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Archive for May, 2009

Summer patio at Gambardellas

Summer patio at Gambardella's

Holy cats! Gambardella’s is now doing breakfast, and it’s fantastic!

It was just luck that I discovered it, too: I’d had to walk to an ATM before traveling, and my walk back took me along Second Avenue past this classic Fairbanks restaurant.  Their door was open, and they’d put out an “Open” sign.  I stopped in long enough to find out why, then brought my family back later.  (Maybe it wasn’t just luck: I’d never have noticed it if I’d had to drive.)

They have a simple enough breakfast menu: pastries, eggs, bagels, toast, omelettes, coffee, juice, et cetera.  Our portions — my wife got a breakfast burrito with eggs, cheese, and bacon, while I got a frittata with sun-dried tomatoes, onions, and broccoli — were modestly sized, not too large; at the same time, the prices were none too high, in the $3-$4 range (omlettes were $7-$8).  My experience with many breakfast restaurants is just the opposite: both portions and prices are excessive, and I wish they’d just cut both in half. We also each had a latte — only 99 cents through May 29!

Gambardellas middle dining room

Gambardella's middle dining room

Not only were the food and prices reasonable, but Gambardella’s itself is a beautiful environment in which to have breakfast. The building is colorful, a bright spot in a sometimes-dreary downtown plagued by too much gray and beige.  Their interior is comfortable and has high-enough class to make your breakfast feel like a dignified affair — though, as I said, not the prices that would keep you out.  (My only quibble with Gambardella’s is their soundproofing: it’s very noisy at dinner.  But not at breakfast.)

I’m not in the restaurant-review business, nor in the promotion/advertisement business.  But, when something comes into town that gives people something to walk to, gives people a reason to get out of their cars and experience their own neighborhood, that’s exciting.  Of course, The Diner (on Illinois) and the Co-op Diner (in the Two Street Co-op) have been serving breakfast downtown for years.  What makes this special is that it gives people of no special means a chance to enjoy a morning of beauty and elegance (with somebody else doing the dishes) right in their neighborhood.


Gambardella’s is serving breakfast 7-11 a.m., Monday through Friday.  Stop by soon, and help keep this touch of elegance afloat!

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Lewis Feldstein

Lewis Feldstein

Tuesday night (May 12) saw an astounding lecture on social capital: Lewis Feldstein, president of the New Hampsire Charitable Foundation and co-author (with Robert Putnam) of Better Together: Restoring the American Community, spoke at Schaible Auditorium on the topic “Better Together: Community Leadership and Social Capital”.

The lecture, part of UAF’s Northern Leadership Center Lecture Series, presented little that was new to those who had read Better Together and Robert Putnam’s earlier, seminal work, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (on my “Further reading” list) — but it was fun all the same to get a re-cap of some of the exciting points of social capital research.

For those not familiar with the term, social capital is, like physical capital and human capital, a source of wealth — that is, it’s not the wealth itself but a means by which wealth is created.  It is measured by the density of social connections, whether of an individual or within a community — by the degree of organizational membership and social or civic participation.  It has myriad benefits, both to the individual and the community, some of which I’ll touch on here.

On a national level, our social capital increased steadily from the time of the Great Depression — then peaked in the early nineteen-sixties.  By almost all measures, it has been on the decline since then.

These are some of what I found Feldstein’s most interesting points:


There is an old saw about getting jobs: “It’s not what you can do, it’s who you know.”  This is actually quite true. Feldstein referred to a national welfare-reform program of the 1990s.  It worked, for some: those who were already well connected.  If, in their generally low-paid work, they’d had the good fortune to rub elbows with a wide variety of those well off and in a position to offer work or make referrals, their luck was better in finding work later.

This is possible because of “bridging” social capital — the weak connections between prople from unlike groups.  It contrasts with “bonding” social capital — the strong connections we have with people just like us.  Both are important.  Bonding social capital is like superglue; bridging social capital is like WD-40.

You have a roughly equal chance of early death from (a) being morbidly obese, (b) smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, and (b) being absolutely alone (disconnected from others) in your life.

Norms of trust lead to cost savings and greater public safety.  For example: if you are able to trust that your co-workers will not steal your lunch from the staff refrigerator, you are spared the cost of your own private refrigerator and the trouble of continually locking up your food.  Another example: Because we generally trust our fellow citizens to pay their taxes, we ourselves don’t feel like suckers for doing the same; thus, more of us do it and the amount each of us has to pay is less.

Imagine a “bad” neighborhood in your community.  Would you like to improve public safety there?  A ten-percent increase in social capital — whereby the neighbors know each other better and know who is to be trusted — will actually do more for public safety than a ten-percent increase in expenditures for police officers, squad cars, street lighting, and other conventional “public safety” measures.  Similarly with schools: you’ll get improved educational outcomes by a ten-percent spending increase on salaries, computers, supplies, or whatever.  But you’ll get more-improved outcomes with a ten-percent increase in social capital, such as greater connections among teachers, administrators, parents, and students.

Some, hearing this, will say, “See?  That just proves that government gets in the way.  We don’t need any government spending on social programs at all!”  Not true.  For best outcomes, you need both government expenditure and social capital.  [Maybe you could say that best outcomes require many kinds of capital: not only social, but human, physical, and economic — some of which are most efficiently provided by centralized agencies.]

Given two communities of equal income and education levels, the one with high social capital will enjoy greater happiness, greater health, increased safety, better schools, and a local government that is more efficient and less corrupt.  [Feldstein also mentioned some benefit to business.]

Every ten-minute increase in the daily time spent in a car reduces by ten percent your likelihood of doing almost any social activity.

The decline in social capital has been ascribed to number of causes, including:

  • Sprawl: as people spend more time in cars, their ability to participate decreases.  [Also, while in your car, you have almost zero chance of making human connections, which require face-to-face contact and a non-hurried attitude.]
  • Television viewership.  This is the one factor that correlates almost perfectly with the decline in social capital.
  • Workplace model: as two-worker families have become the norm, families have less free time for social engagement.

One of the case studies in Better Together is the culture of UPS, in which relatively little is communicated by memoranda and e-mail.  UPS favors face-to-face communication and small-group meetings; in this way, they build trust.  This is a big lesson of UPS: trust is built by face-to-face contact.

Trust is built by people having the opportunities to hear each other’s stories — not their “Once upon a time” stories, but their answers to questions like, “So, where are you from?” or “What led you take this job?”

Lessons:

  • Usually, social capital is not an end in itself.  It is a means to other ends, and it is built (and drawn upon) by people’s common endeavors: cleaning up a neighborhood, forming a labor union, making a road-crossing safer.
  • Trust is built by starting small.
  • Personal storytelling has an awesome power in generating social capital.  Feldstein and Putnam hadn’t expected this and weren’t looking for it in their initial research.

When the floor was opened to questions, I asked Feldstein: What things can government — whether local, state, or federal — do to increase social capital, or at least create an environment in which it can thrive?  His answer, which he had clearly thought about before, was:

  • Have people drive less and get out of their cars more.
  • Foster smaller institutions.  He specifically mentioned the benefits of smaller schools.
  • Encourage service learning.  Years after their service learning experiences, young people vote more, volunteer more, and trust more than their peers without such experience.
  • Feldstein also suggested (though I don’t know whether this was part of the answer to my question) that we need to figure out how to make the Internet better help people connect at a local level.

Fairbanks is an interesting contradiction: my experience (which may not be representative) is that there is tons of civic involvement here.  The people I know all sit on boards, commissions, and committees — for government, non-profits, and churches.  They’re involved in community theater, political campaigns, and neighborhood governance.  They show up to testify at meetings of the City Council, the Borough Assembly, and the School Board.  I always tell people with pleasure of my experience on a statewide issue campaign: in Anchorage, I hear, they had a paid staffer but very little volunteer help — while in Fairbanks we had a core of about a dozen volunteers, and we had several dozen more (my list included over a hundred) writing letters and making phone calls.  That kind of thing makes me proud to live here.

At the same time, Fairbanks has a major “anti-social” element.  I don’t mean antisocial in the sense of “performing actions that hostile or harmful to society” (at least intentionally); I mean only that there are many people who stand for things in direct opposition to social capital.  They are individualistic and not “joiners”.  They deny having any responsibility for the circumstances of others or any obligation to help them.  They are mistrustful of their neighbors and their government.  They believe that the solution to many institutional problems is not greater involvement in, but detachment from and even dissolution of, those institutions.  For them, governments exist only to foster individualism, and there is no general welfare.

Of course, by saying, “They believe X“, I do a disservice to the limitless variety of human thought.  There really is no “they” who all fit the above bill in one and the same way.  But their voices form a harmony whose major notes are division, distrust, and a want of benevolence.

Where do these voices come from?  Or, more importantly, how do we can we encourage the choir of our community to sing in a more sociable key?  How can we increase citizen participation, cooperation, and trust?


Further information on social capital:

  • The Saguaro Seminar, a source for much of the research on social capital.
  • BetterTogether, an initiative of the Saguaro Seminar, focusing on tools and strategies for social capital-creation.

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Cigarette butts in a driveway in my neighborhood.  Click to enlarge.

Cigarette butts in a driveway in my neighborhood (Click to enlarge)

I went out this Saturday morning with my daughter for Cleanup Day. We decided to work on our immediate neighborhood rather than on one of the main streets.  Our neighborhood needed it badly.

(For those not in Fairbanks, Cleanup Day is an annual ritual here, where hundreds — if not thousands — of Fairbanksans — come out to pick up all the garbage that has been revealed after the snow has melted.  It is sponsored by United Way of the Tanana Valley.)

Just to pick up the garbage on one block adjacent to our house took us an hour.  Now, granted, my older daughter is five years old and couldn’t be expected to pursue garbage pick-up with the sustained vigor that an adult might.  But, still, there was plenty: candy wrappers, plastic toys, broken bottles, small metal scraps, fast food boxes, aluminum cans, and of course cigarette butts.

In fact, the block might have taken us only half an hour, had it not been for the cigarette butts.  Not only were they plenty in the gutter alongside the nearby apartment buildings, but there was also a major stash of them at the base of a telephone pole — a makeshift ashtray, it seemed.  Sensing that my daughter’s enthusiasm was waning, I ignored the butts for our second, longer block — though that still left us enough to do.

Why so many butts?  Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Cigarette butts are far more plentiful than other forms of litter because they are small — so small that the offending smoker thinks they’re negligible.  I don’t really believe that the person who throws cigarette butts on the ground would also pitch phone books, coffee grounds, and torn clothes.
  • People only believe that cigarette butts are negligible garbage because they spend insufficient time outside, walking in the same places.  When public spaces like streets are thought of by the vast majority of people as little more than conduits for cars, it’s easy to disregard them.  Who can see a cigarette butt (or any small piece of trash) from inside a car moving twenty miles an hour?

The sad thing my daughter noticed (and I’ve noticed it for years) is that the first block we worked was vastly messier than the second.  The connection she didn’t mention is that the first block is where a quintet of low-rent apartment buildings are located — and that the garbage level is always higher on all sides of that block.  This block tends to confirm our worst stereotypes of the poor.

I can see a few causes for this — and I’m happy to have people suggest others.  (1) Renters do not have the same kind of investment that homeowners do in the appearance of their property or their neighborhood, so they’ll tend (not all, of course, but as an aggregate) not to care about the level of trash.  Transient renters have even less cause to care.  (2) In all shared spaces (like apartments), it’s easy to assume that the mess belongs to the other guy, which makes it easier to ignore — especially if dirty yards and streets won’t affect your monthly payment.  (3) The apartments themselves are old and falling apart.  While the lawn is mowed, there is sad little other maintenance done (that I can see from outside).  That kind of living space invites people not to take care of their buildings or neighborhoods.  (4) The low-rent apartments form a sizeable cluster; the few other properties on the block take up about a quarter of its area.  This tends to concentrate all the other factors.  If housing for the poor were instead spaced out evenly, it would diminish the concentration of ugliness and dignify the living situations of those have to (or choose to) live there.


Two announcements:

In case you didn’t know, this week is Bike to Work Week.  Leave your car at home!  If you live too far from work for bicycling to be feasible… why?  Isn’t that in itself too great a price?

Also, tomorrow — that’s Tuesday, May 12 — the Northern Leadership Center Lecture Series is presenting Lewis Feldstein, president of the New Hampsire Charitable Foundation and co-author (with Robert Putnam) of Better Together: Restoring the American Community.  The lecture title is “Better Together: Community Leadership and Social Capital” and will be presented at 7 p.m. in Schiable Auditorium (part of UAF’s Bunnell Building).

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I may be heading to some kind of Pedestrian Hell: I have enrolled my daughter, a first-grader-to-be, in a charter school.

Actually, The Watershed School, which opens this fall, has a component that should make pedestrian-types long to send their kids there: it focuses on “place-based” education, in which students focus on their local communities to start with, then move outward.  That is, history, literature, civics, and the sciences will be taught with a Fairbanks focus, and after that grounding they will include studies of other places.  With the school only four or five blocks from the Chena River, the students will get to study a lot of river ecology.  They’ll get to participate in their school’s own landscaping and the upkeep of the land, including the maintenance of a school garden.  While the school will be open on the School District’s calendar, the day-to-day schedule will be structured around local events like the Yukon Quest or the Festival of Native Arts.  Students will spend a great deal of time outdoors, and they’ll meet more than twice the School District’s physical education requirement.

As someone who considers local community participation to be one of the highest goods, I’m really excited about the possibilities of The Watershed School.  (And, as a parent of a girl who often doesn’t like changes in routine, I’m a little surprised that my daughter is excited about it, too.)  However…

Some readers may remember my concern, about a year ago, over another charter school, Chinook: that the location was ugly and distant, and that (in part because of the distance) the student body was selected for privilege and homogeneity.

The Watershed School suffers some of the same problems.  It will be located off Dale Road, near the airport.  While not hideous the way Chinook’s bleak, industrial surroundings are, it seems neither surrounded by the idyllic wilderness nor in the thick of civilization.  Since it’s not a neighborhood school, there is no school bus to take kids there — but, worse than that, there is effectively no public bus, either.  While the Yellow Line goes within a few blocks, the schedules of the bus and the school are incompatible.  Thus it’s a school for children whose parents have the money and the time to drive them to and from school.

They will not provide the School District’s hot lunches, so parents will have to pack lunches for their children.  For our family, providing nutritious lunches is no problem.  However, this puts a serious hardship on the nearly 30 percent of students in the school district who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts.  (Estimate based on 2006-07 data from the Common Core of Data at the National Center for Educational Statistics.)  So our daughter will not be rubbing elbows on a daily basis with Fairbanks’s less fortunate, as she does at her neighborhood kindergarten.

My wife asked — maybe as a devil’s advocate — “Why is it important that our daughter go to school with poor people?”  Of course, it isn’t, in itself.  I’m not striving for some environment that represents all facets of our population equally; that’s nothing more than tokenism.  However, I feel a little guilty about taking advantage of a supposedly public service that in fact (though not by intent) discriminates against an already disadvantaged group.

Perhaps I should be happy because it’s more likely my daughter will make good friends from among the students of Watershed.  Since the families whose children go there all share an ideological bent — we think place-based education is a good thing — our children will probably have more in common.  Of course, there’s the sinister twist to that, as well: in time, she may find herself less able to make friends with (or simply interact with) people who are different from her.  I myself went to an alternative high school, founded by hippies and attended by freaks and nerds of various stripes.  While I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, I may have suffered in my ability to get along and make friends with most people.

Of course, the perfect solution for our family would be a place-based school in our neighborhood (within walking distance) and serving the neighborhood families equally.  But that’s not what we’re offered.  It’s fine to be an idealist, but you’re sometimes given competing ideals to choose from.  This is the best path we can walk — or drive — for now.

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