Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Back in Delaware, again...

this time, working for one of the other big credit card banks located in downtown Wilmington. The usual concerns about security aside, the difference in workplace atmosphere between this bank and the one where I worked at the beginning of this year is like night and day.

There's also some change in the appearance of Wilmington in the intervening months. The Christina riverfront now sports rows of townhouses on its south bank, with a high-rise apartment tower nearing completion right next to them. Construction cranes loom over the heart of downtown as ads in the train station tout the first speculative office building to be built in the city since the 1970s.

A co-worker described all this activity as an attempt to emulate Philadelphia . And right now, downtown Philadelphia is a place worth emulating. New residents continue to flock to the city center, and new apartments, condos and townhouses continue to rise to meet them. Even the most negative Philadelphians cannot help but comment on the city's new energy and liveliness. Dowdy old Philadelphia has suddenly become hip and happening, and it feels good.

It is this last quality that Wilmington is still unable to emulate, and it looks highly unlikely that it ever will. Delaware may be a great place to work and a pleasant place to live, but its first city still has a ways to go before it matches its bigger sister up the road.

They're Not Asking The Right People

This past Sunday (Dec. 25), Philadelphia Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett penned a column in the paper's "Currents" section that purported to offer a little good news about the Greater Philadelphia region's leading daily newspaper.

The Inquirer, Bennett told us in her essay, recently surveyed its readers and found that they like what they see in the paper more than they did three years ago. Moreover, 80 percent said they would recommend the paper to a newcomer as a way to keep up with what's going on in Philly and environs. On top of that, another survey conducted by Inquirer parent Knight-Ridder shows that most readers consider the Inky more informative and well-written and trust the journalists who produce it.

That's all very nice. What Bennett forgot to mention in her article is that with each passing year, there are fewer of these readers to survey. The Inquirer's circulation continues on its five-year downward trend, a trend shared by many other large dailies. These former readers, it appears, no longer find the paper speaks to them.

If the newspaper industry were serious about halting its long, slow demise, the publishers and eeditors should be surveying their former readers to find out what has led them to stop reading. Why do increasing numbers of people find daily newspapers no longer relevant to their lives? Where do they turn for news and information now? What, if anything, should--can--journalists do to regain these ex-readers' attention and affection?

I wish I had an answer myself. But I think it has something to do with telling compelling stories in a concise manner--the effort that should be at the heart of journalism anyway.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Iraq Mess II: We Broke It, We Must Fix It

One of the not-so-surprising revelations emerging from the current rush to the exits on Iraq is that the Bush Administration's overly rosy post-Saddam scenario has left us swamped in a country that, promising developments on the democratic front notwithstanding, has no unity, protecting a regime that cannot defend itself against an insurgency that will not go away until it regains power. We do not have the manpower to crush the insurgency, nor is the Iraqi army anywhere near ready to even take it down a notch.

This makes an American exit a highly tempting solution to a difficult problem. Unfortunately, pace Rep. Murtha, it's the wrong solution for the near term.

Our departure from Iraq right now will result in a victorious Sunni insurgency and a nation split in three. It will give the Iranian mullahs a chance to expand and solidify their own brand of reactionary militant Islamism--hardly a prospect we relish. And it will produce the very thing the Administration said would be the result of our not intervening in the first place: a country that can serve as a base for militant Islamists ready to attack the West.

If anything, for the next few months, we need more troops, not fewer. These troops would have as their main job getting the Iraqi army into fighting shape so that it can restore and maintain internal order after we depart. Only when the Iraqi security forces are up to the task of taking on the insurgents can we say it's safe for us to go.

Unfortunately, it may be too late for us to get those additional troops over there, so badly has the Bush Administration bungled the aftermath of its misguided second response to 9/11.

The Iraq Mess I: Live by the Spin, Die by the Spin

So the hounds of the press are now chewing over the rotting carcass of the Bush Administration's war policy in Iraq, now that a Democrat with impeccable pro-military credentials has made it safe to do so. What's more, they are doing so with impunity, after a Bush effort to tar Rep. John Murtha (D-Johnstown, Pa.) with the lefty brush misfired badly.

What the reporters need to be dissecting is just how much the Bush Administration relied on public relations spin to get us into this mess, and the ways that reality invariably points out the limits of spin.

Let me start by giving the administration the benefit of the doubt and letting it off the hook for lying its way into war with Iraq. Let me also put the invasion in the most charitable light by suggesting that an influential cadre within the White House--maybe even including the President himself, but most certainly excluding former Secretary of State Colin Powell--believed that a global conflict between the West and radical Islam was inevitable, and that the best course for the West to follow would be to take the fight to the enemy.

It did not follow that Iraq was the right enemy. Saddam Hussein's ostensibly secularist Baathist ideology made it a poor candidate for the role the Bush cabal cast it in, that of sponsor of worldwide Islamist terror. (Ally Saudi Arabia is a far better candidate, unfortunately for our political and business leaders.) And--as we all now know--there was little evidence that the Hussein regime was in any position to be much of a threat to anyone other than its own citizens and perhaps its neighbors.

But--or so we were told after the public didn't warn to the original story line, which was "Why wait until the threat is iminent? Let's take him out now"--the Bush administration hawks and their amen corner on Fox News kept repeating that Hussein represented a threat to world peace that would eventually rank with Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Not only that, the Bush PR team told us that (1) Hussein would fall quickly, (2) the grateful Iraqis would throw rose petals at our feet, and (3) we'd have a model democracy up and running in no time, with only a small number of American troops required for the task.

Now, more than a year and a half after the President declared that we had achieved our mission in Iraq, we are slowly waking up to the fact that of those three predictions, only (1) came true. Neither the rationale nor the aftermath have worked out as the Bush Administration spun them. And after Murtha called it as he saw it, the Bush war party has discovered that there are some things you just can't spin your way out of.

I'm fond of saying, when public perception of some event shifts radically for no good reason other than a message being drilled into the collective consciousness, "It's all PR." Maybe the Bush Administration's current politico-military predicament will teach it the lesson that no, it's not always all PR. Sometimes you need to be honest about the difficulties and complexities of a situation. More likely, though, the present occupants of the White House will continue spinning, all the way into their political graves.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Sensitivity Run Amok, or Who's the Racist Here?

The following, in its entirety, is a letter to the editor that appeared in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer:

"In my opinion, the new NBA dress code is a flagrant example of institutional racism."

--Janet Jepson, Wayne

Spare me, Ms. Jepson.

If we have come to the point where merely expecting professionals to dress appropriately is racist, then the word has no meaning.

Suits, jackets and "business casual" wear may not be "authentic" products of the 'hood, but they are no more oppressive than any other uniform--including the baggy pants, oversize sweatshirts, baseball caps and bling-bling that are the hip-hop standard. If anything, it's racist to suggest that someone wearing street wear will be accepted as an equal in the corridors of power. If you don't believe this, let me try wearing a T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops to a meeting at the White House. Or--if you're white--you try it and see what response you get.

What NBA Commissioner David Stern has done with the new dress code is send a powerful message: We're grownups. It's time we looked like them. You may not like this, but clothes do make the man. People attach meaning to a person's style of dress. The meaning most people--including a sizable number of blacks--attach to hip-hop fashion is: All they're interested in is running the streets and gettin' over. To borrow from 50 Cent, these folks ain't gonna get rich, but they just might die tryin'.

Is this really what we want our kids to grow up to become?

No, Ms. Jepsen, you've got it backwards. What's racist is perpetuating a double standard that says we will never beat Whitey at his own game, and therefore there's no point in us looking like we want to.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Worst Mayor in America, For a While

Pope? What Pope?

The buzz of the week in Philly was the honor Time bestowed upon Mayor John Street. In a sidebar to its cover story about the nation's five best mayors, it put Street on its shorter list of the three worst mayors in America.

This prompted much cluck-clucking in the local media, a wounded-pride response from Street, and a defense of his record from one of his better known non-fans, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick.

Street's response and Ferrick's defense made roughly the same point, so I'll use Street's response to sum up: "Had it not been for the probe, I may have been among the candidates for the best mayor."

That is probably overstating the case a bit. But it's not too far off the mark.

Street's current situation is not that much different from where one of Time's best mayors, Richard M. Daley of Chicago, finds himself. Both Street and Daley have bit the bullet and taken dramatic steps to reform their cities' underperforming schools. Both have undertaken major initiatives to reclaim rundown and abandoned neighborhoods and redevelop them for a new urban era. Both are surrounded by investigations into corruption that have snared close associates but left them personally untouched.

So what accounts for the difference? Maybe attitude has something to do with it.

If, in 20 years or so, we see a North Central Philadelphia filled with decent working residents, new jobs and small businesses, the credit will belong to John Street, whose Neighborhood Transformation Initiative is laying the groundwork for that possibility. But it's quite likely that people around here will still be talking about the Center City renaissance and municipal ego boost that came with his predecessor, Ed Rendell.

Rendell did no more to dismantle the pay-to-play culture that has dominated municipal government for years than anyone before or after him. But through some highly visible actions, he communicated a things-are-gonna-change-around-here message. The image of the newly elected mayor on his hands and knees, scrubbing a City Hall bathroom, and his willingness to take a short strike to win some significant concessions from the municipal unions, spoke volumes.

So, unfortunately, did Street's comment early in his first term that he did intend to give preference to his supporters when it came to awarding city contracts. Did he do anything different from, say, what Frank Rizzo would have done in his situation? Quite likely not. But he was open about it, and that made all the difference.

The message Street sent early on was: I'm in favor of business as usual. His attempt to halt the gradual wage tax cuts Rendell initiated--which led to a major political defeat midway through his first term--reinforced that message.

Those two actions spoke much louder than 5,000 cops working overtime or new housing in North Central Philadelphia did to the people who pay attention to municipal affairs. And thus does Mayor Street find himself on Time's trash heap rather than its honor roll.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Open Letter to SEPTA Management

To whoever is in charge of ordering the next Regional Rail car fleet:

In case you aren't aware of this, coffee is a diuretic. That means that soon after you drink it, you will feel the urge to go.

Traveling from Center City to the furthest reaches of the Regional Rail network can take an hour or even more. That's a long time to wait if you have a small bladder.

Many stations have no restrooms, and the crew will not hold the train at those that do so passengers can take a bathroom break.

You should be able to tell where I'm headed with this. I hope you take these facts into consideration when you put out the interior specs for your new commuter cars.

Or do you plan to just hand out plastic sample cups or doses of Detrol to the passengers?

Wilmington Diary: A Concentrated Experience

One virtue of small older cities, it appears, is that you can take in their entire breadth and depth in a short time. At least that's the impression I get from walking around Wilmington at lunch hour.

In the span of about an hour and 15 minutes, I can walk from the center of downtown into one of the city's middle-class precincts, through a smallish entertainment district, over to Automobile Row and back into the downtown. Or I can head into Little Italy and then back via the barrio. And if I walk in the opposite direction from my office, I'm in the floodplain, home to factories and acres of housing projects.

One of the striking things about this small (just shy of 75,000 inhabitants) city is that it seems to have the full complement of big-city issues. The municipal budget is in the red, and the state is trying to come up with fixes, including expanded annexation powers for the city. Violent crime is a worry in some neighborhoods. And while there is no sign of the wholesale abandonment that hit Camden, a city of similar size, full force, it is clear that some older neighborhoods are in need of fixing up. And, of course, there is that dead-after-5 downtown.

Smaller may be more manageable, but it is not necessarily more beautiful.

Habemus Pit Bull

The College of Cardinals has, as the bookies predicted, named Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief theology cop, as the next successor to St. Peter. He has decided to style himself Pope Benedict XVI.

Am I surprised by this result? No. Am I pleased with it? Parts of me are, believe it or not. Yes, the man has made sure that the Church hierarchy toes the conservative line on personal morality, married priests, and female ordination put forth by his former superior, Pope John Paul II. And his brook-no-dissent style is very much out of step with the spirit of our times.

But that may be just the point. In an age when everything is open to question, it may be useful to have a symbol of certainty in our midst, if for no other reason than to have something solid to question, test and probe. The inside buzz on Ratzinger is that he is a dedicated listener, even to those with whom he disagrees sharply. That quality seems in short supply these days. Those of us who do not agree with the totality of the Church's teachings, whether on personal or socioeconomic morality, should at least engage them seriously in order to understand their basis and thus criticize them knowledgeably. In Pope Benedict XVI, we will have an intelligent and articulate advocate of those teachings--someone who will keep the rest of us mentally sharp.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Wilmington Diary, Day 16: What's The Right Size for a City?

Since I started working in Wilmington, I've talked with a number of friends and acquaintances who either live or work in the city or its environs. Most of these conversations, however, have taken place at nightspots in Philadelphia, and the conversation invariably includes an exchange that goes roughly like this:

Me: It's a nice little city, very neat and orderly. But everyone clears out of town by 6.
Wilmingtonian: You got that right. There's nothing to do there at night.

Which, from the looks of things, is a slight overstatement. Downtown Wilmington offers performing arts in the form of the Delaware Theater Company, OperaDelaware and events at the Grand Opera House. Touring stage plays also stop by the Playhouse Theater in the Hotel DuPont. The state's historical museum is right on the main shopping street. It has several fine dining establishments, a smattering of nightclubs and more than a few bars. And in baseball season, the Wilmington Blue Rocks bring minor-league fans to the riverfront just below downtown, where they play in a splendid little ballpark.

Yet the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. For all these assets, downtown Wilmington still appears comatose at night.

Maybe it's because the city's too small. Which strikes me as a bit odd, for Wilmington's size is actually pretty close to optimal for a city. At least, it is if you subscribe to the viewpoint of the social critic Kirkpatrick Sale, who wrote a book titled Human Scale in the mid-1980s. In it, he followed the cardinal rule of the Enlightenment--"Man the measure of all things"--and applied it to the collective organizations we create. Every organism, Sale argued, has an optimal size beyond which it ought not grow. For a city, he said, that size is somewhere around 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants--large enough to offer a full complement of urban amenities but not so large that it becomes difficult to run or chokes on its own traffic.

With roughly 90,000 residents, Wilmington fits his criteria. And it certainly does not appear to be seriously afflicted with the worst urban ills. Traffic flows well even at rush hour. Crime, while not low, is not alarming either. Because the city is carved up among four surrounding suburban school districts, integration and school quality isn't as thorny a problem as it is in other older cities--it is not necessary to leave Wilmington in order to access decent public schools. Abandoned and blighted properties are not pervasive, the way they are in a number of other small, old industrial cities in the region, such as Camden and Chester.

But if you're the sort of urbanite who likes to be where things are happening--well, then, you need to hop in your car and make the 40-minute drive to Philadelphia, just up I-95. There are almost as many people living in downtown Philadelphia--65,000--as there are in the entire city of Wilmington, and hundreds of thousands more live within easy reach of the city center via mass transit or freeway. Those 65,000 souls occupy a territory not that much bigger than downtown Wilmington, and that may account for the difference between the two. Central Philadelphia has enough density in the core to support a higher level of activity, while Wilmington is just spread out enough to keep its activities from feeding off one another.

So the problem, then, may not be that Wilmington is too small. It may be that, in the ways that count, it's not small enough.

The Right Way to Unlock "The Gates"

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's latest work of art-cum-landscape architecture-cum-media event is now dismantled; the bolts of orange fabric are probably on their way to be recycled into curtains, sheets, pillowcases, scarves, robes for Hare Krishnas and club wear as I write this; and all the art critics that matter have delivered their opinions on the project, most of them negative.

Ed Sozanski in The Philadelphia Inquirer pronounced "The Gates" out of scale with the Central Park walkways they straddled. And the high priest of High Modernism, Hilton Kramer, trashed them even worse in The New York Observer.

The problem with both of these critics' comments was that by focusing on the two-week-long physical installation, they failed to comment on the work as a whole.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are as much performance artists as they are visual artists. The work of art begins not with the actual wrapping or installation of the fabric, but with the initial proposal to call our attention to a physical object or space by accessorizing or packaging it. With that, the public--and the local officials whose assent is usually necessary for the installation to proceed--become collaborators. By arguing over whether a Christo and Jeanne-Claude project is a thing of beauty or a defacement; by either embracing the artists and basking in the 15 minutes of fame they bring to the site they alter, or by throwing up roadblocks to their project on whatever grounds--as happened with "The Gates" for nearly two decades--we actually advance Christo's ultimate goal, which is to force us to take a good, hard look at the environment around us--whether natural or man-made--and, one hopes, see it for what it is, and perhaps even what it might become.

For a little while, at least, Christo and Jeanne-Claude ask us to stop taking for granted the objects that define the places where we live, work and play, and think about their significance. Whether the fabric they use as the stimulus for thought is "appropriate" for the site or not is actually somewhat beside the point, for the fabric is not the work of art--it's the thing it envelops and our reaction to seeing it in a different light.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Wilmington Diary, Day Seven: Enough Already

Now that I've completed the first full calendar week on this assignment, I think I'm ready to drop the Wilmington-specific references from my daily blog entries. That's not to say that I won't be writing about the things I observe at my employer or in Wilmington in the future; just that I won't be doing this every single day. I'd like to throw in observations on other things, including what I read in the papers and see going on elsewhere, and I can't really do that in a "Wilmington Diary."

Besides, how much can I say about a city that isn't all that different from hundreds of other small- to medium-sized US cities that are trying to revive their downtowns? Wilmington is fortunate only in that it is in a state where one company and one family--both of which share a common name--wield enormous power and influence and have the cash to back that up. Wilmington's banking-based downtown building boom is the direct result of a law promoted by then-Gov. Pierre S. DuPont IV. The family's hotel is one of the main buildings on the city's central square. And even though it is now outstripped by one of those banks as the city's largest employer, DuPont still employs many Wilmingtonians who take an active interest in civic affairs.

None of this has prevented Market Street from fading as a shoppers' magnet. Even the splendid transformation of an old Masonic temple on Market into the Grand Opera House--bankrolled by MBNA--hasn't brought true nightlife to downtown, whose streets still are mostly quiet after 6 p.m. But amidst the decay, there are still plenty of signs of life, and at least for now, we can cling on to these and hope for better days to come.

On the job: I know this much--I'm fast. But it appears I need to take some more time to study the documents I review to make sure they are communicating clearly with their intended audience. Accuracy and clarity are as important as speed in this job.

I'm also going to have to adjust my dining habits in the company café. I've heard from co-workers that it's very easy to put on weight on the fare served there. (There's also a fitness center, one floor down from the café, but I'm not eligible to use it. However, there are several walking/jogging routes posted on a bulletin board just inside its entrance, and I can use those any time I want.)

Today's observation: How is a credit card like a bottle of wine? When used properly, both offer great benefits. Use them too much, though, and you'll get into trouble.

I'm reading stories in the papers about a pending bankruptcy-reform bill working its way through Congress. Its intent is to make it more difficult for individuals, especially affluent ones, to get out from under all their debts through a Chapter 7 filing. The bill's backers--mainly the big credit-card banks--want these people to file Chapter 13 instead, which requires the filer to at least pay back some of what is owed.

Oddly enough, I'm sympathetic to the card companies' argument--but only up to a point. Yes, if people can afford to pay back some of their debts, they should, and the bankruptcy law shouldn't just be an easy way out from under a spending bender. But people really do fall on hard times they didn't prepare for--and part of the blame for this lies with the card companies.

Our modern lifestyle is not geared towards saving; it's geared towards spending. Almost every advertising message we see, and every unsolicited credit-card offer that lands in our mailboxes, is an invitation to spend. And not just spend--spend as much as possible as soon as possible. We will even make it easy for you by fronting you your future income; when you get it, just give it back to us along with a modest fee.

For the overwhelming majority of us, this isn't a problem. But it might well become one should we lose our jobs or come down with a serious illness or injury. Too many of us spend all our paychecks as they come in, despite what the personal-finance columnists and advisors say, and the difference between success and disaster is one missed paycheck. At that point, a downward spiral begins that can only be halted through filing bankruptcy.

Should that be avoided? Certainly. But we shouldn't close it off as an option just because some people use it not as a lifeline but as a hangover cure.

Postscript: After publishing this, I took a look at the most recently published blogs on Blogger. One of them is called "Payday Loans." That blog is nothing but a series of come-ons for these short-term cash advances at usurious interest rates. It might have been more interesting if it were a cry for help from someone who has become hooked on them.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Wilmington Diary, Day Six

In today's climate, those of us who still believe government has a role to play in promoting fairness and equitable treatment of all Americans usually get accused by those on the Right of being socialists. In this reductionist view, our belief in government as a positive force is equated with an outright dislike of capitalist enterprise.

This wiew is way too simple. Sure, there are many private companies that, given the chance, would abuse their workers, screw their communities and cheat their customers if doing so meant they made a bigger profit, and we've seen some of the biggest of these fall into well-deserved bankruptcy during the last decade.

But there are at least as many companies that understand that profit is not an end in itself, but rather a sign that the company has done right by those who depend on it: The customers who purchase its goods or services, the people who make the enterprise work, the communities in which they do business, and finally, the investors who put up their money to finance the company's growth. The company I currently work for most emphatically falls in this latter category.

The inspirational sayings found on walls throughout the headquarters complex--including the ubiquitous "Think of yourself as a customer," found over every doorway--might strike some as bordering on the hokey. But they are meant to illustrate a mindset that the company brass instills in everyone who works here: Never lose sight of who you are working for, and treat that person the way you would want to be treated. The management then practices what it preaches by treating the workforce the way they would want to be treated. They implement policies that make juggling work and life easier. They get involved in the community and encourage their employees--oops! There are no employees here, just "people"--to do the same. They keep everyone informed about just how well the company is doing from day to day and encourage people to come up with ways it can do what it does even better. If challenges lie ahead, they keep people informed about their nature.

It's a very people-focused attitude, and from what I've been able to learn, it's served this company well. People here love what they do, and the company in turn supports them for doing what they do to the best of their ability. Given that this company has been extremely successful--a pioneer in its industry--I would think that most large companies would want to emulate its practices. Maybe they do. I would love to think so.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Wilmington Diary, Day Five

A break in the pace of documents to review gives me a little time to catch up. Note to self: Beat up on SEPTA for not taking a page from Amtrak's book and offering wireless Internet access on Regional Rail. This is a frill, and not central to SEPTA's mission of moving Philadelphians 'round the region, you say? Perhaps. But judging from the number of Regional Rail riders I see working on their laptop computers every day, I suspect that there are many who might be willing to tack a little extra onto their TrailPass fares in order to get Internet access on board.

On the job: The job is going well. The bosses are pleased with my work. I'm happy, and tired. I like everything about this job but the commute. Getting up at 5:30 a.m., leaving Philly at 7 and not getting back home until 7 p.m. puts a crimp in my style, even if it means I can finally catch up on reading while on the train. But I now understand why many Americans buy frozen entrees or pick up take-out meals on the way home in the evening. This regimen leaves little time to cook right.

Today's observation: Well, actually, this one's from Monday, when I came in for a half day when the office was closed (my mentor asked if I could use the extra hours--do you think I'd turn her down?).

While killing time in downtown Wilmington in the early afternoon, I wandered through the Ship's Tavern District--a two-block stretch of Market Street that Wilmington's city fathers are trying to turn into a yuppie magnet. The east side of the street remains, like most of Market Street, a faded shell of its former self, with a few businesses surviving among the empty storefronts. On the west side, spruced-up structures boast signs announcing new merchants to come, and others tout loft apartments. In the middle of the central block of the district sits a sandwich shop with checkered tablecloths and faded signs on the east side and a brand-new Subway franchise on the other.

This rankled the owner of the sandwich shop, a Greek gentleman in what looked like his early 60s who had been there for decades. He told me a classic David-and-Goliath story, in which the city played Goliath, using every tool at its disposal short of eminent domain to encourage him to sell the building, close up shop and move on.

"If the city wanted to revive businesses in the area, why didn't it just give you a low- or no-interest loan so you could rehab your place yourself?" I asked.

I don't remember exactly what he said in response, but it boiled down to, That might make too much sense.

Certainly, the city--and New Castle County--found ways to help the company where I am currently working build a grand international headquarters right in the heart of downtown as opposed to expanding its offices in Newark, Del., where it was founded, even more. I'd be curious to know how much it cost them to acquire the handsome 1914 New Castle County Court House from the county, for instance. Maybe there was a tax abatement of some sort for the new construction--all four city blocks' worth of it. And maybe the thousands of people working in these buildings help boosts Wilmington's municipal coffers through local taxes they pay (I will learn more about this when I get my first paycheck this week).

But the little guys like the sandwich shop owner, it appears, see very little benefit from all this. The workers don't lunch in the local eateries, for instance, and at the end of the day, they all clear out of downtown--like I do--headed for their homes outside Wilmington. In the meantime, the small businesses which are supposed to be the backbone of the economy--whether it's local, regional or national--get hassled and bypassed in favor of mega-projects and national chains, when perhaps just a little seed money and a few more customers would do wonders for them.

It's almost enough to make me want to become a Republican, except that the GOP would only deliver more of this same stuff were they in power at the local level.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Wilmington Diary, Day Two

On the job: Boss took me in for a chat first thing today. Said I'd come on a bit too strong with some co-workers--"you're flamboyant, and this is a more conservative culture," or something like that. (No, I haven't come out to any of my co-workers yet. But if any of them read my resume, I've got the Philadelphia Gay News listed among my freelance outlets.) I allowed as to how I often come across as a know-it-all and said I'd tone things down 20 decibels or so. Then the person I'm working with directly told me she was upset, because the boss said she was upset with me when she wasn't. (We've hit it off quite well.) Only the second day, and already I get a taste of office politics. Sheesh.

Today's observation: What is the difference between MBNA headquarters and an Atlantic City casino?

No, I'm not talking about money. I'm approaching this from the urbanist perspective.

Here's the difference: MBNA headquarters has more windows and is more tastefully decorated.

Otherwise, the two are quite similar in that they are total environments--it's not necessary for those inside them to venture outside for anything from the time they enter until the time they're ready to go.

The casinos have restaurants, shops, and services all under one roof. So does MBNA headquarters. And the top brass had at one time toyed with the idea of turning the old New Castle County Court House (now part of the MBNA HQ complex) into a hotel, or so I was told, furthering the parallel.

I understand why the casinos do this--they want to keep as much of their patrons' money in their own hands as possible. I can appreciate why a large company does this--it helps employee morale.

But for a large company in a big-city location, or even a small-city one like this one, this strikes me as a bit redundant.

Supposedly, one of the benefits a company enjoys from having its offices in the middle of an urban business district is that, unlike in the suburbs, ancillary services--diners/restaurants, dry cleaners, barber shops, hair salons, gift shops, small grocery stores, and so on--are nearby, within an easy walk of the offices. The city benefits from having the company's workers patronizing all those shops during the day, and the activity adds life to the streets.

Wilmington's main shopping strip has seen better days, but there's still lots of places to shop or run errands within a stone's throw of Rodney Square. You won't see too many MBNA employees taking care of personal business in these places, though--they can do everything within the headquarters complex. For all the complex interacts with its surrounding area, it may as well be the suburban office campus it is in spirit.

(I do need to be fair here: the company doesn't mind at all if you decide to have lunch across Rodney Square in the Hotel DuPont or somewhere along Market Street instead of in their (excellent) employee cafeteria. And the fact that it is possible to do this by just walking up the block does distinguish the in-city complex from the suburban one.)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Wilmington Diary, Day One

Well, make that Day Three, as I've spent most of the past three days in Delaware's largest city, prepping for this honest-to-God Day One of an indefinite temporary assignment at MBNA, the giant credit card issuer headquartered in the heart of downtown Wilmington.

Even if this assignment runs no longer than the one-week trial period my employer-at-one-remove and I have agreed to, this is already a learning experience on several fronts. It's my first exposure to the corporate sector and to the world of banking. It's also a chance for me to take the measure of a new city and see what I can discern about the place from looking around.

Herewith, the first of a bunch of observations on what the redevelopment of Wilmington, as exemplified by MBNA's move into the city, might tell us about cities in general.

Jane Jacobs--who wrote with dismay about the deadening effect some uses have on a cityscape, with the four banks located at Broad and Chestnut in Philadelphia in 1961 as an example--would probably be amused by what downtown Wilmington has become. The large banks that moved their credit-card operations to Delaware have transformed the Wilmington skyline, giving this small (roughly 90,ooo population) city a big-city appearance.

But it's gone beyond that. The banks have even annexed the public square--literally.

Rodney Square--downtown Wilmington's epicenter, featuring a statue honoring its namesake, Caesar Rodney, who rode through mud and storms to cast Delaware's vote for independence in 1776--used to be dominated by civic institutions. On its east side was the New Castle County courthouse; on its south, the Wilmington Public Library; on the north, the city's main post office; and on the west, the Hotel DuPont, owned by what used to be the biggest company in the state. (That honor now belongs to the one where I'm now working.)

The library remains there, untouched. The hotel spruced itself up. But the post office is now relegated to the basement of its own building; the rest is now the front door to the headquarters of Wilmington Trust, the biggest full-service bank based in the city. And the New Castle County courthouse has been annexed to the MBNA headquarters--the county's moved to new digs four blocks away--and the company is trying to figure out what to put in it.

I'm not sure I like this development any more than Jacobs did. But it appears to be paying off for the city, in some way. But perhaps not the way the leaders hoped it would, if what's inside MBNA headquarters is any guide. More on that tomorrow.