In car-centric cultures around the world, there is perhaps nothing more simple and representative of how citizens view the role of government than the infamous pothole, said author Peter Kageyama.
Kageyama spoke to a room filled with business, city, and community leaders – including current Mayor Ivy Taylor and former Mayor Julián Castro – on Tuesday afternoon in downtown San Antonio.
The problem is simple. The solution is simple. It’s just a matter of time and money before the City can get around to filling a pothole. With San Antonio’s 2017 Bond Program fast approaching, the pressure is on to invest in infrastructure and capital projects that fix literal and metaphorical potholes large and small.
“We could fill every pothole in the state of Texas,” Kageyama said during the luncheon program hosted by Centro San Antonio. “But there’s no love for fixing potholes … there’s no emotional return on investment.”
He didn’t argue that potholes and infrastructure aren’t important, just that there is – or should be – more to cost-benefit analyses and City budgets than dollars and cents. “Safe and functional are the basics” of City government, he said.
“But where is the fun? … When was the last time we started with the goal to surprise and delight the citizens of San Antonio?”
Citizens know how to complain about potholes, but not how to ask for these “love notes,” Kageyama said, things like beauty, art, and great design that charm even the most pessimistic teenager into loving a city. That is until they’re given an example.
Kageyam’s books, For The Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and their Places and its sequel, Love Where You Live are about building that charm from within or outside of city bureaucracies – but mostly out.
When New York City closed off Times Square to vehicular traffic, locals came back downtown to people watch. When murals are painted on blank walls, especially those that they participate in, they become neighborhood landmarks. Dog parks bring dogs together, sure, but really they bring dog owners and neighbors together.
The scrappiest solutions, like setting up a garden hose for a temporary, make-shift water feature, “show you at your very best,” he added. “Never apologize for your garden hose solutions.”
San Antonio has dozens of big “love letters” like the River Walk, the Alamo and the Convention Center, but it also has smaller “love notes.” During his short stay in town, Kageyama said he ran into at least two of those love notes at the same time: Mi Tierra Restaurant and Bakery and downtown icon “Hispanic Elvis.”
Public art can be as big as Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain that brings thousands of visitors and residents to downtown Chicago each year, or as small as a New Orleanian artist spray painting the stenciled words “IT’S GOOD TO BE HERE” on sidewalks.
Seattle artist Peregrine Church created Rainworks, a cheap, invisible spray that deflects water to create “secret” messages that can only be seen when the surface, typically a sidewalk, is wet.
Whatever the size, public art is one of the main ways to create experiences “so simple you could almost weep,” he said. And those can be more “valuable” and “cost effective” than any million-dollar marketing campaign.
“I don’t think anyone asked for permission to do something like this,” Kageyama said. “Permission is overrated.”
When a big, blue bear sculpture, “I See What You Mean,” was installed in 2005 outside the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, however, permission was needed.
“Do you know how many potholes we can fix with the money for the bear?” Kageyama asked in jest, adding that society simply can’t compare potholes and public art in terms of cost and value.
“Let’s talk about the cost of ugly. Let’s talk about the cost of boring,” he said. “People that ask, ‘What did that cost?’ (Typically) want to deny the value.”
An easy parallel to draw is the reaction to the San Antonio Convention Center’s Liquid Crystal sculpture, also known as the “million-dollar cheese grater,” by London-based artist Jason Bruges. At least it’s starting conversations, Kageyama said.
“Public art has value beyond the purely financial, we have to fight for that,” he said.
Will “fun” be included in next year’s bond program?
“I think we’re going to make that (fun) a line item,” joked Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) after Kageyama’s speech. “It’s certainly the big ‘why?’ At the end of the day, people have fun in parks and so we can justify these great projects.”
Treviño added that the recent river barge competition description called for the designs to be “fun.”
“There is a way to incorporate these concepts into our capital construction,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said. Projects like parks, streets, and public buildings.
Mayor Taylor and her predecessor Castro, now HUD secretary, both agreed that a key element in the success of San Antonio’s love quotient and “decade of downtown” will be ensuring affordability and access to all.
“Downtown belongs to everyone,” Taylor said.
San Antonio wants to avoid what has happened in Austin, Castro said. “It’s great, but at the same time, it’s not affordable to the vast majority of Austinites. San Antonians still have a chance to change that trajectory.”
Kageyama received thunderous applause after his presentation. All the talk of love and downtown development struck an obvious chord with Centro President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni.
“I just want to hug you,” DiGiovanni said as Kageyama walked of stage, but he surprised DiGiovanni by walking back across the stage to do just that.
Top image: Author Peter Kageyama gives HUD Secretary Juliàn Castro a copy of his book about what makes cities lovable. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone