When you’ve spent several years living underground, or out in the stark quiet of the desert, what it’s like to find yourself back in an apartment with cable TV and a fridge stocked with food? In State of the Re:Union’s Las Vegas episode, we explored the world beneath the casinos: a network of flood channels running under the city that have become home to a community of people. Transition back to “normal” life after living in the tunnels is no easy experience. But, as State of the Re:Union’s Senior Producer Tina Antolini shows us, they’re getting some outside help…Las Vegas - Coming up from Underground
Archive for May, 2011
The documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? opens with a mock funeral for the EV 1, GM’s early entry into the alternative fuels vehicle race. The ill-fated car was test-marketed in Southern California after the state passed a strict new emissions law. The EV 1 developed a small but devoted following before being discontinued by its maker.
At the heart of this film is a mystery; who or what strangled this experiment in its infancy—the state of battery technology, inadequate consumer demand, hostile oil companies, an ambivalent GM or the various state and federal government agencies that dropped the ball?
The film is agonizing to watch, more a tragedy than a mystery. You just can’t help wondering how much further along we would be in if a viable electric car had caught on in the 1990s. Fast forward a decade later to the Southern California community of Torrance. A group of citizens is crafting revisions to the city’s strategic plan and “environmental stewardship” is listed as one of the city’s nine priorities.
As part of its “alternative fuels program,” the city now has a biodiesel fueling station and a hydrogen fueling station, and soon there may be electric car charging sites spouting up all over town as part of its “one mile, one charger” policy, which has the goal of making Torrance a place where no electric car driver will be more than one mile away from a charging station.
What makes this so interesting is that Torrance happens to be home to the Exxon Refinery, the largest producer of gasoline in Southern California. Oil wells dot the local landscape and freeways surround the city and two of the largest Japanese car-makers, Honda and Toyota, have their national headquarters in Torrance.
Not to mention the fact that a generation of baby boomers grew up listening to catchy odes to the internal combustion engine penned by Brian Wilson, who formed the Beach Boys in a garage in Hawthorne, a mere fifteen minutes away (depending on the time of day) on the Santa Monica Freeway.
And now these Boomers are starting to retire, and Torrance—along with other cities—has figured out a potential mobility problem, a generation of aging boomers no longer able or well-advised to drive spending their money on expensive cab rides. The city’s Transit Ambassador Program is designed to encourage seniors to use the local transit system. The goal is to both save money for seniors and to reduce carbon emissions in the region by substantially increasing ridership on local buses. Since 2007, the program has increased risdership by bout nine percent.
More recently, Torrance joined Stanford University and Google Inc. in Honda’s Electric Vehicle Demonstration Project. Nine city departments will help evaluate issues related to the introduction of the Honda Fit EV. It will provide feedback to Honda on the development of charging stations, analysis of CO2 reduction, energy consumption and effect on community-wide energy costs.
The transportation ambassador electric car demonstration programs are two of the three community projects that Torrance will be touting at the All-America City Award program in Kansas City next month. Torrance, Philadelphia, Kenai, Alaska and Lakeview, Oregon—these are just a few of the communities that will be presenting environmentally friendly or green energy projects to the jury of civic experts who will choose the winners.
And just as a footnote: on May 23, the day after Earth Day, a sequel to Who Killed the Electric Car? is scheduled to premier at the Tribeca Film Festival. Revenge of the Electric Car is a much more hopeful title. The ultimate revenge may by the fact that GM, EV 1’s maker (killer?) is now on the road to recovery thanks in part to its new Chevy Volt, acclaimed as “car of the year” by Motor Trend magazine.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.
There is more to the history of Birmingham, Alabama, than the civil rights struggle. Birmingham was a major iron ore and steel manufacturing capital, and now the Red Mountain iron ore mine is being turned into a park for people to explore the history of mining and the subtleties of race relations. Al Letson, host of NPR and PRX’s State of the Re: Union, reports on the story of Red Mountain.
Be sure to visit our Birmingham page where you can listen to the radio episode, read letters to the city, check out the photos we took during our trip and much more.
We say April showers bring May flowers, but for me, May is a happy month for another reason: it marks the beginning of farmers’ markets in Evanston, Illinois, the city where I live and go to school. After a long, cold winter, the coming of May means sunny Saturday mornings at a market just down the road, ambling through stalls of fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and baked goods. Neighbors come to stock up on produce and chat with vendors, while artists showcase their paintings and musicians strum guitars for a gathering crowd of kids.
I developed a soft spot for food markets when I studied abroad last year in France, where local food is an important part of daily life. Since returning to the states, I’ve noticed that farmers’ markets are getting more popular here, too. There are about 6,132 farmer’s markets across the country, and thanks to the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas, it’s even possible to map their locations. The atlas, which gives a spatial overview of factors like farmers’ markets, food taxes and grocery stores, helps show which communities have access to healthy food. Unfortunately, it reminds us that many neighborhoods aren’t as lucky as my own. Just this month, the USDA also released a national map of food deserts, which are found in low-income neighborhoods whose residents must travel far to reach the nearest grocery store (beyond a one-mile radius in cities or a 10-mile radius in rural regions). It’s interesting to place both maps side by side, considering how the absence of farmers’ markets relates to the presence of food deserts.
Beyond the obvious implications for public health, how do communities hurt when they don’t have access to good local food? We tend to think of farmers’ markets as a way to help the environment or get fresher produce, but they also serve an important social purpose. According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, they reinvigorate public spaces and foster relationships by giving shoppers an opportunity to talk with vendors about the food they’re purchasing. In an essay for The New York Times, Pollan explains that people are 10 times more likely to stop and chat at a market than they are at a grocery store. We exchange not only food and money, but also our ideas.
I think it’s good news, then, that farmers’ markets are on the rise. Last year, the USDA announced the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, which will give $10 million in grants over 2011 and 2012 to improve existing markets or create new ones. In some states, farmers’ markets are also acquiring equipment that can process the debit cards used in state food stamp programs, allowing more low-income people to buy their groceries at a local market and build stronger relationships with their neighbors.
We Want to Know:
- Does your neighborhood have a farmers’ market? What’s your favorite part about it?
The sheer volume and speed of the news over the past year or more has left many of us feeling like our heads are spinning. Just when a lull appears to be coming our way, another domestic or international crisis hits. The upheaval has left many people feeling uprooted and dispirited, or at least wondering how they—and, we as nation—can make our way forward. There’s no better time for a re: union in America than now.
“Re: union” is a powerful idea. In our personal lives, it often invokes the good feelings of a “family” or “school” reunion. In public life, this little word makes a big entreaty to us. It asks us to do something—but not just anything, something meaningful: to step forward, to join back with others we have lost sight of or turned away from, to put something back together again; to re-create something we can do only together.
We live in a time when technology allows us to connect with anyone, at anytime. And yet, despite this ability to connect, so many people feel disconnected from one another and especially from those who are different from us. There is a gnawing sense among many people of being isolated and fragmented. So many of us are running faster and harder, but worry we are somehow falling behind. Our politics and public life are toxic—filled by acrimony and divisiveness, with too many people thinking only about themselves.
Still, as I travel the country, I find a deep yearning among people to re-engage and reconnect. People want to come back into the public square. They want to join with others to make a difference. They want to work not simply for their own good, but the common good.
In short, people want a re: union.
But nothing is automatic. We know this, especially now. Simply wanting something and fulfilling it are two different things entirely. The fulfillment of our aspirations will take hard work, deliberate action, and each of us rolling up our sleeves.
Indeed, to bring about a re: union—or, put a better way, to create a path on which we are moving toward re: union—will require that we engage with each other differently. We must see and hear one another. We must learn to listen. We will need to create new avenues for making progress. All this will require that each of us steps forward and open ourselves up. This is the hard work we must do, and we must do it in ways that actually addresses core concerns people hold about the economy and jobs, education, health care, and other pressing issues.
The good news (and there is good news!) is that my own work in communities across the country provides plenty of evidence that Americans are ready, even willing, to take a new path. I plan on writing about the people I’ve met and spoken with in my travels and their path forward in this blog. Moreover, State of the Re: Union, through its programming, is giving voice to people’s own struggles and aspirations and the steps they are taking to make life better. The show is all about how people are living their lives today, and how people can come together to create a better society – for themselves, and for all of us.
That’s why I am so delighted that The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation is partnering up with State of the Re: Union.
So, let’s keep moving, and through our words and actions let’s demonstrate what’s possible. It’s time, for a re: union.
A dynamic public speaker, Rich Harwood is a frequent keynote for foundations and national organizations. He is an expert contributor on national and syndicated media outlets including MSNBC, NPR, The Christian Science Monitor, CNN’s Inside Politics, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Special Report with Brit Hume, C-SPAN, and many others. He is also the author of Hope Unraveled: The people’s retreat and our way back (2005), Make Hope Real: How we can accelerate change for the public good (2008) and numerous studies, articles and essays chronicling vital issues of our time. His most recent written work, Why We’re Here: The Powerful Impact of Public Broadcasters When They Turn Outward, is being published and distributed in Spring 2011. You can follow him on twitter @RichHarwood and facebook.com/richharwood.
You can read Rich’s posts every Tuesday on State of the Re:Union’s website.
One of my favorite parts of State of the Re:Union’s radio episodes, is the Letters to the City. We encourage current and former residents alike to personify their city and pen a letter to it. It is really revealing and quite the door into a community. Letters range greatly in tone. Some adoring, others angry and sometimes a mix of the two. Unfortunately, we’re only able to incorporate two or three letters per episode, but all entries are posted on our website. You can find them on the respective Radio Episode pages in the right hand column under the heading “Letters to the City.”
Las Vegas – Bright Lights, Big City, Small Town is one of the new episodes in our 2011 Spring Season. The SOTRU team was able to tell some incredible stories from one of the most iconic cities in the world . . . stories that you would never have imagined coming out of “Sin City.” We received some fantastic letters to Vegas and there was one in particular that caught my attention mainly because it is really funny, but it’s also extremely colorful and honest. I feel like I got a real sense just from reading the short letter, what it may feel like to live in the city. I’ve posted it below so that you can read it too, but encourage you to visit our Las Vegas page to listen to the full radio episode, read the other letters and enjoy the other collateral we’ve collected from our travels there.
Dear Las Vegas, my city of re-invention:
I came here quite by accident. In a moment of weakness, or temporary insanity, I let my fifteen-year-old male child chose where we would live and my fate was sealed. I know, maybe I didn’t think it through, but it seemed okay at the time. Of course I’d never actually experienced your magic, seen your bright lights, ogled your… attractions. I arrived as a sheltered wayfarer from the real world.
Imagine my surprise when the cute blond in the tennis skirt at the supermarket turned out not to be female. And the guy with the big arms, goofy grin and wild red hair checking out the steaks really was Carrot Top. Elvis even bagged my groceries and helped me to my car. My son wanted to be Tiger Woods (aren’t we glad THAT didn’t happen) and I just wanted to fit in. Which was proving to be more of an adventure than I’d anticipated.
But in your wonderful embrace, where a mob lawyer can become a most beloved mayor, a dancer can grow up to be Lieutenant Governor, a hustler can work himself up to mogul status, I discovered magic. I don’t know what it is: maybe it’s the ever-present sunlight, the air that is dry and crisp like a fine wine, something in the water (what precious little we have), or a bit of that Western mind-your-own-damned-business attitude, but you, Las Vegas, breed reinvention. And acceptance.
When the personal trainer tells me he used to be a professional unicyclist, I nod my head and smile as if this is the most common thing. When the diamond-encrusted lady hosting the charity gala talks about her days as a showgirl and introduces the Chippendales as the entertainment for our luncheon, we all clap politely and smile. Of course, once those young men start disrobing, eating without choking is out of the question, but I digress.
If there is one lesson you’ve taught me, Las Vegas, it’s to be myself, and to trust the world will be okay with that—or not. And it really doesn’t matter. At an age where many think I ought to be put to pasture, I’ve reinvented myself. I play with imaginary friends…and people pay me to do it. Just another square peg you welcomed with open arms. And that has made all the difference.
With undying affection,