The High Cost of Indifference

As a young man from a blue-collar family, I partially worked my way through college during the summers at a chemical company near Cleveland that employed my father as a truck mechanic. If there is one thing I learned at the time, it was the value of safety and industrial hygiene. The first summer I was there, we college students were rotated through various departments to fill in for men on vacation. One produced cuprous chloride, where I learned that not keeping a gas mask on would quickly make you dead. Others produced chemicals that produced itches and rashes if you were not careful, and in one I fractured my left ankle when an antimony kiln tipped over. I could go on, but the point is simple: Safety matters.

That theme, however, does not yet seem to be official gospel in Texas. I don’t want to issue a blanket indictment here, because I know some state officials probably want things to be different, but they don’t seem to hold the reins of power. Those who do hold those reins prefer a state that boldly advertises its lack of regulations. They see them as impediments to attracting business. The fact that enlightened businesses have often supported environmental, safety, and public health reforms seems not to affect their point of view.

I am offering this perspective now because the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office in the past week released a long-awaited Firefighter Fatality Investigation, which it was legally required to produce, and issued a number of recommendations for improvements that could save lives in the future. The study was the result of the explosion in a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, on April 17, 2013.

Earlier this spring, I was asked to serve on an expert panel on planning and land use for the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), a federal agency created in 1999 to investigate chemical and hazards materials accidents. It was one of two panels organized for a hearing in West, Texas, on April 22, a little more than one year after the incident in which a fertilizer storage facility exploded, killing 15 people, two-thirds of them fire fighters. The explosive material was ammonium nitrate, which has a history of such accidents and was also the material used by Timothy McVeigh in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The CSB is still working on a report documenting its findings about the incident in West, and I do not wish to comment on or explore the issues that require more technical and scientific investigation to determine precisely what happened.

But there are issues about which I learned that I find troubling on the surface, even without the help of that ongoing investigation. For one, Texas law prohibits counties of fewer than 250,000 residents, unless they are adjacent to a county of 250,000 or more, from adopting a fire code. This is somewhat in line with the fact that Texas also has never bestowed zoning authority on its counties, rendering them powerless to influence land use outside incorporated municipalities (which have their own authority). This was one subject of inquiry by the board at the evening hearing, which lasted four hours, but even the state fire marshal, sitting just to my left on the same panel, could offer no explanation for the origins or rationale of that prohibition. He merely indicated at one point that obviously, as a fire marshal, he would rather not see such restrictions. Nonetheless, over the past year since the explosion, and despite ongoing investigation of such issues by the Dallas Morning-News, there is no sign of movement from Gov. Rick Perry’s office on changing the law. There are indications from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who apparently prefers a different approach. Good for him. And for St. Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso, who chairs the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, who also favors reexamining such issues.

The issue is not simply the usual question of unfunded (or even funded) state mandates. I have followed state planning legislation for years, and about half require local communities to prepare comprehensive plans (also known as master or general plans), to one degree or another, sometimes distinguishing on the basis of community size or some other factor. About ten of those, in one form or another, require communities to include in those plans an element addressing natural or other hazards. The rest of the states have permissive legislation, which grants local governments the authority to undertake planning and zoning without requiring it. It is easy enough to understand why some states are more reluctant than others to impose such a mandate, and similar distinctions between mandating and permitting apply to issues like building and fire codes. What is hard to justify, however, unless one believes in libertarianism run amok, is actually prohibiting such regulation at the local level or denying such authority. In fact, only Texas, to my knowledge, has in place the prohibitions I have described. And I simply do not understand why a state sees it in the public interest to bar counties, in this instance, from adopting safety codes with regard to fire prevention. Whose interests are served by this?

It turns out that McLennan County, where West is located, and whose county seat is Waco, does not have a fire code. Moreover, the fire fighters who died had not been trained in the handling of ammonium nitrate, a substance with a notorious history of unpredictable behavior. The hearing included discussion of the need for more and better research on that point, and for better understanding of this chemical’s behavior, in order to prevent future incidents like the explosion in West. All of that is wise and appropriate.

But there are things the state of Texas can fix now, if only it moved beyond its regulatory myopia to see the larger public safety issues that transcend the simplistic notion that regulation necessarily inhibits job creation. That is a dubious premise in any event, but it also begs the question of what price must be paid to create jobs when brave men like the volunteer fire fighters who responded to the blaze in West must pay the ultimate price just to satisfy such ideological predilections. And what jobs remain at West Fertilizer now? The event is a major setback to economic development in a small town like West, and it will take time to heal.

The Fire Marshal’s report includes some recommendations and conclusions that I find perfectly sensible. It notes, for one thing, that Texas has not adopted minimum training standards for volunteer fire departments. That alone would not be a bad place to start, along with the need for local fire codes. The report states, “The Texas Legislature should consider allowing all counties to adopt a fire code.” The report also notes the lack of a local plan to address hazardous materials, noting that standard procedure for residential or even most industrial incidents is inadequate for dealing with a facility like West Fertilizer.

Let me close by adding that West, judging from my admittedly brief visit, is a pleasant town that deserves better. I learned from a building sign next to the hearing site that West was the hometown of Scott Podsednik, an All-Star member of the 2005 Chicago White Sox team that won the World Series. It has an interesting Czech heritage that caused several people to urge me to visit the Czech Stop, a bakery just off northbound I-35 that sells what I now consider the best kolaches anywhere, as well as a very nice, engaging staff. And it has a mayor, Tommy Muska, who is banging on doors in Austin for answers to some of these urgent questions. I hope he and his town find some. At least then, the destruction of dozens of nearby homes, schools, and a nursing home will not have been in vain.


Jim Schwab

Resilient Communities: Learning Opportunities

Opportunities exist both May 20 in Chicago, and June 18-19 in Boston, to learn more about creating resilient communities that can survive and thrive in the face of disaster. The first involves a roundtable, “Smart Systems, Resilient Regions,” hosted by the Metropolitan Planning Council from noon to 1:30 p.m. The second is a two-day Planners Training Service workshop hosted by the American Planning Association. In both cases, I will be one of the presenters, along with some other experienced experts in the field. For more information on either one, click here.

Jim Schwab

Pencils of Promise

“If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.”

That was the concluding line from Adam Braun, the founder of Pencils of Promise, at a luncheon today at Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton for the Heller School of Business at Roosevelt University. I don’t have any affiliation with Roosevelt, so why was I there? My wife and I were invited by our attorney, Michaeline Gordon of the Dolgin Law Group, which sponsored a table to which Michaeline had invited a number of us, including someone she wanted us to meet for insurance purposes. And surely, such networking is always important.

But the important thing about the event was the presentation by Braun. Frankly, I had never heard of this 29-year-old man before being invited, and had no real idea who he was until he began to speak. His life experiences, his family background, and his dedication to his cause make one expect someone much older, but Braun has packed a lot into a few short years. He has made the kinds of decisions that make others agonize, yet which he seems to swallow as a matter of routine. Given a choice at age 23 between a six-figure position at Lehmann Brothers and a lesser-paid position at Bain Capital that offered more learning, he took the latter. As it turns out, a year later Lehmann filed bankruptcy, and Braun’s decision looks prescient in retrospect. But even he would not claim that he foresaw that outcome. What he saw was that learning at a young age was more important than starting salary. I have never worked on Wall Street, andI never will, but I can still relate to his decision because I have always leaned to the notion that learning should be a lifelong activity–and that it should ultimately serve a purpose. But I don’t interpret the connections between those two statements too narrowly. I have often learned things that seemed to serve no purpose at all, only to reveal their value years later in some completely unexpected context.

But back to Braun. This young man who values education highly had traveled cheaply at a very young age. His adventures exposed him to the lifestyles and needs of those in developing countries. He also shared early in his presentation his near-death experience aboard a boat in the Pacific Ocean that nearly sank due to being disabled by a rogue wave, which led Adam in that moment of crisis to wonder what purpose his life would have served. In his subsequent travels, he began to ask young children what they most wanted in life. The seminal moment came in India when a young boy replied, “a pencil.” Such a simple need highlighted the stark fact that what most of us take for granted, just simple literacy and basic education, was merely a dream for this youngster. The idea that a pencil could change a life apparently changed Adam Braun’s life as well.

In the end, he had to choose between making money at Bain Capital or building his organization, which he insists is not a “nonprofit” organization but a “for-purpose” organization. He firmly believes that “for-purpose” organizations, whether for-profit or not, will come to dominate the landscape of the future, replacing the simplistic notion that getting ahead is strictly about compensation in the form of cash.

In fact, he says, cash is only one of three forms of compensation, the other two being learning and purpose. People ultimately want to attach meaning to their work, he says, and working for a purpose will overwhelm mere mercenary motivation in the end. In fact, he offers three “M’s” in this arena as not entirely divorced, but certainly distinct, forms of compensation: meaning, money, and motivation.

Repeatedly, he discussed undertaking efforts that seemed quixotic but actually betrayed an underlying savvy typical of the motivated millennials, working atop platforms that seemed to be burning beneath his feet, but stirred him to greater levels of effort and wisdom, including the choice to leave Bain Capital with no cushion beneath him as he shifted gears to a full-time focus on his newfound passion for raising money to build schools in developing nations, so far including Laos, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Ghana. A brief video highlighted scenes from these various places, and Braun stressed that, while Western donors could certainly visit the schools, their construction was best left to those who would benefit from them. “But you can sit back and watch,” he suggested. In my experience, he had already learned what many international nonprofits have learned only after decades of struggle with doing too much and expecting too little of their beneficiaries. Adam Braun is on to something.

After the presentation, my wife, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, bought his book (The Promise of a Pencil), which he signed, “Thank you for your wonderful work.” He seems to be someone who would understand the value of a good teacher in ways that many in our affluent society do not. Let us hope there are more young people like him emerging in the years to come. With young women being denied education, or threatened for seeking it, in some parts of the world like Pakistan and Nigeria, the world needs all the help it can get from organizations like his.


Jim Schwab


Save the Last Dog for Me

One of the glories of living in a city like Chicago is the broad range of culinary talent that exists here. While it is not illogical to assume that the most famous chefs own restaurants that can quickly empty your wallet unless you are part of the one percent, the notion that the average person cannot afford to sample the best is not always true. There is an almost incredible variety of ethnic cuisines available in different parts of Chicago, for instance, with a range of prices. A decent, reasonable Thai restaurant, Chang Mai (Sticky Rice), for example, opened just two blocks away from us on Western Avenue just this spring.

See what you can do with a former Dunkin' Donuts store? It's called adaptive reuse. (DD/BR moved down the street to a new site.)

See what you can do with a former Dunkin’ Donuts store? It’s called adaptive reuse. (DD/BR moved down the street to a new site.)

But in October we will lose one of the most iconic and original establishments Chicago has seen in a while. I first learned of Hot Doug’s, currently at the corner of Roscoe and California, from Doug Sohn’s cousin, Terry Baker, now retired from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in Washington, D.C. One of the unique things about Sohn, who has operated the restaurant for 13 years, is that he takes all the orders from customers himself. That is why he keeps the place open only five and a half hours daily, six days a week, with the afternoon lines stretching out the door and down the sidewalk almost every single day. He is devoted to the personal touch, and his customers are devoted to his restaurant, which he calls a “shrine to encased meat.” Yes, there is a whole wall inside devoted to the history of that subject.

Rain or shine, they form a line at Hot Doug's. No one gets to jump ahead.

Rain or shine, they form a line at Hot Doug’s. No one gets to jump ahead.

So, after learning about the place from Terry, I visited on a Saturday with my wife. We waited in the line, finally got to the front, and I informed Doug that I worked through the American Planning Association with his cousin, Terry, at FEMA. Handing him my cell phone and dialing up her number, I asked him to confirm for me that I had in fact patronized Hot Doug’s.

With an impish smile, he listened to her voice mail message—she was not in at that moment—and then dutifully reported that Jim Schwab was in front of him ordering lunch, noting that I seemed to be “a nice man; not wearing pants.” Then he handed back the phone and took our order.

Now, at Hot Doug’s, you don’t just order hot dogs. You order very specific kinds of sausages, which may be composed of elk meat, rabbit, or, if you wish, ordinary beef. Well, not so ordinary once it goes through the Hot Doug’s treatment. Various concoctions bear the names of celebrities, changing with the times, listed on the board. I believe that day there were sandwiches dedicated to Madonna and Elvis, but names and combinations change to maintain the variety to which customers are addicted. These include French fries fried in duck fat, and foie gras sausages.

That latter drew Doug a $500 fine from the city back when the city had an ordinance prohibiting foie gras from 2006 to 2008, when it was repealed. I am personally not a fan of foie gras, including for reasons related to treatment of the geese involved, but I am not convinced that a city ordinance is the best way to address the question, and numerous chefs in Chicago took exception to the ban. Considering the Chicago City Council’s perennial inability to tackle more serious subjects, like school closings, crime, or meaningful ethics standards for its own members, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the foie gras ban constituted political grandstanding more than any heartfelt commitment to the welfare of geese. Doug proudly posted his citation for all to see as an act of defiance.

But this is not a story about foie gras. It is a story about one chef, one entrepreneur, with his own unique vision, which did not include franchising his idea, who insisted on meeting and greeting each of his customers every day, and built a devoted fan base by word of mouth. It is about a restaurant that will draw tears when it closes so that Doug Sohn can undertake what he calls a “permanent vacation.” He even hinted that his new freedom may allow him to visit someone else’s restaurant for lunch, something he presumably has not done for a very long time.


Jim Schwab

Moving Forward on the Trail

Spring has sprung in Chicago, and along with it, construction progress on the Bloomingdale Trail. I can hear the hammers pounding as I write, installing guard rails at the edges of the trail. Other equipment is tearing out old rail debris and erecting access ramps.

View of the trail under development from third floor of our home.

View of the trail under development from third floor of our home.

Last summer I reported on the plans for the trail, which would become the second elevated rail trail in the nation, but also the longest. Work began in spots, but now it is obvious all the way up and down the 2.7-mile stretch that sits 16 feet above street level. Work crews have been repairing the concrete walls, replacing bridges, fixing viaducts, and preparing the landscape for improvements. In mid-April, they removed an old bridge over Western Avenue, the busiest north-south arterial passing beneath the trail, and installed a new one, that is actually an old one from Ashland Avenue, in its place. The old bridge needed replacement regardless of the trail project because its low ceiling had long been a hazard for the occasional truck that found itself just a tad too tall to pass beneath. That is no longer a problem.

The new trail bridge over Western Avenue.

The new trail bridge over Western Avenue.

No place along the trail will be more than a quarter-mile from an access ramp. Every access ramp will be ADA-compliant to ensure that those with disabilities can enjoy the linear park like all the rest of us. Bicyclists and pedestrians will all be able to enjoy the quiet vistas and street furniture of the elevated design. New public art will also be part of the equation. The rollout of most of this is expected as early as this fall, so those who live nearby—my house is little more than 50 feet south of the trail—can expect a busy, perhaps at times noisy summer as the progress continues. That is okay, at least from my point of view. What we gain in the end is far greater, a wonderful public amenity that will be a showcase of the best ways to repurpose otherwise obsolete pieces of infrastructure. What once belonged to the railroad will now belong to the people of the city of Chicago.

Access ramp under construction from Rockwell Avenue.

Access ramp under construction from Rockwell Avenue.

Jim Schwab