THE BLOG
07/25/2016 10:07 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2017

Back in Graduate School at Cities for Tomorrow

These are curious times. In Cleveland last week there was a strange gathering celebrating a narcissistic nativist who doesn't have a nice thing to say about anyone.

Luckily, I missed it. I was in New York back in graduate school.

My classroom, Cities for Tomorrow, is an annual convening by The New York Times of urban thinkers, policymakers, developers, entrepreneurs, industry leaders and others. You can view clips of the conference here.

And the message? Optimistic. Hopeful. Inspiring.

Sí, se puede.

How refreshing.

On the whole, the Times' program delivered as advertised, a chance to listen, learn and engage with smart doers and scholars about how the world's greatest cities succeed. Not in every sense of course, but in many ways our best cities are in decent shape and have become important sources of innovation for others around the world.

Monday's evening's session: Aspiration and Angst: What Do Our TV Shows Tell Us About Our Cities?

Meh!

After all, I live in Los Angeles and tend more toward The Wire than Odd Mom Out, Broad City and Sex and the City.

But on Tuesday, things were much more interesting. Kicking things off, Colorado Governor and former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper presented an upbeat picture of bipartisan collaboration describing how 33 diverse Denver area municipalities got together on the ambitious FasTracks transit system. Hickenlooper described how the leaders of the initiative used data to show the municipalities (whether they were getting a transit line or not) how they would benefit from greater mobility achieved through the plan's implementation.

That is surely a lesson that Los Angeles can use in promoting its own transportation initiative, Measure R2, on the November ballot. Indeed, Denver's former ‎GM & CEO at the Regional Transportation District, Philip Washington is now driving L.A.'s unprecedented transit building project at Los Angeles Metro.

Tipping his hat perhaps to his hosts at the country's newspaper of record, Hickenlooper made a point of noting how hard it is getting out the story on rail expansion in the Denver area.

The Governor's comments also went beyond Colorado, describing an exciting development from Utah where that state's governor brough together Wasatch Front communities to consider and agree upon what sort of infrastructure projects they need, including light rail and water projects.

After the Governor, the Cities for Tomorrow program continued with arguably the most interesting segment of the conference, a conversation between Senior Editor of Live Journalism Charles Duhigg, NYU Sociology Professor Eric Klinenberg and Rockefeller Foundation COO Peter Madonia. Madonia whose CV includes serving as chief of staff to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had me when he asked for a show of hands of those who remembered New York's 1977 blackout. He then proceeded to weave a memory of that challenging time for the all but bankrupt city. Loosely quoting, "Mayor Abe Beame may have been a great accountant but during the blackout he was like a deer in the headlights." Madonia's story about the rare resilience of his own neighborhood in the Bronx (Arthur Avenue?) at the time and the hastening of the destruction of the Bronx with the building of the Cross Bronx Expressway (I would add, the construction of Co-op City) transported us back to a time when no one would have called New York a City for Tomorrow. Recalling New York in the '70s, who over 50 doesn't remember Son of Sam, the City's near bankruptcy captured memorably in the Daily News headline, "Ford to City: Drop Dead" and Ed Koch's "How'm I doin'?"

And yet, nearly forty years on, New York is thriving, an economic engine like no other and a source of planning, transit and active transportation ideas for the nation and world.

The city of course struggles with countless common urban challenges including a shortage of affordable housing, the impacts of gentrification, a resilient epidemic of homelessness, underperforming schools, an overly taxed transit system coping with deferred maintenance (L Train anyone?) and indelible economic injustice. But still, New York's transit improvements including the 7 Train extension to the Hudson Yards, creation of park space on the waterfront, rebuilding following 911 and Hurricane Sandy and adaptive reuse of the High Line and other public spaces are models for cities near and far.

Though it is easy to forget, in the late '70s New York was able to turn itself around in large part thanks to strong municipal leadership and an unprecedented partnership between local government, labor (remember Victor Gotbaum), business and the philanthropic community (Rockefeller and others).

By the end of the session I had already gone on Amazon and ordered a copy of Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning.

Eric Klinenberg's research on the 1995 Chicago heatwave detailed what community resilience is all about in a grossly unequal city (particularly as it concerns violence), where more than 700 people died from the record heat. Klinenberg's research looking at socioeconomically similar neighborhoods found that in those areas with viable sidewalk businesses where people knew and interacted with one another the rate of death was far lower than in areas that had lost their businesses and open space. While we react strongly to hurricanes and other natural disasters, heat waves are largely invisible catastrophic events.

The discussion moderated by Allison Arieff of SPUR entitled, Change from the Ground Up, with Urban Planner Mike Lydon and Nashville Mayor Megan Barry was another of the conference's better sessions. In his remarks Lydon nicely summarized CicLAvia, the groundbreaking quarterly open streets event in Los Angeles as well as L.A.'s significant investment in mass transit and active transportation. Lydon emphasized the need for both big and small projects and the benefit of piloting your pilot be they parklets or open streets events.

In a panel on The Hungry Metropolis, restaurateur Danny Meyer got a chuckle with the quip, "Look for where the coffee goes." Even people who don't have too much money buy coffee. It used to be the new restaurants looked to where the prostitutes and artists were working, now it's coffee.

New York Times senior writer William Rashbaum's interview with novelist and screenwriter Richard Price was outstanding. Between his writing for The Wire, The Night Of and Clockers, IMHO there is no one alive today better at capturing the voices of those on the fringes of urban society.

Price's confessions and wisdom, in no particular order and as close to verbatim as my pen could capture:

Here's a dirty secret, I don't like to write. I'd rather hang out... and these are the people I'd like to hang out with.

Whatever people tell me, I'll tell them just as much about my life.

About cops, they have death on their hips.

Writing for me is about just being good company. First I get them to start talking. The second thing, get them to shut up.

It was 1989 and I was meeting with this big badass drug dealer. We're in his car and he's got a TV that plugs into his lighter and he's watching Days of Our Lives and he's driving like this...

About Harlem where Price now lives, the conversation turned to gentrification:

Everything being built in Harlem today is being built for me, maybe me thirty years younger.

On Whole Foods opening in Harlem: They know it's not for them. You have to save up to buy a banana in Whole Foods. I was hoping [the development of Harlem] would strike a balance but the truth is that when that Whole Foods went up, I knew it was over.

A detective once told me, "The two greatest crime fighters in the world are sheetrock and the crane."

On being a person of privilege today in Harlem:

1) Be a good neighbor;
2) Patronize the bodegas and other longtime community-owned businesses;
3) Smile at people and say hi; and
4) Do what you can (to give back).

The Design With a Mission segment featuring Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang interviewed by Big City Columnist Ginia Bellafante was a great close to a great conference. Having just been in Chicago where I took in Gang's visionary design and implementation of the Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk, I felt fortunate to have the chance to listen to such an influential architect. As I told Gang at the closing reception, with so much going on in Los Angeles that would benefit from her experience and expertise, I hope Studio Gang will consider competing for some of the L.A. River projects and other park design and architectural work underway out here on the Best Coast.

The use of data to drive the delivery of services and allocation of scarce civic resources, the significance of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), policing and an urban real estate boom like no other, were other topics taken up at The Times Center.

The conference format, mostly short (25 minute) one-on-one or one-on-two discussions, was spot on though for some of the sessions the Times might have made better use of visual media to illustrate a presenter's point. The five minute City Visions (à la Ted Talks) throughout the program offered mostly successful vignettes of innovative urban strategies such as LOVELAND Technologies' Jerry Paffendorf's idea for harnessing real property data to help save Detroit.

Over lunch, at randomly assigned tables, attendees were asked to consider, "What is the smartest new initiative your city has launched in the last decade?

Living in L.A., four developments came to my mind right away:

1) Measure R and Measure R2 which aim to fund the significant expansion of mass transit in the County;
2) The L.A. River restoration;
3) CicLAvia; and
4) While strictly speaking, it wasn't launched within the last decade, the redevelopment and transformation of L.A. Arts District with gems like the Hauser Wirth & Schimmel Gallery.

Elsewhere in the country, two transportation and/or active transportation projects I learned more about from fellow attendees include Chicago's 606, that great city's answer to the High Line and the Atlanta Beltline, a redevelopment project that is providing a network of public parks, multi-use trails and transit along a 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown.

Now if only all that knowhow and experience could help Los Angeles deal with the 33,000 acre Sand Canyon wildfire which has caused incalculable damage and the evacuation of 10,000 homes.

Kudos to The New York Times on Cities for Tomorrow. I hope I am invited back.

Yours in transit,
Joel