Thursday, August 19, 2010


Spending the last few weeks around New Haven has been a uniquely rewarding and enlightening experience (see previous post).  How this story has evolved is quite unique; like many of life’s most memorable episodes, our past is often prologue to our future and this summer in New Haven lived up to that dictum in spades.  Let me explain by first backtracking to our last few months in Rwanda exactly a year ago (July-Aug 2009) at the National University of Rwanda Central Africa (NUR) where I was a research professor at the Center for GIS and Remote Sensing—see more about my Africa work HERE

In July-August 2010 I had been asked by NUR to assist a strategic planning exercise led by a dynamic, creative, academic town/university developer and “social entrepreneur” Andrea Pizziconi of the Christie Company New York City--who had come with a very impressive international team to design and implement a 50-year “redevelopment plan” for the University and the small southern Rwandese town of Butare where it resides.  Andrea’s claim to fame is that she previously worked with Yale University and the New Haven City Redevelopment Authority to repair the broken down "town vs. gown" relationship which had been a festering problem for at least twenty years

In any case, after a successful decade or more of work as a "community organizer" in New Haven, Andrea came to NUR in Rwanda where I assisted the planning team in collecting baseline field geographic and other data.  I even had the opportunity of participating in a "visioning" architectural exercise which brought me to New York City in September 2009.  There I had the pleasure of working with one of the leading “Green” architectural firms which had been selected to implement the design work in Rwanda; the exercise also included very capable green design planners and architects from South Africa and the UK.  It so happened, that just three weeks before, my son and daughter-in-law had moved to Yale University in New Haven from their recently completed post doc positions in Switzerland and Germany with their then five-month old Celeste (see photos in my earlier Facebook Family Album as well as the most recent one from this summer on FLICKR).

As I look back, it is curious how life put me back in New Haven this summer of 2010--a year or so into the Great Recession—living for at least a month in the “inner-city” core of a city which had in many ways been forced to cope with the fundamental socioeconomic forces demanding “urban renewal” long before the onset of the current recession in December 2008.  Like many other towns in the industrial northeast (particularly many former mill towns) this recession is not new—but has been building for 20-30 years.  In previous blogs I noted some of the despair and socioeconomic decay seen in other towns across upstate New York and the “Rust Belt”, i.e. Michigan, and even in some of the Rocky Mountain towns such as Loveland or Fort Collins—which one would assume were better prepared for the Recession.  But of course, no one was fully prepared—the difference has been largely one of levels of despair and fear!

But both these visits to New Haven—a year ago and last month--have allowed me to observe and experience first-hand the reality of how the whole process of “urban renewal and restructuring” is playing out, and hopefully, creating the “new urban America” of the 21st century.  Getting to see, feel, and experience urban field geographic analysis first-hand is of course a cultural geographer's dream come true!  I should note that for most of my professional life I had focused on rural development issues.  Now for the first time, I have gotten to study at my own pace--urban redevelopment--how lucky can I be!  

About two weeks into our stay in New Haven last month I was perusing the book shelves at one of the “new” New Haven’s urban gems--The Atticus Bookstore/CafĂ© on Chapel Street while Celeste (my granddaughter) played with the children’s books.  Sampling the wares I was attracted by a book cover advertisement that touted the word “spatial dimensions” of the Great Recession.  The book title was curiously--The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post Crash Prosperity--by Richard Florida.  Just a few pages into the book and I felt the author crystallized in my mind a lot of what I’d been seeing and living on my great “road trip” across America which I had embarked upon starting on June 11 in Redlands California (see earlier blog). I would also recommend reading a very insightful review of the book by Aaron M. Renn who hosts the “urbanophile blog”.

As a recently returned expat American still suffering through the foreordained "malaise" of “return culture shock”, and, still smarting from the despair of trying several times and eventually selling (at a substantial loss) our house in southern California, and then taking-off on this grand road trip both as therapy and an attempt to discover what to do with the rest of our “Boomer” lives—it has needless to say been the proverbial “roller-coaster ride” of our lives!  As I stated earlier, when I started the blog back in late May 2010, my goal was to write down what I was seeing and experiencing from the perspective of a professional geographer.  But also as a “fellow Boomer” I wanted to try and come to personal terms with whatever happened to the American Dream we thought would always turn out “rosy”!  Of course, our parent’s generation—who lived through the Great Depression—could have told us “it can also happen to you” as well!

Needless to say, now that the “worst” may be over (unless we go into a true “double-dip recession”) the political strife and blame-setting has reached an almost deafening crescendo of innuendo and harshness that is very disconcerting to me personally—particularly this late Fall as we move into the political season before the November 2010 elections.  What amazes me is how quickly the mood has changed in our country since I was here last in January and later in September 2009.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the level of incivility and even hostility now on talk radio in particular, has been the hardest thing for me to take.  I used to be a real “news junky” but I now find it too depressing and turn off the TV or radio when it gets too shrill—maybe blogging is a better option? We’ll see… 

So, the book by Richard Florida has helped me, as well as the travels of the last two months, to look beyond the despair of the present and to accept that “it’s not the end of the world”—yet!  And, maybe we just need to look for ways to adapt and grow and do like our pioneers did to just “push on” to the future which they were always confident would pan out for the better!

Unfortunately, I have also seen on my road trip that for many of our less traveled or educated citizens, life really does look very bleak and scary right now—particularly for the “long-term unemployed” in the decaying mill-towns across the “Rust Belt”!  Thus I can understand, but hopefully not accept, some of the “fear-mongering” which is expressing it in such social phenomena as the “Tea-Party Movement” and even more extreme expressions from truly fringe groups who preach hate and retribution!. 

My personal hope is that through this blog I can help others of my Boomer generation and even those of my younger son's generation--the "Gen X-ers"--those getting ready to soon graduate from college or those who just did and are facing a very tough job market--to come to terms with reality, look for the solutions, and then find ways to positively move on together to what will surely be a better day—believe me it will happen!  That’s always been America’s genius—to build new worlds out of disorganization and chaos and to see all challenges as opportunities to succeed!

Jumping ahead a little, after we left Washington DC on August 6, 2010 on our way back to Loveland Colorado—continuing our “grand road trip” where I last week took some time off for backpacking in the Rockies and in Wyoming--we stopped briefly in Hannibal Missouri (hometown and real-life setting for much of Mark Twain’s writing and thinking).  See photos online in my Facebook albums (coming soon) as well as later discussions in my next few blogs.  In the Mark Twain Museum I found a T-Shirt that said it all--he expressed for me better than anyone ever could, why I’m traveling and what I hoped it would do for me and my readers:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many
of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Mark Twin.

Maybe we all need to re-read Mark Twain again—there is a reason he is our “most American of writers”.  He also lived and wrote during times of great stress and restructuring spanning the late 19th to early 20th century America.  We could all benefit by remembering how our forefathers coped and succeeded!

So, how do I feel now after having been back in the US for about exactly three months and being “on the road” for about two months?  I feel a lot more confident about the future.  And it has been wonderful taking time to hike and take pictures in some of our wonderful natural areas, visit historic sites such as Hannibal or Springfield, Missouri (Lincoln’s home) and of course, the time to reconnect with family has all helped.  I do feel better about whatever comes next!

But, nevertheless, some things I’m seeing and experiencing as I travel the US this summer of 2010 still concern me a lot, but I’m sure we’ll weather them.  Now I just want to find how I can best help to find the solutions that will work for the next generation—my granddaughter Celeste’s and her kids as well as my younger son Colby who will soon finish college himself and join the real world!

Bob (Geobob) Ford: Loveland Colorado August 19, 2010

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