Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Visiting Key West

by Conroy

A view along Duval Street
Key West. What comes into your mind when you read those words?

How about a sunny tropical island? Key West is the only American city never to record a frost. Its warm climate, flat geography, and native flora are closer to that of the Bahamian cays than to the rest of Florida (let alone the rest of the continental U.S.). Walking slowly down busy Duval Street under the fierce July afternoon sun and through the still humid air, sweat seeping from your face and torso, you realize that Key West, unlike any other place in the U.S. is truly tropical.

What about a quirky laidback end-of-the-line town? Some of the locals call it Key Weird and the city has a long reputation for openness; Cuban immigrants, homosexuals, those just looking for a place to forget the past to start over, not to mention the hordes of pleasure seeking tourists (to name but a few groups) have given the island its own distinctive come-as-you-are and do-as-you-please culture.

Or maybe, if you’re geographically inclined like me, you think of the southernmost city in the continental United States? Let’s start with that. For those who haven’t been, Key West is the last island in the long chain of the Florida Keys, the archipelago that stretches in a hundred mile arc west-southwest from the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The Keys rise from the shallow turquoise waters of the Straits of Florida and range in size from small, flat, forested islands to tiny coral specs. Key West city occupies the small Key West Island, which is just five square miles, as well as a few neighboring islands to the immediate east and north.

It’s hard to fairly distill a place in a brief description, but perhaps one famous landmark will help. Take a look at the photo on the right. This is the famous concrete bell at the intersection of South and Whitehead Street that marks the southernmost point of the continental United States. This bell makes for a great photo op and what you can’t see is the lengthy queue of people that are usually lined up during the day to get their pictures. Let’s linger on this monument for moment, and consider the four separate messages contained in its 18 words. They tell us a whole lot about Key West, or about how Key West wants to viewed by the outside world.


This is by far and away the Key West’s most celebrated claim to fame. It is the southernmost city in the contiguous U.S. Quick quiz: can you name the eastern-, western-, or northernmost cities in the continental U.S.?1 Probably not, but you may know about Key West because residents have made the most of their geographic extreme, it’s part of Key West’s allure as an end point, the end of the road, mile zero, the furthest you can go. The thing is anybody who stands by this monument can see that it’s not actually located at the southernmost point on the island. The real southernmost point is just to the west on the U.S. Navy’s Truman Annex property where the general public can’t go. And this is a nice microcosm of Key West itself: almost the southernmost place. Key West is an island far from Florida’s mainland, so it really isn’t a part of the “continental” U.S. at all. I would suggest it’s more accurate to say that Key West is the southernmost point in “lower 48” states or even the contiguous U.S. Terminology aside, all of the uninhabited Dry Tortugas (islands that are also part of Florida) lie to the west and several to the south of Key West2. So technically, Key West isn’t the southernmost point in the “lower 48”. It’s just the southernmost point that’s easy to get to.

And of course, it’s worth noting that all (or just about all) of Hawaii is farther south than Key West, and for that matter so is Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and almost all of America’s Pacific territories. Why am I harping on these technicalities? I mean who cares really?  It’s just this: the idea of Key West as the southernmost point in the U.S. – as a geographic extreme – is critical to the culture and atmosphere (and even the psychology) of the place. It doesn’t have to actually be the southernmost point, it just has to seem that way. Which leads to the next phrase.


Like the southernmost point, “90 miles to Cuba” is a well-worn phrase, and it’s more or less true (though in fact at the closest point Cuba is a little more than 90 miles to the south). Key West is significantly closer to Havana than to Miami3. And this phrase became commonplace during the Cold War and especially the Cuban Missile Crisis when Soviet nuclear weapons were being installed “90 miles” from the U.S. But what’s the big deal about this fact? I mean Bimini in the Bahamas is only 50 miles east of Miami. Monterrey, Mexico, and Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, Canada are all closer to the U.S. border. I think again, like the southernmost point, the idea that exotic Cuba is seemingly so close, just over the southern horizon, is important to the atmosphere of Key West: a place so distant and distinct from the rest of America that it’s like a foreign country.

And this may be hard to believe, but a few times as my girlfriend and I walked in the evening twilight, in and out of colorful shops, past raucous bars open to the street, under the darkening silhouettes of cruise ships that towered over dockside buildings, hearing many non-English voices, with the clinging, unrelenting heat, and wild palms trees and tropical vegetation overhanging the sidewalks, I did indeed feel, if only for a moment, that I was in some other country. A semi-America; not quite foreign, but disorienting and unfamiliar. Then something very American, like a loud pickup truck or the bright lights of a convenience store, would jolt me back. I was in America, Key West America, but America.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Are Americans Really Heading Back to the City?

by Conroy

Washington, one of America's fastest growing cities in recent years
The U.S. Census Bureau recently released data on population growth in American cities between the last official census in 2010 and estimates from mid-2011. The data showed that most of the central cities in America’s largest urban areas had gained population over the year, and that in many places the central cities actually grew faster than their suburbs. For instance, Washington, Atlanta, and Miami all grew by more than two percent, well ahead of the growth of their metro areas. In aggregate, the core cities of the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas grew faster (slightly faster) than their suburbs1.

This data led to a slew of stories in the media reporting on this apparent demographic shift as evidence of a notion that has been bandied about for the last decade or so: Americans are beginning to eschew the spread out suburbs in favor of the dense historic urban center. That Americans are heading back to the city. Here are a couple of articles along those lines from the Wall Street Journal and the Brookings Institute. Many urban planners would argue that such a trend is an indication of shifting values with Americans putting less of a premium on the car-centered suburbs with their larger houses and yards for a more compact eco-friendly life closer to work, services, and other entertainments.2 So the argument goes, but is it true?

Let’s look at the census data for population growth (2010-11) of the central cities in the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country (rounded to the nearest 1,000).

Central City
2011 Pop.
2010 Pop.
1. New York
2. Los Angeles
3. Chicago
4. Dallas
5. Houston
6. Philadelphia
7. Washington
8. Miami
9. Atlanta
10. Boston
11. San Francisco
12. Riverside
13. Detroit
14. Phoenix
15. Seattle
16. Minneapolis
17. San Diego
18. Tampa
19. St. Louis
20. Baltimore

America’s largest urban areas did see population growth in the central cities, with only three of the 20 cities showing (relatively modest) population declines. Overall these 20 cities grew by a total of 258,000 people, a little less than one percent and nearly twice the national rate of population growth. New York City gained the most new residents, but because of its size the actual rate of growth was lower than the average for this 20-city group. That’s a crucial fact (size compared to rate) to keep in mind when considering population growth of cities and regions, and it leads directly to the overall growth of American suburbs.

Compare the central city growth from the table above to the non-central city (suburban) growth of the 20 largest metropolitan areas (rounded to the nearest 1,000).

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Achievement and Potential

by Conroy

Usain Bolt - the fastest man in the world?
On Sunday evening at London’s Olympic Stadium Usain Bolt electrified the packed stands as he surged ahead of the world’s best sprinters to win the 100 meter dash in Olympic record time1. He flashed over those 100 meters in little more than 9.6 seconds, an average speed of more than 23 miles per hour. For this feat Bolt gets to keep his unofficial moniker as the “fastest man in the world”, a title he first earned at the Beijing Olympics four years ago. And it’s a pretty cool title – the fastest man in the world – maybe the most elemental distinction an athlete can have. But is it true, is Usain Bolt really the fastest man in the world?

I use a timely and prominent Olympics example to illustrate a theme that has always interested me, the connection between achievement and potential. This connection carries beyond sport to all aspects of human endeavor, but let me go back to Bolt to better demonstrate what I mean.

Consider two questions:
  • Is there someone in the world who could go out to the track today and beat Bolt? 
  • Or, is there someone who, given the proper time and training and preparation, could run faster than Bolt?

The first question is easier to address, and the likely answer is no. I suppose it’s possible that on some sun-swept Caribbean island or some American college track a man is consistently running 100 meter times at world record pace, but I highly doubt it. Anyone who is actually running world-class fast would be noticed (talent attracts attention) and then be funneled into a running program, onto a team, and find their way into competition. And to run that fast you really can’t toil on your own. Training and coaching are certainly needed to perform near the limits of human ability. No one today can challenge Bolt except for the men he raced against in these Olympics and none of them has ever run as fast as he did Sunday night2.

The second question is far stickier though, and it gets more to the core of my thinking. No one has ever run faster than Usain Bolt, but does that mean that no one could? There are over seven billion people in the world, is even just one of them capable of beating Bolt? Do they have the physical make-up, the raw talent, the potential to be better? Perhaps these men (or women) have found their way into another sport like soccer or football3, or maybe they live in places or under circumstances that haven’t allowed them to develop their innate physical abilities, or maybe they’ve been unlucky and gotten sick or injured or even died without being able to explore their full potential. When you consider the question in this context doesn’t it seem reasonable or even likely to think that there’s someone out there in the wide world other than Bolt who could be the true fastest man in the world? And think about this, there were three men from Jamaica in the 100 meter final. That country has long been a hotbed for sprinters, but are all the world’s fastest men really found on this tiny impoverished island nation of less than three million people?4

So hopefully you see where I’m coming from. We view the results of the 100 meter dash, note the record times and correctly say that Bolt is the fastest man who’s ever tried to be the fastest man. He’s the embodiment of a very basic and universal expression of athletic achievement (all of us with two working legs have tried to run as fast as we could run on at least a few occasions). But who’s to say he’s the full realization of human potential? And that leads to a broader discussion.

What Is and What Never Was
Step away from sports and think of greater achievers, like the revered scientists or artists throughout history; Newton or Shakespeare are two of the more prominent examples. Newton may be the greatest scientist of all time. Among other things he described the principal of gravitation and his three laws of motion, invented calculus and other mathematical forms, and wrote one of the canonical works of western scientific thought with the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica5. He was by any measure a mind of the first rank and his accumulated work has strongly influenced scientific thought and the advancement of science for the last three hundred years. The world is a better place because of Newton’s intellectual contributions.

Shakespeare is widely regarded as the world’s greatest dramatist and his work is still celebrated and performed by all cultures and in all major languages. Shakespeare is widely credited with expanding and enriching the English language and his myriad neologisms pepper our everyday speech6.  If you believe as I do that only the artist can really express what it is to be human, then few can hold a higher place in our understanding of mankind. And indeed, perhaps no artists is held in higher esteem or has been more influential in world literature than Shakespeare.

But in the light of these accomplishments I’ll offer a counter-factual: what if Newton of Shakespeare never lived? Or what if they never devoted themselves to their genius? What if Newton had focused on alchemy and Shakespeare had never left his wife and young children in Stratford?

I think in many ways we live in a world with the belief that talent will rise to the top, that genius will be expressed, that the greatest minds will find their outlet and reach their full potential. That a Newton or Einstein will always find the truth in the universe, that a Shakespeare or Joyce will always capture the essence of the world with their words, that a Beethoven will pull glorious harmony out of the vibrating air, or that a Usain Bolt will find his way to the track. But while I’d like to believe that, I just can’t see the world as that simple. There just isn’t such inevitability to human life. Shakespeare lived in an era where the plague ravaged London. What if he had contracted the disease and died long before he completed his greatest plays?7 What if Beethoven had decided to stop creating music when he started losing his hearing? Or what if, say, a teenage Roger Federer had decided to concentrate on soccer instead of tennis?

Did Newton have any equals that history never knew?
Questioning what could have happened or what never was doesn’t really get you anywhere. But I come back to my central curiosity. Humans in the last 10,000 plus years of civilization have made tremendous advancements as a species (mindboggling really). Whether it’s minor accomplishments like a sporting landmark, major scientific breakthroughs that have given rise to life-improving technological change, or soul-enhancing artistic expression, our achievements are breathtaking. But what have we missed, what hasn’t happened? What Ulysses or Hamlet will we never get to read because the authors never got to express their thoughts? What life-advancing medical breakthroughs have we not been able to enjoy because a would-be doctor never found their way to medicine? (Maybe we’d already have the cure for the common cold.) What jaw-dropping athletic feat have I never witnessed because the player never took the field?

No one can say, but I’m certain that in a world full of human achievement there is profusion of unrealized potential. I can’t help but marvel at the strides we’ve taken and look forward excitedly to what tomorrow brings, but I also can’t help but wonder about at all the genius and great accomplishment that we’ll never know we’ve missed.  We call Usain Bolt the fastest man in the world, but I can’t help but wonder who out there might make even the mighty Bolt look second best.



1. Usain Bolt won his second 100 meter gold medal in an Olympic record time of 9.63 seconds. This bested his Beijing gold medal, and previous Olympic record, time of 9.69 seconds. His winning time was the second fastest in history to his own world record time of 9.58 seconds set in 2009 in Berlin. In total he owns the four fastest official 100 meter times in history.

2. In addition to Bolt, the 100 meter final included the next three fastest men in history, Tyson Gay of the U.S. and Johan Blake and Asafa Powell of Jamaica. Not to mention the American champion and 2004 Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin.

3. American football.

4. Jamaicans have owned the 100 meter record since 2005, when Asafa Powell ran 9.77 seconds. Powell subsequently lowered the record to 9.74 seconds before Bolt entered the stage.

5. He was also a theologian and alchemist, and interesting man whose preoccupations included rational and groundbreaking scientific thought, deep religious fervor, and a belief in the occult.

6. Such as: all’s well that ends well, bated breath, be-all and the end-all, break the ice, dead as a doornail, every dog will have its day, forever and a day, foregone conclusion, heart of gold, in my heart of hearts, in my mind’s eye, laughing stock, love is blind, neither rhyme nor reason, one fell swoop, own flesh and blood, what’s past is prologue, pomp and circumstance, salad days, sea change, sound and fury, this mortal coil, wear my heart upon my sleeve, and the world’s my oyster.

7.Or died in his youth like his own son Hamnet.