Friday, December 21, 2012

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas
All the folks here at Cogito Urbanus and Windsor Hill Publishing wish you and yours the Merriest Christmas and the Happiest New Year imaginable.

Greg and  Bonnie

From the O'Mara Chronicles
Sharon, Kevin, Evelyn, Bobby, Alain, 
Peter, and Claudette

We look forward to a new historic novel this year as well as another Sharon O'Mara thriller. 

I am also excited to announce a book signing and reading with yours truly on:
Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 1:00 
Book Passage, Corte Madera, California

I hope you can make it - there will be snacks.

And here is a little something to make you smile:
Straight No Chaser and the Christmas Can Can


Friday, December 14, 2012

A Toy Train for Christmas

Two years ago I posted this story about high-speed rail in California and had so many comments I thought I would repost for my new readers. But now, even after two years, nothing seems to have changed and, in fact, political positions have sadly become even more locked in place as the costs continue to sky-rocket.

A Toy Train for Christmas

The Parts and Players:
Santa Claus (The Big Guy) – Washington D.C.
Santa’s Helpers (Men and Women in Elf Costumes) – State Governments
Billy (Good Little Boy) and Tiffany (Good Little Girl) – California, Florida, Washington State, Illinois, New York, et all
Sally (Not so Good Little Girl) –Ohio and Wisconsin
Toy Train – High Speed Rail

Our Scene:
Santa’s huge toy shop in one of the big department stores; a long line of children wait to tell Santa what they want for Christmas.

The first child climbs up on Santa’s knee with the help of one of the elves.
      “And what’s your name little boy?”
      “Billy, Santa Claus, Billy.”
      “Have you been good?”
      “Oh yes Santa, I have been very, very good.”
      “Excellent Billy, excellent, and what do you want for Christmas?
      “Oh Santa I want an erector set to build bridges for my brother, a whole village of dollhouses for my little sister, and a turkey with all the stuff and stuffing for my dad, see he’s lost his job.”
      “I’m sorry to hear about that, I’ll see what I can do. Billy, you want so much for your family and that’s good, very good, but Billy, what do you want for being so good?”
      Billy thought for a moment then turned his head to Santa with a huge smile. “Santa I want a toy train. It would be the most wonderfulous thing in the whole world, a toy train that I can play with, run the track all through my room and maybe even in the hallway. It just has to be the most special and wonderous train, all shiny and sparkly and new. And, oh, oh, Santa that would be so great and it would be real cool ‘cause none of friends would have a train like it and they all would wan’na come over and see it and play with me in my room. Please Santa, please.”
      “But Billy I gave you a set of Hot Wheels and racetrack a few years ago and a really cool airplane and terminal set last year. Aren’t they fun to play with anymore?”
      “Nah, Santa. I broke the racetrack and the planes just aren’t any fun anymore, but a toy train would be real cool, did I say the other kids would wan’na come over and see it.”
      “Yes you did, but Billy, that is a very big toy for someone your size.”
      “No. I’m a big boy, see!” Billy puffed himself up real big.
      “Yes, I guess you are, now that you are all puffed up. Yes, Billy, Santa has to agree that you are a big boy now and can take care of such a wonderfulous toy. Santa will see what he can do. Just watch for a big ‘green’ box under your Christmas tree.”
      “Oh thank you Santa, thank you.”
      Billy, with the help of the elves (who were all smiling and singing, I've Been Working on the Railroad), climbed off Santa’s knee and slid down the slide into a huge pile of ‘green’ cotton candy. Billy was in heaven.
      The next child in line wasn’t sure about Santa, he was so big and his suit was all red and furry. The bells on all the elves (who were scurrying about still talking about the good little boy, Billy), jingled and jangled creating such a wonderous din. This all scared the little girl. When the elves helped her onto Santa’s knee, Santa wasn’t sure what was going to happen. He was afraid for his suit.
      “And what’s your name little girl?”
      “Sally,” she said quietly, still shaking.
      “That’s a pretty name, have you been a good little girl?”
      Sally thought for a moment. She looked at the Big Guy and all the elves dressed in 'green' elf costumes, 'green' cotton candy billowed all around them, it was a wonderous sight.
      “Santa, I have not been a good little girl. I have saved my lunch money and not given it to my friends at school like my teacher says I should. I used it to help my dad and I bought him a new tie, he was trying to get a job, and he did Santa, he was so happy. And I yelled at my brother when he bought some ice cream just after he had a whole mouthful of candy. So you see, I have not been a good girl.”
      “I see, yes Sally, those aren’t good things to do, you should always mind your teacher.”
      “Yes Santa.”
      “But Sally, the elves and I know you can improve and be a better human being. I just know you want something for Christmas. Billy, that fine young man, who sat on this very knee just before you; see, he's playing in the 'green' cotton candy, said all he wanted was a toy train, all shiny and sparkly and new. Wouldn’t you want a toy train? Santa has a whole box full of them at the North Pole.”
      Sally thought for another moment then looked over at the next child standing in line, her name was Tiffany. She wore a bright dress and was all smiles.
      “Can you hurry Sally?” Tiffany demanded, stamping her shiny Mary-janes. “I just have to talk to Santa and, unlike you, I have been a very good little girl.” Even the elves could hear Tiffany’s strong Valley Girl accent.
      Sally looked back at Santa. “Santa, I really don’t want a toy train; I know that if I get it my parents will have to buy more track so that I can run it down the hallway and then I will have to get more cars and a new engine and then I will have to buy one of those fancy train stations and I will have to get a little bridge to run the train over the other tracks and then a crossing thing with arms that go up and down and then I will have to get a huge box to keep them it and besides, it will be fun for a little while, then I will get bored and want something new and then it will just sit around and be in the way and besides it will only go in a circle and not really go anywhere really fast.”
      Santa was shocked; not because she said it all in one sentence and one breath, it was because everyone wanted a toy train, that’s why he had a box full.
      “Sally, you just aren’t a very good girl; you only think of yourself and not others.”
      Sally was saddened to hear that from Santa who had always been a hero to her.
      “Santa,” Sally said, “why don’t you give the toy train to Tiffany, she is always a good little girl and wears really nice clothes, nice shoes, has a wonderful tan, and always has a smile. I think she gives her lunch money to the teacher who uses it for good things. Yes, Tiffany is a good little girl, give her the toy train. She deserves it and besides I have heard that her parents are real rich and can buy her all the tracks and stations she wants.”
      Santa was very pleased, he had so many trains to give away and the line of good little boys and girls disappeared around the ‘green’ cotton candy mountain.
      Santa, pulled from his reverie, felt a tug on his sleeve; Sally looked up at him with her sad eyes. “Santa I really don’t want anything for myself, but if you can, my little brother wants a Red Ryder BB Rifle.”
      Santa was stunned and outraged beyond belief what his ears had heard. He pushed Sally slid off his knee and past all the 'green' cotton candy and watched as she crawled to the slide and started down its slippery surface. But she stopped just for second and took one last look at the Big Guy and all the wonderous elves and the piles of 'green' cotton candy and heard them exclaim ere she slid out of sight, “Sally, you’ll shoot your eye out.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Stay Tuned . . . .

Friday, December 7, 2012

What, No Starbucks?

Traverse City, Michigan

In the early 21st Century, I was traveling through London (my favorite city), and wishing to enjoy the warm afternoon, took one of those open upper-deck tour buses through the city. We left in front of a Starbucks, and after completing the loop through the old and newer portions of this ancient city, I had counted 47 Starbucks. Mind you, this was over ten years ago, my guess, there are now 500. What city in America doesn’t have a Starbucks? It is a rite-of-passage from hick to chic.

Developers will kill to get a Starbucks on their front corner. Where Starbucks goes so does the neighborhood, more shops, better demographics, a follow-the-leader mentality develops. And to be honest I love the stuff, I drink it daily, own some shares, and eat lunch there once and while. I have even found a Starbucks on a pier in a fishing village in Turkey. They are literally everywhere and according to their growth projections, intend to have beach front stores in the Arctic when the ice cap melts. They believe the green in Greenland means opportunity.

So, earlier this year I was making a stop in my ancestral home in Northern Michigan, Traverse City, to have a book signing and reading (see right, Elk River). This comfortable town, with an historic pedigree and wonderful location, just whispers in the ear, “Relax, kick-back, enjoy.”

So as we approached, after an easy drive up from Chicago, I turned to my wife and said the infamous words, “Frappaccino?”

“Yes,” was the quick reply. So for the next fifteen minutes we drove up and down Front Street and State Street looking for the magical elixir. Nada, nothing, zilch, neyetsky, bumcus. What the heck is going on? This is the 21st Century; even a dock in Turkey has a Starbucks for Peets sake. Why not in my hometown? And, to be honest, I still don’t know why.

There is rumored to be one buried inside a Meijer’s Super Store, well super. And it’s on US-31 a few miles outside of town. Who cares? This is a town with 15,000 people for crying out loud, and, in summer, swells to three or four times that with tourists from cities like Chicago, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Lansing Michigan – all adequately served by the Seattle based chain of dope dealers caffeine pushers. You would think …

Front Street - Fall
The town’s bookstore, where I was signing, is a delight, Horizon Books, and they have a nice coffee bar that is well attended and quite good. But it’s not a Starbucks (one second while I sip), not the life giver, the morning kick-starter, the boot-in-the-butt we need to get rolling in the 21st Century.

Why not Traverse City? I really don’t know. I Googled it this morning and there is still only one, the US-31 store (if it’s even that big!). Is it a conspiracy to punish these fine people for the great beaches and less than crazy lifestyle? Is it because delivery costs are too high (doubt that – see Turkey above), is it because the local government has passed anti-franchise laws (don’t know), is it some fallout from the whole Michigan thing (whatever that is), I really don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Urbanists can scratch their collective heads over this. For me, well, it's a strange one and when we hit Grand Rapids (10 listed) on the way back to Chicago, I fulfilled my wife’s wish.

Stay Tuned . . . . . .

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Noodling Housing, Detroit, and Where America is Moving

Return to “Normal” in Housing
Are we there yet? This seems to be the tag line for almost every optimistic article about the current national trends in new home sales (old homes sales, too). This article is a good snap-shot (remember those from the pre-pixel age).

And What is Normal?
In this article the authors point to a doubling of new home sales from their current level, “in the next several years.” And interesting prophecy, I throw a challenge here because there is a significant lack of planning going on to support the availability of new housing in the near future (three years or less, especially in California). It takes at least three years to plan and receive final approval for any project over one acre in size, especially if near any existing residential developments. I suggest the authors are dreaming and as a result prices will steadily climb.

The 10 Most Expensive Cities to Buy a Home
My guess this is not one of the most expensive cities.
This article, and I really love these, lists the 10 cities with the highest home prices, the author notes that only two cities are not in (close to bankrupt) California. Go figure. Now as a man who believes in the marketplace and the all things supply and demand, I’m not surprised. Yet, it is a head-scratcher and you wonder either how sustainable it is in the long term, or how depressive to business it is in the short term (housing costs vs. wages).

With everyone trying to tell Detroit what to do (and creating rancor and fear as a result), the residents are trying their best to confront the do-gooders and intellectuals using Detroit as an urban blank canvas. “Clear homes, make way for the future!” would scare any property owner hanging on by a thread. This brilliant article lays out many of the issues and planning teams involved with Detroit’s future, yet one thing is very apparent, change and rebirth will come from the bottom up, not like 20th Century planning, that forced change, hard and brutal change, from the top down.

Where Are We Going and Where Are We From? is one of my favorite urban blogs. With the talent of Joel Kotkin, Wendell Cox, and other guests it has become a touchstone on the current state of cities across the world. In this article by Kotkin, he challenges all the warm and fuzzy notions of the northeastern cities and lays out, in almost painful ways, the real changes to America that are underway. It is well worth the read and please continue to follow

Stay Tuned . . . . .

Friday, November 23, 2012

Let’s Talk Retail

Since it’s impossible to hide from the fact of this self-imposed follow-up holiday (and yes it is a holiday – since hardly anyone works today) BLACK FRIDAY, I am wondering why retail gets such a bad review these days.

Every politician and city father is desperate for a great retail-shopping season, which traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving and runs until Christmas Eve. Now it’s anyone guess. Thanksgiving is now toast; it is like a pre-party dinner warm up and strategy session prior to the trip to 10:00 run to Wal-Mart with all the aunts and cousins. Sad.

The Occupy Best-Buy Movement
When the volume of retail dollars is shown on graphs and charts on the TV news (with hordes of shoppers queued holding small children over their heads) what they really are saying is, “See that number, multiply it by 8.5%, that’s the state’s piece of the action. More action, more pieces.” And lord knows we need more pieces.

Now that most large retailers (called big box retail for the obvious reason – 250,000 square feet of consumer bliss) have turned into strange reflections of the Occupy Movement with hundreds if not thousands camped out for a week before BLACK FRIDAY (now a week long holiday for them), all to buy stuff.

Shopping can be fun, adventuresome, enlightening, disturbing, revealing, satisfying, and confusing. Must be that hunter-gatherer thing. Bag a big-screen TV, stand with foot on the box, like Teddy Roosevelt, and show the world your prize. Take a snap with your new 8MP Android phone – send it to all your FB friends, go viral. Conquest can be fun.

But now, there is a blandness creeping in the retail scene. I used to travel to see new things, find cool and interesting stuff. Now you walk through the Macy’sBloomingdalesNorsdtrumPennySears store, much is all the same. The same stuff you will find in Marks & Spencer and Harrods in London, Bon Marche in Paris, and probably Beijing (where most of the stuff comes from anyway). So what is a retailer to do?

First they are adding living rooms and comfortable seating, “Come, stay, enjoy. Coffee? Much to choose from. Food? Around the corner. Bathroom? The finest.” Someday you may want to live here. There was a time, when I was a young designer of retail centers, the client said, “No seating! If they sit, they’re not shopping.” Now, move in, stay, bring the family, the game will be on at 1:00.

Next, concierge services. The Grove in LA (amongst others) has a drive-up valet and they park your car and will even wash it while you browse the stores. More of this will be coming. They even sell cars in the malls – Santana Row in San Jose, California has a Tesla dealership.

The big malls (Mall of America, et al) have motels and hotels connected to them. Sleep, Love, Shop, Cool.

Wi-FI, schmi-fi. You MUST have WiFi, work-tables, power outlets, and couches. Period.

Casinos are now more than just places to add to the coffers of the state, they are expanded their retail where they are now competitive with local retail centers. There will be more of this, in fact at one large Indian casino, I was told, they are investigating major retail stores inside the casino. Imagine a Macy’s entry right next to the craps table, what more could you want?

Restaurants are the next big things in retail; the food court has gone nuclear. Todd English seems to won this round for now, he’s more ubiquitous than Tommy Bahama. Ethnic foods are huge, fast food huger, all-you-can-eat buffets – category killers. Where restaurants used to be stuck in the corners (i.e. foodcourts) they will now be moved into pricier locations, they will become attractions instead of just necessaries. Watch for more big names to jump in, Guy Fieri and many more from the Food channel. Not necessarily because they are good, but because they are known. In fact, now people actually arrange their vacations around Food channel restaurants. How many Triple D restaurants have you been to?

Retail itself will continue on its sad course, same-old, same-old. We shop for price not product, and I’m no different. Went looking for a slow-cooker the other evening, went to Crate and Barrel, Sur La Table, Williams Sonoma – all too pricey. Macys, perfect and at half the price. That’s what’s happening in retail. Is there a chance for the bespoke clothier? In a mall – not a chance, yet.

For the last forty years, since the first wave of enclosed malls swept the country, there has been a revision to the retail model every ten to fifteen years. We are now seeing the latest in the village square concept: outside, walkable streets, shop after shop doors, street front windows, big boxes set in the corners, restaurants and entertainment built into the fabric, just like the town where your grandparents lived. There is something warm and fuzzy about the place – hard to do, but works. Good example is Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga.

Is the mall dead? Hardly. But as the economy changes so will these retail dreadnaughts. Denser retail, more leisurely, richer interiors, more natural light, more elegant parking garages, and better treatment of customers (now guests). This is the most competitive business model in America: wringing a buck out of the consumer, if you can make them happy, they will do it gladly.

Stay tuned . . . . .