The Most Interesting Man in Washington

Darrell Issa, the southern California congressman and, yes, voice of “Please step away from from the car” that people of a certain age will remember from Viper car alarm commercials, has a pretty good case to make for being the most interesting person in national politics at the moment. For one reason among many, that’s true because of the fact that he’s emerged as a champion of the tech-rooted politics that took hold after last winter’s battle over SOPA. For Reuters, I’ve got a profile that considers how Issa has emerged as “The Internet’s Man in Washington.”

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“A Shrinking City Simply Cannot Stand” 

That was Stephanie Rawlings-Blake last December on occasion of becoming the latest mayor of a Baltimore City that had been surrendering residents since World War II. In a attempt at reversal, to regrow the Charm City’s population numbers (and not insignificantly, its tax base, too), Mayor Rawlings-Blake has in her brief tenure issued an attention-grabbing executive order relaxing the policing of immigration status meant to convince new arrivals to the United States that they’re wanted in Baltimore.

As an economic tactic, Baltimore’s bid to curry the favor of immigrants has a good deal weighing in its favor. Where you find growing U.S. cities, research shows, you tend to find a healthy helping of immigrants, too. New arrivals to the United States open up businesses at a greater rate than native-born Americans do, and immigrant entrepreneurs are especially plentiful in the tech and innovation fields in which Baltimore already has footing. Of course, though, it’s not quite as straightforward as simply adding new Americans to the urban mix and watching a city inexorably rebound. I have a look at why not in a new case study-style piece for Next American City, in partnership with the National League of Cities, called “The Rise of the New Baltimoreans.”

(Photo credit: Andy Cook via Next American City)

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An Ace Hotel in (as well as of, by, and for) Pittsburgh

Imagine yourself the proprietor of a successful, culturally relevant boutique hotel concept with iterations open in Portland, Seattle, New York City, Palm Springs, and Los Angeles. Where do you go next? Pittsburgh? Pittsburgh!

Indeed, if you’re the Ace Hotel, you do, or at least you plan to. For the great folks at Next American City, I’ve got a look at why that hotel organization is eager to open up in this bit of the Rust Belt — and why, seemingly without exception, Pittsburghers are eager to make their city the sixth spot in the United States to have an Ace.

What’s particularly interesting is that the Ace is planned for East Liberty, part of Pittsburgh’s East End, once home to the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Fricks. East Liberty was once, well, hopping, but it was decimated as the result of an urban revitalization push in the 1950s and 1960s that attempted to turn the neighborhood into a little bit of suburbia right there in Pittsburgh. East Liberty is, inarguably, on the upswing once again. And the possibility is that an Ace in the neighborhood’s charming old YMCA building adds considerable weight to that momentum. Evidence favoring that idea is what happened to the unexpected slice of New York City where Ace opened several years ago:

Traditional urban thinking often looks for those “anchors” that, like universities, museums and hospitals, take up a lot of land and hire a lot of people, and in doing so shape a place. But Ace suggests something different. Ace hires, no doubt. The Pittsburgh project is expected to offer 100 jobs or so. But really, this is casting a cultural institution as something of a coral reef. Some things cling to it, making it bigger. But much else passes through it and circles around it, changing what surrounds it by setting the climate with its presence.

If that seems grandiose, take a look at the block on which the Ace New York sits. “We’ve… got friends in the building, selling their wares,” reads the little green guidebook that comes in each Ace room. Indeed, they do. Attached to the hotel in something like a little warren is The Breslin, a dark-wood sort of old-timey eatery that’s all the rage in New York City, and the John Dory Oyster Bar, both run by noted New York restaurateurs Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield. Just under Harry Smith’s rope art display is a doorway to Stumptown Coffee, the sole New York City shop of the coffee roaster that began in Oregon and now has an outpost in Brooklyn. There’s also a door to Opening Ceremony, an eclectic travel-inspired shop.

More than that, though, there are now stores, bars, shops, start-ups and even another hotel in the Ace’s immediate shadow, mixed among the wholesale purveyors. Three years later, the whole tone of the crazy little piece of Manhattan that the Ace chose to enter has shifted. Or, better put: It’s broadened.

That Pittsburgh should join the ranks of America’s coolest cities might seem farfetched until you spend some time there. But it doesn’t take much time. To be sure, the bet that Pittsburgh is ready for Ace isn’t a huge bet, since it’s not a huge hotel. With just 65 rooms or so, a significant Google office near by, and a dearth of boutique hotels in Pittsburgh, the hotel business calculus favors this project. Still, Pittsburgh has much going for it that’s immediately evident. It’s called the city of bridges for a reason, and I was struck by the natural beauty of the city’s rivers, cliffs, and hilly streets. Plus, it’s lively. So many U.S. cities today feel empty. But Pittsburgh is people-sized and full of them. It’s not a city that might immediately you as appealing, but as something of a city aficionado, I’ve visited a number of them, and you can feel very quickly when a city is right. Pittsburgh feels right.

Again, these Next American City pieces are subscription-only, or available for a one-time fee (except, that is, for "Tech & the City," on New York City’s planned Roosevelt Island tech campus). I’d encourage you to pay but I’m happy to hook up friends and family.

(Photo above by Pittsburgh photographer Martha Rial, who did what I thought was great work on the piece.)

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When Toledo Met China

A few weeks back I had a piece put out by Next American City on the city of Toledo’s bid to convince Chinese investors that their city is a worthy candidate for China’s push to find places abroad to put Chinese dollars. (Well, you know what I mean.) With some midwest gumption and considerable attention put to making friends who speak the language of Chinese businessfolk, that Ohio city is finding some success. But, as you can imagine, there are doubters in and around Toledo who think the whole thing is foolhardy.

I hope you might give it a read. Again, as with most Next American City pieces, this one costs money. I’d encourage you to open your wallet. But if this is something you’d just really love to read but aren’t yet convinced it’s worth its sub-$2 price, do let me know. There’s wiggle room with my immediate circle and I’m happy to wiggle for you.

Reporting out this piece was rather fascinating. I was in Toledo a handful of weeks before the great Obama vs. Romney contest wrapped up. Turn on the hotel television and it was commercial after commercial on how Candidate X was selling out the United States to the Chinese, something Candidate Y would simply never do. This was as Chinese investors were checking into the Park Inn to spending two days thinking about putting money down in Toledo, which, as you might know or could probably guess, has struggled considerably in recent years. (In a bit of poetic something or other, this was also in a hotel that had itself recently been snapped up by Chinese businessfolk.) I spent time talking to Mayor Michael Bell about the political ballet it takes to convince the Chinese allies he hopes to sell on his city that they’re welcome in northwest Ohio at the same time both of the two men who might lead the United States in the years ahead are on the TV painting them as rapacious schemers who have to be watched very, very closely.

Hope you might give it a read. Again, don’t let the two bucks come between us. Give me a holler if you want a demo copy (complete with the full functionality of a regular copy, but it sounds less like I’m just giving you something for free).

Also again, please do consider signing up for Next American City’s Forefront pieces. I’ve done so myself, and judge it more than worthwhile. If you’re into cities — and really, they’re immensely compelling, so I believe you should be — it’s a great way to get access to original reporting and well-grounded analysis on the issues facing the United States’ urban places.

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Plus Ça Change, the More Republicans Fret About Tech

Republicans are having a come to Jesus moment in the way of the Romney defeat, arguing amongst themselves about how badly they lag behind on the technology front, and how it spells certain disaster at the ballot box. If you’ve observed the evolution of tech and politics for longer than the last 18 months, it can sound awfully familiar. To wit:

…Barack Obama’s presidential campaign appeared to revolutionize the way technology could be integrated into every facet of a campaign — from fundraising to media outreach to voter mobilization.

The result was a Democratic Party that outpaced its rival in nearly every measure — in the process revealing how detrimental the GOP’s apparent lack of tech fluency proved to be on Election Day.

The Republican Party is playing catch-up, hoping to compete with Democrats in the next two pivotal election cycles.

“It would be suicide for the Republican Party and conservatives to not aggressively embrace technology,” said Matt Lewis, a writer for the conservative Web site Townhall.com. “The world is dramatically changing in the way people get their information and the way they communicate — the party needs to change with it.”

The date on that: December 12th, 2008.

As one highly-placed GOP tech person told me last night, people tend to gloss over the fact that Republicans did rather well in the 2010 mid-terms. And some of the credit should likely go to the “tea party” contingent’s skill in getting their message out amongst their own selves and to the public at large. Of course, presidentials are entirely different beasts. But a full reading of the state of the Republican party suggests to me, at least, that whatever failings it might have on the tech front are a symptom more than the thing itself.

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