Shining A Light On Old School Square

Don’t ever overestimate the power of love to change a place. In fact, it may be the only thing that ever does.

I’m surrounded by angels.

If my old city editor Tom Sawyer (yes, that was his real name) saw that sentence I would have been sent home for the day to think about my future in journalism.

But what if that sentence is true? What if we have people in our lives who appear at just the right time with just the right message?

I will argue that they are heaven sent. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. It’s working for me.

I’ve been upset lately about the fate of Old School Square.

The organization and the place it birthed holds a special place in my heart. I’m not alone. Many of us love Old School Square.

Along with a slew of people (10,000 plus petitioners) I’m dismayed by the 3-2 City Commission vote to evict Old School Square from the home they created 32 years ago when the site was surrounded by a rusted chain link fence.

The non-profit is far more than a “management company” as some have labeled it—the people involved in the organization are the heart and soul of the place and I would argue are also the heart and soul of modern-day Delray Beach.

When they hurt, many of us hurt.

The people involved in this organization over the years are a ‘who’s who’ of Delray Beach.

But they are not self-appointed keyboard patriots, they are the people who roll up their sleeves and get to work. They are the people who give their time, talent and treasure to the community. They are the best people I know and the type of people who make a city go. They give us the gift of community. They are the secret sauce.

Elected officials come and go—and they certainly matter. Good ones can help you move mountains, bad ones can set you back decades. But successful cities cultivate, treasure and nurture their volunteers.

We removed their hearts with this decision.

When you remove the heart of something you better know what you’re doing. You better know what you’ve done.

Flaws in an organization can be cured, especially if you create a collaborative environment, which we currently don’t have.

But lost among the blizzard of accusations and misinformation is the human side of this decision. That’s where the magic lies. And the hurt too.

Ignore the people equation and that will surely bite you, sometimes in ways that aren’t immediately clear.

Maybe you can get a management company to come in and make sure the place is operationally sound. But where are you going to get a donor like Margaret Blume who just saw her generous multimillion dollar gift not only ignored but lambasted? Where are you going to find another Elise Johnson who gave OSS her all during a pandemic? And where do you find a Joe Gillie who ran the place so well and in his “spare” time helped the city win three All America City Awards?

The truth is you don’t find people like this on a shelf.

We were blessed in this town when special people showed up and decided to devote their lives and careers to this town. There was a time when they were appreciated, respected and adored. They didn’t do what they did for adoration, they gave and gave and gave some more out of an old-fashioned sense of civic duty and love. Don’t ever overestimate the power of love to change a place. In fact, it may be the only thing that ever does.

That’s why this decision hurts and why the hurt lingers. Because the people we should be thankful for have been tossed out on their rear ends for no good reason, without a real conversation and without an attempt to fix this situation.

Until that hurt is addressed, until it is acknowledged and fixed, we won’t really move forward.

Those buildings will go dark— for the time being. And that’s not a good thing. But some group will turn the lights on again. The property will not be developed. But the hurt and the stain of this harsh decision will linger.

Our hearts ache for Frances Bourque, the founder of Old School Square. She is a remarkable woman.

When Frances envisioned Old School Square, Delray Beach’s downtown was a far cry from the bustling place it is today.

One businessman that I know put it succinctly and graphically: “this town was circling the bowl.”

He was right.

But that’s been forgotten.

In the “new” Delray, history began yesterday and everything that was accomplished in the past has been discarded, disrespected and dumped on by critics and Monday Morning quarterbacks who wouldn’t know Frances Bourque from Robert Bork.

So Old School Square was labeled a failing organization—despite finding a way to operate in a pandemic.

Despite presenting a slew of national acts in recent months and landing its biggest ever private donation.

Despite a rich history of achievement and a long legacy of enriching lives through the arts.

Thirty years of hard work dismissed…without a conversation and without giving the community a chance to talk.

Wow.

But political spin is really something.

If you listen to the city’s party line, the non-profit didn’t earn grants—it required “subsidies” — there’s a loaded word used by the brand- new City Manager who really ought to sign up for a history lesson before putting pen to paper. But he better hurry, because the local historians are fading fast and when they are gone nobody will be able to tell the story of how this town came back from a very rough patch. Lose your history and you lose your soul.

 

I was told by a sitting commissioner to cut the guy a break, after all, he’s been here 20 minutes and he’s the ninth manager we’ve had in just a few years’ time. And I will. So will others. There are still compassionate people in this town.

I sincerely hope the new City Manager succeeds. We need him to succeed. But I can tell you how he might fail—be seen as a partisan in a sharply divided town. Because when the worm turns— and it always does—your toast.

 

So Mr. CM you’ve got your mulligan.

Here’s hoping you get both sides of every story from here on out, because rest assured there’s another side to every story in this town.

I also understand that a CM must carry out the will of the majority of their bosses, but sometimes the majority will need some coaching when they stray off the reservation. We are counting on you to speak truth to power.

But let’s go back to Old School Square for a second. They deserve a better epitaph than the current narrative.

We are told to ignore that public funds are only 20-25 percent of the Old School Square budget with the rest earned through donations, sponsorships and ticket sales to things like a Jimmy Buffett concert, which was labeled a failure because not everyone who wanted a ticket got one.

Shame on the organization, we are told.

And shame on Jimmy too for thinking that Old School Square’s “pod” seating was an innovative way to keep people healthy during a pandemic. He could have made his concert return anywhere—but he chose the OSS Pavilion. In most rational places that would elicit civic pride. But not here. You have to ask, why?

Old School Square owned its mistakes and pleaded for a conversation. Their magnanimous behavior got them nowhere. And when the organization pushed back, they were blamed by some for failing to fall on the sword by meekly accepting their fate. I suppose they should have just said thank you to a commission majority that ended the organization’s life without a plan. As a result, brides have no clue whether they can get married in the Fieldhouse this winter.

But I digress.

I have faith that the truth still matters.

And as I said, I am surrounded by angels.

Unfortunately, I fall far short of that description myself; I take it hard when people I love and respect are treated like garbage. I have the urge to put pen to paper when I see things I don’t like.

These little essays make a few of my long-time critics uncomfortable. They wish people like me would go away.

Well, I’ll stop writing when I stop caring. I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time.

I have angels to serve. That’s how I feel about so many of the contributors in this town.

These  angels sometimes call me with messages that urge me to think differently and deeper.

I got such a call last week after spending a night wrestling with some of the emotions resulting from the Old School Square decision.

I was told to look at the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, particularly the opening line. I wasn’t sure what to think about that request, but I read the lyrics and they spoke to me.

“O little town of Bethlehem,

 

How still we see thee lie.

 

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

 

The silent stars go by;

 

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

 

The everlasting Light.

 

The hopes and fears of all the years

 

Are met in thee tonight.”

Old School Square was the light that lit up a dark town back before it became South Florida’s hot spot.

It may go dark again…but one day that light will shine once more. But it won’t shine as brightly unless it is accompanied by a renewed focus on collaboration, community and yes… love.

That’s what I want to see, collaboration, community and love. I don’t think I’m alone.

If you love something—- you respect, nurture and protect it.

This was an organization made up of people who earned our respect, who deserved to be nurtured (not coddled) and earned the right to be protected.

We did not protect Old School Square.

I’m hoping against hope that it is not too late to do so.

I know I am not alone.

History & The Human Touch

Old School Square

Sometimes buildings stand for so much more than bricks and mortar.

Historic buildings contain stories. So many stories.

They tell the tales of their towns.  If only the walls could talk.

In Delray Beach, Old School Square has the best stories.

Stories of civic renewal.

Stories of healing after tragedy.

And stories of celebration after civic achievements.

So many important moments in the history of our town have happened within the walls  or on the grounds of Old School Square.

That should mean something. That does mean something.

I thought about that fact last week as I was watching a debate unfold over the future of the organization.

I think the conversation is long overdue.

But the tone of the conversation distressed me greatly. And it ought to worry you too if you care about this community and this institution’s role in our past, present and future.

The best “tough” conversations come from a place of love, where all parties understand that while there may be disappointments, grievances, hurt, questions and hard feelings— at the end of the day there is love and respect. For tough conversations to yield the most value, there needs to be a foundation in place.

Historic buildings are important, and they are often beautiful, but it is the people who inhabit and care for those buildings that make the difference. They animate our buildings and they make or break our community.

I would argue that the people who have supported Old School Square over the past 35 years are some of the best people you can find here or anywhere.

They aren’t perfect. They have made mistakes. But they have also done amazing things—transformational things that have had an outsize importance to our city.

But before we talk about some of those amazing feats, here a few particulars:

  • The three buildings on the campus are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  •  The oldest, which used to be a two-story story public school, was built in 1913.
  • The second building, once a high school, was built in 1926 and enlarged in 1937.
  •  The third building, a charming gymnasium, was built in ’26.

The second and third buildings were designed by Sam Ogren Sr., a legendary Delray architect. They were lovingly restored under the watchful eye of another beloved local architect, Bob Currie, who passed away a few years back.

Both are gone but not forgotten—at least that’s the hope and how it should be. Special contributors should never be forgotten. Want to know if your community is healthy? Ask yourself whether the elders  are held in esteem or if they have been put out with the garbage?  It’s a fool proof test. But I digress.

Back in 1988, when the buildings made the National Register, the block was surrounded by a chain link fence and a non-descript concrete sidewalk—no paver bricks in those days. To the west, there was a whole lot of blight, crime and despair. To the east, there was vacancy. Downtown wasn’t quite on life support, but it was close.

My friends, vacancy and blight are not recipes for charm.

But if you study history, you will understand that towns go through cycles. When you’re up, you can’t imagine being down. And sometimes when you’re down, you have a hard time imagining how things could ever turn around. “Ya gotta believe”, as Mets fans used to say.

When the original buildings were built in ’13 and ’26 things were looking up in Delray.

The Delray High School cost $12,000 to build in 1913. And when it opened on November 28 of that year the entire town was in attendance, according to the narrative you can find on the National Register of Historic Places website. Now I’m sure somebody stayed home, but you get the picture, the opening of the school was considered one of the most important events in the history of the town.

But time passes and by the 80s, the buildings and the campus were a mess. Can you imagine a rusty chain link fence at main and main?

And that’s where we pick up our story when a visionary named Frances Bourque looked at those sad buildings and saw something else—a brighter future. She rallied the community and before you knew it, the eyesore on Atlantic and Swinton became a source of civic pride and inspiration.

Pride and inspiration are two things that should never be given short shrift in a city. Civic pride enables belief and belief creates trust which helps you to get things done.

Trust means you can go to the voters with a bond issue and ask them to go into debt and raise their taxes because there is a need to beautify your town, fix your parks and pave your streets.

Trust means they will vote ‘yes’ in resounding numbers. But if you don’t have pride, if you don’t trust your local government to deliver, you won’t be able to pass that bond or turn that blight into Old School Square.

Inspiration is also critically important.

Old School Square’s renovation was a catalyst for downtown Delray Beach.  It inspired others to believe in the future of the central business district.

And because the downtown is the heart of our community when it came back to life so did Delray. I would argue that Old School Square is the singular civic achievement in modern day Delray history. It sent a message to everyone who cared to listen: this town is serious about bettering itself. This town is aspirational. And aspiration is the best economic development strategy you can ever deploy.

Frances Bourque’s dream (disclaimer: I adore her) was brilliant because it addressed our past, our present and our future. Very few ideas touch on all three, but Old School Square celebrates our history, informs our present and has the promise to educate, entertain and inspire future generations.

When the fence came down and the buildings were restored our civic pride came back. We were no longer “Dullray”—we were a city on the move with vision, dreams, hopes and a bright future. What a gift the project that is Old School Square has been to all of us. Some of that gift is intangible–for instance the value of having a place to convene cannot  be measured, but it’s important nonetheless.

Look around South Florida and you will see that very few communities have a place to gather. Old School Square is our place to gather.

It has been an important convening space since it was restored. It is where we’ve hosted Town Hall meetings, it’s where we gathered to welcome the New Year, to celebrate All America City victories and talk about the future of our city during our famous charettes. On the stage, we have seen music, dance and even ice skating. In the beautiful Crest Theatre we have welcomed foreign leaders, authors, thinkers, historians and even a Supreme Court Justice.

Old School Square is also where we gathered to grieve and talk to each other after 9/11 , the Parkland horror and the tragic shooting of Jerrod Miller in 2005.

The beautiful spaces inside the buildings are where we held race relations meetings, where we had tough but important conversations and where we have seen 30 years’ worth of performances and art that has moved us. Yes, if only the walls could talk.

But luckily people do.

I have met local children who were inspired by performances and exhibitions at Old School Square. Some went to art school and one special young woman became a professional photographer after taking courses at the venue. This community came together and gave that young woman a scholarship—that’s what community is all about and it doesn’t happen without a place to gather.

A few months ago—in the wake of the gloom and stress of Covid– Jimmy Buffett—the legend himself– chose Old School Square’s amphitheater to re-launch his live music career. People loved it. They needed what Jimmy brought to us over four magical nights under the stars. Not everyone got tickets, but there were only 1,200 available. But he was here and some of the shows were broadcast on the radio. As Commissioner Adam Frankel noted last week that was a gift to all of Delray.

In a few months, Delray resident Max Weinberg, a member of the E Street Band and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, will host a concert and exhibit at Old School Square because he has fallen in love, like many of us have, with this town and our cultural arts center. Max, like many of us, has been inspired to serve and to give back.

Service and charity are what drives great cities.

You need good people to show up, roll up their sleeves and get to work. But those people need to feel supported and appreciated for their efforts. If they don’t feel supported, they will stay home or take their talents elsewhere. It’s just that simple.

Again, Old School Square is not perfect.

But it’s important to this town.

Old School Square has suffered, like every other arts organization, because of Covid. It needs our help and support now more than ever.

There is no doubt that many of Old School’s Square’s challenges pre-dated Covid and those challenges include funding, turnover among staff and board members and other organizational and financial issues. Some of those issues are really serious—nobody denies that.

As much as has been accomplished—and an awful lot has been accomplished—I think most agree that Old School Square can and should be even more. That’s not a knock on the organization, just an acknowledgement of its vast potential.

Last week, I heard some CRA officials bemoan the cost of Old School Square.

And it is expensive. No doubt about it.

But what about the return on that investment? That’s a good conversation to have and maybe that return can be better so let’s talk about that. But communities make mistakes when they only focus on costs not benefits.

Regardless, it’s important that the institution survive. Having a non-profit that raises private dollars and give citizens a place to volunteer and serve is a good thing. Can that non-profit improve? Absolutely.

It needs to.

Because if Old School Square thrives, Delray is a better place.

So it’s important for us to support the institution and to work together to fix its problems and realize it’s vast potential. Without giving you chapter and verse, the organization has hit a rough patch—rough enough that the powers that be realize the need for a broad conversation about the future.

The opportunity here is a huge one. It’s an opportunity to re-invent, re-set and build something even better. It is also an opportunity to improve how we handle things in this community when problems arise.

A long time ago, I sat on a dais with other elected officials.

For four of my seven years in office, I sat in the middle of that dais with a gavel and a nameplate that said mayor. It was a privilege and an honor and a responsibility. We saw ourselves as stewards. If a key segment of the community or a key organization had a problem, then we had a problem. We were in this together.

The people who have served this city have always viewed Old School Square as a treasured civic asset. They also viewed the relationship as a partnership and a collaboration. When things went right, we celebrated. When things got off track, we worked together to fix things to the best of our ability.

But we never lost the script, we were faithful to the basics. Healthy cities need places to gather. We were fortunate to have a great place to gather. Old School Square’s campus is beautiful, the buildings lovingly restored, the classrooms brim with possibility and the conversations that could be had within those walls are critical to our future.

Those are the basics, and they are awfully special.

We need to think about how we treat that place. And we also need to think about how we treat the volunteers who keep that place going with their time, money and talents.

There’s no doubt that we need accountability, there’s no compromising on that measure when public and donor dollars are at stake.  But we need sensitivity as well.

We need to remember that we are in this together. It is always better to help than condemn.

There is a great opportunity right now to re-invent and create a brighter future together.

 

The Spark Of Inspiration

Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of the special people featured on the Apple Plus series.

Have you seen the TV series “Dear…” on Apple Plus?

If you haven’t, I highly recommend it.
But even if you don’t have Apple +, the premise is worth discussing.
“Dear…”  is inspired by the “Dear Apple” advertising campaign, where customers share stories about how Apple products have changed their lives. In the same vein, this docuseries features celebrities reading letters by people “whose lives have been changed through their work.” Each episode focuses on one celebrity.
So far, I’ve seen episodes featuring film director Spike Lee and Broadway impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda, Stevie Wonder, Gloria Steinem, gymnast Aly Raisman and Oprah Winfrey.
The premise is at once simple and beautiful:  Our life’s’ work creates ripples. 
Sometimes we see those ripples. Often times we don’t. 
But the important part is to recognize that we all matter and what we put out into the world may impact  people in profound ways. 
If we are lucky, we hear from those we affect.
Those messages sustain us.
Those messages inspire us.
Those messages encourage more art and more creation. As a result, we have a chance to be better and do better and move forward. Those ripples we create matter. They matter a lot. They can and do create waves. 
Exactly a year ago, I got Covid. I don’t know where I got the virus, but for me it was almost a lethal dose. 
The virus that almost took my life, changed my life. As it has changed lives across the globe. 
We are fragile beings; here today, gone tomorrow. 
So today really matters. Our work matters. Our art matters and that art should be broadly defined. 
Your art can be music, writing, teaching, running a business, volunteering or being the consummate friend, father, brother, mother, wife, leader. 
There are opportunities every single day to make a difference. We can inspire or we can deflate, we can encourage or bully, we can love or hate. 
Years ago, I chose to love. There are times where I have been able to do so and there are times when I have fallen woefully short. 
But Covid, that dreaded virus ended up giving me a wonderful gift.
Let me explain. 
From an early age, I was attracted to public service. My first expression of that art was journalism. I enjoyed telling the stories of the people in my community which was and still is Delray Beach. 
I wrote about police officers and firefighters. I wrote about musicians and entrepreneurs. I wrote about community organizers and about people who dreamed about building a better community. 
That work changed me.
Telling stories made me want to make my own stories and apply some of the ideas I had seen from a vast array of special people. 
So I went into local politics with a few simple goals: leave the town better than I found it and support the people in my town doing good work. 
I would judge my success or lack thereof by a single metric: at the end of my term in office– knowing I couldn’t please everyone–if I could look in the mirror and feel I had earned and kept the support of those doing good work in the community I would feel that I achieved my goal. If I lost the support of those investing, volunteering, building, connecting, protecting and educating I would have considered my term a failure.
  
The Dear…series celebrates people doing what I tried to do on a scale I can’t begin to fathom. The series celebrates inspiration. 
Isn’t that wonderful? 
Inspiration and aspiration is the oxygen of the world. If we aspire and inspire we can progress. 
We need progress.
Progress is more than an app. It’s more than a viral Tik Tok video or a social media post that gets scores of likes. 
All those things are fine but progress is writing a Broadway show that inspires young people to learn about our founding fathers.
Progress is a young Black director making movies that depict the Black experience in America and prompts us to ask questions and think about our beliefs. Progress is an Olympic gymnast whose courage in the face of abuse inspires others to speak out and raise awareness. 
Each story in Dear honors those who inspire, but just as important the docuseries shines a light on those who found inspiration and made their own mark on the world. 
Maya Angelou once said our legacy is what we do to inspire others. People will forget what we did, but they won’t forget how we made them feel. We can choose to make them feel good and we certainly have the power to damage them as well. 
We all have the power to create a legacy, to inspire, motivate and empower others. It’s a choice. One we can make every day. 

All Healing Is Local

Happy birthday America.
I’m worried about you.
I don’t think I’m alone.
A lot of people love you— but that’s why we worry. We have a lot to lose if you are not healthy. You mean everything to us.
But there’s a path forward.
There’s a road we can go down. But it requires a choice and a lot of effort. We are up for it. We must be.

America, I’ve noticed a bit of a change since Covid came about in the way we treat each another.
On a national level, we demonize and brutalize each other. I mean it is plain ugly.

But on the personal  level, I am seeing more kindness, at least among people who know each other well.
I think the nastiness we are seeing has a lot to do with the impersonal nature of our national discourse. It is easy to label, disparage and judge people we don’t know. The vitriol is fueled by partisan “personalities” who traffic in snark and misinformation. They are effective at what they do so the level of anger is approaching tilt.
It’s scary because the constant fear mongering has one logical conclusion and that’s violence and estrangement.
The left views the right as an existential threat and the right views the left the same way.
It’s scary. Really scary.
As my friend pointed out last week, neither side possesses a mirror. Therefore, they have no ability to look at their own blemishes. And the truth is, both sides of the divide have a lot of explaining to do.
But I’m noticing that at the same time we are demonizing strangers, we are growing closer to the people we actually know.
That’s a good thing and may actually provide us a template for avoiding a costly and violent split.
Let me explain.
I firmly believe that if we remain on the course we are on, we will unravel as a nation.
If we continue to view each other as threats, it’s only natural that we will continue to pull apart and continue to talk past each other not too each other.
That’s not only dangerous, it is a recipe for destruction.
It’s apparent that we will not be able to count on our so-called leaders to mend our nation. In short, they are the problem and they are far from leaders. Leaders don’t divide. Leaders don’t lie.
Our leaders are failing us. They are failing us miserably. It’s shameful.
It will be up to ‘we the people’ to change things.
And again, the template can be found in the personal relationships we enjoy.
So let me share what I am seeing and experiencing. It can be expressed in two words: love and empathy.
The solutions to all of our domestic problems can be found in those two words.
I know it sounds trite.
I know it sounds sappy.
But tell me one challenge we have that can’t be made infinitely better with more love and more empathy.
With the advent of Covid,  I’m finding that my circle—which has always been nice—is even nicer.
There’s more appreciation. There’s more kindness and compliments. There’s more sharing and there is a lot more concern for each other’s well being. It’s fantastic.
Some of these people are left leaning and others lean right. But  they all put their relationships before their ideologies. I don’t think anyone feels they are sacrificing their principles they are just taking the time to hear and understand each other’s viewpoints.
They are listening.
What a concept.
And they see each other as people first not “libtards” or “Trumpers”. Imagine that.
There are times when I’ve seen some tension, but the tension always loses out to the affection shared by people who are true friends.
And that’s where the opportunity lies.
If communities across America designed places where people can meet and have safe, productive conversations we can get someplace in America and in our hometowns as well.
It won’t happen/can’t happen on social media.
It has to happen face to face.
Years ago, we did a lot of this work in Delray Beach through race relations initiatives, visioning exercises and other community projects that brought people from all walks of life together. Community dinners, neighborhood paint-ups—anything that brings people together and builds relationships is a step in the right direction. A step toward love and empathy.
If we care for each other, we will seek to understand each other. If we do that, division we are experiencing will be replaced by unity. And together we will move mountains.

Surfside And The Power Of Empathy

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is meeting the moment with professionalism and heart.

I got choked up last week watching Miami- Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine  Cava  do a masterful job at a press conference in the wake of the tragic condo collapse in Surfside.

Daniella is a friend of mine and I can only imagine the stress and pressure she is feeling as she leads her community in the wake of an unfathomable disaster.

Mayor Levine Cava was my Leadership Florida classmate many years ago. I was the mayor of Delray Beach at the time navigating a series of hurricanes that disrupted our class schedule.

Just when we bonded as a class, we were knocked back by a series of major hurricanes that knocked us off our schedule and off our games. The  storms were ferocious and scary.

But we made it through, and in some ways the challenge of that year made us stronger and closer as a group.

Leadership Florida is a statewide program that seeks to bring a diverse set of leaders together for training and education. The goal is to build better leaders, create a statewide network and to get members to care passionately about Florida. It’s a life changing program. And if you engage it will make you a better leader.

Daniella was an earnest student. She was deeply engaged.

I remember her constantly typing away on a laptop taking notes at every one of our sessions with a series of experts who came to teach.

At the time, Daniella was involved in social services. But when the class ended, she reached out and asked to meet.

Daniella was considering entering local politics and she wanted a primer.

We arranged to meet “halfway” at the Bass Pro Shops in Hollywood.

She peppered me with questions and if I remember, she took more notes.

I left telling her that I hoped that someday she would run.

That someday came a few years later when she won a seat on the Dade County Commission. In 2020, she ran an amazing campaign and got elected to a really big job—Mayor of Miami- Dade County.

I have one word to describe how her Leadership Florida classmates felt when she won and that was “wow”!

Personally, I thought  that Daniella would be a great mayor because she has all the smarts, toughness and intellectual curiosity that the great ones possess. But she also has something else that is absolutely necessary to succeed, to be more than just another elected official who comes and goes and barely leaves a mark. That something is empathy.

Empathy is the fuel for success. You have to love the people you serve. You can’t be a real leader if you lack love and empathy.

I saw Mayor Levine-Cava’s empathy shining through during her many press conferences last week. Her facility in two languages, the care and concern in her words, the warmth of her personality just burst through the screen.

A friend from Utah texted me in the wake of the tragedy saying that he knew these kind of events affected people like me because we were “city people” who feel these things.

Truth is, we all do. We all feel the fragility of people and communities.

But maybe mayors, police officers, firefighters and other city people feel it a little deeper.

Because when tragedies strike: murders, violent crimes, hurricanes, fires, accidents etc. we are (or were) tasked with picking up the pieces. It’s a leader’s responsibility to provide information, context and perspective when the world goes berserk as it does with some regularity these days.

My former classmate voiced all of these essentials and more during her interactions with the press.

She made a point to describe the remarkable dedication and bravery of the rescue personnel on site. How they wanted to keep working and how their dedication was breathtaking. They worked at risk of their lives, with debris falling, high winds that made that debris even more dangerous, rain, heat and fire. They worked in a structurally unsound building focused on their task: to save lives. For these brave men and women, it’s more than a job, it’s a mission. Great leaders like Daniella shine in these circumstances because their humanity becomes paramount to that mission and to the eventual healing that will be needed.

Watching her on TV I thought of that word again: Wow.

We often give short shrift to the soft skills but they make all the difference.  Empathy is everything. So is love for people and community.

We often see criticism of local government fed by cynicism and snark.

But we need local government. We need good, local government.

And we need great leaders at all levels of government.

Tragedy reveals character.

Last week, we saw the character of local rescue workers and the character of a local mayor.

Our hearts break, but we can take comfort that there are still some special public servants who meet the moment with love, dedication and empathy.

 

Making A Dent In The Universe

Coco at the Delray Beach Tennis Stadium.

The New York Times ran a fascinating interview with Martina Navratilova recently.

The tennis hall of famer is 64 now, living in Fort Lauderdale and enjoying life.

Martina was a landmark athlete—she changed both the men’s and women’s games, but she’s also an influential cultural figure paving the way for female athletes while being outspoken on a range of topics ranging from LGBTQ rights to animal welfare and a lot in between.

Martina matters.

Like Billie Jean King, Jim Brown, LeBron James and Muhammad Ali, Martina is an athlete who transcended sport to leave a large mark on the world.

Those of us who live in Delray Beach and love tennis have been following Coco Gauff’s burgeoning career and wondering whether she will follow in those large footsteps.

There is no doubt that she is a special talent.

Her results as a teenager have been astonishing. Like other greats, she shows no fear on the court and actually seems to thrive on pressure.

But there’s something else about her that shines through—at least to me anyway. She seems to understand that she has power off the court, and she seems intent on using that power to make a difference.

We saw it when she spoke out at a local Black Lives Matter protest in Delray Beach shortly after the murder of George Floyd. And we saw it last week when she made a generous donation to the Achievement Centers for Children and Families in Delray Beach.

Teaming up with Microsoft, Coco is helping to refresh the main computer lab and build two additional labs at the Achievement Center, a wonderful non-profit that has served this community’s most vulnerable children for over 50 years.

Here’s what the Achievement Center had to say in making the announcement:

“As a professional tennis player and full-time remote student, Coco Gauff saw firsthand the ways that technology could benefit education. While completing classes alongside her rigorous training schedule, she was inspired to provide some of the same tools to students in Delray Beach, where she and her parents grew up.

“This community has given me a lot, so it’s definitely important to give back,” she said

Coco thrilled the kids at the center recently with a virtual appearance and coaching session.

Due to COVID-19 limitations, Coco used Microsoft Teams to surprise the kids. During the event, Coco helped students complete a coding workshop, where they learned about game design. The kids were also able to ask Coco questions  including how she became a professional tennis player and what her favorite subject is in school.

 

“Maybe this can give a kid the opportunity to find their own passions,” Coco said before offering advice to the students. “Make your dreams as big as possible, because you never know how far they will go.”

 

It’s hard to quantify how important it is for our children to see someone from their community succeed on a worldwide stage. Children need to be encouraged to dream big and they need to be given the tools necessary to achieve those dreams.

The Achievement Centers for Children and Families is a model non-profit that has done just that for half a century and in process the organization has done a lot to break the cycle of poverty.

To see Coco giving back is not a surprise to me.

While I don’t know Coco, I do know her family.

Her grandmother, Yvonne Odom, is one of my heroes, her grandfather Red is a wonderful man who has coached generations of local kids and her parents Candi and Corey are really special and caring people. The Gauff/Odom family are committed to Delray Beach, especially our children.

Coco had a big week professionally reaching the quarterfinals at the French Open, one of the the cathedrals of the sport. She’s still only 17 years old. She has a game as big as any prospect since the Williams sisters, who also have ties to Delray Beach.

But beyond sports, she seems to be a young woman of compassion and substance. She has a platform, and she appears willing and able to use it—like Martina, Billie Jean, Venus and Serena before her.

Coco’s grandmother Yvonne was a groundbreaker in her day too. Fifty years ago this September she became the first Black to attend Seacrest High which later  became Atlantic High. Three years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 7 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, Yvonne Lee Odom integrated Delray’s high school. To this day, she remains brave, outspoken and respected. She’s a treasure.

I have a feeling her granddaughter is going to leave a mark far, far beyond tennis. She sure has had some great role models.

 

Oldies But Goodies

Phil Mickelson, a champion at 50.

Let’s hear it for the old folks.

Maybe they’re not so old after all.

Or maybe age and experience is an advantage and not a liability.

Look no further than Phil Mickelson who just won the 103rd PGA Championship at the ripe age of 50. Or Tom Brady who won yet another Super Bowl at the age of 44.

Or President Biden who became leader of the free world at age 78.

Other examples abound in every field you can imagine: Dr. Tony Fauci is 80 and has been at the forefront of the fight against Covid, Queen Elizabeth is still reigning at age 95 and Warren Buffett remains an investing legend at 90. His partner, Charlie Munger, is 97 and still at it.

I have a rooting interest in the continuing viability of the older set. I’ll be 57 in August. Granted that’s a long way from 90 but it’s comforting to know that there’s life after a certain age.

I have found the 50s to be a poignant decade.

In many ways we are better than ever. We’ve got patience, experience, history, perspective and savvy that can only come with age and hard won experience.

We’ve also got more than a few miles on us so we are a wee bit tired at times and we know how fast time passes. We’ll blink and be 80 if we’re fortunate to survive. And that’s the poignant part.

Just when we get good, we get old.

But the Mickelson’s and the Brady’s of the world inspire us. It’s getting dark, but it ain’t over yet as the song says.

Still despite these inspiring examples we are very much a youth obsessed culture.

We adore the prodigy, laud the next big thing and remain obsessed with appearing youthful.

But I’m finding the seasoned players in this world have a lot to give and even more to impart.

I think we “old timers” can learn a thing or two from Phil and other folks who are crushing it as they age.

The first lesson is we can stay in the game if we choose. We might have to compensate for being a step slower than we used to be. We might not hit the ball as far as the youngsters or zip a football with the same velocity, but we’ve experienced a whole lot and that’s an advantage.

We can take comfort in the fact that we’ve seen most situations before and we know how to make the odds work for us.

It’s called being seasoned.

If you are a smart young person, you should seek out the elders in your community. You should hear their stories, soak up their experiences and listen to the wisdom you are assured of receiving if you just take the time to ask some simple questions.

What was it like?

Why did you make the decisions you made?

What did you learn? How did you get past your mistakes?

How did you run your company, build your business, raise your family, serve your community?

There is so much to learn. The best school there is right in front of us. All we have to do is ask others to share.

Whatever success I’ve had in anything I’ve ever done—-business, politics, love and family life is a direct result of asking for advice from people I’ve admired. Most of them were my elders. My grandparents, my parents.

At Delray City Hall, I was mentored by an extraordinary array of department heads and staff who took the time to explain issues to me, teach me about urban planning, police work, the work of the fire department and how municipal law and redevelopment can be applied to build something special.

After a while you leave– in my case due to term limits—but I never left those relationships behind. I treasure them and regularly draw on the lessons I learned.

But as magical as those teachers were, I learned just as much from some predecessors who served on the City Commission and a bunch more from a slew of community leaders who built this city. From Old School Square and Pineapple Grove to the Spady Museum and local schools these special people did special things. They made a lasting difference and left us lessons— but only if we choose to look and to ask for guidance.

The same lessons apply in business which is changing so fast that it can feel overwhelming to keep up with technology and trends. But there are fundamentals that never change: how you treat partners. employees, customers and the communities in which you work. The seasoned veterans have learned these lessons and I have found that most are happy to share if you take the time to ask for advice.

In business, I have been so fortunate to learn from a series of older mentors including one gentleman who has helped to build two multi billion dollar companies.

Recently, a friend told me about the Halftime Institute, a non-profit built on a belief that the second half of life can be better than the first. I plan to explore a few of their programs and read their literature.

Yes, life in your 50s and beyond can be both meaningful and fun.

Sure those knees creak, that back aches and your hair may be gone (on your head at least) but there’s life in those bones and wisdom too. There’s also time to grab a few more brass rings (or Super Bowl rings). Thanks Mr. Mickelson for reminding us.

 

 

 

 

 

All Healing Is Local

“All healing is local.” – David Schmidt, former mayor and newly installed Chair of the Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce.

 

I had a chance to catch a replay of the Delray Chamber’s Annual Membership Luncheon and Installation of Officers on Facebook recently.

It was a nice virtual event and the Chamber is to be commended for weathering a brutal 2020. It’s important that our community have an active and strong chamber and that business in our city has a voice.

Outgoing Chair Noreen Payne is a wonderful person who did a remarkable job alongside President Stephanie Immelman and a small but dedicated staff.  Not only did they keep the chamber alive during a pandemic, but they kept the organization relevant too. We should all be grateful.

For more than 90 years, the Delray Chamber has been a leader in our community producing Delray’s signature event, The Delray Affair, advocating for business and supporting all aspects of community life.

It’s an important institution; a pillar in a disposable world in which pillars are rare and needed more than ever.

That’s why I am thrilled to have seen the installation of my friend Dave Schmidt as the chair for 2021.

Mayor Dave —as I call him— is a steady, capable and intelligent leader at a time when we crave those traits.

He’s also correct when he says that all healing is local, a take-off on Speaker Tip O’Neill’s old adage that all politics is local.

Friends, our little village by the sea has become a pretty toxic place at least during election season.

If you swing by Facebook and spend five minutes perusing the pages devoted to Delray Beach, you will witness the social media version of Chernobyl. Warning: prolonged exposure will give you hives and make you want to pack your bags and leave our perfect weather for Antarctica.

At least nobody is trying to turn Antarctica into Fort Lauderdale.

In case you don’t know, we are in the middle of an election season in Delray with the mayor’s seat and two commission seats up for grabs on March 9.

We have the usual accusations of stolen signs and the tired and false narratives about evil developers and behind the scenes power brokers. I’ve been accused of being a power broker myself…someone who controls events from behind the scenes. It’s insulting because truth be told— if I were doing so— I’d be doing a better job because the city is a hot mess and that’s not my modus operandi.

I like progress, vision, outcomes and aspiration. I think we all do, but from where I sit, we’re sorely lacking in all of those areas. And I also value good relations with city staff, local organizations and our police, fire and general employees. We’re having some “challenges” there as well.

A few days from our election, candidates are being accused of anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, crimes, corruption, extremism, bullying and all-around thuggery.

Yes, we are going to need some healing after the dust settles. Check that, we are going to need a whole lot of healing.

And I would hope some reflection too because temperatures don’t get this hot in a healthy town.

I write this while still recovering from watching graphic video of traitorous thugs who violently attacked the Capitol Building on Jan. 6. Watching the footage made me physically ill.

What’s going on?

Really, what’s going on?

The Capitol Building—built by slaves, where so many American heroes worked to create Democracy, was desecrated. If you are a true patriot, not some guy with a headdress dressed like a shaman, but someone who loves America, that footage levels you. You just can’t shake the images.

Unbridled social media, unchecked meanness and years of incitement leads to violence. In hindsight, it seems inevitable.

I can see this dynamic unfolding right here if we don’t take a deep breath and check ourselves.

I’m hoping—regardless of who wins—that we can have a reset after the March 9 election. We desperately need one. We have to learn to be a community again.

Right now, we are terribly and dangerously divided.

I’m not the only who feels this way. Many long time contributors to Delray have similar feelings.

The fact that we feel this way annoys some people who would just rather continue down this ruinous path of insult and division.

Over the years, whenever I and others have ventured an opinion there have been attempts to silence us. Some people express shock when you express an opinion. Some of these people would like us PIPS (previously important people) to sit home and stay quiet.

It’s the local version of shut up and dribble. Sorry, not going to happen.

I believe you only critique the stuff that you care about, otherwise why bother.  The truth is I (and many other “exes and formers and used- to- be’s) love this town.

We care about the people who live here. We care about the people who work here and we care about the businesses who invest here.

We are all stakeholders.

Everyone should have a voice and everyone should be encouraged to use that voice hopefully to build a better community.

I have long believed that being a “village” was a lot more than the size of our buildings, which will never be more than 54 feet tall downtown. Friends, we will never be Fort Lauderdale, or even Boynton Beach or Boca Raton which allow 100 foot tall buildings.

We have to find a way to raise the level of discourse in this community and frankly that starts at the commission level.

Our elected officials may not run the day to day operations of the city, but they are tasked with setting the tone for our community. The mayor and city commission own culture.

And culture is everything.

It’s how we feel about our city. It’s how we treat each other. It’s about civility, respect, kindness and compassion.

That does not mean holding hands and singing kumbaya. Some decisions are tough ones and they are divisive by their very nature. We will “win” some votes and be on the losing side of others, but we must learn how to debate better and then move on. This level of divisiveness is not healthy or sustainable.

Our city has a reputation and it isn’t a good one.

The notion that our CRA did nothing for 30 years until it was taken over the by commission is just not true. And anyone who doesn’t believe that can email me through this blog and I will give you a personal tour of projects.

Here’s another myth….our labor unions are not greedy—their job is to care for the welfare of their membership. But they see the big picture too and if you work with them and listen—you’ll find them to be reasonable people who care about our city and are proud to serve us. In my mind, their endorsements mean something.

In terms of aspiration…our northwest and southwest neighborhoods are passionate about the future of The Set, why can’t we work with our neighbors to realize their vision for their neighborhood?  And why can’t we call the neighborhood The Set?

While we are on the subject of vision, I chaired the Congress Avenue Task Force, never did we consider getting rid of a lane of traffic. There was plenty of talk about making it safer to cross the street. Is that controversial?

Sigh…

It wasn’t always like this.

We can blame social media, but that doesn’t change anything.

All of us have to do better. Me too. I thought long and hard about this blog and others. I’m not naming names, there’s nastiness on all “sides” and it’s all wrong and wasted energy.

A happy village is a better village.

If any place can do it, it’s Delray.

We can be the beacon that other communities look to in a nation sorely in need of reconciliation.

We have done this before.

After 9/11—when we learned that many of the terrorists lived here among us—we came together.

When one of our firefighters, Pete Firehock, was murdered—we came together.

In February 2005, when Jerrod Miller was shot and killed, we grieved and we came together.

We were leaders in just about any category you can name: downtown rejuvenation, affordable housing, education, race relations, citizen engagement, urban planning, redevelopment, neighborhood revitalization, historic preservation, sports, events, the use of culture to drive community rebirth and the list goes on.

But for the list to grow. We need some healing.

Right now.

 

Note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sad passing of Richard Jones, a super talented architect and very nice man who did a lot for Delray. We pray for his family during this difficult time. We also continue to pray for the memory of Jerrod Miller, someone I think of every day. 2021 marks the 16th year since Jerrod was killed outside the Delray Full Service Center. That means he is gone one year longer than he lived. That fact is a hard one to fathom. We mourn his loss.

When Is Decency Going To Be Cool Again?

 

We live in caustic times.

Corrosive, toxic, rough, tough and at times ugly.

It wears on you, slowly and then all at once when you find yourself feeling blue.

Take a peek at Facebook and watch the usual suspects duke it out.

Spend a minute, just a minute on Twitter and you’ll be soaked in snark.

Take a trip to your mailbox around election time and you better have some Maalox handy.

So when you see an authentic act of decency it catches your attention. In the example I’m about to share, it actually brought a lump to my throat.

It’s a clip sent to me by a buddy of Merrick Garland’s confirmation hearing to become our next Attorney General. It’s one minute long and well worth your time.

Here it is.

https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2021/02/22/merrick-garland-emotional-family-story-obligation-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/top-news-videos/

 

In that one minute, I learned a lot about Merrick Garland the man. I saw his love of America, his gratitude for this country and what drives him. He’s a good and decent person. We need more of these people in public service.

The day before I saw the video, I read a profile of Judge Garland on the front page of The New York Times, which talked about his work as a prosecutor investigating the Oklahoma City bombing case. Judge Garland went to the scene and spent weeks walking in the rubble absorbing the enormity of the tragedy. He still thinks about the sound of the broken glass crackling as he walked the site and absorbed the emptiness of an obliterated day care center.

These kind of experiences mold you. They forge who you are.

As much as I love and value education, a degree is only the table stakes for some of these jobs. What really matters is your experience—those times when life almost breaks you. If you can survive, you come out stronger, fuller and more capable. Unless you’re a narcissist, then you don’t change. You don’t learn. Beware of those types—they are all around us.

Merrick Garland strikes me as the kind of man who can absorb life’s lessons.

I’ve been thinking a lot about decency lately so I looked up the word and the definition doesn’t quite fit what I feel the word means; so let’s just say you know you it when you see it.

To me, decency is dignity, modesty, courtesy, politeness and fairness. When you experience decency, it moves you.

I don’t think you can sustain success without being decent; without being what my mom would call a mensch.

Oh, you can have short term “wins”—maybe even make a fortune. But eventually you’ll be unmasked.

I recently read a case study of American Apparel founder Dov Charney who was a pretty talented guy but by most accounts a horrible person. He was kicked out of his own company after the board collected texts, emails and photos to create a dossier of his abhorrent behavior.

He was a genius on a lot of levels, but a dose of decency might have saved him. He was sorely lacking and it bit him.

I think the same happens with politicians—at all levels. And most are not close to being geniuses. Nor do they have to be. But they do have to be decent people or they will fail. There’s no exceptions.

I believe getting elected is like signing up for an MRI, it reveals who you really are. If you have strengths, they will be revealed. But so will your weaknesses. Each of us have plenty of strengths and weaknesses, but the best leaders recognize where they fall short and work to address the areas where they’re lacking.

Self-awareness is essential.

Knowing what you don’t know is critical to achieving success in any endeavor that requires leading or managing people.

So is a large dose of plain old decency.

I worry that the coarseness of our politics will dissuade decent people from getting involved.

Close readers of this blog know that I Zoom with childhood friends every other week. On our last call, one of my buddies said his three 20 something kids want absolutely nothing to do with politics.

They are smart and engaged young people with a big stake in the future but they think politics is absolutely stupid. And sadly, they are right.

That’s a shame and it’s tragic really because politics is important. It matters to people’s lives.

Public service is a noble pursuit. At its best, leadership has the power to transform communities, nations and the world. At its worst, it will sink anything. I don’t care how hot your city is, how great your product is or how much money you have socked away—you’re toast if you get the leadership piece wrong.

This is a hyperlocal blog, so I will bring this home to Delray.

What do I look for in local candidates?

Here’s a partial list: vision, creativity, and passion for Delray, passion for people, empathy, compassion, intelligence, self-awareness, the ability to get along with others and integrity. But the table stakes—the bare minimum is decency.

It’s a lot to ask for. But I’ve seen the damage done when any one of these traits are missing; especially if the candidate can’t find it in their hearts to be decent to others, especially those that hold opposing views.

Farewell T.J.

Coach Jackson has been a valued mentor to scores of young athletes.

Last week, T.J. Jackson, the decorated football coach at Atlantic High School, announced that he would be leaving for a new opportunity which has yet to be announced.

When I saw the news, I was happy for T.J.

He’s a really good guy and a great football coach. It’s not surprising that his talents would take him away from Delray Beach.

 

Mr. Jackson was the Eagles’ head coach for eight seasons, compiling a record of 68-23. His 2017 team made it all the way to the Class 7A state championship. And this past season, the Eagles won the Class 7A Tri-County championship after going 5-1 in what was a shortened season because of the pandemic.

 

But T.J. is so much more than his impressive win/loss record.

He is a beloved local figure, an inspiring young leader who earned the love and respect of hundreds of young men that he has coached.

Lee Cohen, a great supporter of Atlantic High football and all-around good guy, had this to say about his friend when news of the resignation was announced.

“Coach TJ understood the importance of not just having a winning team, but in creating a successful program.  Over the past 8 seasons, he led the Eagles to incredible success both on and off the field.  Following a challenging first season, the Eagles’ overall record was 66-16 over the next 7 years and included a trip to the state championship. He created a winning culture that included attention to education, discipline and respect.”

Delray’s current Chief of Police Javaro Sims and former Chief Jeff Goldman praised TJ for his mentoring skills and for his leadership in the community.

In scrolling through the congratulatory comments, my mind drifted back to when I first met TJ a number of years ago.

He was running a non-profit at the time called “Prep and Sports” which was teaching football skills and life skills to kids in our community. He was doing great work and was passionate about making a difference.

T.J. was quiet, almost painfully shy.

But as the saying goes, still waters run deep. T.J. knew kids, had his fingers on the pulse of the community and had a passion for football. That’s a great set of tools if you want to make positive change in the community.

T.J. and a partner brought scores of NFL players and prospects to Delray to train for the season or the NFL Combine, the annual showcase where aspiring players perform physical and mental tests in front of coaches and scouts. The players seemed to like Delray and I had a few lunches with players who expressed a strong desire to help kids find a positive path and they did.

T.J., former Delray Police Capt. Michael Coleman and former assistant community improvement director Jamael Stewart and a few others led that effort.

It’s the kind of activity that often goes undetected, but this is the type of work that builds a community by changing lives.

So let’s say it straight out: these guys change lives.

Michael and Jamael no longer work for the City of Delray. That’s a longer and sadder story for another day. But I sometimes fear that we are losing sight of the special efforts below the radar that make all the difference. If my instincts are correct and those efforts dry up we will be in trouble. Because if we care about the entirety of this community we need to care about the men and women who do this work.

And we should care. We either rise together or we will we fall.

It’s really that simple.

T.J. is a guy who helps people rise.

Losing him in this community is a big deal.

So was losing Jen Costello, a neighborhood planner who went above and beyond because of her passion for Delray—her hometown.

Back in the day, we had Officer Skip Brown organizing Haitian Roving Patrols and working with a wide cross section of the community. I don’t think anyone ever quite replaced Skip or Sgt. Adam Rosenthal who died 10 years ago last week while on the way to work in his police cruiser. Adam taught self-defense classes to women in our community and worked with kids interested in martial arts.

We also lost Officer Johnny Pun, who along with his partner Fred Glass, founded a charter school to teach kids marketable automotive repair skills. The Delray Police Department became the first department in the state to charter a school, an effort that the City Commission at the time was proud to support. Johnny died tragically in a motorcycle crash. He is deeply missed.

When these guys and gals move on, retire, pass away (or are shoved out) it leaves a void. You just don’t go to a job board and replace people like this. It’s not that easy.

Their success is borne of passion for a place and for the people who live there. When you find that, it’s gold.

When you lose it, well you lose a lot.

See you down the road T.J. We all know you’ll do great things at your next stop.

Many in Delray are sorry to see you go.