Take A Taxi with Jim Gray

Share a taxi with Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray
The ride is on us!

Many thanks to all who participated in "Share a Taxi..." Kremena Todorova was selected to share a taxi journey with Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray. Her submission (below) is followed by a wonderful piece about the project and an interview with Jim Gray written by Beth Connors-Manke for North Of Center.

Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray...
"daring visionary", "disruptive influence", "a disciplined, ingenious and conscientious public servant, perhaps the best Lexington has ever had", "a meddling trouble maker".

Whatever you may think of Jim Gray we bet that you have often wondered what it would be like to share a one hour taxi journey through the bluegrass with him.
Now you can and the ride is on us!
Just email and tell us why you would like to take a one hour taxi journey with Jim Gray.
no more than 100 words
email only to:
deadline: November 28
taxi journey with Jim Gray: December 7, 7pm
meet/depart: Third Street Coffee
one entry will be selected

selected submission by
Kremena Todorova

Because he owns a copy of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,
Because he walks to his favorite Lexington coffee house,
rain or shine,
Because his parties sparkle like a forest of Christmas trees,
Because he will speak up for what is right,
even when rightness is doomed by a developer’s grab for quick profit,
Because I believe that he and I—together—can change
first Lexington and then the world, for the better,
I would like to go on a one-hour taxi journey through the Bluegrass
with Jim Gray, Vice Mayor extraordinaire.

North of Center (NoC), 12/02/09
The Art of the Public
ELandF’s Taxi Ride with Vice Mayor Jim Gray
by Beth Connors-Manke

I blame Bruce Burris for the fact that Fiddler on the Roof’s catchy tune “Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match” has been in my head for days. When we met at 3rd Street Coffee last week to talk about his current endeavor, he told me, “I just wanted to a be a matchmaker.”

This is what Burris says motivated him to sponsor a contest for a taxi ride around the city with Vice Mayor Jim Gray. Burris, the mastermind of ELandF Small Projects Accelerator and Latitude, is interested in “creating and exploring intimate interactions which occur in public spaces.”

The taxi ride, which will take place on December 7th at 7pm, will be awarded (although Burris doesn’t really consider this a contest) to the person with the best 100-word essay about why he or she wants to spend an hour with the Vice Mayor. The essay submission period closed on November 28th; currently Burris and “helpers” are sifting through the entries.

The mission of ELandF is to provide various supports for “intimate, artist driven” projects that take place in public and fall outside traditional grants programs. The Small Projects Accelerator is designed to help someone realize a project or assist in small ways with publicizing an event in sync with ELandF’s philosophy. Currently, the projects are mostly performance-based, but Burris is open to other types of ventures.

Periodically, ELandF also sends out calls for event participation that read like “help wanted” ads: “Wanted: Cloud Watcher” or “Wanted: Town Crier.” For this project, Burris had to solicit a citizen, a space, and an official.

Wanted: Public Space

Fascinated as I was by Burris’ idea that public spaces could provide intimate encounters (things we generally ascribe to our private lives), I asked him to define “public space.”

“Public space is a very broad concept with a fluid definition. It’s as elastic as you want it to be. Almost everything could be public. Even a place that has a locked door that you jimmy and go inside is less private and more public, though you’re in there illegally.” For the purposes of ELandF’s projects, “public” usually means outside, in accessible, plaza-like spaces that don’t require “a password or any money to get into.” Burris also considers public transportation, despite the cost to ride, a public space.

The most recent spaces that an ELandF project inhabited were near Wine and Market and 2nd and Jefferson Streets. In early November, two Cloud Watcher performances took place. Yep, people watched people watch clouds for an hour. (What could be more simple and enjoyable?) At the Book Reader performance in the spring, several people read books in streetside parking spaces. (Reading things made of paper in public—is that still legal?) In another event, ELandF sent a poet on a bus ride and asked her to compose a poem based on the journey.

More political have been performances related to downtown “development” (a.k.a. demolition) and mountain top removal. A Town Crier event occurred in May when three people were selected to serve as town criers reading one of Dudley Webb’s letters to the Urban County Council. “We Are Mountains Ourselves” was a September performance of writing related to resisting mountaintop removal that took place simultaneously on the Venice Beach Boardwalk and in Lexington.

ELandF’s performances demonstrate that, as Burris said, “We have the power to reclaim public spaces.” Burris’ projects are the art of the public.

Wanted: One Public Official

So the taxicab is the public space part of the equation, and Vice Mayor Gray is the public official part. But why Gray?

“Certainly he’s the most provocative and public figure that we’ve seen in a long time,” Burris said. “And although there are other council people that are quite popular and doing a great job, he really serves as the lynch pin for a lot of the changes which might occur—so he’s a person someone might want to spend some time with.”

Although anyone and everyone is encouraged to submit to ELandF’s projects, for the cab ride, Burris says he was “really thinking about folks who live their lives outside the loop.”

“Public figures really are very accessible, but you don’t really know that. A lot of people live their entire lives totally frustrated by the fact that they feel as if they can’t have an interaction with a public official. I was hoping, in the back of my mind, that the taxi ride would allow that interaction for someone who has been feeling that way.”

I asked Burris what he has observed of the accessibility of public officials in the time he’s been in Lexington. Linked to public issues and action in San Francisco, Burris said that he felt a lack of connection when he moved to Lexington some 16 years ago—especially as a person not tied to the horse industry, the University of Kentucky, or an established Lexington family. (He wasn’t even a UK basketball fan.)

The change Burris has seen since then has been a function of the attitude of council members along with a critical mass of involved people who “have created the sense that we should take responsibility for what we want to see happen in our community. You have an opportunity to make it work yourself.”

Before I go any further, I should give my mea culpa. I have to confess that when I heard about the taxicab ride, I wanted to “win” it (remember, though, that this is not really a contest). I didn’t really like my chances in the essay competition. So instead the NoC editorial staff hatched the idea for this article. Rather than a 100-word essay, I’d write a 2000-word article. (You really can’t trust the media.)

My reason for wanting to talk to Vice Mayor Gray for an hour? Urban planning and affordable housing. I knew, among other things, that the Vice Mayor had been a Loeb Fellow in urban planning at Harvard University in 1997. I wanted to get a sense of how his business background, his political views, and his study of urban planning meshed.

The Vice Mayor generously agreed to meet me early on a Sunday morning over coffee to “talk about the taxi ride” (that was my ruse, of course). Here’s how the interview started:

BCM: How did you get involved with Bruce’s project?

JG: I couldn’t say ‘no’ to Bruce, and I was fascinated and intrigued by this idea.

BCM: Vice Mayor, let’s cut to the chase: are you going to support the affordable housing trust fund?

Ok, that’s not really what happened (but I suppose that type of thing could happen on the real taxi ride). I did ask how Gray had gotten involved with the project, and he did say, “I couldn’t say ‘no’ to Bruce, and I was fascinated and intrigued by this idea.” And he also said: “If you know Bruce, you know you can expect the unexpected and the stimulation that the unexpected provides. The more I know him the more I come to realize what an artist he really is.”

I didn’t have to ambush the Vice Mayor with questions about urban planning and housing because he naturally started talking about those issues. Although the itinerary for the ride has been left open by ELandF, I asked Gray where he would go on the ride if it were up to him. One of his first stops would be Best Friends Day Center, an adult day program for people with Alzheimer’s, where his mother spends time.

As he described it, the rest of the Vice Mayor’s route would revolve around shared city spaces—public and private.

“It might be interesting to ride around town and talk about redevelopment opportunities, the toothless spaces on our streetscapes—you could drive around and see how many of those you can count. Of course, we could drive around, with a little commentary, the OK Corral in the center of town now.”

Finally, the Vice Mayor suggested riding through the Lexington Cemetery. “It’s a space that a lot of people don’t think of as a park. It’s probably the best park that we’ve got. It and the Arboretum are the only really passive parks in Lexington. It’s a great example of what we still have potential with because we still have [urban] space.” The private land surrounding Lexington, Gray said, is beautiful but is only a “drive by” experience for the general public.

After I lamented the poverty of large parks in Lexington, the Vice Mayor told me there is conversation right now about benchmarking park systems with Memphis and Atlanta. “Most of these models have a private benefactor—a large component of it is private philanthropy. My sense is that there is plenty of private wealth that would contribute in Lexington, if the vision for these initiatives was inspiringly created.”

Wanted: A Thriving Urban Core

“The challenge we have in Lexington,” Vice Mayor Gray said, “is of creating a stimulating core and packing that core creatively—that’s the whole challenge with the juxtaposition of our urban core with a rural landscape. And maintaining that with an intentional, deliberate effort to put the urban core on steroids in terms of creative planning, creative density.”

The Vice Mayor pointed out that economics is at the heart of the issue when it comes to moving Lexington forward. “Lexington’s cost of living is higher than some of our benchmark cities and our average income is less. Those are numbers I don’t think many people really recognize or are aware of.”

Art and imagination had been a motif in our conversation, and it seemed that the Vice Mayor looked at economics and urban planning organically. “The way in which I conceive of a city and its potential is not unlike the way I conceive of my family’s company [Gray Construction]—that social system. And it’s the same I see with artists—it’s all about imagination. Business at its best is about art and creating. It’s about imagination. And it’s true, too, with a city.”

Finally, I asked the Vice Mayor what future he imagined for the north side.

“You look at the north side, and it has potential because it hasn’t been compromised. You still have the fabric of neighborhoods and commercial space that has enormous potential.”

Talking about the economics of smaller spaces, the kind that could be fostered again on the north side, Gray said, “In a city block you could have 25-30 individual merchants. If one or two of those struggle and go out of business, you’ve still got the rest—the critical mass—that supports the block. If you have one big massive building and it goes down, the whole block goes down. And that’s what we’ve seen in the decay of major cities.”

“Decay starts from the core and works out, which is why the core must be preserved. There are laws of urban planning like there are laws of physics: there are some things that you just don’t do. And one thing you don’t do is plow down your history. And one thing you do is respect scale and fabric.”

As we wrapped up our conversation (the meter had been running long enough), I asked the Vice Mayor, “So are you ready to be locked in a cab with a constituent for an hour?’

He chuckled. “That will be easier than being locked in council chambers sometimes for three or four hours.”

For more information on ELandF Small Projects Accelerator, visit Some of the essay submissions for the taxi ride with Jim Gray will be available online after the event. Burris is considering trying to arrange dinner with Dudley Webb at a local restaurant as a future ELandF project.