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.