Special Places Lift Our Spirits





Old School Square in patriotic splendor.          Let’s  start with the obvious.

This has been one horrendous year.
Let’s be honest,  if years were things, 2020 would be a smoldering dumpster fire.

I don’t have to or want to recount the craziness and tragedy, we know it all too well. We are engulfed by it.

What I do want to write about is what can soothe us during troubled times.
So here’s something to try— inspired by Yankee magazine—one of my favorite publications because it celebrates the best of New England.
Yankee’s basic premise is that places are special because they tell stories, have distinctive styles and personalities and that we ought to explore as much as we possibly can.
When I scanned the most recent issue it got me a little down because I know that at least this year, there’s no way to see any of the amazing places described in the magazine.
But then I had a thought, what are the local places that make me happy either because they are beautiful or trigger positive memories.
So I decided to take inventory of those places— first in my mind and then via a car ride—which is still possible even during this time of Covid.
I visited old homes and neighborhoods, cruised Atlantic Avenue, took a walk on Banker’s Row, went to Papas Tapas (love that place), cruised around the West Settlers District, swung by the Catherine Strong Splash Park, went north  then south on A1A, visited Lake Ida Park where I have walked all of my dogs over the years and parked across the street from Old School Square where so many of my “Delray memories” were launched.
I dropped by Knowles Park to visit the Intracoastal and took a drive west to the Morikami.
I drove the bridges at George Bush, Atlantic, Linton and Spanish River—for some reason I’ve always loved bridges. Maybe that stems from childhood when crossing the Whitestone Bridge meant we were visiting my grandparents.
Anyway, it did my soul some good.
It’s not the same as discovering a new place or going to Maine but somehow it was soothing.
I think it’s because the act of thinking about which places mean something to you triggers endorphins, memories and positive feelings.
I thought of the people I’ve met over the years at Old School Square, the photo shoot we did with my now 30 year old daughter at Morikami, great neighbors we’ve had, friends who live in certain neighborhoods and votes we took on the City Commission that led to new places and exciting things—-Bexley Park, Coral Trace, CityWalk, Ocean City Lofts, the public art program etc etc.
For a moment, I forgot about 2020 the nightmare and focused on the sense of place we enjoy.
This summer I had dreamed of going to New England, there’s something about the region that speaks to me. That dream has been dashed.
We’ve been grounded. At least for now.
So my visions of weather beaten cottages along the Maine coast will be replaced with drives around Palm Beach County.
Things could be worse.
And I promise they will get better.

The Enduring Magic of Downtown

Petula Clark's iconic "Downtown" featured a session guitarist named Jimmy Page.

Petula Clark’s iconic “Downtown” featured a session guitarist named Jimmy Page.

I love downtowns.

I love cities.
And sometimes you wonder where these “loves” come from.
I’m not referring to the garden variety affection many of us might have for one thing or another, I’m talking about this deep seated feeling you have for things you are passionate about.
I just always loved being in a downtown. Large, medium or small –main streets ‘complete me’ as Jerry Maguire would say.
I like the energy, the hustle and the bustle; the ability to people watch and the sense of discovery.
My favorite big cities: my native New York a city of neighborhoods, Chicago with its magnificent architecture and Boston a big city that feels small and crackles with history.
For midsize cities there’s Pittsburgh, with the Strip District, incline and iconic Cathedral of Learning, Quebec City which is simply breathtaking and the vastly underrated Cleveland which would qualify if it had nothing but the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame.
 Small cities hold a special place; Asheville, Portland, Maine, Burlington, Vermont, Gatlinburg (prayers), Brevard NC, St. Augustine, Naples, Cooperstown, Port Jefferson, Camden, Me., Bennington and of course Delray and Boca are my favorites. There are more.
There’s just something about an active and vibrant place that lifts your spirits.
A sense of place and a sense of community are important elements that lifts a downtown. Good architecture never hurts, but is not the most important element.  Places come to life when they are unique, lively and offer a mix of activities and offer an abundance of culture, history and unique businesses.
Nothing mind blowing or unexpected on that list. So why do I love downtowns?
I may have finally figured it out.
Last week, during a particularly melancholy moment at the end of a very long day I got a private message via Facebook from my cousin Judy. She sent me a video of Petula Clark singing her classic “Downtown”. The video was accompanied with a few words: “I remember that this was one of your mom’s favorite songs.”
It was.
My mom, who passed in ’98, loved that song and whenever it came on the radio she would stop and sing along –usually to me and my sister.
Sometimes she would play the record in our living room and grab us and dance when we were very little.
In my memories, it is raining and we are waiting for my father to come from work. In my memories, the song always lifts our mood.
I think my mom could relate to the song in a very personal way. She was very young and working in Manhattan for a large life insurance company when she met my dad. It must have been so exciting to be young in the city with your entire life in front of you. “Downtown” was released in November ’64 two months after I was born and right around her first wedding anniversary. It was a year after the JFK assassination and I can only imagine that the song’s sense of possibility provided a welcome respite.
When you’re alone and life is making you lonely

You can always go downtown
When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, downtown

Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares

So go downtown
Things will be great when you’re downtown
No finer place for sure, downtown
Everything’s waiting for you…”

I thanked my cousin for remembering; then I watched the video and my mood brightened instantly.

And I thought to myself: maybe just maybe this is why I love downtowns. Thanks mom: message received.

An Influencer Returns


There’s a name in recent Delray Beach history that gets short shrift.
It shouldn’t.
The name is Tom Fleming and the good news is he’s back in town after more than a decade in Colorado.
I had a chance to reconnect with Tom a week ago at The Green Owl and while we share a lot of history, we spent our time talking about current conditions.
Tom has a fascinating perspective because he has both a history of Delray and a fresh view having been away for awhile.
He’s also an expert on downtown revitalization having worked for years in Delray and then in Colorado.
In short, he gets it.
Tom is an adherent of the Main Street school of revitalization. The National Main Street Center uses strategies and tools that have been proven in cities nationwide to bring Main Streets back to life.
Back in the day, Pineapple Grove was an officially designated “Main Street” and volunteers and early visionaries worked together and executed brilliantly.
When I first became aware of Tom I was a newspaper reporter and he was a developer. Along with a partner, Tom was building the beautiful Andover neighborhood off of Germantown Road.
Back in the 80s Delray was not exactly a desirable real estate market.
The city had a poor reputation compared to some of its neighbors especially posh Boca.
One of the major issues was the poor reputation of city schools.
It was hard to attract young families to live in Delray because of this issue and realtors even coined a termed for the malady naming it the “Delray dilemma.”
Tom was sensitive to this issue but instead of throwing up his hands in despair he rolled up his sleeves and got to work crafting a plan called “Sharing for Excellence.”
The document served as a blueprint for improving local schools. It called for special programs called magnets, better facilities and a host of other strategies. The community and city quickly got behind the effort and the School District embraced the plan–impressed that a city was willing to step up on behalf of its children.
The effort was the start of a long tradition of Delray leading the way on education issues, becoming an example for other cities to emulate.
Tom was an igniter of that movement.
Shortly after, he ditched his real estate career and reinvented himself as an urban revitalization specialist becoming the staffer for Pineapple Grove in its early days.
The grove was the brainchild of Norman Radin, a really cool pioneer who cut hair by day and sparked a movement by night.
Tom employed Main Street strategies to lead a volunteer, member based movement to create a successful street north of the avenue.
I often think how hard it is to have one great street in Delray. We have a few and hopefully more on the way.
In the early 2000s Tom left for Colorado and I missed him. We all did. I missed our conversations about streets and what makes them cool.
He is a thinker. A smart guy who knows how to get things done.
He sparked a movement in education and a great district in Pineapple Grove.
He is–without a doubt–one of our Delray greats. I’m glad he came home.

50 Keys to Success

Signs are all around us that what we see wasn't an accident.

Signs are all around us that what we see wasn’t an accident.

A few weeks ago we published a post listing 50 Urban Myths. It got a lot of response, thank you. Today we follow with a list of 50 ingredients for community building success.
1. Visioning: Having a vision is critical, a citizen driven vision is the most powerful.
2 Civic Engagement: Time always well spent.
3. Naming your problems and confronting them: that’s the real and true definition of an All America City.
4. Valuing education: You have to be involved in and advocate for your local schools.
5. Delray comes first, before personal agendas: Without a vision there’s a vacuum. Egos and personal agendas will fill the vacuum and knock you off track. Put the community’s needs first.
6. Big Hairy Audacious Goals That Are Implemented: Ambitious aspirational cities win. But in order for that to happen, goals need to be put in the done box.
7. Investing in culture: Delray got this right with projects like Delray Center for the Arts, the Library and Arts Garage. Culture makes your city unique.
8. Partner with non profits: Team up with solid non-profits to meet critical community needs. Build each other’s capacities to serve people.
9. Try to improve race relations: Diversity is our strength.
10. Build on your assets: Make the most of your parks and public facilities. Delray understood that it always had great bones.
11. Understand how the pieces fit together: Downtown’s brand positively impacts the whole city, quality schools drive commerce, gaps hurt.
12. Understand that downtown is never done: Smart leaders wake up a little scared even when things are going right. Downtowns boom and bust, you have to keep iterating and working hard. The downtown is the heart, you should never ignore the heart of the community.
13. Walkability: A big part of the charm and what makes this city so different from neighbors.
14. Understand that design trumps density: Push for good design, sprawl is not your friend.
15. Strategic density allows for sustainability; yielding economic, social and environmental benefits.
16. Understand that density can give you some affordability: A sustainable community needs a variety of housing options and price range, especially product in the middle.
17. Know you need open space downtown: But that space should be active and designed for people (and pets).
18. Value public art.
19. Know that outcomes matter. Process has a role. But you have to deliver. Don’t let bureaucracy stifle results or innovation.
20. Empower an independent CRA to be innovative: A well-run CRA can be a game changer. It was in Delray.
21. Understand that the CRA is a valuable tool and teammate.
22. Flexible codes encourage investment. Rigid codes stifle innovation.
23.  You can be flexible and business friendly but still have standards.
24. Dialogue matters. Input matters. Listening is critical. Tone matters.
25. Know there is a difference between making announcements and genuinely seeking input.
26. It’s a big city out there. And sadly the happy people don’t always show up: Effective leaders understand this.
27. It’s a job to do not to have: Effective leaders understand this.
28. Celebrate success.
29. Civility is important but it can be rare. You have to press ahead anyway.
30. Do what you think is right not what is politically expedient.
31. Real leaders don’t play dodge ball: Issues don’t magically go away, problems ignored fester.
32. Don’t fix what isn’t broken
33. Nothing is perfect. That’s ok.
34. The squeaky wheel shouldn’t take over the agenda.
35. Success is never final.
36. Failure is hardly ever fatal.
37. Cities can and must be entrepreneurial.
38. Always encourage civic pride.
39. People come and they go. Some are irreplaceable: life surely goes on, but people matter. If the right ones show up you succeed, if the wrong ones takes over, you risk it all.
40. There’s a need for a woodshed. To remind leaders that they are stewards.
41. Stay focused on the big picture.
42. Let the manager manage. Let the department heads run their departments. Encourage them to work together. Hold everybody accountable, but accountability does not have to look like punishment.
43. “How may I help you” is superior to “I’m going to stop you”.
44. Promotions are important. Cities need to market and to have quality events.
45. Good special events are important.
46. Encourage people to serve. Get them involved. Keep them involved. Thank them for their involvement 
47. Don’t create policy in a vacuum. Ask the end user or the impacted or the people you hope to benefit.
48. Put good people on city boards.
49. Elected officials serve us. We don’t serve them.
50. Complacency is a killer
Bonus. Don’t major in the minor.