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Archive: Alex Marshall

Cities and Corporations: One and the Same

Alex Marshall / Mar 07 2013

For Release Thursday, March 7, 2013

Alex MarshallTo most of us, corporations are as familiar as apple pie, if not as tasty. From the computers we work on to the businesses down the boulevard, we are surrounded by corporations and their labors.

But how many of us know or remember that our cities are also corporations, just the way Apple, IBM and General Motors are? Not only are cities corporations, but in many cases they are far older than any contemporary business, dating back not just decades but centuries.

This may seem strange, but it’s fact.

“There is no difference between Google and San Francisco,” says Harvard law Professor Gerald Frug. In the eyes of the law, he says, they are both corporate bodies, “empowered by government, to do stuff.”

It’s useful to remember that cities are corporations, with a long, distinguished history, because it helps us understand their possibilities and essential makeup. It’s also useful to remember that private companies are corporations, because it helps us remember that corporations don’t create themselves, we do, as part of our democratically elected government.

When you open a business as a company, you get a corporate charter from one of the 50 states. This charter grants you the privilege of being a corporate body, and spells out your rights and privileges.

The same is true for any city that opens its municipal doors.

While private corporations have done great things – I’m typing on a Macintosh computer, with an iPhone in my pocket – we the people are the ultimate arbiters of corporations’ power. Through our legislatures and Congress, we have granted corporations the right to exist, and we have awarded them special rights and powers. We should only continue to do so to the degree they continue to serve our interest, the public interest, as well as any private ones.
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In the Bump and Jostle of the Street, Who Bears the Burden for Safety?

Alex Marshall / Aug 17 2012

For Release Friday, August 17, 2012

Alex MarshallWhat strikes you as fair, as every parent knows, depends on what you’re doing and who’s doing what to whom. What can seem unassailably fair from one standpoint can seem quite the opposite from another.

This applies to both small children and large nation states. It also applies to city streets.

In recent years, cyclists and pedestrians have returned to our streets in greater numbers. Their presence has brought a renewed examination of what is fair, and different answers.

If you’re driving and someone on a bike or on foot cuts in front of you or moves into your lane with little warning, what seems fair is to have everyone obey the same rules of the road and suffer similar legal penalties if they don’t.

But if you’re walking or rolling along on a bike, applying the same rules seems unfair, when an inadvertent turn or a momentary lapse of attention on the part of a driver can mean your quick and messy death.

Right now, with some variations, rules and penalties are mostly the same for all, and often surprisingly light. A motorist can make a left turn and kill someone walking across the street, and unless the driver is drunk or speeding there’s often no special penalty. A driver can escape without even a fine or drivers license points.

So let me make my own opinion clear. Those at the wheel of potentially lethal, heavy metal machines should bear extra responsibility. A contest where one participant weighs 4,000 pounds and the other weighs 150 is not fair.
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Transit Secrets: Learning From Hong Kong

Alex Marshall / Aug 05 2011

For Release Friday, August 5, 2011

Alex MarshallThere is really no denying that transportation makes money. Just consider the huge shopping malls perched around interstate off-ramps, the office parks positioned close to airports, the skyscrapers next to subway stations.

But transportation itself is usually a money loser. We pour billions of public dollars into highways, airports and transit systems, while others, the home builders, the department store mavens, make the money that comes slows from those public investments.

Hong Kong’s metro system, MTR, has changed this equation, and that is why it’s worth looking at.

If you are ever lucky enough to visit Hong Kong, which is Manhattan-like with its narrow streets lined with high rises, you will see that the MTR’s services are excellent. You may ride the gleaming new high-speed rail line from the new airport that takes you into the new central rail station. Or one of the nine rail and subway lines, including the special train that goes to Disneyland Hong Kong.
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Distinctiveness: A Big Secret to Cities’ Success

Alex Marshall / Dec 29 2010

For Release Sunday, January 2, 2011

Alex MarshallAs snow and cold weather swept over so much of the nation for the holidays, many families huddled around the television were likely watching an old but still popular television series set in an often icy and windswept place: The Mary Tyler Moore show.

Quick, tell me where was this show set? Minneapolis/St. Paul, I bet most people remember. When the series debuted in 1970, the Minnesota cities represented an unusual and risky choice. Would viewers connect with a region so far from both coasts and the bulk of the country’s population?
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Two Wheels Are Becoming As Chic As Four

Alex Marshall / Nov 25 2010

For Release Sunday, November 28, 2010

Alex MarshallAbout ten years ago, I was looking for a new bike equipped with something you would think would not be that difficult to find: a chain guard. That is, that sheath of metal that wraps at least partially around the greasy links that help power the bike.

No luck.

“American bicycle manufacturers are overly influenced by the sports market,” said the bicycle shop worker in the Cambridge bike shop I was in, in one of the most succinct analysis of the bike market I had ever heard, as we surveyed the rows of lean and mean machines. It seemed I would have to wait.
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The Battle for Gotham: Roberta Gratz Herself as Heroine

Alex Marshall / Sep 16 2010

For Release Sunday, September 19, 2010

Alex MarshallWriters write best about what they know, and what I know best about Roberta Gratz, longtime urban journalist and author of the new book — The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (Nation Books, 2010) — is my own relationship with her, which began about 20 years ago now.

At the time I was a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, stirring up trouble with my stories on urban planning and development. Gratz had once done the same thing at the New York Post. I would call up Gratz, whose first book, The Living City, had just come out and which I loved. She would respond to my questions with great long quotes about the importance of remaking cities and their neighborhoods from the ground up, protecting the urban fabric, avoiding mega-projects, and nurturing real urban life.

Gradually over time, I made the same leap Gratz did: from being a reporter on urban planning to a thinker and writer on the subject in my own right. As happens when mentees grow up, I gradually started to disagree with Roberta some of the time, but we were and are still friends.
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Decade of Infrastructure: The “Aughts” Redeeming Feature

Alex Marshall / Apr 08 2010

For Release Sunday, April 11, 2010

Alex Marshall

It’s become popular sport to deride the first decade of this century, the 2000-2009 years, as a downhill ride of terrorism, war and economic depression.

But there’s one multi-syllabic word that enjoyed a big comeback, after decades of neglect. That word: infrastructure. We at least began to think about the physical systems that support us, nurture us, and make much of life possible.

I posit that the “aughts,” as they have been called, were in fact a decade of infrastructure breakthroughs. Sure, we didn’t spend enough on it, or even more than in previous decades (I know of no official list of infrastructure projects, so it’s hard to tell). But I would argue that infrastructure did crystalize as a subject in the hearts and minds of the country’s citizens and opinion leaders as a subject worthy of attention and focus. A decade ago, even the word “infrastructure” was hardly known outside the specialized worlds of public works departments. Now editorial writers bandy it about without explanation and debate how much we should spend on it.

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Choose Your Dream When You Choose To Travel

Alex Marshall / Jan 16 2010

For Release Saturday, January 16, 2009

Alex MarshallWell if you ever plan to motor west,
Just take my way, that’s the highway that’s the best.
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six.

Well it winds from Chicago to LA
More than two-thousand miles all the way.
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six….

Well it goes through St. Louie down to Missouri
Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty.
You’ll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico
Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona,
Kingsman, Barstow, San Bernardino.

Won’t you get hip to this timely tip
And think you’ll take that California trip.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
— (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66
, By Bobby Troup, 1946. Read More »

Quality Transportation: Timing and Shaping a New Direction

Alex Marshall / Dec 12 2009

For Release Saturday, December 12, 2009

Alex Marshall As America gets ready for debate on federal transportation legislation next year, we’ll surely be told again to place our confidence in the familiar yardsticks of miles traveled per hour, average commuting times, cost per passenger.

But couldn’t we have license to think more fully and imaginatively about this sector that is not only essential economically but occupies so much of our lives?

When I was a teacher in Virginia 25 years ago, I used to drive 35 minutes each day from Virginia Beach to my job at a high school in Norfolk. I drove at 60 mph almost the entire way. Not a bad commute, though I noted even then that high speed freeway driving is tiring. Pay attention or you may kill someone, yourself included. Read More »

Listening to Dukakis About Train Time

Alex Marshall / May 07 2009

For Release Sunday, May 10, 2009

Alex MarshallIf you’re one of my graduate students–or, I suspect, any American under 40–you’re unlikely to recognize the name of Michael Dukakis.

But Dukakis was the 1988 Democratic nominee for the presidency. And a lot more. He was twice elected governor of Massachusetts. Most governors had usually “presided,” letting their cabinet officers go their separate ways; Dukakis by contrast was the first governor ever to form a development cabinet focused on specific goals, led by revival of historic Lowell and all the Bay State’s declining older industrial cities.

Many political observers scoff at Dukakis, noting only how he frittered away a strong early lead against George H.W. Bush in his presidential bid. Read More »