Thursday, June 26, 2014

Star Crossed Museum Wars

The “Star” war that has been bouncing around the country the last year or so has finally been ended, and the winner is Chicago. The vanquished is San Francisco. As someone who was raised in Chicago and lived for twenty years in San Francisco I followed this battle with interest. And I’m actually happy that Chicago won – simply because it serves San Francisco right, the town hasn’t been able to make a meaningful decision on its waterfront for years (and when they did they ended up with the debacle of the Americas Cup facility).

The future George Lucas Museum will be a collection of Star Wars memorabilia, artifacts, artworks, and other pieces from Mr. Lucas’s collection. One might call it the largest collection of Galactic Kitsch in the whole universe. Don’t get me wrong the original series of Star Wars shook the foundations of the movie world (all except for those cloyingly annoying teddy-bears in the last episode – or sixth depending how you count). I have friends – adult friends – who have life size statues of Yoda in their offices, R2D2 cigar trays, and even get teary eyed over Hans Solo and Princess Lea. And I have a Star Wars watch still in its original tin.

But, and I mean this most sincerely, does this museum rank a location in a national park? So while there is great concern over the loss of the museum overlooking San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge (i.e. Senator Feinstein and Congressperson Pelosi) I would offer than it is a site better suited to celebrate those men and women who passed under that bridge to fight in real wars during the last seventy years than in a galaxy far, far, away.

Century of Progress Fair - Lucas site at base of right tower
Chicago’s site for the museum is very interesting; I was there in fact, on the exact spot a month ago. I visited the site for two reasons: 1) Located there is a monument given by Mussolini and his fascists. It is an ancient marble column from Ostia, Italy given to the city of Chicago by Il Duce to celebrate the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair and the transatlantic flight of Italo Balbo and his seaplanes. 2) In almost the exact spot of the future Lucas museum once stood one of tallest structures in the United States, the 625 foot high Sky Ride tower also built for the Century of Progress World’s Fair. I was conducting follow up research for two of my novels that will be published soon.

Unfortunately the recent internal squabbling of City of San Francisco has lead to the loss of the 49’s stadium to Santa Clara/San Jose, the chaos of the Warriors basketball team’s area location, the loss of waterfront housing, the inability to form a housing program that meets the incessant demands of the high-tech industry, and now the loss of the museum. But the tourists still come and spend their dollars; I would suggest that the City is a bit spoiled.

Chicago on the other hand knows how to get things done – big things. When I was there last month cranes were rising everywhere, the city was in bloom, and there were new parks under construction (a delightful children’s park expansion next door to the spectacular Millennium Park). And outside of the streets in disastrous condition due to the very hard winter the city looked good. So it is no surprise that the George Lucas looked here – we all want to be wanted and loved. So at some time in the far away future I will walk through the grand entry of Chicago’s Lucas Museum with great expectations and memories of my youth – but then again isn’t that what museums are for – to remember the past.

May the force be with you.

Stay Tuned. . . . . . . . . . . .

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What’s With Housing?

One would think with the growing American population and a return to some semblance of a normal economy that housing would be expanding. In both worlds, for sale and rental, everything seems contrarian. While banks and lenders sit on piles of non-earning cash, they lend out dollars like they were being pulled from their own pockets. Then again who would want to lend at the low rates that now rule the marketplace.

The banks make more by buying treasuries than lending and building the country – so why bother with us consumers. And while they are all eager to write up the paper work when you walk in, when it’s kicked down into the dark recesses of the back office producers chances are you will be turned down. Especially if you are self-employed – yes, they do hold what happened to you from 2008 to 2011 against you. Even though it was all their fault. There should be a sign over their entry: For loyalty get a dog!

But we are talking housing here, housing on a national scale. Not the housing as practiced in California where prices have risen more than 25% the past year in Oakland. Yes Oakland, a city more dysfunctional than Detroit. All due to the spillover from the crazy-crazy housing market of San Francisco where houses have twenty back up offers, all cash (small unmarked bills please). I remember the auction phase a few years ago when tracts of homes were being unloaded at catered events in the Central Valley – anything to sell the inventory. Now I can foresee auctions that will be run by Sotheby’s and Christie's that will rival art sales in London. “Sold to the couple with the step-van full of money.”

For my readers in the rest of the country count your blessings. Sure who wouldn’t want their 1,050 s.f. once dream home sold for $2,500,000. But then again who would want to buy it? Only insanity governs all this. And of course the San Francisco politicians scream about the inherent greed of the homeowners who are obviously fleecing their buyers. There’s a movement currently afoot to restrict the ability to even sell your house within a five-year window without some form of a penalty – paid to the city. No capitalistic moneygrabber homeowners wanted here. And soon everyone will be able to vote to approve or deny almost any housing anywhere in the city. In a city that needs more than fifty thousand housing units of all flavors. One can only shrug their shoulders – you get what you want.

From my perspective this national homebuilding issue is beginning to come into focus. It is a marketplace problem. The dream that your home was both your castle and savings plan has been shattered since 2008. For the most part that rat has worked its way through the snake. What we are left with is a cynical buyer, a reluctant banker, a out of whack government writing regulations daily, and a weary country with few expectations for the future. And home buying is about the future and expectations. Renting is about marching in time to the drummer, not moving forward. To think about a home and a mortgage is to dream of the future, about what can be. We take on that ownership responsibility because we are responsible adults – then again that may be an issue as well.

Home buying is intricately woven into the fabric of this country. Institutions are built and survive on the hopes of their customers – even Jimmy Stewart talked about that in, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His little trust and savings company against the Potters and big banks of the world.

This housing issue will not go away. The current malaise is created from a misshapen cloth of student loans, unemployment, low expectations, debt carried over from the Naughty-Aughties (my term for the years 2000 to 2009), and a weariness of war and misaligned government programs. Little can be accomplished without an expectation for the future. The American citizen and family is being pulled in so many directions it is no wonder they have pulled the cover over their heads.

Stay tuned . . . . . . . .

Friday, June 6, 2014

Lest We Forget

Seventy years ago today, the greatest invasion in the history of the world took place to remove and destroy the most heinous military and cultural evil of the last thousand years. The statistics are mindboggling and almost irrelevant. Most ships, most men, most tanks and trucks, most landing craft, most parachute drops, the lists go on and on. It is a testament to logistics as well as courage and bravery.

I have a close friend who is walking the beach in Normandy today with his father. Steve is there because his father fought his way across that immense beach, up the dune, and into France and lived. He lived to tell his story and now can represent the tens of thousands who also attacked that beach and over the next nine months died battling Hitler’s war against civilization and humanity.

My wife and I have been to Normandy and the cemetery that keeps and honors those dead soldiers. In my whole life I have never been as moved to tears as that grey morning walking among the headstones. Standing on the bluff overlooking the English Channel and then down to the beach, a soul is easily troubled by what can be imagined: an impossibly wide beach, bracketing cliffs, concrete bunkers and gun emplacements, tank traps thrown on the sand like giant jacks, and if in the second or third waves, your dead comrades. We can only imagine what an eighteen-year old kid from Minnesota thought as he looked over the gunnel of his landing craft at a French beach exploding in hell’s fire and smoke.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is a treasure for the American people and a quiet testimony of our strength and promise to the world. I ask that every American, if given the opportunity, take a day and visit this memorial. While somber it is also uplifting to realize what sacrifices our soldiers will give to ensure a peaceful and just world.

The world must never forget June 6, 1944.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Road Trip 2014

The Friendly Confines
Today’s piece is about impressions. Last week I logged almost 1500 miles on a road trip that combined family matters and curiosity. We flew into Chicago, spent a few days then onto Ohio and the areas north of Columbus, then west to Indianapolis for a surprising dinner with friends, then further west to St. Louis and a town called Cuba and a wedding, then back to Chicago.

Unlike past trips to this hometown of mine (forty odd years ago) that have been during the winter, the weather this spring stay was delightful. I had a list of places to see (research for a forthcoming thriller that takes place in 1933 Chicago) and things to do. I grew up on the south side so naturally I was a White Sox fan and never attended a Cubs game. Wrigley Field is everything that nostalgic baseball fans love and for my first game they played the Yankees. The park has that ancient tangible feel and tangy taste of old timey baseball. The crowd was half Chicagoans and half zealots from around the world. I heard the twang of Indiana Hoosiers, clipped Wisconsonite and visiting Bronxese in the surrounding seats. The park is a magnate that draws true baseball fans.

I also saw more cardboards signs on the streets than past years, more people with their hands out. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it wasn’t, more than three days is needed to make a better observation. But the streets and restaurants were crowded, the neighborhoods (even after this horrendous winter) looked fresh and even though the potholes in the streets had potholes, the city looked prosperous. There was even construction going on.

Without a doubt Ohio is a beautiful state. The countryside north of Columbus that extends to Ashland is rolling farmland that has for almost two hundred years supplied corn and wheat to America. Most urbanites have never walked a newly planted cornfield where the sprouts are three inches tall in neat orderly rows that extend to the surrounding woods a half-mile away. It’s worth it. My wife’s cousin owns a farm. The corn is in the ground; the winter wheat is now a foot tall, four head of cattle he raised are being prepared for what normally happens to cattle when they reach a certain age. It is farming in all its richness and glory. It’s also wondering if the rains will let up enough so that the lower fields can be planted without losing the tractor to the axles.

The roads in Ohio were good after this past hard winter and the roads in Indiana weren’t so good. Maybe it’s the reconstruction of almost every bridge on I-70 that gave the impression or maybe it was the failing pavement. Needless to say Indiana, like Chicago, has a lot of roadwork ahead of it.

Race weekend in Indianapolis is fun. Our schedule was independent from the Indy 500, but we were lucky and found a room downtown. If there is one impression of Indianapolis I take from my almost drive-by visit is that the town gives up more of its downtown real estate to roads than any major city I have been in. Four and six lane streets grid the city’s core and with parking along the sides make crossing these boulevards difficult. There is a mix of old brick buildings and new steel and glass but more like set pieces on isolated islands surrounded by traffic. But it does stand tall on the Indiana prairie. BTW the Osteria Pronto is as fine an Italian eatery as anything in San Francisco.

St. Louis and Cuba
For some reason I thought the Mississippi River was wider. We were over it in less than a minute. Maybe it’s the bridges in the Bay Area I’ve been crossing for years where you had the time to consider the water under you. The Mississippi is most important river in America and with is contributing tributaries drains most of the United States from Pennsylvania to Colorado and north to Minnesota. We crossed it on one of its more docile days.

The Gateway Arch (designed by Eero Saarinen in 1963) will celebrate its fiftieth birthday next year. It is the tallest and most dramatic structure in the Midwest. Worth a visit when in town.

Cuba, Missouri sits on the historic U.S. Route 66, has a population of 3,356 souls and one great barbeque joint called Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q. Harry Truman once stopped in Cuba and four miles west is the world’s largest rocking chair, sadly we missed it.

But we didn’t miss my niece’s wedding that was held at a small winery near the town of Owensville. Her husband is an infantry sergeant with multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, prior to the start of wedding dinner they was a touching ceremony that honored their fallen comrades on this Memorial Day weekend. Thank you Ray and your men for your service. And congratulations to Rebecca and Ray.

But I’m still not sold on Missouri wines.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . . . . . .