The Perils of Bickering

I subscribe to Axios.com which is serving as my morning news fix because my newspaper carrier can’t seem to deliver before I leave for work these days. (Sigh)
Axios is a compilation of well written news “bites” and analysis that makes you feel somewhat “in the know.”

Last week, there was an item that caught my eye and made me think. And worry.
The writer opined that the era of American economic and technological dominance was coming to an end and that China was going to surpass the USA within a decade.

Whoa!
Why?

Because China has a vision to dominate trade and technology and to become the world’s indispensable nation.
But beyond having a vision, China is executing by making investments in infrastructure, artificial intelligence and robotics with a stated goal of dominance.

Of course, China is a one party dictatorship with a President who just made himself leader for life. What Xi says goes. Period.
It doesn’t exactly work that way in the United States. Good thing too.

But it does make one wonder how we stave off competition from a nation as large, as capable and as determined as China.
It also makes you wonder when the last time we had a national vision that went beyond the next election.

It wasn’t always this way.

The Space Race, World War II and the war on terror are just a few examples of near universal national resolve.
It seems like everything else has been a struggle: civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, health care, immigration, gun safety etc., have been battles.

There is nothing wrong with struggling for what you believe in. In fact, it probably makes you more appreciative when you achieve your goal. Also, Democracy is inherently messy and loud. But if it is to remain viable and competitive it needs to lead to something. The process (struggle) should be Democratic, but there needs to be outcomes too–or you risk losing your edge as a nation. Today, we have too many problems left unsolved by national “leaders” focused solely on beating their enemies, getting re-elected, rewarding their friends and erasing the other team’s work. Partisanship reigns over patriotism. It’s not just sad, it’s tragic and fatal if not addressed.

This blog is a champion of local solutions (localism) but there are some things that only a competent and effective federal government can accomplish: a national defense for instance, immigration policy, rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure.

But…
These days we bicker. These days we dawdle.
All the while, the competition plans and executes.

Still, on this corner of the web, we focus on cities and hyper local topics and so here’s where there are parallels.
The cities that have visions; the cities that execute win.
The cities that bicker and dawdle miss out.
It’s that simple.
Really. It is that simple.
So make decisions.
Take risks.
Be civic entrepreneurs.
Invest.
Re-invest.
Reach out and involve the whole community.
Listen.
Learn.
Question.
Experiment.
Make the good stuff easy.
Turn down the bad stuff.
But don’t bicker.
Don’t dawdle.
We live in a competitive landscape and we can’t afford our communities to major in the minor.
Progress and prosperity flows to cities which create a culture that celebrate those who aspire.
Progress and prosperity will miss places that bicker and dawdle.

As Bruce Springsteen sings about Atlantic City: “Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”

 

Remembering The Oldies, Celebrating The New

A classic…

Last week, I found an old menu on Facebook from Tom’s Place, an iconic culinary mecca in Boca Raton.

And I mean mecca, because people made pilgrimages to Tom’s Place to worship at the altar of bbq ribs.

The Boca Historical Society shared the post and it got a big reaction on their page.
Aside from the really low prices ($1.50 chicken sandwiches!) it struck a chord of nostalgia in those of us lucky to have experienced Tom’s amazing food.

I remember taking my dad to Tom’s many years ago. It was at Tom’s that we witnessed someone going up to the take out window  and ordering brisket which was met with a quizzical look. We talked about that experience for years.
But I digress.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. We tend to remember the good stuff and disregard the rest. So we remember Tom’s  but tend to forget that we weren’t exactly awash in restaurants back in the 80s. Of course, there were some great places—the Arcade Tap Room, Boston’s on the Beach, Scarlett O’Haras, Ken and Hazel’s, Damiano’s, Pineapple Grille, Splendid Blendeds, LaVielle Maison, Arturo’s, Caffe Luna Rosa and there is more.
But…
As good as the old giants were and are (here’s looking at you CLR), it seems like we are living in a golden age of restaurants.
Everywhere you look, even in nondescript locations, there exists some great restaurants.

Innovative menus, knowledgeable servers, gifted chefs, interesting interior designs, exciting craft cocktails and beers, world class wine lists, unique concepts. We are living in a special era. And the arms race seems to be just beginning.

Food halls, green markets, secret suppers, farm to table concepts, craft breweries, food tours, food trucks it’s extraordinary. Even convenience stores are turning into foodie havens, with artisanal sandwiches, kale salads and specialty breads.

We are also living in a great age of creativity.
To combat e-commerce and to stand out in the crowd, retailers, theater owners, hoteliers and even office developers are stepping up their games. (Boutique hotels, co-working, pop-up concepts etc).
For retail it’s all about the experience.
Movie theaters have added food, plush seating, film clubs and cocktails—a far cry from sticky floors, popcorn loaded with transfats and jujubes (remember those odd fruit chews?). While the changes are rapid and ongoing (please save the raisinet) the outcomes are pretty cool. Some local examples are iPic and the Living Room Theater at FAU. Both have raised the bar on the movie going experience and both seem to be doing well in the era of streaming and binge watching Netflix.
Sometimes the changes and the speed of change seems overwhelming. So yes, I miss the good old days.
But isn’t today and tomorrow exciting?

 

Bookends

He’s been a  brother to me.
Ever since we became friends at the age of 8 or 9.
I’m not sure how old we were,  because it has been so long; through childhood, junior high school, bar mitzvahs, high school, first cars, college, post-college, first jobs, weddings (mine), children, grandchildren (his) we’ve been more than friends. We’ve been family.

The brother I never had moved back to South Florida this week almost 31 years to the day since he lured me here from the gray skies of upstate NY.
Yes you can blame my friend Scott for my presence here. If we get along… thank him when you see him on the Ave. If we don’t… well let me guarantee you that his intentions were good.

Florida in 1987 was a vastly different place. My first impressions were almost overwhelming: I loved the colors, which contrasted with the gray skies I had left behind. I was thrilled to see the palm trees and the sun. It felt like summer camp. We played tennis, hit the pool after work, enjoyed the bagel places, frequented the bars in Fort Lauderdale (who remembers Cadillac Jack’s?) and generally had a great time. I still remember the first time I saw the Boca-Delray area. I remember driving over the Linton Boulevard Bridge and marveling at the view and after a job interview at a local newspaper I hit the Town Center Mall which was the nicest mall I had ever seen. Yes, I thought to myself, I could live here.

Ward Melville Prom 1982..with another old friend, Greg.

I’ve written before that I’ve been blessed to have made and kept many friends from my childhood in Stony Brook, N.Y., a magical little place located on the north shore of Long Island.
I treasure these friendships because of our shared history and the comforting sense that we will be in each other’s lives for the duration.
I like the sensation of permanence in a fast changing world. But I’m keenly —and at times painfully aware —that there is no such thing as permanence.
Still, there’s  no chance of these friendship’s ending, but of course we know that nobody and no thing lasts forever. And that gives me a sense of urgency  to enjoy life, savor important relationships and pursue some bucket list items.
One of those items is to spend more quality time with my best friends. So I’m overjoyed that Scott is coming back to Florida. For one thing, it means we can fulfill a promise we made way back when.
Let me explain.

When we were little guys we listened to great music together. One of the songs, an oldie even when we were 12, was a Simon & Garfunkel hit called “Bookends.”
The song is about old friends who sit on a park bench like bookends—surprised and a little taken aback by being 70.

Scott and I have long joked about living that song. Spending time watching life go by and reminiscing on a park bench.

We even took a picture almost four years ago when we turned 50 in Central Park.  We gathered —with a few old friends –to celebrate a half century on Earth and forty plus years as pals.
I used to wonder whether we’d be able to actually live that song’s premise.

Bookends: Central Park 2014

Scott has been living in Northern Virginia for the past 16 years and  me in Delray Beach for 30 years or so. Our park benches were far away.
But not anymore.
Nope, not anymore.

That’s a really good thing.
So savor your friendships. As Paul Simon once wrote about old friends: “our memories brush the same years.”
Indeed they do. And the memories are special. We knew each other’s parents and grandparents. We know each other’s sisters. We dated best friends (twice). We laughed. We did some dumb and dangerous things (not mutually exclusive) and we lived to tell the tales.
I’m looking forward to new adventures and making more memories.
It’s a new chapter in a long story.
Here’s to new memories and old friends.

The Restless Wave

“Maybe I’ll be gone before you read this. … I’m getting prepared. I have some things I’d like to take care of first, some work that needs finishing, and some people I need to see … I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times. … The bell tolls for me. I knew it would … I hope those who mourn my passing, and those who don’t, will celebrate as I celebrate ,a happy life lived in imperfect service to a country made of ideals, whose continued success is the hope of the world. And I wish all of you great adventures, good company, and lives as lucky as mine.” -John McCain in his new book “The Restless Wave.”

 
John McCain is quite a man. 
If we can put partisanship aside– for just a moment– and focus on our common humanity, our love of country and basic empathy we might be able to agree that Senator McCain is an extraordinary man who has lived an “imperfect” but remarkable life. 
Personally, I don’t share much of his politics, but I admire much about him. 
I admire his patriotism. I admire his sincerity and I admire his willingness to be a maverick and speak his truth to power. Even if  it doesn’t mirror party orthodoxy—especially when it doesn’t meet party orthodoxy. 
People respond to Senator McCain not just because he’s willing to “stick it to the man” –as one of my Leadership Florida classmates used to say– it’s because he can be counted on to speak his mind regardless of circumstance or consequence. 
John McCain typically does not go along to get along—and on the rare occasion that he did—it cost him. I’m referring to his choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate in 2008 when he wanted to choose his friend Joe Lieberman. 
His illness brings to mind my late mother’s struggle with cancer. She had lung cancer that spread to the brain and so I empathize greatly with Senator McCain’s struggle. 
Cancer is a horrendous disease. And when it enters your brain it’s positively horrifying. 
But like my mother, John McCain is facing his fate bravely, with strength and dignity. He’s become a model of grace to so many in an era where grace is in short supply but desperately needed.
Regardless of political persuasion, I think most of us could agree that our cities, counties, school boards, state governments and federal government would be better off if they were populated by elected officials who spoke their minds, were willing to buck convention and had something more in mind than their next election. 
When I was elected to the Delray Beach City Commission in 2000, I found a quote in one of the city related magazines we used to get. 
Being an elected official was “a job to do, not a job to have” it read.
The quote grabbed me and so I clipped it out of the magazine and put it in my wallet where I managed to see it everyday. 
I strived to live up to the ideal—even if at times I fell short. After all, as Senator McCain reminds us, we are all imperfect. 
Still, when newly elected officials ask for advice I repeat the quote. And I often follow with something former Mayor Tom Lynch used to say: “vote your conscience. Be willing to lose an election if it means doing the right thing.” 
Too many officials at all levels of government don’t live up to this fundamental ideal. Too many go along to get along, refuse to speak their mind, stay silent when they need to lead and then wonder why nobody respects them. Too many spend their precious time in office rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Then one day, it’s over and we are all left to wonder: what did they do to help the people they were elected to serve? In too many cases, the answer is not much. When they fail, we the people bear the brunt.
I may not agree with Senator McCain on many issues. But I sure do respect him. So do his colleagues from what I’ve been told by people who would know. 
We could use more politicians who stand for something (even if we don’t agree with that something), speak their minds, vote their conscience and understand that public service is a job to do, not a job to have. 

The New Localism

I conducted an experiment last week.

I asked 10 random friends/colleagues/acquaintances from all political stripes one question: What’s the first word you think of when you hear the words Washington D.C.

The answers I received were as follows: three said “swamp”, four said “dysfunctional”, two said “partisan” and one replied “nausea.”

Chances are you might have answered the same way. And it’s not because the nation’s capital isn’t a cool city full of great museums and monuments.

Sadly, this is not exactly a golden age for “can do” federal government.

So what’s a caring citizen supposed to do in times like these?

The answer: go local.

If you want to solve problems think local, work local, vote local and get involved in your city, county, or region.

That’s the advice given in a great new book “The New Localism” written by urban experts Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak.

I breezed through the book soaking up the stories of successful efforts in cities as varied as Pittsburgh, Copenhagen and Indianapolis. It’s heartening to read success stories in our time of national dysfunction and gridlock.

“The New Localism is a philosophy of problem-solving for the 21st century,” says Katz who works for the Brookings Institution. “Cities are now dealing with some of the hardest challenges facing our society: social mobility, competitiveness, climate change, and more. The 20th century was very much about hierarchical systems; specialized, compartmentalized, highly bureaucratic. The 21st century is going to be networked, distributed, and led by cities.”

Says Nowak: “It (New Localism) calls into question how we think about leadership. It must be much more horizontal than vertical. These are things that we have observed on the ground, so this isn’t only aspirational, although we’re certainly in a nascent stage.”

I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Nowak in that “new localism “may be a nascent term, but local problem- solving has been around for a long, long time.

Look at any successful city—Austin, Boulder, Boston, NY, Chicago and yes Delray and Boca—and rest assured any success you see did not happen by accident.

It took planning, vision, implementation, entrepreneurial thinking, private sector engagement and public and private sector leadership to create whatever level of success you experience.

But while there is no newness to the efficacy of home rule, it is good to see a new term applied to it: New Localism has a ring to it. I hope it takes off.

Why?
Because it needs to.

Because the swamp just isn’t going to be drained any time soon.

Walkability: The Killer App

The Beatles understood walkability and walked eight days a week.

There was a story in the Wall Street Journal last week that went viral.
The piece talked about how “walkability” has become the hot new rage in car-centric LA.

The reporter wrote about how walkable neighborhoods and developments are fetching higher prices and have become a top preference of baby boomers, millennials and just about anyone who can fork over a fortune on housing close to shops, dining and cultural amenities.
In other words, what we have in downtown Delray Beach.

Our walkability is not only desirable and unique in sprawling suburban South Florida it has created value for neighborhoods within striking (or golf cart) distance of the downtown.
And yet, while we as people value walkability for the quality it brings to our communities, we sure put up a fuss when it comes to enacting policies to enable it.

As a result, there is a shortage of such neighborhoods– not only in LA, but in Florida and all points in between. Because of a limited supply of walkable neighborhoods, everything from housing to commercial rents have skyrocketed in urbanized spaces.  It’s the simple law of supply and demand: when there is more demand than supply prices spike. Hence $100 rents on Atlantic Avenue and really high prices on downtown condos in Delray, Boca and yes LA.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Why can’t we enact policies to encourage more walkable and bike friendly neighborhoods?
After all, walkability is sustainable both environmentally and economically.
Well…in order to create walkable neighborhoods you can’t have policies that preference the car. You need policies that encourage the pedestrian.
Usually that means compact and dense development, the opposite of sprawl.
Hence, the angst.
Sadly,  has become a dirty word and that’s a shame. Because density done well, density deployed strategically creates magical places. It’s all about urban design and placemaking.

But many communities get caught up in a numbers game instead of a form or design based discussion. As a result, they fight density and perhaps unwittingly support policies that preference the auto over the person. They also– I believe unwittingly–support expensive and ultimately unsustainable development. The Strong Towns movement is devoted to lifting the veil on this issue and teaching communities that by promoting sprawl they are hastening their financial ruin. They offer case study after case study using basis math to prove their thesis. To learn more, visit https://www.strongtowns.org/ but fair warning, you can get lost in their website, it’s that good.

Another stumbling block is parking. So much development is driven by parking.
Parking requirements drive design and uses and because structured parking is expensive, we often end up with a sea of asphalt, hardly conducive to placemaking and walkability.
The developers I know struggle mightily with this, especially since we keep reading about automated vehicles and about how the advent of self driving cars will free of us of the tyranny of the parking lot/expensive deck.
Alas, we are not there yet. And the last thing you want to be is “under parked” which makes it hard for projects to succeed.
It’s just not easy.
And yet…
We should try.

Try to learn lessons from Donald Shoup widely regarded as one of the best minds in parking around. He came to Delray a few years back and reminded us that there is no such thing as free parking. Somebody’s paying for it. If you pay taxes, guess what? It’s you.

We should also try to embrace the idea that design and form mean more than numbers and that prescriptive codes won’t allow for creativity and will hinder investment not encourage it. But form based codes enable great design if we push developers, planners and architects. And if we educate elected officials.
Walkability and placemaking are possible. But only if we aspire, incentivize (through zoning, not cash) and insist on it.

Remembering someone special

There has been a lot of loss lately. It least it seems that way to me anyway.

Last weekend, we attended a memorial service honoring the life of Susan Shaw who spent 7 years working for the Delray CRA.

Susan was the first person you saw if you went to the CRA’s offices on Swinton Avenue and the cheerful voice you heard if you called the agency.

She retired only a few weeks ago, took a bucket list trip to New Zealand, posted wonderful photos on Facebook, came home, took ill and sadly passed away.

The news devastated her family, friends and colleagues who considered her family.

Susan was a vibrant, friendly, warm soul with a great spirit. She volunteered at the Caring Kitchen and was devoted to animal rescue. She was also active at Unity Church.

Her fellow prayer chaplains and friends gave her a wonderful send off at her memorial. Unity is a special place. The sanctuary is spectacular and the warm feeling you get when you enter the church defies description. It was an apt place to celebrate Susan Shaw.

CRA Director Jeff Costello gave one of many touching talks about Susan. And it reminded me that it takes so many parts to make a village work.

Susan Shaw wasn’t a department head, her photo won’t hang on the walls at City Hall, but she was a vital part of a team. A team dedicated to building community.

She will be missed by all who knew her.

 

The Sweep of History Summons Our Better Angels

Historian Jon Meacham

The historian Jon Meacham has a new book out entitled the “Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels”.

Fresh off his highly regarded eulogy at Barbara Bush’s funeral, Meacham has released a book that counsels us to take a deep breath—we will get through these turbulent times. We’ve been there before—many times—and we will emerge intact, a stronger and better nation.

It’s a comforting and timely message.

We had the privilege of seeing Meacham two years ago at the annual meeting of Leadership Florida where he charmed us with his humor, facility with history and anecdotes about American presidents. If you have a chance to see him, don’t miss the opportunity.

Meacham’s new book presents a hopeful view and offers examples of how America has overcome divisiveness and hatred in the past.

He says today’s America is freer and more accepting than it has ever been, while acknowledging shortcomings and ongoing struggles over race, gender, equality and political philosophy.

“A tragic element of history,” he writes, “is that every advance must contend with the forces of reaction.”

Indeed.

That’s a sobering thought and a reminder that we must be vigilant and guard the progress that’s been made.

Recalling Lincoln, Meacham implores us to summon our “better angels” believing that the soul of America is kind and caring, not mean and callous. His advice: enter the arena, resist tribalism, respect facts, deploy reason, find balance and be mindful of history.

So while Meacham’s book is aimed at our nation, his advice can also be deployed at the local level, where I believe the action really happens.

When communities are divided, good people often avoid the arena because it feels unsafe. After all, who wants to swim in a toxic pool?

As a result, when communities are at odds, we often see tribes or factions arise. Of course, each faction has their own set of “facts” which often doesn’t allow for reason or compromise to take hold.

In those instances, it is hard to find balance and often there is an attempt to redraw history and bend the narrative to fit a particular viewpoint.

At YourDelrayBoca.com we observe two very different communities, with different styles and sensibilities.

But there are commonalities as well.

Both cities have divisions, political and social. Both are wrestling with change and what they aspire to be. Both are attractive to people with ideas for the future, which is a good thing. You should worry when nobody has ideas or aspirations.

But like a nation, a community’s health and sustainability improves when there is a sense of common purpose; a unity of vision and identity.

These are the times when we need our better angels to win out over our other more aggressive instincts.

The civic square (arena) should be made safer for productive debate and conversation, tribes should strive to find common ground and agree that facts matter.

Is that possible?

Yes, it is.

But it takes a concerted effort. Someone—a leader—has to say that the current state is unacceptable and remind us that we can do better.

As Lincoln reminds us…“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

 

 

A Legacy of Service: Bump Mitchell

Matthew “Bump” Mitchell

He was a sharecropper’s son who devoted his life to public service.

He was one of a kind and he should not be forgotten.

Sgt. Matthew “Bump” Mitchell passed away last week.

If you’ve been around Delray for any length of time, you’ll know who he is. But life is fast paced these days and if you’re new to town there’s a chance you might not know who Sgt. Mitchell was and that’s just not right.

Because this was a man who touched thousands of lives. This was a role model for generations of local children and one the pillars of Delray Beach. He should not be forgotten. And he won’t be.

Many knew him as a police officer. Others as a minister. Still others as a coach and mentor.

Bump—as he was known—was all that and more.

Although he was born in Quitman, Georgia and considered himself a Georgia Peach, he spent all but three years of his life in Delray Beach molding young people, mentoring police officers, coaching athletes and looking after his flock as a charismatic minister.

To me, Sgt. Mitchell was larger than life.

By the time I met him 1987, he was already a local legend with the city having declared a “Bump Mitchell Day” in 1986.

I rode with him as a young reporter and at first I think he barely tolerated my presence, but Bump was just feeling me out, taking my measure as they say. When he saw that I was committed to his adopted town, he took a liking to me and I found him to be an enormous resource for me when I was elected to the City Commission in 2000. He was there for all the tough times, with words of advice and encouragement—always a calming, strong influence during some turbulent days.

Bump grew up west of town, with cattle and farm animals. He talked to me about unpaved roads and reminded those of us on the commission—in a gentle way—that there was no place for unpaved roads in the city proper. That was Bump’s way of telling us to pave roads in the southwest section of Delray. And we did. We expedited those projects.

While he had a long and distinguished career with the Delray Beach Police Department, working as a detective, a sergeant and as a mentor to young people he was equally well-known as a tough but fair coach for the legendary Delray Rocks football program.

He commanded respect on and off the field and guided generations of young men on the pitfalls of life if they made poor choices.

Later, I saw him a few times preach from the pulpit of Christ Missionary Baptist Church where he delivered powerful sermons and looked after his congregation with love and affection. He was also a chaplain for the Police Department where he dealt with some very serious issues—especially in the 80s and 90s, when crime was rampant in Delray and the department struggled to gain the confidence of the community.

Ultimately, the department forged good relations with residents and business owners and it made a huge difference.

There is no Delray Beach– at least as we know it–without our Police Department and it was officers like Matthew “Bump” Mitchell who made all the difference by going consistently above and beyond.

From mentoring children and intervening in tough situations to walking neighborhoods with residents and old fashioned police work , our department rose to the occasion and made this place safe for investment; made it a safe place to live, because there were times in the 80s when that was a real question.

We are not perfect and there is still too much crime, but compared to the 80s, it’s night and day a better place. It’s a better place because of  committed officers like Matthew “Bump” Mitchell.

They don’t do it for the money–because the compensation isn’t that great, especially when you consider the toll and the risk, both physical and emotional. The best ones–and Sgt. Mitchell was most definitely in that category–do it because they have a love for the community, a feel for people, a desire to serve and beyond tough facades hearts that yearn to help people. As a detective known for his work with juveniles, Bump helped countless kids and taught many officers how to do so as well.

At the Community Foundation, there is a scholarship set up in Pastor Mitchell’s name.

On that page is a brief description of the man and some testimonials too.

There are two testimonials from two other Delray Beach legends—former Mayor Leon Weekes and teacher, coach, civil rights leader C. Spencer Pompey. Both were influential and consequential men.

Here’s what they said about Bump Mitchell.

“Bump Mitchell is as dedicated an individual as I’ve ever known in dealing with the youth of Delray Beach. I’ve known him for 25 years, and he’s always been available to help kids, whether it be in delinquency matters, athletics, counseling, even to the point of taking children into his own home.  He’s a jewel in our community.  I wish we had more people like him.”

Leon Weekes,

 Former Mayor, Delray Beach

 “I don’t know anyone who has contributed more to the well-being of our society than Bump Mitchell.  He was quarterback on Carver’s 1954 championship team and one of the truly great athletes we’ve had there.  Bump was truly versatile, lettering in football, baseball and track.  Perhaps his greatest contribution has been his work in the community with the Rocks Football Team.  He was honored a few years ago by our church as the recipient of the citizen of the year award, and is truly one of our most outstanding citizens of the last 30 years.”

                  -C. Spencer Pompey,

                    Teacher and Coach.

Two legends speaking of another.

Matthew “Bump” Mitchell will be missed, but surely never forgotten.

 

 

Here’s To The Healers

There are more than 650,000 social workers in America.

Last week, I saw 110 honored during a special induction ceremony at FAU’s Sandler College of Social Work.

It was the spirit boost I needed, because these young people are truly amazing yet seldom celebrated.

How I wish that would change.

Because now—more than maybe ever—we need to celebrate, recognize, respect, honor, cherish and support people who decide to devote their lives to healing our fractured society.

I went to the ceremony as a guest of keynote speaker Suzanne Spencer whose journey is inspiring to me and many others who have been fortunate enough to see her work in our community.

I got to know Suzanne through her work as the former executive director of the Delray Beach Drug Task Force, a critically important group that gathers a wide cross section of the community to discuss the scourge of substance use disorder in our city.

I went to several meetings and saw the sharing of information and resources among providers, counselors, insurers, prosecutors, law enforcement, health care and others who are on the front lines in the battle to save lives in our community. It was great to see people communicating and working together…I’ve been a fan of Suzanne’s ever since.

So when she invited me to see her speak to people graduating with a Master’s in Social Work, I was all in. Suzanne delivered—as I knew she would.

But while I expected and enjoyed her great speech, I was especially struck by the pictures of the graduates flashed across screens with their career intentions below their smiling faces.

They were going to devote their lives to child welfare, abuse, adoption, addiction, victim’s rights, mental health, education—social work. Is there anything more valuable than the healing of society?

And I found myself growing emotional as I saw their faces and listened to the speakers who are really the best that our society has to offer.

They care. They love. They are passionate, committed and dedicated to working with those who need help, nurturing and healing.

The specter of Parkland hung heavy in the room. It’s fresh. It’s local.

We live in a violent and volatile society, But while that level of mental illness is at the top end of what can and does go wrong all too often these days, it’s also the day to day issues that calls for an army of healers.

And I thought, who tends to the families of the two young Delray Beach men who were killed in separate scooter and dirt bike accidents in the past two weeks? Who is there to help the children left alone after a murder suicide recently in our community?
The tragedies—some publicized, many hidden—are an everyday occurrence in every community in America.

And it’s not just tragedies, accidents, violence, crime, abuse, addiction etc., that afflicts us—it’s how we relate to each other as people. The vitriol on social media, cable TV, in Congress, across borders, religions, political persuasions and on and on that erodes our social fabric and compels us to wonder where the healers are.

And I thought, here they are.

Here are the people who will make a difference in our world. They won’t get rich doing so, at least in the conventional sense, but they will surely enrich our world.

As Dr. Michelle Hawkins, Vice Provost of FAU reminded the MSW graduates: we have to teach the world to be kinder. We don’t have to be mean spirited, we can be kind-spirited.

Amen.

 

Decline Isn’t Inevitable

The Maturity Curve.

I’m a big fan of urban affairs blogger Aaron Renn.

His “Urbanophile” blog is a must read if you care about cities, regions and economic development.

Recently, he wrote about “Maturity Curves”, which I’ve become familiar with relative to product life cycles.

The curve starts with an incubation period that leads to a growth phase followed by maturity and then sadly decline.

Think of products like the iPod: Apple launched the device; it quickly gained traction; then it matured and stabilized before inevitably declining only to be replaced by the newest hot thing.

Mr. Renn believes– and I agree –that the maturity curve also holds true for cities and institutions.

They hatch, grow, mature and then decline.

But is decline inevitable? Or can you intervene to make sure that you either remain stable or in a healthy, sustainable growth phase?

I believe you can ward off decline, but it requires vigilance, self-awareness, a certain degree of fear and a willingness to iterate and innovate.

Let’s take a look at some local cities and institutions to show how the maturity curve works but also how decline might be avoided.

Boca Raton is an interesting case study.

From the outside looking in the city has an awful lot of positive attributes—great schools, universities, a terrific private airport, tons of jobs, beautiful parks and some strong arts and cultural institutions. But there seems to be a lot of angst over the direction of the city’s downtown, especially the nature of new development.

Proponents of growth point to the need for new development to create critical mass downtown while those who worry feel that the scale of the new development threatens to change Boca forever –and not in a good way.

It’s an age old argument that could lead to a type of “decline” if not addressed.

Boca has a tremendous amount of what a friend of mine calls “depth” so it would be hard to imagine the city declining in a way that it becomes blighted, but decline can be measured in other ways as well.

A polarized community ripped apart by divisive politics, infighting and nasty fights over projects can weigh down a community’s momentum over time. Social media gives fuel to the divisions. A cursory glance at some Boca related pages on Facebook sheds light on some of the flashpoints.

The debate brings back memories for those of us who have been through the growth debate in Delray.

When Delray Beach was split over Worthing Place (a six story mixed use project) in the late 90s, the city embarked on a Downtown Master Plan process in 2001 to forge a common vision for how the downtown would evolve.

An outside agency—in this case the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council—was brought in to facilitate a process that encouraged community input from a broad range of stakeholders. What emerged was a consensus blueprint that addressed hot button issues including height, density and even race relations.

While the Master Plan process did not eliminate differences of opinion nor prevent controversy, the plan was embraced by a large cross section of the community and enabled projects to be green lit or voted down based on whether they fit the vision forged by the community. And that’s the key isn’t it: a vision forged by the community and implemented by elected officials, city staff and agencies.

Whenever I see communities slide into the muck, it’s often because the community has been cut out of any meaningful discussions on the future.

Delray got in trouble when we failed to realize that visions age and need to be renewed to reflect changing times and changing populations.

The hard feelings magnify when civic leaders fail to defend or understand previously adopted visions. What follows is often Monday morning quarterbacking in which past visions and strategies are questioned and disparaged. This really doesn’t serve a productive purpose. Assigning blame is hardly ever a tonic and rarely productive. What is productive is renewal.

Cities decline when visions dry up and aren’t refreshed and or replaced. You can’t fly safely without a net. It’s just that simple.

Delray’s Downtown Master Plan was hardly perfect, but it worked and it was implemented. It was incubated by hundreds of people who engaged in the process, we saw planned growth (downtown housing, the development of mixed use projects, investments in infrastructure, a race relations process that extended the downtown to I-95 etc.) and some maturation too.

Here’s a refresher summary. Delray’s Downtown Master Plan championed the following:

–A gateway feature to let people know that when they exited the interstate they were entering a special place and that the downtown extended from I-95 to A1A.

–The notion that design was more important than density. Rather than be caught up in numbers, the community should embrace well designed projects that look good and feel good in terms of scale, architecture, function and fit.

–A mix of uses was important and there was a need to break out from a sole reliance on food and beverage. Offices, retail, housing and entertainment uses were important to create a year round economy and a sustainable downtown.

But aside from policies that encouraged housing, sidewalk cafes, walkability and mixed use, the Master Plan process and past visions processes gave rise to a philosophy as well.

Here are just a few tenets:

–Complacency is a killer. When it comes to the downtown and other parts of your city, you are never done.

–The downtown is the heart of the city and you can’t be a healthy community without a healthy heart.

–You can and must do multiple things at one time—work on your downtown, focus on your neighborhoods, preserve history, invigorate other parts of your city, encourage sports, culture and art.

—Even though you don’t directly control schools, cities should take an active role in education.

So how do we avoid decline?

Cities decline when bedrock principles driven by personal preferences and priorities take precedence over values forged by the community.

That doesn’t mean that these values are written in stone and can’t be changed or amended over time. Indeed, they should be.

But that requires effort, engagement and a replacement of values, goals and visions.

When downtown Delray began to flower as a result of visioning and investment made in the late 80s and early 90s before taking off in the early 2000s, there was scant competition.

Downtown Boynton didn’t exist and while Boca was always a strong neighbor its downtown was also pretty much limited to Mizner Park and before that a failing Boca Mall.

Downtown Lake Worth wasn’t much competition at the time, there wasn’t a whole lot happening in Pompano or Deerfield Beach and West Palm’s Clematis Street was in a boom bust cycle.

Today, all of those cities are investing, have great restaurants, amenities, events and a fair amount of buzz.

We are not alone anymore—there is really good competition coming from nearby cities.

I don’t mean to take away from the achievement that was the redevelopment of the downtown because it was a remarkable turnaround, but in those days there was not a lot of competition and so we attracted consumers from neighboring cities and from our western neighbors who now also have options including the Delray Marketplace.

If we don’t realize the changing landscape we risk decline.

Today, there are tons of great restaurants, activities and events happening throughout the region.

If we become complacent and or give away what made us special, we are at risk.

The maturity curve affects cities, just as it affects iPods, Blockbuster video and cherished institutions such as Old School Square.

We need to wake up a little scared every morning and stay one step or two ahead of the competition.

Failure to do so, can be fatal. No city, product, company or institution is bullet proof.