Saturday, May 31, 2008

New Places

Went to the Music Foundation's new Musicians' Resource Center on South Main last night. (My friend Jeff is secretly a Memphis music mogul, but don't tell anyone.) It was pretty swank. Almost made me wish I played some instrument, just so I could go there and use their computers. 

Then we headed over to the new downtown Blue Monkey. At the time the old Blue Monkey burned down, I think I was eating lunch there about once a week. I tried to go to the Midtown Blue Monkey in the interim, but the menu isn't the same. 

So I was pleased to see what looked like the old downtown menu back: there was the Bernie, the Havana, and all the yummy trolley car crisps. 

Also saw the likely new digs of the UrbanArt Commission on Broad last night. I am a big fan of Broad (with the exception of the car break-ins) and am interested in seeing how the new unified development code works out there. It has such good bones. 

Friday, May 30, 2008

odds and ends

— Next week, NPR's Steve Inskeep will begin a new series on growing cities by visiting Karachi, Pakistan. To hear a preview about the series, "The Urban Frontier, click here.

— The Memphis Police Department is urging women to "be on alert" because of a series of home invasions/incidents of sexual battery in apartment complexes near Quince and Kirby, Macon and Sycamore View and Trinity and Germantown.
In several of the assaults, victims have opened the door because of a knock and then been forced inside at gunpoint. In at least four of the nine home invasions, victims have reported a sexual battery. One victim reported a rape.
The suspect is described as a black male, approximately 6 feet tall, and 170 lbs. He may drive a dark colored Chevrolet Cobalt.

"Carbon chastity" and a call for nuclear energy, among other things.

Stonehenge = very large headstones. Radiocarbon dates from human cremations in and around the stones indicate the site was used as a cemetery from 3000 BC until after the monuments were erected. Researchers estimate up to 240 people were buried there.


I know this is an oversimplification, but ethanol is a good alternative fuel because it's made from a renewable resource — corn — but it's not a good alternative fuel for the same reason.

But in Sweden, there's an alternative fuel derived from a renewable resource that doesn't have another use (beside being gross).

Yes, that's right, they've been using sewage waste.

From a story in the International Herald Tribune:

"Cars using biogas created a stir when they began to be rolled out on a large scale at the start of the decade. The tailpipe emissions are virtually odorless, the fuel is cheaper than gasoline and diesel, and the idea of recovering energy from toilet waste appealed to green-minded Swedes.

'When you're in the bathroom in the morning and you can see something good come of that, it's easy to be taken in by the idea - it's like a utopia,' said Andreas Kask, a business consultant who drives a taxi in Goteborg. 'But it hasn't worked out that well in reality.'"

Ford-owned Volvo had been making the cars, but said they would stop production to focus on cars powered by an ethanol/gasoline blend. But Mercedes and Volkswagen plan to introduce new biogas cars in Sweden this year.

Of course, biogas doesn't sound like it's a complete solution: from what the average person flushes down the toilet each year, it creates enough biogas to drive about 75 miles.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Before I forget

This is sort of a little way off, but I told someone I'd mention it and so I'm just going to go ahead and do it, and probably (with a little luck) I'll mention it again.

The Coalition for Livable Communities will hold their Second Annual Summit for Neighborhood Leaders Saturday, June 28th, from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The agenda includes workshops on "green building for everyone," "the city-suburb connection," and something that I think could be very important — "Planning Boards and Commissions: A Citizens Guide to Development Decisions."

From the agenda: "Ever wonder how to get the development "powers that be" to pay attention? This workshop breaks down the planning process and shows you how to make the system work for you."

And all without a big stack of dollar bills in a paper sack.

The event is free, but registration is required. To do so, contact

meeting in the middle

The NYT has a story today about Portland's Restorative Listening Project, an effort to have "white people better understand the effect gentrification can have on the city's longtime black and other-minority neighborhoods."

"Once armed with a broader perspective, said Judith Mowry, the project’s leader, whites should 'make the commitment that the harm stops with us.' That might mean that whites appeal to the city to help black businesses or complain to companies that put fliers on the doors of black property owners encouraging them to sell."

The project, as I understand it, involves a series of meetings where people of color tell about racism and discrimination they have faced. The story notes that at least one participant said, "Where's this meeting going? No place. People get there and vent their frustrations, but who hears it?" Another said it was an example of white people trying to take her history.

Locally, CA columnist Wendi Thomas is leading an initiative called Common Ground. I applaud her for stepping up to do so.

Memphis is still a tale of two cities. Or a city divided, if you prefer.

I was talking to Divine Mafa yesterday and he said, "White people tell me there are a lot of black people downtown. Black people tell me there are a lot of white people downtown. Instead of being united, they act as if one particular race is supposed to be in one particular place."

And that right there is probably Memphis' biggest problem.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

for your sweet tooth

A berry that makes lemons taste like candy and Tabasco sauce taste like glaze.
If anyone does this here, please let me know.

they're not making any more of it

USA Today says that federal, state, and local governments are increasing spending for open spaces and parks.

The story cites $1 billion over 5 years in the farm bill to prevent farms and ranches from being developed, $300 million a year for 10 years for the Florida Forever program, and $100 million from a newly approved 30-year sales tax to buy land in Phoenix. All of which was from the past week.

From the story:

"The Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department had $15 million in cuts in its operating budget this year but will have more money than ever to acquire land. 'This proves that, even in a down market, people value open space and are willing to pay for it,' says Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensley.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Here's one thing I've been thinking more and more about these days:

Over the years, I've looked at more than a few of these cute little numbers (and some on ebay that frankly weren't so cute) but now they seem almost practical. And, apparently, I'm not the only one. The Wall Street Journal had a story recently about the growing popularity of motor scooters:

"As the market for trucks, cars and motorcycles sagged, first-quarter scooter sales were up 25% from a year earlier, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade group. Manufacturers attribute the growth in part to sustained high fuel prices."

The story mentions the trade-off between fuel savings and vulnerability on the road. Bigger isn't always better, but they don't call those things organ donator-mobiles for nothing. I don't see that being the main problem — Memphis isn't as highway-dependent as other cities when it comes to getting around town — though with Memphis drivers you can never be too careful. My concern is that there are places in this city where people would steal your mother if you left her alone too long.

But how can you argue with a chart like this?

There used to be Vespa dealer in town; it doesn't look like there still is. But I've heard that some of the scooter places on Summer are really nice and helpful ... and that someone local is going to start importing refurbished Vespas from ... Japan? ... this summer. Obviously, I don't have all the deets (or any of them), but once I get them, I'll pass them along.

"If it's yellow, let it mellow."

The NYT has a cute (tho sort of long) video on SEED house, the sustainability house at Oberlin College in Ohio.

The residents of the house, which opened last fall, are trying to reduce their ecological footprint in ways that the average homeowner can do easily: low-flow faucets, composting, using fluorescent lightbulbs.

"It's not superficially that different from a normal house," says resident Lucas Brown. "We don't want to scare a lot of people away by being too ridiculously green."

Like most college students, they're not about abstaining from things.

One of them says while it would be great if they could all take short, cold showers all the time, they realize that's not realistic. Instead, they put a bucket under the faucet while they're waiting for the water to warm up and reuse it. They also keep a bucket under the bathroom sink for the excess water from toothbrushing, face washing, etc. and pour it in the toilet tank.

(They also have a flushing policy — one that will sound sort of familiar to any of my female coworkers, tho very different! — but I'll let you check out the video for that.)

ps. There's also a companion story. I'm just a sucker for video.

Friday, May 23, 2008

odds and ends

— BusinessWeek has an article and sort of fun slide show about "traffic stopping" parking garages (in that way that parking garages aren't really fun at all, despite what a certain Union Avenue establishment would have you believe).

— The City Council's capital improvement budget wrap-up will be next Wednesday, May 28th, at 4:30 p.m.

— Healthy Memphis Common Table is seeking an executive director. The 501(c)(3) is the "health improvement collaborative for the Mid-South," working on nutrition, fitness, medical and poverty initiatives. For info on the organization, click here. For information on the position, click here.

— And the UrbanArt Commission is seeking art enhancements for Colonial Middle and Riverwood Farms K-8. For more information, click here. The proposal deadline is June 27th.

suburban stuck update

Today, the NYT has reaction to Paul Krugman's "Stranded In Suburbia" column (referenced here on the 19th).

Like usual, some people agree; some don't. Just thought I'd point out that one of the letters to the editor is from former Memphian and CEOs for Cities pres Carol Coletta.

Food vs. Fuel

Here's another startling confession: My all-time favorite food is movie-theater popcorn. So much so that sometimes I go to the movies not because I want to see a particular film, but because I want to eat popcorn for dinner.

Yesterday, USA Today had a story about the rising cost of popcorn, driven by the rising cost of corn. In a companion story, the newspaper also wrote how ethanol is becoming decidedly less popular as the price of corn rises:

"Rising global food prices and shortages have spurred calls in Congress to roll back the federal mandate to blend more ethanol and other biofuels with the gasoline supply. Critics say so much corn is being used for ethanol that there's less available for people and animals to eat, raising prices of everything from tortillas to meat."

And, apparently, movie theater popcorn.

But Pete Moss, president of agricultural consultants Frazier, Barnes & Associates, says "don't blame it all on ethanol."

Yesterday, at a West Tennessee Clean Cities Coalition meeting, Moss said that the culprit behind rising food prices is a combination of high energy prices and increased demand from India and China.

China used to be a net exporter of corn; now they're a net importer of corn. Higher fuel costs are compounded in each step of the growing process, from planting to delivery.

"Some of the [corn crop] is being devoted to ethanol, but it's not a large percentage," Moss says, citing that figure at about 20 percent.

But it seems biofuel producers are meeting with some pushback. The Grocery Manufacturers Association has a fact sheet on its website entitled, "Forcing Food into Fuel: How Congressional Mandates are Making it Harder for Americans to Feed their Families."

(Of course, it mentions other causes for higher food prices — "rising energy costs, strong Asian demand" — but notes that the congressional mandate is the only factor that the government has the power to change.)

On the other hand, Moss says that if biofuel producers weren't increasing output, oil and gas prices would be up another 15 percent.

"My hope was that we'd become energy independent. Biofuel was never meant to be a short-term solution," Moss says. "We have some long-term problems."

To read a Flyer cover story about biofuel in Memphis, click here. To read a Flyer story about Memphis gas stations that sell ethanol, click here.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Flights Not So Fancy

Yesterday, American Airlines announced it was going to start charging passengers $15 to check their first bag each way. That's in addition to the $25 it's already charging passengers for their second checked bag.

And the other legacy carriers are thinking about following suit.

Of course, my first thought involved curse words.

My second thought was, well, finally, a reason I need this humongo giraffe weekender. (Altho, now that I'm looking at it again, I'm wondering if it's too big for a carry on and whether or not it has a zipper. There's nothing worse than having all your underwear spill out in the overhead compartment.)

The NYT has a story today about the change — and about all the fees and charges the airlines are adding to try to make up for rising fuel costs — and this is my favorite part:

"'I’m constantly surprised at the creativity in the wrong direction of airline management,' said Claes G. Fornell, a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan.

This week, the university’s American Customer Satisfaction Index rated the airline industry last among consumer businesses measured in the study.

In this light, American’s move 'seems really, dare I say it, stupid,' Professor Fornell said."

American reps said something about many passengers don't check their baggage anyway, so it shouldn't be a big deal, tho it will save them gobs of money.

And that's sort of the rub: Pre-fees, why aren't people checking their bags?

Because it's more convenient (generally) not to. Because they're afraid the airline might lose them and then they'll spend their entire vacay in the same pair of pants.

So their brilliant business model is to ask us to pay a convenience charge for something that's not necessarily more convenient? And, according to the NYT, "American does not plan to offer refunds if suitcases do not arrive with the plane."

Are you kidding me? If I pay an extra fee to check my bags, they better arrive with me, or I better get my money back. At least.

You know, people have lamented that travelers don't dress up anymore to fly, that it's just like taking the bus. And, really, are they surprised?

If you're going to have to hold your boarding pass and all your stuff while taking off your shoes, belt, and jacket, book it through the terminal to make a connection (after your connecting flight left an hour late), and schlub your giant giraffe weekender the entire time, it doesn't matter what you start out wearing. You might as well be comfortable.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Selling Chef

How much would you like to own this?

Or this?

No? Okay, then, what about this?

That's better. Tomorrow will be the last gasp of Isaac Hayes' Peabody Place restaurant, with a menu chock full of tables, chairs, and sound equipment, and other stuff.

Just make sure you decide your price limit BEFORE the bidding starts.

City pays extra for MLGW vehicles

Faced with approving a more than $1.1 million contract for MLGW vehicles yesterday, the City Council balked ... and asked about the next highest bidder.

The contract for trucks, vans, and sedans was split between Gossett Motor Cars ($370,036), Crossroads Ford ($379,444), and Jackson, Tennessee's Golden Circle Ford ($364,948). Council members took issue with the Jackson dealership.

"Those who are in support of denying this are in favor of paying another $2,000 so that the money will go to a local dealership," Councilman Myron Lowery explained to the audience. "Yes, we want to be prudent with the city's dollars and MLGW's dollars, but we also want to support the local dealership."

The council wanted to award the contract to Crossroads Ford, which had bid $366,972 for the 24 vehicles.

"The difference between the cost of the vehicles is $88 a vehicle," said council member Barbara Swearengen Ware. "In the whole scheme of things, that becomes peanuts when acknowledge the fact that we are supporting a local business."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Fanfare for a Manhole

(To continue on a theme ... )

In recent years, local thieves have taken metal from wiring in abandoned buildings, air conditioners, grave sites (bronze urns), and catalytic converters to sell for scrap. Now, in Philadelphia and other places, you can add manhole covers to the list.

From Newsweek: "Three weeks ago 12-year-old Shamira Fingers from South Philadelphia was walking down a city street near her home when she suddenly fell into an open sewer hole."

The reason? Someone stole the manhole cover for scrap metal. Philadelphia has lost 600 in the last year, Chicago lost 200 in one month, 75 were taken from Greensboro, North Carolina, and the list goes on and on.

The story says thieves get about $10 to $20 a cover, and they cost municipalities about $500 to replace. In addition to the economic repercussions, there's also a safety issue, so Philadelphia has started locking down the manhole covers.

Closer to home, the Memphis City Council enacted an ordinance last December that requires scrap metal dealers to hold metal items for 10 days. Scrap metal dealers said they didn't know if scrap metal was obtained legally — the council's thought was that a 10-day waiting period would give police time to find metal that has been reported stolen. A state measure also requires metal sellers to provide a thumbprint and a legal ID.

But, really, in these type of cases, if someone is selling a manhole cover that says "MLGW" on it, it's probably a good bet it's not theirs.

Naked City

The state bird of Tennessee might be the mosquito, but it seems in Vermont, it's the jaybird.

Most of Vermont allows public nudity, but in Brattleboro, Vermont, the Selectboard had to outlaw public nudity last December.

It seems the town experienced a rash of nakedness starting in August 2006: nude bicycling, nude hula-hooping, and nude Dunkin' Donuts runs.

From the Wall Street Journal:

"Not everyone in Brattleboro approved of what they were seeing. "It's not appropriate behavior to run around nude in the business district," said Theresa Toney, a local resident who complained to the town about the hula-hooping.

Michael Gauthier, 43, recalls heading home from work one day that summer when he saw a man on a bicycle wearing what he presumed was a "neutral colored body suit." In fact, it was his birthday suit."

I don't want to seem like a prude, but I find the idea of nude hula-hooping very disturbing. But it's nothing compared to this mental image:

"One Friday last July, an elderly man participated in Brattleboro's monthly downtown Gallery Walk tour wearing nothing but a fanny pack and a head band. That weekend the same man, who told people he was visiting from Arizona, showed up at Sam's Outdoor Outfitters on Main Street. The staff asked him to put on some clothes, which he did, before helping himself to some popcorn from the store's free-popcorn machine."

I get the fanny pack — if you're walking around town with no clothes on, you still need somewhere to put your wallet — but the head band? That escapes me.

Miami and Man-Made Meat

This post could probably go a number of ways.

NPR's Morning Edition has a story today about Jorge Perez, the condo king of Miami. The story credits Perez with a condo boom along the city's waterfront and helping to create a livable downtown.

"We try to do the urban buildings — buildings that have restaurants and shops, and they're on the street and make walking a much more pleasurable experience like it is in Paris or New York or London," Perez is quoted as saying.

Interestingly, the billionaire developer started as a bureaucrat with Miami's planning department. But in Miami, as in Memphis, there is now a glut of condos and a troubled real estate market. Perez, like any smart billionaire, is now turning his attention to building condos in Latin America, but says that any money he's lost in Miami is worth it:

"I feel responsible that I contributed to making Miami a true, great urban center.' If the outcome of that is I drop some money in doing it, then so be it. That's not the important part. The important part is that we really are creating a great city."

Must be nice to be a billionaire.

But what does that have to do with man-made meat, you ask?

Not a hell of a whole lot. But, as I was looking at the condo stuff, this story about man-made meat was right next to it. Or, as it was captioned on NPR's website, "semi-living steak." Meat grown in a lab, from a tissue sample, without having to kill an animal to get it. And what kind of futurist would I be if I didn't mention it?

"Technology, I think, is doable," says one of the scientists culturing meat from animal tissue, "and if you have reasonable investment it can be done. But ... you can't create [a] product which nobody wants to buy or is too expensive to buy. So the right timing ... is everything."

NPR asks, "So is this the right time? One unlikely nonprofit thinks so: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA recently announced a $1 million contest to create commercially viable chicken meat, sacrificing neither chicken nor egg. The deadline is 2012, the contest rules Herculean and the prize money paltry. But the thinking is pragmatic: If people must have meat, and factory farming is an animal nightmare, why not find a high-tech alternative?"

I would like to be all for this, but man, does it look repulsive. And, frankly, it kind of reminds me of Soylent Green.

Monday, May 19, 2008

gas and geography

In the NYT today, Paul Krugman says he sees the future.

He's in Berlin, and he's talking about a future where people own more fuel-efficient cars and drive them less, because they live in a place where they don't have to:

"To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.

It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars."

And Atlantan soccer moms behind the wheel, cursing every minute of it.

I mention that because what Krugman is talking about is a huge cultural shift, one that will only happen as individuals change their behavior. And sometimes those take time to build critical mass. But if there's any group that can enact a cultural shift, it may be soccer moms.

My new nemesis

The weimaraner on leash, ready to clothesline unsuspecting roller bladers.

In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been going as fast as I was and I should have tried a little harder to stop instead of opting for a dive roll over the dog. ... And I definitely should have been wearing my helmet.

Friday, May 16, 2008

odds and ends

— And then there were three: Dr. Tiffany Anderson and Dr. James Williams have both withdrawn their names from consideration for MCS' next superintendent.

— The Redbirds will wear pink jerseys for their game this Sunday against Oklahoma in support of breast cancer awareness. After the game, the, er, pinkbird jerseys will be auctioned off on ebay, with proceeds going to both the Komen Foundation and the Memphis Redbirds Foundation.

— A former MLGW employee was indicted for allegedly defrauding the utility out of tens of thousands of dollars. The employee (again, allegedly) authorized and made payments on customers' MLGW accounts using nonexistent bank accounts, and for this service, customers paid her a fee. (If I'm understanding this correctly, I assume her fee was smaller than their utility bills.)

another library update

It looks as if the City Council wants to save four of the five library branches that the mayor wanted to close.

I don't want to seem ungrateful, but um, they missed one.

I know, Cossitt is not the nicest library out there. To say the least. But it's the downtown library! In a downtown that is still working on revitalization! And in a downtown that has more residential space than many other cities!

I get that it doesn't meet the standard of a downtown library, but maybe the answer is a little re-investment instead of shutting it down outright. Maybe even re-locating it to a smaller space?

Then again, I harbor a secret belief that a downtown without a movie theater or a library isn't a real downtown. So maybe it's just me.

On another note, here's some good news: The library has informed me that they've talked to the state and, with the board of trustee nominations going before the City Council June 3rd, they should be fine to receive their state funding.

Forget the Rice Shortages

This is much more important.

A commentary from All Things Considered on NPR says the price of hops hasn't just hopped; it's jumped. From 80 to 450 percent because of a worldwide shortage.

So my small run on beer last night at the Cove? All in the spirit of getting while the getting's good.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

library update

As I wrote this week, a group of professional librarians have a few concerns about the Memphis public library system.

One of their concerns is the deterioration or dismantling of the library board of trustees, ostensibly a group that would provide checks and balances to city decisions about the library. I talked to Jeanne Sugg, Tennessee state librarian and archivist, and she thought perhaps board members' terms expired and the members were never re-appointed, but she wasn't sure.

What Sugg did say was that the Memphis public library needs to have a seven-member board in place by the end of this month to receive $45,000 in state funding.

I got a call today from a communications person at the library and she said they are currently compiling a list of nominations for the seven-member board.

Those nominations will come before the City Council in June, and the names of the nominees will be released to the public then.

I asked about the effect that would have on the state funding, but she said she didn't know the implications.

Urban Forestry

Here in Memphis, we do a lot of planning. Urban planner Jeff Speck even mentioned it in his recent talk at CBU. You have plenty of plans, he said, now you just need to implement some of them.

Just for a little perspective, I thought it might be fun to look at the History Channel's winning entries for their City of the Future contest. The regional winners are cities you might expect — Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco — but what's interesting is how the participants looked both to the past and to the future in designing their entries.

And that the designs were for the year 2108.

Atlanta won the overall competition with its "The City in the Forest" entry. It was explained thusly:

"The city maintains over 1,900 miles of pipes to collect, combine with wastewater, treat and pipe storm water downstream. Climate change, growth, and sprawling impervious surfaces continue to degrade this outmoded, costly system. ... In the City of the Future, stormwater resurfaces to flow naturally across the land. Freed from use, existing underground systems act as aquifiers, preserving scarce water for long term use.

This simple shift underground, in turn, transforms the landscape above. The rigidity of the urban grid yields to swaths of green and waterscapes. Settlements cluster along ridges and water catchments, participating in a sustainable, living system. Corridors of open spaces spread to link communities in an organic form and fully reclaim The City in the Forest."

Perhaps not coincidentally, there's been a lot of talk lately about cities and trees lately. You can't beat the impact — they improve air quality, make pedestrians feel safer, catch rainwater, help regulate temperature, and, oh, increase property values. What's not to like?

Accordingly, cities are trying to increase their tree canopy. New York city kicked off a 23-year, one-million tree initiative last fall. Boston and D.C. are also trying to add to their canopy. Speck said we weren't doing that great (planting trees was one of his moderate suggestions for making Memphis better) but we all know parts of the city that have beautiful canopies. It's just not citywide.

(We also have old-growth forest being clear cut, but you can go here for more about that.)

One thing we might remember is that, like all our little plans, trees take time to grow. If we want to see a change 20 years from now, we need to start now.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Chick-fil-A/Cumberland Pres. update

Memphis Heritage sent out an update today about the Cumberland Presbyterian building. You might remember that the property is currently slated for a Chick-fil-A.

"On Wednesday May 7 several local architects, on behalf of MHI, toured the Cumberland property to see what possibilities existed for the adaptive reuse of the building as a CFA restaurant. The next day these same architects met with Chick-fil-A's architect, construction specialist and VP's of Real Estate and Construction who flew in from Atlanta to review the findings.

It was a productive meeting. While both groups agreed that using the entire building is virtually impossible for CFA's needs, Chick-fil-A has agreed to review the plans that were discussed on May 8 and get back with MHI within the next several weeks regarding the possibility of some sort of compromise."

I'll be interested in seeing how this plays out. The church has already purchased other property off Germantown Road for its needs, so it's out of the picture. Chick-fil-A seems to be a responsible company; while the whole "closed on Sunday" sometimes bothers me as a hungry consumer, I respect its commitment to values over financial gain. And that fact that company reps are even meeting with members of the community is a good sign.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Orange is the New Red

In what's headlined the Map of Misery, the Economist has a story (with map of misery, natch) this week that suggests the nation has only hit the halfway point in the housing bust.

The map, from the Federal Reserve, shows the change in the housing price index by county from the last quarter in 2006 to the same time in 2007. And it's color-coded. The hotter the color, the worse things are in that state (sorry, California and Florida and, um, Nevada? I get Vegas, but this was done by county.)

I've heard that, generally, Memphis is immune (or more immune than other parts of the country) to these types of market fluctuations. Mostly because real estate prices here haven't been driven up by enormous demand or boatloads of Memphians with gobs of extra cash to spend. So even if the market corrects itself downward, it doesn't have that far to go.

But if you look at Memphis' little corner on the map, you might notice that it's light orange.

So home prices aren't decreasing, but they are staying roughly the same. Because of the conventional wisdom about demand here, I can only assume that the supply side of the equation (foreclosures?) is driving down prices.

And here's more good news from The Economist: "The discrepancy between supply and demand suggests that prices could fall a lot more. By historical standards there is a huge glut of unsold homes on the market. The homeowner-vacancy rate—which includes all vacant homes for sale—has soared to a record level of 2.9%, which means that there are some 1.1m 'excess' houses for sale compared with the average between 1985 and 2005."

Well, at least they came up with an appropriate title for their map.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tower Power

Though it took a hit in the October 2006 downtown fire, the Lincoln American Tower is looking pretty spiffy these days.

Memphis Heritage held a fundraiser at the building this weekend, with tours through several apartments, including those in the very tip-top of the tower. I've got to say, the view was pretty spectacular from every angle.

I think this view might have been from one of the penthouse bathrooms.

The Lincoln American Tower was built in 1924 to be the headquarters of the Columbian Mutual Life Assurance Society. (The company was brought to Memphis by its president Lloyd T. Binford, the Board Of Censors head who banned local audiences from seeing any Charlie Chaplin movies, among others. For more about that, see Michael Finger's recent story for the Flyer, Banned in Memphis.)

Each of the tower apartments is two stories, with elevator access to both floors (and cute staircases). They did a good job matching the original hardware to what had to be replaced and keeping the historic feel of the building. Check back later — I may post a few more pictures.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Have your stuff and buy it, too

The NYT had a interesting trend story on biodegradable furniture yesterday.

And we're not just talking about housewares made in an environmentally sound way or sheets that decompose; we're talking about entire couches.

"As much as this scenario sounds like it was lifted from a Philip K. Dick novel — vanishing furniture! — Mr. Zyto has attempted to make his imaginings a reality, at least in principle (if you disregard those pesky nails), joining a number of other home goods manufacturers and designers who are marketing their products as biodegradable. Not just “green,” or “sustainable,” but fully compostable, like lawn clippings or kitchen scraps. In theory, their products, under the right conditions, would break down, eventually."

The article talks about a company called Looolo textiles, whose blankets will biodegrade in a year if you compost them, and Umbra, whose plastic breaks down into powder in a landfill. (I assume the plastic breaks down into plastic powder, since plastic doesn't really break down; it only gets smaller.)

I suppose it was inevitable. People want to embrace the whole green movement but don't want to curtail their consumerism. So of course, putting household linens into your compost is the next best thing.

I'm not saying I'm against this. You can't change people's long-term behavior by sacrifice, and this country has a long history of consumerism behind it. I'm just saying that someone is going to need a bigger compost bin.

JT, Phone Home

Despite the fact that reality shows have jumped the shark — American Idol is the only one still holding on in the ratings — Justin Timberlake is reportedly executive producing something called "The Phone" that will air on MTV. 

Apparently, two hidden cell phones will ring somewhere in a city and whoever picks up will have 5 seconds to decide if they want to complete a mission for a cash prize.

Reuters reports: "As they race through the city on their adventure, a helicopter tracks their every move. MTV described the show as a wild and cinematic ride reminiscent of such films as 'The Bourne Identity' and 'The Game.'"

I do like the Bourne series, and I'm a big fan of another show with a former pretty boy musician as its executive producer, but somehow, I don't think I'm their demographic. 

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Stuck on an "Elevator"

Random story: last Friday, I was listening to Flo Rida's Elevator on my itunes and I simply did not want to hear anything else from my library, so I clicked "repeat 1." (yes, I am one of those people.)

After some time — maybe the phone rang, maybe I got up to get something off the printer, maybe who knows — I pressed stop, took off my headphones, and eventually left for the weekend.

Only, Monday morning, I pick up my headphones and click on itunes and there's Flo Rida. And I think, great! This is totally the song I wanted to listen to. And then I realize that I didn't press "play." And that I never pressed "stop" Friday and that Flo Rida has actually been playing non-stop since then.

So, how many times could a person listen to Elevator non-stop for more than 48 hours (if it didn't drive them insane or lead them to kill themselves)? 1,086.

Just for comparison, I've heard the New Pornographers' Myriad Harbour — now the second-most played song in my library — 31 times.

Delta ETA

The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee's aviation panel said yesterday that he would not oppose the proposed Delta/Northwest merger. Other senators have wanted assurances from the airlines' top brass that the merged carrier won't reduce jobs or service, but they are largely unopposed, making the merger more likely.

A few weeks ago, I read a Minnesota public radio blog about how long it will take to brand (repaint) Northwest planes into Delta planes.

The blog's sources agreed it would take about a week for each plane. (There's also a cool video.)

"With 500 airplanes, that would be 9-10 years if they only did one airplane at a time (recognizing they don't paint just one airplane at a time). New airplanes, of course, will be delivered with Delta's colors."

But that got me wondering about rebranding Northwest gates at Memphis International.

Larry Cox, president and CEO of the Memphis Shelby County Airport Authority, says the cost to the airport will probably be "minimal."

"The cost of redoing the signage will probably be about $100,000. That's just an estimate," he said. "Anywhere it says Northwest, it will have to be transformed."

"Any costs that we incur, the airlines will cover. It's not going to cost us anything out of our pocket," Cox added. "If it costs $100,000, $200,000, a million, they pay for it. We're insulated."

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Suburban Shrink

So I've been playing with the idea of moving recently. I love my house, love everything about it, except for one thing ... its location. (I know! First rule of real estate!)

I still love the actual neighborhood and the physical surroundings, but the morning and evening commutes are annoying, and getting more annoying as they get costlier.

When I first started looking for a house several years ago, I quickly realized I couldn't afford to buy in Midtown (what a surprise that was!) without buying a huge dog. Or two. All the houses in my price range were either next to meth labs or were meth labs.

Now I'm wondering if it wouldn't be better to move closer to the core city, meth labs and all. So I was interested to see this BusinessWeek Q&A with author James Howard Kunstler about how the oil crisis could mean an end to suburbia.

"Given the supply constraints, he says the U.S. will have to rethink suburban sprawl, bringing an end to strip malls, big-box stores, and other trappings of the automotive era. Kunstler, 59, predicts a return to towns and cities centered around a retail hub."

Kunstler thinks that we'll be in serious trouble within the next five years. Of course, the article notes that Kunstler predicted a Y2K meltdown, as well, so it might be he's just a doomsday-er.

But Kunstler's not the only one. Unless he was sitting in the booth behind me last night at The Cove, this is exactly what people are thinking and talking about.

Designer's Dozen

I really enjoyed city planner Jeff Speck's presentation at Christian Brothers University last week entitled The City Livable: Modest Suggestions for Making Memphis Great.

Unlike most plans or strategies — say the mayor's three-prong plan to improve the Memphis City Schools, with separate initiatives under each prong — Speck's ideas were very simple and concrete. And, no offense to the mayor's plan, but that made them seem actually doable.

Below are the 12 things he suggested, with some of his reasoning below. (apologies if it's front loaded. At some point, Speck realized he could dim the lights and I hadn't thought to bring my light pen with me. Mostly because I don't have one.)

1. Design your city for humans, not cars

There's been a trend since the '60s to let highway engineering onto city streets, but the wider a street is, the faster drivers feel comfortable going. And the faster people drive on a road, the less pedestrians want to walk alongside it.

(Speck didn't mention this, but if traffic is going 40 mph or faster, pedestrians don't feel comfortable walking next to it. Not coincidentally, I don't think, if a pedestrian gets hit by a car going 40 mph or faster, most are not likely to survive.)

2. stop diminishing your economic advantage

As cities have all become the same, older buildings are a city's distinguishing factor. So to stand out, it would be good to maintain some of our historic buildings. For a comparison, Speck showed a bunch of pictures of older buildings we've torn down and what is there now, including an old movie theater and what's there now: Parking Can Be Fun on Union Avenue.

"Look," he said, "parking can be fun, but more fun than a movie theater?"

3. plant trees

If planted alongside streets, trees are a barrier between pedestrians and cars, which made pedestrians feel safer. Not to mention that they lower heating and cooling costs, absorb water run-off and drastically increase real estate values.

Other communities around the country have already realized all these thing and are really stepping up tree planting.

4. organize neighborhoods around schools around neighborhoods

Neighborhood schools are better for the community, better for transportation costs, better for students.

5. fix downtown first

Several years ago, Speck started hearing good things about Denver and LoDo (its lower downtown historic district) and went to check it out. When he got there, he realized it was only two blocks.

"Two blocks changed the reputation of Denver," he said. "Reputation is important."

Downtown is one neighborhood that belongs to everybody.

6. practice urban triage

Cities trying to be uniformly excellent are often uniformly mediocre.

"You have to pick your winners and your losers. It's not about letting trash gather or not fixing potholes," Speck said. "It's about what place is going to be for pedestrians."

7. fix the 3rd street promenot

"You have these two amazing anchors — AutoZone Park and Beale Street. Between them is a limited pedestrian zone," Speck said.

Limited is putting it mildly. The area from 3rd and Union to 3rd and Beale includes the backside of the Peabody Hotel and parking on both sides. Speck suggested adding some small retail in front of one of the parking garages and using it to pull people across.

8. fix the Main Street, South Main knuckle

Main Street's pretty vibrant. South Main is pretty vibrant. And then you have Main at Linden with the Chisca, MLGW, and a parking garage next to a parking lot. ("When you have surface parking next to a garage, that's bad planning," Speck said.)

9. you deserve just a little urban waterfront

Speck wasn't completely digging the Riverfront Development Corporation's plans for the Beale Street Landing.

"I like the design, but this is not urban. This is ... rural."

Although, now that I think about it, he might have said pastoral. Anyway, point is the same. That's a lot of passive green space.

"You need places to shop, sit, and have a beer and a meal up against the water," he said. "There's an opportunity on Beale to create something urban." Something like this.

10. build the missing monument

Speck suggested building a Martin Luther King monument on the plaza outside the National Civil Rights Museum.

"You would have no trouble funding a monument on that site if you can get it together."

11. stop the outer loop — it's not built yet

So, Speck isn't a fan of sprawl. It's not economical, it's not good for the environment, and ironically, it's not even good for drivers.

"It's actually worse for cars to build sprawl. They all have to go on one arterial road," he said. "We know the model is broken, yet we continue to build it."

And if he needed an example, he found I-269.

"I thought it was being built because of the congestion, but it's being built because the money is there," he said. After citing local air quality concerns, asthma rates, and retail cannibalism, he said, "There is no proper argument for building the outer loop. Period."

12. put cars back on Main Street

If you want to read more about this, go here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

warmer waters ... in Siberia

The NYT has a cute and disturbing story about a Siberian family that has been recording temperatures in the world's largest body of fresh water for the past 60 YEARS.

Every week or so for, again, the past 60 years, members of the family have crossed Lake Baikal and recorded water temperature, clarity, and plant and animal species. And, no surprise, things are changing.

From the story:

"Although it is known that warming is more intense at high latitudes, as in the Baikal area, and that water is warming in other major lakes, including Lake Tahoe in Nevada and Lake Tanganyika in central Africa, many scientists had thought that Lake Baikal’s enormous volume and unusual water circulation patterns would buffer the effects of global warming.

Instead, the researchers report, surface waters in Lake Baikal are warming quickly, on average by about 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit every decade. At a depth of about 75 feet, the increase is about 0.2 degrees per decade, they say, enough to jeopardize species 'unable to adapt evolutionarily or behaviorally.'"

The lake apparently has a number of species that are not found anywhere else, such as giant shrimp and freshwater seal, and with the warmer temperatures, "its highly unusual food web is reorganizing."

I don't know what is more interesting/amazing: the science (yikes) or how long this family kept their project going, even during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Cutting School

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton will make a presentation on the Memphis City Schools to the City Council's executive committee Tuesday at 2 p.m.

Can't get away from your desk, but still interested in hearing what the man has to say? Go here and click on executive committee.

Should be interesting.

Book Club

A group of local librarians are fighting against what they call a "crisis situation" at the Memphis Public Library and Information Center.

The group — calling themselves Librarians for Memphis Public Library — cite Mayor Willie Herenton's appointment of two non-librarians to run the system, the proposed closures of five public library branches, and the dissolution of the library's board of trustees as a few of the things they are upset about.

Herenton and his administration have said that the library does not need a professional librarian at its head — something many professional librarians strongly disagree with — but that it simply needs a good manager.

I don't want to go into all the background — feel free to read two stories I've written on the library changes here, here, and here — but I don't see any winners in this situation. Surely not longtime library head Judith Drescher. Not new head Keenon McCloy. And certainly not the general public who use the library.

We're having a hard enough time educating the region's young people, and here we're talking about shutting down resources where people can read books, work on the computer, and explore new things, all essentially for free. I get that the closures can save the city $2 million (at the high end) but how much are they going to cost us in the long run?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Thrifty Business

When I was in high school, I spent whole weekends at thrift stores. Partly because hostessing didn't pay that well, and partly because to find the comfiest, best worn-in mens' cut jeans, you needed ones that had actually been worn in by actual men. (Yes, the more holes the better. Remind me to tell you about the time I got sent to the principal's office because my knees were distracting the other pupils.)

Once I even found the most perfect pair of knee-high western-inspired boots (that I still have, had to get them re-soled and everything).

Anyway, I was interested to see a story in the NYT yesterday about the re-emergence of thrift stores. Apparently the industry is growing at a rate of 5 percent a year.

Of course, the story ties thrifts' popularity to the economy. There's no doubt that thrift stores and consignment shops are a bargain, but I wonder if the green movement plays any part in the industry's growth. People trying to live low-impact or no-impact don't buy anything new.

Coincidentally, yesterday I talked to Nikki Douglas, the owner of Hi-Octane, new vintage store in Cooper-Young. Her store sounds really cool — you can read about it here — and she talked about both the affordability and the environmentally friendly aspect of shopping there, not to mention the cool factor.

"When you buy vintage," she said, "you're buying recycling. You're keeping clothes in the chain and keeping them out of the dumpster."

And there are some things — like knee-high wester-inspired boots or whatever the current equivalent is — that are just too cool to go in the dumpster.