Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The WSM situation is resolved, but let’s keep the discussion going

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, October 28th:

A lot of the civic discourse in Carrboro recently has been about green space and public open space. The most prominent example of this is the Weaver Street Market dancing controversy, which was recently resolved happily, in large part due to extensive public input about the situation.

One positive impact of that dialogue was that it got more people thinking about the importance and meaning of putting beautiful spaces in the community to use for the public good. As with the WSM situation, public participation and input will be vital to the success of the ongoing Carrboro Greenspace initiative, and the Greenways Summit the town of Carrboro is holding today at the Century Center.

A quick look back at the resolution of the "Dancing Man" controversy shows the impact citizen activism has on public space. Early on many folks in Carrboro made it very clear that curtailing Bruce Thomas' dancing on the lawn was unacceptable to them and took action on their concerns. Their letters to the editor, organizational meetings and dance-ins showed the support behind their cause.

When Mayor Mark Chilton and Alderman Dan Coleman took up the issue of the WSM lawn as a place that should be used for the public good, it was clear that they were representing the community's values. When negotiations got dicey, Coleman, a former WSM board member, worked closely with Weaver Street's Ruffin Slater to work out creative solutions. That gave them a lot more leverage in negotiating with Carr Mill Mall's owners, who wanted to see the mall remain as the focal point of downtown Carrboro.

Because citizens had been so active early in the process, it put more pressure on the owners to approve a compromise that would be acceptable to Chilton and Coleman and by extension the folks they represent. That's how we ended up with a solution that allows Bruce to dance, while also making Weaver Street Market a hub for voter registration and other important community causes.

The elected officials did a great job standing up for their constituents, but more importantly citizens did a great job of advocating for themselves, giving their representatives a stronger leg to stand on in negotiations.

One can hope this level of citizen participation will continue in another important community cause dealing with public land use right now, the Carrboro Greenspace initiative. This deals with protecting a beautiful piece of land on Old Pittsboro Road in downtown Carrboro, which is currently facing the threat of development.

I walked the site one day earlier this week and came away impressed. There is a stream on the site, and the day after a significant rainfall it was running faster than any body of water I've ever seen in Orange County. It is also the site of Carrboro's historic "Sparrow Pool," which was in use for swimming by the public into the 1960s. It's been converted into a great space for outdoor theater, movies and gatherings.

There is also a house on the property, currently rented out, which would be converted to an environmentally friendly community meeting space.

In my role as political chair for the local Sierra Club, I frequently struggle with finding good places to hold various meetings. The plans for renovating this house sound like they would make it an ideal gathering place for community groups concerned about the environment.

It would be a tragedy to lose this beautiful space in downtown Carrboro, but it will take a great deal of community participation in order to save it for public use. If you're interested in getting involved, you can get more information by e-mailing carrborogreenways@riseup.net.

Another way citizens can get involved in discussing the future use of public spaces in Carrboro is today's Greenways Summit. This event was organized by Aldermen Randee Haven-O'Donnell and Jacquie Gist as a way to get public input on how the town should plan for and manage its greenways.

The meeting featured a keynote address by Sig Hutchinson, a Raleigh resident who has been a major force in promoting greenways in the Triangle over the years.

Communities around the country are increasingly seeing the importance of greenways both to preserve natural beautiful spaces for the public good and to promote alternative modes of transportation for both personal fitness and environmental reasons.

This summit is a great opportunity for citizens to help shape future initiatives in Carrboro. If you can't make it today, you can send feedback to greenwaysummit@townofcarrboro.org.

The Weaver Street Market dancing controversy was a high-profile example of how citizen activism can effect change.

It is up to you to ensure the dialogue it created about public spaces continues, and the Carrboro Greenspace initiative, as well as the town's Greenways summit, are two great ways for citizens to continue having an impact in these discussions.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Detroit Tigers fan gets a second chance

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on October 20th, 2006:

In 1968 the usually moribund Detroit Tigers, in the wake of serious race riots in the city, brought the community together for six months with an exciting pennant victory. The resultant World Series bout with the St. Louis Cardinals posed a serious conundrum for then-14 year old city resident Rick Bednarz.

Back then most baseball games were still, as they are meant to be, played under the natural light of the sun. That gave Rick a choice. He could skip school and take advantage of a rare, possibly once in a lifetime chance, to see two of baseball's original teams face off in the World Series. Or he could be the ever-good student, and settle for watching the highlights on the local evening news in the pre-cable era.

Rick chose to go to school instead of the baseball games, and missed out on the chance to attend the games in the Tigers' epic seven game victory over the Cardinals.

The good times for both the Tigers and the city of Detroit have been few and far between since that 1968 World Series. The bliss created by the baseball success was short-lived, and the white flight that began soon after resulted in a still continuing decrease in Detroit's population. The city also developed a reputation as one of the most dangerous and depressed communities in the country.

The Tigers, meanwhile, only had one season in the last 37 years in which they have won a playoff series. That one World Series win, in 1984, was marred by celebrations that developed quickly into violence and gave the city an even blacker eye in the national consciousness. Over the last 14 years they have been one of the worst teams in baseball, including an amazingly dreadful 43-119 season just three years ago.

Rick Bednarz grew up to become an outstanding teacher, first in the Detroit Public Schools before moving to the Ann Arbor, Michigan, Public Schools. He was my eighth-grade math teacher and although I did worse in his class than I did in any other in my recently concluded 17 years of public education, we bonded over baseball. The national pastime has a way of knocking down barriers between those who love it in a way that few other things can.

Over the last eight years, Rick and I have been to somewhere around 50 Tigers games together (almost all losses!) Without fail, once or twice a year, we have talked about Rick's greatest regret in his life when it comes to sports, missing out on those classic games against the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series. With the benefit of hindsight he realized that the average American with a bachelor's degree goes to school 3,000 times from kindergarten through the senior year of college- but chances to see the Tigers and Cardinals come only once in a lifetime. Thus Rick has rued his decision ever since.

When I chose to stay in Chapel Hill after graduation, I knew one of the biggest things I'd be giving up was a summer of Tigers baseball. But when I went home for a brief trip in June, I did get to go to a few games. The Tigers were off to their best start since I was a toddler, and they happened to be playing the Cardinals, setting off all the necessary retrospectives to the 1968 World Series.

The surging Tigers surprisingly swept that series, and as I said goodbye to Rick before heading back to Chapel Hill, I joked to him that maybe he would get that second chance to see Detroit and St. Louis face off in the World Series yet.

Like the Tigers, the city of Detroit is on the way back. Locating a new baseball and football stadium downtown has helped to spur great economic development in the surrounding areas. Hosting the 2005 major league baseball all star game and the 2006 Super Bowl has brought the city into the national spotlight in a more positive way, even if some media outlets used the occasions as an excuse to take cheap shots at the city.

Recent championship runs by the basketball Pistons and hockey Red Wings have been exciting for the city, but never have I seen something unite the community - black, white, young, old, rich, poor, even Spartan and Wolverine, like this Tigers championship run. Baseball has taken its knocks in recent years and football is clearly the most popular sport in the country. But anything that can bring the citizens of Detroit together under the shine of the national spotlight is a pretty powerful force. In 2006, baseball has done that in a way nothing has- since the Tigers took on the Cardinals in 1968.

There were a lot of bumps in the road along the way, but Rick Bednarz will spend tonight in the seats of Comerica Park for game one of the World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals, given an unexpected chance to rectify a mistake he's regretted for 38 years. Baseball, Detroit and second chances - it doesn't get much better than that.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Jockeying for the 2008 North Carolina elections

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on October 14th, 2006:

A crowd of 100 cheering activists gathered in the Pit at UNC two weeks ago to hear a candidate for political office, not particularly surprising during the middle of an unusually intense midterm election.

What was strange about the event though is when the speaker, conservative activist Bill Graham, is widely rumored to be running for office -- he's a 2008 Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Despite the dearth of exciting statewide races this year, there's plenty of political jockeying in advance of the 2008 election when an unusual number of desirable offices will be vacated at the same time.

Plenty of public attention has gone to the Democratic gubernatorial primary, where two heavyweights and one possible local dark horse candidate will face off. Those are Lieutenant Governor Bev Perdue, Treasurer Richard Moore and Representative Bill Faison, from northern Orange County.

There are plenty of folks on the GOP side ready to duke it out as well, al-though they are lesser known. You may get to know Senator Fred Smith from Johnston County during this election cycle, as he's taken the unusual step of running ads on Triangle TV stations. This use of campaign funds seems like it may be geared more toward 2008 than his re-election campaign.

You may have already gotten to know the aforementioned Graham. He's been active in self-funded campaigns on television and radio across the state this year to crack down on illegal immigration and eliminate the gas tax.

Also seemingly in the race is Sen. Robert Pittenger, a strident conservative from Mecklenburg County. All three candidates are terrifyingly to the right, but none seem to be particularly viable candidates either. Republicans may want to coax popular Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory into the race.

I'm pretty sure Richard Vinroot is sitting this one out!

The Democrats also have a packed field already for lieutenant governor. Hampton Dellinger, who has held a variety of top governmental posts, is likely to earn the support of much of the traditional party establishment but is also well respected among the progressive wing of the party.

Another strong contender will be Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse, who is a well-respected environmentalist. The Progressive Democrats of North Carolina have been seeking a candidate to support in this race, and Besse may fit the bill.

Other early candidates with lesser statewide profiles are Senator Walter Dalton of Rutherfordton, Senator A.B. Swindell of Nashville and Canton Mayor Pat Smathers. They each have plenty of time to move into the top tier of contenders.

Another open seat in 2008 will be the state treasurer's. Jim Harrell, a young legislator from Surry County, is the most definite candidate for this post. He passed up a shot at the lieutenant governor's race after the field got too crowded.

Another person who would be a strong candidate for treasurer, or any statewide office for that matter, is Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. Meeker is as good a public servant as we have anywhere in this state. He is smart, builds bridges and has done a tremendous job in his current role. Many Democratic pundits hope Meeker will make a run against Elizabeth Dole if more prominent candidates defer on the race.

Some activists, not wanting to make the tough choice between Perdue and Moore, would like to see one of them enter the Senate race. That seems un-likely, as does the entry of popular Congressman Bob Etheridge, who would have to give up a safe House seat.

I would not be surprised if Dole chooses not to seek re-election. If that is the case, the face of the Democratic field would be transformed dramatically.

Then there are the incumbents. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Insurance Commissioner Jim Long seem sure to cruise to re-election. Likewise, State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, although elected under considerable turmoil, seems likely to have less trouble this time around.

The Republican incumbents could face some stronger competition. Former legislator Wayne Goodwin seems primed for a rematch against Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, whom he fell to in 2004. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler will also face a strong competitor. One possible candidate is state House Rep. Alice Graham Underhill, the daughter of long-time Commissioner Jim Graham, who has proven to be a successful campaigner.

Former Commissioner Britt Cobb, an honest and decent man who was likely swept out of office because of the Meg Scott Phipps scandal, has been serving admirably in the Easley administration and would be a good return candidate.

In the race for attorney general, former Randolph County manager Bob Crumley is an announced GOP challenger to Roy Cooper. Former Raleigh City Councilman Kieran Shanahan is also a possible candidate, although his interest may have cooled when Cooper announced he would run again.

Needless to say, anyone thinking that this year's election is boring in North Carolina has plenty to look forward to in 2008!

On another note, my column last week about campaign signs referred to my putting them up for Superior Court candidate Adam Stein. I should have made it clearer that I am heavily involved in his campaign and apologize to anyone who wasn't aware of that.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at tjensen@email.unc.edu or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Stein Volunteer Mixes Campaign Signs and Highway Beautification

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, October 7th

I never knew how much trash local residents throw out on the road until I spent last Sunday putting up yard signs with Chatham County resident Staples Hughes.

Hughes, who spends his weekdays advocating for low-income accused criminals in the North Carolina Office of the Appellate Defender, has spent many weekends over the past 15 years putting up signs for candidates he knows or respects along the roads of Chatham County.

The lucky beneficiary of Hughes' handiwork for this election cycle is Superior Court candidate Adam Stein. And there is no doubt that Stein is lucky -- Hughes has this banal but necessary part of local election campaigns down to an art form.

He knows most every intersection in Chatham County and how many signs should go at each of them. He knows that you should ideally put seven staples each on the left and right sides of the folded sign to hold it together.

When you put it on the stake after it's been hammered in the ground you put four staples on each side. It might seem like overkill, but it also ensures that the signs stay up, saving a lot of maintenance time later.

He also knows the hazards of the practice, saying that "ticks and poison ivy are de rigeur when putting up signs." He's contended with many of those over the years, and more recently had an unfortunate encounter with a farm of fire ants.

Once the signs are up, teenage motorists are one of the greatest threats to them. Hughes has noticed over the years that for whatever reason, some drivers find great amusement from swerving onto the shoulder to run over signs.

Hughes has come up with a good solution, though. He hammers campaign signs into the ground near road signs. So if someone wants to run over a Stein sign in Chatham during this election cycle they're more than likely going to ruin the front of the car on a stop sign, too.

What impressed me most about Hughes, though, was somewhat incidental to the cause of putting signs up. Everywhere he stops to put in some signs, he also gets a trash bag out of the back of his truck. And he scours the intersection for litter, picking up every last disgusting piece and putting it in the bag to be properly disposed of later.

I could not believe how much junk there was nearly everywhere we stopped.

There are dozens upon dozens of abandoned drink bottles and beer cans everywhere you look, not to mention random pieces of Styrofoam, candy wrappers and about anything else you could imagine.

It is clear people have no respect for our natural landscapes, and that's exceedingly unfortunate. We are very lucky locally to have citizens like Staples Hughes who go far beyond rhetoric in their efforts to protect the environment. But he shouldn't have as much cleaning work to do as he does.

Staples has a great idea for something that could be done in Raleigh to make politicians better show their commitment to the common good. He would like to see the General Assembly pass a bill requiring all candidates and candidate surrogates putting up signs in the right of way to clean up the surrounding trash in the process of doing so.

It is about the most commonsensical idea for a piece of legislation I've ever heard.

If candidates are truly committed to serving the people they shouldn't have any problem with doing so. It will also work to solve one of the problems North Carolina is plagued with due to the disrespect of some of its citizens.

I hope one of our outstanding local legislators will take the lead on "Staples' Bill" when the legislature reconvenes in January, and I hope there isn't any opposition. It would be a step in the right direction. This is one of those ideas that there really is no negative side to.

I've been putting up yard signs since I was a teenager. I've put up thousands of signs for candidates ranging from school board to president on the roads of Michigan and North Carolina.

I was nearly run over by an 18-wheeler at 3 a.m. one morning putting up signs for Erskine Bowles on U.S. 15-501 and watched my best friend's car start flaming on a ramp to the bypass last fall putting up signs for Laurin Easthom.

But after spending an afternoon with Staples Hughes, I saw that when it comes to putting up signs I'm a complete amateur. We're lucky to have folks like him out there and I hope others will follow the noble lead he has taken in combining candidate advocacy and highway beautification.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Can't stomach rote restaurant names

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, September 30th:

One day last week when I was riding the TTA down Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, I looked out to the left, and saw something that made me cringe. It wasn't the State campus or the North Carolina GOP Headquarters or anything like that. It was a restaurant named the Golden Dragon.

After four months of my column, you can probably tell that I'm concerned about walkable communities, affordable housing and governments reaching out to their citizens. But another issue I'm really concerned about is the stereotypical naming of Chinese restaurants.

It started one day two falls ago when my best friend and I were driving down US-29 from Charlottesville to Danville on the way back to Chapel Hill from a brief vacation. As we drove through the rural Virginia countryside every 20 miles or so we would see a Chinese restaurant: Forbidden Garden, Red China, Shanghai Dragon, Peking Panda, and the list goes on and on.

By the time we hit Lynchburg we started predicting what the name of the next one would be. It was always a pretty good bet that it would have something to do with a panda, dragon, wall or garden and that it would either have the name of Shanghai or Peking or the color of gold or red in the title.

Since then, as I have traveled much of the Carolinas, I continue to play close attention to the names of Chinese restaurants wherever I go. And I continue to be astonished by how universally these establishments have bizarrely formulaic names, especially in more rural areas.

It seems a sad commentary on the ability of Americans to embrace foreign cultures. I don't necessarily blame the proprietors of these restaurants for the names. No doubt market research has told them that in order to attract business they need to play on this small set of characteristics that Americans comfortably associate with China.

But imagine if you were an American tourist in China, desperately wanting to eat some food that reminded you of home. What if all the restaurants were named New York Big Apple, Red White and Blue Buffalo or Grand Canyon Eagle? Chances are you'd be pretty irritated by the random amalgamations of American symbols. I know that I would find it to be stereotypical and culturally insensitive.

Fortunately, here in Chapel Hill most of our Chinese restaurants don't fall victim to this phenomenon. Arguably the most popular and most tasty one in Chapel Hill has been Village Plaza's Charlie's Chinese, which was recently sold. People liked the food there, but they also liked Charlie Tsui who chose to name his business in a way that clearly identified it with himself. Folks in Chapel Hill evidently get a greater sense of comfort from feeling a personal connection with the owner than they do from hokey cultural generalizations.

Three of the more popular Chinese restaurants in and around downtown Chapel Hill are Hunam Chinese, Asia Cafe and 35 Chinese. A significant bond that these businesses all share is names that don't play on basic American stereotypes about the Far East. Another characteristic they all share is pretty good food.

This phenomenon is by no means restricted to Chinese restaurants. For instance, I will never go to an Indian restaurant that makes any reference to the Taj Mahal, elephants or Bombay. Especially since Bombay is not even Bombay anymore - it is now Mumbai.

It's a good thing there are few Australian restaurants in the United States. I can only imagine the Koala Aborigine or the Kangaroo Opera House. It sounds ridiculous, but if the same naming patterns given to most Chinese restaurants were used, that's about how it would turn out. The only reason their names don't sound absurd to the average American is that they're so used to that just being how it is.

If this trend continued, an African restaurant probably would be called Zulu Safari. If we started eating Saudi Arabian food we could go to the Oil Desert. I shudder at the thought of getting some German food at the Oktoberfest Autobahn or picking up some British grub at the Union Jack Tower of London.

I'm doing my part to solve this problem. Since 2004 I have not gone to any Chinese restaurant whose name contained one of the magic words I outlined earlier. Probably not coincidentally, I've noticed that the food at the places I've been to in the last few years is a lot better than it is at all the Panda, Dragon and Garden establishments I've been to in the past. I think there's a directly proportional relationship between stereotypical names and bad food.

So as you travel Orange and Chatham counties and the world beyond, I hope you'll start paying more attention to the names of the places where you decide to eat. If you avoid the rote names, you will not only be taking a stand for cultural sensitivity but also more than likely getting a better meal.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at tjensen@email.unc.edu or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Breaking down the Residences at Grove Park

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on September 23rd, 2006

In recent years there has been no proposed development in Chapel Hill that I have more mixed feelings about than the Residences at Grove Park, which would replace the current Town House Apartments on Hillsborough Street with a number of relatively up-scale condos.

On one hand this kind of development fits in perfectly with the direction Chapel Hill's downtown needs to go in. We want more people living near the city's core. This certainly accomplishes that goal.

Beyond that, the Town House Apartments are not particularly nice. This would be a step forward in terms of aesthetics.

On the other hand, this poses a major problem in the sense that it will remove a large amount of student housing near campus. Already the local housing supply is having trouble keeping up with the university's expansion and causing students to choose places to live further and further away from Chapel Hill.

Over the last several years the Verge, which is in Durham County, has become one of the most popular student apartment complexes. This has a lot to do with shuttles being provided to get students to and from campus. More recently, larger numbers of students have started seeking out places to live in Chatham County and out toward Hillsborough due to a shortage of desirable places to rent in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area.

This is not an ideal situation. If all of these folks were riding the bus to campus every day it would be one thing, but most of them are driving and by extension causing air pollution and exacerbating the parking problems with which UNC and Chapel Hill are already plagued.

Some folks would say the solution to the problem is for UNC to provide more living space on campus, but that's really not realistic. I lived on campus the whole time I was a student and loved it, but by their junior and senior years most folks want to live where they can behave pretty much however they want. No amount of new housing that the university builds is going to change the mentality of 21-year-old college students.

This problem obviously is much bigger than what ends up happening to Town House Apartments. For instance, the Chapel Hill Town Council recently passed a duplex ban for the Pine Knolls neighborhood that complemented one earlier passed for Northside. Although I was one of just two Planning Board members to vote against the most recent ban, I can see where the neighborhood leaders who pushed it are coming from.

No doubt many students living off campus do behave terribly. At the same time the vast majority are perfectly good neighbors — but that doesn't change the fact that the rotten eggs in the bunch have led to new measures being enacted that may have the further effect of eroding the affordable housing supply near campus.

At the end of the day this larger issue will not have much bearing on how I vote when this proposal comes to the Planning Board. But I do think it's time for some town and university leaders to get together and go through some meaningful long-term planning process of where students are going to live in the coming years. Continuing to take measures that decrease the supply of places where young people can live near campus will have negative unintended consequences down the road.

On another note considering the Residences at Grove Park, I thought Monday night's public hearing about it before the Town Council was a model example of Chapel Hill's approval system for development working right.

Many neighbors of the site had concerns about traffic and aesthetic impacts the proposed changes would have. They stated those valid concerns articulately and respectfully without any hint of rancor.

Likewise, Ram Development has shown good faith throughout the process so far. The company took plans for the site twice to the Community Design Commission for feedback already, and was also praised by neighbors for being responsive to their concerns.

Chapel Hill's development process is often criticized for being slow and unwieldy. But when developers, public officials and those citizens who are impacted work together in good faith as they are doing on this project, we end up with finished products that are much better than they would have been if not for all the work that went into them.

The proposal for the Residences for Grove Park, whether approved or not, is a good starting point for a community dialogue about where students are going to be affordably housed. Is it going to be near campus, promoting walkability? Or will it be miles away from campus, promoting the kind of car dependency that we claim we abhor in Chapel Hill? Time will tell.