Tom Shakely


I'm a social entrepreneur, and write daily on culture, community, causes, and life. I'm executive director of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network and author of Conserving Mount Nittany. Try my weekly digest.

MLK Jr. Plaza/Fraser Garage project

It’s offensive to my sense of propriety that such a thing as the “MLK Jr. Plaza/Fraser Garage rehabilitation project” exists. I say this in the context of having thought about personifying Penn State’s monumental leaders, wherein I would include MLK as one of the place’s more notable guests.

But in the Borough of State College’s formulation? Of MLK being honored as part of a parking garage “rehabilitation” project? No.

He spoke to Penn Staters months before his historical visit to Selma, Alabama. He spoke about American values in a time when others were pushing to speak exclusively about racial values. He spoke inclusively about issues that were too often then perceived to be exclusive by their nature. He was a remarkable visitor in the Nittany Valley’s history. He deserves far better than to be recognized as part of a municipal parking project.

He deserves a place on Penn State’s campus, specifically in bronze in front of Rec Hall where he spoke. I hope someday, regardless of what happens in State College, the deciders at Penn State place a fitting monument to a man who embodied Pennsylvanian ideals of inclusion far earlier than when they came to be understood as American ideals.

What suburbs do

In the typical war of words over the positives and negatives of suburbanization we’re left with the binary of “cities v. suburbs,” where the fractured, isolated, idyllic suburban life is compared to the dense, plagued, teeming urban environment.

This is problematic because it ignores the real problem with suburbs, which is that they don’t hurt our cities nearly as much as they hurt our towns.

Specifically, the towns they’re nearby and sucking the life out of by pulling away residents and draining civic worth away from and into disjointed geographic spaces. College towns are particularly magical because they’re often survivors in terms of places where real small town America still exists.

The Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life exists in our cultural consciousness as a cute and magical place. But our sentimentalism is rooted in the knowledge that those kinds of towns really were the norm rather than the silver screen exception—places where the owners of the local shops lived in town, and where the banker, policeman, and taxi driver were best friends in no small part because they lived down the street from each other.

Suburbs kill dynamism because they fragment people, families, and communities that could have existed as towns. Cross pollination, randomness, and locality aren’t possible in these physically stretched out places.

The Millennium Science Complex at Penn State University was put up a few years ago as a flagship research center. It was purposefully designed so that scientists, researchers, etc. from different areas and with varying focuses would “run into each other,” as a former trustee describes it to me a while ago. It was designed specifically so people and their ideas would intermingle and cross-pollinate, hopefully bearing research fruit as a result. This is what small towns once did that suburbs cannot—provide space and context for chance and relationships.

American cities are thriving. But our small towns that are evaporating, and suburbanization is a driving force.

All lovely things

All lovely things will have an ending,
All lovely things will fade and die,
And youth, that’s now so bravely spending,
Will beg a penny by and by.

Fine ladies soon are all forgotten,
And goldenrod is dust when dead,
The sweetest flesh and flowers are rotten
And cobwebs tent the brightest head.

Come back, true love! Sweet youth, return!–
But time goes on, and will, unheeding,
Though hands will reach, and eyes will yearn,
And the wild days set true hearts bleeding.

Come back, true love! Sweet youth, remain!–
But goldenrod and daisies wither,
And over them blows autumn rain,
They pass, they pass, and know not whither.

Conrad Aiken

Doing literally nothing

Paul Graham’s How to Make Pittsburgh a Startup Hub is worth reading you love Pennsylvania as much as I do, or if you’re interested in the qualities of second-tier cities to replicate the successes of a New York or San Francisco. There’s also this interesting bit:

Harvard used to have exams for the fall semester after Christmas. At the beginning of January they had something called “Reading Period” when you were supposed to be studying for exams. And Microsoft and Facebook have something in common that few people realize: they were both started during Reading Period. It’s the perfect situation for producing the sort of side projects that turn into startups. The students are all on campus, but they don’t have to do anything because they’re supposed to be studying for exams.

Harvard may have closed this window, because a few years ago they moved exams before Christmas and shortened reading period from 11 days to 7. But if a university really wanted to help its students start startups, the empirical evidence, weighted by market cap, suggests the best thing they can do is literally nothing.

“If a university really wanted to help its students, the best thing they can do is literally nothing.”

This isn’t an idea limited to a university’s ability to help students start startups—it’s a very old insight into learning in general. John Henry Newman speaks to it in his Idea of a University:

“If I had to choose between a so-called university which … gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a university which had no professors and examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young [people] together for three or four years and then sent them away…”

“I have no hesitation in giving preference to that university which did nothing over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun.”

In Is Penn State a Real University?, Ben Novak explains Newman’s thinking: “A real university … is not a knowledge factory, but first of all a school of character.”

It’s in encountering one another that we learn and shape ourselves, in business as in life.


Gracy Olmstead writes beautifully on motherhood and our attitude toward life:

The modern feminist movement often equates motherhood with loss of self-fulfillment and freedom, cultural subjugation, a gross abandonment of the economic sphere. Yes, motherhood can be okay—but only if you don’t have a child too young, and are still participating in the workforce. Motherhood may be alright—if it happens entirely according to your preconceived plan, and you have a partner who willingly and equally shares all burdens of childcare and provision.

The purpose of these cautions is to invest women with a sense of control over their lives and child planning. But it seems that their unintended consequence is often more damaging: because any woman whose childbearing story does not fit this script suddenly sees her life, or her child, as anti-woman, anti-freedom. The 19-year-old pregnant woman sees no possibility of having her child and being self-fulfilled. The young businesswoman who planned on having kids seven years down the road, surprised with an unexpected pregnancy, suddenly fears that she’s thrown away all possibility of vocational success and attainment.

Yet these stories are often untrue and misleading. They distract us from the reality that life is always uncontrollable. And they distract us from the possibility that—as Manguso points out—while motherhood may indeed lead us out of our present self, in that leading out, we may find a new and better self awaiting us. 

… whether a woman chooses abortion, or whether she chooses motherhood, a life will be rent asunder. The challenge is in helping her decide which life will be torn.

What tech contributes

American Enterprise Institute covers Bill Gates’s recent comments:

Bill Gates recently shocked a lot of people when he told a room full of educational technology entrepreneurs at the ASU GSV conference in San Diego that educational technology hasn’t really improved student learning. This was a blockbuster confession from the man behind Microsoft. While Gates said he still thought technology could be a difference-maker in schooling, his words offered a stark reality check for those hyping technology-infused innovation.

In truth, Gates’s observation should not have surprised anyone who has been paying attention. After all, technology has long been offered as the miraculous balm that will transform and improve teaching and learning. Enthusiasts have said this about iPads, laptops, the Internet, desktop computers, videotapes, televisions, the radio . . . and even chalkboards, if you go back far enough. With each new advance, schools spend heavily on nifty new gizmos, make grand promises, and get enthusiastic reviews. And then, each time, nothing much changes.

Unfortunately, most technology in schooling has involved haphazard attempts to slather new devices across classrooms, with little vision of how or why these will make a difference.

Learning is human; it’s one-to-one. It means those with knowledge, with the experience of learning, speaking with friends and young people. In some cases (many, maybe) it can mean the dead speaking to the living. That said, Fraser Speirs seems like someone applying technology in an intentional and focused way.

Creating value creates profit

Matthew Robare writes about a remarkable young businessman::

Southbridge, Mass., is one of dozens of New England mill towns that have fallen on hard times. These places were once prosperous, with traditional development built around walkable downtowns and streetcars. But today, the factories have closed and the downtowns are empty, thanks to economic collapse, antiquated zoning laws, and an automobile-centric transportation policy.

In many ways, Southbridge is typical of these towns. Its American Optical Company was once the largest manufacturer of eyeglasses in the world; now, the town’s structures are falling apart and few businesses are left. But in Southbridge, whose population numbers about 16,000, one native son is working to revive his hometown one building at a time.

A boyish, bespectacled 21-year-old, Hunter Foote entered the world of real-estate development as soon as he graduated college at the age of 17. Foote studied business at UMass-Amherst and found he was different from his classmates, who typically looked at a business career as a ticket to a lavish lifestyle. “I looked at business as creating value,” he says. “By creating value, the business is rewarded with profit. Profit is the method, not the goal.”

That outlook informs his work today. While many city governments seek huge government or corporate investments to come to their splashy rescue, Foote is an incremental entrepreneur. His company, Bellus Real Estate, works by buying distressed properties and renovating them. This style of small-scale development has low barriers to entry, is less disruptive to neighborhoods, and can produce a decent profit margin without ultra-luxury apartments or chain restaurants.

It also puts into practice many of the ideals of New Urbanism, a movement that seeks to recover the traditional patterns of urban development that prevailed before World War II. This time-tested model is characterized by walkable communities and buildings with storefronts and street-level windows and doors.

“Profit is the method, not the goal.”

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