Teaching kids about Chicago’s Deep Tunnel project

Kids should know about one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world: the Deep Tunnel project in and around Chicago.

DeepTunnelNotebaertNatureMuseum

This is from the Riverworks exhibit at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago. While some of the pieces of the exhibit failed to work the day we visited, I think I could see the purpose of the The Deep Tunnel exhibit: the floodwaters would be diverted away from the city.

The concept may appear simple and explainable to kids but the execution in real life is not. The exhibit suggests the flooding the past is now alleviated by Deep Tunnel. Yet, the problems are likely to go on in a region that continues to expand and change. Remediating water and flooding issues is a very difficult task compared to altering development at the beginning.

It is interesting to think how else this engineering feat could be presented to children. I could imagine a scaled model that kids could walk through to help give them a sense of the size of the sewers needed as well as the size of some of the water reservoirs. Deep Tunnel is not intended for minor amounts of water; this is supposed to help protect millions of people on a fairly regular basis. Communicating the sheer size could fascinate kids. Or, perhaps some sort of computer game where kids play the role of an engineer or expert as they make choices about where to divert water. Come to think of it, where is this version of Simcity or Roller Coaster Tycoon – “Infrastructure Builder” or “Sewer Wars” or something catchier.

How much Americans want nostalgic suburban recreations outside of “memory towns”

To help older Americans with dementia and other ailments, “memory towns” bring them back to their younger days:

On August 13, a brand-new town in Southern California welcomed its first residents. They trickled through the doors of a generic beige warehouse on a light-industrial stretch of Main Street in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb. Then they emerged in Town Square, a 9,000-square-foot working replica of a 1950s downtown, built and operated by the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers. Unlike the businesses around it hawking restaurant supplies and tires, Town Square trades in an intangible good: memories…

Glenner has partnered with the home-health-care giant Senior Helpers, which employs some 25,000 caregivers around the United States, to build Town Squares around the country. Version 2.0 is under construction near Baltimore, in a former Rite Aid in White Marsh, Maryland. Senior Helpers will own and run that facility, which is expected to open in early 2019. But franchise sales are underway, and Peter Ross, the company’s CEO, is bullish…

The onward march of private or semipublic “nostalgiavilles” (retiree-only communities, such as the The Villages in Florida, are similarly engineered to evoke vanished small-town life) raises the question: Do people respond to these places simply because they remind them of their youth, or does their form matter, too? After all, millions of Boomers grew up in postwar sprawl, but Town Square isn’t designed to mimic that.

Instead, as Tarde noted, it “really replicates [a] kind of urban experience. You’re going to a movie theater, going to a library, a department store. Engaging in these activities that may not be accessible to these individuals any longer. But they are in Town Square, and it’s safe.” In other words, the principle behind Town Square is the dense concentration of different services, as in a city (although adapted for a vulnerable population).

Sounds like a promising idea.

I wonder how much of a market there is for recreating idyllic American suburbs in various forms. This could include therapy settings (though the examples discussed above seem to focus more on urban downtowns) and senior living communities. But, it could also include history museums, parks, entertainment venues, and retail settings that want to add a unique element.

One way this could happen is through history museum. Imagine a facility like Naper Settlement in Naperville, Illinois. The facility seems to be well-funded and it helps a wealthy suburb of over 140,000 residents connect to the community’s earlier decades (mid-1800s to early 1900s) as a small farming community. The outdoor portion includes a number of older buildings either moved to the property or recreated that give visitors a glimpse of what life used to be like. Yet, the facility does not do as much with the postwar suburban boom era that might be the true marker of what Naperville is today. Could it move 1950s ranch homes and strip malls and other markers of postwar life that would give visitors a sense of a growing suburban Naperville?

If critics are right about suburbs, perhaps there is little nostalgia worth celebrating. After all, suburbs have been characterized as patriarchal, cookie-cutter, conformist, a waste of resources, and racist. At the same time, millions of Americans grew up in such settings and cultural products (books, films, TV shows) regularly invoke idyllic postwar suburbia (while other products in the same mediums try to show off the darker sides of the same places). These postwar suburbs also came about in an unprecedented era of American prosperity.

At some point, I expect Levittown might become part of a museum or theme park. Given the amount of people who experienced such settings plus the attention (both positive and negative) given to suburbs, isn’t this an opportunity waiting to happen? At the least, many suburbs across the United States will need to find ways to provide compelling and interactive narratives about their own growth that encompasses the era of highways, subdivisions, and sprawl.

Public Housing Museum to open in Chicago in 2017

A new museum on the site of the former Jane Addams Homes is set to open next year:

You can see the towers of the Loop looming to the east, and right on the block you can see new restaurants that draw Chicago diners looking for upscale burgers and barbecue. You can gaze down the block toward Mario’s Italian Lemonade, a summertime fixture in the Little Italy neighborhood for decades. And right next door to the west, you can see the empty lot where the impressive heating plant for these projects, the Jane Addams Homes, once stood. The lot is now used for the overflow of cars that bring patrons to the restaurants.

But this, organizers say, is part of what makes the site so potent for the museum, which aims to replicate the successes of New York’s Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and other “museums of conscience” the world over…

“Certainly a museum dedicated to public housing, people have questions about what does that mean,” said Brad White, associate director of Chicago’s Alphawood Foundation, which has pledged $750,000 to help start construction. “But race, income disparity, inequality are things that are actually important to the public these days.”…

Indeed, a core story, told with guidance by docents from the community, will be to trace the Addams homes from the white Jewish Medor family in the late 1930s, when the development opened, to the 1970s, when the African-American Hatch family moved out.

On the one hand, this story needs to be told, particularly since many of the larger high-rise projects are no longer standing and public housing fades from the memory of residents and the city. Additionally, it can directly address issues of race and class that have marked Chicago from the beginning and continue to influence social life.

On the other hand, how popular might such a museum be? The federal government was ambivalent about public housing to start as efforts picked up steam during the 1930s and 1940s. The city of Chicago placed the majority of the large complexes in already poor areas and practiced segregated placement of families. Both government bodies worked to remove large-scale public housing starting in the 1990s; some of the more valuable land has been redeveloped – see the former Cabrini-Green site – while little has been done with other land – such as at the Robert Taylor Homes.

I’ll be curious to see the museum itself as well as how it does.

Detroit’s art museum raises $800 million, saving its art and helping the city escape bankruptcy

The deal late last week to end Detroit’s bankruptcy also means the city’s art museum didn’t have to sell much of its famous art:

As many outlets are noting, the bankruptcy could have been far lengthier, and even more painful for retirees, had it not been for an unusual deal designed to save the Detroit Institute of Arts while minimizing cuts to pensions. The museum has been owned by the city since 1919, and its collection, appraised at $4.6 billion, includes works by the likes of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Matisse, as well as Bruegel the Elder’s masterful The Wedding Dance. In April 2013, the city’s governor-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, informed the DIA that it would have to contribute at least $500 million to paying off Detroit’s debts, even if meant selling off paintings at auction. Creditors also demanded a sale, because, you know, they’re creditors.

Instead, the museum essentially went on an ambitious fundraising drive, in which it managed to raise more than $800 million, including $330 million from nine different philanthropic foundations. Another $200 million came from the state of Michigan, which, despite Gov. Rick Snyder’s protestations that he wouldn’t bail out Detroit, did apparently feel compelled to preserve some of its cultural heritage.

In return for the money, the deal will essentially “ransom the museum from city ownership,” as the New York Times puts it, placing it in control of an independent charitable trust.

It sounds like foundations and others that gave money to the art museum not just helped preserve the museum’s finer pieces but also raised extra money for the museum. Given that many urban supporters these days laud the positive influence of arts on urban development, perhaps the museum can play a bigger role in helping to revive downtown Detroit with some of that extra money.

At the same time, it is interesting to consider some of the tradeoffs in Detroit leaving bankruptcy: is it better to preserve art (often something passed down from generation to generation) or to cut the pensions of employees and retirees? Save big culture or provide more money for people living in the community? Perhaps this is an overly simplified comparison but raising hundreds of millions for art could have very different outcomes than raising that money to help residents.

New arts centers in cities, like a Lucas museum, don’t bring in all the benefits suggested

Chicago may have landed the George Lucas museum but a new book suggests such arts centers don’t lead to all the benefits suggested:

“In terms of the study, our major hypothesis was that these major facility projects—new museums, new expansions—would have these positive net benefits to the surrounding urban area,” says Woronkowicz, a professor in the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. “And that they would have potentially have less positive or even negative effects on surrounding organizations.”

Through case studies, surveys, and construction-cost analyses, the Cultural Policy Center report found that the museum building boom didn’t bring the net benefit to communities predicted by the so-called Bilbao Effect. While poverty rates fell and property values generally rose in communities where new cultural centers or expansions were built—good news!—poorer residents also suffered displacement in those areas. Beyond the standard gentrification effect, the researchers’ evidence shows, supply may have outstripped demand over the course of the U.S. arts center building boom—leaving some cities with the responsibility to maintain or even pay for cultural centers that they don’t entirely need…

“The types of leaders who provide the passion and drive to build structures of this sort [major performing arts centers] are successful men and women who are accustomed to relying on their own experience and judgment,” the book reads. “They depend on what they might describe as ‘inside knowledge’—knowledge gleaned from their own experiences, and those of their collaborators’ experiences.

“What tends to be absent in their thinking, however … is ‘outside knowledge,’ such as what statisticians refer to as ‘the base rate’ regarding the distribution of projects that did not go as planned,” the book continues.

Other traps that civic leaders fall into include hindsight bias and consistency bias: People’s memories about decision-making for projects tends to change over time, and people tend to revise their memory of the past to fit present circumstances.

There are similar findings regarding sports stadiums: they tend to benefit the teams more than the city.

It sounds like arts centers can be explained by growth machine theories. Cities want to promote growth and cultural relevance so bringing in a building dedicated to the arts looks good. It helps a city be more cosmopolitan, connect to famous names, promote tourism, have a new starchitect-designed building (if the city goes that route) or revive an existing structure, and even create jobs. A mayor can look back and say, “I helped bring that institution to the city and further confirm our world-class status.” Yet, such buildings may not do much for the entire city. Who pays for the land, new building, and maintenance? What if the new structure doesn’t draw as many people as planned? What if the institution moves away later? How much tax money does the arts center contribute to the city and where does that money go?

A Sociology of Disney course makes sense because Disney itself claims an influential legacy

I recently saw a story about a new Sociology of Disney course. Is such a course helpful or a good use of time? Some might see this as frivolous, perhaps the same people who sound the alarms about sociology courses about celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, or Jay-Z. I would argue otherwise: not only is it a good means to introduce students to sociology but Disney itself claims it is an influential factor in American life.

First, a quick description of the Sociology of Disney course:

A classroom case study: A young woman stuck in an abusive home escapes her family through marriage. Fast forward 60 years: Another young woman calls off her wedding to a deceptive fiance and focuses her time on her older sister and a new partner from a lower social class.

If these two fictional examples came from the same writer, what does this say about how the author’s attitude toward women changed?

They may sound like a classic comparison of gender roles, but they’re actually the plot of two Disney movies — “Cinderella” and “Frozen.”

Heather Downs, a Jacksonville University sociology professor, is using such examples in her “The Sociology of Disney” summer course, which she created last year as a way to get students interested in common sociology topics. The course has gained popularity since, and 16 students completed their final Friday by running around the Magic Kingdom and taking photos of examples of sociology topics discussed in class.

Second, I recently saw the Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Lots of people know Disney and like Disney but I was particularly interested in how Disney itself was presented. And the legacy-building was thick. It included: the early life of Walt Disney in the heartland of America (Chicago, small-town Missouri); his early forays in Hollywood with interesting cartoon work and new ideas; the formation of the Disney company; all sorts of new techniques in animation (matching sound with drawings, coloring, a multi-plane camera, reintroducing fairy tales); innovative work matching animation and live-action (think Mary Poppins); the construction of iconic characters and theme parks; and best-selling movies. All throughout, there were videos and quotes from Walt Disney talking about what the company was trying to do and how they accomplished it.

Connecting this to the Disney course, it is worth studying Disney because this successful international corporation itself recognizes its influence. Walt Disney is held up as an American success story, a Midwestern boy who followed his dreams and helped enrich the lives of millions. Individuals don’t have to like the films or themes or what Disney stands for but it is hard to refute that most, if not all, Americans have interacted with Disney in one form or another. While people are certainly influenced by other sources, Disney capitalized on a number of trends – generally, adapting to new mass media forms – and is worth examining.

Carefully designing museum exhibits of traumatic events

Museums help us know and interpret our past so what is the best way to design exhibits that tackle traumatic events?

Working to affect the museumgoer’s subconscious is how Layman talks about exhibition design. First, he strives to understand – reading, consulting with historians, trying to learn the material as well as the curators do in order to find what resonates, what surprises. When it comes to putting materials in galleries, yes, he wants to manipulate you, but for the purposes of telling the story.

“We do a technique called ‘swing focus’ as the visitors go through,” Layman said. “Their eye catches one thing after the next, and it works all the way through, and the story, then, it just unfolds almost intuitively. It comes off the walls, and the people get lost in this story, and it becomes a very moving experience.”

Earlier this winter, Layman was in the opening galleries at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, in Skokie, the ones that, in parallel, establish what Jewish life was like in Europe before World War II and how the Nazis rose to power in Germany.

The two hours Layman took to explain what his firm did in Skokie, a sort of ultimate guided tour, were absolutely fascinating. The museum deftly takes viewers into some of humanity’s least human moments and then escorts them back out. It works so well, in part, because every inch of the design is pored over. “We pay attention to excruciating detail on absolutely everything,” he said.

It sounds like the purpose is trying to tell an immersive narrative. This narrative is carefully crafted and meant to give the attendee a particular viewpoint on the world. Museums can reinforce existing cultural narratives, particularly in their ability to involve all the senses.

I like museums and what they can offer: original artifacts and powerful experiences. Yet, as someone who values education, museums seem like they can only go so far: they provide an introduction to most topics. If the museum is the only time a person encounters an important topics like the Holocaust, then that is not enough. I would encourage my students to find out for themselves, to find original texts and numerous interpretations to start developing what they think on their own. Museums can do some of this but there simply isn’t enough space (and this process requires a lot more text that the typical museumgoer would be willing to read) to tell the whole story.

A fascinating example of this is at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. Before going, I wondered how they would handle conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination. But, the museum had a whole section on the various theories at the end without making a strong statement against such theories. The better parts of the museum told the story of JFK’s rise, involving artifacts, texts, and videos. The ultimate part of the journey is looking at the reconstructed spot at the sixth floor window from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired at the president. I could see that taking this all in moved numerous visitors. All together, the museum is a well-done taste of JFK’s life, legacy, and the theories surrounding his death but an individual could spend years going through all that is out there and trying to make sense of it all. The museum isn’t the final word but rather an authoritative source.