Sketchy Is As Sketchy Does

I did a lot of heavy lifting as head of C.E. (Continuing Education) at the Corcoran. Technically an old guy with a bad back, I was out the door in a flash to buy drinks, ice, and plastic cups for open houses. Whole Foods delivered the fruit and cheese platters.

The Lü Xiaojun* of Summer Pre-College, I rolled dollies stacked with hundreds of cans of soda (and a few of juice and tea) to the supply closet and, with my equally motivated, much younger assistant, lugged dozens of plastic bags, each with a giant newsprint pad and a heavy can of spray fixative, up the Beaux-Arts back staircase the Sunday before each program started.

The individualized bags of art supplies were assembled and delivered to the Corcoran, at 17th Street and New York Avenue, by our friends at Utrecht (now Blick), on 13th Street just north of New York Avenue. Simple subtraction would lead you to believe it’s a four-block walk to pick up, say, 50 or 60 sketchpads.

The only problem is that New York Avenue ceases to exist for two of those blocks. In its place, someone has put…the White House.

The north lawn of the White House faces the two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue (as in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) that border Lafayette Park. On May 21, 1995, a month after the Oklahoma City bombing, these blocks were closed to vehicular traffic. Under cover of darkness, bollards—magic bollards, because they go up and down—were installed. The bollardizing of the capital had begun. (Cartoonist Richard Thompson in Richard’s Poor Almanac (p. 19): Everybody loves bollards! We could become the “City of Bollards.”)

With the street a pedestrian mall, what was once a fairly popular White House fence photo op has evolved into a colorful “Here I am in Washington” scene for tourists, conventioneers, people visiting on government business (broadly defined), and school and youth groups.

It is something of a Protesters’ Plaza, since the First Family can read your signs if they squint, the press corps hangs out nearby, there’s a steady flow of would-be sympathizers, and the granddaddy of protests, the White House Peace Vigil against nuclear weapons, has been doing their thing all day and all night since June 3, 1981 (except for a few hours on September 12, 2013, when someone missed a shift and the tent was dismantled by U.S. Park Police).

Okay, the stage is set. It’s a sunny afternoon in late winter or early spring, unusually warm, about six years after 9/11. The Charles Atlas of 17th Street is slowly making his way back from Utrecht, perspiring in a down vest. His arms ache. He stops and lowers his two bulky shopping bags to the sidewalk…

Out of nowhere, some kind of bike-riding policeman appears: “Hi there, what have you got in the bags?” Two (or was it three?) more officers roll up. All six (or eight) eyes upon him, he responds: “Sketchpads.” Trying not to grimace, glare, or look desperate, he explains that he has picked them up at Utrecht and is bringing them to the Corcoran for a workshop. “You work at the Corcoran?”

They ride off into the sunshine then, one saying, “You looked like you needed some help.” Oh, sure, he thinks to himself. The down vest on a hot day was what clinched it.

When I told this tale to a drawing teacher, he said he used to be stopped all the time when he was sketching in D.C., but now the cops know who he is.

He and I are both white. This is a long way from DWB and stop-and-frisk, but, yes, this is about Ferguson.

Lately, I’ve been writing about cities. Ferguson (pop. 21,000 or so) isn’t a city, but—less than 10 miles from St. Louis—it’s part of the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area, the 19th largest in the country, just ahead of Baltimore’s.

Even without Ferguson, this has been one of the most anguish-filled weeks in recent memory, but the clashes between protesters and police following the August 9 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American, by a police officer in Brown’s hometown is dominating the news.

The early images of police dogs made people think of Birmingham, 1963. Then, despite the efforts to restrict coverage, we saw (mostly white) police in riot gear and camouflage clothing pointing automatic weapons at (mostly black) citizens.

In an article from November 7, 2011, in the Atlantic, “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police,” Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartman wrote:

Before 9/11, the usual heavy weaponry available to a small-town police officer consisted of a standard pump-action shot gun, perhaps a high power rifle, and possibly a surplus M-16, which would usually have been kept in the trunk of the supervising officer’s vehicle. Now, police officers routinely walk the beat armed with assault rifles and garbed in black full-battle uniforms.

Yesterday, a Newsweek article, “How America’s Police Became an Army: The 1033 Program,” by Taylor Wofford, described how surplus military equipment has been made available to local police departments since 1990. (From the Defense Logistics Agency’s FAQ: What are some ways in which law enforcement agencies use the equipment they acquire? Answer: Law enforcement agencies use the equipment in a variety of ways. For instance, four-wheel drive vehicles are used to interrupt drug harvesting, haul away marijuana, patrol streets and conduct surveillance. The 1033 Program also helps with the agencies’ general equipment needs, such as file cabinets, copiers, and fax machines that they need but perhaps are unable to afford.)

The book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State by Charlottesville civil-liberties lawyer John W. Whitehead, published last year, has become very timely.

It bothers me that police in Baltimore’s Penn Station wear body armor. When I first moved to the city from Washington, I thought there would be fewer helicopters overhead. But it seems like one of the four EC120Bs in the Baltimore Police Department’s Foxtrot fleet—not to be confused with those flown by the University of Maryland Medical Center’s R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center—is hovering over me all the time. (When I asked Peabody’s head of campus police about this, he said, “Turn yourself in, Richard.”)

This is, after all, Wiretown. Crime is down from the bad old days, but in recent years Baltimore has had more than double the number of homicides as Washington, murder capital of the early 1990s (235 in 2013 vs. 103, including the 12 murdered by the Navy Yard shooter on September 16).

Attention Millennials: In D.C., you can now choose your neighborhood wisely using the crowdsourced navigation app SketchFactor: “Sometimes you ask yourself why everything seems sketchy. Why is there a pile of dead rats on the street? Why are there no lights on this block? Where did everyone go?”

(Last Saturday, a crew from WUSA Channel 9, the Washington CBS affiliate, was doing a story on SketchFactor in the up-and-coming Petworth neighborhood and their van was burglarized. Way to make news!)

Attacked as a means for white people to avoid black neighborhoods, SketchFactor has gone into defensive mode, but the controversy reflects current tensions. Race, as Ferguson is proving, remains an open wound.

The Gulf War, Oklahoma City, 9/11, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Global War on Terrorism have all contributed to the militarization of the police in America, but this phenomenon is largely a result of the War on Drugs. And the War on Drugs, like so much else, is rooted in racial divisions that play out in where we live, work, send our kids to school, and go to be entertained.

Though the arts can survive without cities and vice versa, I don’t believe that either can reach their highest potential without the other. Their futures are bound up together. But if we cannot improve the social and economic health of our cities—do the real heavy lifting—far more than the arts will suffer.

Thanks for bearing with me. Next week: Bunkers and desti-tractions.

* Middleweight Gold Medalist in weightlifting, 2012 Olympics.

And Abide Quietly in Your Home

This week’s post is about keeping women indoors. Its title comes from the Koran (33:33). Because it is addressed to the wives of the Prophet, some feel the verse should not be used to justify restrictions on Muslim women in general, which they oppose. But I have a more concrete example for you: Lady Baltimore.

Weighing in at 2,750 pounds, with a worn face and two prosthetic arms, she is still simply marble-ous. Antonio Capellano, said to be a student of Canova, created the statue for Maximilian Godefroy’s Battle Monument, commemorating the repulsion of the British by forces under Major General Samuel Smith of the Maryland Militia 200 years ago this September.

Our heroine was hoisted up in 1822 and the monument soon became the symbol of Baltimore, depicted on the city’s official seal (as shown on my Calvert Yellow recycling bin). You may have noticed that this is the big year for the Star-Spangled Banner, the lyrics of which were written by Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key as he proudly hailed the flag at the twilight’s last gleaming o’er the ramparts of Fort McHenry, and so on.

Brought indoors last fall, Lady B. now abides quietly at the Maryland Historical Society. A cement replica presides over her former traffic island (look both ways). Meanwhile, abiding quietly at the Acropolis Museum in Athens are five of the six caryatids from the Erechtheion porch, which went on display last June after extensive cleaning and conservation (one pedestal has been left empty for the sixth, who remains in captivity at the British Museum).

There is some question as to whether the caryatids represent priestesses of Artemis, who danced with baskets on their heads, or the women of Caryae, enslaved by the Athenians because the town sided with the Persians. Be that as it may, my point is that outside is one thing and inside another.

To see the original Lady Baltimore will cost you nine dollars; to see the original caryatids, five euros (you can try to cheer up the one in the British Museum for nothing, but they’re asking 16 pounds 50 for the BP exhibition: Ming, opening 18 September). As those of you who read my first post (“It’s Free!”) know, I’m in favor of charging admission. But what we have here is the distinction between a destination and an attraction.

A destination is a place with a name connected to images in the minds of prospective visitors: Baltimore, Fort McHenry, Athens, the Acropolis. A destination is free to occupy, 24-7 (these days the Acropolis is an exception, but the term would apply to the neighborhoods around it, such as Plaka and Monastiraki), and more than the sum of the attractions it contains.

An attraction is a gated experience: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, the Maryland Historical Society, the Acropolis Museum, the British Museum.

Let’s visit some other marble women and a marble man. In the center of D.C.’s Dupont Circle is a fountain, erected in 1920 as a monument to Rear Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont (1803-1865). The du Pont family wasn’t satisfied with Launt Thompson’s statue, installed in 1884, so they shipped it to Wilmington in 1917 and hired architect Henry Bacon and sculptor Daniel Chester French, co-creators of the Lincoln Memorial, to hammer out something more memorable.

In fact, it’s a masterpiece. Water spills at three points from a huge shallow bowl. Around the bowl’s cylindrical base are figures, eight feet tall, representing the arts of navigation: Sea, a gowned female with an agitated gull on her shoulder; Sky, a nude female with billowing hair, a globe pressed to her breast; and Wind, a nude male grasping a conch, his head in profile, his privates concealed by a sail.

I lived near Dupont Circle from 2006 to 2008, but I never heard anyone call it the Fruit Loop. It’s greatest gay days were past, though it is still home to the Capital Pride Parade and the High Heel Race. Lambda Rising, the historic bookstore with branches in Baltimore, Rehoboth Beach, and Norfolk, closed for good in 2010. The new century has been hard on all bookstores, but Lambda Rising also faced Acceptance Rising (good) and Rents Rising (mixed).

Back then, District Hardware, also a bike shop, and The Third Day garden store were attached to the Blaine Mansion (John Fraser, 1881). Now in those renovated spaces are Pizza Paradiso, a local chain that originated in Dupont in 1991 (so I really can’t knock em, though personally I’m an Alberto’s guy), and Le Pain Quotidien (LPQ, KFC, CVS, pas de différence). The Patterson Mansion (Stanford White, 1903), home of the Washington Club since 1951, is being converted into luxury studio apartments. I doubt they will have Murphy beds like mine did.

However, it is still possible to look past the gentry and the millennials to appreciate the beauty of the architecture, the landscaping, and the fountain, and engage in people-watching the equal of New York’s.

As you sit by the fountain or on the circle of benches, humans from all over the country and the world (and their dogs) cross the Circle—where Connecticut Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, P Street, and 19th Street intersect—on 50 different routes. It’s a fashion show of power suits, designer dresses, saris, dashikis, headscarves, spandex, sleeve tattoos, T-shirts, and rags.

You could spend an entire day and night there (not unknown), watching joggers, commuters, lunchers, activists, panhandlers, and clubbers—both Cosmos Club members and, at places like Kabin, their wild grandchildren.

It’s a true destination, complete with major hotels, an express bus connection to New York, and a Sunday farmer’s market. But what about the attractions it contains?

First and foremost, there’s the Phillips Collection, which calls itself “America’s first museum of modern art.” In 1921, Jones and Laughlin Steel heir Duncan Phillips opened a public gallery in his home. The mansion—about two blocks from the Circle and one block from the Metro stop (north exit)—became a museum after his family moved out in 1930.

In addition to the permanent collection (great) and special exhibitions (some of the best), the Phillips has presented a Sunday chamber music series in the mansion’s small and gorgeous music room for nearly 75 years. For the hip younger set (Forbes recently named Washington, D.C., America’s Coolest City. Don’t make me laugh.), there’s Phillips After 5 on the first Thursday of the month. If you’re free on September 4, we can “Celebrate the art of slowing down. Sip cocktails, savor local pickled delicacies and learn about the brining craft.”

(Does this sound like I’m brown-nosing the Phillips? Well, I find their pricing ridiculously complex and their email blasts inane. Is that better?)

The Phillips Collection and eight other museums are members of the Dupont-Kalorama Museums Consortium, but some are a ways from Dupont and the most prominent after the Phillips, the Textile Museum, is moving to George Washington University this fall (its S Street building, two connected mansions, was listed at $22 million, but no one seems to have snapped it up yet). The consortium holds a Museum Walk Weekend in June. There are also a good number of art galleries in the neighborhood, which stay open late on the first Friday of the month.

The last movie theater closed in January of 2008, the DC Improv comedy club is a short walk down Connecticut Avenue, and the Keegan Theatre (“Powerful productions of classic and modern plays and musicals, offered to the community at affordable, neighborhood prices.”), founded in 1996, is raising $4 million to renovate its Church Street building.

But though I lived in the vicinity, I never heard of the Keegan Theatre until I did some Googling today. A destination is not a theme park, but to a certain extent it needs to think like one, planning, marketing, building infrastructure, and providing services like a single entity.

This “desti-traction” approach, and the drawbacks of what’s been called bunker or fortress tourism, are next week’s topics. Until then, get out of the house!

Spaceship Brooklyn

I know you think I’m a city boy. Before her family moved to New Haven, where she met my father, my mother spent her childhood in a congested section of the Bronx. Even late in life, she felt uncomfortable around “too many trees.”

So perhaps there is something of that in my blood. But I was raised a bike-able distance from cows in the verdant suburb of West Hartford, Connecticut. I love farmland, mountains, the beach—all of which are available, on a tastefully small scale, in my home state.

It’s true that I can’t live without cities, however. And to some degree, that sets me apart.

Do you know people who haven’t looked at a city through their windshield—never mind set foot on pavement and breathed city air—in years? One hears:

“I don’t want my kids going to college in the middle of a city.”
“He [Richard Selden, her son] lives like a bum in a tenement. That’s what he likes.”
“Oh, sure, it’s a nice neighborhood, if you go with an armed guard.”
“I used to go downtown, but I really have no reason to anymore.”

The city is still a place where people work, though downtown is no longer the be-all and end-all of white-collar employment. Other reasons to go downtown: the train and bus stations (sometimes with a shudder), the department stores (which anchor suburban malls while fighting a losing battle with big-box stores, boutiques, and by-mail—including their own online merchandising), the movie theatres (few remain downtown), the best restaurants (not any more), the places of worship (moved in many cases to greener pastures), the clubs (dwindling), the receptions and galas (now often at “more convenient” venues), and the parades and festivals (“I wouldn’t go to that if you paid me.”).

That leaves (see my post “From the Land of Pleasant Living”) courthouses and government offices, hospitals and doctors’ offices, colleges and universities and community schools of the arts, convention centers, libraries (notably large public libraries and specialized private ones), and places of entertainment, broadly defined: sports stadiums, amphitheaters and auditoriums, live theaters, places to drink and hear music and dance, observation decks, casinos, strip clubs, (genteel pause) museums and art galleries, aquariums and zoos, botanical gardens, parks, and—when there are relatively clean bodies of water downtown—beaches and docks for swimming, fishing, boating, and boat rides.

City and state investments in big-league sports generally dwarf those in culture and the arts, the rationale being that their audience is racially and socioeconomically diverse, a city’s teams are key to its identity and morale, stadiums can kick-start economic development, and naming rights and taxes on tickets, concessions, and parking spots are sources of revenue. Sports franchises are employers and pay taxes, the companies that service them are employers and pay taxes, and the spectators spend an average of X dollars outside the stadium when they attend a game (all this goes into calculations of the “multiplier”).

Decisions about public investment in sports stadiums—not to mention the Olympics, the World Cup, etc.—are way out of my league. Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, cost a cool billion (make your plans now: Islanders vs. Devils, September 26; Disney On Ice Presents Frozen, November 11-16; Justin Timberlake, December 14). The total estimated cost of the Atlantic Yards project is $4.9 billion, including more than $300 million in public subsidies. The dozen towers in Phase Two won’t be completed until 2035 at the earliest, but I lived about three blocks away in the Koch years and, lemme tell ya, the neighborhood has changed, big time.

A reminder: Even when a project aims to appeal to the sports-loving masses, things don’t always work out as expected, if at all (cf. the Grand Prix of Baltimore).

Economic impact studies are used to justify public investment in a range of tourism-related projects, including those with a high-culture slant, such as the renovation and expansion of museums, theatres, symphony halls, and opera houses. Just across from Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has been a prime venue for the international avant-garde since the 1960s, inspiring the creation of a Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District that has come into its own (with significant public funding) over the last decade.

Is there an overlap between the audience for Quantum (October 2-4 at BAM)—“Six dancers perform an ode to subatomic randomness from Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin and German visual artist Julius von Bismarck, developed while in residency at the particle physics lab CERN.”—and the audience for the Nets or, for that matter, Trousersnake?

Okay, that was a loaded question. Without endorsing megaprojects or a top-down process, and recognizing the validity of the community’s strident, prolonged, and continuing objections, I’m crediting Bruce Ratner, Mikhail Prokhorov, Jay-Z, Mike Bloomberg, Marty Markowitz, various Empire State Development officials, and SHoP Architects with getting a huge new piece of infrastructure built. As a venue for cultural events, as well as for NBA and NHL games, Barclays Center will better serve the neighborhood and the borough. It is a Spaceship Earth—sheathed in a lattice of rusted steel (supposedly in dialogue with the brownstones nearby)—for that corner of downtown Brooklyn.

But there’s a difference between urban cultural districts and theme parks, right? We’ll get into the weeds on that next week.

Andre Borders Calder

There was a party today for the Bushnell Park Carousel’s 100th birthday. I wish I could have been there. I rode that Stein & Goldstein beauty, formerly of Canton, Ohio, soon after it opened in Hartford in 1976, during the Bicentennial.

At the top of each of the 24 sides of the carousel’s wooden pavilion—designed for its new home—are four little stained-glass windows showing nature scenes. As you circle around, the seasons change, as if the windows are pages in a flipbook. (The 96 stained-glass windows are the work of Tracey Cameron, who renovated the carousel with her brother Steve.)

I remember signs that said ‘Be nice!’ and ‘Sea cortés!’ In a population of about 125,000, Hartford has one of the highest concentrations of residents of Puerto Rican ancestry—a full third—in the northeast. Founded in 1950, its West Indian Social Club is the oldest organization of its kind in the United States. Jamaicans, Barbadians, Trinidadians, and others from the English-speaking islands settled in Hartford to work in the tobacco fields north of the city.

Because Hartford is so small in area, just 18 square miles, it has been an easy city for the white population and the middle class—white, black, brown, you name it—to exit. The demographic segment known as Non-Hispanic White fell from nearly two thirds in 1970 to about a sixth in 2010. And about 30 percent of the population of the capital of the state with the fourth-highest median household income lives below the poverty line.

But enough of this Moore-ish narrative, let’s talk about art.

Here’s how Carl Andre borders Alexander Calder in downtown Hartford. Andre’s “Stone Field Sculpture,” a triangular formation of 36 boulders, was installed under the artist’s supervision on a patch of grass next to Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground in 1977 (the year after the Bushnell Park Carousel sold its first ticket).

Known locally as “the rocks,” what is now recognized as a landmark of minimalism sparked a minor culture war. A hundred Gs—Andre’s fee was $87,000, but the boulders didn’t drop from the sky, they came from Bristol, Connecticut—seemed like a lot of money at the time, especially for something so conceptual and possibly idiotic. (The simoleons came from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the NEA.)

Though I knew nothing of minimalism, and only grasped the piece’s brilliant echoing of the adjacent cemetery years later, I saw how it worked as playful public art. You said, What the heck is that? You and your friends and family members—and strangers!—could play hide-and-seek, climb on the rocks, and jump on them and off them (as I recall, it was a feat to jump from one to another). It was like one of those dangerous playgrounds that are no longer allowed.

Now for Calder. Just across Main Street and a short walk south, between the Wadsworth Atheneum and City Hall, is one of Uncle Sandy’s most spectacular stabiles, “Stegosaurus.” Installed in 1973, four years before the rocks, this was also a controversial splotch of modern art on the city’s historic fabric. But it’s hard to hate a child’s orange-crayon drawing of a stegosaurus skeleton, fabricated in steel plates and standing 50 feet tall, especially by the guy who made those mobile-thingys.

“Stegosaurus” was paid for with funds left for a memorial to Alfred E. Burr, the founder of the Hartford Times, which went out of business three years later, in 1976. Also during that fateful year: the opening of “Calder’s Universe” at the Whitney—the first New York art exhibition I went to without adult supervision—and the sculptor’s death, a few weeks later. (Calder, whose birthday was July 22, died at age 78. Andre, meanwhile, will be 79 on September 16. A major show of his work, Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010, runs through March 2 at Dia:Beacon.)

The 1970s may have been the most culturally exciting decade in Hartford since the 1930s, when Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr., the Wadsworth’s young genius of a director, helped fellow Harvard bisexual Lincoln Kirstein bring George Balanchine to the U.S. (even then, Hartford did not impress Mr. B.), organized the country’s first Picasso exhibition, and premiered “Four Saints in Three Acts” (Virgil Thompson, Gertrude Stein, John Houseman, Florine Stettheimer, Frederick Ashton, all-black cast, whew!).

Austin was fired in 1944 and died in Hartford in 1957. The city’s dilapidated Front Street neighborhood, its original Little Italy, was torn down for highway construction and a sparkling office complex, Constitution Plaza. The Jewish community left the North End for the suburbs and there were riots at the northern edge of downtown after the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.

After this traumatic period, the city began to revive. The Hartford Civic Center (now the XL Center)—home to our professional sports team, the Whalers, until they sailed south in 1997—was completed in 1974. (Okay, there was a little problem with the roof four years later.)

I started riding the bus downtown from Bishops Corner in West Hartford at age 14 or 15. But with a driver’s license, we could go to the Civic Center Mall sort of late at night to eat at Rein’s Deli or, with mature-looking female companions, be served alcohol while listening to jazz at that café I forget the name of.

In the fall of 1976 (quite a year), the editors of our high school newspaper, Hall Highlights, decided to create a special section, Highlights Hits Hartford. The arts correspondent headed downtown. I went to the Wadsworth, I took pictures of the Calder, I saw some kind of exhibition at the library, I visited the internationally known alternative art space Real Art Ways in its infancy, and…I met a guy named Bob Gregson.

Bob was a graduate of Hartford Art School, founded by Harriet Beecher Stowe and four other extraordinary women. (Originally at the Wadsworth, it became a founding school of the University of Hartford, just over the city line, in the 1950s.) Back in Hartford after getting his M.F.A. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he started running a storefront art space on Pratt Street called Sidewalk.

City schools would send classes of kids to Sidewalk for hands-on art experiences. And Bob and others would show up unannounced in Hartford parks and neighborhoods to play art-based games with little kids, older kids, grown-ups, whoever was attracted to their van by the music, costumes, and props (no ice cream, though).

These programs were incubated by the Knox Foundation, headed by architect and Hartford civic force Jack Dollard, who died in 2012. Knox was also the organization that brought the carousel to Bushnell Park (Dollard designed its pavilion). With funding from hometown conglomerate United Technologies, Sidewalk Bob, Ann Kieffer, and Tim Keating organized weekly downtown happenings in the summer of 1977 and 1978 called Thursday is a Work of Art. For footage, check out this video: http://vimeo.com/12575676. (An exhibition of Bob’s work coincidentally opened at the New Britain Museum of American Art the day I published this post. It’s on view through October 26.)

Meanwhile, in the mostly African American North End, Michael Borders, a Hartford High graduate who got his B.A. from Fisk and his M.F.A. from Howard, was for several years artist-in-residence at the South Arsenal Neighborhood Development Project, where he co-founded an after-school art program.

Across from the Civic Center, facing Trumbull Street above an empty lot, was Borders’s mural, “Genesis of the Capital City,” 68 feet tall and 110 feet wide. In a surrealist landscape with the onion dome of Sam Colt’s gun factory in the foreground, three black arms gently lowered the dome of the Connecticut capitol (architect Richard Upjohn, 1878). Six (painted) colored streamers led from the dome to the mural’s upper border, interrupted by two rows of six windows on the side of the Asylum Street building—with a McDonald’s at street level—to which the mural was attached.

Though the mural seemed to convey a positive message, in the ’70s the white mind associated black (apparently male) arms with Black Power. How could the same Hartford that objected to Calder’s dinosaur and Andre’s rocks welcome a mural like this? It amazed me every time I took the bus downtown.

The arms came down for an office tower in the ’80s. I miss them. (More recently, Borders has been touring a 40-foot “Connecticut Industry Mural” painted on canvas.)

A final vignette from “Coming of Age During Hartford’s Seventies Renaissance”: Hartford Stage, the city’s regional theater, wrapped up its 50th season this year. I ushered at its original building (a warehouse converted by Dollard) a few times when I was in high school. Among other shows, I saw a double-bill of Edward Albee’s “Counting the Ways” and “Listening,” with Albee—who was expelled from Trinity College in Hartford in 1947—on hand for a Q&A.

That’s all, policyholders. I hereby indemnify you against further Scrawling about the Insurance City. There will be residual benefits in my next post.

From the Land of Pleasant Living

Those calming words are found on every gold-trimmed can of National Bohemian, the bubbly of Baltimore, known hereabouts as Natty Boh. Just yesterday I snagged a 12-pack at Eddie’s for a tenner. As Mister Boh, the one-eyed, moustachioed mascot of Charm City’s historic swill, never tires of saying: “Oh Boy, What a Beer!”

Soon after my arrival in 2008, I discovered that Baltimore was in many ways the land of pleasant living: inexpensive, walkable, historic, culturally rich. But though National Bohemian, first brewed in 1885, is identified with the city—Jerry Hoffberger’s ownership of the beer company and the Orioles overlapped from the 1950s through the 1970s, when National merged with Carling, of London, Ontario—the current Land of Pleasant Living is, appropriately, Eden, N.C. (and Albany, Ga.).

The cans say their contents is brewed by G. Heileman Brewing Co. of Milwaukee (Beertown), but who you gonna believe? A roll of stamped aluminum or Wikipedia?

Here, I’ll pour it out for you: After Heileman (of LaCrosse, not Milwaukee) bought Carling National, it was bought in turn by Stroh (of Detroit). Then Stroh was split between Pabst and Miller (Milwaukee), with Natty Boh becoming part of Pabst (formerly a Milwaukee brewery, but now a “virtual brewery” based in Los Angeles).

The Eden and Albany plants that Pabst commandeered for the production of National Bohemian are owned by MillerCoors, based in Chicago, a joint venture of SABMiller (the SAB stands for South African Breweries, if you must know), based in London, England, and Molson Coors, based in Denver and Montreal.

Globalization. Corporate consolidation. The same forces—plus deregulation—were at work in banking and utilities. None of Baltimore’s major banks is headquartered in Maryland. The return address on my phone bill is Carol Stream, Ill. (somewhere in Chicagoland), and I send the check to Atlanta. BGE stands for Baltimore Gas and Electric, part of Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, but Constellation was bought in 2012 by Exelon of Chicago (I still mail my monthly payment to Philadelphia, though).

The loss of corporate headquarters and, sometimes, production facilities—such as Black & Decker in 2010, bought by Stanley (of my home state of Connecticut), and Jos. A. Bank this year, bought by Men’s Wearhouse (Houston)—is painful for a city, both financially and psychologically. When out-of-towners snap up a big local company, the region’s tax base, employment rolls, and economic clout take a hit. For arts organizations, it usually means less corporate sponsorship money, fewer individual donors, and smaller audiences for ticketed programs.

Though neither was still based in the city itself, these were two of Baltimore’s historic success stories. S. Duncan Black, Alonzo G. Decker, and, yes, Joseph A. Bank were local boys who made good. Little Joey Bank’s grandpa, Charlie the tailor, got off the boat from Lithuania (the boat may not have actually sailed from Klaipeda) in 1866. Though Natty Boh was a few years away, he could have quaffed Bauernschmidt’s or Rost’s or Wiessner’s, among others.*

Charles Bank was one of more than a million immigrants who came to Baltimore in the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, when it was the country’s third busiest port of entry after New York and Boston. Immigrants on steamships from Liverpool and Bremen could settle in Baltimore or make a direct connection to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Locust Point and head west.

Germans were the majority in this wave, and Baltimore became an even more German city, with plenty of breweries and several German newspapers. But it didn’t last. In 1918, the daily Deutsche Correspondent newspaper merged with the Bayrische Wochenblatt to become the weekly Baltimore Correspondent.

Understandably, at the start of the Great War, 100 years ago, German-ness and German culture became very unpopular in this country (and embarrassing to German Americans, as Kurt Vonnegut has written, recalling his Indianapolis childhood). Then came Prohibition (bad for breweries) and not much later World War II.

The Correspondent, the last of Baltimore’s German newspapers, shut down in 1976. Schellhase’s Restaurant, home of H. L. Mencken’s Saturday Night Club, closed in 1980.** The equally legendary Haussner’s gave up der Geist in 1999, its splendid art collection auctioned off.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not mourning the withering away of German heritage experiences in particular, though I enjoy seeking them out. Will I see you at the 114th annual Maryland German Festival, July 26-27 at the Maryland State Fairgrounds?

I’m using Baltimore’s German American history as an example of the power of ethnicity, loosely defined, in the urban cultural context. In this case (but not in all—think of ethnic groups that appear to be on the rise in certain cities), it is a faded power, weakened over time by suburbanization and assimilation.

The whole time I’ve lived in Baltimore, until a few months ago, there was a billboard just north of the train station with Mister Boh proposing to the Utz potato chip girl (the perfect German couple). The tagline: Where Baltimore gets engaged.

But the shocking truth is that…
• National Bohemian is no longer brewed in Baltimore
• Utz Quality Foods of Hanover, Pa., was never a Baltimore company
• Smyth Jewelers (the client) is outside the city line in Timonium, and
• MGH (the ad agency) is too, in Owings Mills.

The pickings these days, German and otherwise, are slim. From the late 18th century until quite recently, Baltimore was one of the nation’s ten largest cities in population. As of 2013, it’s number 26. And it’s not only that the city has lost population to its suburbs. The Baltimore-Columbia-Towson Metropolitan Statistical Area comes in at a barely respectable 20.

Sometimes being the state capital helps (Baltimore is not, but neither are Dallas and New York; Boston is, but so are Hartford and Richmond). Sometimes being the state’s only large city helps (Baltimore is, and so are Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Newark, both Portlands, and Seattle). Sometimes not having a major city right next to you helps (Baltimore does, though the situation was formerly reversed, and so do Milwaukee, Newark, Providence, and Wilmington).

What Jane Jacobs called The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the title of a book now more than 50 years old, is a complex issue. I’m old enough to remember the often idealized downtowns of the 1960s, when they were still shopping meccas and the first redevelopment projects were new. In the 1970s and ’80s, I joined the crowds at the festival marketplaces and lived in neighborhoods making grassroots efforts to improve (and one where things were pretty bad and staying that way).

Since the ’90s, I’ve seen some downtowns and neighborhoods gentrify beyond recognition, others collapse beyond recognition, and a few slowly stabilize as an existing population strengthens economically (the example in The Death and Life was Boston’s North End, then considered a slum).

Most of the largest American cities are doing well. I don’t have a cure for the largest, most troubled ones. My primary concern is for the middle-sized ones: Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hartford, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Providence, Richmond, and, yes, Beertown (which I’ve never visited).***

Cities cannot rely on courthouses, hospitals, and universities alone. When corporations are no longer headquartered downtown, or even in the metropolitan area; when all the desirable retail is in the suburbs and exurbs; when stable neighborhoods are islands surrounded by poverty; when neighborhoods are no longer being regenerated and the children and grandchildren of their former residents have forgotten them, how will the rich culture that cities nurture—high and popular, traditional and avant-garde—survive?

Will the arts be forced to abandon our middle-sized cities? And what would that mean for the future of the arts? (I know what it would mean for the future of the cities and it ain’t pretty.)

Let’s discuss over a few cold ones next week.

* For more on Baltimore beer, see Rob Kasper’s Baltimore Beer.
** There will be an exhibition of Schellhasiana at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library as part of this year’s Mencken Day on Saturday, September 13.
*** Title of a July 17, 2012, conference: “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity.”

We’ll Always Have Paris

In last week’s post, “Paper Towel Holder $79.99,” I rhetorically asked why so many of those forking over eighty bucks for a kitchen fixture would be shocked, shocked at the thought of spending that much on a symphony ticket.

The shellfish eaters among you are familiar with the term ‘Market Price’—the cold-hearted son-in-law of ‘Please Inquire’ and ‘Ask for Assistance.’ Supply and demand are factors (Sam Spade: Then you think the dingus is worth a million?), but their not-always-skillful manipulation is, to our credit and shame, marketing’s stock-in-trade.

Luxury goods such as diamonds and wine and commodities such as oil—crude and olive alike—maintain their high prices (if they can) by restraining supply and fanning demand.

There does not appear to be a supply issue with TowlHub. Though the price of nickel skyrocketed in 2006, it has returned to earth, and current world reserves are estimated at 75 million metric tons. (Fred C. Dobbs: This is the country where the nuggets of gold are just cryin’ for ya to take ’em out of the ground and make ’em shine in coins and on the fingers and necks of swell dames.)

In the absence of precious metals, $79.99 would be steep for a tube on a stand. And there is no mention of ‘While Supplies Last’ or ‘Limited Time Offer.’ But the perceived value of the SkyMall dingus ascends as it becomes the stuff that dreams are made of: device-charging and music-delivery.

The confined, high-altitude shopper enters into a fantasy of family contentment or, possibly, adult romance. (Billy Dannreuther: Let’s say she uses her imagination rather than her memory.)

What we see here are the benefits of encasing a tangible product—a paper towel holder, a bathing suit, a dining room set, a tablet, a car—in intangibles, a process that may require physical modifications (charging ports, speakers, replaceable stopper). Less obvious are the benefits of encasing an intangible product—a performance, a museum visit, a hotel stay, a flight, a yoga class—in tangibles.

Services marketing explains that these intangible products of the arts and culture, banking and finance, education, entertainment, government, health, hospitality and tourism, information technology, insurance, and transportation industries (that should be most of them) are in fact bundles of goods and services that the consumer consumes as they are delivered.

More recently, the emphasis has been on the experience and, even more recently, on engagement, requiring staff members to be not only ‘cast-members,’ Disney-style, but ‘Gentils Organisateurs,’ Club Med-style. (Philip Marlowe: Next time, I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie, and carry a tennis racket.)

More than ever, we fear that the live cannot compete with the virtual. Somewhat desperately, we discount, we post rehearsal photos on Facebook and Instagram, we hire greeters, we add pre- and post-performance talks and ice-breakers. We install flat screens in our halls, we simulcast in HD. We live-tweet, we retweet, we create hashtags, we run selfie contests. In general, these doings make sense as a way to capture the interest of younger audiences. (I will address the obsession with millennials in a future post.)

But this Engage-or-Die thinking (though he’s no Miley Cyrus—see my post “Vevo-va-voom!”—Brian Solis has 225,000 Twitter followers) has drawn our attention away from the tangible-intangible issue.

Let us return to the bundle-of-goods-and-services concept.

Cultural products, among others, are described in services-marketing textbooks (which are goods) and courses (which are bundles of goods and services) as ‘perishable.’ We talk about seat-inventory, but there’s no furniture warehouse. And—strictly speaking—you can’t see tonight’s performance tomorrow.

But can you eat the same meal twice? Certainly, I’ll bring you a box.

I, myself, am not a doggie-bag person. A member of the Clean Plate Club as a boy, I had to later learn not to eat every last morsel in social settings. Nonetheless, I can appreciate the satisfaction of taking home at no extra charge the makings of a second meal. (My position re loading up on Splenda packets and slipping buffet items into your purse—you know who you are—remains unchanged.)

Starting a job in Manhattan in late August of 2001 (yup), I arranged for direct deposit of my paychecks into a new account at Commerce Bank, Regis and Kelly’s bank, which during its period of rapid expansion became known as McBank. (Founder Vernon Hill earlier ran a business finding sites for McDonald’s, driving Ray Kroc around. I see that he published a book in 2012 and will get back to you after giving it a read.)

“America’s Most Convenient Bank” is now TD Bank (eh?), which acquired Commerce in 2007, but for this customer it wasn’t the same. I’ll never forget the slow cooker I got—free!—when I opened my account, as if I were banking in 1950s Ohio. (This was in addition to the free pens, lollypops, and dog biscuits available whenever I stopped in.) The thing cooked like a dream. And there was branding in every bite (see my post “Love is Brand”).

My joke when I join or donate to an organization is that I’m doing it for the tote bag, but this type of giveaway or premium—today’s cool kids call it ‘merch’ and ‘swag’—can seal the deal. It’s like being given a present. You get pursuit of happiness and property, the trip to Hawaii and the lousy T-shirt.

As with TowlHub and other tangible products, even if your dreams don’t work out, you still have a durable good, an object that occupies space and can be used again and again by anyone and everyone. And you can take it with you or pass it on when you relocate or pass on yourself. (Okay, you can’t take it with you when you die, but it fits nicely in the coffin. Or might I interest you in a tasteful urn that’s also a charging station?)

It’s even better when there is an element of surprise. (Philip Marlowe again: What you see is nothing, I got a Balinese dancing girl tattooed across my chest.) It’s the feeling you get when the waiter brings you a free dessert, but you get to take it home and save it forever like that slice of wedding cake in your freezer, the dried flowers, the signed Playbills, the framed posters, the bobbleheads, the marathon bib numbers…. (Charlie Allnut: We’ll never lack for stories to tell our grandchildren, will we?)

I invite you to share your own adventures in premiums and any other thoughts about making the intangible tangible. We will play it again, I promise.

Paper Towel Holder $79.99

David Ogilvy would love SkyMall so I do too. It’s easy to make fun of the garden yeti, the spying devices, all the travel pillows and shapewear, but if frequent fliers weren’t buying these items, the Mall Where No One Walks (or where, as the saying used to go, Your Fingers Do the Walking) would drop them faster than an evacuation slide.*

I only wish I’d known about the fake birdhouse that makes your neighbor’s dog stop barking when I needed it.

Today, let’s set aside the notion that SkyMall is for Bob and Eleanor Heartlander seated across the aisle and learn how to get $79.99 (plus shipping and applicable sales and use taxes) for a paper towel holder.

The challenges are obvious:
1. Most of us already have a perfectly good paper towel holder and it was there when we moved in.
2. As elegant as Brushed Nickel sounds, TowlHub is not especially attractive.
3. $79.99 is nearly seven times as much as Wayfair is asking at the moment for a classy White Marble version from Creative Home.

True, as far as I can tell, the marble holder is two inches shorter and lacks “a friction ring for single sheet pulls and a raised edge so the roll will not unravel.” But are the extra height, added convenience, and marginal chaos protection worth $65 or more? Not for most of us these days.

Here’s the magic: Like the dog-silencing birdhouse, this baby is more high tech than it seems. While supporting SSPs (single sheet pulls) without RORU (risk of roll unravel), TowlHub is actually [cue sudden intake of breath] a four-port charging station. (Not ‘changing station.’ That would be a different benefit.)

The photo shows what appear to be an iPhone and an iPad charging away on a spotless counter with two USB ports to spare. Caption: “No more fighting over outlets to charge your devices!”

But that’s not all: “The interchangeable topper is actually a wine stopper so you can easily replace it to complement any décor or season.”

Without even considering the impact of the “Five must-have Sony devices” on the page before, how quickly the captive reader’s imagination gets busy. I’ve opened a bottle of something white…my date’s drying off from the pool…our devices are charging all snug in their ports…and The Essential Nina Simone has begun to pulse sexily from—get this—my paper towel holder’s Bluetooth speakers.

(Without speakers, TowlHub is just $49.99.)

So for $79.99, the price of six filet mignons from Omaha Steaks (reg. $117), I can get a product that not only helps me wipe up spills and blot bacon, but charges everyone’s devices whenever they need charging (that is, constantly), creates a romantic mood for that special someone, and keeps me company when I’m lonely—as soon as it arrives and for years to come.

Maybe I wouldn’t, maybe you wouldn’t, but significant numbers of the flying un-rich apparently pay $79.99 (plus shipping and applicable sales and use taxes) for a paper towel holder. Why, then, is it so hard to get them to pay $79.99 to attend a non-Broadway play or a non-rock concert?

Those who have not already thrown in the (paper) towel should join me next week for some ways to get the job done.**

* See “SkyMall’s SkyFall,” a June 2013 post on the Priceonomics blog, for more about SkyMall and its mysterious new owners.
** Speaking of owners, did you know that Koch Industries owns Brawny Paper Towels? What’s on your holder?