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.

Local politics is our national oxygen

Gracy Olmstead writes on Why America needs to revitalize its local politics:

…what would happen if at least a few of Washington’s elites returned home and invested in the communities they left behind? What if, instead of running for Congress, some of our politicians considered running for some local office? What if the journalists trying to make it in Washington, D.C., decided instead to invest in a local paper? What if, instead of covering the next Trump or Hillary Clinton rally, they decided to attend their local town hall meeting? What if those of us who live in or near the beltway spent a little less time fixating on the presidential election, and focused instead on city and county politics?

We often think of these things as being not nearly as important as national politics. We scoff at local matters as small and provincial. Where is the glory in covering a school board meeting? But the deleterious idea that what happens in Washington matters more than anything happening in the rest of the country is the root of our problem.

French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville believed America’s highly unique government worked because its citizens were active in the political sphere. They voted and attended town meetings, involved themselves in private associations, and went to church. But all these things have faded in popularity as our news and politics have become more centralized. Many of us don’t take the time to talk to our neighbors, let alone go to a town hall meeting. And when no one shows concern for the local sphere, it’s easy to feel unimportant and helpless, which results either in apathy or bitter anger — both of which we’re seeing in this election cycle.

Where do we think that national leaders take their cues from? They take them from local leaders. Local businesspeople. Local intellectuals. Locals.

Every “big” notion that Washington gets into its head ultimately comes from an experience of what works (or doesn’t) on the level of a state, or a city, or a smaller community someplace across this continent. If we stop cultivating local leaders, and local businesspeople, and local intellectuals—and most importantly if we stop communicating the experiences of the localities to the national leaders—the only place national leaders will have to turn is to their international peers.

If we want to make an impact, it’s easiest and usually the most important to try to do that on a small level. In time, it can filter up on the big stage of national politics if it’s worth holding up as a model for the nation.

Leaving Narberth

I wrote a while ago about the distributed nature of our team at the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network—two staffers in Philadelphia, one in Ohio, and one in Florida. It’s a structure that works for us.

When our headquarters in Narberth (just outside of Philadelphia) was opened in 2012, though, it wasn’t opened with a distributed team in mind. It has been a beautiful headquarters, but one that’s too large to serve our mission effectively as a distributed team. This week was our last week in Narberth, and next week will be our first in Center City, Philadelphia in a space better suited for our mission and more geographically exposed to the sorts of allies and contributors we need to build relationships with to grow.

Narberth has been good, and it’s a little town I like—not quite on the Main Line, not quite in the city. Philadelphia will be good too.


There’s serious uncertainty in the wake of yesterday’s 52-48 decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. I won’t attempt to round up the dozens of reports I’ve read covering Brexit, but I will offer my own small thoughts.

First, my thinking on Brexit and the merits of Britain remaining or leaving the EU has been shaped in a significant way by Daniel Hannan’s optimistic and tireless campaigning for the “leave” cause. Hannan has been a Minister of the European Parliament from Britain since 1999; in effect, he’s been campaigning for his people to fire him as much as “take control” of their own country. This is the principle of subsidiarity in its purest form—that what can best be handled on the most local levels, should be. His “Why Vote Leave” is worthwhile if you’re trying to understand his experience or the perspective of the Leave constituency.

Second, from the little of the referendum campaign I’ve followed over the past 12 weeks, the degree of abusive and arrogant “Remain” campaigning I’ve encountered online has been surprising. I can only imagine what it has been like on the ground, but when a campaign shapes its posture through lecturing and fear mongering over the prospect of reasserting sovereignty, it is asking to lose. And in that respect, shorn of any serious consideration of the merits of either side, Remain deserved to lose. Politicians and politics exist to serve the people, and in the case of this referendum a majority of Britons felt ill-served by their servants.

Third, given the unprecedented nature of an EU member nation opting to leave the union, there will be uncertainty for weeks, months, and maybe longer. Immediate rumblings post-referendum suggest this decision could lead to the functional dissolution of the UK as Scots are calling for a new referendum and Northern Irish are suggesting unity with the Republic of Ireland. These are good things, to my way of thinking. I know my grandmother, who was a descendant of Robert the Bruce, was disappointed when the 2014 Scottish independence referendum failed. She wanted independence for her ancestral cousins.

Fourth, there’s lots of rhetorical acid being thrown at Britain by those suggesting its decision to leave the EU consigns it to irrelevance. This suggests that any EU member state that opts to leave will be abused and disrespected, a poor precedent. It ignores the fact that no EU member state’s voice was less meaningful prior to political and economic union. And it flies in the face of reality—if a country like Singapore can be so globally significant, so can Britain. (Especially if Britain stays together, it’s difficult to imagine that the fifth largest country in the world economically will be worse off now that it’s regained the ability to execute free trade agreements internationally.) Bitterness is an ugly look.

If Brexit results in a smaller Britain of England, Wales, and its smaller overseas territories, it seems like it will result in at least two things: A more just national outcome for the Scots and Irish—who will have their sovereignty, and can join the EU on their own terms if they wish—and a chance for Britain to reforge its ties with its Commonwealth nations.

A smaller Britain with the latitude to partner with its Commonwealth peers would be a bold step into the future.

The perfect town

Joanne Wilson shared Monocle’s insights recently on the characteristics of the ideal community. They’re all worth sharing:

1 – Village Square would anchor the city with grass, flowers, moveable chairs, cafes and a 24-hour kiosk.

2 – Main Street where there would be awnings to keep us from rain or too much sun.  Retail on the bottom and residential homes downstairs creating constant community.

3 – Housing that was small and large from single homes to large family homes with balconies and front lawns for a little outdoor space.  Everyone pays for the upkeep of the public spaces.  The buildings would all be environmentally conscious made with smart materials.

4 – Services that include a hospital for serious situations and a small medical center for smaller injuries.  Certainly a fire department and a police department who would even rescue the local cat.

5 – All shops would be open from 8 – 8 catering to all from a haircut to getting your groceries on the way home.

6 – Local newspaper that reports on everything happening in the town and some national info thrown in too.

7 – Good signs that help brand the village.  Has to be good looking signs from the book shop the barber shop and the cafe.

8 – Weekend farmers markets to buy the farmers vegetables and chickens including home brews and wine.

9 – Local farm where people can always go to purchase from the farm shop on a daily basis.  Keeping the community sustainable.

10 – A beautiful flowing river that moves through the town.  People can fish, canoe and enjoy the river side as well.

11 – Founding myths and folklore about the town to be passed down generation to generation.

12 – A local tennis and bathing club open all year round to the entire town.  More community there.

13 – An artists studio for the young to the old.

14 – A library piled high with books, magazines and easy to download materials.

15 – An artisan quarter for people making furniture or even getting a kitchen chair repaired.

16 – Serious wifi for all.

17 – A grand hotel with amazing food on a leafy terrace overlooking the river.

18 – A primary school that everyone has attended at one point of their life.

19 – Public transportation for everyone.

20 – Festivals held during the year from music to arts.

What do all of these things, more or less, have in common? They’re not the characteristics of suburbs.

Philadelphia Ferry Building

A look back in time to a different Philadelphia, this is the Pennsylvania Railroad ferry terminal at Market Street, circa 1908 and courtesy of the Library of Congress. The instant I saw this, I thought of the iconic San Francisco Ferry Building.

Now, it doesn’t look like Philadelphia’s ferry building was constructed with anywhere near the degree of beauty or care for permanence that San Francisco’s was. I’m basing this purely from what I know of San Francisco’s compared to this photo. Maybe I’m wrong.

In any event, absorbing this photo is an instance when you’re hit with L.P. Hartley’s insight that “the past is a foreign country.” Philadelphia’s ferry building disappeared, of course, replaced by Penn’s Landing’s sprawling parking lots and highway ramps. Replaced by desolation, in other words. And across the river Camden is an entirely different place—almost everything on that waterfront is gone.

The Market Street (Ben Franklin) Bridge wouldn’t be built for another 20 years. When that was finished, I guess the practical need for ferries diminished. It still would’ve been nice if this thing, or something like it, has stayed where it was and become a landmark in the way that San Francisco’s Ferry Building is. Until Penn’s Landing is redeveloped, we’re stuck with this:


Before Independence Mall

Independence Hall at Chestnut Street, circa 1910. I think this would have had to have been taken from the top of the American Philosophical Society at 5th & Chestnut Streets. This comes from the Library of Congress.

It’s amazing to look at this scene of an earlier Philadelphia and see how different this section of Old City was a century ago. There was no “Independence Mall” yet, and Independence Hall was just a part of the fabric of the neighborhood—not yet something set apart from the city in such a fundamentally distinct way as it is now.

City Hall, filthy, can be seen in the distance. Other than that, there’s not much in this photo that the contemporary Philadelphian would recognize.

It’s fascinating to think about the entire lived experience of so many in the buildings that were eventually destroyed to create Independence Mall—entire lives, entire histories took place there.

A public square is built for people

I’ve written before about what suburbs do. I’ve thought a lot about why cities like Philadelphia and New York are so preferable compared to cities like Houston or states like Florida. Alex Balashov, writing on “why even driving through suburbia is soul crushing,” speaks to most of the reasons why suburbs are anathema:

The destruction of the pedestrian public realm is not merely an economic or ecological absurdity; it has real deleterious effects. For just one small example of many: life in a subdivision cul-de-sac keeps children from exploring and becoming conversant with the wider world around them, because it tethers their social lives and activities to their busy parents’ willingness to drive them somewhere. There’s literally nowhere for them to go. The spontaneity of childhood in the courtyard, on the street, or in the square gives way to the managed, curated, prearranged “play-date.” Small wonder that kids retreat within the four walls of their house and lead increasingly electronic lives. (The virtues of a private backyard are easily exaggerated; it’s vacuous and isolated, and kids quickly outgrow it.)

However, it’s been difficult to elucidate in specific physical terms what it is about suburbia that makes it so hostile to humanity. To someone with no training in architecture, it’s often experienced as a great, non-articulated existential malaise, like depression. You know it sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why. The same holds true in reverse; North Americans who have not travelled abroad extensively and don’t have a clear basis for comparison can be tongue-tied when asked to explain what exactly makes a non-sprawl city street “charming” or “cozy.” It’s telling that we have no widespread cultural vernacular for why classical urban settlements, which draw on millennia of intellectual background and corpuses of architectural knowledge, are pleasant. It’s because Americans took that inheritance and unceremoniously discarded it, consonantly with the rise of the mass-produced automobile. It irks me that many of us know, on some level, that we live in a dystopian nightmare but can’t say what makes it a dystopian nightmare.

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