legend has gone beyond music and appears all over American popular culture. The character “Tommy Johnson” in the Coen brother’s movie O, Brother Where Art Thou? was based on Robert Johnson and the American Indian writer Sherman Alexie wrote the novel Reservation Blues where Robert Johnson’s legacy figures prominently.

Eric Clapton has recorded not one, but two, CDs devoted entirely to the works of Robert Johnson, Me and Mr. Johnson and Sessions for Robert J. Parts of the latter CD were actually recorded by Clapton on the third floor of 508 Park on June 3, 2004, including “Terraplane Blues”, “From Four Until Late”, “Love in Vain”, “Hellhound on My Trail”, and “Me and the Devil Blues”—all of which were recorded by Robert Johnson in the same location sixty-seven years earlier.

So I visited the site this morning in the company of local associate architect and trustee for the Dallas Historical Society, Dan Finnell, who took the pictures of the property that appear here. It isn’t within the normal scope of work for me, but somebody needs to try to save this piece of Dallas history, and, no matter how long a shot it may be, Dan and I are going to make an effort to find a way to preserve this piece of history. Dan has already been in touch with Robert Johnson’s grandson, who runs the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation (http://www.robertjohnsonbluesfoundation.org/index.html) and the family would very much like to see this site saved.

If you want to help, or have an idea how it could be done—or better yet are already working on saving 508 Park and we can help you—please let us know. Losing this building would destroy an important piece of Dallas’s, and music’s, history.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Meadows Museum: Looking at Dallas Like You Weren’t From Here

When you live somewhere it’s surprisingly easy to overlook some wonderful places to go. I was reminded of this a week or so ago when, over a period of less than a week I visited three museums—two in San Francisco and the Meadows Museum here in Dallas. The museums in San Francisco (the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) were impressive, but the Meadows Museum is also impressive and you only have to go as far as the SMU campus to see it.

The Meadows Museum has the best collection of Spanish Art outside of Spain, and while it isn’t quite up to the standard of the Prado, which I visited last fall, it still has an impressive enough permanent collection to hold your attention for at least an hour or two—and that’s about as long as I like for a museum visit anyway. We weren’t there to see the permanent collection, however, but the Etruscan exhibit. It was fascinating. Etruscan culture is both familiar to me from the study of classics and unknown, because almost nothing survives in the Etruscan language—only two works longer than 100 words still exist. The last person known to read Etruscan was the Roman Emperor Claudius, who died in 54 A.D.

The Romans defeated the Etruscans in their first great war of conquest and the entire culture disappeared. In any event, the sculpture left on their tombs and temples was impressive, as you can see from the picture. I was most affected by the enormous number of decorated safety pins in the exhibit—necessary without buttons—and other simple items, like a kitchen strainer. The strainer, in particular, was almost identical to one I use every week.

The Meadows Museum is free on Thursday evenings, as is parking in its garage. Beginning on June 21, 2009, a special exhibit of Diego Rivera’s portraits will be featured. You can’t be the price.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Capitalism without Capitalists: David Brooks Weighs In, Part V

Just when I was about to give up all hope that the pundocracy would recognize the basic problem with General Motors was with its culture, the urbane and articulate New York Times columnist David Brooks weighs in. His story was reprinted on Wednesday, June 3, 2009 in the Dallas Morning News: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/viewpoints/stories/DN-brooks_03edi.State.Edition1.2685954.html.

Mr. Brooks (writing with the assurance that only attending the right schools, being invited to the right parties and a summer home in the Hamptons can convey) does an excellent job of explaining why the culture at General Motors led to its failure—the same point I have been making in my series of blogs. He is almost always worth reading.

Alas, however, rather than seeing hope in the changes now taking place, Mr. Brooks sees only the possibility of failure because it is the government that is forcing the changes. I am sure that the sense of frustration I am feeling is shining through. I’ve had the opportunity to hear and speak with Mr. Brooks and he is educated and intelligent beyond all measure. He is a person against whom you would lose any argument, whether you were right or wrong, simply because he is smarter than you.

I am frustrated because all this intelligence is wasted. Mr. Brooks makes his living articulating a moderate Republican point of view (he used to make his living articulating a conservative point of view, but apparently that has become less lucrative). Moreover, as a columnist, he feels no duty to propose solutions, only to criticize what is being done from his very studied, reasonable and moderate position. He is just as happy criticizing the Obama administration for government action to save GM as he would have been criticizing the Bush administration for letting GM fail. If only the

Reading Mr. Brooks is like watching a talented musician or ballplayer who refuses to do the hard work of learning their trade and instead gets by on their talent alone. I’m mesmerized by his talent, astounded by his intelligence and frustrated by his unwillingness to engage. At some point, I think you need to stop standing on the sidelines pointing out why failure is inevitable, and decide if the game is going on anyway that you might as well help try to win it.

Otherwise, you’re the intellectual equivalent of Gerald Green.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

CityWalk—Work and Tours

Danger and disaster, crises and complications all take a long time to describe and there is a lot to say about them. We haven’t had any such events lately at CityWalk (Thank God!), so I’ve been pretty quiet about what’s going on. Inside the building people are working—as many as ninety people working at once last week. The final design details have been completed—exciting stuff like how to waterproof a window that’s closer to a column than the architects would like (they rejected out of hand my suggestion that we just furnish every resident with a caulking gun).

The rooms are rushing on toward completion. The air handler will be placed on top of the building on June 13. That’s an enormous piece of equipment. A crane is being brought in and we will have to close Akard Street between San Jacinto and Patterson for a day. As soon as the air handler is on the roof, then we can start working on the parking lots and the new entrance. The new windows have all been delivered and we’re starting to put them in place. That’s important because it means the building will finally be water tight. The elevators are ahead of schedule and should be working this month. The main electrical transformer is a little behind schedule and won’t arrive until sometime in July.

It’s all important but probably not very interesting, except to me and the other people working on CityWalk. Even less interesting is the work I’m doing on some budget amendments to reflect a few change orders or a technical amendment to the loan documents we are working on.

When you’ve worked on a project as long as I have at CityWalk, every detail is interesting. There’s a whole history to our efforts to repair the fountain on the third floor deck (at a reasonable cost); to the extent we’re building out the first floor bathrooms; to how we resolve a place where the level of the concrete flooring is uneven in one of the units. Each problem, no matter how small, has to be confronted and resolved. Every change to every document has to be reviewed and scrutinized and either approved or revised.

I had a number of people in to tour CityWalk last week. There was a whole group from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. It was a public performance and went well, although when I talk to a group of forty people I am always a little disappointed that I can’t meet and get to know each of them. Forty people is a speech; not the conversation I prefer.

Michael German also came. He’s the National Team Leader for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (don’t you love federal titles!). He’s the person in charge of the federal efforts to end homelessness. His tour was more satisfactory to me.

Mr. German visited the building late in the afternoon, after normal working hours. The only people in the building were he and I and Brian, from our general contractor. Brian’s job was, in reality, to make sure we didn’t hurt ourselves on the construction site. The visit was wonderful, because Michael German was interested in every detail of the building and every detail of our work with homeless people and in no hurry at all to complete his tour.

I imagine in part that was because his evening was only going to be spent alone in a hotel room, working. But it was also clear that his interest was real and with just the two of us, and Brian, away from the press or other officials, Michael was free to be himself and to be interested in the work of ending homelessness. I think we both found it energizing to just talk about our work, without concerns about what people might think or how the press might use our words. I know Mr. German is accountable to the public and even I, in a much lesser way, have to remain conscious of my public image, but it was wonderful not to have to worry about that.

It was a real pleasure to spend a couple hours just talking with someone with a deep understanding about how to do our work. Nothing was for show or said to impress. Afterwards I felt better for days about the quality of the work of our federal officials. Mr. German could have skipped the tour and spent the evening relaxing in his hotel room. No one but I would have known the difference.

The picture is of Michael German (in the upper left, standing) in a more typical setting for his work, I am afraid, with the Riverside, California City Council.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Capitalism without Capitalists, Part IV

Now GM has an owner, even if it is the government, and I hope that changes things. Ownership gives you a different view.

Recently I had a conversation with a local real estate developer, and he told me a brief story. A few years ago, he found a development partner with a very substantial net worth, enough so that my friend’s guaranty on the loans on the real estate projects he was working on was really not meaningful compared to his partner’s much larger net worth and guaranty. He asked the bank to make a loan based solely on the partner’s guaranty. The bank said no, it wanted his guaranty as well. The bank wanted him at risk as well—not because of the money involved, but because that would guaranty his full concentration on the project.

The maxim, “Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging,” is attributed to various people, including Mark Twain and Judge Roy Bean, but it seems to have originated in some slightly different lines by Samuel Johnson, in any event I think it gets to the truth of this situation. When you are at risk, then you bring a whole different level of concentration to a problem. No one person or group of people has had the responsibility of owning GM for many years now.

Without a personal risk, GM’s management just went on doing things the way it had always done them and expecting the same results. Even when Kerkorian tried to tell GM’s management in 2006 that it wasn’t 1970 anymore, and that GM would never again have a 50% share of the automobile market in the United States, nobody would listen. Just a couple of months ago, GM’s CEO Rick Wagoner was forced out because he kept submitting reorganization plans that made unrealistic assumptions about GM’s potential market share.

It’s hard to know if the government will make the right decisions to bring GM back to health or not. I hope when President Obama said, “I don’t want to run auto companies” that the missing corollary was, “but I’ll do it if I have to.” The culture at GM is entirely incapable of facing the current realities. If somebody doesn’t take ownership and force GM to do what it needs to do to survive, then it will fail. I am optimistic that the bankruptcy filing means that GM’s management has been forced to concentrate, given what’s going to happen otherwise.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Capitalism without Capitalists, Part III

In 2006, when Kirk Kerkorian sold his GM shares, the value of a share of GM stock was at about $30. Last Friday GM closed at less than $1.00 per share and trading has been halted because of the bankruptcy. GM would listen to Kerkorian three years ago, but more surprisingly, GM wouldn’t even consider the steps necessary to save itself as recently as this winter—after it was already surviving on government handouts.

I think the problem was GM’s size. Not because it was too large to make the changes necessary, but because GM was so large that it spawned a culture that precluded seeing the necessity of change. As recently as last fall, GM employed almost 250,000 people, and that’s a substantial decline from its high in 1970 of 395,000. GM has been Michigan’s biggest company and biggest employer for many years. In 1949 GM already had more than 220,000 employees in Michigan.

Rick Wagoner, who is pictured here, was a GM lifer. He joined GM in 1977 after graduating from Harvard Business School and worked at GM for over thirty years until he was forced to retire as CEO and Board President this winter. As far as I can tell, Mr. Wagoner never held a job with anyone other than GM. You need to understand how dominate GM has been in Michigan and how large and successful GM was for decades to understand why it couldn’t change. There was a GM way of doing things; a company culture that was all pervasive and dominated the way the company and everyone in it thought. People worked their entire lives at GM. At one time it was the largest company in the world and it was all centered in Detroit, a company town.

For real insiders it was unthinkable that GM could ever fail—and I don’t mean this as a metaphor, GM executives had a worldview that didn’t allow them to see a world without GM. Look at the idealized view of the Fisher Body Plant in Flint, Michigan. Then compare it to a recent picture.

The world fell down around them and GM never noticed.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Capitalism without Capitalists, Part II

General Motors has now filed for bankruptcy and when it re-emerges from bankruptcy a majority of the stock of the company will be owned by the United States Government. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but at least it’s different and worth thinking about for a moment.

First, it’s important to understand that this isn’t socialism—the company won’t be owned by its workers (although a trust for the healthcare for UAW workers will be the second largest shareholder). This is state capitalism. GM will still be operated as a for-profit company with the goal of making money for its shareholders. It’s just that the shareholders will be the United States taxpayers.

Listening to the comments from the pundocracy, I’ve been most struck by the fact that the biggest concern seems to be that the government may do something as the owner of GM. Now, the government may turn out to be a bad owner and a bad capitalist (I don’t think that would surprise anybody), but what is the alternative?

Up until now GM has been run only by its executives without any input from its owners. I imagine that’s because GM is owned by thousands of different entities, many of them mutual funds that themselves have thousands of owners. None of these entities or people owned enough of GM’s stock to influence its behavior, and most of them probable don’t know any more than you or I about running an automobile company.

Back in 2006, Kirk Kerkorian, the billionaire investor, actually accumulated 9.9% of GM’s stock and forced GM to put a board member of his choosing, Jerome York, on its board. He came up with some innovative ideas to try to put GM back on the right track, presented them to the Board of Directors and was promptly ignored. Shortly after he left the Board of Directors and Kerkorian sold all of his GM his stock before the end of 2006.

Many of the ideas put forth by Kerkorian—selling Hummer and Saturn, closing plants, cutting back on the number of brands and dealers—are just what GM is doing in bankruptcy. In 2006, when the economy was strong, it would have been much easier to turn GM around, then it is now, but GM wasn’t willing to listen.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Vision Dallas in Unfair Park

Any wise person is nervous to find out that there’s an article about him in Unfair Park, but I was in it today. Check out the article here: http://blogs.dallasobserver.com/unfairpark/2009/06/youre_gonna_see_one_of.php.

I hate to admit it, but the quotes even seem accurate—as well as I can remember what I said a few minutes ago!