Monday, October 28, 2013

Thoughts on Lou Reed's Passing

Lou Reed passed away yesterday. He was a generation older than me and his most revered music came out years before I began listening to music in earnest.  Nonetheless, I still felt like I had a connection with his work -- a glance at my record collection reveals that I own all of the Velvet Underground's records and seven of his solo albums.  I also saw him live a handful of times in the 1980s.

As I'm sure is true for many listeners, Lou Reed helped to define my relationship with New York City.  When I was still a kid and New York was basically an abstraction for me, his tales of drug deals in Harlem and Greenwich Village eccentrics painted a vivid picture of a place that was both scary and exciting.

When I reached adulthood and was starting to think about where to begin my professional career, he released an album entitled "New York" that depicted a city out of control, marked by violence, economic inequality, tabloid politics, and racial animus (one of my favorite lines referred to the "Statue of Bigotry").  I don't want to give him too much credit, but I think this may have delayed my arrival in the City by a couple of years.

When I finally arrived in New York in my mid-20s, I moved to the east side of Manhattan, just north of the Village.  I'm not sure where he lived, but Lou Reed was easily the celebrity that I saw most frequently on the streets during these years. I saw him on 3rd Avenue, at the movies, at bodegas, and at numerous local restaurants.

These were fun years to live in Manhattan, at least for me.  By this point, the chaos and disorder years in New York had passed.  Public safety had begun to improve.  The economy was booming.  And the City's population slide had started to reverse itself.  Reading some of the obituaries today, I see that, for many people, Lou Reed symbolized a more dangerous time, when the Bowery was full of junkies and future artists seeking cheap rents rather than upscale hotels and fancy boutiques.   And, to be sure, Lou Reed conjures up these years for me too.  But I also associate him with the more benign 1990s and 2000s.  I never got up the nerve to speak to him, but I always found his presence comforting in an avuncular kind of way.  The music that accompanies these memories is not "I'm Waiting for The Man" or "Walk on the Wild Side" or any of Reed's most famous compositions. Rather, it is the relatively modest (and surprisingly upbeat) middle-aged work "New Sensations," which will always be my favorite of his records.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

News from North Liverpool

This week brings disappointing news from England: the Ministry of Justice has decided to close the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre.

In truth, the handwriting has been on the wall for the Justice Centre for some time.  The combination of the fiscal crisis and uncertain evaluations regarding the effectiveness of the project meant that the Justice Centre has been on the chopping block for the past several years.

Still, this doesn't make the decision any happier for those of us who care about the ideas that the Justice Centre was intended to embody: a justice system that takes minor offending seriously, that seeks out alternatives to incarceration wherever possible, and that attempts to reach out to defendants and the community in new ways in an effort to restore public faith in government.

North Liverpool was arguably the most prominent symbol of these values in England, but it wasn't the only one.  Indeed, our British partner, the Centre for Justice Innovation, has recently published a great document, entitled Better Courts, that highlights examples of innovative practice across England, Wales and Scotland.

I don't have much doubt that, with the help of the Centre for Justice Innovation, ideas like procedural justice and community payback and enhanced judicial monitoring will continue to survive and even thrive in the United Kingdom.  But that's a story for another day.  Today is a day to acknowledge the passing of the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre and the efforts of everyone who worked to get the project off the ground in the face of numerous obstacles.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Midtown Turns 20

We are two weeks away from the 20th anniversary celebration of the Midtown Community Court and we are busy putting the finishing touches on what promises to be a great event.

The party doesn't have an official theme, but if it did, the theme would probably be public-private partnership.  The Midtown Community Court would not exist were it not for the combined efforts of dozens of government agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses, including the Shubert Organization, which will be honored at the October 21st event.  If the list of people who have already bought tickets is any indication, we will have a good mix of all three sectors represented at the Morgan Library.  Should make for an interesting gathering.

As is my wont, in the run-up to the event I have been thinking about the history of the Midtown Community Court, much of which I have had the pleasure of witnessing first hand.  I thought I would share a few photos from our archives that strike a particular chord with me.  The first is the photo above which comes from Midtown's 10th anniversary celebration, which we celebrated with a breakfast that featured the Lord Chancellor of England, who talked about how his country was adapting some of the ideas that began at the Midtown Community Court.  The New York Times ran a nice piece on his speech.  The photo above shows the Lord Chancellor on the bench with Julius Lang and Judge Eileen Koretz.

This is a photo of two of the behind-the-scenes players that made Midtown a success in its early days: Herb Sturz and Michele Sviridoff.  The founder of the Vera Institute of Justice, Herb has played a number of influential roles in New York City, including helping to conceive of the idea of the Midtown Community Court in the early 1990s.  Michele served as Midtown's original director of research.  She literally wrote the book on Midtown -- she is co-author of Dispensing Justice Locally, which documented that Midtown helped to reduce local crime and improve public trust in justice.

This photo features John Feinblatt, Midtown's founding director, alongside Robert Keating (then the administrative judge responsible for New York City's criminal courts) and Richard Zorza (a technology guru who helped design the case management system for Midtown).  

On a typical day, Midtown serves hundreds of New Yorkers who come to court with a misdemeanor or a summons case.  Like many New York courts, it is crowded and busy.  Sometimes, amidst all of the activity, it is easy to forget that the building is actually kinda special.  (This is doubly so now, when the building is actually under renovation.)  The photo above captures the courtroom as it almost never appears in real life: devoid of people.  Alta Indelman was one of the architects who worked on the design of the Midtown Community Court in the 1990s.  We liked her work so much, that we have used her for multiple projects in the years since.

Finally, no review of the history of Midtown would be complete without mention of Judith Kaye and Jonathan Lippman, the two chief judges who have been responsible for not just sustaining the project, but promoting its values across the New York court system and around the world.  In this photo, they are pictured along with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Banksy in New York

A few cultural items that I have been enjoying/keeping my eye on of late...  

First, as has been well-reported, the brilliant Bansky is currently in New York and blessing our streets and walls with some of his work.  I made the pilgrimage to check out one piece (see above) which was located a few blocks from the Center for Court Innovation's headquarters on the west side.  Alas, it had already been partially painted over.

My mother-in-law, Kathleen Vellenga, has published her first novel, Strangers in our Midst,  a historical adventure that is loosely based on her family's history, dating back to the Mayflower days. 

As a small acknowledgement of the passing of Elmore Leonard a few weeks ago, I decided to read his Western novel Hombre.  It is probably the most banal observation I've ever made, but man, could that guy write.  Anybody interested in the craft of writing -- not just fiction, but all forms of writing -- would do well to study his work. 

I can't speak to the quality of this exhibition since it hasn't actually opened yet at the Jewish Museum in London, but I love the topic and I love the cheekiness of its title. 

Speaking of football, after several grim years, Arsenal finally seems to be back on the right track -- they are currently sitting on top of the Premiership standings.  There are a number of good soccer writers that I read on a regular basis, including ESPN's Roger Bennett and the Daily Mail's Martin Samuel, but my favorite to read specifically about Arsenal is the Guardian's Amy Lawrence, who typically manages to combine the passion of a true fan with the objective analysis of a good journalist.  

Finally, I have been going through a little bit of a dry patch with regard to music of late.  I like the new Arctic Monkeys album (AM) although it does feel like they have evolved into a very different band than the one that made the unbelievably good Whatever People I Say I Am, That's What I Am Not.  

As I have gotten older, I have found myself gravitating away from the ambitious music that I favored as a kid (the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Public Enemy), all of which seems faintly pretentious/preposterous to me at the moment.   Instead, I have been enjoying bands with more modest aspirations.  The album that I seem to be listening to the most at the moment is Everlast's Life Acoustic, which somehow marries acoustic guitar with a hip-hop sensibility.   

Planting Seeds in Chicago

I spent the bulk of last week in Chicago at the invitation of Chicago Appleseed for Justice and the Council of Lawyers.  At the request of Malcolm Rich, who directs both groups, I came to Chicago to talk about criminal justice innovation.  With some trepidation, given the historical rivalry between the two cities, I chose to talk about New York City's remarkable success reducing crime and incarceration over the past twenty years.  (In preparing the speech, I drew heavily on the manuscript I have recently completed, tentatively entitled "Reducing Crime, Reducing Incarceration" for Quid Pro Books. I also made a similar case in a recent op-ed that I wrote for The Guardian.)

One of the points I tried to make in the speech is that some small part of New York's criminal justice success in recent years is due to the fact that the City has long supported a network of non-profit organizations that seek to reform the justice system in one way or another.  These include treatment providers, victims organizations, advocacy groups, alternative-to-incarceration programs, research agencies and others.  This is, of course, a somewhat self-serving argument since the Center for Court Innovation is a non-profit organization devoted to promoting justice reform.  But I really do believe in my heart that our work, when combined with the dozens of other organizations working to advance similar goals, has helped to push, poke, and prod the justice system in New York to live up to its highest ideals.

I think that the Chicago Appleseed for Justice and the Council of Lawyers are capable of playing a  similar role in Chicago.  Indeed, there is evidence that this is already happening.  While I was in Chicago, I visited Cook County Criminal Court and talked to a number of judges and administrators involved in a new effort to provide community-based treatment to a high-risk population of defendants that would otherwise be bound for prison.  Chicago Appleseed has helped move the project from the drawing board to the brink of implementation.  I'm looking forward to returning to Chicago and seeing the project once it is up and running.