Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Great Skin and Aging Myths

Since living in Germany, I've been noticing that older people don't seem to have "old skin" here.  Or, at least, they don't have what I think of as old skin.  

 Given, I grew up in west Texas and in Florida, so I thought that skin spots (dark or white) and lots of wrinkles was just how white people looked when they got older.  

Last year, while living in Orlando, Florida, I didn't have a car, so I took the bus or rode my bike to run errands or go places.

The thing about public transportation is that you really get the chance to look at people.  All kinds of people take the bus, for example.  People you might not see in your walk of life.  People you might not want to see, too.

Once, I remember this man, sitting across form me on the bus.  I don't want to be unkind, but his skin didn't look good.  He must have been in his 60's and I could tell that he had had light skin like mine when he was younger, but now his skin was kind of leathery.  He had lots of big brown circles on his face and some smaller white spots. Not to mention wrinkles, he had those too.  Little ones, like cracked, dry dirt in Texas, when it hasn't rained in a while, and big ones.  He had blue eyes. 

But I had just come back to the US from Europe, so I had a fresh image of what "white" people looked like there.  

He looked so old, or like he had skin cancer.  If you're from Florida, you know what that looks like.

So, since then, I've been looking more closely at people's skin in Germany and in the sunny states of the US.  



~~~~~~

I definitely remember an elderly lady I saw on the street in Cottbus, Germany.

She was hunched over her cane and was moving slowly.  While passing her on the sidewalk, I glanced at her before saying, "Excuse me." I was really close to her and noticed her skin.  She must have had some eye-lines and the contours of her face looked "older" (looser), but her skin looked as good as mine! Her skin displayed about as much damage, maybe less, as I've had in my whole life.  I can't describe it in scientific terms; her skin just looked good.   I had never seen an older light skinned person, who didn't have "old skin."

So what is "old skin"?

Having light skin and living in a sunny place is a relatively new phonemenon in the world. So, surrounded by examples of premature aging, do many of us have a warped understanding of what aging looks like (in Florida)?  Is living in a sunny place and having light skin dangerous?

I wonder...

Friday, June 1, 2012

Finally: Last post. Higher (Mis)EducationPart V

Continued from Higher (Mis)Education Part IV


I mean, if all my observations reflect some kernel of truth, then what I have experienced at German universities is a simple logic error. 

Difficult courses are being confused with difficult subjects. 

I mean, if half of your class fails, as in the Stony Brook statistic from the last post (Higher (Mis)Education Part IIII) and if you can correlate failing rates with a larger lecture hall, then it is not that the material is so hard, it is that your courses are harder than they need to be.

Imagine this, just a few hundred years ago, most of the western world was illiterate.  Reading and writing was considered really, really hard.  Today, I write from my blog because I assumed correctly that you all can read.  We consider literacy normal.  Did the inhabitants of the western world become biologically more intelligent?  I don't think so.  I think we have just benefited from a series of educational and philosophical reforms.

Similarly, the educational system really bothers me here in Germany because the system wants me to feel stupid. I feel as if it is trying to tell me that the course subject at the university is harder than it is.   The system wants only a few people to succeed. 


Check out this ranking of universities worldwide.  Fourteen of the top 20 universities are American universities.  (UPenn is number 16, and I feel that the following principles were applied there, especially principle 4, believe it or not.)



I think the philosophical foundation of the excellent American higher education system is the following:

1. Anyone can learn and every subject is learnable, with the right tools.  

Therefore, if too many students fail all together at once, there is a systemic problem, not a case of laziness or a lack of intelligence among students.   A systemic problem means just that: a problem with the system, not the individuals within it.  This principle also requires a lot of faith; it requires that you believe that most people are intelligent, not just a select few.

2. An educational system or a course can be flawed.   If it is, the problem needs to be fixed.

This goes back to principle 1 as well.  For this reason, a statistical average is a better judge of academic performance, at times, than the classical grade calculation.  In Germany, a whole class can fail and the bell curve is irrelevant.

3.  There are different types of learners, but all learners can learn the same material.  Diversity is important and valued.

This may seem obvious, but a system that supports this principle will provide materials and resources for students with different learning strengths.  Just like we wouldn't force someone nowadays to write with the right hand if they are left handed.  Whether I learn well through reading, listening, or through discussion, to name a few preferences, all learning methods can be provided through a course.     And, I want to reiterate: it is unfair not to provide these materials, especially for students who may have a hearing, speech or writing difficulties.  A difficulty is something you can overcome, unlike a bad attitude.   Like me, I have all of those difficulties in German. Ha ha ha.

I actually think that most students do better given lots learning resources based on different learning styles.  Like, read the chapter, hear the lecture, discuss it in class and work with your classmates afterward. 

4. Passion for learning is important.

Man, I can't really emphasize that enough. 
~~~~~~


The most disappointing part of my efforts to catch up on high school math is that I tried a lot of things, but nothing worked in Germany.  The university didn't offer the foundation I needed (as it would in the US) and the tutors I found outside of the university didn't want to teach me.

I have had two tutors.  The first one was very kind but lacked a structured teaching method (no plan and no textbooks).  The second tutor actually had a tutoring school, but he decided not to be my tutor.  I think it was too hard for him to try to adapt his teaching style, which was oriented for children, to a full-grown adult with no knowledge of the terms in German. I can talk to you about myself and about life in German, about tomatoes and about the history of bananas (introduced to Philadelphia in 1886), all in German, but I can't talk to you about anything mathematical in German, because I don't have the vocabulary yet.  I just needed a textbook.  I needed the type of dictionary that would translate the terms for me, but I haven't found that dictionary yet.

I was even turned down from a program (the equivalent of the GED) for non-Abitur graduates who wanted to go to university.  The program said that I couldn't take the class they offered in high school math (calculus, etc.) because I already had a high school diploma.  Rules are rules.


In the end, I gave up on my efforts in Germany.  I didn't feel that I had a choice.  I enrolled in an online math course at Brevard Community College, an accredited community college in the USA.  I visited Florida this year in March and got to meet one of my professors.  She was happy to meet me.  Everyone was happy to meet me.  And for your information, I got all A's.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I look forward to your feedback, everyone.

Higher (Mis)Education Part IV


Continued from (Mis)Eduation Part III
So, what happens at a university, in a university culture where approaching a professor is considered inappropriate, if not daring?  What happens when absolutely no textbooks are assigned to the students and students can only learn orally or in study groups with their friends from the university.  It is a very high-pressure environment.  A needlessly high-pressure environment.

 Let me tell you another story.

Once, I went to the teaching assistant's office because I wanted to say hello and talk about the topic of the course.  I love love love these topics, after all!  The attitude in the room was not exactly warm; it was like walking into an artic blizzard.  I got some blank stares and some eye-rolling. They acted like I was brown-nosing, just because I wanted to introduce myself.  Entschuldigung (excuse me) that I wanted to talk about the course topic.  Excuse me that I have a name and wanted you to know it.   

On the other hand, I can understand how this might appear inappropriate.  I understand it because I have had similar problems trying to apply for jobs in Germany.  Going in to the workplace where you  sent an application seems to offend people, from my experience.  Like, they shouldn't be able to put a face to a name, because knowing who I am might not allow them to objectively choose the best candidate.

This is a big deal for an American.  It takes some time to learn.  At risk of always seeming inappropriate, some Americans are careful not to talk to strangers (which is hard for an American to do).  Others are proud of who they are; slightly louder and more personal. 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
To be honest, I feel like the German educational system is a lie.  The system conspires in many ways to make education no fun and to make lots of people feel inferior- intellectually and socially.  I like Germans, so I don't mean that they are not nice people.  Of course they are nice people!  I am talking about the educational system.  And you have to have respect for someone who can survive this educational system in one piece.  Respect for the students, yes, but not for the system.

Why is primary school education organized in such a way, as it is, so that teachers decide whether a student is college bound or not before the age of 12 (and the system is changing so that teachers can decide even earlier!).  And then, when they do get to college, make learning so impossible, disorganized and difficult, so that they feel stupid?

I mean, the topics may not be that difficult, but learning in a big lecture hall, for every single class, without textbooks, syllabi, or meaningful lab courses just seems like a joke.  And then, the students are only tested with homework assignments a couple of times a semester (in the math course I was in) and have one big exam at the end of the semester.  So, if you are going to fail, you won't know it until it is too late.  That is a whole lot of unnecessary pressure on these young people.

Lars, my partner, studied law in Berlin and says that it was the worst time in his life.  This, in addition to the fact that after studying four years of laws (to get a bachelor of law), he had just two chances to pass the law exam for life.  Law students, of course, do have to read books, so his experience is different than the one I've experienced, but the overall message is the same: the university is hard.  I met a guy who was talking about a friend of his, who had already failed the test once.  He said, "His life will be over if he doesn't pass it this time!!" in German.  I said, "How can that be?  Life isn't over until you're dead."  He gave me a strange look.  As if I had said something unbelievable.
Time after time, I talk to people who tell me about how much they hated the university, even though they liked the student-life and their friends at the time.

~~~~~
So I was taking these university classes and experiencing culture shock in a BIG way.  BIG BIG BIG.  I also hired a private tutor.....

TO BE CONTINUED in Part V of Higher (Mis)Education


Higher (Mis)Education Part III

Following Higher (Mis)Education Part II ....
Umwelttag
Brandenburg Technical University


Since I had not done well in the pre-university math review at BTU, I decided to sit in on lectures in mathematics at BTU and to hire a private tutor to help me with the material.  I was also simultaneously signed up as a student in Urban Design, so I was taking those classes as well. Since then, I have attended some lectures at the Technical University of Dortmund in the department of Spatial Planning, since we now live in the Ruhr area.

These experiences really formed the foundation of my opinion about higher education in Germany.  I also talked to professors, teaching assistants and gathered stories about university experiences from my German friends and from Lars, my partner. 

The math course I sat in on was Math for Business Majors, more or less.  It was supposed to be easier than the courses the engineering or physics students would take, so I figured it was my best shot.  I went to the lectures every week and sat in on the course lab as well.  So, altogether, I had the real experience of taking the class and I can honestly compare this course with a typical American university math course.

The first difference I noticed is that all lectures consist of hundreds of students.  There is no syllabus and no course textbook.  There are no course hand-outs online or elsewhere. There are no weekly practice problems either, actually.  The professor simply recommends some theoretical books on the topic at the beginning of the course.  Every week, the professor just plans his lecture, gives it and that was that.  The university bookstore doesn't necessarily offer the books that the professor recommends, but the library usually holds the books in the reference section.  However, the professor doesn't have to tell you what part of what books are relevant or when they are relevant; that would be up to you, the student, to figure out. 

In one of my classes (Urban Design), I actually approached the tutor once and asked him where I could read about the topics we were learning that week.  I explained that, as a non-native German speaker (duh), it was really hard for me to understand everything in the lectures and that I would understand more if I could read about the material as well.   He said that all the recommended books should be in the course section at the library (no reference to which book or what section).  I went to the library and looked and looked.  I even had the librarian help me find the reference section for my course.

Guess what?  It didn't exist.  There were no books on hold for my course.  (Schei├če!)  So, there was nothing I could do except try to become an oral learner. 

At a German university, courses usually have labs so that you can "apply" the knowledge you (orally) learned at the lecture.  Sounds like a good system, except that it's not true.  The problem with the labs I went to was that the the things we worked on were not at all related to what was taught in the lecture.  So, maybe those two groups didn't really interact very much.  Maybe those teaching assistants just really had no idea what we were learning in the lecture. 

For those of you who didn't happen to study at an American university, let me fill you in on what it is like there.  (I really am just trying to be objective, for now.)

At an American university, every course has a syllabus with a reading list.  It informs the student about the grading scale and exactly what is expected from the student in order to get a good grade (See Noten as a footnote below).  Also, the reading list is pretty much required and you can buy the books new or used at the university bookstore or at local used bookstores under the course name.  You can buy the books online even, because there are so many books around.  You can really get organized and buy your books way out in advance, say from Singapore, for a good deal.

I'm not going to deny it, course books are super expensive.  And usually they pay homage in some way to the professor of the course.   Like, really?  Is it legal to require that your own students buy your own book?  On the other hand, why would you not recommend your own book? 

Coursebooks  are also way more expensive than a regular book at a book store.  But then again, so is a college education, which you could also basically get just by reading books at the library.  The university helps the student by giving him/her an organization of the material and by telling the student what and how to study.  If you don't get that, what are you paying for? (I assume that is what Americans think, and I certainly think so, but more on that later in the next post.)

Lots of homework assignments are assigned and graded and there are usually two big exams per course and lots of minor tests.  The student's class participation has actual weight; I mean, the student has to comment and participate in the class discussion for a "participation grade."  This means that if the student doesn't ask a question or comment at all in class, he will get a 0 or a negative grade for participation, and this will affect his overall course grade.

Because course books are assigned, courses are typically organized in a way that follows the sequence of topics introduced in the book.  That way, the professor, the assistants and the students can maximize their time in teaching or learning.  Also, these textbooks tend to be sold by big-time publishers with a team of educational and marketing professionals who constantly evaluate which books are the best sellers and apply the latest theories in education in their books.  The books usually comes with a media disc (cd/dvd) and with on-page referrals to the book's online website, where the student can find more non-textbook resources.

Most importantly, the quality of education among American universities is regarded as better if there is a low student to faculty ratio.  Columbia University, for example, prides itself on having a 6 to 1 student to faculty ratio, and in the physical science department, it's gets as low as 2 to 1.

Private universities justify their higher prices on this educational belief that smaller lectures mean better education.  Why pride yourself on large lecture halls?  The research supports this principle for quality education.  "An experiment at the State University of New York at Stony Brook found that students did significantly better in classes limited to 35 students than in large classes with 150 to 200 students.  For a calculus course, failure rates were 19% for the small classes compared to 50% for the large classes.  The percentages of A's were 24% for the small classes and 3% for the large classes.  These results suggest that students benefit from smaller classes, which allow for more direct interaction between students and teacher," reports a margin article in the textbook Essentials of Statistics Fouth Edition by Mario F. Triola.


All the Americans are going, yeah, yeah, of course! That's normal.
 
Actual, it's not so normal in many countries. (How many other countries teach using the aforementioned methods?)
TO BE CONTINUED in Part IV of Higher (Mis)Education

Footnote on "Noten"

Grades or "Noten" in Germany are different in the US.  They have a number system instead of a letter system.  The letter 1 is best, then comes 2, 3, 4,5, and 6.  Basically, a 1 is about 92% correct or better.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with American "grades," a letter grade can be an A, B, C, D or F.  A letter grade of an A is about a 1 in the German system.  There is no E grade.   The grade of A typically means that the student got 90% correct on an assignment or test, or did work about a qualitative nature equivalent to the best.  So, Americans like to say, "You get an A!" which means that you are awesome, or you had less than a 10% error rate in this class.  Obviously, not all work can be quantified, so grades are flexible in this way.  A letter grade can equate to qualitative or quantitative success.  


Higher (Mis)Education Part II

Following Higher (Mis)Education Part I ....

So, I applied to bachelor degree programs in urban planning and urban economics, two of my new-found interests since getting a degree in Linguistics in 2010.   I missed the application deadlines for a couple of schools, but got an acceptance offer from a few German-speaking bachelor degree programs.  I got acceptance letters from the Spatial Planning program at the  Technical University of Dortmund, the Urban Design program at the Brandenburg Technical University in Cottbus and the Real Estate Economics program at Regensburg University (Bavaria).  

I was so delighted. 

I turned down the Spatial Planning offer at Dortmund, but Lars started putting out job applications in the Ruhr area around Dortmund just in case I ended up transferring there after a semester or two.  After much deliberation, I finally accepted the offer from Regensburg University to study economics. 

There is so much to tell about this period of my life when I was preparing to study at a German university.  But, in this post, I am instead going to tell you about my introduction to higher education in Germany and what I have learned about educational reform in the United States in general.  

Basically, I am going to stick to the topic of what Germany universities are like from an American-educated person's perspective, and not get into all the little details about whether Lars started looking for jobs or how we planned to manage the move.
First, let me tell you a bit about German primary schools and universities. 

First of all, college-bound German school-boys and girls don't have the choice of not taking Calculus.  That means that everybody at the university has already had "high-school" math, aka Calculus 1 and 2.  Also, universities in Germany do NOT offer courses covering what you were already supposed to have learned in high school.  Period.  That calculus stuff is so high school, any baby could do it, right?  High School students heading to college get a special High School-level degree called "Arbitur," which means that they passed all the state or national tests in the subject.  

Second, students are weeded out from the "college-bound" crowd before high-school.  If a child does poorly in middle or elementary school, the child will be told that he/she should learn a trade and not go to Gymnasium (High School), which means that the child won't be able to go to the university.   If the child does really well later, it should be possible to switch to Gymnasium from a "regular" non-college bound school, but it is unlikely to happen. 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Before moving to a different city and enrolling at Regensburg University, I wanted to brush up on my math.  I had one to two months time before the program would begin, so I figured that I had enough time to review what I had forgotten since my last course of "Advanced Topics of Mathematics," an alternative to College Algebra as a junior in high school.  I took that course some, oh, eight years ago, so I really needed a math review!  

Let me add that I didn't think a math review would be so hard because I did really well on the math portion of the GRE (one of the tests you take to apply to graduate schools in the US).

I wanted to review what I considered to be basic High School math.  I signed up for the general pre-university week-long math seminar and review session for entering students, which was being offered at the Brandenburg Technical University, or BTU, in Cottbus, where Lars and I were living then. 

So, there I was in Cottbus, Germany, and I was super excited to go to the math review at BTU.  Maybe I kind of expected to have one of those experiences often portrayed in 1990's pop-culture movies where the more mature twenty-something-er gets the chance to pose as a High-Schooler or College Student and, due to his/her ultimate life-wisdom, shines like never before.

What happened to me was less glamorous: I walked into a gray-concrete modernistic building and into a lecture hall full with  300+ students.  The volume of noise must have been intensified in the lecture hall (felt like a concert hall), because it's something I remember very well.  (As a foreign-language speaker, a foreign language can start to sound like white noise when your brain has language-overload.  That is not my professional linguistic opinion, just an observation!) I picked a seat and waited for the fun to begin.

 The professor (a woman) walked in with her assistant and turned on a projector (!!!!) and started putting slides up (like in the 90's?) of complicated mathematical theories and logic formulas.  First of all, I couldn't really understand what she was saying because my German immersion didn't prepare me for listening to German through a speaker system.   And I couldn't really see what she was writing because I was too far away from the board. Naturally, I did not understand anything.  
 
Well, I'm an American which probably means I am naively confident.  We are just taught to be that way. "There's no such thing as a stupid question," and "Never be afraid to ask," my dad always said.  So I figured I would just introduce myself to the professor after class, as I always did in the US, and ask her for help or find out what she recommends in order to catch up on things.

Don't get me wrong.  I was nervous walking down the stadium-lecture hall and approaching the professor.  My German also gets a little worse when I'm nervous.  I was practicing what I would say the whole way down the steps.  You could have seen my lips move as I rehearsed what I would say.  I came up to where she was straightening up her slides.    It felt like hours before she acknowledged me standing there. 

I must have said in German, "Hello, my name is Rebecca and I didn't quite understand some things, like, for example XX." 

She looked at me, assessed my accent, and answered, "All German students learn that in school," and turned away from me.   I think she even frowned at me, disappointed that I would bother her holiness on the podium after a lecture.  

Then, she walked away.  Apparently there is such a thing as a stupid question.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After the lecture, I went to the library and took out all the High-School math books I could fit in my roller JanSport backpack.  I started reading the books in my apartment in the evening and tried to follow along in the seminar during the following days.  Only after a few days did I realize that it would be impossible.  Clearly, the material was more than I could learn in a week.  After the final lecture, I remember standing in the courtyard outside the lecture and feeling envious of all the students around me.  They were all so young and had never really made a big mistake in their lives probably.  They  all seemed so innocent and free.

Later, I called up the admissions office in Regensburg and told them that I wasn't going to be able to enroll this semester.  "Sorry for the inconvenience."

Well, that's ok, I thought.  Rome wasn't built in a day after all.  I can learn all this and then I'll apply for an economics program!  Not to sound trite, but sometimes you can't afford the luxury of a negative thought....  And I wasn't really in a position to change my decision to come to Germany and go back to school.  I felt like I had to learn math; I needed to learn math.

But even that turned out to be harder than it should have been.

TO BE CONTINUED Higher (Mis)Education Part III.....

Higher (Mis)Education Part I

About a year ago, I had to make an important choice: either I could choose to wait for Lars to come to the US or I could go to Germany, where he lived.  Whew! Let me tell you, I lost a lot of sleep trying to figure out which choice I wouldn't regret.  
 A place for contemplating life's decisions at the Florida Wildlife Refuge

I knew I wanted to spend my life with my partner, who is German. We wanted to keep it simple; we would live in the USA or in Germany, close to family if possible.   I mean, picking a place could have huge consequences, right?  What if we get stuck there long-term?   

So, where did I want to raise my children?  What do I want to do professionally? Where did Lars want to raise his children?  (It turns out that some guys don't think about the latter very much.)   These were pressing questions for me. 

I had a problem though: I wasn't sure whether Lars would come to the US if I waited for him.  Really!  He is a German lawyer, so finding a job in the US would not be so straight-forward.  Like many men, his job makes him feel valuable as a person, and I didn't want to take that away from him.  (I recently read an MSN.com article, which noted that unemployment is the most prevalent cause of clinical-depression among American men, compared to divorce among American women.)  In retrospect, I probably thought I could handle unemployment, but he couldn't.  Was I trying to be a martyr or was I just tired of the job I had in Orlando?

One thing was certain: both he and I would have to change professions in order to be successful in the other country.  There's only a teeny market for German lawyers in the US and never really was one for super-academic-never-applied linguists in Germany.

So, education or re-education, aka going back to school, became a really important topic in our conversation about choosing a place to live.  Ask yourself, would you rather go back to school in the US or in Germany?  

Ahh, if only I knew then what I know now.  

We decided that it would be easier for me to go back to school in Germany than it would be for Lars to do so in the US.  We decided this based on the following facts.  Tuition is comically inexpensive in Germany compared to the tuition at the out-of-state private university I last went to.  Also, a bachelors degree only takes three years in Germany instead of the four it takes in the US.  I scored very well on the TestDAF exam, which is the German-language test for foreigners to study in Germany (like TOEFL or TOEIC in English).

Also, going back to school should be easier for me, since I'm younger than Lars.  And, Lars already has a good job in Germany, so he could support me if I went to school.  I can't offer Lars the same sort of financial support in the US.  I certainly wouldn't be able to support him and pay his tuition while he went to school in the US. 

We decided that it would be wisest for us both if I moved to Germany and applied to university programs in Germany. Lars would relocate to the city where I would study.  He assured me that he could find a job pretty much anywhere in Germany.  Hand-shake.  Agreed!  Let's go.  

I put in my two weeks notice at my job in Orlando and we booked the tickets.

To be honest, I was sad, excited and relieved.  I was sad to leave my family, who mean almost everything to me.  My family is my home.  But, I was excited to go back to school because I'd always had positive experiences at the university in the US (I studied at Florida State University and the University of Pennsylvania, to put it in perspective. Both are wonderful universities!).  And most importantly, I was relieved to not have to live apart from my life-partner much longer.  

The Visa process took maybe five days in Germany, being married to a German and all.  I was welcomed with open arms.

TO BE CONTINUED PART II (Mis)Education




Monday, May 21, 2012

Thoughts on Titusville, Florida

Sometimes, stepping back can give you perspective.  Perspective: new thoughts about old subjects.  And that is what I feel I have gained by living internationally- I am not only more critical of  'the way things are,' I am also more hopeful that things I don't like could change.

After all, how could England have become so different from the place my ancestors left?  How could Florida belong to the Native Americans, then to the Spanish (the Floridians who fled to Cuba), then to Americans, all in a span of a couple hundred years?  How could the US have changed so much since World War II?  How is it possible that the poorest parts of Germany 150 years ago are now the richest parts in Germany, probably also in Europe (excluding Switzerland)?  How could almost a whole culture of farming, which existed in Western Europe and America for a very, very long time, disappear in a span of about 50 years?

Two things seem true to me: change is certain and near but change comes in an unexpected form.  Still, if we are not in charge of the changes in our world, then who is?  (Excluding mother nature and a higher power, of course.)   Perhaps the first step is to understand that things happen because we cause them to and not because "it's just the way things are."  And, maybe the second step is to understand what we are doing in the first place.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In a way, the distance allows you to really put your finger down on what is bothering you about where you grew up.  I recently read an article about Titusville, Florida, where I grew up, published in the Florida Today, February 19th, written by Dave Berman titled, "Miracle City Mall Redevelopment Delayed a Year."  After reading this article, which featured on the first page a picture of the new locally-initiated Arts Studio, I grew agitated.  And I grew more agitated as I thought about the article's message: an economic recovery requires corporate investment in Titusville.  Somebody decided this was true and the writer reported this.  Maybe this belief is commonplace in Titusville.

But, publishing this idea, while featuring an picture of a local arts studio, which is not at all corporate, seemed misleading and dishonest.  

Thanks to my mom, below are pictures of the art studio featured on the cover of the article.
Art Studio where Firestone (Auto Shop) used to be, before going out of business or relocating elsewhere.

Art takes over.

Art Studio facade up close


To pay to read the article out of archives and see the picture (about 8 dollars), you have to follow the following link.  The article is called, "Miracle City Mall Redevelopment Delayed a Year."  Here is the abstract,
The Miracle City project is one of the cornerstones for an economic comeback for Titusville, which has been hit hard by declines in the real estate market during the past several years, coupled with thousands of layoffs related to the end of the space shuttle program last year.
I don't like how the owners say they want Miracle City Mall to become the heart of Titusville.  The Art Studio is not representative of Miracle City Mall and the heart of Titusville is the historic district, where there has been so much public and private investment and many new store openings.

There is a local street market in downtown Titsuville (the historic district) during the week and a Jazz-Night on Thursday evenings.  All the yearly parades go through Main Street. From Main Street you can walk to the pier, where locals like to fish, windsail, swim, lounge, etc. or walk to the local parks, where locals often play baseball.  The downtown and pier area is where Titusville goes to be itself. 

My favorite bakery, Sunrise bakery, is located downtwon.  It is full Monday through Saturday and is always a good place to see familiar places. The cafe has done wonders to the local vibe and "locavorism," just as so many cafe's are doing to downtown's all across the US.  When I go there, I can also walk around the downtown's expensively manicured sidewalks and sit on a bench in the park, near the St. John's river.  It's a place everybody likes.  Beautiful, peaceful and special.

The very beloved Sunrise Bakery, Titusville, Florida. 
Back side of Sunrise Bakery
The back side of Sunrise Bakery displays a mural of a sunny tropical paradise.  (Is this hopefulness?)  In sync with my thoughts on art and local pride, murals of tropical scenes are very common at native-Titusville businesses.  The murals at Dixie Crossroads come easily to mind.

Above are pictures of Sunrise Bakery and the surrounding historic downtown district.  Note, at the Garden St. I-95 exit, the "Titusville historic downtown" is advertised as a noteworthy historic and cultural gem.  Nothing is mentioned about Miracle City Mall.
The back entrances to Main St. stores.  100 years ago, the building was home to a grand hotel and casino on this spot.
Traffic could be slowed down more, but generally the downtown is pedestrian friendly. It's nice and  relaxing to sit outside.  With all the local customers coming and going from the bakery, I run into old acquaintances almost every time I visit.  It is small enough to be personal, unlike the other commercial place to see and be seen in Titusville, aka Wall-Mart. (As a side note, I once received a lecture from a Wall-Mart employee about how bad and soulless Wall-Mart is.  I ask myself, how bad do you have to be before your employees start hating you and telling the customers about it?)   Sunrise Bakery is a cafe, bread bakery and local hang-out for families, the elderly, young students, and drama performers from the nearby Titusville Theater in particular.  Just a few years ago, the cafe relocated from a strip mall location on Garden St.  And never looked back.

It's decision to move to the central location of the historic downtown is, for many residents, an indication that the downtown can become more than just a caricature of the buzzing downtown it used to be.  Other businesses benefit from the cafe's business.  The employees at the cafe remain the same year after year, since as far back as I can remember, with no apparent "turnover", but many new faces.  Too good to be true?

I even biked to the cafe once and was shocked to see other bikes locked up outside the cafe at the bike stand.  Inside, I saw an old teacher of mine who told me that she would like to see Titusville add safe bike lanes everywhere because she and her husband want to make a bike ride to the bakery a part of their weekend routine (in the fall, winter and spring I assume).  How wonderful is that?  It's an urban planner's dream: residents, who want more alternative transportation infrastructure!  

Main St. is looking so nice these days. There is something to be said about outdoor streets and shops in Florida, since sunshine is why everyone is there. 

So, just because the owner of the mall, who lives in (!)Boca Raton(!), thinks Miracle City Mall should be the heart of Titusville, doesn't make it is so.  Yeah, the mall used to thrive.  I also don't like the look of empty stores, even in a mall. But, that doesn't make the mall the heart of Titusville.

The real heart of any town can't be owned by a single investor, let alone a non-resident.
Problem #2:
The art studio should really be the hit story: Titusville making lemonade out of lemons.

The mere mention of the art studio seems like a dirty trick by associating it with the mall's 'economic plans' in this article.  The new locally-run and created art studio should NOT be the featured image and then lead into the story about the private mall owner's plans for corporate investment and redevelopment because- they two entities aren't related!!  And, let me add: they don't really complement each other, in my opinion, other than sharing proximity.
 
And, the article kind of misunderstood the value of art by saying that art is good for the economy. That it might be, but that is usually not the artists' mindset, unless the artist is working in a tourism-marketing campaign.  

I guess the thing the mall and the art studio have in common is, obviously, location and, less obviously, the potential indication of a Titusville renaissance.  However, the mall renaissance would hardly be a renaissance becuase it means almost pure gain for the owner and non-Titusville corporations, who will take the profits out of Titusville.  I say that because the article states that many chain stores and restaurants would open shop, and that would help make the redevelopment plan viable.  How do more chain restaurants help Titusville, tell me?  Is it helpful because more Titusvillians want to be waiters and waitresses?  Seems unlikely. 

To me, the idea of the art studio seems to say, "Hey Titusville, be who you are.  Express what is special about you.  Express what you are thinking, seeing, feeling.  Take control of your town,  of your politics, of your future." 

The art studio is symbolic of a real renaissance.  It doesn't do a lot for Titusville financially, but at least residents of Titusville came up with a solution to turn an ugly eyesore of a past corporate evacuation or relocation (Firestone's) into a place to be proud of.  Titusville needs something to be proud of.

Corporations come and go.  Quickly.   
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
To me, I feel that the real value of the art studio is that it inspires and supports a unique Titusville 'placeness'.   If the article wanted to comment about a potential renaissance in Titusville, they could have researched how art helped transform numerous cities into hopeful, thriving citiies.   By inspiring its residents to create art out of the built environment, (like the Philadelphia Art Works, for example) from which the entire city benefits. Murals replaced destructive graffiti.  Looking at the murals, you can see that there is something special about Philadelphia.

And, think about Detroit's art movement and the development of urban agriculture there.  Art may not be responsible for the change in thinking, but it occurred at the same time.

Art helps lift spirits and shows local pride.  I'm no artist myself, but this is my favorite kind of art.  Can't you just feel the hope, the honesty, the pride and strength in the murals featured in the following links?


Who knows what kind of positive- economic, educational, spiritual- benefits and spinoffs are possible from such an artistic endeavor. 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My next point may not be very popular. 

I am really into this idea that "economical success' needs to keep in mind whether the investors or store owners live in the town and whether businesses help create more businesses and entrepreneurship, not just giving everybody a job and thereby taking away their ability to be their own boss.  I mean, I guess not everyone can be their own boss- bosses need workers, after all.  But more small businesses mean a higher owner/worker ratio.  Given two towns with the same economic productivity, where would you rather live?  If you could do the work you do now, but employ yourself, would you want to?   

Sorry, let me sum up: it sounds to me like the author is selling a point- that an economic recovery requires outside corporate investment in Titusville.  Maybe he didn't realize what he was saying at all... because this kind of thinking is commonplace.  I have nothing against successful companies going corporate and opening chains.  I just don't think it should hurt smaller business.

And that is the worst part: a town is really beat if they keep looking elsewhere for help.   Can't a city with a population of 43,000, like Titusville, have it's own merchants?   If you're an economist or like economics, fill me in.

Wouldn't it be much healthier and better in the long run if residents, aka Titusvillians, worked toward making their town and communities their own and supported each others' businesses?  Because, we need the profits at home these days.  Yes, we do.  Everyone in Titusville knows it.  I'm not saying, cut the rest of the world off.  I'm just saying, Titusville is more than a market opportunity for outside investors.

To do this, residents have got to free themselves from believing that a corporation will save them. These days, you have to save yourself.

Because I am a little homesick and want to show off how special Titusville is, I've included some pictures below of the historic district, aka downtown Titusville.
Titusville Parrish Theater

St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church
 St Gabriel's Episcopal Church was built in 1887 in Captenter Gothic Style and is on the US National Register of Historic Places.
Not sure what this was originally. Note Spanish revival architecture. 

Also Spanish Revival

Historic Brevard County Court House

Pritchard House
The Pritchard House is also the US National Register for Historic Places.  According to the house's website,
"The Pritchard House is an outstanding example of the Queen Anne architecture, a distinctly American form that was popular from approximately 1876-1910. The house appears today much like it did when it was built in 1891."
 

Pedestrian Walk in Downtown Titusville

Historic buildings on Main St.
Nice, huh?  Makes you want to visit Titusville.

To me,  Main St. is interesting because it is pretty much the only place in town with traditional style- row houses on both sides of the street.  So, when you are on Main St. for a couple of yards you feel like you are really in a "town" in the traditional sense.  (You can visit Main St. and the architecture just feels good.  In the book Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, he talks about how pedestrians feel more comfortable on streets where the buildings are higher than the street is wide because of the psychological effect it produces of feeling protected in a human habitat.  It is called "people sizing," as in, the size of buildings and entrances, sidewalks and streets are designed to be viewed by an actual standing person.

How else could you view a building, you ask?  You could view a building as a whirr from your car or train window.  Hence, big billboards. The next time you are driving or walking around, ask yourself whether the advertising on the buildings and the entrances, fronts, etc. are intended to be appreciated by car or by foot.  Downtown Titusville still has this pedestrian feeling due to the buildings, even though more cars speed by than people on foot. )
 

Mom on Main St.


 My mom recently said, "Sometimes at downtown events, I can feel what the town almost is."

Me, I am sincerely optimistic about Titusville's future.  May it be what it almost is.  Only those long-term residents in Titusville know what that is.