Monday, January 31, 2005

Help Plan the Downtown Greenway

Action Greensboro is asking for input in planning a greenway around downtown, and is holding public workshops to that end on Tuesday, Feb. 1st at their offices (317 South Elm Street) at 3 different times: 7:30-9:30 a.m., 12-2 p.m., and 5-7 p.m. Take your pick.

I'll be there at 5. Rich Flierl, the design consultant from the Cooper Carry Center for Connective Architecture in Atlanta, will make presentations and City of Greensboro parks personnel will be available to answer questions and record suggestions.

I'm completely in favor of the Greenway, as it will run about 50 yards from my house, and I won't have to drive to Country Park for long runs anymore. So I expect you all to support this important endeavor! ; )

In truth, I think the greenway will be a very good thing -- just one more enticement to live in Greensboro's ever-more appealing central neighborhoods.

I stopped in earlier this evening at Action Greensboro's Groundbreakers meeting, where Rich Flierl gave a preliminary presentation about the greenway plan. I was impressed by the sheer number of volunteers (hundreds) present, and by the number of Greensboro bigwigs in attendance. Yvonne Johnson, Don Vaughan, Betty Cone, Trip Brown, Rob Bencini, and Jim Melvin were a few who I could see sitting in my area.

I was also impressed at what this group has been able to accomplish in its short life. The new downtown ballpark and the center city park are only two of its most visible projects, but it's had a hand in countless intiatives attracting businesses, students, and "young professionals" to Greensboro.

And I couldn't help but feel a tinge of envy at its clout and huge cash reserves, as my neighbors and I slog along on small-scale renewal projects and fight underfunded, rearguard actions against decline in our little corner of Greensboro.

Sunday, January 30, 2005


Share the joy! Photo from the New York Times.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Bread-and-Milk Buying as Introductory Rite

One of the quirks of North Carolina culture that transplanted northerners like me puzzle over is the frenetic buying of white bread and milk whenever even the slightest accumulation of winter precipitation is predicted.

We Yankees usually use this activity as an opportunity to glory in our superior, northern winter-driving skills and to laugh at the locals' ignorance of real winter weather like we have Up North. Re-tellings of our favorite northeastern / midwestern / rocky mountain blizzard stories usually ensue.

But I've recently come to the conclusion that both northerers and southerners misunderstand the ritual of bread-and-milk buying. It isn't about bread and milk. It is actually a ritual.

Snow days are a special kind of holiday that is openly loved by children and secretly loved by adults. Snow days are constituted of a kind of time that is different either from work time or from scheduled leisure. Snow days are movable feasts which entail distinct activities, such as the daytime watching of movies, making hot chocolate, sledding, or just walking outdoors. Snow days are sacred in the sense of "dedicated, set apart, exclusively appropriated to some special purpose" (Oxford English Dictionary).

No one ever really runs out of bread and milk on snow days, since the stores never close and the roads are almost always passable. The real function of buying bread and milk is to ritually mark our entrance into the sacred time of the Snow Day. It's like the ritual ablution Catholics do when entering a church, or the processional rite at the beginning of a liturgy.

They're predicting snow and freezing rain for tonight. I'm heading to the store. Dies hiemis adsit.

Update: Hoggard complains that I should translate my Latin. "Let the snow day come."

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Two Models of Historic Preservation

Benjamin Briggs of Preservation Greensboro weighs in on how best to renovate War Memorial Stadium:
It strikes me that American preservation still remains heavily influenced by the Williamsburg model, that is . . . historic sites remain static over time in museum-like quality . . . In contrast, some buildings continue their useful lives beyond being frozen monuments. Take, for example, residences in College Hill, Fisher Park, or Aycock . . . which continue to have new kitchens, new wings, new bathrooms . . . with respect and care to the important (or contributing) elements of the house . . . This second model is most often used in Europe today . . . Look at redevelopment in Sevilla in which historic buildings are totally gutted, the facades saved, and a new building erected inside the shell of the old . . . In my opinion, WMS could shrink in size next year, then expand again when the ballfield formerly known as Burlington Industries is deemed unsuitable and is abandoned, then shrink again, then grow again . . . and that is fine - if each of these projects respects the heart of the stadium, whatever that is found to be (Click here and scroll to the bottom to read the whole thing).
I fortuitously came across an example of this kind of preservation while I was walking in Washington, DC on Monday:

For this project, called the Atlantic Building, the facades of several old buildings have been painstakingly preserved, but an entirely new building complex is being constructed behind them. (Click here to see a better photo, and here and here to read about how it will be used).

Don't panic. I'm not advocating the gutting of War Memorial Stadium. But I do want to see its utilitarian features (seating, locker facilities, bathrooms) updated and well-fitted to its use for the next generation or so, which is amateur baseball. I also want to see its architectural and historic character preserved. I think we can easily do both.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A Short But Eventful Trip to Washington, DC

I'm back. I spent Sunday and Monday as a chaperone for 130 high school students, and didn't have access to a computer -- or any extra energy -- for blogging. I'm glad to be back, but 24 hours later I'm still tired.

Before you read on, though, caveat lector. This post is about what I saw and did at the 2005 March for Life. Though I'm not going to write particularly about the ethics of abortion, if this sort of thing is likely to make you angry, please read Mr. Sun instead. Otherwise, vade mecum.

The bus ride to DC on Sunday was typically youth-group-y. The kids were busily going about their work: talking, joking, flirting, jostling for social standing, trying to figure out who they are. Most of them were polite, but not all. None of them caused any serious trouble. Whew.

When we arrived in DC, we unloaded our stuff into a gym at CUA and headed directly for a vigil mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. We were 2 hours early for mass, but almost every square foot of both levels of the basilica was already occupied by people. We squeezed out a spot on the floor at the back and waited.

I talked with a number of people, most of whom were from states like Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, and Indiana. It struck me that the atmosphere here probably wasn't unlike what you'd find at a pilgrimage church in the middle ages. There were lots of families with teenagers, but not many with small children – a good thing, since the mass itself was another two hours long. Still, the sheer quiet during the contemplative parts of the liturgy, in a church filled with perhaps 5,000 worshippers, was astounding.

After mass, pizza was provided for us at CUA, and then we headed off to sleep on the gym floors of CUA's Dufour Center. The lights went off at one a.m., and in the darkness a seminarian recited the rosary over the intercom. This miraculously effected the calming of 1,200 rowdy students within a minute or two. I drifted off during the second decade.

Lights back on at 6 a.m. Ugh. But we were all up, packed, washed, breakfasted, dressed very warmly (the temperature outside was 18F), and out the door by 8. We made our way to the MCI Center for a youth rally and another mass. I would estimate, since the MCI Center was nearly full, that more than 15,000 people were there. Here's what it looked like:

A few things about the mass really surprised me. When the presiding bishop introduced the eight or so other bishops with him, the kids cheered for each of them enthusiastically, as if they were star athletes. "Now playing auxiliary Bishop for the diocese of Wilmington Delaware . . ." (Not really, but it kind of reminded me of that.) Later in the mass, when the bishop pointed out the large group of seminarians in attendance, the crowd really just let it rip. The affection toward them was palpable. That gave me a warm feeling, since those seminarians must really be struggling with their vocations, given the kind of press the clergy have been getting for the past few years. I think the students knew that, and let their gratitude show.

The bishop also asked young men and women who were considering a religious vocation to stand, and they too received loud cheers and whoops. I was suprised to see the girl right in front of me stand up at this point. She had been dancing earlier to the music at the rally like . . . well, not like a nun. More like a teen-aged girl, and one who didn't look like she'd have any trouble finding a boyfriend.

Finally, the real shocker: when one of the speakers made a plug for abstinence until marriage, he too got a very big ovation. Extraordinary. Especially since these kids didn't seem like a lot of goody two-shoes to me. It's a different world from the one I grew up in.

After the rally, we walked to the Ellipse to hear the politicos orate as the crowd gathered. Most of them were pretty dull, except for ex-congressman "tailgunner" Bob Dornan, who was invigorating, if also a bit irritating. We were told that the crowd was estimated at 100,000. That seemed optimistic at first, but when we hit Constitution Avenue, we were shoulder-to-shoulder and heel-to-toe in the slush from the Ellipse to the Supreme Court building.

I noticed an odd thing on the march. The vast majority of marchers seemed to be ordinary, white, Catholic, middle class families. They marched quietly, though a few groups were reciting rosaries. There were no confrontations with pro-choice activists. A number of anti-war activists were there, but I think most of them were pro-life, too. On the sidelines, however, were the kind of people I normally associate with anti-abortion protest – the ones with the hugh photos of aborted fetuses and handwritten signs that tell you you're going to Hell. It was weird because they were holding their photos and signs toward the marchers – as if people who had come thousands of miles to rally against abortion somehow needed to be convinced further of its evils. One of them, with a sign that read, "Abort the Bishops, Not Babies," seemed to want to argue with passers-by. He thought the Bishops were to lily-livered on the issue of abortion. But the Big Kahuna of offensive anti-abortion protesters, Operation Rescue, was not in evidence. I'm inclined to think that the march organizers invited them not to come.

The police were there, but they didn't have much to do but look impressive:

Amazingly, out of the tens of thousands of marchers in Washington, my bus's group leader Maryann Tyrer was interviewed by the Washington Post for their story, which was also printed on the front page of the News and Record. But the Post left out the part of her comments she most wanted to be printed, so I'll put it here.

Maryann said that supporting women who are in crisis pregnancies, along with their children, is as important as stopping abortion. I heard this point several times during the masses and rally, too, and I completely agree. But I told her I didn't think that part of her comments would make it into the Post, and it didn't.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Friday Malinois Photo

The End of the World As We Know It

There was an interesting piece on the editorial page of yesterday's Wall Street Journal (sorry, no link):

Billions to trillions of years from now, the stars will have exhausted their nuclear fuel, the oceans will freeze, the sky will become totally dark, and the universe will consist of dead neutron stars, black holes, and nuclear debris. Intelligent life will be huddled next to the dying embers of fading black holds, like the homeless next to small bonfires.
Sounds like pretty bad news. But the author, Michio Kaku, spends the rest of the piece specualting about possible "exit strategies" for intelligent life into other regions of a possible "megaverse," or parallel universes, or higher dimensions, through "worm holes." He even suggests we might just shoot our DNA through a microscopic worm hole using nanobots so we can have them reconstitute us in one of those alternate universes without actually going there ourselves.

Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at CUNY, so I'm going to take it on faith that he's not getting this stuff from watching old episodes of Deep Space Nine on Netflix.

But here's my question for him and his fellow scientists: given your view of things, why worry at all about the fate of intelligent life?

If you're a thoroughgoing materialist -- and I'm assuming that most theoretical physicists are – then "intelligent life" is nothing more than a convenient name we have given to a rather transient set of epiphenomena arising from certain configurations of matter-energy. Those epiphenomena are of no more or less significance than all other epiphenomena arising from other such configurations. They are of absolutely no value whatsoever, since the notion of "value" is itself just another such epiphenomenon – it is not a descriptor of things in themselves.

To follow this argument out to its consequences for the present: why worry about anything, if you hold to this kind of materialism? For example, why be an environmentalist? I'll bet most of my friends in the biology department, who probably hold orthodox, pro-environmentalist views, would agree to the notion that living things are essentially biomechanical automata, which are, in turn, simply epiphenomena of the fundamental forces and particles and their interactions.

But biological epiphenomena are of no more value than the epiphenomena following upon, say, a nuclear holocaust. So why save the snail darter? The fact that they are interesting or beautiful to us is of no real significance, since the concepts of "interest" or "beauty" are entirely parochial.

If the answer is, so we won't die, my response would be, "According to your view of things, the universe is indifferent to our survival, nor is there any more value in us than in any other cosmic debris. You're asking me to contribute to cause which itself just a tiny eddy in the great swirl of quarks and neutrinos. I think I'll just have another martini instead."

Boy will my kids be happy about this when they wake up

Update: Not much of that snow stuck to the ground, but they got a 2-hour school delay out of it. And there was much rejoicing!

Thursday, January 20, 2005

All For the Free iPOD

My wife received a 40GB iPod from her employer as a Christmas bonus. Great gift!

Except that our computer was running on Windows ME, and the iTunes software that connects the iPod to a PC requires Windows XP. Still, no problem -- the XP upgrade only costs $99 at Office Depot.

We upgraded to XP, and everything went well, except that the computer went mute --no sound. That's because our old sound card was incompatible with XP.

No problem. Sound cards are cheap. I bought a new Creative sound card at CompUSA for less than $30, and installed it and its drivers.

Silence. I removed the card and software and returned it to CompUSA, and swapping it for the Mad Dog card. Still silence.

I called the Mad Dog support line. "What kind of speakers do you have?" he asked. Boston Acoustics. What does that matter? "You have digital speakers, but our card has analog output. People make that mistake all the time."

CompUSA doesn't carry any digital-output sound cards, so we kept the Mad Dog card and hooked up a very old and tinny set of Sony speakers. In the end, the free iPod cost $130 and a weekend of muttering and cursing under my breath at the computer.

But so far we've ripped 1400 songs to the iPod, and it's great. We'll be able to download our entire CD collection into a little white-and-silver box and not come close to filling it up. It just amazes me. I feel like I should join a cargo cult or something.

Latin Blogger Motto

A reader in California, Anna, suggested that bloggers need a motto, something like "watching the watchers," and asked if I would translate it into Latin. That goes into Latin pretty easily:

Custodientes custodes
and it has the added advantage of alluding to Juvenal's famous question,
Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? ("who will watch the watchers themselves?").
A second motto Anna suggested was was "publish, then verify." But I'm not exactly sure what that means in English, so I'm hesitant to put it into Latin. Specifically, does it mean that bloggers publish, then verify their stuff later? Or that the MSM publishes, and bloggers verify it?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

"Smart Growth Will Be Driven by Greed and Envy"

So said Geoffrey Anderson from the Environmental Protection Agency this afternoon at the Greensboro Historical Museum.

Anderson was in town to present the 2004 Smart Growth Award to the City of Greensboro for the Southside development. (Most of the credit for that project should go to Sue Schwartz, who is the city's chief neighborhood planner, and just an all-around great person. You rock, Sue! . . . ahem . . . now, back to what Mr. Anderson said.)

What really struck me about Anderson's talk was how un-regulatory it was. He started by noting how much smart growth in the US has been locally driven, and is not the result of state or federal mandates. Southside is a perfect example of that. Greensboro wanted to help a blighted area, came up with a novel development ordinance, and just got it done.

Anderson also noted that the market for this kind of development is already strong and is growing because of changing demographics in the U.S. Whereas traditional housing developments since the 1950's have been aimed squarely at the classic nuclear family (2.2 kids and a dog), that kind of family is a shrinking part of the housing market. As generation X-ers delay marriage and baby boomers' nests empty, there will be an increasing demand for a variety of housing types. (For evidence of this see the previous post, where both younger and older commenters express a desire for non-suburban housing.)

If Anderson is right, why does the development industry keep doing the same old thing? Don't developers respond to market conditions? Anderson says they're "responding rationally to public policy." That is, 1950's-era zoning ordinances practically mandate single use neighborhoods and strip development. In most cities, he says, it's illegal to make a pedestrian friendly, mixed retail / housing / office development.

Anderson's policy suggestions for promoting smart growth were surprisingly libertarian (Sam, Rusty, and Tom please take note): make the process more predictable for developers, ease restrictions on zoning, on traffic engineering regulations, on parking requirements, and – get this – on federal environmental regulations. He went into detail about how an urban infill project in Atlanta went forward only after the EPA backed off some of its rules. (Well, he is a Bush EPA guy, after all.)

He also made this rather startling pronouncement: "The enviros [environmentalists] also need to say 'yes' more often, or this kind of development won't happen."

Finally, although he noted that local smart growth ordinances have been very popular at the ballot box, he predicted that smart growth will be successful because of its inherent desirability and profitablity. "In the end," he said, "smart growth will be driven by greed and envy."

Ralph Nader, meet your new friend Gorden Gekko.

"We're young. We're educated. We want to live in a real neighborhood. We're gone."

I just got an anonymous comment in response to my last post that just blew me away. I'm putting it here as its own post, in the hope that someone in Greensboro's development community is listening:

What the people in Greensboro need to understand is that there's another decamping going on. And it's not those who don't care enough about their street as a public realm who then run for the economic segregation of contemporary subdivision living.

It's people like my wife and I- young, well-educated people with high earning potential who went to school in the Triad. We like living in moderately dense environments (3500-6000 people per sq mile) because we love to walk and spend our money locally rather than in big corporate boxes. We're decamping for cities and regions that have walkable, mixed-use communities.

Living in Carrboro, we walk to the grocery store, to dinner, and the movies on a regular basis, in all 4 seasons. We see people out and about on the streets, and stop to say hello. Combined, we drive less than 10,000 miles a year. There's an elementary school in our neighborhood that has sidewalks and bikepaths connecting it easily to our home, and we think it will be an excellent place to raise children.

When we came here 2 years ago, the plan was to move back to the Triad at the first opportunity. Now that we're here, and know what we'd be missing, it's doubtful we'd return. Strangely enough, it's not the schools, or housing prices, or the job market- it mostly has to do with enjoying the traditional town urban form here that affords us our current lifestyle.

Keith Holliday should repeat these words to himself everytime the City Council turns down a permit for denser infill development: "We're young. We're educated. We want to live in a real neighborhood. We're gone." Quietly, one young person at a time- that's what happens as Greensboro continues to sprawl.

I'm reminded of an anecdote I heard from an urban planner here in Greensboro. A Greensboro developer had been invited to tour the Vermillion development near Charlotte, which is a beautiful example of the kind of neighbhorood my anonymous commenter is attracted to. After the tour, the developer said, "It's beautiful. But you can't do it in Greensboro."

Actually, I think there's a huge pent-up market for this kind of thing in Greensboro. But apparently, no one in the development community here has either the will or the know-how to do it. That's why Nate Bowman (who built Vermillion) came here and built Southside for us.

It's not that no one in Greensboro is trying to attract and keep people like the commenter whom I've quoted -- Action Greensboro has been working very hard to do just that. But their effort, in order to be successful, must move beyond the realm of the philanthropic foundations and their volunteers (whose efforts I sincerely salute). Developers and bankers must learn how to finance and build (and in many cases, re-built) communities that are attractive to the next generation of workers. And I think it's safe to say that that generation is not looking to move into sidewalkless generic outlying developments of cul-de-sacs and snout-houses.

As a start, might I suggest attending today's public lecture about smart growth at the Greensboro Historical Museum (4-5 p.m.)?

Monday, January 17, 2005


From today's News and Record:

Mayor Keith Holliday made the comment that 'It scares people to death' when talk arises of condos being built nearby. There are valid reasons why people are scared. Is there anyone in Greensboro who can't wait to have condos or townhomes in their back yard?
So wrote Greensboro resident Robin Parker (Lettters to the Editor). The worst consequence of density that she could think of, though, was having Guilford College students partying nearby. (I'm trying really, really hard not to smile. But I'm just imagining a suburban family being terrorized by roving bands of wealthy, Quaker, Birkenstock-shod peaceniks.)

Ms. Parker is right that density changes the nature of neighborhoods. I live in a single-family home, but the housing around me is varied: next door is a 6-unit apartment house, on the other side, a single family house. Across the street are two single-family houses, along side of Breedlove's Radiator Shop. Behind me are two single-family houses, one of which was a day-care center until recently, and another 6-unit apartment house.

The most annoying thing we've experienced here, paradoxically, came from a single-family home that was temporarily occupied by UNCG students. They occasionally partied late into the night. Less annoying but more frightening, we found out last year that one of the tenants in the apartment building next door was engaging in crime. Instead of heading for the 'burbs, though, we pressured the landlord, who evicted the tenant and later sold the building to someone a bit more responsible. The other 6-unit apartment building near us has had nothing but great tenants, usually up-and-coming young professionals like GoTriad editor Jerry Rowe, who lived there for several years.

On the whole, I overwhelming like the mixed density here: We meet a lot more 20-something people than we would if we lived in the suburbs, and we meet a lot of people who are different from us. Many of them are artists, writers, or musicians, though others are regular working people. All bring a wide range of experiences to neighborhood life. At nearby St. Leo's Place, a low-income retirement community, we have a group of very quiet, friendly tenants, who let us use their beautiful community room for neighbhorhood meetings. A denser neighborhood also means that more services and people are nearby, so we often walk to the store or to friends' houses rather than driving.

The apartment dwellers also seem to get a lot out of living in a mixed-density neighborhood. Quite a number of them have liked it here so much that they have bought houses in the neighborhood, and others who have left usually tell me how happy they were living here. I think this kind of housing situation helps to socialize young people into the habits of adult life better than if they were "ghettoized" in some faceless apartment complex.

But the disadvantages are real, too; they include several landlords who do a lousy job of maintaining their properties (see David Hoggard's post on Bill Agapion, who owns a couple of houses here), some bad tenants, and, as I mentioned, somewhat more crime than you'll find in Lake Jeanette or New Irving Park.

But I find it personally unattractive, in the face of such problems, to decamp to the suburbs, though we could easily afford to do so. That kind of balkanization of cities, wherein the talented and wealthy pick up their social capital and take it with them to greener pastures, seems morally ugly. Something in me wants to stay and try to "brighten the corner where I am," to paraphrase Fred Chappel.

So anyway, am I scared of townhomes and condos? Hah. Bring 'em on.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Is "Smart Growth" Just for Liberals?

A Bush administration EPA official is coming to Greensboro on Tuesday to present the 2004 Smart Growth Award to Greensboro for its work on the Southside development. He'll also be giving a a presentation: "Myths and Facts about Smart Growth Approaches to Development."

I'm very interested in what he'll have to say. I think a lot of people associate "smart growth" with left-leaning politics, mainly because it is pushed by environmental groups and by people like former Vice President Al Gore. Locally, conservative city councilman Tom Phillips has blogged skeptically about it.

But I think conservatives should beware of the idea that just because the Sierra Club is for it, we must necessarily be against it. There is a very strong conservative case for urban planning. As National Review (the nation's leading conservative opinion journal) observed recently,

The idea that suburbia is a spontaneous, market-driven phenomenon is completely false . . . . In this environment one doesn't encounter great civic monuments, not to speak of great civic architecture. And the generally abysmal quality of public space contrasts with the luxurious kitchens, media rooms, master bedrooms, and bathrooms-tokens of what the New Urbanist architect Philip Bess has called "America's true growth industry, the care and tending of the autonomous self." (Read the whole thing.)
Philip Bess is himself a strong cultural conservative who believes that civic virtue can and should be expressed and fostered by the way we arrange our urban spaces. I once heard him say, paraphrasing Aristotle, "The happy life consists of the exercise of virtue in one's neighborhood or town." That sounds pretty conservative to me.

I hope councilman Phillips -- and the rest of the city council, for that matter -- will come hear the talk. Here's the full information:

Myths and Facts about Smart Growth Approaches to Development
Mr. Geoffrey Anderson
Acting Chief of Staff for Policy Economics and Innovation
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Location: Greensboro Historical Museum Auditorium, 130 Summit Avenue
Date: Tuesday, January 18, 2005
Time: 4-5 p.m.

Click here to download the flier.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Friday Malinois Photo

War Memorial Stadium, John Hammer, and What I'm Hearing

I wrote earlier that I've been asked to participate with a group of Greensboro citizens and city staff in picking the architects who will plan the renovation of War Memorial Stadium. In that post, I asked for input about what's most important in that project: preservation, usefulness, parking, beautification, etc. You can read that post here.

The people who wrote back had some interesting and thoughtful things to say; here are their responses. I was suprised that none of them thought it particularly important to retain the original seating capacity. They were more concerned to preserve the facade and to update the locker rooms, seating, and other amenities so as to make the stadium more attractive to fans and to college and youth baseball tournaments.

Their responses fly directly in the face of John Hammer's editorial in yesterday's Rhino Times, which accuses "the city" (a rather nebulous entity) of planning to "tear down" War Memorial Stadium by reducing its seating capacity.

Perhaps John is right in a way that he didn't intend. When he said "the city," he probably meant city staff and elected officials. But the course of action he derides seems to have the support of some ordinary citizens -- and they are "the city," too.

At any rate, I want to hear more from ordinary people before we start picking architects. Please add comments here or e-mail me at

UPDATE: Thanks to Ed Cone for the link!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Blogging in the UNCG Curriculum

TheShu picked up the fact that I have set up a blog for one of my classes within a few hours of my creating it -- I don't know how he does it.

I'll be using the blog as a discussion forum for my students, and I'm excited but a little apprehensive. Kids say the darndest things, as Art Linkletter used to remind us. So I've told them to behave, since anyone can read their posts. But that's also an upside for them. Not only are they likely to be on their best behavior, but they may attract input and discussion from people outside of class, and outside of academia. They'll start blogging sometime next week.

MORE UNCG BLOG NEWS: In preparing for some curriculum committee work tomorrow morning, I discovered that a proposed new course in UNCG's English/Jounralism curriculum is going to include a unit on bloggers, and the instructor is planning to ask some local blogger/journalists to talk to the class. My advice to the invited bloggers: make sure you get a meal out of it.

Summit Avenue Wonk-O-Rama

My neighborhood has been working to improve and beautify the main thoroughfare that rips right through it -- Summit Avenue -- for about 20 years. Until recently, we've had little success.

But things have started looking up. We hosted a design charrette in 2002 which included a conceptual plan for improvements to Summit, and in 2003 we persuaded City Council to adopt our Strategic Plan, which also had some important proposals regarding Summit. In 2004, City Council agreed to fund a corridor study of Summit.

TODAY, a group of us working on this project study chose two consulting firms as finalists to perform that corridor study. We'll be interviewing them in the middle of February to pick the best one. And then, they'll do the study sometime in 2005.

(Here follows the really wonky stuff, for those of you who want to know what REALLY happens in city hall.)

What's a corridor study? In our case, it will begin with a very detailed study of transportation patterns & needs (cars, pedestrians, public transportation), of the current market conditions, and of current land use and zoning on Summit. It will involve asking residents, business owners, and potential investors what they like and don't like. Using all this information, the consultants will produce a set of very concrete proposals for improving Summit, such as new traffic patterns, new zoning, and design guidelines for new development that can be used by the city and private investors.

Who gets to decide on hiring the consultants? This part of the process was organized by city staff in the Department of Housing and Community Development. The working group included representatives from HCD, the Planning and Zoning Department, GDOT, Parks and Recreation, and the Aycock neighborhood (me, with the help of Mindy McReynolds and Aycock President Betsey Baun). City Manager Ed Kitchen appointed the group at the direction of City Council.

How were the decisions made? By group discussion and voting. We received preliminary portfolios from 10 firms, and, after some discussion, invited 6 of them to submit proposals. One of these dropped out, and at today's meeting we reached a quick consensus on the top 3. One of the three, however, was priced about 3 times higher than the city could afford (and, oddly, 3 times higher than all the other proposals), so we ended up with two to interview.

Why are you telling us all this? I threatened earlier to blog the city-hall activities of TREBIC, so I thought it only fair to shine the light of truth and openness on my own behind-closed-doors lobbying in the MMOB (Melvin Municipal Office Building). And I wanted to show that most of what happens there is not sinister, but . . . dull. Actually, it's not dull to me, and if you've read this far, it's probably not dull to you, either. But I think you'd agree that most people would find it dull. But in city politics, slow, steady, and dull often wins the race. I'm hoping Summit will be much improved by 2013.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Nontrivial APA Blogging

I didn't make any attempt to blog the meetings of the American Philological Association last weekend, confining myself to trivial sartorial judgements as an afterthought.

But Angelo Mercado did the real thing. If you want to find out what really happened at the APA (and not just Mr. Sun's salacious daydreams), visit Angelo's blog.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Running into friends unexpectedly

I almost never pick up the paper version of the NY Times, since the on-line version is free (though you do have to register).

But I was flying home from Boston this morning and grabbed a copy at Logan airport. The cover story of the NYT Magazine was about fraternity life, and since I'm right in the middle of I am Charlotte Simmons, a good chunk of which is devoted to fraternity decadence, it seemed timely and interesting. And it was.

But I had a nicer suprise as I flipped to the back of the magazine. Greensboro writer and UNCG professor Michael Parker had a brief reminiscence on the last page about his teen-aged years in rural North Carolina. It's always nice running into Michael unexpectedly and to see that he's doing well.

I've Been Away . . .

I've been at the annual convention of the American Philological Association (known to the world at large as the Classics Geek Convention) in Boston. I won't bore you with the details of the scholarhship presented there, since many of the topics discussed are obscure even to professional classics geeks like myself. Instead, I'll confine myself to some trivial observations:

(1) I used to think of the APA convention as having the highest concentration of tweed, corduroy, and comfortable shoes to be found anywhere on the planet, and there's still plenty of it there, especially among the older scholars. But I noticed that the younger generation (which doesn't include myself) was dressing considerably more snappily. Along those same lines . . .

(2) My friend Bruce, a Bostonian and a non-classicist who stopped by the convention center to take me out to dinner, remarked that the lobby was "crawling with babes." Classics babes?I thought he was joking at first, but then I looked around. There wasn't a dowdy academic spinster in sight. Rather, we were surrounded by brainy and beautiful women. (I shouldn't have been surprised; I married one of those, after all.) Academic demographics are changing.

(3) Classics scholars don't get any social prestige from what they do, and they don't get paid much money for it, but they really love learning, scholarship, and teaching. I admire that a lot.

Thursday, January 6, 2005

Blogging TREBIC

TREBIC (the Triad Area Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition) is in the news a lot this week. Today it is criticising the local Sierra Club's report on sprawl. And a few days ago, an article in the N&R (not posted on their site) intimated the way that TREBIC gets to influence local legistlation in Greensboro. The article said that city staff is working on an ordinance to increase the number of trees in the city, and TREBIC gets to participate in the actual writing of the ordinance. Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse! That's access with a capital A.

But this is what TREBIC does, and it's quite up-front about the fact. In a recent half-page ad placed in local builders’ trade publications, titled “What Has TREBIC Done For You Lately?”, the group boasted that it had weakened the RUCO ordinance, the sidewalk ordinance, and local environmental legislation. It claimed it was working hard to place TREBIC supporters in important positions on appointed boards. It also boasted that it had feted members of the City Council and other elected officials at a pig-pickin’ shindig in order to curry their favor.

Gosh, thanks TREBIC!

Seriously, though. Although TREBIC's spokeswoman, Marlene Sanford, often claims that the group is just promoting free-market competition, TREBIC’s exercise of influence has little to do with laissez-faire economics. It has more to do with skewing real-estate related legislation and quasi-judicial boards (such as the Zoning Board and the Board of Adjustment) in its own favor. Adam Smith, the granddaddy of free-market capitalism, had this to say about regulations emanating from the economic class (merchants and manufacturers) which forms TREBIC's main constituency:

The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations).
What then should we do? If TREBIC is guarding the making of law regarding real estate and building in Greensboro, quis custodiet cusodes ipsos? (“Who will guard the guards themselves?”)

I nominate myself. And you. This looks like a perfect opportunity for the blogosphere’s “long tail” to leak a little light and air into the smoke-filled rooms of ordinance-writing.

So I’m announcing the BLOGGING TREBIC PROJECT. I’ve asked city staff for access to all the meetings where the tree ordinance will be discussed with TREBIC, and I’ll blog what I hear, see, and say, if they'll let me in. If you would like to join in, I’m happy to let you guest blog. E-mail me at

In fact, I'd like to see TREBIC blogged in all its interactions with city and county government. Wouldn't you?

Tuesday, January 4, 2005


I spent the evening taking the lights and ornaments off the Christmas tree, which only now is beginning to drop a few needles. I'll take it outside tomorrow morning.

One of the nice things about cutting your own tree is that it stays alive for weeks if you keep it watered. Ours is still drinking about a quart of water a day, and it was taking in almost half a gallon a day at first. (It's a big tree.)

But that's the problem, for me -- it's still alive. I contemplated stopping watering it days ago, knowing that it was coming down. But I just couldn't. It would be like . . . starving a pet.

It's kind of weird, but I always feel sorry for the tree when we put it out by the curb. We picked it out, brought it into our home, lavished decorations on it, made it the center of many celebrations. And now we're just going to throw it out into the street?

Like I said, it's kind of weird. Is it just me?

The Da Vinci Code, Star Wars, and the Bible

I taught a Freshman Seminar last fall at UNCG called "Gods and God in the Ancient Greco-Roman World." It was a broad survey of ancient ideas about divine beings, and I had the students read a lot of primary sources, starting with Homer, and ending with St. Anselm in the Middle Ages (yes, the course is slightly mis-titled).

One of the oddest things to emerge from the seminar was the personal theology -- I should say theologies -- of the students.

Out of 20 students, all but 2 claimed to be Christian; the other two were somewhere between atheist and agnostic. But among the other 18, only about 4 held beliefs that bore much resemblance to orthodox Protestant or Catholic thought. Most of them believed that the Bible had been seriously altered or adulterated by wicked men sometime between Christ's lifetime and ours. They also tended to describe God as a "force" that permeates the universe, and some had quite detailed ideas about how this divine Force operates: "Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us . . ."

In short, these young Christians had aquired most of their ideas about the Bible and theology from two sources: Dan Brown's faux-theologico-historical pot-boiler The Da Vinci Code, and George Lucas's Star Wars movies. Some of them acknowledged this openly, and said they were more inclined to be influenced by Brown's book and George Lucas than by the New Testament.

So I'm glad to see that Brown's outrageously erroneous ecclesiastical history is getting some serious scholarly criticism by UNC religion professor Bart Ehrman. Unfortunately, most people don't read books like this. But they will go to the movie based on Brown's book that Ron Howard has apparently agreed to direct.


Sunday, January 2, 2005

Why Does the News & Record Give Free Advertising to Developers?

On many Sundays, the lead story in the News & Record's TriadHomes section appears to be nothing more than a press release from a developer. Today is one of those Sundays. The headline reads, Community Profile: Hobbs Landing. Luxury homes offer desirable location.

Here's the story's lead:

A unique concept in neighborhood living has arrived in Greensboro. Pierce Homes of Carolina is developing and building Hobbs Landing in the heart of the city. Hobbs Landing is an exclusive group of 16 luxury homes . . .
The body of the article describes in glowing terms how the new development is good in every way. Then comes the closing paragraph:
For more than 20 years, Piecrce Homes has served the Carolinas as one of the area's largest builders of condominiums, town homes, and single-family residences . . .
This is a news story? Only Brian Pierce, the President of Pierce Homes, was quoted. The reporter interviewed no residents of surrounding neighborhoods to find out what they think of the new development. No research was done on the quality of work in previous Pierce projects, or on the level of satisfaction among Pierce Homes buyers. Nor were experts knowledgeable about neighborhood and city planning consulted.

The quality of housing and the design of neighborhoods are issues that powerfully affect our quality of life in Greensboro. If developments are done badly, the city (and unhappy homeowners) are stuck with them for generations.

The N&R prints disinterested reviews of movies, restaurants, and books. But when it comes to something that's far more important -- neighborhood development --, the real estate industrty gets not only a free pass, but free advertising as well.

I just don't get it.

Update: Ed Cone notes that there's a narrow banner at the top of the TriadHomes page that says, "Classified Advertising Supplement." Thanks for the extra pair of eyes, Ed: I looked twice for visible indications that the story is an advertisment, and didn't see this (didn't have my reading glasses on). But I'm sticking to my complaint. The article in question has a headline and a byline. It's printed right next to a syndicated real-estate advice column by Robert Bruss. Below it are printed public-service announcements. In short, it is being presented as a news story, not as classified advertising.

Hey, watch this!

It looks like Robert McNeil has done his homework for his primetime special about American language: "Do You Speak American?" on Wednesday, January 5, 8 p.m. (PBS).

Nearer to home, check out Walt Wolfram's North Carolina Language and Life Project. The UNCG Linguistics Program brought him to Greensboro last year, and he delighted the audience with what he and his fellow researchers have found out about North Carolina speech.