Monthly Archives: July 2009

thursday travelogue: rochester’s rising south wedge.

The reborn South Wedge neighborhood of Rochester, N.Y., shows that sometimes when you want to wake up a community, you just need a little coffee.

Boulder Coffee's tasteful decor.

Boulder Coffee's tasteful decor.

And while the Boulder Coffee Co. didn’t single-handedly revitalize the neighborhood from its once-seedy reputation, it’s a cornerstone location from which regular live entertainment, a farmer’s market and festivals radiate. I visited in the middle of the Boulder Festival, featuring bands, an eclectic selection of vendors, flavorful food and drink, and a sample of the diverse neighborhood’s residents and customers. A caterer called Freshwise — with a slogan of If It Ain’t New York State, It Ain’t On My Plate — served great food that also reminds us to buy local. Young ladies with hula hoops, maturing urban hipsters with families and the occasional hairy gent who dances to everything gathered with a friendly vibe flowing.

The Boulder Festival on a Saturday afternoon.

The Boulder Festival on a Saturday afternoon.

OK, I’ll admit a bias to hoping this particular neighborhood succeeds. A former intern of mine when I worked in the festival business and his wife, both Oswego grads, played a major role turning the neighborhood into the hip place it is today. They started with Boulder Coffee and now own some 30 buildings in the area, many of them reclamation projects. Throughout South Wedge — which has, one should note, its own Ning — you’ll find funky eateries and bars, bakeries, second-hand stores, salons, a seller of parts for historic homes, parks and a planning committee that advises local doings. All things urbanists would say makes for a great community, so many of which happened organically.

[Hula] Hooping it up.

(Hula) Hooping it up at the Boulder Festival.

But you look at vibrant revived communities and they often circle back to a few dreamers, often artistic types. SoHo started with artists squatting in abandoned buildings and evolved into a place whose cool attracted everyone. Atlanta’s Little Five Points, Fremont in Seattle, Buffalo’s Allentown district and countless other neighborhoods owe their pedigree to folks who wanted to do their own thing, create something different and cultivate a living style envied from miles away.

The many historic homes in the neighborhood have a business catering to their particular needs.

The many historic homes in the neighborhood have a business catering to their particular needs.

When I look at cookie-cutter subdivisions that can’t draw tenants and compare them to vibrant neighborhoods who celebrate the spirit of individuality, it’s no surprise the latter attract more attention. And South Wedge is one such place, a surging hot spot that oozes urban cool.

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not missing the forest for the tweets.

When I was an arts and entertainment editor, I couldn’t help noticing that covering any concert, play or festival — stopping to take notes and mentally write the piece — took away from the enjoyment. And sometimes I wonder if stopping to tweet, post photos or status-update that which is happening also detracts from appreciating the experiences at hand.

This Saturday, a long trip to Rochester and a very full day, was an example. The trip featured lunch with fellow Brockport grad Kelly Sabetta of Betta Book Publishing at Jay’s Diner, meeting @LoriPA of the University of Rochester, a visit to the Boulder Festival in South Wedge and the headline event of a concert by The Tragically Hip in the Highland Park Bowl. What I didn’t do was describe every part of the day on Twitter or Facebook. Oh sure, I posted some photos and did the occasional tweet, but generally doing things, being in the moment, took precedence over describing the action less than 140 characters at a time.

Hip lead singer Gordon Downie could have stayed dry, but chose to get drenched with the fans.

Hip lead singer Gordon Downie could have stayed dry, but chose to get drenched with the fans.

Earlier in the day, I was moving too fast to pause and pull out the iPhone to post. Later, the weather cooperated by not cooperating. After The Tragically Hip’s first few songs, the rain started coming down, harder and harder. Harder still is the ability to take photos in a deluge, let alone with a drenched iPhone as the rain soaked through any and every pocket. Even getting something poignant like Hip lead singer Gordon Downie choosing to come out from under the canopy to play in a downpour and show solidarity with the fans became difficult.

But you know what? There’s nothing wrong with putting away the iPhone and enjoying the concert. Which is what I did. So without all the picture-taking and tweeting and Facebooking, I could just concentrate on having fun. And perhaps that’s the way it should be.

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hashtagged to death: will social media kill conferences?

Watching the stream of tweets from this week’s EduWeb Conference (hashtag: #eduweb) brought back a debate I see percolate from time to time in social media: When everyone live-tweets and blogs the details from a conference, does that take away the appeal of attending in person? Or do 140-character summations only provide a tiny peek at a bigger picture?

The debate gets downright heated sometimes, as some folks on Twitter and in the blogosphere have declared the live-tweeting of sessions foretell The End of Conferences. If you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars on travel, registration and hotel and still read the most important lessons, they argue, why go?

And while this is an acute observation, it’s a chicken-and-egg argument: If conferences ended, how could people live-tweet from them? Then how would new information be disseminated from experts and studies? And would that come free? Not likely. Sure, Webinars could still exist, but they come with a fee, and ultimately the collective cost could still mount to conference level.

I would also argue that not only do live-tweets fall short of telling the full story of any individual session, but they only represent one piece of the puzzle. Conferences are, as much as anything, a social function. Sure, we can network on Twitter, sharing ideas and commiserating, but only 140 characters at a time. Is tweeting back and forth with a friend the same as having dinner and a conversation with them? Absolutely not. Same goes with conferences: Meeting face to face with people in the same line of work, sharing questions, frustrations and solutions IRL and in real time makes even the best Twitter interactions pale by comparison.

While others may fret the end of the conference as we know it, I feel fine. I’ll go out on a not-so-fragile limb and declare that while conferences may evolve, they are not at all headed for the ashbin of history. I’ll book my calendar if you invite me to discuss a historical perspective on the Era of Conference Concern at any conference in 10 years. I’m confident the worrying over the end of conferences, as a meme, will pass. Conferences themselves will remain.

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non-branding branding: starbucks in wolves’ clothing?

I read with great interest this Seattle Times article about Starbucks going hyperlocal by rebranding some of its shops without any Starbucks branding. The throwback 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea test store will offer nary a Starbucks logo and even serve wine and beer as some traditional neighborhood coffeehouses do.

It will launch as the first of at least three remodeled Seattle-area stores that will bear the names of their neighborhoods rather than the 16,000-store chain to which they belong, the Times’ Melissa Anderson writes, and if successful will replicate in other markets. Starbucks’ SVP of global design, Tim Pfeiffer, notes each store intends to have a community personality, to look and feel more like an organic part of a neighborhood than a chain store.

But while going neighborhood and hyperlocal are things I applaud, what does it say about Starbucks’ belief in its own branding that it rolls these out each under its own customized name almost as stealth shops? Are they admitting people equate the name Starbucks with chain stores that spread like kudzu and often choke out native coffeehouses? In Seattle and Vancouver, for example, Starbucks are so abundant that it’s clear they are looking for overall market share rather than same-store sales, the usual indicator of an individual establishment’s success.

Reaction among actual neighborhood coffeeshops ranged from bemusement to anger — the latter because Starbucks representatives would essentially squat in their stores and observe goings-on. Starbucks reps spent the last 12 months in our store up on 15th [Avenue] with these obnoxious folders that said, ‘Observation,’ said Dan Ollis, who owns soon-to-be neighbor Victrola Coffee Roasters. So apparently the rebranding also involves culling the best ideas of the competition plus non-use of the Starbucks name with all the economy-of-scale advantages the company famously leverages?

Granted, existing businesses launch new units all the time, but usually because they see a niche or void in the market. I’m no fan of Wal-Mart, but when they rolled out Sam’s Clubs, it found a ready audience for shoppers’ clubs with bulk sales (and named it after founder Sam Walton). Sometimes it’s aspirational, like when FX Matt Brewery started its Saranac line of craft brews to appeal to those who wouldn’t deign swallow Utica Club. But Starbucks isn’t looking at serving a niche; it’s trying to overpower an existing one. It’s not trying to save the neighborhood coffeehouse as much as eliminate existing neighborhood coffeehouses.

If you work in higher education, imagine a scenario where Harvard sent representatives to observe your campus for a year, then built a college right next door and used its deep pockets and superior marketing budget to poach your best students. 15th Avenue and its brethren look like wolves in sheeps’ clothing meant to thin the herd, not add new customer experiences. The next time I’m in Seattle, I plan to make a beeline to Victrola Coffee Roasters to show my support. Assuming it survives that long.

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thursday travelogue: viva vancouver, the girl next door.

If Seattle is the cool, cynical kid of the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver is the girl next door: effortlessly beautiful, usually unassuming and nursing a slight self-esteem complex. Sure, the Canadian city landed the 2010 Olympics, but some locals felt let down when the slick With Glowing Hearts Olympics ad didn’t use one of its many great homegrown artists but instead British band Doves. Come to think of it, complex is a great way to describe Vancouver.

The Olympic Countdown Clock is a regular tourist stop, but Vancouverites seem ambivelant about the 2010 games.

The Olympic Countdown Clock is a regular tourist stop, but Vancouverites seem ambivelant about the 2010 games.

Though the middle leg of my vacation, Vancouver is by no means a middling city. Any time you can stand on a busy beach and look one way to see a thriving city and the other to see snow-capped mountains, you’re somewhere special. (See this Facebook photo album for more images.)

Great seats, eh?

Great seats, eh?

I was also in Vancouver to see my very favo[u]rite band The Tragically Hip play live at the Orpheum Theatre. My friend Laura scored outstanding tickets from someone who had to unload a pair at the last minute. Was amazed when we got there and saw they were second row, right on the aisle! I had the next-closest thing to a front-row seat for lead singer Gordon Downie’s zany antics and the band’s magnificent musicianship. Close enough even my iPhone in low light could grab some superb shots.

Cheers to Granville Island!

Cheers to Granville Island!

We also spent an afternoon at Granville Island, a funky artsy community that features, among other things, the excellent Granville Island Brewery. I recalled seeing the area and brewery featured on a Travel Channel show and, while the brewery tours were long booked up, we did sample some of the local flavo[u]r.

The land is glorious and free.

The land is glorious and free.

In a previous entry, I chronicled our visit to the Guu Japanese restaurant, which is as much of a show as it is a meal. But so many places in Vancouver are full-sense experiences. Laura lives right near the culture-rich vein Robson Street and the city’s constantly pounding pulse throbs through the pavement. But she also lives a few blocks from English Bay and Stanley Park. The photo above comes from my walk around the seawall that circumnavigates the peninsula, one of many great views offered in this seaside city.

Like the green tea ice cream at Guu, Vancouver is full of unexpected flavo[u]rs.

Like the green tea ice cream at Guu, Vancouver is full of unexpected flavo(u)rs.


While I find most of its inhabitants thoughtful, modest and self-effacing, Vancouver is most certainly not vanilla in any way. It’s more like the green tea ice cream I enjoyed at Guu. It comes full of unexpected surprises, harbo[u]rs a variety of tastes and proves endlessly fulfilling.

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should musicians have their space?

Providing a promotional arena for musicians is perhaps the last credible use for MySpace, and it certainly seems to work in favor of the many musicians who take advantage of the ability to offer sample songs, post videos and collect so-called friends. But are bands who completely rely on MySpace, or even in combination with Facebook, selling themselves short?

I talked to a former student last week who, as a sideline, sets a number of musical acts up with MySpace presences, which he can turn over to them to administer. (He said things he learned in my class came in handy … yay!) In addition, singer/songwriter/social-media explorer Angela Ortiz generously, at my request, asked six teen performers over the weekend about their online marketing. The results: Only one had their own site and everyone else relied on MySpace as their Web presence.

And while MySpace is a visual trainwreck with navigation as smooth as last winter’s oatmeal, I can see how bands would find it much easier than having to purchase their own domain and start from scratch, or hire a vendor or administrator. Many musical acts also take advantage of Facebook’s Fans page option and its easy-to-use content-management system to create official presences in the dominant social-media platform — although none of the teens Angela spoke to has done so.

But are acts missing something by not having their own space as well? Singer/songwriter Gus Black, for example, has his own domain, but his entry page either lets you go to his MySpace page or an outdated site. While MySpace lets artists do the easy surface stuff, it only affords so much depth. Bands can’t easily set up separate pages for such helpful features as an online store, full-featured discography, press raves, publicity photos or special affiliate features. MySpace is more a one-size-fits-all jam-it-on-one-page offering that doesn’t provide the most organized presentation for artists.

Compare this to the functionality The Tragically Hip enjoys on their full-service Web site. My favorite band can offer a separate Shows page with links to venues, a detailed discography, a Listen page where fans can create custom playlists, plus video and photo galleries. You can subscribe to an RSS feed. You can join an online community of Hipheads. And, of course, you can buy swag. MySpace can’t accommodate all such features, and the ones it can provide tend to be all lumped onto the same eyesore page. The Hip, like so many acts, multiplies its reach by using MySpace and Facebook as gateways into their own sites.

The tradeoff for a separate Web page, for any artist, is resources. Doing something like The Hip requires a vendor, Webmaster or even a whole team. Musicians who prefer a DIY approach have to take time out of their schedule to do the updates and load content. But in terms of best serving fans — and, with its own online store, generating revenue — a separate Web site beats a social-media community owned by someone else. And if, say, MySpace went under tomorrow, or suddenly decided to charge a premium rate for high-bandwidth users, what would this do to musicians relying on its service? After all, sometimes when you’re using something that’s free, you get what you pay for.

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thursday travelogue: 5 things to do in seattle.

One of my dream jobs would be traveler/host on the Globe Trekker TV show (formerly Lonely Planet). Since I’m neither telegenic nor glib, I’m left just babbling about my vacation travels everywhere else. But with any luck maybe, just maybe, I can share a few ideas for travelers once a while through a new occasional feature, the Thursday Travelogue. This edition from my recent trip offers 5 things worth doing in the Seattle area.

1. Catch a Mariners game at lovely new Safeco Field.

The crowd gets hyped as Ichiro comes to bat.

The crowd gets hyped as Ichiro comes to bat.

The star-crossed Seattle Mariners have been my favorite team since my youth, which says I’m either loyal or a glutton for punishment. Gone is the cement colossus Kingdome, replaced by the beautiful Safeco Field. Oh, and the M’s are actually playing well. When we saw them, they put on a late offensive explosion, and held off a last-minute Arizona rally, for a 7-3 win. You’re sure to see a lot of Japanese tourists there rooting for Ichiro. And avoid the garlic fries.

2. Take a hike.

Worth the walk.

Worth the walk.

Seattle sits near a bounty of natural beauty, including the Cascade Mountains. Hikes from easy to very challenging are a short drive from the city. My Seattle host Laura, a hiker and mountaineer of some distinction, took it easy on me as we just tackled a 5+ mile hike of Ollalie State Park Twin Falls. A lot of it was up, but the view was worth it.

3. Check out the underground.

The sound's laid down by the underground.

The sound's laid down by the underground.

The Seattle Underground, that is. Tales of the old city, of vice and vanity, of corruption and creativity. The guides tend to be very funny as well. Bonus: The creation of the tour helped spur preservation and redevelopment of Pioneer Square and other downtown areas.

4. Go sea kayaking.

Ready to row.

Ready to row.

If you like water sports, Seattle has them too. Laura and I stopped by the Northwest Outdoor Center to rent some kayaks and take to the waters of Lake Union. Other than almost being killed by an enormous barge, it was a great time.

5. Enjoy the music.

Carson and Tess Henley, a pair to watch.

Carson and Tess Henley, a pair to watch.

No, it’s not grunge any more, but a little bit of everything. Homegrown talent springs up everywhere, and the biggest names always set down in Seattle. I caught Goodybag, a funk/soul band that trotted out a few topical Michael Jackson covers, and the sibling duo Carson and Tess Henley (above) who have some serious vocal skills plus good looks, and could be poised for big things. But then even the street musicians in Seattle are amazing! And there are great record stores, such as Easy Street Records, whose sidewalk sale enabled me to score 15 CDs for just $18 bucks! A gift that keeps on giving.

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