Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Ideas from away: Forget Yankee independence — try imported ingenuity

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There is plenty of energy in Portland to make this a better place to live, work, and create. Groups from neighborhood associations to local businesses to city leaders are dreaming up schemes that, while untested, seem — at least to their supporters — like they might be good ideas.

But we don’t need to make these efforts entirely on our own, despite New England’s leave-me-alone-I’ll-do-it-myself tradition. Other communities face problems similar to ours, and have come up with ways to solve them that could work as well here.

Homeless cleaners
There are plenty of folks who could use some on-and-off work around Portland. Some of them are panhandlers (some are even the regulars, like the guy whose car seems to be forever out of gas on the other side of the Casco Bay Bridge, or any of the folks who ask you for some cash despite the fact that they asked you — and you gave — just an hour ago). Others have various physical or mental problems that make getting or keeping a job difficult or impossible.

And there’s plenty of litter lying around, from cigarette butts to food wrappers, broken glass, or winter clothing cast off in our “mid-winter” heat wave.

Palo Alto, California, has put these problems together in ways that combat both. The city’s downtown-business promotion association (their equivalent of Portland’s Downtown District) has hired a person (a formerly homeless man) to find and train homeless people to sweep the sidewalks, pick up trash, and weed and plant in public gardens, in exchange for housing, food, and job-skills training. The group, called the DOWNTOWN STREETS TEAM, has been going since May 2005, and has already contracted with the city’s public works department to maintain athletic fields on weekends.

After several months in the program, participants — who are selected based on their expressed desire to find permanent housing and work — are “certified” by the program as job-ready. Eighteen former team members have landed jobs, and several downtown Palo Alto businesses (as well as the usual government and nonprofit agencies) are actively involved in funding the effort.

Prima Vera
The all-ages “scene” in Portland is a sad joke. For years, youth-targeted concerts have been relegated to Sunday afternoon shows at the Big Easy and the odd punk/metal gig at the Station or Asylum. Outside of that, young bands and fans need to get their rock off in ugly halls intended for banquets and church meetings or give in to the only other reliable late-night option: Denny’s. This eternal shortcoming of Portland’s arts community not only breeds boredom and discontent, but the aimless loitering that gives kids a bad rap with their elders. It’s a depressing cycle of mutual resentment, and the blame lies squarely on a town that offers these kids no worthwhile venue to release their creative energy.

This isn’t merely a local concern, but one that’s repeated in small towns and booming metropolises across the country. At least one major city came up with something to do about it: the Vera Project was founded in Seattle in 2000, inspired by a legendary ALL-AGES VENUE of the same name in Holland. Vera’s dual purpose is to provide consistent and positive nightlife for city youth, and, more importantly, foster a creative, cooperative environment for young people. Aside from hosting all-ages concerts every weekend, the Vera Project is also home to punk-rock yoga and break-dancing classes, a screen-printing studio, an art gallery, and open classroom space. The Project is close to raising the $1.8 million needed to build a new home for these events and more, including a recording studio for young bands to record demos and albums.

More than merely a noble idea, the Vera Project has been well received and well supported by Seattle’s youth. More than 17,000 kids attend Vera Project events each year, and more than a thousand have used its other programs and facilities. Portland has an empty Public Market complex and more empty storefronts popping up by the month. It’s time to pony up, put one of those new condos on hold, and give the kids something to do. The next generation of Portland’s arts community will thank you.

Street art, for real
The People’s Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts, inspired by an effort from the Other Portland, has put art out on the street in an apparently successful effort to slow traffic at a dangerous intersection. Though you’d think those yellow and red lights would be enough, they’re clearly not, for us or for Mass-holes. A MURAL IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD at High and Congress streets could slow cars down, helping out the cyclists and pedestrians trying to make their pilgrimages around the Arts District.

It would also help support a local artist, though we’ll want to choose the artist carefully so as to find someone nimble enough to leap away from the cars while the painting is being created. (It probably has to be a painting — the giant sculpture of Longfellow that is effectively in the middle of the State and Congress intersection hasn’t slowed cars there at all.)

Party, party — and party
Maine’s third-party endeavors are among the strongest in the nation, but they’re still handicapped by a major problem seen most recently in this year’s gubernatorial election: casting a vote for a third-party candidate risks “throwing away” a vote for a centrist candidate who actually has a shot at winning. Greens hate it because it cuts their returns; Dems hate it because if the Greens pull enough lefties away, the GOP might come out on top; Republicans love it because it gives them their best shot at holding statewide office.

Let’s take a page from Ireland, a very strong democracy with a vibrant multi-party system, and institute the SINGLE TRANSFERABLE VOTE. People vote for their first choices, even if those candidates have no real shot at winning, but without throwing away their general preference for more centrist candidates. You rank the candidates in order, and the vote is tabulated according to a few simple rules: nobody can win without an actual majority of the votes; candidates who come in last have their supporters’ votes transferred to the next-highest candidates on the supporters’ ballots; if nobody wins a majority outright, the process of eliminating the last-place person continues until someone actually gets a majority and is declared the winner.

In this year’s gubernatorial election, incumbent Democrat John Baldacci “won” with 38 percent of the vote. Collectively, the three third-party candidates came in second, beating Republican Chandler Woodcock by 8000 votes.

Sadly, we’ll never know how many people voted for Baldacci not because they liked him, but to forestall a Woodcock win. What if those folks could have said, “My preference is for [Barbara Merrill or Pat LaMarche or Phillip Morris NaPier] to win, but if the vote totals show that person is coming in last, my second choice is Baldacci” — or one of the other independents, putting Baldacci in as third choice.

Perhaps enough folks would have supported Merrill or LaMarche to elect the first female governor in Maine’s history, rather than what we have now: a lame-duck governor with no mandate or political capital to get anything done, even within his own party.

Get on the bus
Lots of cities around the country, and even ski areas in rural Maine, pay for (or find sponsors for) buses to take people to and from nightlife destinations. On Mount Desert Island, LL Bean funds a shuttle service that cuts pollution and traffic. Here in Portland, NIGHTLIFE SHUTTLE BUSES could take party-goers around the Old Port and even into the West End, Deering, and the Hill as the night wore on, helping the poor, beleaguered police clear the crowds from Wharf Street in summertime, and in winter saving the rest of us from searching snowbanks for upended drinking buddies who have lost their way.

It would cut drunk driving, give the city’s bus service a much-needed revenue boost (not to mention actual riders), and help everyone have a better time. Maybe, if the bar owners had any free cash after paying their bar-stool taxes, licensing fees, and other city-required costs, they might voluntarily pony up to help their customers get around the city better.

It sucks, hoping for a green ticket. You slid in on the end of someone else’s time, and don’t have any change. But — of course! — you have your cell phone.

In Denver, you can PAY YOUR PARKING METER ON YOUR CELL PHONE, by calling a toll-free number. Then you punch in your parking space’s number and how much time you want to stay. It costs $5.95 a year, plus a 10-percent premium on parking fees (so, here, that 25-cent fee for 15 minutes would jump to 27.5 cents, and $2-an-hour would become $2.20).

Heck, the city could save money in its parking garages by using this system, too — instead of paying those folks to sit in the booth (and they’re never there when I’m trying to leave, anyway), we could pay them to ticket scofflaws in the garage.

Cities love it because, with no way to know if anybody left money in the meter, every person who parks has to pay. But parkers win too: you can pay as you go, without running outside to keep the meter happy. (Of course, feeding the meter beyond the per-spot time limit is technically illegal, but if you think you have 15 minutes’ worth of errands and find it’s taking longer, you can up your payment without leaving the line at the bank.)

And you can get a text message reminding you when your meter is almost up. A possible pitfall: maybe the meter maid will get one too, saying “Check spot 17 on Congress — it has five minutes to go.”

Already happening: Artists working together
Here’s an idea I’d love to claim as my own. But it’s already happening, so I missed my chance.
Inspired by similar shops in other cities, Michelle Rose-Larochelle has opened the PORTLAND ARTIST’S CO-OP in the old Smoothie King space on Temple Street. Thirteen artists are exhibiting work — and all have sold at least one piece in the couple weeks the co-op has been open — and Rose-Larochelle is looking for as many as 30 more.

A jeweler with years of experience working in and managing retail stores for creative works, Rose-Larochelle wants to find local artists willing to work hard at making a living from their creativity.

There’s no need for a super-professional “audition”-type presentation. Just drop her a line, with the subject “Portland Artist’s Co-op,'" to set up a time to stop by with your work — no lighthouses, please.

In exchange for helping with a share of the costs and maybe a once-a-month gig behind the cash register, artists get retail display space and a piece of group-marketing efforts to local, regional, and national buyers, including boutiques and galleries.

It has come together quite quickly, and Rose-Larochelle admits the post-holiday timing could be better. But the Smoothie King space opened up, and she said to her husband, painter Chris Larochelle, “Let’s get it out here and show people it can be done.”

The lease is short-term for the moment — solid only through the end of January — but if more artists (and customers!) participate, she’ll stay. And if not there, “It’ll work someplace,” says Rose-Larochelle, who has already been contacted by a local real-estate company interested in helping find her a permanent space.

The space itself is a big step up from Rose-Larochelle’s garage-gallery in their home in Camp Ellis, open nights and weekends during the summer. If she stays, she wants to use the former kitchen and storage space behind and upstairs from the retail floor as art studios. (Bonus: snacks and smoothie “booster” nutrient supplements are still on the shelves, for those late-night screen-printing marathons.)

This is the first step in Rose-Larochelle’s art-entrepreneur dreams. She wants to start an every-Sunday art festival (based on similar events in London) all along Temple Street with artists making and selling work, musicians performing, and shoppers hitting the downtown at what is now a super-dead time of the week. Rose-Larochelle says that’s just one piece of making Portland’s downtown much more active, by expanding hours shops and restaurants are open to give people who want to spend money places to do it right here.

“We’ve got to make it more appealing for shoppers,” she says. She said it.

Christopher Gray and Meaghan Donaghy contributed to this story.