Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Watering the Workers' Beer?

Beer and the social impact of that very British institution, the pub, is one of the sub-topics that I hope to explore when I'm in America.  I have a certain romantic idealism of post-WWII working-class life - when you worked, lived and drank in very close proximity: as perhaps most famously portrayed in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe.  Incidentally I've always believed that the pub in the film of the book where Arthur falls down the stair is The White Horse on Ilkeston Road (you can see it here in its current status as a takeaway: but I'm not sure I could prove it.  Either way, it's exactly the right location for Arthur Seaton to live: he works at the Raleigh factory, the site of which was round the corner (now student flats) and there would have been a large amount of terraced housing the other side of Ilkeston Road (which were cleared and redeveloped in the 70s I believe).

Where you socialise and what you drink when you do are a key determinant of what a city is like to live and work in in my experience.  The brief times that I worked in London were always marked by a couple of pints after work on a Friday and I am always struck by the large crowds spilling out into the street from London's pubs any time after 5 during the week - much more so than other cities.  Working where I do on the Boots campus to the west of the city the vast majority of people drive to work so there's no culture of going for a drink with colleagues after work.  It's one of the oddest things that I found about working there when I joined (and still do!).

I struggle with the concept of living in one place, working in another and probably socialising somewhere else - all very often car dependant (see post on Tuesday for more on this).  And yes, we spend a lot of time already with work colleagues so might not want to spend leisure time with them, but it is a key bonding and team building experience nevertheless. 

I'll be interested to find out what workers in the American cities I hope to visit feel about socialising with their work colleagues.  Is this the 'done thing'?  Or a no-no in a country that still features hundreds of 'dry' localities?  What sort of places do people go for a "quick one" after work - is that different from where they might go with their partner or friends? 

I'll also be planning to sample some of the burgeoning craft ale scene in America.  I was lucky enough to be at the opening night of the new BrewDog bar in Nottingham the other week and I know that they learned a lot of their style and marketing from the much more established tradition in America. 

Monday, 26 March 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire

For me one of the key aspects that make city live-able and a place that exists as a home and cultural and social space rather than just a location is the ease of travel to and around the conurbation.  In Nottingham we're very lucky to have one of the few municipally owned bus companies still in existence (NCT) along with a tram system, currently being extended with two new lines.  This has resulted in the City being voted the best for public transport and the bus service being similar recognised many times.  I'm a passionate advocate of public transport, walking and cycling and try to avoid using the car wherever possible.  In fact I didn't learn to drive until I was nearly 25 but then I didn't need to having grown up in London and then been to University in York - two places where it's better not to have a car at all.

One reason for a company to locate in or remain in a city is the ease by which their goods can reach or leave their location and how easy it is for their staff to get to the workplace.  But more important to me is how this "transport experience" feels for the people who live and work there.  Lots of my colleagues at work commute by car for an hour or more (I used to have a boss who drove from Kidderminster every day to Nottingham - the thick end of 90mins each way) which I find totally abhorrent - I love the fact that I can ride my bike and it takes me about 30mins to do the journey - great exercise integrated into my day, cheap and better for the environment.  In fact on the rare days that I have to drive I often find that it takes longer than biking or getting the bus. 

I'm in two minds about how to approach the transport issue if I do go to America.  I'd be reticent to hire a car unless totally unavoidable - I really want to experience the Greyhound and Amtrak systems firsthand (more on which in another post) but at the same time I recognise that the majority of people in the cities that I am likely to visit are going to be large users of their cars so I should try to replicate this as much as possible.  

I'm really intrigued by the data to be found at Walk Score - just the sort of geeky stats and social anthropology that turns me on!  And I see that we've now got some UK data too here.  I'm not sure how useful some of that data is as my street is classified as only average walkability when I know that you can (for example) walk and buy all the ingredients for a top-notch Sunday roast (mainly courtesy of J T Beedham).  On the American site I like the contrast between Portland and Jacksonville.  I was interested to see that Los Angeles has a rating of 'Somewhat Walkable' - my perception of those huge highways in permanent gridlock where no-one walks obviously aren't quite accurate. 

Fundamentally: how easy it is to get around, get to work and to socialise without a car are a key determinant for me of where I chose to live and work.  I'll be interested to see if this is the same in any of the places I hope to visit. 

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Reading Material

When I moved house last year I cursed the fact that I am a compulsive book buyer.  I love reading and keep buying books even when I have a pile of "next to be read" that is half-a-dozen or more tall.  I even went so far as to buy myself a Kindle to try to stop the accumulation of more dead trees but it doesn't seem to have worked.  Next on my list to buy is Triumph of the City

Travelling from city to city, speaking to planners and politicians across the world, he uncovers questions large and small whose answers are both counterintuitive and deeply significant. Should New Orleans be rebuilt? Why can’t my nephew afford an apartment in New York? Is London the new financial capital of the world? Is my job headed to Bangalore? In Triumph of the City, Glaeser takes us around the world and into the mind of the modern city – from Mumbai to Paris to Rio to Detroit to Shanghai, and to any number of points in between – to reveal how cities think, why they behave in the manners that they do, and what wisdom they share with the people who inhabit them".  I love the way that he anthropomorphises the city - there's a great literary tradition right there. 

I have also been recommended to check out The Fires by Joe Flood which takes a look at the impact on deprived areas of New York in the 1970s (and also wins a prize for the longest sub-title to a book ever): "In 1968, New York City struck a deal with the RAND Corporation to use their computer models to establish more efficient public services and save millions of dollars, beginning their first civilian effort with the FDNY. Over the next decade a series of fires swept through New York, displacing more than 600,000 people, all thanks to the intentional withdrawal of fire protection from the city's poorest neighborhoods-based on RAND's computer modeling systems.  In The Fires, journalist Joe Flood provides an X-ray of the inner workings of modern cities, using the dramatic story of a pair of mayors, an ambitious Fire Commissioner, and an even more ambitious think tank to illuminate the patterns and formulas that are now inextricably woven into the very fabric of the modern urban experience."

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Managed Decline

So, I've been thinking some more about the response that cities might take to the particularly destructive exit of a large employer.  An extreme example of what can happen can be seen in Detroit which I'm hoping to visit on my trip.  I think I was first made aware of what was happening here via this incredible set of photos published last year in The Observer.  The memory of these images has stuck in my head every since but is only coming to the surface now.  Image 6 of that gallery of the Central Station just blows my mind - it's only just over a mile from the city centre yet lies almost totally in ruins.  

But until the other week I didn't know that the process of strategically withdrawing from a city or region has an actual sociological name and is studied as a phenomenon in itself: Planned Shrinkage.  

This kind of dramatic approach to managing adverse external economic events obviously has huge societal and individual impacts - one of things that I'd hope to understand more about on my trip.  

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Going to America?

When I was growing up my Dad used to play lots of the same music in the car when we were driving anywhere.  The smell of Polos and certain tracks have an amazing ability to transport me back in an instant to 1989 and a trip to the Purley Way retail park.  One of those songs is 'America' by Neil Diamond.

I'd like to pretend that this youthful exposure to those lyrics is what's prompting me to consider the trip to America that this blog is going to be about.  But in reality it's more about the fact that I'm turning 30 this year and I'm becoming increasingly concerned about that milestone.

Early mid-life crisis apart, I am planning a trip to America to see some of the cities of that great country that I've never been to.  In order to support this I'm in the process of applying to the Nottinghamshire Roosevelt Travelling Scholarship for their 2012 awards.

This scheme offers a cash award to support a piece of field based research in the States to celebrate the links between America and Nottingham and to further promote Nottingham and Nottinghamshire over there.  You have to submit a research proposal which you'll use the time overseas to study and develop. 

The (probably over-long) title of my project is: "The Modern Company Town: How America's Cities and Large Employers are Engaging with Recession – And What Nottingham Can Learn From Them".  When I first moved to Nottingham to start work at Boots Head Office I had a lot of friends in West Bridgford and soon came to understand why they call it West Boots-ford: seeing colleagues from work on the high-street on Saturday morning after a hard Friday night wasn't always the most pleasant of experiences and it set me off thinking about working and living in a place where there is just one major employer in an area.

Now Nottingham isn't even a particularly extreme example of this sort of 'Company Town' - there is quite a high diversity of employers as shown here (PDF) but there are times where it feels like it's impossible to escape the company's impact on the City: from the founding of the University to the sensory garden at Wollaton Park to the possibility of the new Enterprise Zone the city's fortunes are closely intertwined with those of the company.

I'm really intrigued by true Company Towns that are quite common in America: places like Hershey in Pennsylvania, Cupertino in California (home of Apple) and Bentonville in Arkansas (the place WalMart calls home).

How have these cities been shaped and created (often literally from nothing in the case of places like Boulder City in Nevada) by their major employers and how has the city impacted back on the company?  What challenges has the current recession caused?  How have big cities coped with the sudden loss of an employer (like in Detroit)?  What techniques have large employers and the cities that they are based in used to cope with the recession - how have they differed across America and compared with Nottingham?

So, the application form went in the other week and I've just had notification that I'm through to the next round which is an informal 20 minute interview.  That is in a couple of weeks.  After that it's a more formal interview to select the final recipient(s) of the award.

If I'm successful I'll probably be going either some time in the Summer or Autumn, depending on when it best fits into when work will be able to release me on unpaid leave.

I'll be using this blog to update on the research and application stage and, if I'm successful, updates on the road during my trip.