Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Everyone Loves Raymond?

Sorry for the long blogging absence. I have had a very busy semester this fall, with a masters project, Michigan football games, church activities, a needy cat, and spouse (nearly twice as busy as I) all taking rightful time away from the webblog. My apologies.

I learned many years ago that relaxing is a good thing, especially when you sit at attention most of the day. Over the past six months I become particularly attached to Everyone Loves Raymond, a show that I used to roll my eyes at a few years earlier. Some might say that I've become a sentimental person; to that I can plead guilty, although such traits have long manifested themselves in me (One of my favorite weepers is the Notebook, I occasionally catch myself reading Readers Digest, etc). I must admit that I haven't been watching much of the Colbert Report of late, due in part to the strike and the fact that I'm either asleep or working on homework at 11:30pm.

Everyone Loves Raymond appeals in many ways to my love of routine. While the writing in the show is decent, the story line revolves around conflicts that are familiar to most families; in-laws, siblings, and other mundane details that make life so interesting and alive. Yet this tension works into a nice routine as well, as an effective relationship is able to incorporate this tension into daily life. While the show is scripted, makes me laugh and nod my head at the same time.

If anyone wants to read a great critique of the show, check out this article from a few years back.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Destroy Record Companies with Radiohead

Thanks to Radiohead, one won't need to pay a record company for the privilege of listening to a great band's music. One just purchases the tracks on the band's website at the price that one determines to be the best. Of course record companies are up in arms about this, as once the bands realize that they can effectively distribute their album to fans without having to get screwed over by the record company, the game is up for the money hogs on 5th Ave.

So, no surprises from the karma police when one downloads from the Radiohead website. You'll be high and dry with nice dreams.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ypsilanti in the News

Last semester I worked on a redevelopment project for the City of Ypsilanti. My team's project focused on providing a revitalization plan for the Cross Street Commercial District which borders Eastern Michigan University (If anyone is interested in reading it, let me know via email, and I'll send you a PDF copy). Many people in the area are down on Ypsilanti, as its' economy is in the dumps, taxes are high, and it has a very gritty feel. I personally really enjoyed working in Ypsilanti, especially with the local residents who remain strongly committee to their town, despite the less than stellar leadership from many in the local government and business organizations.

That leadership deficit might be changing. According to this article in Crain's Detroit Business news, it appears that some housing projects are in the works, and from what I know about these developers, they have a history of good work in my hometown of Grand Rapids. I'm also happy that it mentions some of the work done by our Urban Planning class last winter. I am hopeful about these housing developments, although these projects alone will not bring Ypsi from the brink. The redevelopment project along Water Street, as well restored intergovernmental revenue funds, will help to return Ypsi to fiscal well-being.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

1962 Revisited?

This past weekend I attended the first-ever Michigan Policy Summit, which was sponsored by a host of progressive organizations interested in creating a Democratic ideal machine. It was great to see a great number of people who are seriously interested in preserving our state's priorities and fiscal health in an age of economic change.

For those friends of mine who do not follow Democratic politics closely, this is an era of transition for the Democratic Party. As detailed by Matt Bai in The Argument, since the 2004 election, various groups of Democrats, sometimes known as the "netroots" have been working with other wings of the party to create an intellectual machine that can match the Republican friendly institutes such as Cato, Heritage, Hoover and the American Enterprise Institutes. In Michigan, momentum has been growing to create a progressive think tank similar to the libertarian Mackinaw Center for Public Policy and the Acton Institute. It is about time for the left to build this infrastructure within our state. Part of the Democratic timidness in this current budget battle in Lansing is due to a lack of fresh ideas that legislatures can push for.

Our state party has long lived in the shadow of "Soapy" Williams (in the photo above) Democratic Party, which thrived in the years of labor peace and prosperity that a manufacturing economy brought from 1945 to 1967. Over time the party has splintered along suburban-urban and regional lines, and the Republican Party has exploited this numerous times. A new Democratic Party is slowly emerging, and it may already be present in 2010, when 31 of 38 State Senators, 46 of 109 of State Representatives, and all the executive officials of the state (the Governor, Secretary of State, and the Attorney General) are forced to step down.

As Rick Perlstein notes in his perceptive The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo, majorities are built over decades, not within an election cycle. A wise Democratic strategy would address the decline of Michigan's suburbs, and work on providing serious land-use reform that would serve both our central cities and suburbs, much like the Michigan Suburbs Alliance is doing. Any Democrat would be wise to read Charles Ballard's Michigan's Economic Future, which addresses the structural problems facing Michigan's economy and budget. The solutions in this work, while jarring, are an effective mixture of cuts, government restructuring, and tax code reform that would help reform Michigan's sorry budget process. These two steps might help Michigan emerge from this period of economic stagnation and thoughtless Republican governance.

1962 represented the high water mark of the William's Democratic Party. Let's hope that the Michigan Democratic Party began walk forward to this moment again this past Saturday

Sunday, September 2, 2007

End of the Summer

Summer will end again tomorrow evening, and it certainly was an eventful season. From getting a new car, helping my sister move to Philadelphia last week, I did a lot more than I thought I would do, especially in terms of travel. There is a lot more that I could talk about, but I will mention a few highlights from the summer:

-Watching my wife finish her CPE work and talking ordination exams.

-Spending time with family at the cottage on Lake Michigan.

-Attending a number of weddings of dear friends.

-Working at the Institute for Social Research, where I had a wonderful group of co-workers and interesting projects to participate in.

-Taking a Econ class at a community college.

I am looking forward to another semester of school, but I still am getting the melancholy feeling that I used to get every Labor Day weekend when I was a kid. I never wanted summer to end, even when I was in high school. Oh well, it does end, and I'll have a few postings next week on my schedule for the fall semester.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A History Lesson

Since Susan and I joined the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor in October of last year, I have slowly been taking stock of my new church home. Leaving the CRC for a more mainline denomination has been full of challenges and joys, just as a move the opposite direction might incure. Our church is a rather large congregation, with over 2,000 members and four services on Sunday. Being the good Dutch Calvinist, I try to do two services a day, although at times I am at times a bit tempted to go for a walk at night instead. One thing I really enjoy about First Presbyterian is the preaching; we have a fine number of pastors, including one ex-CRCer, who has helped to make this transition a bit easier.

This pastor made a recommendation to me after a new members class, in which I should put my brain to work and read a bit on Presbyterian history. As the University of Michigan has one of the great library systems of the modern world, I was able to find a number of titles over the past year and delve further in learning about my new denomination.

After reading a number of books, I feel that I have a better grasp of Presbyterian history. It is a long story, spanning over 300 years in the United States, and another 150 years in Europe. Since the beginning of the existence of the Presbyterian Church in 1703, the church has confronted a pluralistic world. As artfully told by Randy Balmer (whom one played putt-putt golf with me when I was a little kid at one of my Dad's conferences), the Presbyterian church grew in the Middle Colonies, which was the first long-term experiment of religious and ethnic diversity in British North America. Like many denominations, the young Presbyterian church was torn apart during the Great Awakening of the 1740s, although the denomination reunited in 1758. It is interesting that during the Colonial period the Presbyterians held much in common with the Congregationalists (Puritans) of New England, as they shared a common Calvinist theology and British heritage (For a long and demanding work on the intellectual currents in England and American Calvinism check out Foster's The Long Argument). After the conclusion of the American Revolution (which Presbyterians strongly supported), the Presbyterian church held its first General Assembly in 1789.

Another trend threading through Presbyterian history is division. The main Presbyterian church has broken a number of times. As mentioned above, the denomination split in 1741 over the Great Awakening. The church reunited, but split again in 1837 over a number of issues, among them slavery, regional tensions, and the evangelicalism promoted by the "New School" faction of the denomination (which hailed primarily from the Midwest, New York, and New England) and was opposed by the "Old School" which found most of its members from the Middle Atlantic states, the South, and found its intellectual leadership from Princeton Theological Seminary. For a better explanation of this split, consult George Marsden's The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience. After the Civil War Presbyterians reunited on sectional lines, and remained so arrayed well past 1945. The northern church split again in the 1920s along the fundamentalist/liberal lines that broke many a mainline denomination during this period. Of all the books that I read, I rate Bradley Longfield's The Presbyterian Controversy as the most informative work. Longfield gives a great retelling of the battles of the 1920s by telling the stories of members of the church who found themselves on both sides of the debate.

In this day and age the PCUSA remains bedeviled by division. Some churches, mainly in the South, left the denomination in the 1960s and 1970s on issues of theology and civil rights (as they were opposed to their church supporting equal rights for all citizens) and formed the Presbyterian Church of America. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church was formed in 1983 as a reaction against the growing liberalism within the church, although it remains small in number. There is much dissent within the church today over issues of homosexual ordination and the interpretation of scriptures, and it remains to see how Presbyterians will congregate in their fourth century of existence.

I am glad to be learning about my new church home and am hopeful about my new denomination and fellow reformed family members in other denomations. I am glad that the PCUSA has room for evangelicals such as myself, and I am especially happy that my wife has begun the ordination process within our denomination. With any luck she will be able to look for a call at some point next year, and so I'm enjoying my weekly visit to the PCUSA website and looking a various church jobs all over the United States. Of course, Susan has the ordination exams staring in her face at the end of this month, so please continue to pray for her studying and persistence. I am not worried about her abilities, although I would recommend a week of reading Presbyterian history to better approach various theological questions. To be sure, I lean towards overkill when it comes to church history.

Summer Reading: Part II

My recent reading list unintentionally has focused on urban issues. While I'm in a superb urban planning program, I try to keep the summer readings focused on items that I do not have time to read about during the other three-fourths of the year.

It wasn't until I visited Detroit in late July that I realized that most of the titles that I was reading focused to some extent on the riots the rocked Detroit forty years ago this past July. The picture in this post is borrowed from the cover of Thomas Sugrue's The Orgins of the Urban Crisis (1997), which is an excellent analysis of the urban problems facing the Detroit metropolitan region in the years after WWII. Sugrue demolishes the commonly held perception that the riots were a cause of Detroit's urban decline; rather, it's decline led to the riots that occurred in the summer of 1967. Sugrue details the massive manufacturing job losses, ethnic flight to the suburbs in Wayne and Macomb County in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the crippling effect the interstate highway system had upon existing urban neighborhoods. I would highly recommend reading Sugrue's work if you have an interest in urban history. I would also suggest reading Kevin Boyle's excellent essay reflecting on the impact of the riots on southeastern Michigan.

Two books by Robert Beauregard, an urban historian at Columbia University, focused on the America's transformation into a suburban nation from 1950 to 2000. Voices of Decline (2003) dealt with varying interpretations of fates that touched most urban centers in the US, while When America Became Suburban (2006) narrates the increasing identification of America as a suburban nation in the late 1950s and 1960s, and the implications of this transformation. Both works are lighter on the analytical side, but do an excellent job at examining the thinking of various city planners, intellectuals, and national leaders during this fifty year period.

Evelyn Gonzales's The Bronx (2004) was a title that I have long been waiting to read. I know little about the Bronx besides the fact that the Yankees play there and that it has a zoo. Gonzales's work, a revision of her dissertation, focuses on the urban growth within Bronx County from 1840 to the present, and does a decent job detailing the physical changes that occurred within various sections of the city. This work really should be titled The South Bronx, as the book focuses on this part of the borough, and even with this title the book has several weaknesses. First, the description of the neighborhoods is surface deep, and the maps the accompany various chapters of woefully inadequate to the task of explaining a part of NYC that numbers 1.5 million people. Still, this is a good book to read if you want to learn more about NYC, and are waiting for a history of Brooklyn to be published.

Two other lighter reads that I finished this past week were Mark Hinshaw's True Urbanism (2007) and Harm de Blij's Why Geography Matters (2005). The latter book is a slimmed down version of the textbook that I used for my World Regions Geography class that I took at Calvin College almost ten years ago with Professor Curry. This class remains one of my favorite classes that I took while in college, as it opened my mind up to entirely new way of thinking about the regions of the world. True Urbanism was a much less exciting book, examining the return of residents to downtown regions of various US cities. Much of it was stories and simple little pithy lessons. Don't bother with this one.j

The final title that was on my nightstand over the past few weeks was Jon Peterson's The Birth of City Planning in the United States (2003). This was a good overview for the earliest days of the city planning profession, but clearly felt like a dry revised dissertation. I did enjoy reading about some of the feuding between the early leaders in the field, as planners duked it out over a variety of issues, including the City Beautiful movement, zoning, and the role of the national government in planning.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Summer Reading

What I like the most about the summer months is that once the school work is done, there is plenty of time to read. I always have plenty of reading recommendations for friends, and this batch of material is also worthy of a mention.

1. "The History Boys" by David Halberstam. Halberstam, who died earlier this past spring, was an enormously influential public historian who wrote about topics as diverse as the American auto industry to the Vietnam War. In his last essay, published posthumously by Vanity Fair, Halberstam attacks President Bush's argument that he is the new Harry Truman, and the administration's general and careless embrace of history. I especially appreciate Halberstam's smashing critique of comparing Americans who oppose the war in Iraq as "appeasers" and "traitors wishing for another Yalta." Halberstam correctly notes the enormous difference between the current administration's interpretation of Yalta and the reality of the situation in 1945; namely that the Americans could do nothing about eastern Europe in February of 1945, as the Soviet Union had well over 5 million troops occupying these lands, and were at the gates of Berlin. Even the neo-conservatives' hero, Winston Churchill, noted that there was nothing that the UK or the USA could do about the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe. There was nothing Truman could do either, and there is little to suggest that Bush would have done any of the painstaking alliance building that Truman did to create NATO, the UN, the WTO and many other international organizations that the current President has little time for. The article also has this great parody of Ben West's The Death of Wolfe done by Edward Sorel. Truly the apotheosis of the neo-conservative hero.

2. Stephen Carter's New England White. Producing another mystery regarding upper-class African Americans, Carter a great scholar and novelist. If you like history, a book that teaks Yale University, and fast-paced book of 600 pages, this is for you. New England White is not quite as good as The Emperor of Ocean Park, but still a good second effort.

3. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. While I moved away from doing Civil War history as a paying gig, I still enjoy reading books regarding various military campaigns. This book, written by academic historians William Shea and Earl Hess, is well suited for a popular audience. The writing style is brisk, free from academic jargon, and is an excellent introduction to the Civil War in the Trans-Missouri Theater of operations. I would recommend it for anyone, especially should you be visiting the battlefield in the near future (I still have not been here myself). My next Civil War read is Stephen Rhea's The Battle of the Wilderness, which is the first title in a five volume series on the Eastern Theater in 1864.

4. Not a book per-se, but a blog about a planner's road trip on US Highway 50. I really enjoyed reading this, as the author traveled through an assortment of regions and communities, each facing different development and regional planning issues. If you have time to read his entire story, check it out.

I am currently reading some planning books (which I will post on at a later time), and various titles regarding Presbyterian History. If anyone has any recommendations on the latter topic, I would appreciate any suggestions.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Since you've been gone....FAQ!

Q: Where the heck have you been?
A: Ummm, I had a busy semester. I know that sounds lame, but I didn't feel like blogging much over the past four months since I talked about Susan getting into a car accident. As always, I over loaded on courses, and this semester I had an especially enjoyable heavy load. Plus, I took two summer classes, which ended last week, and have been working full time since Memorial Day.

Q. OK, so you had a busy semester. Did you want to tell us about any classes that you took?
A. Perhaps my favorite class was one in which I worked on a redevelopment project of the City of Ypsilanti. For those of you who don't know, Ypsilanti is a town 10 minutes away from Ann Arbor, and is home of Eastern Michigan University and a host of urban ills. I was in an great group that created a plan to revitalize the commercial district near Eastern Michigan University. To see the plan, check it out here (if the link does not work, please let me know, and I'll email a copy of the report to you.

I also took classes in Urban Poverty, Governmental Finance, Geographic Information Systems, and an independent study in Planning History. Good times, but I was glad when everything finished on April 27.

Q. So if you finished school in late April, why didn't you start blogging again then?
A. I started two summer classes after a week of vacation. I took a Microeconomics class (to meet a program requirement) and a class in advanced statistics. Both of these classes, while somewhat enjoyable, had a heavy work load. Plus, I worked for a week on my parents new cottage before beginning my summer job after Memorial Day.

Q. Ok, a lot of information here. First, your parents are building a cottage? Why would two ex-1960s counter-cultural types become landed gentry and build an estate on the backs of the poor?
A. Good question. First, my parents wanted a place for the entire family to gather together in the shadow of Lake Michigan. As for this new cottage, not only will we serve the Lord, but also future Bratt grandchildren will be trained in Dutch Calvinism, the finer points of Reformed Theology, the importance of restoring a national governing Democratic coalition to redress the past 12 years of GOP wrongs, and simply a place to have fun. I'll post a link to some photos I've taken in the near future.

Q. That sounds good. You also mentioned that you started a summer job. I thought graduate students spent the summer trying to understand what hit them over the past academic year.
A. Most people might consider some vacation to be prudent. However, I got a great job for the summer, and every day of work feels like I'm on vacation. I work at the Institute for Social Research, and I'm doing a great deal of interesting work on various studies. My job will last till early August, and then I'll have a few weeks before classes start again in early September.

Q. Oh no. You have the potential of three weeks free. Don't tell me you are going to be idle and do the devil's work?
A. Not at all. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm going to be working on an article regarding urban planning in Grand Rapids during the late 1950s and early 1960s, so I will be in Grand Rapids for a week doing research and eating at favorite old haunts. I'm also leaving a week to put together some graduate applications for next year, and I will be vacationing with Susan at the cottage as well.

Q. I've gotten the non-important stuff out of the way. On to the real questions. What is new with Susan.
A. Well, her blog will fill one in with any needed information. She has had a busy summer, jumping through a great number of hoops required for ordination in the PCUSA. She is actually in Princeton this week taking a class while I eat away left overs and avoid cooking.

Q. Anything going on with the cat?
A. Not really. She's getting a haircut at some point later this month. She destroyed two of her toys while I was gone last weekend, so I'll need to get her something new soon.

Q. How are you guys doing after the death of your car in February?
A. We are doing OK. Thanks to the sharp eye of Susan's mom, we got a 1994 Buick Century in March, and it has been doing rather well for us. The exciting news is that Susan picked up our new car in Washington DC last week. Hello 2004 Toyota Prius!

Q. That is good news. Perhaps you might be able to do some road tripping now? After all, you have made repeated boasts about planning these great trips, and never actually do it.
A. Very true. I'm hopeful that I'll do some long-distance driving this summer. My sister is starting a Ph.D. program at UPenn this fall, so I'll probably help her move a bit. One of my brothers is beginning graduate work at Stanford this fall as well, although I'll probably save that trip for something that Susan and I can do together later next year.

Q. Thank you for your time, and please blog some more.
A. I'll try!

Grand Rapids Planning

As one who no longer lives in Grand Rapids, I still remain interested in the politics and planning of the city. This August I'll be working on an article about urban planning in the City of Grand Rapids and the surrounding suburbs during the late 1950s and early 1960s. If anyone is interested in this topic, I'll send you an abstract at some point in the near future.

As anyone who hasn't been in a hole for the past ten years knows, there has been a great deal of development in downtown GR. While I have mixed feelings on some of the development (concentration of high tech and medical facilities in a small geographic area causes many residents to be pushed out in the name of growth, huge public funds are used for private development, etc.), on the whole I think that this growth is what has made GR keep its head above water during the decade of depression in Michigan. If anyone is interested in keeping up to date on developments through the greater Grand Rapids area, visit this blog. Chris Knape is a good reporter, and has a keen handle on some of the issues of development in Grand Rapids.