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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Questions for Riverfront Boosters and Their Critics

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Last week, Populous presented their complete (or nearly complete) vision for transforming the east bank of the riverfront through downtown Wichita.* They were not unambitious in their recommendations. In what they predict to be an at least $1.2 billion project whose construction would stretch over at least ten years, they recommend the demolition of Century II, the construction of a new performing arts center and convention center twice the size of Bob Brown Auditorium, a host of mixed-use properties to bring consumers and residents into the downtown, and the development of a wide green space which the labeled Century Park, which might include a brand new ice rink (apparently no one told them about the publicly owned Wichita Ice Center less than a half-mile away from their proposed park, or maybe they just figured no one would notice). The developer-beloved new pedestrian bridge is there, of course, but sadly, no monorail.

Of course, the truly controversial part of all that was their urging the city to level Century II. It's defenders are gathering petitions to put on the ballot a requirement that any historic building in the city can only demolished after a public vote. Given how dismissive our city government has been in the past regarding the value of historic buildings, there is a value to this proposal that goes far beyond the consequences of the riverfront proposal. At the same time, though, that focus on preserving the past simply deepens the generational divide in our city over Century II. It also has the unfortunate side-effect of doing exactly what I think shouldn't be done--treating all the parts of our riverfront space as a whole, obliging people to feel as though they either have to accept the plan which Populous produced (for a hefty fee) as a whole, or content themselves with not spending any public money on any improvements whatsoever. That's silly. So let me see if I can come up with some questions that might break some of these positions up, at least a little bit.

For the boosters: if the concern is primarily to "activate" the quality of life along the riverfront area, why the massive new convention center? Was that really a priority vocalized in the open houses and public meetings which Populous held? Isn't it reasonable that people with serious worries about Wichita's fiscal sustainability and patterns of growth might be suspicious of a presentation which sells its vision with artistic renditions of bike paths and parks and a "civic green," all while suggesting the construction of a convention center fully twice as expensive as any other part of the whole plan? A convention center which presumes a level of business that there is no evidence Wichita is plausibly in the running for?

For the critics: if defenders of Century II are willing to acknowledge the legitimate concerns that artists like Wayne Bryan of Music Theatre Wichita have with the building, despite their obvious fondness for it (and it seems like the defenders are, at least some of them, given that their online materials explicitly talk about building a new concert hall to "supplement" Century II), then why don't you make that up front, so as to not scare off the thousands of Wichitans that think a world-class performing arts center would be worth paying for? When defenders of Century II contrast supposedly snooty fans of the symphony and theater and opera to the authentic "country music crowd," and suggest moving MTW into the old city library, it only confirms the worst generational and cultural stereotypes of those pushing for change.

For the boosters: if the overall aim is to increase the urban vitality of the downtown area, why the condemning reactions to those who point out--correctly--that Populous's grand plan leaves the essentially suburban form around the hapless Waterwalk development basically unchanged, blocked off on the north by a bloated convention center and on the south by Kellogg? The space south of Waterman begs for re-integration into the urban fabric, but this option is disregarded in favor of the aforementioned dream of new Hyatt hotel-convention center-performing arts venue block. Why the tendency to discourage a properly and more sustainably piecemeal, organic approach to development, as opposed to treating everything as an interlocking whole?

For the critics: if it is allowed that at least some kind of new performing arts center is desirable, then isn't it obligatory upon the defenders of Century II to come up with suggestions for its upkeep and redevelopment following the new building's construction? Some of this, admittedly, is already being done, with plans to place CII on the National Registrar of Historic Places, which could loosen up some money for upgrades via tax credits and grants. But that only scratches the surface. Promises to "re-purpose Century II," however attractive they are to those of us with even a slightly traditionalist bent, are as empty as any other development promise unless there is real content behind them. So what is that content? Bill Warren has offered for years to use his connections to supply the city with expert suggestions about how to "turn the iconic building into a destination building that benefits the city." Well...what are his suggestions? Are they available? Are they being worked on? If they are, fantastic! Thank you, Mr. Warren! So can we get an update? A reveal date, maybe? To the Populous folks' credit, they've at least come up with something--and for better or worse, there is a reason why something usually beats nothing.

For the boosters: if you're going to talk about a grand, billion-dollar project for transforming the riverfront of Wichita, then isn't it reasonable to talk practically about how this city has a, shall we say, rather fraught relationship with city leaders casually speaking of Community Improvement Districts, Tax Increment Financing Districts, and STAR bonds? Populous's slapped together list of "Funding Benchmark Cities" doesn't inspire confidence that the political, economic, and demographic realities of Wichita, and consequently how to strengthen the city overall, are being considered seriously. In Tulsa there is the Gathering Place, an admittedly wonderful venue that has added tremendously to the civic life of that city--and one whose half-billion dollar cost was essentially paid for entirely by George Kaiser, throwing in an additional $100 million endowment for maintenance. (The Kochs' $6 million dollar donation which provided a partial endowment for and bought a new name for the old Levitt Arena at Wichita State University was admittedly generous, but can't quite compare.) In Dallas we have Klyde Warren Park, a delightful green space in the heart of the city--and one that was a 10th of the cost of Populous's recommendation for Wichita, and whose funding was managed by a philanthropic organization, the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation, that was able to make use of city, state, and federal money.

And Oklahoma City? There the comparison is at least conceivable; OKC leaders worked hard to develop a plan and sell to the citizens of the city a sales tax plan--their famous MAPS projects-- that would enable them to pursue significant urban improvements without bonds or debt, and the lessons of their success certain would be relevant to thinking about the $1.2 billion Populous plan. But one should be careful in simply assuming that OKC provides Wichita with a road-map to transforming their city--the excessive corporate friendliness and connections which characterizes OKC, its economy grounded in energy rather than manufacturing, and in particular its size relative to ours, all suggest that Wichita's path towards a revitalized downtown, while it might borrow from other urban paths, shouldn't be led down a particular road just because some architects guarantee us that they've seen other cities do it too.

I don't mean to write this to attack the idea of thinking big about the Riverfront, nor to criticize those attempting to save Century II. (As it happens, I'm actually a supporter of both.) But everyone at all familiar with political debate knows how quickly positions can become entrenched, with compromises and alternatives--say, cutting Century II in half and turning it into an outdoor amphitheater under a refurbished dome? or knocking out all its walls and making it the new home for the continually cash-strapped Kansas Aviation Museum?--being dismissed as half-measures that satisfy neither side. So consider these questions (and surely hundreds of others like them, being asked by other concerned Wichitans) simply an attempt push and prod and elicit responses that go beyond the calcified "love it or leave it!" or "build it or I'm out of here!" positions too often adopted by people who care about this city, both young and old. This year will very likely be a time of big decisions for the downtown--but big decisions can still be made, carefully, organically, respectfully, a little bit at a time. That's the way the best decisions are always made, after all.

*I wasn’t able to attend the big reveal, and hence I am indebted to the comments of, and subsequent exchanges with, Alex Pemberton, Chase Billingham, Leon Moeder, Nolan Nez, Christopher Parisho and Chris Pumpelly, for helping to clarify many of the thoughts contained in this piece.

Monday, January 20, 2020

A Plea to Kansas Senator Jerry Moran

This morning, I was asked by a small, hastily organized group of Wichita citizens to speak on behalf of "A Kansas Call for a Full and Fair Impeachment Trial." There was almost more media there than people--Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a slow news day, I guess--but many good questions were asked, and hopefully my comments will, in some tiny way, do some good. For whomever is interested, here they are. [Update, 1/27/2020: the Wichita Eagle printed a much shorter and to-the-point version of my comments today here.]


I'm going to take my inspiration from the title of this event--the organizers which to issue a "Kansas Call" to our senators. The historian and political contrarian within might be tempted to use that as an excuse to invoke Kansas's populist and radical past, and engage in some deep criticism of the whole impeachment process. That would be fun, at least for me. I could talk about how the authors of the U.S. Constitution probably intended impeachment to be, if not routine, than at least a regular part of the way Congress emphasized legislative supremacy over the executive branch, as opposed to politically fraught enormity it has, popularly at least, come to be seen as. Or I could talk about how the authors of the Constitution apparently assumed a classical republican foundation in their thinking about the responsibilities of elected representatives in investigating and pursuing impeachment, and since that foundation soon disappeared, the result is a process that reads today like a strange mish-mash of the partisan and the principled. And that just scratches the surface!

But no, that kind of deep critique wouldn't fly as a true "Kansas call," at least not in 2020. So instead, I'm going to take the Constitution and what it says about impeachment as conservatively and as straightforwardly as I can. Senator Moran has shown himself to be someone whose conservatism isn't solely a reflection of his membership in the Republican party; though mostly a loyal soldier, he has defended small-town rural interests in opposition to his party's priorities, and has refused to sign up in support of the president and his party leadership in regards the matter of executive war powers. So on that basis, I'm going to imagine that he might be a receptive audience to what I have to say.

Senator Moran, as you know, the Constitution says that presidents may be impeached for treason, bribery, or "high crimes and misdemeanors." The latter is not reducible to a clear question of whether or not a law has been broken, though that is one of the main talking points of President Trump's planned defense in the impeachment trial to begin tomorrow. Unfortunately, it's admittedly something other than an obvious determination.

When President Johnson was impeached, the charge taken to the Senate for trial was that his firing of his secretary of defense without informing Congress was a violation of the Tenure of Office Act, the law of the land at the time (a bad law later repealed and widely viewed as unconstitutional anyway, but still an illegal act in 1868). When President Clinton was impeached, the charge taken to the Senate for trial was his lie under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky given during a deposition conducted in connection with another investigation; lying under oath in a legal proceeding being, of course, against the law. In President Trump's case, though, the House impeachment investigation brought forth charges of "abuse of power" (pertaining to his subtle pressuring of the Ukrainian government to begin an investigation into his political rival's son) and "obstruction of Congress" (pertaining to the way he denounced and discouraged compliance with legal subpoenas and other investigative actions taken by the House). These issues are murkier than those in the previous two impeachment trials. Though the Government Accounting Office says otherwise, Trump continues to insist that there was nothing wrong with his phone call to Ukranian president Zelensky, and that in any case, pushing foreign leaders around isn't--or so the president's lawyers say--criminal "abuse." And as for obstructing Congress, well, it won't be hard for those sympathetic to Trump to acknowledge he's a rude loudmouth, a narcissistic blowhard, and then point out that, given his history of hapless fulminating to the crowd, a President of the United States mocking people and slapping them around on Twitter can't be considered the same kind of obstruction as, say, shredding documents. They may have a point.

But of course, that's the rub: someone has to decide if they have a point or not. And that someone includes you, Senator Moran. I urge you to think about what making that judgment call involves.

However politically convoluted or historically dated or theoretically incoherent the process may seem to be, the constitutional facts remain: in the impeachment process, the House, whatever partisan agendas among its membership may or may not exist, investigates and then votes on articles of impeachment--and then you, along with all the other members of the Senate, swore an oath to sit, listen, and act like jurors in a full-on trial. Or in other words, to "do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws." Note that--the Constitution and laws. Which is a recognition that they are not always the same.

This isn't the time or place for a long survey of constitutional theory, so simply accept this: a constitution functions at least as much through the norms, customs, and performative expectations which it shapes as it does through the specific rules that it lays down. The chaos that has attended President Trump's administration, whether or not you think it to have been abetted by his political opponents from the very moment of his election, is at least partly a consequence of the fact that in the way he approaches his executive responsibilities, his relationships with other branches of the government, his treaty obligations to other countries, as so much more, reflects a total disregard for, and often outright ignorance of, all those norms, customs, and expectations. Maybe you're a "Flight 93" conservative, Senator, convinced that the Deep State is out to destroy President Trump and taking delight when he essentially blows raspberries at every tradition that pertains to his office. I doubt that's the case--but even if it is, the role you are in today demands that you conserve a responsible relationship to those norms.

That, of course, doesn't mean you have to agree with the House prosecutors as they make their case for impeaching the president for abusing his power and obstructing Congress. But to call for hearing their case fully, and for considering what witnesses (both the prosecution's and the defense's!) have to say about that case--that would be an honorable way to acknowledge that responsibility. And it would enable you to be able to authentically exercise the judgment which you have before

Last year, when President Trump claimed that the emergency at the southern border was all the pretext he needed to appropriate money for building his wall which Congress had not, in fact, constitutionally allocated for that use, Congress, rightly, protested. The House voted against that action (Representative Ron Estes, my congressman and your colleague, voted with the president); as did the Senate--and you voted with the majority, against Trump's (and your own party leadership's) wishes. At that time, you wrote at length about your fear of an "all-powerful executive," the importance of showing some "understanding of history" in making decisions, and most of all about how "the ends don't justify the means." Tomorrow you will begin sitting as a juror in President Trump's impeachment trial, and prominent members of your own party have made it known--despite criticism from the right and the left--that they have already decided what the end should be: namely, Trump's acquittal. That's not a show of judgment, that's not using--as you said you did a year ago--your "intellect" and your "gut." That's just assuming that this whole process is a show, and there's not reason to pretend that it matters. Taking impeachment seriously, by contrast, whatever the flaws and confusions of this example of it, involves being willing to perform a role, and follow through with it to where the evidence--witnesses included!--you feel it leads.

Look, we're all smart people here: we all know, and most of all we know that you know, President Trump will not be impeached. (Similarly, you surely knew that Trump would veto Congress's blockage of his claimed emergency powers last year, which he did.) We're not asking you to make some kind of grand, pointless stand. But we are asking, as your Kansas constituents, that you do what I suspect your own conservative judgment surely calls for you to do: to push back against Senator McConnell's cynical approach, and demand that the trial, with all its customs and trappings, with its witnesses and evidence and two cases ritually presented, be allowed to go forward as the Constitution specifies.  Let the House impeachment managers call witnesses. Let Trump's defense team do likewise. Let the whole process be performed as it ought to be, however convoluted that path that led to this point may be.

Yes, the articles of impeachment sent to you by the House demand, in the end, a judgment call, an assessment of murky issues of presidential expectations and responsibilities, rather than a cut-and-dried application of the law. All the more reason to add your vote to those who will push against the hurried, dismissive (dare I say "Trumpish") approach to this constitutional matter, those who seek to it as fair and impartial as possible. The result may be foregone--but the process isn't. And is anything positive is to come out of the whole impeachment process, it may be a reminder that, so long as we choose to accept the basics of our constitutional order, then constitutional procedure still matters. That's a reasonable judgment, don't you think?

Thursday, January 02, 2020

My Year with the Walrus

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Over the twelve months of 2019, I listened to every single Paul McCartney album, thus becoming a Macca completist. Not an expert; I wouldn't claim that, as I don't have that knowledge base, nor that skill. I'm not a musician--I played the violin all through middle school and high school more than 30 years ago, and there were some piano and voice lessons in there as well, but none of it stuck, and I've never studied music beyond that. So claiming any kind of genuinely expert assessment of what Sir Paul has accomplished in his more than 60 years of music-making would be pretentious in the extreme.

That said, I'm not a slouch when it comes to pop music. There was a 15-year or so stretch of my young life where what I heard coming out of the radio was the most important thing around. That's not the case as an almost-51-year-old today--but our home remains one that is filled with music. This is partly thanks to my wife (a skilled pianist), but partly also to the fact that we both are just constantly listening to (and all our children were raised while surrounded by, and thus have gotten used to always hearing) songs. Broadway tunes, cartoon theme songs, Christian hymns, silly made-up ditties, movie soundtracks, Zumba workouts, and more; look at our radio settings, our CD collections, and our phones--you can find it all. But most of all there is lots and lots of pop music, of almost every variety. So my listening to everything ever recorded by the radio-friendliest of all pop musicians was perhaps inevitable.

It came out of deal between an old college friend of mine and I, and involved some basic parameters: I would listen to, and review, every official post-Beatles album of new material that McCartney has ever released, both with Wings and as a solo artist. As the year went by some of the parameters expanded, or changed. I ended up reading no less that four biographies of the man, the most recent (and not, perhaps, the best, but certainly the most complete) being Paul McCartney: The Life, by Philip Norman. Because I'm a story-telling person--as just about every human being is on one level or another--this mean that with every album, with every evolution in McCartney's approach to recording, both in terms of musical partners and subject matter, to say nothing of with every twist in his personal life, I found myself telling myself a new story to help me make sense of this impossibly talented, surprisingly intellectual, often demanding, yet also frequently cavalier and lazy artist--and then, because Macca just keeps on going, I would have to tell myself another one, and then yet another one again, as I ticked off the albums, month after month after month. Macca has, over the years, come out with more "comeback albums" following a fallow period than most musicians and bands release in their entire careers. You just can't pin down someone so protean, and so productive--or at least I couldn't. Maybe if was a professional musician, or maybe if I lived in Los Angeles or London, things would be different. But I'm here in Wichita, and so what I do is give everything that comes out a listen--that, and enthusiastically cheer when the pop music gods happen to come our way.

One thing I will say: while Paul absolutely has his dark and demanding side, his over-all reputation as a fundamentally decent human being seems well earned--and, of course, well reflected in his music. The evidence is everywhere, if you care to look for it, that Paul simply hates the fact that he has lived for a half-century with the image of himself as a boring work-horse, a desperate crowd-pleaser, haunting the public consciousness. And yet, he's obviously learned to live with, even embrace, that discontent, because there's so much truth in it. He loves making music, especially the kind of music that people can sing along to. He loves surprising people too, and listening beyond the hits, or beyond the albums where radio stations stopped paying him much attention to him, reveals a lot of moody, complex, and insightful tunes. But any such work is always more than balanced out by songs of the first type. In the end--and honestly, who knows when that will ever come for this now nearly 80-year-old man?--all Paul McCartney has ever wanted was to be on a stage, holding his guitar, leading his band in song. He's got what he wanted, and by and large, the world is better for it.

Okay, so fine--the real question anyone who has read this far will has is simply: what's worth listening to? Well, here's my list of all of McCartney's and Wings's officially released albums of new material. This excludes the four recordings of classical pieces he composed (yes, I listened to them all; the chamber and symphonic pieces were better than his oratorios), his two albums of classic rock and roll covers (both pretty excellent), his album of jazz standards (I was unimpressed), and three of his four albums of experimental, electronic, and ambient music, with different various collaborators (a very mixed bag, but see below). If you want all my nitty-gritty details and opinions, just click here and start scrolling. But for now, my ranking:

Wings, Band on the Run, 1973--A

McCartney, Tug of War, 1982--A-

McCartney, Egypt Station, 2018--B+
McCartney, Flowers in the Dirt, 1989--B+

The Fireman (McCartney and Youth), Electric Arguments, 2008--B
McCartney, Memory Almost Full, 2007--B
McCartney, Off the Ground, 1993--B
Wings, Venus and Mars, 1975--B
Wings, Wings at the Speed of Sound, 1976--B

McCartney, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005--B-
McCartney, Flaming Pie, 1997--B-
McCartney, New, 2013--B-
McCartney, Ram, 1971--B-
Wings, Red Rose Speedway, 1973--B-

McCartney, Pipes of Peace, 1983--C+

McCartney, McCartney, 1970--C
Wings, Wild Life, 1971--C

Wings, Back to the Egg, 1979--C-
McCartney, Driving Rain, 2001--C-
McCartney, Give My Regards to Broad Street, 1984--C-
Wings, London Town, 1978--C-

McCartney, Press to Play, 1986--D+

McCartney, McCartney II, 1980--D

Obviously, I like the man's work; I rank more than a 1/3 of everything he has put out (leaving aside the aforementioned non-pop recordings) at a B or higher, and I don't think he's ever released an outright failure--there is always, always, on every McCartney recording, some tune or melody or collection of chords that genuinely charms. And I don't mean this to be some sliding scale. While there are plenty of songs from this nearly half-century of albums that I can barely remember today, weeks or months after giving them a listen, some of the radio hits of McCartney's solo and Wings years--I'm thinking of "Maybe I'm Amazed, " "Jet," "Junior's Farm," "Listen to What the Man Said," "With a Little Luck," "Goodnight Tonight," "Take It Away," and "No More Lonely Nights"--are, I think, equal to anything he did as a member of the Beatles. Plus, in the midst of all that forgettable stuff I listened to, I found more than two dozen songs that, in a better world, would have been released as singles, and would have blown us away: "Smile Away" and "Too Many People" from Ram; "Get on the Right Thing" from Red Rose Speedway; "Let Me Roll It" and "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" from Band on the Run; "Call Me Back Again" and "Magneto and Titanium Man" from Venus and Mars; "Beware My Love"from Speed of Sound "Wanderlust" and "What's That You're Doing?" from Tug of War; "Hey Hey" from Pipes of Peace; "Figure of Eight" and "We Got Married" from Flowers in the Dirt; "Biker Like an Icon" and "Peace in the Neighborhood" from Off the Ground; "Calico Skies" from Flaming Pie; "English Tea" and "Riding to Vanity Fair" from Chaos and Creation; "House of Wax" and "The End of the End" from Memory Almost Full; "Sing the Changes" and "Sun is Shining" from Electric Arguments; "I Can Bet" from New; "Happy With You" and "Dominoes" from Egypt Station.

So yeah, I've made a lot of discoveries, and been reminded of a lot of fine songs I'd forgotten. The sort of musical project everyone ought to commit themselves do? Obviously not. But, for me, for this year...was it worth it? Obviously yes.