Cities and Flow

Flow, Columbus Circle, New York City

Flow, Columbus Circle, New York City

In The Opinionator ( blog of the New York Times, Richard Carrick wrote about “flow”, the concept developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist trained at the University of Chicago, and now teaching at Claremont Graduate University in California where he is also director and founder of the Quality of Life Research Center. ?Mr. Carrick, a conductor, composer, and pianist, is returning he says to Mr. Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (?the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter?) to investigate how it might apply to composing music. ?I am equally fascinated by this concept. ?I wrote a paper published by the UNESCO Observatory E-Journal ( flow in relation to cities and their citizens. ?The point was to find a way to talk about how we live and experience cities while avoiding the use of the word “creative.” ?Tons of people engage with their city everyday in myriad ways when they buy a newspaper or a coffee, take their children to the park, ride their bicycle to work, or negotiate the scrum on the subway, completely caught up in timeless, rewardless but captivating moments, and none of these activities would classify them as “creative.” ?Yet they contribute to the texture and personality of the city, to its “flow,” just as much as the artist who is singing every night at the opera. ?New York and London, Istanbul and Rio, are made up of citizens doing what they do, but as only the residents of those cities can do them. ?Where “creative” tends to exclude, “flow” includes. ?As I wrote in the paper, “The broader category of flow forces us to consider factors that we might otherwise overlook if we adhered too closely to creativity in its more restricted sense. It presents the challenge of considering, for example, ALL the people who live in our exemplar city, namely those who would not necessarily consider themselves either non-conformist or creative.” ?I’ll stand by those words.

My Neighborhood

Vegan signs in the window

Vegan signs in the window

I live in Harlem. ?Not Central Harlem but South Harlem which real estate developers have tried unsuccessfully to name Soha. ?I am about a block and a half from the northern boundary of Central Park at 110th Street. ?The chic development of Harlem is not where I am. ?It’s a couple of blocks over on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which has taken off in the last couple of years. ?You trip over one bar or restaurant after another. ?I knew things were changing dramatically when a Starbucks moved in on 118th Street. ?They do their market research. ?But my neighborhood hasn’t experienced that. ?Until now. ?This is not a Starbucks experience but on my corner on the first floor right under the mosque someone is intending to open a vegan restaurant. ?It stopped me in my tracks when I passed vegan signs on the windows a couple of months ago where before they had declared “Harlem Fish & Chips.” ?After two years of waiting for more fried food, but at least it would be fish, the name changes and with it – if it really ever arrives – a cultural shift. ?So now we are waiting to see 1. if this joint will open, and 2. if it can attract sufficient interest to support a 50 seat – not a take out – vegan restaurant at the corner of 113 and St Nicholas Ave. ?Changing times indeed.

Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, 113th St

Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, 113th St

Vegan signs on side; Harlem Fish & Chips at front

Vegan signs on side; Harlem Fish & Chips at front

Thatcher and Consensus

Among the massive commentary that is flowing around the legacy of Margaret Thatcher what interests me most was not just her disinterest in building consensus but that it was anathema to her. ?Maybe it was part of the time as some have suggested – there were plenty of things to oppose – or that she relished conflict. ?As Anne Perkins of?The Guardian notes today: ?It is a paradox of her period in office that, while seeking to limit the scope of government, she introduced a style of command and control, top-down, centralised authority that strengthened it and has proved hard for her successors to resist. It has leaked into the way political parties are managed, so that they struggle to regenerate a spirit of local activism. Some of the most valuable institutions of civil society from the churches to the trade unions have been scarred by her attacks on collective enterprise in the public esteem.? To me, this question is still in the air. ?We assume a democratic society must be participatory but there are many examples in the US which show that we are willing to tolerate the contrary. ?Gerrymandering voting districts, elections determined by corporate funds and secrets PACs, and attempts to suppress the minority vote are accepted as part of the reality of political life. ?The Thatcherite top-down centralized “command and control” undermines the concept of an accountable electorate. ?If we can’t get our act together at the national level, perhaps it’s time to refocus on what “a spirit of local activism” could mean for the renewed life of our communities. ?Consensus matters more than ever.

The Rich and The Bleak-Knightsbridge and Belgravia

The New York Times reported in an article on April 1 that tony London sections of Knightsbridge and Belgravia are emptying out not because they lack property owners but because they lack residents of those properties who use them more as hotels for their occasional stopovers than places to live. ?( ?I forwarded this article to a London friend who wrote back unsympathetically: “I never really liked Belgravia and Knightsbridge much – not very interesting areas with a feeling of transience and dirty money for many years now – but now they? are becoming quite barren.” ?There is, however, the unwanted knock-on effect of raising prices elsewhere, he noted. ?True, and is it ever a good thing to have empty buildings in the middle of town not to mention that other knock-on effect to the service industries that rely on these residents for their living? ?As the NYT article points out London is but one stop on the global trek of the super wealthy. ?Manhattan is another. ?It’s an interesting contradiction that the wealthiest may be turning parts of our greatest cities into bleak markers of their excess.

Cities and citizenship

I am inspired by President Obama’s Inaugural Address to give some thought to the relationship between cities and citizens. ?The President calls on us as ?citizens? several times in his speech. ?The notion of citizen is now generalized to include all who have legal residency in a country. ?As the President said, ?My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride.??But of course a citizen was first of all an inhabitant of a city.? Those who live in cities know well the challenges of citizenship and the rewards.? Every day the city we live in challenges us to remain civil and responsible human beings even when in extremely stressful situations – and they happen routinely – we are tempted to lose our cool. ?But we don’t, not usually. ?We hang on because it?s part of the social contract about how to live in a city. ?We know it?s essential.? That?s why we can understand what the President means when he talks about having an obligation to defend ?our most ancient values and enduring ideals.?? That?s a bit of what we do every day.? Just now, my fellow citizens, we need to up our game.

What happens to the messy parts of Rio in 2016?

An opinion piece?in the New York Times today argues that the Rio plans to vacate through illegal evictions a large portion of the city’s poorest living in favelas in preparation for the Olympics to be held there in 2016:

Last month, Unesco awarded?World Heritage Site status?to a substantial portion of the city, an area that?includes some of its hillside favelas, where more than 1.4 million of the city?s 6 million residents live. No favela can claim?greater historical importance?than Rio?s first ? Morro da Provid?ncia ? yet Olympic construction projects are threatening its future.

The author of the article, Theresa Williamson, maintains that it would be “more cost-effective to invest in urban improvements that communities help shape through a participatory democratic process.” ? Rio is not the only city that would prefer to eradicate the messy bits of its city. ?Cities that are under pressure from a massive influx of global investment – and attention – begin to feel they must look like a shopping mall in New York City or Cannes.

Urban/suburban cooperation aids Detroit Institute of Arts

On Tuesday, August 10, three counties in southeastern Michigan, one which contains Detroit, and the other two suburban voted for a property tax, called a millage tax, to keep the Detroit Institute of Arts in business. ?Hardly a fluke, this was the culmination of a long-term strategy to renovate the museum and changes its attitude begun in 1999 by the museum’s director, Graham Beal. ?He wanted the museum to be more welcoming to a public who would in return repay the love. ?It worked. ?The vote on Tuesday, according to the Detroit Free Press, will “funnel $23 million annually into DIA operations for the next 10 years” at a cost of “about $20 a year on a home with a market value of $200,000.” ?In return, the museum offers free admission to all residents of the counties that voted for the tax and will also increase its operating hours to accommodate more programming. ?The DIA joins the Minnesota Institute of Arts and the St. Louis Art Museum who are also supported by property taxes. ?This regional cooperation to keep major cultural institutions alive may not be the wave of the future, but it is a model of what can be done when all the stakeholders decide to work together. ?In what must have been a joyous scene, the “morning after” was celebrated by staffers lining up at the museum entrance to welcome the first visitors of the day.





Jacksonville, FL resident responds to the VI ranking

The [VI] report says, ” they are clearly on the move upward with a sense of self-discovery and identity” describes us perfectly. We have long struggled with an identity crisis. Over the past decade, we’ve been on the journey of finding ourselves as a city and it shows.

Ridgefield Creativity Conference

I participated in a panel discussion on cities at?Advancing Creative Thinking: Imagination to Innovation conference in Ridgefield, Connecticut this weekend. ?Kudos to the town of Ridgefield and its arts council for their commitment to the investing time and money to exploring the many ways large and small that creativity and innovation can be explored at the local level.

Thank you

First, many thanks to Claudia for getting the blog started. ?And then apologies for not picking up the ball and keeping things going. ?I?m hoping we?ll be fixing that situation soon. ?I?m happy to say that after much work on the part of a great team, we will be launching the Vitality Index? this coming week, July 20th. ?Fingers crossed. ?It will be available on the devoted page on this site. ?Your comments are welcome. ?Thanks.