Sunday, June 28, 2015

Itta Bena, Mississippi | Summer 1966

The Flag of the State of Mississippi

I've recounted this story on a few occasions. The first time as "The Diving Tree" in 1973. Then years later in the late '90's. Then again a few years ago in 2010. Each version different. "Circumstances alter occasions," as Kenneth Burke has said. This account is pretty much the 2010 version recounted now under circumstances framed by murders in a church in Charleston, S.C. More murders in a church in the South.


Aunt Mary was a sweet, steel magnolia. Married to my mother's older brother, Jake. She wore pearls, smelled of lavender, and that summer had a revolver in the glove compartment. It was 1966.

James Meredith hit by a shotgun blast.
A few weeks earlier, James Meredith, who in 1962 was the first black student admitted to Ole Miss, had been wounded by a shotgun blast. He had just begun a solitary voting rights march from Memphis, Tennessee headed down Highway 51 for Jackson, Mississippi. It was called the "March Against Fear" and everyone was scared.

Aunt Mary was also unhappy. She had learned her two nephews from Ohio - "Margaret's boys"- had been "swimming with coloreds".

Some folks might mistake Roebuck Lake for the big river bend it had once been before the Yazoo cut a different channel to the east. Now it was a long, narrow lake with cypress trees growing out from both shores. On the west shore, Itta Bena, Mississippi and cotton farmers. The east shore was hard up against the cotton fields. West: white. East: black.

That line is everywhere and was everywhere then. That line was surely in Ohio, but somewhere on the drive South, the line brightened: a second drinking fountain, a third restroom. Another of most everything. There were places we did not go and they were not to be. There were places and you were expected to be in yours. There was a system of courtesy, deference, and forms of address that maintained the social order. A mannered, gentle, soft-spoken, but firm and unmistakable "looking after them" that was the order of things.

There was a harsher, uglier world - but I did not see it most of the time. That world was kept in the glove compartment.

Roebuck Lake | Itta Bena, Mississippi
The best swimming hole was on the east shore, back among the cypress, dug out of the high bank.

The bottom was sandy, but the climb up the bank would become slick. Something of a vertical mud crawl. Not the best place for diving and a shallow hole at that. Shallow was a good thing otherwise because our friends there could not swim.

The best place to dive was out off the west shore. A cypress tree on the edge of the stand with a pontoon tied off to it. There were three handy limbs hanging out over deep water - low, middle, and high.

One afternoon we were leaving the hole to head over to the tree when our friends asked us to take them along with. They had never been over there and wanted to try it out. Well, we knew we had crossed a line by even being on the east shore swimming. That was bad enough. There was not one among the fifteen or so of us that did not know what it meant to head out across that lake to the west shore.

I want to be clear: we were not striking a blow for liberty - this was no march, this was mischief. We were up to nothing more than trying to get away with something and for the only reason that really matters when you are twelve: because someone told you not to.

So, we overloaded the jon boat, hung off the sides, grabbed a few inner tubes and headed across the lake.

There is a rule that the universe enforces. The rule is that whenever you are having fun doing something you are not supposed to be doing it will end badly. The dog gets out. The vase gets broken. Somebody gets hurt. Your brother ends up splitting a paddle upside the head of some good ole boy raging at him on the Bailey's front lawn.

But, before the rule's full force was felt this day, even after all of what would happen and after all these years, this day remains a perfect day. A perfect day: even though I nearly drowned. One of those days where you could say there was a "before that day" and an "after that day". This day was that kind of day.

We offloaded onto the pontoon. A bit crowded. Mind you this was no party barge. This pontoon was a built of six large empty fuel drums, framed by two by fours and decked with some plywood. It was chained to the trunk of the tree. Boards nailed here and there up the trunk would take you to the limbs.

Recall our friends did not swim. So they would climb up and jump out to hit the water close to the pontoon so they could break surface and grab hold. The older guys who wanted to try diving would depend on my brother or Jim Bailey to tread water out from the tree then swim over to them when they broke surface and help them get back to the pontoon.

That's how the day went. Wait your turn. Up the tree. Jump. Splash. Pull yourself up onto the pontoon. Wait your turn. This routine was only occasionally interrupted by stirring up the wasp nest under a high corner of this listing pontoon, swimming away, and watching the others who could not swim flailing about trying to choose between water and wasps.

I was twelve. This was hilarious.

Finally taunted into trying a jump from the high limb - a place easier to climb up to than down from - I hit the water fine and kept on going straight to the mucky bottom where I managed to get myself pretty well stuck. Scary stuck up to my knees. Even after flailing loose, there was still getting to the surface and I didn't make it there on my own. A lot of splashing about, black hands from everywhere, all over me, lifting me up, pulling me out, hauling me onto the pontoon, pounding my back and rubbing my chest as I coughed water out my mouth and nose.

Sometime after that two white guys showed up in a jon boat. Later I would be told that one of them was a "draft-dodger" - the first time I'd heard that phrase. They called us "Yankees" in a tone that remembered Vicksburg too well. They didn't want "those nigras" on this side of the lake.

We wanted no trouble. We headed back across the lake with our friends. Then we started back to the house followed all the way by those southern boys in their jon boat. Our friends on the east bank ran along the shore, yelling to us not to be scared of those white boys.

The next day we paddled past the diving tree. The pontoon had been sunk. The climbing boards pulled from the trunk. The diving limbs sawed away.

What with the ruckus that ensued on the Bailey's front lawn, it was hard for Aunt Mary not to have learned of what we had been up to. So, as we headed south back to Hazelhurst, Mississippi, Aunt Mary was unhappy.

In her gentle way she reminded us we should not "swim with coloreds". Just to be difficult, even though I knew why, I asked her why. Her answer was unexpected: "Because", she explained, "they all had VD and we would surely catch it if we swam with them again." I honestly did not know at the time what VD was. It may even have been the first time I'd ever heard of it. So, I asked Aunt Mary what it was. VD, she told me, was a "disease of the intestinal tract".

If you come away with a poor opinion of my Aunt Mary, then I have done her a great disservice. I cherish and honor her memory. In the past I have been more judgmental of this recollection. Other versions carried a moral right about now. Not this time it seems. It is a coin worn too smooth for currency.

Maybe this will do.

The wind unfurls all flags alike. Some should be gone with it - long since gone.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"The Food Truck War"

There are very few places left that have not been battlefields.   
- Jean Merrill, The Pushcart War

Throughout elementary school each day after lunch our teacher would read to us. With the lights off and our heads down, we would hear the next chapter from the current book.

In this way, over the years, I traveled twenty thousand leagues under the sea with Captain Nemo; watched Homer Price make donuts in Centerburg; spent time on the farm with a pig named Wilbur and his friend Charlotte, a spider; visited Henry, Jess, Violet, and Benny in their boxcar home; and, traveled to the dark planet Camazotz with Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace.

In the fifth grade, I met Frank the Flower, Morris the Florist, General Anna, Harry the Hot Dog, Mr. Jerusalem, Carlos, Papa Peretz, and Eddie Moroney - street peddlers, propagandists, and guerrilla fighters in the asymmetrical conflict that would come to be called, The Pushcart War.

In the winter of 1964, Mrs. Becker, substituting for Mrs. Kidwell, who was out on a prolonged sick leave, read to us this children's novel. That year its author Jean Merrill would receive her second Lewis Carroll Shelf award for her allegory of entrenched business interests and a complicit city hall trying to clear the streets of small peddlers who were deemed to be just getting in the way.

The School Library Journal placed The Pushcart War on its list of One Hundred Books that Shaped the Century (that is, the 20th Century). Certainly it was a book that had its part in shaping me. The account of peddlers organizing with their pea-shooters to go after the crushing wheels of the BIG trucks was a child's "rules for radicals."

For most of my life - at least since the fifth grade - The Pushcart War was allegorical. "Peddlers with pea-shooters," a metaphor for the small standing up to the big. That is until recently. To paraphrase the opening line of Jean Merrill's novel:

"The Food Truck War started on the evening of June 8, 2015 when the city clerk ran off a food truck belonging to a pizza peddler."

It will be said that the city clerk was just enforcing the law. Yes, he was and so it seems was every member of the Rochester city council as well as the Department of Public Works. The pea-shooter question to ask is whose interest does this law - duly enforced - serve?

The only food truck foe we hear from in the reporting is the local owner of a national pizza franchise. A small business itself to be sure, but you only need to be bigger to be "big". You are bigger still if you can bring to bear a full line-up of elected officials, city departments, and a law so well-suited to your needs. That's plenty big enough. Anyone without all that is smaller.

Running this food truck off the streets and then invoking "fairness" as the reason to do so doesn't sound very fair to me. Hoping to run them out of town because you "don't think there's a place for it in Rochester" sounds not fair at all. Stuff like that hasn't sounded fair to me since I was ten years old.

Even the president of the city council seems to think there is enough food business to go around. But he has "no plans to review the food truck rules." He thinks "the rules are fairly clear cut." Yes, the rules are fairly clear, but are they clearly fair?

Children's stories are very often subversive. These stories portray simple virtues simply. In the world of grown-ups, few things are more subversive than simple virtues simply put. The president of the city council says he thinks "there's room for everyone to play." A virtue our parents struggled to instill in us from the first moment we encountered a "playmate" was: Share.

Anyone who punches down or tries to pull the ladder up after themselves never learned to share. Or, they have forgotten that the lesson was usually taught when we didn't want to share, but were told to do so anyway. Because sharing is the right thing to do.

It's encouraging though that, if the comments on the reporting are any indication, there is a battery of pea-shooters at the ready. Maxie Hammerman would be proud.



Kutsky Market | 1001 6th St NW, Rochester, MN | Wednesday, July 1 | 11am - 2pm

Calling all hungry foodies and Rochester residents: a food truck rally is coming to town. To support changes to Rochester City rules, local food trucks and food truck supporters will come together for a food truck lunch event.

The Rochester Trolley & Tour Company will ferry hungry food truck enthusiasts between Downtown and Kutzky Market parking lot (1005 6th Street NW). At Kutzky Market, a number of food trucks will serve their unique food and refreshments. Attendees will have the opportunity to voice support for (or opposition to) changing existing rules as it relates to food trucks.

Charette Happens, of Design Rochester, will be on hand to guide a discussion about food trucks in Rochester and what the community would like to see happen in the future.

The Food Truck Summit aims to be the beginning of a much-needed conversation in Rochester about how the City will address food trucks going forward. Despite featuring food trucks, this event takes no concrete position nor agitates for a specific new rules. Instead, it aims to engage all stakeholders with the hope of creating proactive, forward motion.


  • Old Abe Coffee Co
  • BB’s Pizza
  • Don’s Crumbled Beef
  • Anthony’s Wood Fired Pizza
  • El Carambas
  • Mama Meg’s Parlour 
  • Tonic Local Kitchen & Juice Bar
  • (with more to come)

Trolley boarding station, Marriott, 101 1st Avenue SW. It will run every 15 minutes. 11:15am, 11:30am, 11:45am, 12pm, etct
First Trolley to Market: 11:00 am
Last Trolley back downtown: 2:00 pm

Sunday, June 14, 2015

When you wish upon a star

It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.*
                                               -William Shakespeare

"The stars my destination" **

You might recall that providing amenities for "the affluent" is one of the core business strategies for DMC. A brief refresher:
"There is an affluence that is used to the type of restaurants that you can get in New York City," Carlson said last year. 
That's why Destination Medical Center proponents have talked openly about wanting to attract five-star [emphasis added] hotels and high-end restaurants to Rochester. 3.24.14
Now the big shiny of amenities for the affluent is apparently a "five-star" anything. The star rating system for hotels has been around since 1958 when it was introduced by the Mobil Travel Guide - now, the Forbes Travel Guide. Star ratings get used for all sorts of things now - even hospitals.

Anyway, the big assumption is that there is an affluence that is used to getting what it wants and to get the affluent you need to give them what they are used to getting. Unfortunately, it seems, Rochester just isn't up to snuff amenities-wise. DMCC board member Bill George said of the Kahler Hotel at a meeting a few months ago, "I'm sorry, it just doesn't cut it." George seems to be piling on a bit here. The Kahler Hotel only has a three-star rating - but hey: location, location, location.

"My God, it's full of stars." ***

Given the importance of five-star hotels for enticing the affluent to receive health care in Rochester, it is no surprise that the DMC plan - sorry, framework - would provide for this essential amenity. 
275-Unit Luxury Hotel - Associated Bank Project*. According to the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Associated Bank Building was purchased by an investment group within the past year and will be converted into a hotel within the next few years. Preliminary plans call for a mixed-use development with a 275-unit luxury/upscale hotel that would be connected to the Mayo Clinic via skyway. AECOM assumed this project will open in 2017. 
AECOM - one of the DMC sub consultants - was hired to do the DMC market analysis. When it came to hotels, they hired an outfit called PKF Consulting USA (PKF) to evaluate the Rochester hotel market. PKF then bought the data they used from Smith Travel Research (STR). STR doesn't use stars, but "luxury" is pretty much a five-star rating.

Notice that after spending several hundred thousand dollars on a market consultant - sorry, sub-consultant - who in turn hires a sub-sub-consultant, who in turn purchases data from a sub-sub-sub-consultant, the conclusion that the affluent will get the "luxury/five-star" hotel amenities they require to receive health care in Rochester is based on something somebody at the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) said they heard somebody (we don't know who) say about someone who bought a building.

Not to brag, but I could have told them the same thing: "According to Dave Beal, who heard it at a local coffee shop, the people who bought the Associated Bank Building are going to build a five-star hotel there." But, coming from me - and I did hear this at a coffee shop - it looks like a rumor. Coming from the CVB it looks like...well, it just sounds better, I guess.

Better, but not all that much better which is why there is an "*". AECOM had the good sense to give itself an out.
*Although these projects have been announced, they are still in early concept phases and may or may not be developed as described. Listing these projects should not be considered an endorsement. Should one or more of these projects not come to fruition, there is sufficient market demand for similarly scaled hotels to be developed. DMC Development Plan, Volume II - Planning Documents, Section 5.0, page 39 [emphasis added] 
This note is just AECOM's way of saying, "Hey, we're not saying it will happen, but it could."

Well, actually maybe it couldn't.

"Don't let the stars get in your eyes..." ****

Bloom International Realty is the Abu Dhabi investment group that purchased (for $7 million cash) the Associated Bank Building. Bloom now has an exclusive deal with the city to sit for six-months on a piece of land on the west bank of the South Fork of the Zumbro River and ponder what they might make happen there. Here's what we are told will NOT happen there - a five-star hotel.
Since Bloom purchased the Associated Bank Building in 2013 for $7 million, the speculation has been that the wealthy development firm would build a five-star hotel in downtown Rochester. Elkhalifataha said that will not happen. The firm's analysis has shown that Rochester cannot support a full, five-star hotel. They do hope to build a very nice hotel, he said, which may include an upscale section or some five-star features. While Bloom has a lot of money to invest, he said the bottom line is to have a profitable project. 6.5.15 [emphasis added]
Now Abu Dhabi knows a few things about five star hotels - heck some claim the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi is a seven-star hotel - though they officially only use five. But, for Rochester: a "very nice hotel" with maybe with some five-star stuff to get some rooms up to snuff.

Well, if there won't be enough affluent coming to Rochester for their health care to support a five-star hotel ('the bottom line is to have a profitable project"), then maybe it's not a five-star hotel that attracts the affluent but the affluent that attracts a five-star hotel. 

If there are not enough affluent to attract a five-star hotel, will there be enough:
Wealthy patients, who can pay out-of-pocket for executive-health services, Sports Medicine Center strength and speed training, wellness and prevention related to such topics as nutrition [who] have the potential to help defray low reimbursement for uncompensated care and Medicaid. 3.24.14
The whole DMC strategy of getting the wealthy - sorry, affluent - here in the first place is to defray the cost of providing services to the not-at-all affluent, the not-even-close-never-gonna-be affluent. In other words, the poor. Are we looking at an Affluence Gap?

"When you wish upon a star...."*****

I'm sure it will all get sorted out. The stars will align in the heavens and all will be well. Maybe they have aligned already in ways that were unexpected.

Remember above I mentioned that star ratings get applied to all sorts of things, even hospitals? Well, maybe a four-star hotel is just what the doctor ordered.
Looking to make it easier to compare hospitals, the federal government has started awarding star ratings to medical centers based on patients' appraisals. 
A few five-star hospitals are part of well-respected systems, such as the Mayo Clinic's hospitals in Phoenix, Jacksonville, Fla. and New Prague, Minn. Mayo's flagship hospital in Rochester, Minn., received four stars. CNNMoney (New York) 5.1.15 [emphasis added]


Notes ******

Though it is often cited, this line does not appear in any work of William Shakespeare. It is generally regarded to be based on this line from Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2 of Cato speaking to Brutus: 
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
Doesn't seem to me to carry the same meaning, but it works as well in this context - maybe better. 
The Stars My Destination is a science fiction novel by Alfred Bester. The title "The Stars My Destination" appears in a quatrain quoted by the protagonist, Gully Foyle: 

Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destination

“My god, it’s full of stars” is a phrase associated the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” as David Bowman enters the star gate created by the monolith orbiting Jupiter. It was not uttered in the "2001: A Space Odyssey", but opens the film sequel "2010: The Year We Make Contact."

"Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes" was written by Slim Willet and was published in 1952. The song was recorded in many different styles by many artists. Here's a version by K.D. Lang that includes the lyrics.

"When You Wish Upon a Star" is written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington for the 1940 Walt Disney film "Pinocchio". Sung by Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket.

Since the asterisk plays so important a role in the hotel market portion of the DMC plan, I thought I might also put it to good use. "Asterisk" comes from the Latin asteriscus, "little star". Asterisks can be used to indicate footnotes. Multiple asterisks distinguish multiple notes. I needed six little stars to track my notes.  Variations of the asterisk are sometimes used as an element in graphic designs. For example:
Is it significant, I wonder, that the asterisk is so prominent an element in the DMC logo? Or that it appears in the upper left hand corner of every page of the DMC plan? Have they been trying to tell us something all along? You don't suppose this "*" in the logo is just DMC's way of saying, "Hey, we're not saying it will happen, but it could."?

Monday, June 1, 2015

Who is Leah Puffer and why is she saying those terrible things about Rochester?

"It isn't clear yet what the Destination Medical Center will mean to the Twin Cities metro area," says Leah Puffer, a Minneapolis-based urban planner. "Rochester is often seen as a peripheral city, just far enough away from Minneapolis and St. Paul that it doesn't have the feel of a competitor. I think many individuals in the Twin Cities are still unaware of the amount of investment and potential development in Rochester as part of the Destination Medical Center. Most people still see it as a sleepy, small city with a great hospital and clinic." 
- Neal Ungerleider, "The 6.5 Billion, 20-year plan to transform a American City," Fast Company

Well, first off, Leah Puffer isn't saying terrible things about Rochester.

I don't know how it was that Neal Ungerleider came to interview Leah Puffer for his recent Fast Company piece on Destination Medical Center, but it was Leah, not Neal, who deigned refer to Rochester as a "sleepy, small city" and, in doing so, irked some local readers.

Maybe Ungerleider came across Puffer at where she has published several pieces including this one last October, "Can the Medical Center make Rochester a Real Destination?" wherein she writes:
Many people in the Twin Cities see Rochester the way people from New York City or Los Angeles might see the Twin Cities: a quaint outpost, a sleepy little town on the prairie. To a degree, that is true. But Rochester is an important piece of the cultural and economic life of Southeastern Minnesota – it’s the region’s largest city, it employs thousands of people from the surrounding counties and it is a social, commercial and cultural hub.
Feel better? She feels the irk of those who find irksome references to Rochester as a "sleepy, small city". It seems the Twin Cities suffer the same sad indignity at the hands of bigger cities on both coasts.

Since local journalists also wonder whether outsiders who commit journalism about Rochester have actually been to Rochester, Puffer comes by her observations by way of observation:
I grew up in a small town outside Rochester and Rochester was where we went for movies, fancy dinners, and school shopping and my mom has worked at the Mayo Clinic for over 30 years.
So, yeah. She's been here. She's seen here. And she has very nice things to say about here.
Rochester is often on annual lists of best places to live. The typical data points for these types of lists include median family income, crime statistics, employment rates, quality of schools and access to other amenities. No matter how much weight you give such designations, there are some people who value them a great deal. Rochester is home to the fantastic Rochester Art Center. New restaurants, like Downtown Kitchen, create reasons to go downtown after business hours and are upstaging the chain restaurants in strip malls. There are historic sites, Mayowood being the best known, and many of the Mayo complex buildings are something to behold, housing an extensive art collection donated by benefactors and a Mayo Clinic museum. For nature-lovers there is Silver Lake and Olmstead County has many parks, one of my favorites being Oxbow Park & Zollman Zoo.
See, she even references those lists Rochester gets itself on. Even though those lists may be the result of voting for ourselves or click-baiting by people who may have never "actually set foot" in our city, we still have some great data-points. (Oh yes, sadly, Downtown Kitchen is now part of the history of Historic Third. More's the pity.)

But, here is where Leah Puffer has DMC, and all that it has come to mean, dead to rights:
Many of the things that make the Cities a tourist destination cannot be planned and executed in the course of 5 or 10 years on a similar scale in a city like Rochester. We may take that for granted, but it’s all too apparent when considering Rochester’s options. The built environment can be planned and improved upon (there are cranes in the sky in Rochester, so that is already happening), but things like cultural corridors, institutions such as the Walker, diverse communities and the unique character of neighborhoods are not planned – they’re historical, they’re sometimes organic, sometimes accidental, but usually aren’t part of a bonding bill or funding legislation. (Rochester has these things too. There’s no denying the character and culture of Rochester, but they’re not as easily translated into marketing materials and brochures.) Tourism can be tricky in this regard – you want a vibrant city, full of life and beauty, but you don’t want it to be a plastic, medical Disneyland.

So, who is Leah Puffer?

Her LinkedIn summary says she is:
... seeking a position in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area in the field of urban planning. My focus is in economic and community development, specifically affordable housing and microfinance programs. The great benefit of a planning degree is that combined with my professional experiences, my opportunities for employment are not limited to work that is planning-specific. I am also open to work at foundations, lending institutions, universities, non-profits and regional housing and finance agencies.
She is "seeking a position in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area" not in Rochester. Too bad. She seems to have what we need some of down here.

What do you suppose it would take to entice her to return to the "big city" of her childhood?  Isn't that one of the nuts DMC hopes to crack?

Here's the question we should now be asking: "So that's Leah Puffer ... why isn't she seeking a position in Rochester?"

(Full disclosure: It appears I have a 3rd degree connection to Leah Puffer on LinkedIn which means I could be hearing from Neal Ungerleider any time now.)