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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for July, 2007

R.I.P. Copeland’s, Farewell Reliable’s: Collard Greens, Turkey Wings, Gentrification, Urban Infrastructure, and a Final Word of Thanks to a Harlem Entrepreneur

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 27, 2007

This weekend, Copeland’s Restaurant on West 145th Street in New York City’s Harlem will close its doors forever. The demise of this upscale “soul food” restaurant — a favorite of local residents, African-American celebrities, and atmosphere-seeking European tourist groups alike — was reported this past Monday in the New York Times. Although the Times article paid adequate respect to the restaurant and to its founder, Mr. Calvin Copeland, it neglected Copeland’s no-less-worthy stepchild, the restaurant’s neighboring storefront cafeteria and take-out, known for decades to locals simply as “Reliable’s” (a diminutive of its original name, The Reliable Catering Co.). Reliable’s served the same delicious food as Copeland’s but from steam tables manned by affable white-uniformed, hairnetted serving personel rather than off the arms of uniformed waiters and onto linen-covered tables as at Copeland’s. Reliables was also far more affordable than Copeland’s and thus attracted ordinary residents of Harlem on their ways to and from work plus a sprinkling of good-food-at-budget-prices-seeking New Yorkers, black and white both, fleeing the stiffness, artificiality, and high prices of restaurants in more high-toned neighborhoods downtown. On Sunday afternoons, while tour goups enjoyed staged gospel-music concert brunches at Copeland’s, ordinary Harlemites returning home from the neighborhood’s churches shared informal lunches at Reliable’s formica tables or waited in line for their take-out orders. Daytime and evenings, one could linger at Reliable’s for hours chatting with friends, watching fellow diners stream in and out, and, of course, savoring the wonderful food — mildly-seasoned smothered chicken, immense turkey wings, vegetable plates of collards, black-eyed-peas and rice, and, for desert, Reliable’s inimitable bread pudding.

“Like a Tornado…”

Reliables flourished for decades despite, or maybe because of, its setting in one of New York City’s most underserved and economically stagnant neighborhoods. Ironically, the neighborhood’s recent upswing is exactly what caused Reliable’s demise. Sadly, the upswing was not rooted in a regeneration of black Harlem or in a change for the better in the lives and prospects of its longtime, mostly black, inhabitants. Rather, it was a blitzkrieg-paced case of “gentrification,” a massive influx of mostly white and very much better-off luxury housing hunters. This was spurred in large part by developers buying up substantial amounts of what since the 1920s had been low-priced rental stock and rapidly converting it into high-end cooperative apartments and staggeringly expensive single-family townhouses. The outcome: A flight of lower-income Harlemites and a sudden demographic turnover that caught Calvin Copeland and most other non-real-estate-savvy New Yorkers by surprise. Referring to the sudden exodus of African-Americans from a neighborhood that had been emblematic of Black America for more than 80 years, the Times article quotes Mr. Copeland as saying: “The white people who took their place don’t like or don’t care for the food I cook … the transformation snuck up on me like a tornado.”

It’s All in the Infrastructure

New York is a city in which the neighborhoods of the rich, poor and middle-class traditionally abut, and in which people of all backgrounds and walks of life are hyper-aware of each other’s existence, like each other or not. Such proximity and agglomeration have contributed to the economic mobility of the City’s residents and has shaped the traditional liberality and egalitarian nature of New York politics. A variegated population has also ensured that New York is continuously supplied with a work force adequate to the performance and competitiveness of its economy. Part of New York’s greatness is that it has avoided the tradition malaise of American cities, i.e. the impoverishment and death of inner cities and flight of the middle class and the rich to bedroom communities and distant suburbs. Until recently, New York has also avoided the European equivalent of this syndrome, i.e. the takeover of the inner cities by the young and the wealthy and the banishment of the poor and lower-income to oppressive housing estates and violent banlieue. New York’s relative demographic balance did not emerge by accident. It has been shaped and shepherded by public policy, from the rent control decrees of World War II and subsequent rent stabilization laws to the massive “slum-clearance” and public housing projects of the 1930s through 1960s. (How public housing destabilized neighborhoods will be treated in future entries).

New York had always been a city that has realized the importance of its human and physical infrastructure — housing, public transportation, universities, museums and concert halls, hospitals, and one of the world’s highest quality and most reliable water supply systems — and had been willing to invest accordingly. Still, there have been exceptions. One particularly acerbic recent mayor is reputed to have said: “This is the world’s most expensive real estate; if you can’t afford to live here, get out.” Such an outburst is easy to make but harder to live up to the consequences of. To be blunt, without affordable housing for the lower income people who serve them, New York’s rich would have to do their own cooking and eat from dirty plates in the exorbitantly-priced restaurants they patronize, not to mention having to change their own sheets and empty their own bedpans in the hospitals that are there for them when they fall ill. This year, issues such as the sudden encroachment on affordable housing in Harlem, the seeds of gentrification in long-dormant neighborhoods such as Brooklyn’s Bushwick, and the surprise conversion of lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town from fixed-rent lower-middle-class housing into luxury housing at “market” rates have revived full-force the debate over New York City’s housing policies. This debate is made even more timely and intense as New York’s revived role as a world economic and cultural center continues to work like a magnet, attracting wealthy new arrivals as well as the City’s traditional “huddled masses yearning to breath free.” (Over the next months, I plan to post a number of entries on these issues and other facets of urban change and public infrastructure, both on this site and, in a more anecdotal and visual way, on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org.)

New Vegetables and New Names: “Branding” Comes to Harlem

A dearth of black-eyed peas and collard greens is not the only change gentrification brings to Harlem. The name Harlem itself is threatened. To make luxury housing more palatable to white investors and buyers and to disassociate the neighborhood from its 20th-century African-American and proletarian antecedents, real estate developers turn to the flim-flam of “branding.” To “spin” Harlem’s image, they have resurrected the name “Hamilton Heights” (previously familiar only to NYC historians, cartographers, and city planners) as an appellation for that section of Harlem in which Copeland’s is located. Sadly, so it seems, the white Midwestern, New England, and European corporate-types and professionals moving into and transforming the neighborhood find it more attractive to tell the folks back home and their colleagues at the office that they live in Hamilton Heights rather than simply to say that have landed in Harlem.

Finally: Thank you, Mr. Copeland

As a long-time customer of Reliables’ and a sometime patron of Copeland’s, I want to thank Calvin Copeland for years of fine cooking, sincere welcome, and good service to me and to people of all races. In flush years, an occasional meal at Copeland’s enabled me to feel quite flush indeed, and, in lean years, Reliable’s enabled me to eat very well for very little. And, not to forget, the ample tables, leisurely pace, and relaxed atmosphere at Reliables’ were the comfortable backdrop for hours of serious conversation and laughter with my closest friends.

In his family life, employment policies, and hospitality Mr. Copeland had the humanity, wisdom, and courage to cross the absurd and regrettable color lines that still divide and mar much of life in America. Thank you, Mr. Copeland, for enabling this “white” New Yorker to gain so much physical sustenance, aesthetic fulfillment, and human warmth in Harlem. I wish you continued good health and success in all you still plan to undertake. And … I’ll never forget the bread pudding!

Posted in Cities, Food, Infrastructure | 8 Comments »

Oxford and “VRM”: Diabetics and Phone Subscribers, Megaphones and Cudgels, Privacy as Currency, Automobiles and Electron Microscopes, Aggregation and Open Source

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 25, 2007

Earlier this month I spent a week in London and Oxford, including a day at the Oxford University Internet Institute attending a meeting and work session of web and tech specialists active in giving voice to something called Vendor Relations Management (VRM).

VRM

The Oxford meeting was spearheaded by Doc Searls, co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” senor editor at Linux Journal,and research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Institute for the Internet and Society. Doc is a pioneer in the development of VRM, which he calls ” … the reciprocal of CRM (Customer Relations Management).” VRM, it seems, is envisioned as an Internet-based means to enable people to cease being mere “consumers” of what companies and institutions offer and aggressively market. Instead, VRM aims to turn ordinary people into active co-determinants of the goods and services markets and societies produce and offer. To accomplish this, VRM entails compiling, managing and “broadcasting” the aggregations of data that comprise one’s online identity or publicly visible persona — a continuous transmission, so to speak, of “lifestyle-,” preference-, and needs-based “RFPs” (requests for proposals).

Concepts into Projects

One of the best ways to clarify and test concepts is to translate them into prototypes and pilot projects. The thrust of the Oxford meeting was to create such existential definitions of VRM by momentarily pushing philosophizing aside and seeking to give shape to VRM by coming up with a set of feasible, fund-able, bench-scale projects with “real world” applications and relatively high chances for success.

Diabetics and Phone Subscribers

Two projects emerged from the meeting. One, conceived by marketing specialist Alan Mitchell, would involve setting VRM to work in the service of a discrete demographic group with clearly defined, urgent needs — in this case diabetics, a population that is skyrocketing as diabetes increases at epidemic rates throughout the industrialized, processed-food- and sugar-consuming world. The proposed project would be implemented in association with one or more UK-based diabetes associations and would enable diabetics to maintain and chart data pertinent to the course of their medical treatment and self-care. Bundling of data by voluntary organizations serving diabetics would also feed into medical research and public policy formation. In a broader societal context, the project would also constitute a step towards getting diagnostic and treatment data out of the propretorship of physicians and insurers and into the hands of individuals. The second pilot project, proposed by Iain Henderson of QCI, would serve the needs both of a major company and of its legacy customers by attempting to put individualized and collective “faces” on British Telecom’s fixed-line customers. The latter are still seen by the former state telecommunications monopoly as “subscribers” identified by phone numbers alone, rather than as multifaceted individuals, families, and companies with variegated communications needs, needs, profiles, and budgets.

An Immense Megaphone and a Hefty Cudgel

My own metaphor for Vendor Relations Management is that it would give individuals the cyberspace equivalents of an immense megaphone and a hefty cudgel. The VRM “megaphone” would enable individuals to make their needs and preferences heard over the noise and artificial categories of marketing-driven product development and corporate branding. As a “cudgel,” VRM would cluster individual’s needs and demands so as to give them the clout to awakening providers of goods and services to the real individuals who make up the collective abstractions we call markets. VR-based “megaphones” and “cudgels” could work equally well to ensure responsive, effective government.

Privacy as Currency

As saloon-goers used to say in 19th-century New York: “There is no free lunch.” Similarly, on the 21st-century internet there will be no free VRM. “The currency for VRM is privacy,” according to Oxford meeting participant Graham Sadd. In other words, to the degree that one wants to make markets responsive to one’s needs and desires, one must also selectively release information about one’s self and, unavoidably, compromise one’s privacy proportionally. There is no way out of this; the alternative is to avoid engaging in any and all informational transactions or, as Graham puts it, “… to withdraw from the world and sit on a mountain top.”

I agree with Graham. I am puzzled by the extreme preoccupation with keeping one’s data private that many internet activists seem to have. Such preoccupation can block the development of empowering innovations such as VRM. Indeed, the point VRM is to make one’s “data” resonate throughout the marketplace. I’ve posted about this before (see the closing paragraphs of this entry) and will return to the subject in the future. My own take is that those obsessed with web privacy might lack faith in their own efficacy to control or influence the societies inwhich they live. They may also be afraid of taking calculated risks — risk-taking being an unavoidable ingredient of innovation and change. (For more on the courage to take risks and the social importance of risk-taking listen to Norman Mailer in his June appearance with Günther Grass at the New York Public Library). A frequent underpinning of the privacy argument is the fear of misuse of data by governments. Interestingly, the terror apparatuses of the major totalitarian regimes of the 20th century may have relied less on sophisticated data gathering than on sheer brutality and, even more important, on social anomie, atomization, and the inculcation of a culture of betrayal and denunciation (see, for example, Eric Johnson’s “The Nazi Terror,” London, 2000) just as, in a far more tentative way, the US had during the McCarthy era and the years of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam-War movements. Following the Oxford workshop, I had a chance to chat with Berkman Fellow Mary Rundle whose in-depth work on the internet and government I look forward to reading to inform and balance my future comments on this subject.

Automobiles and Electronic Microscopes, Aggregation and Open Source

On my last day in Oxford I had breakfast with Albert “Rick” Lawrence of the Electron Microscopy Department of the University of California at San Diego. As I was describing VRM, Rick pointed out, using the example of automoble manufacturers, that many manufacturers are actually aggregators of systems and of parts. This led me to posit that VRM may have the potential of enabling end-users to exert more influence over aggregation and, figuratively, to move the point of aggregation much closer to their own needs, specifications, and control. Referring to his own field, Rick added that suppliers are sometimes hampered in implementing customers’ needs because their software lags behind that of their customers, not infrequently because such suppliers rely on Microsoft-based platforms rather than on customizable open source software. Rick’s comments on gaps between suppliers and customers highlights a link between the open source movement and the concept and implementation of VRM.

Posted in Identity, Innovation | 2 Comments »

Brilliant, Fallible Titans: Günther Grass meets Norman Mailer

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 23, 2007

Anyone who is interested in literature, philosophy, personal responsibility, courage, cowardice, risk taking, men and women, sex, parents and children, violence, aging, serendiipity, the 20th century, totalitarianism, mass communications, food, the responsibilities and failures of societies and governments, Hitler, Stalin, two world wars, hatred and mass murders, post-war Paris, Bush and Iraq, humor, and the sweat, rewards, pains, and deceptions of being an artist — or in anything else for that matter — might want to listen to the recorded version of back-to-back interviews with, and a subsequent discussion between, two of the greatest writers and most monumentally outspoken, courageous, moral, and fallible men of the 20th and nascent 21st centuries: Günther Grass and Norman Mailer.

The interviews and discussion, held in June at the New York Public Library, are given poignancy by Grass’s recent fumbling admission about having been less-than-forthcoming over the years about his three months in the Waffen SS and by Mailer’s announcement that the interview may have been his final appearance in public. (Mailer claims to be hampered by failing hearing and eyesight but his erudition, wisdom, and speech are more profound and compelling than ever). The only jarring notes: The interviewer’s rather out-of-place-at-the-New-York-Public-Library Scottish accent and somewhat pale performance as interlocuter.

To listen to the event go to this page on the website of the NYPL and click on the appropriate links to parts one and two. For recordings of other NYPL events, click here.

Posted in History, Identity, Libraries, Literature, Philosophy | 1 Comment »

“Sense of the Meeting:” Quakers, Communications, Organizational Change, and the Blogosphere

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 9, 2007

Over at my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org, I recently posted an entry centered on a photo I took in 1994 of a group of young people standing in front of a Mennonite church in New York’s Harlem. The church had been founded by a group of Korean War era conscientious objectors and, so, the weblog entry jumped to my own response to the specter of military service in Vietnam and my Vietnam-War-Civil-Rights-Movement-era years of part-time study at a small Quaker school in the American south. During those years, I was often at loggerheads with what I saw as the caution and conservatism of local Quakers in the face of the issues and conflicts of the time. It was only years later that I realized that Quakers had also taught me lessons that illuminated my work and personal lives both.

Sense of the Streets

Growing up in Lower Manhattan I learned that discourse was argument, something to be won. One could win by being “smarter” or more humorous than others, by playing facts like trump cards, by talking louder or faster, or by being more insulting or better with one’s fists. Or, if one was in a more peaceful or democratic mood, one could settle debates or decide on courses of action by gangıng-up and enforcing “majority rule.”

Sense of the Meeting

In the company of Quakers I learned a different approach. Discourse was a way to higher truths and to commonalities that could unite people linked together by commitment or even by mere circumstance. Agreement was never beyond the reach of people dedicating to achieving it. In their worship and worldly gatherings, Quakers achieved unanimity of action by perceiving and subscribing to the “sense of the meeting.” Similar to the way Socrates sought truth through dialogue, Quakers felt that receptivity to silence and to open expression at meetings could lead to consensus acceptable to all present and well worth putting aside one’s individual reservations in the face of.

Consensus, Communications, and Organizational Change

Oddly, I first realized the value of the “sense of the meeting” in a commercial context. In the years in which I made my living writing for business and governmental clients, I came to understand that if I interviewed enough people within a fractious organization I could articulate what that organization was about and wanted to achieve in a manner that all parties could assent to and buy into. Later, when I consulted on proposals for major industrial and service-related projects I found I could pre-envision and articulate many projects in manners equally compelling to buyer and seller alike. When I worked in interim management and organizational change, I found it was possible to gain commitment and motivate people by openly articulating where organizations stood and were migrating to, why and how.

Sense of the Blogosphere

In a PBS broadcast some months ago (link unavailable) veteran journalists Bill Moyers and Bob Edwards discussed why the Knight-Ridder chain of newspaper had reported more penetratingly and accurately on the build-up to and consequences of Bush & Co.’s Iraq War. The main reason was that the star reporters at the “papers of record” such as the Washington Post and the New York Times were far too close to the White House to gain perspective or far too vain to avoid being seduced by the center of power. Knight-Ridder reporters, on the other hand, gathered their facts and opinions from middle-ranking bureaucrats and members of the military, people with a focus on realities rather than on “spin” and the selling of an ill-conceived war.

The work that the Knight-Ridder papers have done in recent years – or of the type of pioneering investigative reporting that the Washington Post allowed Woodward and Bernstein to do following the Watergate burglary – is a long-lead-time, costly task requiring weighty expense budgets and full-time research and fact-checking staff. In the early days of webloging, enthusiastic bloggers sometimes exclaimed that weblogs would soon replace newspapers – but most blogs are one-person affairs without the funding or staff or business models to sustain news gathering or investigative reporting. As a result, blogging has emerged more as a vehicle for opinion and comment. At first, the tone was intentionally brash and self-promoting, not unlike the Lower Manhattan model of discourse described above. As time goes on and the numbers of blogs grow into the tens of millions, the blogosphere brings with it the possibility of being a cyberspace-wide virtual equivalent of a Quaker meeting that in its silences and testimonies reveals patterns of commonalities and generates consensuses that can unite people into actions worthy of their beliefs and needs.

Posted in Articulation, Change, Commentary, Communications, Philosophy | 1 Comment »