But We’re DIFFERENT Here!

January21/ 2000

…I noted in that column about our Monticello Weekend that I made some incredibly astute observations about urban planning during our recent stay in Charlottesville.  Allow me to share them.  I am also “clearing the air” on a somewhat controversial issue, but the first part on urban planning is the funny part.

One of the advantages of piling up the years is that eventually trends and tendencies start to emerge.  An ever-increasing number of outcomes become predictable based on past experiences.  Some of us learn not to touch hot stoves, wet paint, or a dental hygienist’s knee when she has a sharp probe inside your mouth.  Some of us never do.

I took a Sociology course at UNC (Duke is not the only school with a “sociology” curriculum) that discussed “cities” and how they developed in a predictable fashion based on retail, commercial and residential evolution.   While “evil” real estate developers (that’s the only kind isn’t it?) can have some effect …. ultimately “the general public is like water” …. It will seek its own level and go where it wants to go ….. “urban planners” be damned.

My fellow baby boomers are famous for various things.  Thinking we know-it-all is high on the list.  In the 70s we were emerging as the consummate problem solvers of Earth.  One can take stock in 2007 of how silly that notion was but in the 70s it sold like hotcakes at IHOP.

About 30 years ago it became “all the rage” in villages, towns, cities and metro areas to “save downtown”.  The evil “suburban malls” and an emerging dime store operator in Bentonville Arkansas was having an insidious effect on our municipal culture.  “City fathers” across the fruited plain were in a tizzy.  Like the panicy burgermeisters of Hamlin, the call went out for Pied Pipers in the form of “urban planners” to come and save our towns.

I was hired by “a new town” called Peachtree City in Fayette County about 30 minutes south of Atlanta.  Coincidentally, very near where the Chris Benoit incident just took place.   Peachtree City is now a very successful upper-middle class Atlanta suburban enclave of 35,000+.  Back then it was a municipal petri dish of 3,000 folks most of whom worked for Delta or Eastern Airlines.  We had more pilots per square foot than an O’Hare cocktail lounge in a January blizzard.

My job was to develop and manage the recreation facilities and services.  I had very limited experience but that was OK because it didn’t pay much and the muckety mucks didn’t much care what I did.  The “important guys” in any real estate development are (1) the guys that put in the water and sewer lines and (2) the sales guys.

The “BobLee” you know today was just emerging from his cocoon.  I was first told the phrase “I can’t believe you actually said that” in my 6th month in Peachtree City.  I lurked in the shadows and began formulating my career theories on the value of corporate BS vs the assorted nose to grindstone fantasies.  I digress.

The Head Planner was a pompous geek named Dick Fleming.  He wore horn-rimmed glasses, a bow tie and argyle socks and always discussed “people” in the abstract like Napoleon calculating collateral losses in his siege of Petersburg.  He was “a hoot” but didn’t know it which is the case with most “hoots” in corporate America.

Dick only lasted about four years there or anywhere else he ever worked.  Four years is really pretty long when you are 95% style and 5% substance.  The trick is to hightail it about a week before that suddenly dawns on the locals.  Like those “medicine wagon” magic elixir salesman peddling snake oil.  That be Bow Tie Dick.

Pseudo-intellectual “Professor Harold Hills” but instead of 76 trombones, they bring “bricks” (and “fountains”).

I recall a planning session I sat in on.  Sam Brannon had backed up Tucker Frederickson at Fullback for Auburn and was a moody short-tempered fellow in charge of road construction and bribing the county building inspector.  I liked Sam.

Dick The Planner Geek was pontificating about a new Village Center that was being planned.  He had expensive drawings and little balsawood models and everything.  He was discussing where the brick walkways would go.  Urban planners LOVE brick walkways.   Brick salesmen LOVE urban planners.

Sam cleared his throat …. “why not leave off the walkways until we see how and where the people who will use the Center use it and then put the bricks walkways where they tell us they want them?”  It was “a pin drop moment”.   Listen to the end-users!  YIKES!  Dick was flabbergasted at such audacity.  Sam looked at me and grinned.  Stanley Neely the sewerline guy picked his fingernails with a pocketknife.

Long story short ….. Dick put in HIS walkways on the front end.  The “people” ignored them and made paths across the lawn areas where it made sense to walk where they were going.  Dick left Peachtree City.  Sam had Stanley tear up the stoopid unused walkways and put walkways where the people had worn out the grass.  I went back to Peachtree City three years ago.  Sam Brannon’s bricks are still there.  My first lesson in urban planning.

So back to vanishing “downtowns”.  Apparently for every Dick The Planner Geek there was a bewildered bunch of city fathers across America looking at lots and lots and lots of vacant buildings “downtown”.   Storefront Tabernacles and wig shops do not represent civic prosperity.   They had been “malled” and “Wal-Marted”.  What was so wonderfully American in the 50s and early 60s was becoming unwonderfully Beirut in the 70s.  Quick …. Call Dick The Planner Geek and the brick guys.  They called …. The Dicks and their bricks came arunning.

What happened in Raleigh on Fayetteville Street (Mall) happened in a bazillion other cities and towns over the same era ….. known among “urban planners” as “the very good ol days”.  A very very few of them actually were successful.  Very very most of them were disasters and after only 20 years or so a new caste of “city fathers” either undid the bricks or took time to study the ones that were successful.  A classic study in “But we’re DIFFERENT”.

You know how it goes ….. a bunch of ego-driven bureaucrats with access to other peoples money decide to make radical changes in the daily lives of innocent bystanders.  No bureaucrat has EVER had an original idea.  Someone somewhere HAS done it before and if you look hard enough someone did it “right”.  Find that guy and go copy what he did ….. nope.  Ignore the case where they did it right because TA DAA “we’re DIFFERENT here in _____ “ and go ahead a create a massive and expensive cluster you-know-what.  Historians later calculated that the 95% of Downtown Revitalizations that failed all basically failed for the same reason despite all “being DIFFERENT”.  They all broke Sam Brannon’s rule,

Watch the people that use the area and their actions will tell you what and how to make it work. ….. The People know what they want.  Build it and they will come and come back …. 1-2-3 ….  DUH!

So Charlottesville Virginia tore up and bricked up Main Street for about six blocks.  Not the college drag but where the permanent residents would come to do business and eat and shop IF they found what they wanted.  A sikha designed it …. One of those New Delhi dudes with the turbans.  We saw him during dinner.

The night we were there “Main Street” was “vibrant & alive” with mostly normal people.  Sure there was a 6 person tribe of Manson Family wannabees on the prowl and the normal smattering of fat, ugly folks but just enough to make it not seem like a Disney theme street.

The turban guy fired lots of blanks in the beginning.  You HAVE to get the right mix of commercial and retail and YOU HAVE TO HEAVILY SUBSIDIZE THE SMALL BUSINESSES for as long as it takes to develop significant consumer traffic.  ….. WARNING:  Do Not subsidize any business venture connected by blood or marriage to any elected city official.  Idiot nere-do-well brothers-in-law of mayors do not make successful merchants. …… and no matter what you read or hear, not EVERYBODY loves antique shoppes and art gallerys.  Trust me.

The ego-driven bureaucrats all figured they had put in Dick’s bricks so all the greedy merchants oughta sign exorbitant front-end loaded long term leases and VOILA we got downtown back.

The pesky uncooperative “people” of course all stayed at the suburban malls that had all the stores and restaurants they patronized AND HAD FREE PARKING.

Months became years became decades and multi-decades and the bricks stayed relatively untouched by consumer foot. ….. except in places like Raleigh where homeless people with severe mental issues and overt criminal tendencies moved in to populate the bricks.

The Takeover By The Scary Homeless Guys” is known as Stage Three in Downtown Revitalization.  Dick The Planner Geeks are four jobs down the road when that stage arrives.  Oh …. Stage One is “The Press Conference Announcing The Grand Plan” ….. Stage Two is “The Grand Opening W/ Fireworks & A Clogging Demonstartion”.

Stage Four started occurring across America about 6-8 years ago.  Stage FourA is “Round Up & Remove Scary Homeless Guys” …. Stage FourB is beg the most successful merchants and restaurateurs in town with WHATEVER IT TAKES to open a store/restaurant on the bricks and/or repaved downtown.  Free rent for the first four years and free upfitting is usually the starting point.  In some cases entire city councils have been known to “eat a bug” in a public “we sure were dumb” ceremony.

Their loyal clientele, of course, follows and real live people with valid credit cards suddenly are coming back downtown.  It only took 30 years, beaucoups of wasted tax dollars, and the naked reality that “we really aren’t DIFFERENT from other places”.

For know-it-all baby boomer bureaucrats, 30 years is actually a pretty quick learning curve.  Think how long it’s taking us to figure our marriage and parenting.


 There are two successful “New Towns” in the Washington DC area 

begun in the 70s that did “work”.  Can you name them?

BONUS:  What was The Pied Piper’s Revenge?


   This Next Section is TOTALLY OPTIONAL.  Most of you probably don’t need it.  It will not be on the Final Exam and there’s no extra credit for slogging thru it.  YOU DO NOT HAVE TO.  It’s not all that funny.

 Clearing the air on 

“BobLee & The Edwards” 

   I received a sincere e-mail this week from a longtime reader asking to be removed from our mailing list.  That is not that unusual as “adds and deletes” are always on-going around here.  The “adds” somehow greatly outnumber the deletes so we plod ever onward and ever growing.  Go figure …..

This reader’s issue was over some of my comments recently regarding “the Edwards”.  He felt that I was showing extreme disrespect for cancer victims and couples who suffer the loss of a child.  I can understand how he got that impression.  Maybe some of the rest of you have winched over some of my “broadsides” at “the Edwards”.  Let me take a few 100 words to explain my reasoning.

One …. “the Edwards” are local so it is natural that I will know more about them and via the local fawning media have access to more of their shenanigans.

My intense distaste for “the Edwards” is not that they are Liberal Democrats or “rich” or that he is a “trial lawyer’.  My research has convinced me that they are arrogant FRAUDS.  I despise ARROGANCE in high profile public figures be they politicians, athletes, athletic directors, or newspaper editors.

I question EVERYTHING about “the Edwards” including the extent of her “cancer”.  Yes, their son Wade was killed in a horrible tragedy a dozen or so years ago …. Every parent’s worst nightmare.  I recall when it happened and Mizzus and I imagining how we would deal with such.   Now they use every media opportunity to mention how they are not exploiting his death for sympathy and thereby doing exactly that.  Their standard M.O.

I have known a number of cancer victims undergoing “chemo”.  I have seen first hand how “chemo” has affected Butch Davis over the past 4-5 months.  I have NEVER seen anyone grow more energetic and suffer zero visible effects from “chemo” as Elizabeth Edwards has done.  Does she even “have cancer” and, if so, how debilitating is it?

I question EVERYTHING this air-brushed Bonnie & Clyde ever say or do.  Their political life has been an endless series of oops, gotchas, foul-ups, finger pointing, stoopid comments, “we meants”, baldfaced lies, excuses, whining, cutesy sound bites, sympathy grabs and shameful parlor tricks designed to enthrall the most gullible faction of the electorate ….. just as he did so successfully in picking from jury pools.    (NOTE:  Yes, that was “the money paragraph”!)

He assaults rival politicians with no concern for propriety but such is “the norm” in the dumpster that is now American politics.  He also assaults “people like me” with callous disregard for truth or civility.  Among the motley gaggle of candidates from both parties currently insulting our national intelligence, I measure “the Edwards” as “the motliest” of them all.    Not the most dangerous, just the motliest.

I’ve spoken at length with their former neighbors in Raleigh.  I’ve spoken with some who were involved in his sham scam at UNC Law School.  With folks who knew him as an undergrad at NCSU.  I’ve spoken personally to Monty The Neighbor.  I have also spoken with people I know who know and support “the Edwards”.   I know their fawning sycophants in the local media and my professional disrespect for that crowd is a matter of record.

I consider the sources of my information as to how my sources are, or are not, “like me” in personality and socio-cultural views.  The verdict in my mind is unanimous …. “The Edwards” are TOTAL FRAUDS.

NOTE:  I have not spoken to Dean Smith on “the Edwards”.  Dean Smith was a very very fine basketball coach.  His views on anything other than basketball are as irrelevant to me as my views on basketball should be to him.

Will my shots at them derail their campaign?  Not hardly.  Do they even know, much less care, about “BobLee”?  That is unclear but I proceed as if they likely do not and, if so, dismiss me as just another “extreme right-wing fanatic”.  I’ve been called far worse names by far better people.

I enjoy gigging them as they shamelessly con their way thru the Democratic primary process.  If my humorous takes on their shenanigans cost them one vote or one dollar then it was worth it since, in the process, I am having lots of laughs and maybe some of you are too.  ….. Save this to refer to when I say something shocking about them again next month too.


   Yes, I know all the gory details of Mr. Almond’s Joy …. the Repub state representative that “resigned” mysteriously.  It is mega-Yucky and explores new frontiers of INCREDIBLY STOOPID.  I’ll discuss it next week but not on a full stomach.

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