Sunday, June 19, 2016

Bentonville, Arkansas, Crystal Bridges Museum, and the Impact of Walmart

On a recent weekend, we took the 3.5 hour drive down to Bentonville, AR, in the very northwest corner of that state, with the main goal of seeing the highly-regarded Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. That it is in Bentonville, the home of WalMart, where Sam Walton’s original “Walton’s 5 and 10” sits on the town square, now a museum itself, is not a coincidence of course. WalMart and the Walton family paid for the construction of the museum and endowed it to purchase its stellar collection. The gorgeous building, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, opened in November 2011. It is worth going to the website to see much better photos of the building than I could take, with its lagoons in the woodland setting. In addition to the art, the grounds contain the recently relocated (from NJ) and rebuilt Bachman-Wilson house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a prime example of Wright’s Usonian houses – smaller, cheaper, more affordable to the US everyman.
The museum’s collection may not be MOMA or that of the Art Institute of Chicago or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but it is pretty impressive. Beginning in the 18th century, it has iconic and chronologically organized[i] representations of pieces by most major American artists. The building i s stunning, as is the setting. The museum is free, but of course we had to stay somewhere, and chose the (definitely not cheap) 21c Hotel and Museum (lots of art there too), located one block off the town square and a less-than-half-mile walk, along a beautiful woodland path which itself is dotted with sculptures, and is part of the Crystal Bridges trail system, a hiking and biking network that goes both a little north and south for over 30 miles to Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas. We were only on the part between town and the museum, but walked it a number of times, both to get to the museum and also just because it is a beautiful walk.

But as stellar as the museum was, the town itself (at least downtown, on a summer weekend) was absolutely cool also. When we arrived on Friday evening, the town square was busy with bluegrass groups and lots of people (and workmen laying sod). Saturday morning was a market, both farmers market and crafts fair, busy and active and very hip. The square is surrounded by restaurants, virtually all independent and (very proudly) locally-sourced, with boards identifying the origin of their foods. The Hive, the restaurant in the 21c hotel, is nationally very highly rated, with dishes that have been repeated finalists for the southern region James Beard Award. We ate two dinners, two lunches, and two breakfasts, all at different places, and didn’t come close to exhausting the options. Sunday breakfast, before we hit the road and ran into an enormous summer storm just north of town (that’s another story) was from one of the many food trucks located in the downtown; this one, Crepes Paulette we had previously avoided because of the huge lines, but were told by one of the staff as she closed up the night before that they had just started opening at 9am – it had previously been 11, so a lot of people didn’t know yet, and if we were there then we would have a shorter wait. We did and the crepes were great! The whole feel of the town (again, at least downtown and on a summer weekend) was of a very cool college town minus the heavy dose of post-adolescents.  The town is pretty ethnically diverse with a large number of Latinos from Mexico and Central America and South Asians.

So how does Bentonville do this? Well, it is in a beautiful part of the Ozarks of NW Arkansas, with (as mentioned) the University just 32 miles south in Fayetteville, and the arty town of Eureka Springs in the mountains an hour to the East. But, of course, it is also the home of WalMart, the world’s largest retailer and a huge employer. Not only did this result in the Crystal Bridges Museum, but it, along with two other major employers, Tyson Chicken (accounting for the Latino workers) and JB Hunt trucking, has led to a real tax base, allowing this small town to provide public works. One example is the beautiful Lawrence children's sprinkler park just north of the hotel, through which (to the accompaniment of a din of joyful screams) we walked to the trailhead to Crystal Bridges; we are told it is flooded to make an ice rink in the winter. Real estate seems to have really taken off just in the last 3-4 years, possibly in part due to the museum; we saw a lovely frame house on the main street, and Zillow said it was about 2500 sf and $525,000 – and that it last sold in 2012 for $150,000! That would be a lot of home improvement, and clearly mostly due to a bump in the market, especially downtown.

But there is, of course, a price to pay for the vibrancy and beauty of the town, for the restaurants, and farmer’s markets, and sprinkler park, and it is more than the rise in housing prices. It is a price paid by other small towns across the Midwest and South and across the country, whose downtowns are not vibrant but are ghost towns, whose town squares are surrounded by consignment stores selling second-hand goods (maybe an occasional actual “antique”) to each other and to those visitors who come through. In these towns, often the only restaurants are fast-food franchises, not locally sourced upscale eateries, and the only place to shop is – the Walmart, usually located outside of town, never downtown. We have been to many, many towns, in Kansas and Missouri and Oklahoma and Texas and other states in this situation. A few, with extra resources such as a college (e.g., Winfield, KS) have some activity downtown, or have been the focus of rebuilding after destruction (e.g., Greensburg, KS after the tornado leveled it) with walkable streets, stores and a high school that you don’t need a car to drive to. But these are the exceptions; driving to Bentonville we passed many troubled Missouri towns. Most of our small towns are not far from drying up and blowing away, and if they survive, there will be no “there” there, just the Walmart on the edge of town.

Bentonville is a very cool place, a great destination, both for the amazing museum and its other infrastructure. It would probably be a great place to live. But it is not happening in most places. There have always been more and less prosperous towns, but in the case of Bentonville compared to other regional town, the role of Walmart as the benefactor of one and cause of killing the economy of others, is particularly stark.

[i] Unlike some smaller-city museums where the art seems to be organized by donor, and is jarring and disjointed in trying to understand a period.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Caucusing for Bernie in Kansas

On Saturday March 5 I went to a nearby high school in Kansas City, KS, where I live, to the Democratic Caucus so I could caucus for Bernie Sanders. I had never been to a caucus before; in 2008, intending to caucus for Barack Obama, I came late and couldn’t get near the school. This year one had to register between 1 and 3, and we got there early; the lines were long and there were still people in line at 3 (they got in; we waited). I’m not quite sure why the process takes so long; part of it is needing to ensure voters are registered Democrats (or, also time-consuming, register them on-site); some may be poor organization.

Wyandotte County, where KC, KS is, is one of the few Democratic counties in Kansas, and I was not too surprised at the large turnout, which in fact set a record for this particular caucus with over 1,0000 people, beating 2008. The fact that there were more Sanders than Clinton supporters was obvious early; as we searched for seats, we found ourselves in the Clinton section because, well, that’s where the chairs were – we, of course, moved. They tried putting us in groups of 10, lining us up in chairs, but as the crowds swelled they eventually had to move us up to the gym, with the two groups facing each other like fans of opposing basketball teams. There were a lot more Bernie supporters.
It took a long time, but finally the count was in and Bernie won 782-231. Then we could elect 12 representatives to join the other caucus reps in our KS Third Congressional District (143 in all) on April 2. Bernie won the state by 2:1 and will get 23 of Kansas’ 33 delegates. He also won Democratic caucuses in nearby Nebraska, as well as Oklahoma and Colorado. So he is popular among Democrats here in this deep red state.

But I get the sense that he is maybe not so popular among the Democratic establishment. As I said, this is a Democratic county, and several elected state representatives and a state senator were there; all but the senator, who ran the show, were caucusing for Clinton. Each side got one speaker, and the Clinton speaker indicated that she had been a Democrat for 45 years, and that now was Hillary’s “time”. There was a sense that these “new” people who were here, caucusing for Sanders, were perhaps interlopers, not true Democrats, not paid their dues.

And probably that is true. The cool thing about the caucus is that, even though it takes hours, compared to very little time to vote in a primary, you get to actually see all the people and interact with a lot of them. My group of 10 had a couple of retired people, 5 or 6 young people, some working and some students, and a couple of middle-aged people. Virtually all the young people were on the Sanders side. While there was a much higher proportion of African-Americans on Clinton’s side, there were many on Sanders’; they were a smaller percent, but maybe as many. There were also older people, retired people, working people, and a lot of people who had not been previously invested in the political process. So, maybe they had not paid their dues, maybe they had not earned their “chops” with the Democratic party. So what? They were Americans, and they were here now, and they were newly invested in caring who was the next president. That is 100% good. It could help the Democrats win. Even if the person they elect is not the one chosen by those who have been long-term Democrats.

There is a good chance that Clinton will win the nomination, and I will vote for her against whichever of the right wingers, mostly proto-fascists, wins the Republican nomination. I think lots of people will. But I fear that a lot of the folks who turned out for Bernie will not bother to vote. Is it a victory for the Democratic establishment if they get “their” candidate nominated but lose the general election? It is, as President Obama demonstrated twice in winning the presidency (and yes, Republicans trying to block him appointing someone to the Supreme Court, the American people HAVE spoken!) about bringing new people into the political process. This is the goal, both for the Democrats and for democracy.

The politicians from the legislature talked about how hard it is being a Democrat in that body, and how terribly reactionary the atmosphere in Topeka has become. They want us to elect more Democrats to the legislature. They also talked about how important it would be to not only elect a Democratic president, but to replace many of the Republicans in the House and Senate. And, yet, what are they doing in Kansas? In 2010, the blue-dog Democratic congressman from the 3rd district retired, and a 34-year old Republican legislator was elected to the seat. In 2012, when he was completing his first term, the Democrats ran NO ONE against him! This year, there is someone, a legislator told me at the caucus, actually two people, one someone no one has ever heard of and the other someone whose name he couldn’t even remember. Is this the way the Kansas Democratic Party will take back what should be a winnable seat? Why are none of these relatively well-known legislative leaders running? Gave up already?

Of course, Kansas is a red state, and will go Republican in November. Our reprehensible Electoral College system means all of its votes will go to the Republican, whatever happens in the popular vote. This means that even if there is a huge increase in the percent of Kansans voting Democratic in November compared to 2012 (and there will be, because of the immense unpopularity of Governor Brownback and his minions, whose policies have bankrupted the state), it will have no greater impact than it did in 2012.

Indeed, most of the states where there have been caucuses or primaries have been solid red; Clinton’s big victory in South Carolina will avail the Democrats nothing in November. Only a few blue states (MN, MA, VT) and swing states (VA, CO, NH, NV) have voted so far. In this sense, it is irrelevant whether Clinton or Sanders win the red states, except to the extent that who is the eventual nominee may impact how many new, young, voters turn out in the general election in OH, PA, VA, FL, NC, CO and possibly NH and NV where the election will be decided.

It is pretty clear that there will be many more if Bernie is the candidate, and none of them will be dissuaded by Republicans calling him a Jewish Socialist. On the other hand, Clinton may bring out a larger African-American turnout in these swing states. But this has to be the question now: how can we vitalize both the Democratic Party and democracy?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Snow, the dogs and memories

Well, it’s the first snow of the season, at least for me and the dogs. Kansas City had some snow over the holidays when were out of town (Pat is again out of town, missing this); we saw the remains of it on the north sides of buildings and walls. But this is fresh snow to wake up to; not too much, only an inch or two, but enough to carpet all the streets and sidewalks and bushes and grass, and to make it necessary to put on boots for our walk (for me, not the dogs). Also warm clothes, because it is also about 8 degrees, which we consider chilly in these parts. Temperatures have been up and down, a combination of climate change and the fact that KC sits smack in the middle of several weather systems; last weekend it was even colder (4 with a wind chill of -13 on Sunday) but it was dry; by Thursday we had a sunny 62! Last night we were outside on a clear 30 degree night, and I told Becky on the phone how that was quite pleasant – didn’t really even need gloves. Not this morning, though.

The snow was pretty virginal, and so Fry, Maggie and I were the first ones to walk in it out of our building and down the street, although a couple of folks had cleaned paths from their front yards to the curb. Almost no one shovels their sidewalks, but a couple of people with snowblowers like to get them out. The real problem walking dogs in snow is when there is a lot of it, and most people haven’t cleared their sidewalks so you walk in the street, but the plows have piled the snow up by the curbs making it difficult to get out of the way if cars come careening toward you, which happens too often. But not a problem today.

It was also Maggie’s first snow-walk with us, although at 5 years old I’m sure she has seen it; we just adopted her after Thanksgiving, to try to fill some of the hole left by Yonkel’s passing last spring. At first, and indeed second, glance she looks a lot like Fry, but in reality she is much stockier and stronger, a combination of golden Lab and Rhodesian Ridgeback, to Fry’s golden retriever and beagle. She has no ridge on her back, but is a fast powerful runner like that breed. She also pulls a lot walking, but the Halti collar helps. On the other hand, while she has been known to bolt from the car and run like a crazy dog for laps around the park, she is too bulky to get under the fences in the backyard, and is not driven by Fry’s beagle-like commitment to trying, so I can let her out to run in the yard, while keeping Fry on the retractable leash.

My friend Barry, the inveterate outdoorsman, says (probably quoting someone else) that there is no such thing as “too cold”, just “insufficient gear”. Maybe, but sufficient gear can be bulky and restrict movements a bit. Not quite like the little brother in “Christmas Story” or those depicted in cartoons who are so bundled up they cannot move, or wearing what the now-disgraced Bill Cosby called “idiot mittens”, connected by an elastic band that ran from one to another across your shoulders under your coat (so called because ostensibly if someone pulled one, the other smacked you in your face; I saw but never actually wore these!). But enough so you don’t move as easily, and frankly taking the gloves off to pick up after the dog can not only be cold, but occasionally messy.

This is, of course, why one of the woolen gloves I usually wear is sitting on a towel on the window sill drying slowly, after being washed out. I hope it dries before it freezes. Obviously, the best way to dry it is on the radiator, but
this requires having radiators, and only one house that I have lived in since being an adult had them, and it is not this one. Putting it on top of a forced-air vent would work if they were on the floor, but in this place they are all in the ceiling. From a physics point of view that makes sense for the AC (cold air descends) but less for heat. Having them on the floor can be inconvenient, as small things roll into them, I remember from the house where I had them, especially when there are small children, but there are also compensating advantages. I have very “warm” memories of finding my son Matt downstairs on cold Chicago morning, in his pajamas sitting on such a vent! (Somewhere there is a picture of this, but I can’t find it, so I’ll just use one of the two boys crawling around on the floor there.)

So there it is; we’re back in the house, it’s sunny outside, the dogs are basking in it on the couch, I have brushed the snow off the cars (nice part about very cold; easy to brush off),  I’ll eat breakfast, and maybe soon we’ll have a fire.