Election Mysteries

The primary is tomorrow, and I wanted to make sure I was making good decisions when I vote, so I pulled up the sample Democratic ballot for my district. I was pretty sure I wanted to vote against Thad McClammy, because I despise his actions on the House Financial Services committee stalling payday and title loan reform. Also, I’ve sent him several hand-written letters this year and haven’t received a single response from his office. But I wasn’t sure how the other candidate, City Council member Tracy Larkin, felt on the issue. So I pulled up his website. No answers there. And I called the number listed. Nobody answering the day before the election, and the response I got was “The mailbox belonging to Tracy Larkin is full and is not accepting messages at this time.” Hmm. If he can’t empty his mailbox, is this really the person I want to represent me?

There’s a bigger puzzle on the ballot, though. Evidently I’ll be asked to vote for positions on the State Democratic Executive Committee. I wasn’t sure what district I was in or who the candidates were, so I investigated. I pulled up the website for the Alabama Democrats and browsed around their collection of stock photos. Should be easy to find out at least what district I’m in, right? Nope – the link takes you to information about the Randolph County Chair. I think I’m in District 76, same as my House District, but I’m not sure, and there’s no information on their site about that. Neither is there information about the folks running for the various slots. Why? I looked online in vain for their policy statements or any information that would help me make a decision about who to vote for. Nope.

I called the party offices to ask about this election. A nice man named John told me that yes, my district was the same as my House district. Good to know. I asked how I would find information about the candidates to make a decision about who to vote for. He said he had no idea. “Not a lot of people put any effort into it,” he said. “You might check their Facebook pages.” Hmm. I asked what this office involved. “They vote on bylaws and help shape the party. They don’t receive a salary.” I got the distinct impression that I was one of the only people ever to have asked about this. I checked their Facebook pages. As best I can tell from their private Facebook pages, Montgomery’s Fred F. Bell likes Dole and uses an app called “Glu.” Clint Daughtrey works for AEA and has a profile picture posing with a topiary made to look like Goofy. Now that’s some quality voter education.

No matter what you think about Alabama politics, most people agree that it’s a good idea to have at least two functional parties to spur competition over ideas and policies. In the modern era, most people get their information online. It’s terrible that the Democratic Party website is so bad. Their last blog post was in February.

Anyone out there have an opinion on the race between Fred F. Bell and Clint Daughtrey?

 

Montgomery Recycling: FAQ

Recycling! It’s been a favorite topic of ours here at Lost in Montgomery since the city’s curbside pickup program was discontinued years ago.

In case you’re new to the story/city, a brief recap: Time was, you’d put your recycling (paper, metal, low-number plastics only) out on the curb in special bags. Those would get picked up and the contents recycled. In theory. Turns out that not many people participated and what waste was submitted didn’t much actually get recycled, plus the operation cost a lot of money.

This was a time of fragile orange bags and frustration that the city (for some reason) couldn’t recycle our glass and high-numbered plastics. The burden for sorting the recyclables of our state’s capital city was literally handed to developmentally disabled people, who, over-matched by the volume, sent most of the stuff to the landfill anyway. Little did we know that this would be our city’s most progressive era of recycling.

bildeMayor Strange, seen above posing with what we can only assume is his environmental adviser, cancelled that inefficient curbside pickup program and promised a fancy new plant that would ionize our waste, or something like that. A very expensive feasibility study concluded that this was in fact science fiction, as we’d all suspected. Back to the drawing board!

Meanwhile, the small microscopic percentage of Montgomery residents who cared enough/had the time would save and haul their recyclables to a set of bins scattered around the city. These bins were often overflowing and meant that recyclers would devote a corner of their house or apartment to vast heaps of newspapers, magazines, Amazon boxes and milk jugs.

Then, lo, it was announced that a new facility was completed that would allow everyone to mix their recyclables into the trash, as they’d be sorted before they went into the dump. This was supposed to help the environment while making money for the city (and, not incidentally, the company running the $37 million facility). We’ve got a more in-depth summary of that project here. Click the exhaustive links in that post for a multi-year history of us blogging about this subject with increasing dismay.

Things started to unravel a bit once the facility was opened. We waited anxiously for some kind of mailing, door hanger or other municipal announcement about what to do with our recycling. And waited. Then a slow trickle of information began to leak out like garbage juice from the bottom corner of a cheap trash bag. You can click here to see the comments on our previous post and get a flavor for the confusion. To clarify the new status quo for our readers, we’ve produced a helpful FAQ based on information we’ve received so far:

Q: So, we can just put our recyclables into the plastic green trash can now, leave it by the curb and they’ll be sorted out by Infinitus, right?

A: Well, no, not exactly. There are some things that the company doesn’t want thrown into your “regular” trash because it gums up the works of their pristine new magical recycling sorting plant.

Q: Wait, I can’t just throw everything away? What can’t go in the trash?

A: Well, here’s a list on a city website. Among the things you might be surprised to learn that you can’t put in your trash can anymore: dirty baby diapers, used cat litter, insulin syringes, and the sacks of dog poop you collect on dog walks because you are a responsible and good person.

Q: Wait, what? I get that you can’t throw a tire or a laptop into the trash can because those are a lot closer to very rare examples of hazardous waste. But we generate a lot of diapers, cat and dog poop, and needles … all for legal and sane reasons. What are we going to do with all that stuff?

A: “All of these items should be bagged and put in a box or other container and placed on your curb for pick up on your regular yard waste collection day.”

Q: Bagged and boxed? In what? Is the city issuing unique bags and boxes?

A: No.

Q: So I’m just going to put a cardboard box or plastic trash bag full of dirty diapers on the curb and wait for “yard waste collection day?” I don’t even know when that is!

A: Weekly yard waste collection days vary by neighborhood.

Q: I usually just leave my limbs and leaves by the curb and they take them away and I don’t think more about it. Now I’m going to leave these bags of pet turds and baby doo doo out by the curb overnight until the city comes to get them?

A: That’s right.

Q: Whose idea was it that a “clean city” involved packs of wild dogs ransacking piles of dirty diapers, strewing them all over the neighborhood?

A: Um, Florida?

The future of Capitol Heights?

The future of Capitol Heights?

Q: Wait, what if people aren’t actively reading the city’s website as part of their daily life routines? What if they keep throwing tires and diapers in the trash?

A: Well, then the magic new recycling sorting plant will break. And we’ll never see the day when all of the solid waste will be fed to magic bacteria that will break it all down and turn it into the fuel that will be used in the city’s garbage trucks. You know, like the company told us all when they built this amazing one-of-a-kind facility. (That link is a PDF).

Q: So a special space amoeba is going to eat all of our garbage and turn it into fuel for city trash trucks and other “private vehicles?”

A: ….. Um, yes — only if you have no further questions on this subject.

Q: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s go back. So we can’t throw dead animals in the trash either?

A: No.

Q: Didn’t the city just tell people last year that they COULD put dead animals up to 50 pounds in the trash?

A: Those were the old days.

Q: So if there’s a stinking, reeking, maggot-filled smashed possum on the road in front of my house, I need to pick it up and bring it inside until my weekly “yard waste collection day?”

A: Yes. We suggest wrapping it in fabric softener sheets and spraying it with Febreze™ to help with the stench.

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Finally, a use for those horse-drawn carriages! Downtown living!

Q: And if the family pet dies and I have an apartment and don’t have a place to bury it, I can’t put it in the trash, I have to leave it on the curb in a special bag or box that I provide until the city comes around some time next week to get branches and limbs and leaves?

A: We are sorry for the loss of your family pet. Hopefully your children will not be traumatized when roaming packs of dogs spread its ichor and bloody remains across your welcome mat.

Q: So, again, the rules are changing about solid waste collection, but the city didn’t do any kind of brochure or series of commercials? Did they just send out a passive press release and assume that a city of hundreds of thousands of people would just understand the new rules?

A: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. The Clean City Commission actually said on its Facebook page that it isn’t the city’s fault if the media chooses not to make a huge deal out of the press releases that were emailed out, so let’s all shrug our shoulders and blame the local newspaper and TV stations for not doing a multi-part breaking news all points bulletin on how to throw away trash. Clearly, it can’t be a leadership fail or a PR lapse on the part of the city. Clearly. Surprisingly, the company running the new sorting plant had to go to the media after the fact due to confusion and tell everyone to please stop putting tires and microwaves in the trash because they are “clogging” the new center. If the city and the media and Infinitus all point fingers at each other for the public’s ignorance, the garbage piling up on the curb will probably turn into special fuels that you can put in your car. Just be patient.

Q: You realize this makes us look like idiots, right? That we kill curbside pickup instead of improving it, and replace with with some kind of corporate sweetheart deal for fantasyland tech we may never see, and now are telling the public to fundamentally change their waste disposal practices in nonsensical and seemingly arbitrary ways? You know that people will look at our city as if it were run by a bunch of backwards morons who can’t figure out simple municipal services like recycling? That this company’s sorting plant is probably less amazing than anticipated if it can’t handle an initial level of “sorting” that removes dead animals, tires and appliances from the waste stream? You know this is why people say that cities like Nashville and Atlanta represent the new South and cities like Montgomery and Jackson are seen as backwards, primitive provinces run by old people, where smart and progressive people flee at their first opportunity, and what are we really going to do about the diapers and cat litter all over the street?

A: We’d be happy to offer you a tour of the new sorting facility and you can see it in action. Just kidding. You can’t do that. It’s private property. Please keep producing trash though. Just kidding. You don’t have any choice.

Wasabi

You’re a tuna. You’re arcing through the Pacific on a path older than time. You sense an enticing glimmer, feel a violent tug, and are now dying on the deck of a boat.

You catch fish for a living. You know you’re over-fishing the oceans, but the endlessly chomping mouths demand the fruits of the sea. Plates in Omaha, El Paso, Des Moines, and Montgomery, Alabama, require tuna and salmon and eel. You try to think of the happiness that the flesh of your catch will bring to some famished diner, honoring your labor. You try not to think of business guys shoving vast quantities of sashimi into their laughing gullets.

You’re opening a Japanese restaurant. Your market research tells you that the average consumer of Japanese food in this area is mostly interested in a birthday party surrounding a hibachi grill — the kind where the chef tosses a shrimp high into the air and puts on a funny show. You are taking a risk by opening a new place. You add more water to your miso soup, hoping to stretch it a little further.

photo 2

You like going to restaurants. You try the new Japanese place shortly after it opens. The food is limp and depressing. The service is a step or two below that. To be kind, you decide not to write a review because it’s hard to open a new place and get it firing on all cylinders. You decide to come back when it’s a little more established. Maybe they’ll have everything worked out and you can give it a fair consideration.

A co-worker proposes going to Wasabi for lunch. Another co-worker vetoes the idea because the online reviews are so scathing.

A work lunch eventually brings you to Wasabi. It wasn’t your idea, but this is where you are told to meet. You are excited to finally get to see the restaurant on a representative day. Scan the menu’s “Prattville rolls” (fried shrimp and cucumber topped with lobster salad) and ponder those who will identify themselves according to stated preferences for the “Roll Tide roll” (lobster salad and avocado topped with tuna and avocado) or the “War Eagle roll” (tuna and avocado topped with salmon and avocado and the “chef’s special spicy sauce”). Idly wonder if the lobster is langostino.

photo 1Your food is again very poor. You struggle to communicate with your server, who seems unfamiliar with the permanent lunch specials. You try adding the restaurant’s namesake spice to your food, in hopes of stimulating your tongue. Nothing. Fortunately, your companion picks up the tab.

You’re describing a cucumber roll to a friend. “The rice was so dry, it reminded me of a certain snapping, crackling and popping breakfast cereal,” you explain. “The slices of sashimi may have been brightly colored bits of a leather belt from Wal-Mart, chewy but flavorless — as if they had perfected an alchemical process in the kitchen that removed the unique taste of fresh tuna and left behind some kind of pink simulacrum.”

You ponder the future of The Alley. Although nearly empty at lunch, maybe traffic picks up at night. Maybe folks don’t mind, or even enjoy Wasabi and the reprehensible Jalapenos. Maybe restaurant owners will get rich and customers well-fed well, fed.

EatSouth and Kudzu-like Unease

Alsomitra macrocarpa is a tropical climbing gourd native to Southeast Asia. Its seeds are the ultimate gliders, drying up and circling the forest floor on “wings” that can grow up to 5 inches long. They drift on wind currents, seeking to propagate the species (also known to us as the “Javan cucumber”).

And so it is with Montgomery’s EatSouth, which is losing has lost executive director Edwin Marty for the hipster-rich soils of Austin. He’s off to work for the City of Austin, which is ironic because a lot of people have been curious for years about EatSouth’s relationship to the municipal government of Montgomery. Like the javan cucumber seed, he is floating away on the wind to spread the brand of Earth-friendly sustainability and civic-corporate well-being.

Marty was only at EatSouth for a handful of years, but even before his arrival in 2011, a lot of observers were curious about the Hampstead Institute, of which EatSouth is ostensibly some sort of non-profit subsidiary side-project. The Hampstead Institute is a non-profit too, but seems to neither be an “institute,” nor much else that is readily identifiable.

We do know that the name of said “institute” comes from a housing development called Hampstead, which is a sort of master-planned community to the southeast of Montgomery. If you haven’t been out there, think Seaside in a cow pasture. It’s less Truman Show than wannabe-Aspen, but it also has a farm. And a windmill. And a lake. And all the other trappings of rural living without the inconvenience of actually having to labor on their three acre plot or put up with the visual clutter of people living in mobile homes. It’s just like rural living except there’s a Tipping Point instead of a Dollar Tree.

And that’s all fine and good. Rich people have every right to buy cow pastures and build Fantasy Land in them. We like wine bars too. You want to circle the SUVs around a fake 20-acre lake? Go nuts. Fill your house will all the Italian imports (or Panama City Beach imports) that you can afford. Deforesting and colonization is Manifest Destiny, so build away.

Where it gets interesting is when you start asking who’s selling these escapist slices of cow pasture. On the “contact us” page for Hampstead (the real estate thing, not the “institute”) you’re directed to contact Jim Farrior, Director of Hampstead Commercial Leasing & Sales at Colonial Commercial Realty, Inc. He’s also featured over at Colonial Commercial Realty’s website, where he is listed just above a guy named Josh Lowder, who is the vice-president of CCR, in addition to being on the Board of Directors of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. You can learn more about this young corporate exec in this cheerful RSVP Montgomery profile.

What does all this have to do with EatSouth? We’re getting back to it. Josh isn’t the only Lowder in this tapestry. There’s also his dad, Jimmy, who was described in 2008 this way:

Mr. Lowder has served as chairman of the board of The Colonial Company and its subsidiaries since 1995. He is a current member of the Home Builders Association of Alabama and the Greater Montgomery Home Builders Association, and he serves on the board of directors of Alabama Power Company. Mr. Lowder is the current chairman of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, a past board member of Leadership Montgomery, past president of the board of the Montgomery YMCA and past chairman of the Montgomery Area United Way Champaign. The Montgomery Area Business Committee for the Arts presented The Colonial Company with the 1997 Business in the Arts Award and in 2000 with the coveted Frank Plummer Memorial Arts Award for lifetime achievement. Mr. Lowder was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Greater Montgomery Home Builders Association in 2004. He graduated with the highest honors from Auburn University with a Bachelor of Science Degree. Mr. Lowder is a member of the investment committee of the board of trustees.

High roller, eh? He is also featured in this amazing photo, which tells you his lineage and connections to a gigantic 2009 bank failure — the sixth largest bank failure in American history, to be specific. More on that here.

There is a lot to enjoy about this ad. The pic of the three grinning brothers, looking like they just got away with something; the ad copy, calling the bank a muscular child; the assurance that "dad" lurks in the background. From the May 1982 issue of Alabama Magazine.

So we’ve got young Josh Lowder living in the Colonial real estate subdivision, trying to get you to buy a house out there at Hampstead where they have an urban farm. Colonial also has the A&P Lofts, which is home to True, that restaurant that is featured in nearly every issue of Made. Made is run by another local Lowder (Anna) and her husband Harvi Sahota.

Oh, and according to the documents filed with the IRS, the Hampstead Institute (doing business as EatSouth) was founded by three folks, two of whom are married to each other. That’s right — Harvi Sahota and Anna Lowder. Sahota runs a “design and communications” company based in the aforementioned A&P Lofts. His company, called Matter, seems to design and produce Made, as well as do design and PR work for nearly every above listed entity, including Eat South, True, Tipping Point, and the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce.

There’s one other interesting connection that implicates you, a concerned tax-paying Montgomery resident. As of last summer, we have a new civil servant in town. Mac McLeod became our city’s “director of retail and commercial development.” His previous job? President and CEO of Colonial Group. From whom did the city government use $1.95 million of your tax dollars to purchase the land upon which to build the new east Montgomery high school? Correct.

Did you know that EatSouth is actually EAT South because EAT is an acronym standing for Educate, Act and Transform? And certainly it’s a good thing to give presentations to local kids about healthy eating. It’s good to show people how food is grown and to talk to them about food waste and organic farming and sustainable agriculture. It’s better to have a downtown urban farm than a toxic Superfund site.

But it would also be better to have a local food awareness group that was promoting vegetarian potlucks and environmentalism that didn’t feel like a greenwashing campaign for a gigantic corporate real estate holdings with fingers in nearly every pot of money for miles.

Speaking of good eating, who doesn’t love biscuits? According to the March 2014 issue of River Region Living magazine, the Poarch Creek Indian casino (Wind Creek) will give $5,000 to EatSouth for every Montgomery Biscuits home run hit in 2013. I’m no minor league baseball historian, but the Biscuits hit 72 homers in 2013. That’s 72 homers x $5,000 = $360,000. That’s a sweet pile of syrup for Edwin Marty (who is by accounts a pretty nice guy) to be walking away from.

EatSouth’s website says that such numbers only reflect a small portion of their operating budget. Their funding website says that 20 percent of their income comes from produce sales (we understand they run a legitimately great CSA), 20 percent grants, 25 percent corporate support, 20 percent individual donations, 10 percent events, and 5 percent program service fees. The only event of theirs we’ve ever been to out at Hampstead  was some kind of beer tasting. It was pretty good.

We live in a world where image is everything, and a lot of good people think that having a food-centered non-profit is a good rebuttal to the existing stereotype of Montgomery as a crime-ridden blight factory. But if it’s important to look beyond the superficial image of Montgomery as dumpy, it’s also important to look beyond the image projected by alternative narratives. It’s crucial to be clear-eyed about tangible results being created and what money is creating them. And in that sense, EatSouth is leaving us hungry for more.

Biscuits Beat Rays

We went to see the Montgomery Biscuits hosts their pro affiliates, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (we’re never dropping the “devil,” no matter what the marketing people say). The minor league guys won!

It was a nice day for baseball once the gray clouds passed by and the sun broke through. The stadium was full (early reports say this was the 6th largest crowd in Riverwalk Stadium history). Everyone was in a good mood.

Rather than write up the game, we’ll hold off on saying a lot more about the new season because Opening Night is Thursday. We might say more then. The Biscuits have a new manager and a bunch of new faces on the team.

Until then, go back and read the tremendous volume of writing (and robust conversation in the comments section) from our season preview from 2012. Enjoy!

Montgomery Alabama Recycling 2014

We moved to Montgomery in 2008. Our then-mayor, Bobby Bright, was immediately elected to represent our district in Congress and he was replaced by Todd Strange. Mayor Strange took office in 2009 and took only a few months to cancel our curbside recycling program.

Under Mayor Bright, we’d separate recyclable household materials from our solid waste. Trash went in the familiar wheeled green plastic cans (like we use now), and recycling went in a special orange bag that you’d set out on the curb. When you were running out of orange bags, you’d tie one to the handle of your trash bin, a special silent communication between you and the sanitation workers. They’d see your gesture and leave you a new roll of bags. The cycle would begin anew.

Mayor Bright interacts with recycling. All mayors need coloring books.

Mayor Bright interacts with recycling. All mayors need coloring books.

Mayor Strange had some good arguments for ending the curbside pickup. Public education and enthusiasm levels were low, so not enough Montgomery households were separating their trash and using the system. Also, gas prices make it expensive to run a citywide network of curbside pickup service. Worse, despite low participation, they were still picking up more recyclable materials than they could handle. For whatever reason, the recyclables were being taken to mentally-challenged workers who could only handle a fraction of what they were getting. What couldn’t be sorted was sent to the landfill.

Rather than fix this idiotic system, Strange cancelled the whole thing and started talking about a special magical plasma facility that would burn all solid waste, regardless of whether it could be recycled. No more time-consuming sorting. No more environmental consciousness by consumers and households. Just throw it all in the green bin, Strange told us, and this amazing new technology would “gasify” everything and turn it into electricity and the city could sell the electricity back to the power grid and we’d all get free jetpacks and hoverboots.

We were skeptical.

We wrote about the end of curbside recycling. We looked into why we could only recycle certain kinds of plastic, never glass, and complained about the new “dropoff” system. We wrote about what’s involved with driving recyclables to Birmingham. We made fun of fake civic environmentalism efforts. We hoped that City Councilor Arch Lee would continue to carry the recycling policy torch of Martha Roby after she went to Congress. We continued to look at landfill policies.

The plasma plant fell through. The city’s money spent to study the project only confirmed what we knew. It wasn’t feasible.

Then, another ray of sunlight. We were told in July of last year that a “revolutionary” new facility was coming to Montgomery (1551 Louisville St). The company’s press release said we were looking at a $35 million new facility to be open about four months from now. 110 jobs. 85 percent of the stuff headed to the landfill will go to this factory. 95 percent of recyclables will be recovered.

We are told that our trash:

will be separated using the latest in screening, air and optical separation technologies.  The system sorts and recovers commodities such as cardboard, mixed paper, metals, aluminum cans, plastics and wood based on density, size, shape and material composition.  Additional sorting will be done by hand at the site.

Organic waste will allegedly be turned into compressed natural gas. The company’s materials about the project can be found here. Another press release (with video from an unfathomably smarmy-looking corporate exec!) can be consumed here.

Other than driving plastic (and glass, and newspaper, and cardboard, etc.) to Birmingham or Auburn, what have the people of Montgomery been doing? Some have been taking things to Target, out in the Hellscape. This is not really an option. The Target has tiny little bins at the front of the store, the kind that someone might put a single Coke bottle in after shopping. This is not designed for a carload of materials. We subscribe to newspapers, the actual printed kind. We order things from Amazon that come in recyclable cardboard boxes. We generate large volumes of recyclable waste — and we don’t even have any kids. Taking stuff to Target is not an option.

Stuff that doesn't have to go to the landfill.

Stuff that doesn’t have to go to the landfill. We generate this volume regularly.

Some people take stuff to Mt. Scrap (824 N. Decatur St). This is something of an option, especially if you’re into helping a private company generate materials it can sell for profit — with no oversight as to whether they do or don’t just dump everything into the landfill.

We have been taking stuff out to McInnis Recycling Center (4341 Norman Bridge Rd.), which is one of the city’s official “drop off locations.” This isn’t ideal. On Sundays, you have to compete with the traffic from the Fresh Anointing International Church, which sounds like a pretty fresh location that is full of anointed folks and one rented cop trying to direct an armada of cars spilling out onto Norman Bridge Road. Also, bin size is relatively small.

McInnis Recycling.

McInnis Recycling

These are your only two options. For whatever reason, the place at Huntingdon we once used has closed up shop. We don’t know why. In Montgomery, information about recycling is hard to come by — just fragments from rumors and dreams. Maybe that’s why we blog about it all the time. We’re just citizens grasping at straws, wishing our city could help us to minimize our impact on the environment.

Look, we accept the fact that a lot of people in Montgomery probably think of recycling as some kind of Maoist lifestyle plot that goes hand-in-hand with yoga, vegetarian cults and Obama’s “War on Coal.” But conservation has a long tradition and ought to make sense when resources are finite.

Maybe one day we will get a tour of the Infinitus Renewable Energy Park at Montgomery (also known to insiders as IREP at Montgomery). And maybe there’ll be some kind of oversight to ensure that the landfill-bound materials end up where Infinitus says they will. We don’t need to invoke the specter of the Downtown Plume to underscore the importance of not letting companies (and state agencies) have a free hand when it comes to discharging toxins.

We’ll check back on this issue in June, which is the date that the new plant is scheduled to open. Surely the company will issue some sort of press release and the city will have some sort of ceremony. A ribbon may be cut and the Montgomery Advertiser will republish some magniloquent press release. And people will keep filling their trash cans just like nothing ever happened. No sorting, no thinking.

Primitive. Hopefully, soon a thing of the past.

Primitive. Hopefully, soon a thing of the past.

Is Retail Dead?

Grandma Advertiser told us this week that Foshee Management is going to start in earnest on mixed-use properties on Dexter. They’re calling it the Montgomery Market District, which is a little odd because a) Dexter Avenue is a name known around the world and b) there’s no market there, unless they mean the slave market, which was right there, and they can’t possibly mean that, can they? Anyway, they’ve bought a domain name and set up a website for this part of town. This website informs us that Dexter used to be called Market Street. Perhaps it was renamed for a reason.

Quibbles about the name aside, the idea of retail returning to downtown is pretty exciting — especially given that it’s struggling around the city right now. The Look left Five Points for Zelda Road and is now shuttered. Talbots closed over there too, and there’s been no replacement for some time. M. Bagwell’s been closed so long we’ve forgotten what it looked like inside. Locally-owned hardware stores are vanishing. Ciao Bella moved down to that trailer/incubator down by the Alley; the Mulberry Street businesses seem to be in a constant state of turmoil with a few exceptions, perhaps because it’s hard to park over there. The Dandy Lion seemed so promising and is now suddenly closed. There’s a weird absence of retail in the Alley development itself. And although there are some bright spots (the Herb Chateau is a welcome new business, as is Hue Studio over in the A&P lofts, and Fairview Homebrew seems to be doing fine; of course we can’t mention everyone here, please don’t write), there’s just not a lot of places to buy interesting stuff around here. Which is weird.

Except that it’s not. This week The Atlantic ran a piece called “Radio Shack is Doomed (and So Is Retail)” that delivered some sobering facts about shopping. Amazon, it turns out, is more than three times more efficient at selling products than the competition. That’s part of the reason this chart (from the article) looks the way it does:

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This is part of why Zelda Road looks the way it does – tons of tutoring businesses, health places, food options, but not a lot of shops.

Ever since a trusted local business owner told us that retail was dead, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this matter. Driving around our town and others, we’ve asked each other: What store would you put there? What makes this street so cool and this other street not so cool? The answer seems to be a mix of establishments. Bars and restaurants are cool and all, but they’re generally more hopping at night. What about daytime options? What about contributing to the arts and culture vibe of a city? As much as we’re not into rank consumption, tangible things remain important to our lives, just like everyone else.

I know Montgomery’s not New Orleans, but one of the things that makes the French Quarter so fun is its abundance of awesome used bookstores. And other shops – not the big tourist/gator head/hot sauce emporiums, but places like the store where they hand loom rugs. We were in Memphis a year ago and visited a cool neighborhood with a great record store and a few other shops worth wandering into after we ate a great vegan meal and picked up an awesome cup of coffee. Down in Mobile, they’ve opened a big cavernous vintage/antique/junk shop type place downtown – it doesn’t seem like it would work, but it does. Birmingham’s Five Points has a great eyewear store, a shop with strange gifts, a health food market which covers all of your incense-and-hippie needs and an amazing record shop. The Second Avenue development has What’s On Second (highly, highly recommend) and a few other places to complement the bars, restaurants and cafes there. Albuquerque’s Central Avenue has an amazing mix of one-of-a-kind retail, food, bars and cafes, even with the recent addition of an Urban Outfitters.

There’s something about a well-curated shop or two that makes a neighborhood special. We’re not talking about a chain store; we’re talking about someone who lives in your neighborhood picking out things for sale that they think other people in the neighborhood might like. When you transact with this person, you’re not just buying a thing. You’re transacting with your neighborhood, engaging in a conversation whose currency is nominally monetary but even more important than mere coins and bills.

Up in Decatur (Morgan County), we wandered into a cool shop that combined a performance space with records, comics, vintage clothing and a few arcade games. This was perfect – the kind of place where you want to chat with the owner, spend some money, and even meet some people you might like to know. We think RAD! Vinyl Records Shop over on the Atlanta Highway is promising. Why didn’t that shop get tax credits invited downtown to make the Alley a more interesting place? As it is, it’s a drive-to destination, rather than someplace you  might shop before meeting friends for a drink or a meal. Retail is social; this is a major thing the big boxes miss and something Amazon will never capture. Sure, your trash bags or dishwashing detergent may not be a social purchase, but buying a well-made shirt or a vintage mirror might be. Or could be, which is the point here. Retail should be aspirational, not merely (only) transactional. As much as some of us make fun of the artisanal facial hair boutiques of Brooklyn, they do provide a particular retail experience not offered in the current market – these folks should be celebrated as entrepreneurs even as their sideburns are relentlessly mocked.

We’re not merchants and have never run a retail shop, but we keep asking ourselves what we would sell, given the chance. Sure, we’d love to run a bookstore – not to compete with Capitol Book & News, but to complement them. We know that record stores are having a hard time right now, but they have an awesome one down at the planned Seaside community in Florida. And we know Montgomery’s not the richest place in the world, but there are folks here with disposable income, especially if you give them well-priced stuff and a good shopping experience. We need more antidotes to Wal-Mart, something different and more human-scaled than Eastchase. It’s probably only a matter of time until Eastdale goes under too, then the city’s going to have another dead mall on its hands with no schools willing to move in. Is retail dead, or does it just suck?

Maybe people shop online not just because it’s convenient, but also because shopping is pretty unpleasant at the big box stores. Maybe the chain stores are too predictable, and you can find something more interesting online at Mod Cloth than you can at Ann Taylor. These are not insurmountable obstacles. Painted Pink over on Mulberry does it right, even if their clothes aren’t for you. They have outstanding customer service and great communication with the outside world (they post pictures of new clothing regularly on their Facebook page). When you go in there, even if it’s just to browse, you feel like you’re being let into the closet of someone with very specific taste. A great store is like a great museum: It’s specifically organized, with rotating exhibits and leaves you feeling good afterward, even if you didn’t buy anything.

But of course, you need to buy stuff. If you don’t, retail operations fail. We could set up a couture gowns store in the Alley, and everyone would come in and coo over the merch, and we’d be out of business before we could even make a single rent payment. So it’s clear that shops need to offer a mix of the affordable and the aspirational – heck, even Wal-Mart knows that. You might admire the new lawnmower but walk out with a deeply discounted pack of Axe Body Spray – still, they got you in the door and relieved you of some of your monthly paycheck.

For starters, the city should invest in supporting a store for local artists like the Christmas pop-up shop downtown. Except it should be permanent. On a recent long layover in the Minneapolis airport, I was delighted to find a store specializing in local products. This was evidently the product of a special initiative. It makes the airport about a million times better (that, and they have pinball machines on every concourse). It’s too much to ask for something similar at Montgomery’s tiny airport, but it should certainly be part of the Market District, if not the Alley. You could say that there’s not enough local craftwork to fill a permanent store, but I’m sure that’s false. Even if it’s true, that’s a chicken-egg problem. Artists are encouraged to produce when there’s an actual place to sell their stuff, not clawing for attention on Etsy.

Also there should be a store that sells weird stuff. A mix of vintage and new, like the Tip Top Atomic Shop in Milwaukee would be cool, even if rockabilly’s not your thing. One key will be not to poach other retailers, even though I just said we think RAD! Records should be in a different place. Maybe Montgomery can’t support two record stores just yet, but if you want to build a vibe downtown where young people want to live and work, you need to give them places that sell cool things to spend money on. Definitely a junk shop should be high on the list – lofts need interesting furniture, and paying top dollar for loft living means that you might need a slightly cheaper coffee table.

Obviously, there should be a cool coffee shop. It should also sell stuff, like books and stationary and cards. It should also have a performance space and a pinball machine or two, while we’re dreaming. Chris’ Hot Dogs shouldn’t have a pinball monopoly in this town any longer! The Standard up in Birmingham is awfully nice as a model for using old space, but could be combined with a little retail for added interest here.

Most importantly, there needs to be some kind of grocery store — one kind of retail that will never go out of style and isn’t likely to be eroded by online buying. The lack of one stymied downtown living in Los Angeles for many years. Sure, there’s not going to be a Publix downtown anytime soon, but there needs to be a functional market where people can get milk and eggs and canned goods without paying a fortune. The mayor should do everything in his power to get a Trader Joe’s downtown. That would bring people in from all over town, lifting the boats of other retails shops there.

On Dexter Avenue, which seems like an improvement over Market Street even as you can learn (as we did) how Andrew Dexter got the street named after him. This guy, in an alternative future a Apex Predator-level Goldman Sachs employee, was a Rhode Island banker who bought sight unseen land in Alabama and moved in aggressively to found New Philadelphia, across the fountain from Alabama Town. If you’ve ever wondered why downtown streets meet at weird angles, Dexter’s partly to blame. At first, Montgomery was two cities that merged around an Artesian well (also the slave market site) – read Who Was Dexter Avenue, Anyhow for more. In any case, this guy was kind of a swindler. He ran a bank that failed its shareholders in spectacular fashion in the early 1800s, even as he set aside land for what would become our state capitol. He gave some of his land to be used as a burial ground, but himself ended up in an unmarked grave somewhere on the way to Mobile, not even 50 years old.

This is the global brand we embrace? Fairly you might ask after the costs of remaking it into the Market District. But Dexter is the one that took us to the dance. He performed in a predictably clumsy way at first but warmed up later, surprising us with his innovative footwork much later on, dipping us in ways we hadn’t expected until our whole world changed. Why are we ditching him? Andrew Dexter was our city’s first failed retail experiment. We should still embrace his inadvertent and lasting legacy, at least when it comes to the delightful narcissism of branding.

Maybe you’re of the Olive Garden school, where it’s commonplace so guaranteed; maybe you’re of the Chipotle school, where it’s known and therefore good; maybe you’re of the El Rey school where people you know know it so it’s good. Wouldn’t you rather be on Dexter than in the Market District? Wouldn’t you rather say you’re a few blocks from the failed Subway or Dr. King’s church or close to the failed Winter Building with the alleged shackles in the basement? You don’t have to be Cayce Pollard to feel like something dangerous could be afoot here. We say to Montgomery: Make the right decision. As crazy as it might be, being a little more New Philadelphia than Alabama Town might be the right direction for our fair city right now. Minus the racism, and the oppression/appropriation of indigenous peoples. Is that even possible these days? And can we add charming well-priced gifts?

We’re doomed.