What Does Downtown Olympia’s Future Hold?

This could make a compelling documentary film.

Saturday night I attended an interesting five-person panel discussion at downtown Olympia’s hippy theater, a 94 year old building that shows independent movies, about the importance of cultural spaces in our fair city. The panelists were artists who spoke eloquently on the importance of the arts. One lived downtown and most worked there.

As an academic, it was glorious listening to one person after another actually honor their five minute time frame. Collectively, they stimulated my thinking not just about the arts, but about economic inequality, downtown development, and the future of these (dis)United States.

Here’s the conundrum. Olympia has long had a vibrant arts scene encompassing live music, allegedly more theatre seats per capita than any other 40,000 person city, murals galore, a vibrant farmers’ market, and well attended public art events. Many downtown buildings are historic, which the panelists all described as wonderfully unique and relatively affordable for artists to live and/or work in. The unique, historic, funky buildings they argued, are the very essence of downtown.

But lots of other more politically and socially conservative people in the surrounding burbs would describe the exact same buildings as run-down, gritty, and in need of serious investment. Some think downtown is too far gone, even unsafe, and avoid it altogether.

It was refreshing that downtown’s growing homeless population wasn’t mentioned once since it tends to dominate any discussion of downtown, but it’s one of the most common reasons some have soured on it. The focus was on low-income artists and others, but at some point obviously, the discussion has to expand to include the fate of the no-income walking wounded.

Meanwhile, in keeping with free-market capitalism, deep pocket developers eye downtown as a place to make money by flipping ancient, crumbling buildings that are too expensive to maintain. In some cases, by knocking them down and starting over, which of course enrages the art community and others of modest means. Shiny modern buildings mean higher rents, meaning low-income artists are priced out.

There are no easy answers on how best to move forward. The only thing I know for sure, the more voices that are heard before buildings are razed and rebuilt, the better. Make no mistake though, those voices will be wildly divergent.

I’m conflicted. Take the hippy, Capital Theater, as a point of reference. When a panelist “preached to the choir” by saying, “I’d much rather attend a movie at this theater than a neighboring multiplex,” the crowd applauded lustily. But all I could think was “I’d much rather attend a movie at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma, than at the Capital Theater.” Why? Because at the Grand Cinema (prices $8 matinee, $10.50 general; versus $8 and $9) I’m unlikely to tear my jeans on the springs in the seats as a Swedish friend of ours once did. And damn they’re uncomfortable.

Admittedly, I have a different sense of aesthetics than the typical Capital Theater member who is much younger than me and may live in a dorm with three other people at Evergreen State College. I appreciate historic, artistic, funky elements in buildings and downtowns, but I also like sitting in comfortable seats and not having to hope my timing is right for the one toilet.

Furthermore, new buildings, like new cars these days, are far safer. The future will bring tidal flooding and a major earthquake to downtown Olympia. Also, new buildings, like new home appliances these days, are also far more energy efficient. When well built, they also require far less maintenance, but even those cost savings aren’t enough to offset the land and building costs, which developers of course pass on to renters and/or customers.

There has to be a middle ground, I’m just not sure what it is. I do not think adding taxes to existing building regulations is politically viable, but could there be economic incentives for retrofitting and markedly improving old buildings instead of knocking them down? And what about a 1% add-on to require new building projects to include public art?

Ultimately, I suppose, the fate of downtown Olympia, and others, will come down to who is most successful in persuading the City Council to adopt modern building policies that somehow incorporate genuine respect for the city’s past. Even that though, won’t adequately address the concerns of downtown’s low-income residents.

 

 

Rocky Mountain High

The Good Wife and I lived in Denver in our late 20’s and early 30’s. I was studying curriculum and global education at the University of Denver, she was improving the life prospects of inner city third graders. We became a threesome while in Denver and it was supe-cool to be back for a family wedding with both daughters.

In 1993, I would’ve never left Colorado if there were more academic positions there once I had it piled higher and deeper (PhD). 300 days of sunshine a year, beautiful mountains, shimmering aspens, 300 days of sunshine a year. Of course, I’d probably be dead from skin cancer by now, but no one lives forever. The sun was hotter than I am used to and there’s next to no tree cover compared to the upper lefthand corner of the country.

Like most places in the country, Denver has grown and changed a lot in a quarter-century. Especially downtown. Tangent. There were NO homeless people downtown. In Boulder either. Coming from Seattle, Portland, Olympia, that was really odd. Someone in the know, educate me. Where are they? Why?

We hiked a few times including in a crowded Rocky Mountain National Park, visited the first house we ever bought near the “U”, and attended a wonderful outdoor family wedding in Lyons. Two young, giving, caring people committing to love is a wonderful antidote for these cynical times.

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First house. Observatory Park, 25 years and one grown ass woman later.

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Flatirons, Boulder. Getting our hike on.

 

Saturday Assorted Links

1. If you’re like me, it takes the World Cup to generate much interest in football. And if like me, your country didn’t qualify, you’re in search of a team. I present to you a cogent argument for Peru or La Blanquirroja.

2. Can you guess the language that is eating the world?

3. The beginning of the end for college admission tests?

“Starting this fall, Chicago will invite applicants to send a two-minute video ‘introduction.’ That idea echoes Goucher College’s recent embrace of video as a means of connecting with teenagers who grew up filming themselves with smartphones.”

4. I am often saddened by how casually acquaintances and friends of mine talk despairingly about the homeless. How best to help troubled men and women without homes raises more questions than answers. Progress is slow at best. In the meantime, there is something we can do for however long it takes to make genuine progress. We can acknowledge homeless men’s and women’s human dignity by treating them kindly. More specifically, we can take the lead from this African American man in challenging people’s anti-homeless cruelty.

5. Love never forgets.

6. This saddens me. Greatly. Of course the same could be written about Eldrick Tiger Woods and Ronaldo (no relation, despite the physical similarities) Byrnes.

Help Me

Help others.

When Mother Dear died two years ago, my brothers, sister, and I inherited what was left in her charitable foundation. Meaning every four years I get to give away some money. This year it’s my turn and I’m not sure whom I should give the money to. Leaning towards a few non-profits that work with the homeless in our fair city.

How do you decide whom to give to? My thinking is guided by two important things. First, the gifts have to be ones moms would’ve made. Second, the gifts should have a lasting impact.

The first principle is a breeze because Mother Dear was profoundly generous. Unlike me, she didn’t overthink things. Instead, she instinctively gave when made aware of obvious needs. No paralysis by analysis.

The second principle is where I need your help. Consider this philanthropic case study. Tom and Christy Lee deserve lots of credit for their selflessness and for helping me refine my philosophy of philanthropy. Consider the math, $5,495 donated to forgive the school lunch debts of 262 families. An average of $21 per family.

It’s possible that an unexpected $21, like tiny micro-loans that have received so much positive press, could make a meaningful difference in a low-income family’s struggle to turn an economic corner. But if the families who received the unexpected loan forgiveness don’t address any of the underlying causes that resulted in them falling behind on their children’s school meals, won’t they be in the exact same place in a year’s time? Does the $21 have a lasting impact? I’m skeptical.

And isn’t the same conundrum even more pronounced for the organizations I’m considering giving to? If the organizations I’m considering giving to feed, clothe, and shelter the most vulnerable members of our community, but don’t also provide substance abuse and mental health counseling or job training and low income housing, won’t the numbers of homeless continue to tick upwards?

So is the answer to give to “both/and” organizations, non-profits that both meet the immediate needs of the most vulnerable and work equally hard to remedy one or more of the underlying causes of institutional homelessness?

Also, how do I assess the relative efficiency of the local organizations I’m considering? The overhead of medium and large sized non-profits are carefully scrutinized by excellent websites, but not smaller, grass-roots ones. How can I know whether 50 or 90 cents of every dollar ends up directly benefitting those in need?

Ultimately, how might I maximize the long-term benefits of these gifts, honor my mom, and extend her legacy?

 

A Peace Corp for Geeks

Call me inconsistent. I’m skeptical of the new national religion, data analysis, but a huge fan of Code for America, a Peace Corp for geeks. Code for America recruits young tech savvy entrepreneurs to improve government. Participants take a year-long leave from their IT positions and earn $35,000, way more than a Peace Corp volunteer, but way less than normal for them.

This ten minute NewsHour segment shows wonderfully diverse, socially aware people with serious technical chops solving real problems like helping homeless people find the services they most need.

A salve for my cynicism. Here’s hoping it achieves Peace Corp-like status some day.

Homeless Advocate Extraordinaire

There are 21,000 homeless students in Washington State and 1.3m nationwide.

Whenever I come across an article on homelessness, like a few days ago on the front page of the Huffington Post, I look for a reference to an inspiring high school friend of mine, Joel Roberts, who oversees the largest homeless organization in Los Angeles. The Huff Post article was titled, “Top Ten Advocates for the Homeless.” He has to be in there I thought to myself. Nah, oh wait, he wrote the piece. Cool.

When Joel was one, he was abandoned on a Hong Kong Street. Picked up by an American missionary, he was raised by a loving family in Long Beach, CA. We met early in high school and grew close through our participation in a church youth group.

At fifteen or sixteen, Joel was doing design work for an architectual firm. Driving around Long Beach in his nicer than normal car, he’d casually point to a tall building and matter of factly say, “I drew that.” He was always more interested in volunteering in Tijuana orphanages than architecture though. I helped him move into his Cal Poly San Louis Obispo dorm where he intended on studying architecture. Early in his SLO career he lost interest in architecture and committed instead to becoming a pastor.

After completing a Masters in Divinity, he became a successful pastor at a large mostly Asian American Church in Los Angeles. I think it was during this period that I introduced him to a woman who became his wife. The marriage, a dismal failure from the get-go, ended in divorce. Fortunately, he’s never held that against me. After a few years he left his church ministry to do what he’d always felt was his life purpose, help end homelessness.

Very proud to call him a friend. More than anyone I know, he’s living out the Beatitudes.