Sunday, December 28, 2008

War and Peace

Last night, I went to an engagement party for a friend from elementary school, and I bumped into a number of my parents' friends that I had known growing up. I got into a long, interesting conversation with one couple, who are avid readers and have had a lifelong dialogue about the books that they've read. I haven't read any Orwell, so we were discussing that, but it was when I told them that I hadn't read War and Peace that they began to lobby most heavily for me to pick up a copy and read it in the coming year. Apparently, the most difficult part of reading it is getting past the first one hundred pages, because Tolstoy introduces so many characters, it's almost impossible to keep up. However, once you reach this mark, if you're not completely confused, the rest of the book is a bit easier. I did read Anna Karenina in college, and enjoyed it very much.

We also talked about book clubs, and how difficult it is to find one that is truly serious, because there simply aren't very many people that carve out the time to read literature these days. "Life takes over", as we all know, and it's easy to get distracted by work, family and friends. The book club that I am a member of is famous for its many slackers, and when we gather, typically only a few of us have finished the book. It's a very fun group, yet I admit that it's a bit annoying to have really spent time with the book, and find that not everyone has done the same. One of my goals for the coming year is to start a new book club, and to develop relationships that are based around reading books that move me and cause me to grow - personally and as a writer.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Book Club at the Lit

I am working on a collaboration with Judith Mansour-Thomas of the Lit to establish a regional book club that focuses on writers that either live in or have roots in Northeast Ohio. This organization is the nonprofit organization that serves the literary community in Northeast Ohio. We are hoping to launch the new book club in March, and to host special events in which we bring writers in to talk about their own work. I am excited about the chance to help foster a community of writers and readers in Northeast Ohio, and also to help celebrate the talented writers that we have in our region. For more information on the Lit, visit

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Green Machine

Blue-collar city, meet green-collar jobs. Are you ready?

By Lee Chilcote, Issue Date: 10/15/08

Ed Weston spends his days working with companies that make wind turbine parts, an industry that he says is bringing jobs to Northeast Ohio, but as he meets with companies across the region, he's vexed by one question: Why do they have trouble finding workers?

"I'm talking about good jobs that pay fifteen dollars or more per hour," says Weston. "You walk into a foundry, the same old foundry that's been there forever, and the lines are jammed. They're making castings and parts for wind turbines. But they’re always looking for people."

Part of the issue, he says, is lack of training. Ohio companies supply a large portion of the wind turbine parts built in the U.S., his research shows. Yet while the state's 7.4% unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country, the companies that supply parts to this growing industry are often hiring.

Wind power is perhaps the most iconic of green industries in Northeast Ohio, yet experts say that there's potential to grow other types of green-collar jobs here, as well. A recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) cites the potential for 550,000 new green jobs in Ohio over the next few decades. Advocates say that Northeast Ohio has assets that could help us to progress into a green economy, including a strong manufacturing base and growing programs to train workers.

Yet as the effort to pair green-collar jobs with blue-collar workers ramps up, some leaders question whether our workforce is ready. Others question the significance of the green economy. Still, leaders from the city of Cleveland up to the Governor's office are betting that green-collar jobs will help Cleveland's economy to grow.

"Green jobs can be an economic driver for Northeast Ohio," says Leo Russo, Executive Director of Cuyahoga Community College's Green Academy.

Tom Waltermire, CEO of Team NEO, an organization whose mission it is to attract business to Northeast Ohio, is not sure that green jobs are a trend. He also says that it's tough to measure green-collar job growth in Cleveland because no one has completed a quantitative study.

"What the heck is a green collar job, anyway?" he says, chuckling at the notion's newfound celebrity. "There's no data on green jobs. My job is to get any kind of business here -- whether they are polluters or not."

Waltermire admits that wind power could give our economy a big lift. "It's got Northeast Ohio written all over it," he says. "Steel poles and fiberglass blades... This is the kind of stuff that we're good at making. We're already making the components here. Now we want to attract a company that assembles the turbines."

Many experts agree that if Cleveland is to capitalize on this trend, then more work force training is needed. "Every politician is talking about it, but there's a training gap," adds Andrew Watterson, the city of Cleveland's Sustainability Manager. "In manufacturing, we have a big advantage over other areas because we have the supply chain and the work force, yet workers still need to get certified."

Leo Russo, Executive Director of Cuyahoga Community College's Green Academy, which provides training for green-collar jobs, agrees that more focus on training is needed. "I get complaints from contractors who have trouble reading green specs when they are bidding on jobs," he says. "There are training programs for architects and other professionals -- but until we started the Green Academy, there was virtually no training for the trades."

Other cities have joined in the effort to attract green-collar jobs. In July, the city of Oakland, California allocated $250,000 in seed funding for a "Green Collar Jobs Corp" that provides workforce training for city residents. Washington D.C. and Portland, Oregon are working on similar programs.

To grow Northeast Ohio's ability to attract green-collar jobs, Watterson believes that more effort is needed to provide training for low-income workers. In partnership with Tri-C's Green Academy, he has helped to create "Pathways out of Poverty," a training program for people not currently in the workforce.

"The missing link is getting people ready for employment," says Watterson.

To this end, Russo's program is expanding rapidly. While the Green Academy initially provided training in green building, the program now offers classes on interior design, health care and green business innovation. Approximately 200 people have participated in the program since January.

In addition, the Green Academy recently received a $600,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Development to fund efforts to take its training programs statewide. With this grant, Tri-C will develop a sustainability curriculum for other community colleges in Ohio. Russo plans to roll out the training programs in Columbus, Marietta, Youngstown, and Cincinnati by April 2009.

Jennifer Connolly, Executive Director of the Green Building Coalition (GBC), says that the demand for subcontractors trained in green building is rising. “The number of professionals accredited in green building in Cleveland is constantly going up,” she says. As more green building projects get underway, trained subcontractors will be needed.

The GBC coordinates training for the Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design (LEED) program, a national certification program in green building. Currently, there are about 150 architects and other LEED-certified professionals in Cleveland.

Watterson expects "Pathways Out of Poverty" and other city-led initiatives to create more job opportunities in the future. One example is a city jobs program that hired 250 youth to install rain barrels on Cleveland residents' homes this past summer. The program, he says, helped residents to save on their water bills, provided work experience for city youth, and kept excess water out of the city's sewer system.

While industry leaders say that more work force training is needed, they also agree that there is a near-consensus about addressing the problem at the state and regional level. Watterson says that a turning point for him was seeing Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher attend the American Wind Energy Conference this year.

"Fisher spoke at the conference and met with companies there," he says. "Previously, the Ohio Department of Development had sent only staff people."

Weston agrees, citing Ohio's recently passed "portfolio standards" requiring power companies to use renewable sources to produce a portion of their energy. A little over half of the states in the U.S. have passed portfolio standards. "Ohio's new standards are going to help drive the sustainability economy, including wind energy," he says.

As training programs like the Green Academy ramp up, providers says that they must walk a delicate line between training workers for jobs in emerging industries, and providing them with skills to help them find jobs right away.

"It doesn't make sense to train people for industries where there are no jobs," says Watterson. "There’s just not much of an economy yet around solar panels."

That, too, may change. Jean Stepanik, who manages training for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workes (IBEW) in Cleveland, expects demand for solar installation to rise in coming years. The IBEW apprenticeship program for solar panel wiring graduates about fifty journeymen each year. The union recently rewrote its training curriculum -- starting in 2009, every journeyman going through the program will have to get certified to wire solar panels.

"You can't just look in a phone book and pick an electrical contractor," Stepanik says. "There's a lot of accountability, and solar installation is a difficult certification to get."

In industries such as wind, a surge in demand across the board will likely cause a shortage until Ohio industries get up to speed.

"When [billionaire businessman and alternative energy advocate] T. Boone Pickens places a two-billion-dollar order for wind turbine parts, you know it’s going to take a while to get caught up," Weston says.

In the long term, this means greater demand for green-collar workers. Watterson says that means Northeast Ohio's leaders need to continue to step up efforts at workforce training. He's not worried, however, stressing that we already have an edge because of our manufacturing base.

In a way, Watterson says, we're so far behind that we're now ahead. "When it comes to green jobs, we are benefiting from having so much manufacturing here," he says. "It's a bit like those plaid pants in your closet coming back in style."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

fish and wigs on h street

A few weeks ago, I visited my friend Brian in DC. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to help Brian, his brother Duncan, and his mom Rosie to move from an apartment in Germantown, Maryland (DC metro area's hinterlands, or affordable housing located at the city's fringe) to a slick, brand spankin' new condo in the up-and-coming H Street neighborhood.

And move we did. A group of us that included family friends from Cincinatti, New York City, DC, Boston and Cleveland (myself) slogged through a 10-hour day of schlepping, schlepping and more schlepping. It ended up being quite fun, though. After a few adventures getting the U-Haul truck (can anyone say, 'the evils of corporate monopoly'?) we managed to get most of their worldly possessions (including Brian and Duncan's high school yearbooks .... mmm, on second thought, maybe we should have left those behind) from G-town to H Street in 2 trips.

H Street is a fascinating neighborhood. Apparently the city has put quite a bit of effort into redeveloping this area, which is adjacent to the fancier (and more expensive) Capitol Hill community. Rosie calls it the "fish and wig district" because it's just that: a place where fish and wig shops abound. Somehow, they now coexist alongside hip and too-trendy-to-have-a-sign-that-stands-out locales such as the Argonaut (a restaurant) and the Rock and Roll Hotel (a club with an unbelievably talented DJ spinning danceable grooves on Saturday night).

Here is a link to the wikipedia article about H Street:,_D.C.)

And here is a link to the website for one of the gems of Washington DC that lies adjacent to the H Street neighborhood, the Eastern Market:,_D.C.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

so what do you do again?

"You know those people who you know have jobs, but you're not exactly sure what they do?"

That's how a radio essay on NPR's Marketplace opened last week. The essay, by university professor Dan Drezner, recounts a conversation with his brother in which he tries to explain why he's not teaching classes in the summer. Drezner is doing research and writing then, but his brother, a hedge fund manager, doesn't seem to believe him.

My jobs - one part real estate professional, one part freelance writer - are also not exactly easy to explain at a cocktail party. Maybe it would be easier if my job were more boring ("I'm an accountant"), brilliant yet technical ("brain surgeon"), or if I were forbidden to discuss it ("child psychologist", something like that).

A part of the challenge of explaining my job to other people, at least with the writing part, is justifying to people that I'm not simply hanging out at the park or the bar all day. I actually do work. And every so often, something that I write gets published. Really.

The writing job sounds like fun to most people. "So you just hang out and talk to people all day?" Writing can be fun, but it can also be really difficult. Just ask my wife, Katherine; she has to put up with my moodiness when I'm stuck or frustrated with a story.

Katherine once heard Anthony Bourdain, the host of the travel show "No Reservations," speak at a conference for the organization "Iconoculture". Bourdain, who travels all over the world searching for authentic culture in places that most people wouldn't think to go to (like Cleveland, for instance), gave the keynote address.

He opened with these simple lines: "My job doesn't suck ... "

I suppose, when asked what I do for a living, that's one answer that I hope I could give.

Here's the link to the Marketplace story:

Saturday, July 26, 2008

turning to t-shirts

The NY times recently ran a story called "Turning to T-Shirts to Spiff Up Downtrodden Cities". The article chronicled the efforts of t-shirt makers in cities such as Youngstown and St. Louis to create and sell apparel that "rehabilitates [the city's] image from the inside out and makes people want to stay".

Among the companies cited is Rusty Waters Apparel, based in Youngstown. The article also quotes Abby Wilson of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), a group focused on bringing together Great Lakes cities to focus on common solutions to urban problems. "It's reframing the identity of those places that have been misrepresented," Wilson is quoted as saying.

T-shirts have long held a certain power in American culture. Advertisers use them to sell their product; people wear them to express themselves. For those of us living in the city, our t-shirts are something of a brand for ourselves - the images represent our city-loving hipster culture.

Right now, I'm wearing a t-shirt that reads, "Cleveland - West Side." It has this kitsch image of a skull sprouting wings - kind of a skull and crossbones thing. It's kind of a pseudo-Harley t-shirt for the intellectual urban planning nerd. I love it. I bought the t-shirt at Room Service, a boutique in the Gordon Square Arts District within the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.

I'm sure you'll want to run right out and join the t-shirt brigade. Room Service can be found online at or visit their shop at 6505 Detroit Ave. (at the intersection of Detroit and W. 65th).