Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Small-scale Public Art Makes a Big Statement About Place

I stay sane (somewhat) when I travel by walking every morning , no matter what city I am in. Some I visit more often than others. Sometimes there are great gaps between visits and it’s fun to see the changes and evolution, either good or bad, these places go through. This morning it was Tacoma. It was my first time back in almost a year. The changes were evident, and not just because the economy has improved. There were still a number of downtown storefronts that were empty, vacant for what appeared to be some time.

The University of Washington has committed to a campus in the downtown core, with 5,000 students attending. The result is a plethora of shops, restaurants, renovated and re-gentrified downtown urban residential, from old character homes subdivided into suites, to tired and largely uninspiring vanilla apartment buildings with signs advertising, “Completely new interiors!”, to new hip urban lofts over retail. This didn’t all happen in the less than a year since I last took my early morning walk along Broadway Avenue. Clearly.

Last visit I was inspired by the very public display of public outreach the city went to in order to collect input on what to do with the downtown. On the side of an old building were large black chalkboards, inviting residents to complete phrases like, “DOWNTOWN to me is …” and “I live DOWNTOWN because …”. Very cool, and some surprisingly thoughtful input. And gutsy to be that wide open in seeking input.

But back to the empty, distressed retail spaces. They still exist today, but the City of Tacoma has embraced this reality, and rather than hiding from it, or relegating it to some form of expected urban blight, they’ve found a powerful way to celebrate it. There are storefronts turned into art galleries. Large, expansive window displays, spanning near full city blocks, filled with art, sculpture, prints (part of the hipster culture in Tacoma, with a print made for many of the independent bands that are the lifeblood of the region’s local music scene), each one curated and narrated with the care given to the works of the Great Masters. I’m not that awake at 5:30am when I walk, so I found myself working to shake off the grip of the sleepy cobwebs in my brain to enjoy the display.

I saw connections everywhere. The printmaking culture, and the shop advertising barely scented soap, and purveyors of other local handmade goodness. The “green” culture so prevalent in the NW, and the sign in the local brewpub window advertising “Bike to a Business Thursdays” and get 10% off. The slip street with the yoga studio, music store and one of those galleries suggesting you uncork your creativity by sipping wine as you paint, and the name of the street, Opera Alley. By about 20 minutes into my walk I am wide awake and these connections are popping out at me at every turn.

A bus stop-like structure rising from the sidewalk interrupted my pace – the Tollbooth Gallery. Billed as the “World’s (or at least the South Sound’s) Smallest Art Gallery” – put in place with a vision to create site-specific experimental art, it was a simple and brilliant idea. If it can withstand the rains of the Northwest and still function, with both audio and video intact, I’m thinking this has potential everywhere. The exhibit on display today in Tacoma explores the evolution from film to video and celebrates the short format. The film being shown was simply about a stump that washed up on shore in Commencement Bay and the role trees, and pulp and paper have had in the evolution of the Northwest’s identity.  
This act of slowing down, and looking up from the small iPhone screen in my hand at any given moment, made me see the potential for connection, and the power of this simple interactive format, as a way to bring to life the rich traditions and cultures of different communities. Long live independent small-scale public art I say!



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Paying it Forward Shows up in Unexpected Places

And maybe that’s the point. Like tucked in the rim of a Life is good ball cap in the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. When shopping a week ago for an inspirational pick-me-up for my brother Richard, who’s going through a tough time, I discovered this $5 bill tucked in the rim of a mustard-colored hat displayed on a hat holder. Not one that was on the table and more likely to be picked up, but the one on the display rack, placed there intentionally. I checked it for size, pulling back the rim, and viola. The folded $5 bill fell out into my hand.

Finding a $5 bill there was so incongruent it made me think. But it was clear within moments that this was an intentional random act of kindness, or an example of someone paying it forward. Like when you pull up to the window at the Starbucks drive-thru to pay for your drink and the barista tells you the driver in front of you bought your drink. Someone had left this to be found, and I was the one to do so.

The responsibility I feel for that $5 bill has been with me all week. Clearly it must be passed along, but where and how? Leaving my hotel room in Dallas a few days ago I was greeted by the housekeeper, a woman with the most glorious ear-to-ear grin who wished me a great day, authentically, not just obligatorily. So I thought, maybe it’s meant for her! Then I remembered my travel habit of always just leaving the key to my room on the desk when I leave the final time. So, no chance to go back in and plant it somewhere she would find it. Must mean it’s meant for another time and place.

I feel the power of the gift I am now required to leave. And the energy, emotion and the mystery of the giver who placed it in the rim of that cap in Seattle. It’s already travelled from Seattle, to Kelowna, to San Diego, to Dallas, and now back again to San Diego since being in my protective possession. Where it will end up I don’t yet know, but I hope the small act of placing it somewhere to be found by a total stranger will have the impact it has had on me. You don’t get to know when or where kindness will show up. And when it does? Breathe it in, and pass it along.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Fourth of July - an intersection of community

As a Canadian living in the US the first week of July is always a great experience. July 1st is Canada Day, the day my home country achieved independence from England (in 1867), and July 4th is of course, well July 4th, or as I hear most people refer to it, simply "the 4th". Both holidays share many things in common. A day off work. Fun outdoor summertime food and drink. National anthems. Flags hung on front porches. Parades. Fireworks. Friends and family getting together. 

But behind all these traditions, these holidays provide a platform for spontaneous creation of community. Last week at The Vine, a conference on the nature of community, held the day before PCBC, one of the morning sessions introduced me to Nina Simon, and her work on audience participation in cultural institutions, specifically the work she has done at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, She made me think about "participation" in community of all kinds.

Take the events that many will share this weekend. Community will be formed in large groups and small, all over the country, as people come together and celebrate with people they know, and others they have never met. I'll bring my tomato-mozzarella-basil skewers, you bring your famous family recipe potato salad, and we'll put both on paper plates next to our BBQ brats. Nina shared stories about these intersections in life where we come together with others not like us and share a common experience.

July 4th is an iconic example of a participatory experience, where strangers come together with friends and positively interact with each other, leaving this experience with hopefully a new bit of insight, or appreciation for those they shared it with, the recognition that this is what really makes community.

Happy 4th everyone. Keep your eyes and ears open for new intersections. Take risks. Create collisions. Experience your community in its fullest form.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Keep up with the comps? Or create a new path?

Plenty of business travel = many hotel nights. One flag is much like the other, and in fact most times on check-in I forget which loyal customer card to pull out. Free WIFI, free bottled water, complimentary made-to-order breakfasts, free morning newspaper. Whatever it is, the hotel world suffers from conspicuous competition. 

It got worse a few years ago, when every big brand jumped on the "save the environment" schtick. It seems each hotel branded their own version of their giving back program with a clever name and a promise they care about the good of the planet. 

After spending a few days in San Francisco this week at the Pacific Coast Builders Conference (and earning another 3 nights' of hotel stays!) I'm struck by the fact that home and community development share the same challenge as the hospitality world. 

Too much time focused on the competition and what they are doing = "competitive myopia" (credit to Youngme Moon, author of Different). And nothing generates conformity quite as completely as a good comparable metric staring you in the face. When we spend too much time keeping up with the comps and looking over our shoulder at what they are doing we lose the point of it all, which is to create excitement, energy and sustainable meaningful moments of truth and delight that our customers can't get anywhere else, or  from everyone else doing the same thing we do. 

What's the next big idea in home and community development? I'm not sure I heard it this week. I heard a lot of good variations on a theme. And I came back to my daily reality with the belief that there's white space out there to be occupied by creative minds with the guts to take a risk and the follow through to deliver, and a renewed belief that we need to tear it all away. 

Stop looking at each other. Start thinking like a discerning customer again. What would they like to see from our business? How would they like to be treated? What would we keep and what would we toss out from our business models today? Clearly a few more hours of thought needs to go into this "how might we" ... 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The writing life.

A few weeks ago I cleaned out the final remnants of my high school, university and early adult life from an old trunk they'd been occupying in my parents' house in Canada. Memories came to technicolor life, some excruciatingly happy, some brutally sad. Some big wins, and some real losses. Each one of these remnants, I can see now, have made me who I am. Every weakness, flaw, imperfection. Every wish and hope. 

Some of my favorite finds were my words from those days when I was discovering this world and who I am. Like this, an opening to a story - autobiographical, no matter how hard I tried in my youth to mask it! Perhaps one day soon I will finish it. I can feel the ending now.

"I remember those nights I used to come down to the seashore and walk along the train tracks beside the water. I’d find a big rock, out on the shore’s edge, and sit. Just sit there, cross-legged and lean back on my palms to stare at the sky. So many stars, bright ones, dull ones, too many to count. I’d look for the constellations they taught us about in school. All I remembered were two dippers, a bear, and something called the Evening Star, which was really Venus. I looked up anyway, drawn by the brilliance.

The smell of salty air and the sound of the sea was all about. Sometimes a big wave would come, crashing so violently the spray would shoot up and get me wet. Waves. They started out as dark ridges moving toward the shore. Then they seemed to pick up speed, and crash with a smack into the land. They turned from blue to white, and sloshed rhythmically against a log. The sole purpose of the log seemed just to be there at that moment in time, for the waves.

I gained so much motivation from nature. There were the nights I would go home, and plunk myself in front of the typewriter, trying to type out all the great thoughts and story ideas that had just come to me. It was important to do this before they disappeared. I would have taken the machine with me to the beach, but there was nowhere to plug it in. Yes, I was a writer, or at least I was trying to convince myself I was one.

It was a night like this one in the heat of the summer when it all started. I was leaning over the White Rock pier, gazing down into the water, completely caught up in my writer’s mind, when I felt a stranger walk up and stand beside me. Even though I knew I didn’t know him, it was a warm feeling. When he spoke, his voice was oddly familiar."