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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Education: one key to urban revitalization

The Courier-Post has an investigative article today about absentee rates of teachers in the Camden city district schools. It's not pretty. Teachers have a generous leave policy, sick days that roll over until retirement (with a recently created cap), and a possible absentee rate this is higher than the student rate of absence. I say possible because apparently the record keeping on this kind of thing is poor. Absentee rates may be higher. I'm betting that the roll over days are meticulously kept...

I don't want to jump on the teacher bashing bandwagon, because I believe they do have a difficult job. Anyone who thinks a teacher works from 8-3 and has summers off, obviously has never been a teacher. Teachers have to do breakfast duty to monitor kids who come for their morning meal. They have to do lunch duty and give up their own meal. They have to do bus duty after school and stay late. They grade papers, do lesson plans, prepare materials during the after 3pm time. They take time to supervise after school activities, attend parent teacher meetings, make follow up phone calls at night, and the list goes on. It's easy to bash teachers for taking too much sick time, but let's keep it in perspective.

Camden schools have a teacher absence issue. This not only relates to the loss of continuity for students, but the cost of the additional pay laid out for substitute teachers. There are learning impacts and financial impacts for the district. Neither are good.

One of the points raised in the article is that teachers are stressed and sometimes need a down day. Um, you're kidding right? How can a teacher that lives outside the district be more stressed than a student that lives in the district? Think about the fact that your students make it to class and you are not there because you need a down day? Really? If the job is too stressful, find another job. The future of these scholars is a life and death issue - their education is what may save their life from the streets, from crime, from poverty. And you have stress?

I'm in a Camden elementary school once a week and now am increasing to twice a week until my little sister gets her science grades up. I see the good and the bad of what teachers have to deal with. I see the crummy conditions in which teachers have to teach, supervise, and be professionals. I see the difficulty that students create and have in getting to school, being in school, learning, and interacting with their peers. But it is what it is and it is the job you signed up for. But I worry greatly about a district that can't even keep proper records! How can it possibly support it professional staff in the classroom?

Make no mistake about it - the success of the education system in Camden is crucial. It affects not only the lives of the students, but their families as well. It affects the economic options for the city and everyone who lives in the city. It affects the business environment, the housing environment, and the city tax stream. Everyone in Camden should be working to create a world class educational system. And if that means starting with better record keeping, then get on it! We have a world class University here that I am sure could send some business students over to clean up the record keeping infrastructure in a few days. We MUST hold the district accountable and be there to HELP and SUPPORT the district. The district MUST be willing to accept help and stop being an insulated, self-indulgent island.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Conventional Revitalization will not save Camden

John Kromer, author of the recent book Fixing Broken Cities, wrote an op ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the future of Camden. He gives several suggestions to the new mayor of Camden on development projects that will help turn the city around. Each has its value and all are conventional redevelopment techniques that are taught in every urban planning, urban studies, or urban development course in higher ed in this country. I respect Mr. Kromer, who did a stint in Camden as the redevelopment director. He knows his stuff and is a seasoned professional.

But I have to say, I think he is absolutely wrong on this one.

Conventional redevelopment assumes that what a city needs is rateables - property that will produce a stream of tax revenue to the city, and a density of uses that will create activity, energy, and spending of discretionary income. This is a winning formula for most urban downtowns in the last 20 years. Commerical development surrounded by tourist bubbles and hipster bubbles yields a positive economic cash flow. Camden certainly needs a positive economic cash flow. But rateables will not save Camden. I have a different view on the future.

Camden will not prosper without jobs and education. It is that simple.

Camden can build mixed income housing in Lanning Square for Cooper Hospital, mixed use at the water front (both north and south of the bridge), and rebuild its downtown (including the new DRPA developments planned around the transit stops) and marvel at the edifices. It won't solve the city's problems.

Camden has taxable property right now. The problem is that property owners cannot afford the taxes and new buyers wont buy because they don't think there is a return on investment, let alone adequate services for taxes paid. Bringing in more people who have higher incomes will yield two things - subsidized development that won't yield a positive tax revenue stream and expectations of a higher level of service that will be costly for the city.

Camden residents need jobs and education. It's that simple. Camden residents need assistance with business start-ups and expansion, green manufacturing, light industry, and urban agriculture. If Camden gets that right, it will create a climate for investment and that's when you can do the conventional redevelopment projects. Every dollar of federal grants, foundation assistance, and city revenue should be spent on items that create jobs and support education for residents of Camden. It's very nice that the Camden Reinvestment money paid for the RU law school expansion. It is a beautiful example of conventional revitalization. It does nothing to help educate the citizens of Camden. Same goes for the aquarium, music center, baseball stadium, and Victor building. All beautiful and each a fine example of conventional redevelopment. None of these provide education to the residents or significant job opportunities.

Camden just received $25 million in Neighborhood Stabilization funding from the feds. It will help to build, rehab, and tear down housing - all of which is badly needed. The estimates are that it will create 300 jobs. Let's be will create 300 employment opportunities. Some will last a month, some will last a year. Construction is a piecemeal industry and when the electrician's job is done, the drywall guy takes over. They are not the same person and these jobs don't last that long. Will Camden residents will get 100% of these jobs?

The most important strategy our new Mayor can take on is to devote the city to creating permanent jobs and to ensuring a world class education for K-12. The mayor has just been granted extraordinary powers over the city AND the school district. I hope she will use them well. Here are my recommendations (no offense Mr. Kromer, but I hope she takes my advise and not yours).

1. build things that will produce jobs, businesses, and green industry
2. commit to a public education system that works and support that system with every financial, political, and social piece of capital that Camden has.
3. reduce city services to the essentials of fire, police and courts, sanitation, and infrastructure. Make those services extremely efficient.
4. Every other worker should be focused on jobs and education - every planner, every human resource worker, every social service worker, every IT person - should have a clear mission and singular focus.

I know these are radical, and somewhat heretical suggestions. I'm not against redevelopment and in fact have taught and sung its praises for 20 years. I'm not against social services and helping folks with housing. I'm a neighborhood advocate. But Camden is on life support and unless the supplies get moving, people will die - just as we are witnessing in Haiti. Every reporter, every viewer of that catastrophe is asking - why aren't supplies getting to the people that need them? The large organizations, the military, and UN are worried about logistics and order and not creating more problems. Meanwhile people die in the streets.

Camden is at a crossroads. We have a golden opportunity to make the city a better place for its residents. What will it be Madame Mayor?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

It's MLK day - what is the measure?

Like many people, I have been paying attention to the Haiti earthquake aftermath. What a luxury that I get to sit here and type my thoughts on a computer and you get to read them. I have a bottle of water here, a comfortable chair, and time on my hands. The world in many places is cruel and difficult. It's hard for those of us in industrialized nations to see that. In some cases, it is just hard for people in middle and upper class surroundings to see that. Life is not great on the streets of Camden either, or Chicago, or D.C. or Kansas City. People die violent deaths, people go hungry, people are cold, and people live in their cars. Haves and have-nots - whether it is at the scale of country or at the scale of person - are an economic conundrum of a market-based society.

Prejudice and bigotry is, at its heart, a have/have-not dichotomy that is fueled by market forces. When people compete, we need a measure by which to assign value. If some people can be permanently marked down because of the color of the skin, there is a floor to which some people will never sink. This is why arguing against prejudice and bigotry is flawed. As long as one group can always have an "edge" on another group, it is in their self-interest to perpetuate those differences. Dr. King talked about the content of character and not the color of skin. Unfortunately, the content of character is not a recognizable commodity in the pursuit of economic advantage (unless you have a fixed, caste system as India once had). Color of skin, however, is measurable and indelible. Of course there are are exceptions - Sammy Sosa used a skin lightening product and has dramatically changed his color. Why he did this is for him to explain to his shrink, but he did not have to do it for economic gain.

Yet, Sammy may be perpetuating social myths. In many ethnic and race-based cultures there are social pecking orders that are based on skin color. The lighter the shade, the "higher" the status. This pecking order has had an effect on who gets what job or career, social standing in the community, who gets to marry whom, etc. So, perhaps the content of character does have a "look" that is measurable. I don't buy it, but then I am not part of this conversation.

President Obama, our first African-American president (a parent who is African and a parent who is American) has made MLK day a national day of service. People all over the country will be out and about tomorrow at parades, church services, community gatherings, and stopping in at food banks, neighborhood centers, soup kitchens, and wherever else they can lend a hand. We'll text our donations on our cell phones for Haiti relief funds and pause for a moment to count our own blessings. We'll put up with the nonsensical rantings of the pundits like Beck and Limbaugh who will no doubt take the occassion to lambast our President and besmirch the legacy of civil rights.

What do we do on Tuesday?

Work, school, chores, errands, and all the other elements of our daily life will consume our attention. We'll get back into the competition and assume our spots on the ladder, jockeying for position and for some of us, sighing relief that there will always be someone below us. Even as the tragedy of Haiti unfolded, there were haves and have-nots. Rescuers from foreign countries went to the UN building and promptly dug out white victims. Other white Americans were ferried onto planes for transport to reach medical attention outside of Haiti. Meanwhile, Haitains dropped dead in the street from exposure and wounds or died silently under the rubble. White journalists are roaming the streets bringing us the story - if they managed to get there with their equipment, why can't the - well you know the story.

This year, as you observe MLK day, in whatever fashion you do - even if it is just a passing glance as you enjoy a day off from work - think about how you benefit by silently oppressing others. We can't all be equal in our resources, but can we create a playing field where some are not economically penalized at their first breath because of their skin color?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Getting Cities to Work

I've been thinking about cities my entire life and as an adult, I've gotten paid to do it. Nice gig. But I feel guilty that I don't have the answer. I'm supposed to be about creating new knowledge and transmitting it to the next generation of scholars. I feel like if I were good at my job, cities like Camden would not be "cities like Camden." But then I realize that there are a zillion economists in the world and they get Nobel prizes and none of them foretold the current depression or can figure out how to fix it. I don't feel so bad.

Still, I have enduring faith that cities can work. People can live densely together and enjoy an uban environment. If we sold city living the way suburban marketers sold suburbs, we couldn't get into a city apartment - kind of the way Manhattan is - the most expensive real estate in the country. But Camden is not Manhattan and neither is Kansas City. Why are some cities working and some aren't? Maybe other cities need a song.

I've been thinking a lot about crowdsourcing lately. I think it originated as an IT term that has now made its way into trendy status as an approach to problem solving. Some people have appropriated it as a modern version of public participation, particularly in urban planning contexts. The idea is that a crowd of people can contribute to a solution better than a single expert. We used to call this consensus building through facilitation. Now it's crowdsourcing.

But I think for cities there is a real utility in this concept. If things are not working in a city as I outlined in my last post, then how can we go about fixing them? That's the traditional approach, right? If it doesn't work, then fix it! American ingenuity and all that. But what if more, better, different doesn't work? What if there is no fixing it? 20 or more years ago, Time magazine had a cover story that basically said, let's just let cities go and not fix them. Regionalism was just beginning to be faddish and people said let the central city die and we'll all move to the suburbs. It hasn't happened. Why? If cities are so bad, why don't people abandon them? Is that what is happening to Detroit? I don't think so. But the idea of "fixing" a city is a fallacy. It needs to be organized and operated as an environment that fits with the people. What we sometimes do is change out the people to fit the environment, aka gentrification. But what if we used a crowdsourcing technique to find an optimum way for a particular city to work?

Detroit is taking up urban farming. Why? Because land is cheap and plentiful (though polluted) and people need food they can afford. People who want to have local and green lifestyles also may like being in proximity to other people and things to do. This is why green living has become popular in places such as Chicago (though I don't think Grant Park is about to turn into a farm just yet). The naysayers say that Detroit is a manufacturing city (correction, "was"), or a tourist city (see baseball stadium and casino downtown), or a high tech city (maybe?). What if it is a green place that the people there are comfortable taking on and more people who want that come there? This is what the creative class is about. People such as Richard Florida dubbed it so, and turned it into a synonym for "hipster." But creative has many different contexts and outcomes. The crowd will determine what the creativity is and then enjoy it.

Today the NJ legislature announced that it was returning power to Camden and ending state management of the city. In addition, the state would provide a guarentee of funding and impose a new occupational fee in lieu of property tax on non-property tax paying buildings where people are employed (schools, hospitals, nonprofits, churches, government buildings). Ratables and generating income is what the city must be about. What if the crowd decided differently? What if, through crowdsourcing, people came up with inovative ideas that made sense to them? What if this became the centerpiece of transformation? Let's face it, urban renewal is designed to produce benefits for investors, not citizens. So what if we tried urban transformation built by citizens? Would that generate the foundation for a working city?
Here is an example from Cleveland!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

2010: New Decade, New Results

New Year's Resolutions are piling up and will likely find their way to the circular file in most of our lives. But, I've got one that I am determined to see through.

I resolve to take whatever approaches are necessary to generate the results we all want to achieve in our pursuit of urban revitalization.

I believe in the go hard or go home strategy. I don't like to take on small projects. :D

There are too many critical issues that must be addressed this decade to leave to the same old strategies. Detroit is changing and remaking itself before our very eyes. People are wising up to the devastation in our food supply from things like modified wheat and high fructose corn syrup. School systems are realizing that they must educate children and that the issues of the adults in the system are irrelevant if kids are not learning! Cities need to get on the ball and realize that they can't keep doing things the same way - because it is not working!

I read an article about Baton Rouge, LA and how they lost a homegrown tech company to North Carolina. Ouch. Seems that the school system was not producing an educated workforce that could take on the jobs at the company and LSU, the state university in this city, was farting around with some BS bureaucracy that the company did not have time to wait on. Gee, this sounds like Kansas City or Camden, or other cities that squander the resources they have and are inept at innovation or even supplying the basic services and conditions for which they could and should be responsible.

  • If a school district is not educating kids, it is not working.
  • If a city is not working with that school district to make sure kids are educated, then the city is not working.
  • If a city is more successful at incarcerating people than educating them, it is not working.
  • If it is easier to get a free meal than to get a job, then the city is not working (and neither are the citizens).
  • If people are more likely to buy junk food, processed food, and fast food than high quality fresh food, then the city is not working.
It does not take an advanced degree to recognize that these are basic issues and that our cities are incapable of succeeding at most if not all of them. How did this happen? When did cities stop working in such a profound way? I understand globalization and shifting economic forces. I understand that 10% of the population has more wealth than the other 90% in our country. I understand that the world is more complex these days, that knowledge is more difficult, and that our social, political, and economic systems are more complicated than ever before. But so what? At the turn of the last century we dealt with the transition from agrarian living to industrial living. Didn't we learn anything from that?

So what I hope to explore in this blog is how to keep this resolution. It cannot be done without taking into account the social polarization, racial divides, economic inequities, social injustices, and political demagoguery that we have all come to accept as the status quo. To suggest that "that's just the way it is" won't cut it anymore.

To quote a movie from my youth, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

But anger, dissatisfaction, and resistance will only take us so far. We need to have bold expectations that common results will actually occur. Kids will be educated and able to take on the world's challenges or at least be able to read at grade level upon graduation. Urban farming and green technology will become the mainstay of urban economies - or at least be present so that people will recognize that pollution and processed food are not the only option. Urban economies, development, and infrastructure will be sustainable and support the population - there is no compromise on this.

I know this is possible. There are brilliant ideas and movements available to achieve these results. The supply is there - we just have to demand it, purchase it, and implement it. Of course that is the tricky part - that requires serious conversation and building expectations.

Transformation is not easy or free. What are you willing to give up to make it happen?

Let's see how far we can take this.

PS: I get my attitude from the self discovery I have done through Landmark Education ( For those in the Philadelphia area, we are having a discovery of self - create what is possible session on Jan. 7 at 7pm in downtown Philly. It's free and it will be an incredible 3 hours to create what is possible in the new year. You also can sign up for the Landmark Forum, the doorway to doing whatever it is you want to do in your life. Contact me for details!