Well, I’m missing the after-party, but I wanted to share some tidbits from this event that raged all day at the Armory today. I was too busy listening to blog from the “Assembly Row Blogging Lounge” in the upper level (though it was mighty cosy up there thanks to a grant from the Assembly developers). About 400 people showed up to have a listen to some of Somerville’s smartest people hailing forth on the various subjects they know best. There were 26 short talks (two of which were TED videos) with three breaks and some music in between. Not all talks were about Somerville (though they were given by Somervillens), but could have been fodder for reflection on the theme “Creative Economy/Sustainable Community.” Everything was well produced, well run, and well supplied. Here are some things from my notes:
Mayor Curtatone: “We can’t govern a city by the four corners of a budget document…” Also, the mayor claimed to love “freaky people” and while getting some jibes in general into Cambridge, he claimed to often say to Cantabridgians, “Our freaks are better than your freaks.” He said that our community is “cerebral, engaged, and committed.” I was honestly never so proud to be “freaky.”
The first two talks after the mayor set the stage for how disparate the talk topics were going to be: Dan Rothstein taught us to ask good questions, and Georgy Cohen told an engaging story about how she found out she was a twin and proceeded to find her twin brother. After that we knew to expect anything.
I really liked Lenni Armstrong’s talk about her project to depave Somerville, one asphalt patch at a time. It sounds like a crazy amount of effort but when you learn all the benefits of asphalt removal, and learn that the asphalt is easily recycled, it starts to make sense. It was also fun to learn about how the Tisnit project got started from Ray Matsumiya.
Kelly Creedon recounted how City Life/Vida Urbana formed eviction blockades to keep banks from pulling people out of their foreclosed properties. She spoke with a sense of awe about how much good came out of the simple act of telling your story and entreated us to open ourselves up to let stories move us. (Okay, I’m going to skip some here.)
I had seen Grooversity at the High School concerts, but it was interesting to learn from Marcus Santos how these city drum corps got started in Brazil and are spreading across the country. My daughter just told me that one of the drummers from his Somerville High group got accepted to Berkeley School of Music recently. It’s a good thing.
Project Repat was described by Ross Lohr as a system whereby castoff American t-shirts are “repatriated” after value is added by skillful hands of Kenyan seamsters who turn them into clever and useful bags, scarfs, and more fashionable attire. This helps Kenyans create a sustainable economy, rather than be merely recipients of our cast-offs.
Jessie Banhazl & Brendan Shea talked about how they built a rooftop garden for a restaurant which could produce fresh herbs and vegetables for the chef to use.
Lunch was terrific. I had the Ethiopian food but I could have had Italian (Vinny’s) or Mexican. Amazing how everyone got fed. I should also mention that the art exhibits and music were a lot of fun. (I was a little overstimulated by lunchtime but toughed it out, and glad I did.)
After lunch, Daniel Hadley’s talk “Can your City Make You Happier?” mentioned some surprising results of recent surveys: Aesthetics were surprisingly important to people, and East Somerville is a particularly happy zone! (Sorry Easties, but I think those facts must be unrelated.)
I can’t do good service especially to Ruth Allen who spoke about “Open Government.” She talked about a project in Brazil where they had a participatory budgeting process withe citizens using GPS devices to locate areas of need and identify priorities, a project in Mongolia where a government donated civic building created good will, and a Somalian project where the people had learned to consult with the most needy first before digging a well. For Somerville her question was “How can we make more open government?”
Sam Summers talk on “The Hidden Power of Context” was particularly cerebral. He explained how we tend to be less engaged when we’re in a crowd. There’s a “diffusion of responsibility” like when you don’t trouble yourself to check on a passenger on the T who, well, he may just be sleeping. You could tell this professor was comfortable with speaking engagements.
Alex Feldman’s performance was really amusing. He played on his recorders sometimes three at a time, and sometimes through his nose! He spoke pseudo-Russian but communicated with body language he later told us was “primal talk.”
“From Foodstamps to Home Ownership” was the subject of Aatish Salvi’s revealing talk on how little relative aid the really poor receive and how providing incentives to save and financial coaching helped some folks in Lynn get out of debt. That was a really hopeful thing.
Seth Itzkan said that “overgrazing is a human invention; and seeing as we invented it we can solve it.” He described how the Savory Institute has developed techniques to reverse desertification by managing grazing so that the herds move in dense clusters as they would have in nature without man.
Lis Pardi made a case for the importance of librarians that inspired us to get back to using this underutilized resource. She compelled us to think of them as “rent-an-expert” persons.
All in all, I felt like I’d gone back to college for a day and got to listen to only the most interesting parts of all the lectures in a year’s worth of classes. For the most part the talks were “preaching to the choir” but each one added something to my understanding and to my desire to find some way of my own (maybe with some of these speakers) to make change for the better in Somerville, or perhaps the world.