Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Beer Wars, Bikes, and Boosterism

November 28th, 1910

October 24th, 1913
Old-time "yay Salem!" and "yay Oregon!" material is pretty funny:
Every Section of the State Sends Its Brainiest and Most Energetic Hustlers to Aid in the Great Work of Developing the Oregon Empire
About a century ago, you see the word "boost" enter the newspaper regularly. It seems to have participated in the new professional cultures of self-improvement, advertising, and public relations.

The pieces are amusing to read, naive and wildly optimistic, full of faith in the power of self-determination and hustle.

If you attend to beer at all in Salem, you'll have noticed the critique of Salem beer in Willamette Week earlier this month. It was not flattering.

 "Everyone was really nice, but I would not do this again,
nor would I recommend it to others"
Willamette Week, April 8th
Over the weekend the paper's food and beverage writer published his counter.

"...for the most part, Salem has enough going for it"
(Yet even here the praise is a little pallid)
The structure of the argument is almost exactly what we see with bikes. One person writes the half-empty side, the other defends with the half-full. Both sides are strongly felt - but not perhaps as strongly argued.

The truth is almost certainly somewhere in the middle: Even with the Ram and McMenamins having been around for a while, as a whole Salem is an immature beer market. It shows in the locations and sizes of the breweries and in some unevenness in beer quality. It's not a coincidence that taphouses and growler-fills rather than pubs seem to have settled as our civic beer culture's characteristic form (and here). There should be nothing surprising about all this.

By national standards Salem is legitimately a "bronze" bicycle-friendly community. But by the standards set by the nearby college towns and cities, Eugene, Corvallis, and Portland, Salem lags behind. More crucially, in absolute terms we lag woefully behind in complete streets for all users, and in a transportation system that realistically gives people many strong choices in addition to the drive-alone car trip and properly restores walking to the center of urban mobility. It's hard to say just how meaningfully "good" is bronze. Maybe bronze really is just some degree of "not so terrible."

So how should you discuss something that isn't Pollyanna-ish with Panglossian optimism and at the same time not veer off into unconstructive "trash talk," especially as long-time frustration often lurks in the background of critics or even of those offering (over)compensatory praise? Where do you pitch realistic assessment and critique while at the same time celebrating the good that has been done? Salem's not the best place for beer, nor it is the best place for bicycling. But we have nascent "markets" that are working on transforming things, and they are worth great support. But there is much yet to do.

Over the weekend a commenter suggested that a bike boulevard planning effort was worth "unconditional, enthusiastic support," possibly trumping any reservations one might have about its scope.

But does any civic endeavor actually merit that kind of support? There are always compromises and it seems like a realistic sense of civic enthusiasm retains room for reservations. You can still cheer for things you acknowledge are far from perfect, right? Saying "everything is awesome" just isn't credible - and in 50 or 100 years will read as amusing as descriptions of those "aiding in the great work of developing the Oregon Empire."

The failure at the Kroc Center seems like an excellent example of a project with a very sub-optimal outcome in no small part because of uncritical optimism and excessive boosterism.

So that's a long and meandering wind-up to a question: What do you think is the most useful balance between criticism (in the sense of pointing to negative things) and praise about bicycling and transportation in Salem?


Walker said...

Great question. My best answer is that

1) we don't have to put adjectives into our descriptions ... We can let go of worrying about whether our view of reality is considered boosterish or critical. We can worry instead about whether our description of reality is fair, meaning accurate and not the result of intentional selection bias (looking for the happy success story or trying to find the cloud behind every silver lining). We can't fix our unconscious biases easily, but we can try to identify them and correct for them as they are identified.

But generally, we can also stop worrying about whether people consider a fair description of something as "negative" or not.

2) to that end, I'm a big believer in using benchmarks, as they were intended to be used before the rah-rah BS artist types got hold of the term and emptied it of serious content. Good benchmarks aren't "we're all going to be world class" and everyone picks and apes whatever place is considered "best" lately.

Good benchmarks are selected based on mutifactor analysis and recognition of trade offs inherent in maximizing one quality vs others in an environment of limited resources. So, for example, a place like Salem should rarely benchmark against a Portland, for the same reason that jr. High kids don't benchmark their basketball against LeBron James -- it's a meaningless benchmark when you are 5'6" instead of 6'6" or whatever.

The nice thing about benchmarks is that they offer the opportunity to quantify the performance of the benchmark chosen, which means you can break down the total performance into more manageable chunks, and you find that with a well chosen benchmark standard, you take away the vagueness of "we want to improve" or "boost" the place you're trying to better. For whatever reason, specific things are much more real and attainable for humans than generalized longings for things to be "better."

If you let go of worrying about whether you are a booster or a critic and just concentrate on selecting and ranking your performance against realistic benchmark standards, you can start into the continuous improvement loop that modern manufacturers adopted a few decades back, which has resulted in radically improved products in nearly every domain. Instead of seeing a low ranking as criticism, you can choose to see it as a sign that it will be easy to make good progress for a while because a low ranking on X means there's a lot of low hanging fruit to be harvested, and no excuse for not doing so, since the existence of a realistic benchmark standard takes away your ability to say "It's too hard, it'll never work."

Brian Hines said...

Excellent post.

Regarding the glass half-empty vs. half-full question, this obviously is a matter of perception. There is no objective right or wrong answer, just as there is no objective way of saying that boosterism or criticism of Salem is preferable.

On the whole, I agree with Walker's comment. We can state our values and goals for Salem openly, discussing these with other people who hold different viewpoints. Open discussion hopefully will lead to more of a community consensus about what is valued, whether it be bike boulevards or anything else.

In the end though, I resonate with a very short poem that I read today by a Daoist writer.

"The fiddler plays.
Though no one listens,
The fiddler plays."

We are all doing what we're doing because we feel like we have to do it. No right or wrong here, just doing. Still, by playing our civic activism fiddles, perhaps some people will enjoy the music and want to take up their own instrument, or even dance to our tune.

Anonymous said...

So . . . how I read this is that we can only say Salem is awesome/great/good, is if they pass muster with a comparison to PDX?
Why can't we be thrilled/happy/supportive over the changes and improvements we've witnessed over the past 10 years?
Imo, we shouldn't measure ourselves with a city several times our size. We should measure ourselves any damn way we want to--perhaps by how much happiness we feel living here.

Jim Scheppke said...

I agree with the other commenters that we should not benchmark ourselves against Portland. But how about Eugene or even Corvallis? What's wrong with that? Corvallis has figured out a way to have free bus service. As a result, ridership has tripled. How great is that?