My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Hope VI: Taking the Long View

While I was in Decatur over Thanksgiving, I was able to drop by Wabash Crossing, Decatur's Hope VI public housing redevelopment project, at and around the former site of the Longview public housing project. In a nutshell, Hope VI is the Federal program that funds the demolition of "severely distressed" public housing projects and their replacement by livable neighborhoods, which include replacement public housing, moderate-income housing, and market-rate units. A severely distressed building is basically one for which the cost of modernizing it and bringing it up to code would equal or exceed the cost of knocking it down and building something decent.

The program is controversial in some quarters, but I strongly support it, in part because it was introduced just as New Urbanism was coming into its own as a development scheme, with the result the Hope VI in effect destroys modernist monstrosities and puts traditional neighborhoods in their place, in the process demonstrating the viability of traditional neighborhood design to developers. It's true that there is a patronizing element to the program concept; destroying the bad "neighborhood dynamics" of the poor and putting them in housing where they can benefit from observing the better "moral habits" of the middle class, etc. But another interpretation holds that with residential integration, poor people will benefit from amenities put in place for the middle class: public safety, parks, good schools and so on.

And let's face it, the housing sucked. The old public housing high rises, in addition to being a really poor design based on the most idiotic of Modernist theories, were cheaply constructed, shoddily maintained, and horrible to live in. In Chicago, they were sited far away from jobs, placed where they were intentionally to maintain segregation. Much of the federal money for construction was simply pocketed by unscrupulous contractors. The unions cashed in too (they were the intended beneficiary of the program anyway), a licensed electrician had to be present and paid an hour's wage to plug in a refrigerator according to the work rules. So yes, existing communities will be destroyed, inconveniencing a lot of people. But chances are better than even whether that they'll end up in a better situation, whether they move into replacement housing or take a Section 8 voucher and leave the neighborhood. The only people who should be seriously concerned are gang members forced to move into somebody else's territory, and those guys bear some responsibility for their own troubles.

Public housing is associated in the public imagination with huge urban high-rise projects like Chicago's Cabrini-Green, perhaps the country's most notorious neighborhood. But there are literally hundreds of Public Housing Authorities in Illinois, and thousands around the country. Longview in Decatur was a collection of townhouses built back in the New Deal era. They looked like this:

The last remaining Longview townhouses, currently used as a Head Start facility

The Longview Project had 386 units, 275 of which were occupied by "families in good standing" at the time of the initial grant application. The new development, which covers the site of the old housing project, will have 650 units, including about 260 units of public housing - sliding-scale rents set at 1/3 of income, reserved for families making less than 30% of Area Median Income (AMI). There will also be about 250 units with a low, fixed rent targeted to families making 30%-60% of AMI. These units are actually funded by a funky IRS tax scheme through the Illinois Housing Development Authority - developers are granted tax credits, which they can "sell" at a discount to raise funds for the project. These days, the government won't fund social services, but they do love their tax cuts. The rest of the housing is to be rented or sold to the general public. The idea is that the different types of housing shouldn't be identifiable from the street. From what I can see they have done a pretty good job of this:

Looks more or less like a normal neighborhood, doesn't it? The issue that came up is that Decatur has been shrinking in recent years, and there is a large supply of middle class housing. So new construction in the city proper costs more than market value for a home: it costs about $100,000 per unit to build, yet older houses are available nearby for $90,000 or less. So market-rate housing in central Decatur is a money-losing proposition.

Compare this to Cabrini-Green, where market-rate housing sells for several hundred thousand dollars a unit and is considered a good deal because of its proximity to Old Town, the Gold Coast, the Magnificent Mile and downtown. At Cabrini, developers have wanted to get at the CHA's land for years. In Decatur, the neighborhood stood largely empty and unused for years; in fact the city is trying to use the Hope VI project to spur new development downtown and on the Near North Side. So far this seems to be working - in the few blocks around Wabash Crossing, a new Walgreens is going up and private developers are building townhouses - the first privately developed housing in central Decatur in years.

So both projects are in some sense neighborhood development or "gentrification" projects, and there's nothing wrong with that, especially if you want to see traditional neighborhoods survive and thrive rather than decay and die. And anyway, the Cabrini project is the only way somebody like me could ever afford to live in Old Town, and I've given it some thought.

Design-wise, Wabash Crossing is a mixed bag. The new buildings use the same mix of materials used in the kind of new housing going up at the outskirts of town, a mix of brick and siding. Some of them mimic the more traditional designs of Decatur housing:

Other units look a little more like townhouse or apartment complexes:

Now it's not finished yet, and when I was there it was obviously a mud pit, so to some extent I'm going to have to reserve judgement. And looking at these pictures now I have a more positive reaction than I did on site in the rain. But obviously it's not quite the kind of design I like, the more classic brick and stone look of older neighborhoods. But there are some very positive developments here. First of all, as I said it looks like new housing built elsewhere. So obviously a lot of people whor are used to seeing this stuff and are willing to buy it won't think it looks different, or weird, or like "the projects." Indeed, after poking around the site I have no idea which units are public housing and which are moderate-income or market rate. So the design is very egalitarian and none of it says "poor people live here," indeed it looks better than the run-down neighborhood around it, if only because it's new. And it's a true urban design, with sidewalks and houses that face the street, often with porches or patios. True, often there is parking where you'd expect to find a back yard, giving the inside of the block the feel of one of those horrible suburban townhouse developments:

But none of that will be visible from the street when all the buildings are in place. The project does include a decent amount of open space, playground and so on, as well as a new school, and for me the important thing is that it restores the old city grid to the area and knits it together with the surrounding area. And some of the new multifamily designs look better, and more urban, that some of the "high end" condos that have been built on my block in Chicago.

So overall I'm encouraged by what I see here. There's been opposition to the program from all sides. Some public housing advocates, including residents who had attained positions of authority in residents' organizations, claim they're being forced out of their homes to suit the whims of wealthy people. They believe that existing projects should have been repaired, or that new housing should have been constructed before the old housing was demolished, and that all existing residents should be guaranteed a spot in the new development. They are often angry that some residents won't be allowed back because they failed to comply with provisions of their old lease, etc.

I don't buy this argument. First of all, the idea that HUD and the local PHA were going to fix the old housing strikes me as ridiculous. In this counry, in this political climate, there was never any chance that significant new investment would be made in existing projects. Secondly, there has never been enough public housing to meet existing housing needs. There are long, long waiting lists to get in. Why should existing residents have a right to that housing that other poor people don't have, even if they have violated their lease? Anyway, my last landlord sold the house from under us and I had to move, too - them's the breaks, guys.

On the other side are people who don't think the government should be in the business of providing housing for poor people at all. But as I intend to keep pointing out until I turn blue and fall over, the government policies, especially local government policies, have caused an artificial housing shortage. And Hope VI, both by building decent, affordable housing and by pioneering good design in an era of Modernist and Postmodernist drek, can model good development that can be replicated by the private sector (if government will allow it). This strategy carries risks, of course, the biggest being public neglect. I hate the design of old school public housing, but design alone didn't make it hell, lack of approplrate maintenance did. Thanks to the unwillingness or inability of housing authorities to maintaint the properies, they were vermin-infested, unsafe, dirty, and often elevators, water, even heat didn't work. Better design won't mean much if the PHAs or developers won't maintain the properties. Most of these projects are privately managed. The public needs to be prepared to reclaim control as soon as we learn that these companies are not doing their jobs. Otherwise these new neighborhoods will end up just as hellish as the places they are replacing.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Random Cat Blogging

Fat Man and Little Boy begging for food, 11-29-04

Tonight we had salmon, which always drives the little furballs crazy.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Gone Mad on the Prarie?

When I was a "disaffected youth," it was an unspoken article of faith that young people were nonconformist, rebellious individuals who hadn't yet been completely socialized by society, but that most of them would settle down or "sell out" and end up being more or less like every other adult. The fact that I could hold such a preposterous belief at all should shed some light on the sheltered nature of my suburban upbringing. When life and work finally exposed me to the great diversity of the human experience, I was somewhat shocked to learn that the opposite appears to be true. People start out more or less the same, but the things they experience and the choices they make carry them to very different places and make them very different people.

I have also discovered that as the years go by, many of us slowly go mad.

I spent Thanksgiving at my father's in Decatur, Illinois, which is actually quite an interesting place. Labor strife, racial tensions stemming from a brawl at a high school football game and exacerbated by a neo-Nazi violinist, the Firestone tire plant that manufactured all those exploding SUV tires, the giant agribusiness firm behind that massive price-fixing scandal a few years back . . . the town is flat out fascinating. It's also got a couple great Frank Lloyd Wright prarie style houses if you're into that sort of thing. (I will have quite a bit to say about the local housing authority, and soon, but I don't have time to get into that tonight.)

One example of people who seemed to slowly go mad occured right in my father's neighborhood in Decatur. Call them the Klopeks. We did, although it's not their real name. They reminded us of the family in The Burbs with Tom Hanks, the family that everyone believed was up to no good even though they didn't have a shred of evidence. They lived here:

Although when they lived in that house, there was a fence and a hedge blocking the view from the street. Keep in mind that these were longtime productive members of the community. They had raised five children, all of whom have gone on to happy, productive lives as far as I know. Mr. Klopek had a decent job in the public sector for years. But gradually the neighbors began to suspect something was amiss.

It was the little eccentricities: I personally watched Mr. K drive up his driveway to the locked gate, get out of the car and lock it, open the gate, get back in the car and drive it through the gate, and lock it behind him. No one else in the neighborhood had a fence or a gate at all. And then there was the smell. On hot summer days when neighbors would cook out, they would notice it. In fact, if the wind shifted the wrong way, they would consider going back inside to eat. This in a town that routinely smells like roasting soybeans from the Archer Daniels Midland plant ("it smells like money," the locals tell me). Mr. K himself was moved to a position at work that involved less contact with the public after complaints surfaced about the way he smelled.

The work crew that that trimmed the neighbors' trees complained that working on the side of the house nearest the Klopek's made them want to retch. Residents of the Millikin University fraternity and sorority houses on the block began to make nuisance reports to the police, especially after a sorority sister counted more than fifteen cats peering from the windows one day.

The response has gone down in local mythology. One day in early fall, 1998, animal control was dispatched, followed by the police and an ambulance. The authorities had discovered over 250 cats in the home. Apparently they had been inbreeding for years, because certain genetic defects had become apparent, including a few cats born with three legs or no eyes or other deformities. An entire room had been turned into a litterbox, the source of the smell plaguing the neighborhood; filled with litter, it was simply raked a few times a day.

The Klopeks refused to go quietly. Mrs. K gather 20 or so cats with her and barricaded herself in the bathroom. Eventually both of them were taken away in restraints, strapped to gurneys. The house was condemned and has been unoccupied for the past six years. (For those of you who have been following this page but wondering whether I'm just making all this up, the evidence is here, although it costs $2.95 to read the whole article.)

Now, I like cats, too. We have two cats, Fat Man and Little Boy, as destructive as their names imply. I clean out the litter box on a daily basis - in spite of which, the house sometimes has a slight odor of cat poop. So this is a matter of degree: the Klopeks are carted away and confined, while I am left free, for behavior similar in kind if different in degree. Society or its representatives have drawn a line, and crossing it can get you dragged from your home strapped to a gurney.

To say that such a line is socially constructed and arbitrary is not necessarily to say that it is illigitimate. The cultural right basically argues that such lines should be drawn wherever our great-grandparents drew them, while some on the left still argue that social rules regulating behavior are inherently fascist and illigitimate. Both positions are lunacy. Rules must be drawn up which are appropriate to the current social situation without unduly trampling on the dignity and autonomy of the individual. If you live in a shack in the woods you may disagree with me, but anybody with neighbors would agree that they should't be allowed to hold week-long coke orgies, at least not during the school year. I also believe they shouldn't be able to tear down a 110 year old house to put up ugly condos - property rights be damned, it's my neighborhood too and I deserve a say in what happens to it. But an offensive odor? Are we going to start telling people how many kids they can have, too?

I watched an annoying episode of Boston Legal last night. One lawyer's shrink asked for her help because he had a client who was threatening to strangle his wife. The lawyer pretended to be a psychiatrist consulting for a second opinion - the TV shrink had said that no one was willing to do this for real for "liability" reasons. There were questions about "doctor-patient privilege." Wackiness ensued. The whole thing was depressing and bogus. In the real world professionals have a "duty to warn," meaning that they are required to report certain things to the appropriate authority immediately - including child abuse and threats to harm oneself or others. Most states have a law that spells out this duty, including Massachusetts (although I'm told the rules aren't laid out with the same specificity as in Ohio or Illinois). These laws were put in place after the murder of Tatiana Tarasoff in the 1970s - the California Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that the killer's therapist had a "duty to warn' when he'd made threats. I took action in such situations more than once in social work practice. Such a rule does not interfere with a therapeutic relationship. The professional should be up front about this duty from the beginning, and tell the client under what circumstances a report will be made. This becomes simply one of the ground rules of the relationship. Without such rules it would be much more difficult to treat potentially dangerous people.

I am thinking about such issues because my grandmother is slowly losing her ability to care for herself. A few words about my grandmother. She has been functioning as an adult since she was 12 years old, back in the Depression. She raised four children, served as a local elected official, and cared for my grandfather for several years after he suffered from a debilitating stroke. So she has been perfectly capable of making her own decisions and running her own life for the past 70 years, and if she was eccentric in some ways, it was certainly nobody else's business.

But now that she's in a dependant position, we're drawing lines again. Her disruptive behavior is being discussed. Her paranoia. If she continues to behave in a certain way, she can't stay at a certain facility, she needs to be moved to a "more restrictive" environment. I'm very uncomfortable with all of this. As I said, I do believe society has a right to draw a line beyond which an individuals autonomy can be restricted by society. And perhaps my grandmother has begun crossing some of these lines. Certainly the involvment of law enforcement on more than one occasion in which she felt "threatened" by people or situations that nobody else could detect is cause for concern. But fear of strangers, outsiders and the unknown is positively rampant in this country. Doesn't it strike you as odd that a certain amount of defiance and paranoia is tolerated, often celebrated, among independant "radical individualists" (people with the money and wherewithall to control their own lives), while among people who depend on others (the old and the sick, welfare moms and low-wage employess) the expected behavior - polite, subserviant, cooperative, grateful - is precisely the behavior that makes life easiest for the people with the power and control? What's good for the gander is very inappropriate for the goose, it seems.

Someday I'll be old and have more difficulty functioning independantly than I do now. This bothers me more today than it did a week ago. Which of my eccentricities will be regarded as symptoms? Political convictions of my grandmother's that I used to find disturbing I now simply ignore. Will my beliefs and values be as irrelevant to the people who care for me in my doddery? She's still a person, even if she doesn't remember that she just saw you yesterday. So I wrestle with this. I don't know whether my grandmother should be placed in a nursing home or not. I agree that society needs to set standards and boundaries, and limit the freedom of people who represent a threat to themselves or others. But whether or not you are annoying to those with power over you is not the right standard to set.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Holiday cheer, and links

Ah, Thanksgiving. Good cheer and good company, food and wine, joy and togetherness, family craziness involving the police (God bless you, Grandma). I hope you all have had a holiday as good as mine, but with less drama. More later.

In the meantime, I'd like to direct your attention to this piece at Kos, a salute to Detroit on their annual sporting day in the sun. Many ex-citizens love Detroit, and miss it. But will they move back? The poster says he may return if a trendy enough loft district materializes. But isn't that like saying you're a patriot, and you'll join the Army just as soon as the war is won?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Kids are All Right, If a Bit Loud

I haven't posted in a few days, mostly because the digital camera batteries were dead and I wanted to put up some pictures. They will be coming eventually, as will more neighborhood demolition goodness. Went to the circus last night, which was more fun as an adult than it was as a kid. We met up with Trope's high school friend (who works for the circus) and her fiance there. She took us backstage after the event which is infinitely more exotic than the faux exoticism of the show (alas, no pictures). The company seems to be a gaggle of Brazilian show girls, Moroccan animal trainiers and lip-ringed Australian clowns who cart a "retired" elephant around the country by rail because "she just wasn't happy" put out to pasture in Florida. Apparently she "didn't get along with" the retired zoo elephants, who were boring and just sat around talking about their grandchildren. Trope's friend told us circus elephants live longer than wild or zoo elephants because the "intellectual stimulation" keeps them active. Just when you think there's no magic left in the world.

Trope seems a little concerned about her friend, who is marrying cross-culturally and converting to Islam. It's nothing against the man or the religion per se, but she's worried about a woman entering into a family or a relationship in which she might be expected to assume a submissive role. I frankly don't know her well enough to have an opinion, but mulling it over brings up a whole bunch of issues that deserve some attention.

I think the "culture wars" have a lot to do with the "role" of women in society. The latest round was a sham: stem cell research and gay marriage just don't have any impact on typical Americans unless they are dying from parkinsons or lymphoma, or are gay themselves. Such people are being picked on by the Right in the name of "traditional values" and these issues are voted on as a way to give expression to a desire for said values. So what are people really angry about? Fafblog, the nation's finest source for news and world domination, as usual holds clues. They link to, a "ministry" of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. These people call themselves "complimentarians," by which I think they mean to refer to the belief in society in which men and women are assigned different, "complementary" roles (that such a society has little place for gays and transgendered people goes without saying). They see themselves fighting for "traditional families." Their big crusade of the moment? Condemning married people who choose not to have children. Fafblog also links to this guy who doesn't understand the outrage because "It's fairly obvious that none of the couples in this article is ready to be parents, and would, in the main, fail at it, or at least resent it."

Now, a couple thoughts on this.

1.) I am giving serious attention to issues raised by a website purporting to be the rantings of a giant stuffed bunny who wants to take over the world. What is it with the bunnies lately?

2.) "Complementarian" sounds a lot like "separate but equal" to me. If one "role" is to make all the decisions, and the other "role" is to scrub the toilets, how "complementary" is that?

3.) These people are crazy. They have, among other things, accused the Episcopalian church of worshiping pagan gods.

4.) This is funny: "It was also encouraging to see the rise in [the number of] women who were attending and are supporting." So the complementarian movement has is the past mostly been . . .men?

5.) Biblical Schmiblical. I've read the Bible. Polygamy was viewed as the norm, King David nailed every piece of tail he could get his hands on, and genocidal warfare was seen as blessed by God. The social roles of conservative evangelicals have their roots in early modern agrarian America as filtered through 1950s suburbia as seen on TV.

6.) On some level, they may have a point.

Okay, you can pick up your jaw now. I'm not about to go join the Pea-brain Bigot Society. But it disturbs me that so many of the bright, progressive people I like and admire tell me they're not going to have children, when right-wing zealots appear to be breeding like . . . um, still more rabbits.

I'm no buying into the gender role thing - the "role" of a woman is to live, and seek happiness and a satisfying, meaningful life - the same as man's "role." We are actual living people, not pieces in a jigsaw puzzle or actors reading a script. But in a rapidly changing, competitive world that many people experience as scary or intimidating, the cultural conservatives are offering a plan, a guide to what life is "supposed" to look like. And what are we offering in response? A lifestyle based on consumption of cultural products, priced out of reach of most of our citizens? Purchased experiences, whether in DVD or video game form, or "high adventure" style featuring hang gliding trips to the Andes, are no substitute for real life. Not having kids so you have the time and money to go to the opera and watch drama about somebody else's family seems shallow to me, playing it safe and easy.

So far in this blog entry, I think I've written something to piss off everyone I know. Let's push forward and see if I can finish alienating everyone I've ever met. My point isn't that everyone should have children. I spent a little time counseling children, and my conclusion was that most of their problems stemmed from unfit parents. And in spit of our annoyingly child-oriented (childish?) culture it's not actually easy to raise kids today. Our society seems incapable of supplying health care, child care, good schools, even safe public parks to any but the wealthiest Americans. And the worst schools and services tend to congregate in precisely the areas with the good cultural amenities, leaving many people my age with a bitter choice between having an active life of the mind and the soulless zombiehood of suburban parenthood. Certainly any real progressive movement should be demanding the services that make child-rearing bearable be made accessible to everyone.

But we don't fight for our communities, we hardly even care about them at all. In this mobile society, we might just move to the suburbs or the West Coast next year anyway, so while it's tragic that the schools suck, it's not our problem. The result is that Blue America is largely a patchwork of declining cities and towns with crappy schools and an abysmal gap between rich an poor, dotted through with sushi places. It could be that people aren't buying our progressive vision of America because we don't have one. Consumerism and cultural extinction do not offer a real alternative.

The righties have a plan for society. It's a crappy, outdated plan, but it's a plan. The only people on the left that seem to have a vision are the hippies. I tried that, I lived in an idealistic hippie co-op for a year, and while it was fun at times, there was no food. If I never hear the term "macrobiotic diet" again it will be too soon. And many of these people are going around saying that Bush, the CIA and the Mossad were responsible for 9/11, which makes me wonder - is everybody with a plan a complete lunatic? Their radically self-denying lifestyle is just not attractive, and doesn't always smell that nice anyway.

Until we have a progressive vision that can distinguish self-actualization from self-gratification (hint: it's like sex vs. masturbation) we're not exactly inspiring people to join us. What would that look like? I guess a founding principal should be, no matter who ends up taking out the trash, it's gotta be somebody. I'm not thrilled with gender roles either, especially one where, as a man, I'm expected to come up with all the cash in the event that my wife "chooses" to stay home with the kids. The fact is, I'm just not good for the money, neither are most guys, so that whole "role" thing should just be tossed out the window. But it doesn't change the fact that you gotta get money, you gotta change diapers, you gotta clean the toilet. How people work this stuff out is their own business. If someone volutarily chooses to be submissive, well, a lot of people get off on that. Who am I to judge that? But that's a very different thing than your neighbors or the government coming in and telling you that you should be submissive.

But a perpetual state of open-mindedness ends up as madness. We need a model for a healthy society, and standards that are durable enough that people can rely on them. The demands by gay people for the right to marry and inclusion in the military are good start. Thirty years ago activists were denouncing these institutions, now they are demanding access to them. This about-face represents great progress for movement, indicating the desire to participate in society, as full adults on their own terms, rather than merely denounce and flee from "Western Civilization." Because the Right isn't afraid we'll fail, they're afraid we'll succeed. Right now they have a monopoly. Their God may be a vicious, intolerant, cruel dominatrix, but right not she's the only bitch in the yellow pages.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Perfect Girl and Other Stories

It's been a whirlwind these last few days. The highlight for me was a visit to Paranoid Girl's Humboldt Park studio on Thursday. We first met Kelly at the February, 2003 Around the Coyote show in the Northwest Tower at North, Damen and Milwaukee. Her work is colorful and graffiti/comic-book themed, I think working with kids has a big influence on her style in its bright colors and simple lines. The piece we bought was the original Perfect Girl painting, which I first wanted back in 2003. She has done a whole series of them since then, she has a whole show of them up at Jinx Cafe for the next couple weeks, so if you are interested, you can go check it out yourself.

Friday we saw a preview production of Self Defense, or death of some salesmen, a play by Edward Sobel based on life and death of convicted serial killer Eileen Wuornos. It was in the parking garage of the Steppenwolf Theater Compancy (no, really), as part of Steppenwolf's Visiting Company Initiative, which means that good smaller productions (which are all over Chicago and never sell out) get to benefit from the name recognition and hopefully some of the cash that comes Steppenwolf's way. (Steppenwolf is the company founded by Gary Sinise and John Malkovich and guys like that in the late 1960s that became famous for raw productions in which the actors threw real punches, etc.) Agnes got tickets through her work - the nonprofit sector doesn't pay a lot, but there are often fun perks, and the parties are great.

Speaking of which, last night was the annual Holiday Jitters party at the downtown condo home of an eccentric, mysterious, charming millionare who will remain nameless in these pages. His parties are great people watching because they brink together an eclectic group of people - young and old, educators, artists, hipsters, and they guys from the old neighborhood (you get the feeling he doesn't really trust anyone else the same way). I talked to an aging hippie for a while, some other people with similar interests, wine, caviar, crap dip . . . a friend of mine hit it off with a guy who knows the owners of the Funky Buddha, and got us in free.

So this morning, a little hung over and dragging from a couple days of freel0ading at the hors d'oeuvres table of Chicago's cultural scene, Trope and I dragged ourselves over to Third Unitarian, in the far West Side ghetto. The congregation actually mostly lives in Oak Park (best known as home to Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemmingway). Most of them left the Austin neighborhood when it "turned over" (meaning African-Americans moved in) in the 1970s. In fact, the church itself almost moved. From the official history compiled by longtime church member Carl Schulstad:

Third Church members were just as aghast as were the people running to the suburbs, but Third Church was not running. . . Naively, we were especting to meet and to make friends with the newcomers, but quickly we learned that friendship was not soon to caome. Our ignorance was abysmal. We had littleunderstanding of what was involved. at first, while our new neighbors were settling in, Austin seemed to just fall apart. Good old homes became suddenly run down. Rusty old cars lined the curbs. We saw piles of litter. Idle men roamed the streets. Crime increased and the police seemed to lose interest. Two of our members were mugged, and the church suffered many break-ins. During one year we were invaded seven times. It wasn't easy,but we lasted. We were sure that all would straighten out in due time.

Third Church had to change. Membership quickly dropped to 250. there was no assurance that we could survive. then a group of our staunch, well-respected members proposed a modest change. "Let's move just a few blocks west," they suggested. "in Oak Park, we can carry on our Unitarian programs without being molested." They proposed that we move with all practicable speed. On a vote of 73 to 62, they prevailed.

Third Unitarian is only 2 blocks away from Oak Park

To move was daunting: to sell our landmark building at the currently depressed rates and then find a suitable replacement. It seemed impossible, and besides, we quickly realized that most of us still believed that our home was in Austin. Yet all of us were upset and arguing. The "movers" were justified in saying, "It was a fair vote and you are welching." The "stayers" couldn't deny the vote, but they had a stubborn belief. Stu McCarrell said it simply, "we dug our heels in, and said, 'hell no, we wont go.'"

It was a bleak day when more than 50 of our good friends and fellow Unitarians left Third Church. They did move just a few blocks west and established Beacon U.U. Church in Oak Park.
So even the most liberal group of progressive white do-gooders in the city couldn't make integration work and split up over whether to completely disinvest from the newly black neighborhood. Don't get me wrong, these are great people and I'm proud to associate with them. The church now has a number of African-American members including key, influential personalities and at least one board member. Oak Park itself is no longer the land of "big lawns and small minds" that Hemmingway described. They have become more integrated (by race, not class), and their Boy Scouts pulled out of the national organization over gay rights. But a bunch of established suburban homeowners they remain.

And here we are, straggling in hung over from shooting bourbon at an integrated and diverse night club (again, race not class, normally it's a $20 cover), and I'm feeling a whole new wave of culture shock. Again. We are some of the youngest people to attend services at Third, primarily the congregation is made up of aging New Left radical types who have been there for decades, with a smattering of younger families. There was no sermon this morning, instead the congregation met and discussed previous sermons by our Rev. Brian Covell (you may remember him, he officiated at our wedding. I assume nearly everyone who reads this was there). One member repeated a remark he'd heard at a Unitarian convention - what would Brian do if he had to preach to a pipe fitter? Others discussed a sermon I missed about Red and Blue America (The Red Menace). Another referred to the discussion of religion in the workplace I responded to here.

Again and again we hit up against the cultural divide that seems to be tearing America apart. But the more I think about it, write about it, the more society seems to splinter: two Americas, ten Americas, a hundred. "Cross-Cutting Cleavages" my high school civics teacher called them. One of the things typical people of my generation, in my city, do well is function in a diverse environment. We accept and interact with people of other races, religions, and sexualities to a much greater degree than even the most radical members of past generations dream of. Environments and challenges that were terrifying to them seem routine to us. The culture that seems alien and incomprehensible is Out There, Red America, the outer darkness where there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth . . .

I don't believe the gap over faith and values is quite what it's played up to be in the media. First of all, partisan differences seem to have more to do with church attendance than underlying beliefs. In other words, if Blue Americans are put off by religion, it isn't the core belief system that their put off by. I hadn't gone to church for years before finding TUC. In my more lucid and self-aware moments, I realize that my loss of faith had at least as much to do with church doctrines on homosexuality and abortion, and by the church's tacit endorsement of a status-seeking materialistic culture of greed and inequality, than by doubts about the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace. All of us have spiritual questions and needs, but approximately half the country (60% of Americans do not regularly attend services according to Gallup) are alienated from reactionary hypocrisy.

I wanted to buy the Perfect Girl falling from the sky because she reminds me of a piece I didn't buy a few years back at the King Avenue Coffeehouse in Columbus. It was a tryptych of Lucifer as a winged young woman with flight goggles falling from the sky, landing in a trash can, and picking herself up, brushing herself off, and walking away. It spoke to me. I don't feel like I walked away from "mainstream" American culture. I feel like I was cast out. The problem with building a society based on competition, exclusiveness, and privilege is that a large number of people get left behind or excluded.

I actually met a pipe fitter the other week. She was definitely smart enough to follow Brian's meandering radical sermons. But would she care? Would TUC meet the spiritual needs of a shaven-headed twentysomething queer woman pipefitter? Would anyone? I'd love to find out. If we want a better America, a progressive America, we need to find the kind of coherence and organization the bigots and reactionaries have. We need bake sales and book clubs and knitting circles. And churches, even if we don't quite know what to believe. At the moment, our cultural debate seems to be a contest between oppressive, hypocritical social cohesion and atomized hedonism. That entire spectrum is shallow, dishonest self-justification. There isn't an honest choice for me anywhere in that debate. What we need is a new option, an inclusive community that accepts and celebrates people as they are while providing structure and order to civic and social life. Something that combines the diversity, creativity and energy of young Chicago with the organization, sense of community and commitment to progressive values of the old guard lefties. I don't know what this will look like, and I've been searching a hell of a long time. But I have to believe it's coming, because it's necessary.

Thursday, November 18, 2004


Due to the overwhelming response from the site's five or six regular readers, I have decided to run Blogads to help support the site's overhead expenses (mostly whisky). Of course, no major corporation has actually offered to give me money yet, but I figure I will start running the ads and eventually they will pay me. That, or they will sue.

Anyway, here's the first ad for Windy City Blues' new "official" sponsor:

Blogads: Annoying, but they beat the hell out of actually working.


I slept last night! The effect is magical. I met Heliotrope downtown last night for an art installation show called Site Unseen at the Chicago Cultural Center. If you just read the New City article I linked to, you got all the information wrong. Aimee Lee played violin in Preston Bradley Hall, there is no Aimee Bradley, she's a typo. And Ms. Lee did not discuss Western Literature with the audience. People gave her pieces of paper with stories of jouneys they had taken written on them, and she played a violin piece she thought related to the story. She did not speak. She was wearing antennae and a long raw-paper cape and paced around the hall. Her pale green evening gown matched the decor. Trope pointed out she was supposed to be a snail leaving a track. The piece was called "Trails" or "Tracks" or something and was supposed to be about leaving your mark on the spaces you traverse. I thought it was very cool. Trope thought it was strange. I thought Trope was hot.

It is interesting that any time you read in the paper about anything you actually know about, they get it wrong. One is left with no choice but to conclude that everything you read that you don't know about is also wrong, but you can't be sure how. Trust No One.

Ms. Lee felt drawn to the hall, which used to be the circulation department when the CCC was a library. So do I. Legend has it the opulent building was built with funds donated by Queen Victoria after the Great Fire. The Queen was concerned that the public library had burned down, and wanted to help rebuild it. Chicago, of course, did not have a public library, her proud citizens preferring to spend their free time in gambling dens and houses of ill repute. But the city fathers were more than happy to take the money and build stuff (since their big pastime was trying to upstage New York in any way possible). Thank you, Queen Victoria! There's one born every minute . . .

Speaking of P. T. Barnum, the circus is in town. Hopefully we will get to go for free - Trope knows the paymaster from back when she was an aspiring country singer, and before. She came by the other night to catch up with Trope, which was interesting to say the least. She lives on a rail car: the circus travels by train and sets up camp in towns along the route. Reminds me of that Ani DiFranco song "Freakshow" (alas I'm told there are no longer actual sideshow freaks. How disappointing). After 2000 I swore not to give Ms. DiFranco any more money until Bush was out of office, because of that whole Nader fiasco. I hear she has some new stuff out; now that Bush has been re-elected I'm not buying that either. Thanks, Ralph, you've made all our lives poorer, cheaper and less fun. And look at all you've accomplished for the environment and civil rights over the past four years! What a hero.

Speaking of people who are full of themselves, I have no explanation for yesterday's post other than lack of sleep. An interview with myself? Could I get any more self-involved? And the imaginary bunny was a mistake, too. The other voices in my head won't shut up about it. "When is it going to be my turn?" Blah blah blah.

I meant to link to Kunstler's Eyesore of the Month. Keep clicking the "Previous Month" link to see them all. The social commentary accompanying the photos is priceless. This guy's so full of himself he's a human oroboros, but his take on the state of our built environment is dead on.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Elwood Grobnik: The Interview

Tough getting up today. Nightmares follow me to work. Bored and barely conscious, I attempt to interview the giant invisible rabbit who has wandered into my consciousness from the pop cultural wasteland. I imagine he looks like the bunnies from the Flaming Lips video. I don’t even have MTV and I know what they look like. Must have been on a TV commercial. Sellouts.

Harvey: First of all, I ask the questions. Nobody interviews me, man. Some things should remain mysterious.

EG: Okay, what do you want to know?

HR: I’ve read your little blog thing. It doesn’t make any sense.

EG: How’s that?

HR: You’re a total yuppie. You didn’t even grow up here, you’re a carpetbagger. You act like you’re some kind of everyman, but you’re one of these sushi-eating latte-swilling elitists.

EG: I take my coffee black most of time, unless it’s old and burned.

HR: Whatever. You moved here because it was cool or something. Were you running away from yourself?

EG: I’ve lived lots of places, bunny boy. Suburbs of major cities, a tiny rural town, a college town, a moderately sized city, a big city. I like living in urban areas, traditional neighborhoods with houses close together, public parks instead of private lawns. Dense places. Where you can walk to stuff. And you’re right, I grew up around people who I didn’t want to be.

HR: You’re a gentrifier.

EG: The G-word is meaningless. It’s been used to describe so many different kinds of neighborhood change it’s an empty word, people use it to describe any new investment they don’t like. But neighborhoods change, they never stay the same for any period of time. People age in place, kids grow up, new people move in and old ones move out. All neighborhoods change.

HR: You identify suburbanization as a cause of America’s descent into madness. Yet you just wrote a big thing where you told people not to move here, to go to the ‘burbs etc. You can’t have it both ways. Either people live here, or they live out there. Which is it?

EG: what I’m really upset about is people who want the land but feel the neighborhood isn’t good enough they way they found it. These old neighborhoods are historically significant, most of these buildings be preserved. Brooklyn Heights, where my aunt lives, is a historic district, parts of Wicker Park – why not Bucktown, Ukranian Village, Bronzeville, a dozen other beautiful neighborhoods being overrun by ugliness? Anyway, as long as the land is valued according to what it would be worth to a developer, I can’t afford to buy anything? And where am I supposed to live? Competition from greedy developers is what drives up the price of a 2,000 square foot cottage to half a million dollars.

HR: Well, that’s the market for you.

EG: There’s no “market.” Real estate bears almost no resemblance to the perfect competition crap they taught you in Econ 101.

HR: Well, buyers and sellers agree on a price, for instance.

EG: Yeah, but supply is artificially restricted. Look, prices are crazy because they’re not building cities anymore. Most places, it’s illegal to build a dual-use building with housing above a storefront. There are separate commercial and residential zones. Minimum lot sizes and strip malls are mandated. You haven’t been allowed to build a city neighborhood or a traditional Main Street downtown for fifty or sixty years now. Many old neighborhoods are in trouble, half torn down and crime infested. Decent neighborhoods are in short supply, so it’s expensive to live there.

HR: If these neighborhoods are so cool, why are so many of them crappy?

EG: Redlining. The current landscape was created by two forces, zoning and redlining. After WWII, the US Government promoted homeownership by subsidizing home mortgages and new construction – but not rehabilitating existing housing. “Redlining” was a practice under which banks wouldn’t make loans for addresses in “declining” neighborhoods. Often that meant zip codes with even a few black residents. Partly this was pure racism, partly it worked that way because the programs were shaped to benefit the construction industry more than home buyers.

It was easier to get a loan in the new suburbs, where rigid zoning meant mostly single-family homes on what were, at the time, large lots. New municipalities like large lots because they bring in a “better class” of resident. Limits on the amount and location of multi-family homes keep poor kids out of their schools, keep the child population down, and secure adequate funding for schools and government services without high property taxes. Higher revenues, fewer poor people. It’s called exclusionary zoning. The result is a country that’s more segregated than it was before Brown v Board. This is an old story now. Read some Kunstler, Harvey. At some point I’m gonna put up a link to the Congress for the New Urbanism, for your edification.

HR: And your solution?

EG: Ideally we would build more good neighborhoods, until supply met demand and prices normalized. But I don’t know how to do that. Suburban governments have a lot of incentives to keep things the way they are, and homeowners tend to regard rising home values as a good thing, unless they have to pay taxes in Chicago. So building more moderately-priced housing would be unpopular among people who are counting on their homes to finance retirement. For now, the best option is to preserve and improve the neighborhoods we have, make them livable and safe, with good schools and fun stuff to do.

HR: Gentrification.

EG: Whatever, man. Look, I need a place to live, same as everybody else. And I’m not going to sit home and watch Survivor: the Bronx or whatever. I want to live my life. This week I’m going to an installation thing at the Cultural Center, visiting an artist’s studio, I have theater tickets, there’s gonna be a kick ass party this weekend, and except for a painting I’m planning to buy, I’m not paying for any of this stuff. I love this town. Call me a yuppie if you want to, what are you gonna do this weekend, chew on giant invisible kale?

HR: So, what about the diminished role of urban areas in political life?

EG: Actually, I think urban areas are spreading. Sprawl is a different issue from suburbanization. Lots of old inner suburbs are becoming more like the city, more diverse, more types of housing, condos and so on. Evanston, for example, is urban now. It’s not really about city limits, it’s about how the neighborhood is constructed and how life is lived. So politically, we are spreading into the suburbs. But not into the new construction sprawl. The issue is segregation, and the control of resources. Rich people at the fringes want to exploit the city, reap the benefits of metropolitan life while keeping their own taxes and cost of living down and avoiding poor people and minorities. If they succeed at this, they will starve the cities, and American life will be poorer for it. Basically, they must be made to pay, to share the costs of providing services to poor people. Health care, housing, education – these problems cannot be solved at the local level, they need to be addressed by state governments or the Feds, to stop people from moving across political lines to avoid paying their fair share. But we are a long way from achieving that goal.

HR: So straight up: Mayor Daley. Love him or loathe him?

EG: Never met the man.

HR: What I mean is, you said he should run for President. Then you turn around and criticize how he’s running the city.

EG: I never said he’d be a good President. I said he’d be a good candidate. We just ran a guy who would be a good President, and he lost.

HR: But do you support Mayor Daley?

EG: Look, I have to live and work here, you know? He’s done some things right: focus on schools, neighborhood beautification, improve policing. Selling the Skyway was a good move. But he’s got this idea that one big headline-grapping megaproject after another is going to save the city. Soldier Field. Millennium Park. Expand the convention center. A casino. A downtown Ikea. Privatize the airport. But there are three million people living in this city, most of us not terribly rich. The focus shouldn’t be on getting cash from outsiders, although it’s important to get revenue. But we’d still have revenue if we’d gone with a cheaper stadium option than the Soldier Field fiasco, etc. The focus shouldn’t be on “greatness.” It’s already a Great City. The focus should be on safer neighborhoods, better services, quality of life.

HR: Sounds great. So why are you sitting here talking to a giant imaginary rabbit. Shouldn’t you get to work and provide better services or something?

EG: Touche.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Quiet Day at Work

If it's quiet in the office today, that's only because most of the people who work there were out on the street half the day, protesting the Mayor's bargaining position on a new contract for city workers. It looks like City Hall is asking for unpaid furlough days, unpaid vacation, continuing the hiring freeze and asking for employees to pay more for health insurance. The remaining work force is very upset about this. They feel like they deserve some credit for improving quality of life and city services, and will need an adequate and well motivated work force to keep things moving. But if the Mayor had listened to these small-minded bureaucrats, he would have balanced the city budget or hired new teachers rather than building a shiny new park that he can brag about on his many long and unexplained trips to Paris. These union workers just don't understand the glory and honor such a cool tourist attraction brings to the city, especially when it features a giant mirrored jellybean.
They didn't even like the Mayor's brilliant stroke of defacing a war monument to build a new stadium entirely for the benefit of a private organization, perhaps the worst football franchise the world has ever known. So these greedy union types obviously have the wrong priorities and lack the vision of our Mayor Daley. And anyway, he's raising taxes as much as he can and the mean governor won't let him have a casino.

Of course, some among you may wonder whether City Hall just wants to weaken the public sector unions in order to bring back the politically hired "temporary workers" who used to make up the bulk of city workers before the Shankman consent decree forced the city to hire people who could do the work, rather than as a reward for getting out the vote for the machine. To which I gotta say, that whole thing is ridiculous, just bogus. There was never any tit for tat, city workers just appreciated what a great job mayors like old man Daley, Bilandic and Jane Byrne used to do in bringing everyone together and making this such a happy, harmonious city back in the 70's and 80's. But what do I know, I don't even work here, I'm just a lowly contract worker. So, like . . . you're gonna vote for Daley, right?

Monday, November 15, 2004

Feeling Blue

A lot has been made of the Red State/Blue State divide over the past four years, even though it’s a load of crap. Actually, if you look at a map that divides up voters by county instead of by state, you see that the real divide is between us enlightened urban folk and everybody else. Don’t believe me? Check it out, the “county map” looks a lot like a picture of America from space, with the bright lights voting for Kerry and the outer darkness Bush territory. (Kerry voters are red on this map, just to mess with you).

I decided to talk to some of my fellow urbanites about whether they feel like outcasts in their own country, lonely islands of sanity surrounded by a sea of savage ignorance, relics of a once great civilization slowly being crushed under the weight of suburban sprawl. The following is an unscientific sampling of people you might meet around the neighborhood.

Frank, Tai Chi instructor: I’ve avoided watching much political stuff since the election. But I did watch some things over the weekend. Did you see John Stewart on, uh . . .
EG: Crossfire? That was funny.
F: Yeah, something Tucker. . .
EG: Tucker Carlson’s show.
Victor: Bowtie Boy?
F: Yeah. There was this woman on that show, Amy something, editor of the Village Voice in New York. She said the media was to blame for this. They don’t investigate anymore. They just tell the positions of the two parties.
EG: He said, she said?
F: Yeah. They don’t seek the truth anymore. But at least Bush has a plan for Social Security.
EG: What’s that?
F: Influenza.

Chucky C, Tai Chi student, musician: Man, this city’s changed. West of Western they don’t speak English anymore. And they brought all that gang shit with them from Mexico. Why do you think I have to have four locks on everything, and own a dangerous dog?
EG: Dude, your dog only has three legs, and she’s the friendliest dog I’ve ever met . . .
CC: yeah, but they don’t know that. She looked mean before she got hit by that car. And she can still bark. I might leave town too, man. The suburbs, or better yet Montana. It’s quiet there, man, you can live your life, you know? Montana! Me, my dog and my Harley.
EG: How are you going to move a three-legged dog on a Harley?
CC: Sidecar!

Apnea, bartender at Darwin’s: Man, people are so mean! It’s all about hate, that’s so lame!
EG: Do you feel like Chicago is in a different country?
A: Not really. I used to live in Arkansas. It was pretty fucked up there, when it wasn’t totally boring. But I mean, people were cool there, you know? This guy Dennis, who did this tattoo [points], he was pretty cool. He OD’d . . .
EG: I’m sorry.
A: Yeah, I like it better here. Though,. all these yuppies moving in though, it’s just not the Darwin’s we know and love anymore.

Chloe, city worker: Help me take a picture of this parking sign, I can’t figure out this digital camera.
EG: Okay .
Chloe: I can see why people leave, I’m only still here because of the residency requirement. ‘Cause they screw you over for every dollar they can get. Look, my car was mostly on that part of the sign, right? But they gave me a ticket!
EG: Uh huh
Chloe: And then the property taxes. Gonna bankrupt me. We’re right across from Ray school though, in Hyde Park. A good school. Most of them are terrible. I want my daughter to have a good school It’s so expensive though! I just want to buy a house. Do I look good in that one?
EG: Huh?
Chloe: I want to look good in the pictures, in case there’s a cute juror.

Ezekiel Holmes, crazy guy who sleeps on the park bench: Got any pot?
EG: No.
EH: Shit. Man, this is depressing.
EG: The elections?
EH: Huh? No, my woman. She went to see her mother in Missouri. She told me not to come, but I want to go see her. Can I have fifty bucks?
EG: I thought you were on parole, and weren’t supposed to leave the state.EH: I’m a new man. It was the drugs and my selfish bad decisions, man. Jesus saved me from all that. I have a mission now. I only go to the crackhouses to preach the Word to my brothers in need now. I don’t do the drugs anymore. Except for the weed, you know. But If I go down there, she’ll know I really love her, man! She waited for me and I appreciate that.
EG: If you get caught, they will put you back in jail, Jesus or no Jesus.
EH: Damn, man. So you won’t help me?
EG: Help you get arrested? I’m pretty sure you can do that on your own. Now, the elections, how do you feel about Bush . . .
EH: Ain’t nobody going to beat Clinton, man.
EG: Um, Bush is President now.
EH: Again?
EG: Different one. Junior.
EH: When did that happen?
EG: You were in prison.
EH: You sure you don’t got no weed?

Nate, Yuppie at Bar Louie: Real estate prices have to rise, man, to get rid of the lowlifes and gangster shit. I mean come on, it’s a privilege to live in the city, you know? These assholes they drop out of high school, they can’t do anything, and they think they deserve prime real estate? Forget about it, man. Look, there’s a place for high school dropouts with no skills. It’s called a trailer park. You want to live downtown, with public transit and parks and shit, you gotta pay for it, that’s what I think.
EG: What do you think about the election.
NY: I’m a libertarian, man. I didn’t know who to vote for. I mean, I like Bush’s tax cuts, but he’s just borrowing now, he’s not really cutting handouts to the bums. If you can’t make it, starve in the street, that’s what I think. But all this religious bullshit about gay marriage. I’ll marry who I want to goddammit, where do these toothless bastards get off telling me how to live?
EG: So who did you vote for?
NY: Badnarik, Libertarian. Fuck it. One day we’re going to take this country back, man.
EG: Take it back from the majority of the population?
NY: Take it back from all the idiots, man. It’s ours, get off it.

Urban Assault Barbie: Like it’s so cool that everybody turned out to vote and all. It was patriotic. And the long lines? The people watching was fantastic? But a lot of fashion casualties. I’m sad to say it, but it’s true.
EG: How do you feel about the election?
UAB: Depressed, you know? It was our turn. The rednecks had a chance, and they screwed everything up. We were gonna get in there, kick some terrorist ass and look great doing it! I mean these Christian Coalition guys, whatever . . .
EG: They’re bigots?
UAB: Their hair! I mean, Ralph Reed, what is that? Am I supposed to believe that’s real?
EG: Do you think their lack of, perhaps you’d call it stylishness, might be attractive to people who resent the “cultural elite?”
UAB: They call us the elite because we’re better than everybody. We’re smarter, we have better jobs, we look better, we have better taste . . .
EG: I’m being lectured about taste by someone who drives a hot pink Hummer.

Mamie Grobnik, my aunt from DuPage County: Is the city a separate culture? I suppose. I know I never go there anymore. Your uncle tried to get a pizza on the South Side, around 71st Street once and the owner called the police to get him an escort! They said he never would have gotten out of there safely without them! It’s all a black area there now, he had no idea what he was walking into. And it’s only gotten worse since then.
EG: When was this?
MG: Oh, I don't recall. It would have been about 1970.
EG: I work on the South Side all the time and I’ve never had any trouble.
MG: Well, it’s a question of how far south . . .
EG: Actually as you get further south it’s mostly middle class, it’s the near South Side that’s poor. I work with programs all over the South Side.
MG: Oh dear God. Couldn’t you find a job that’s a little . . . safer?
EG: I can take care of myself, Aunt Mamie.
MG: Well, you just be careful.

Andy Capp, precinct captain: I’ve lived in this neighborhood my whole life, it’s always been Democratic. It’s changed a lot, but we’ve had a good organization here. Speaking of which, you just let us know if there’s anything we can do for you. Extra trash to pick up, or a parking ticket?
EG: Thanks, man. Do you think the Democratic Party will be able to reclaim majority status again?
AC: Well, it’s all a question of turnout. It used to be, you could just give people their Thanksgiving turkey and get their cousin a job pushing a broom for the city, and you had their vote. Now, between the Shankman bullshit and the suburbs, and you had their votes.
EG: So it is the suburbs
AC: Everything’s all privatized, there’s not so many jobs to give out for political work. Without jobs, how do you get votes?
EG: Well, you could deliver on your campaign promises to make people’s lives better . . .
AC: No way. Look, once people have money, they’ll move further out and become Republicans. It’s about keeping them here, and giving them little stuff they’ll remember come Election Day. And turning them out at the polls.
EG: Kinda like a pimp “turns out” his girlfriend?
AC: Heh. Yeah, sort of. But the party will be back, we always come back. Like that guy who sawed his arm off, you know? He survived. He was trapped under a rock, but once his flesh started to rot he know he could get out. I saw it on TV. He actually had to break the arm bones, and he could just saw through the rotting flesh. So when he cut into his arm and gasses escaped, he knew he’d be all right, see?
EG: That’s disgusting. Uh, hey Andy I have to be going now.
AC: Hey OK. Remember, if you need anything just call us, we’re here to help. And don’t forget to vote for Alderman Matlack and Mayor Daley, okay?

So there you have it, reflections from some true Blue Americans on the diminished role of the city in American politics. I think I need another beer now.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

It's Not Too Late!

Busy day today between housekeeping and social life, so I'm probably not going to do a real post today unless something really strikes me. But the good news is, there's still time for you to enter my caption contest and win a 12-pack of beer! Don't be shy, it's Iraq! Nobody knows what's going on, so feel free to make up any interpretation that suits you! The Pentagon does!

Saturday, November 13, 2004

GO AWAY! (Demolition of the Week)

This weeks victim was 2020 W Rice, an ordinary cottage which was a part of a row of ordinary cottages in Chicago's Ukranian Village neighborhood. Now that it's gone there is a missing tooth on the block:

This one makes the cut not because of the specific buiding, which I don't even remember, but because I thought this kind of think wasn't going on yet west of Damen, and apparently it is now. UV looks like it is going to go the way of the East Village and be obliterated by developers. The posted building permit says it is going to be replaced by a 3 story condo unit like the ones already built on the other side of the street:

Now I have been to an open house for one of these condo buildings, and they are very nice homes, with 3 bedrooms, 2 baths with jacuzzis, and top of the line kitchens. They also cost half a million dollars a unit in my neighorhood, probably 400,000 in the Village. This is not a crumbling ghetto neighborhood desperate for development, this was a healthy neighborhood that people took pride in and kept up.

Nostalgic photoshopped view of two-flats along West Iowa

It has a proud history and interesting ethnic people from Puerto Rico, Poland, and the former Soviet Union. There are a couple fantastic Orthodox churches, one of which kept famous Russian Icons for safekeeping during the Soviet years.

St. Nicolas

This is a fantastic neighborhood, but it is disappearing because rich people are moving in and the houses aren't big enough for them so developers buy the land for the location and and put in bigger stuff which has room for all their possessions and parking for two SUVs. They say there's no market for these houses as they are but that's not true, there are thousands of homes of similar size in poor neighborhoods that people are living in. In addition, I would like one of these homes and so would many people that I know. In fact, here is a picture of my dream house, a good decent Polish people kind of house:

A nice house on West Rice

But the way the market works is that if I want something and a rich person wants it too, even if they're just going to destroy it, they get it because they can pay more. Libertarians like to say that the market is more "efficient" than government in allocating resources, and that's why they annoy me more than plain old conservatives. With democracy, we each get one vote. With the market, rich people get to vote a lot of times, and I only get to vote a couple times. Some people don't get to vote at all.

Chicago needs some kind of law in historic neighborhoods that says you are not allowed to tear down an old house unless there is something terribly unsafe about it. Then only people who actually like the neighborhood will move there. In the mean time, I have this message to people of means who want to move to my part of Chicago:

Go away. Please just go away. If the houses and apartments are too small, if you don't trust the local diner or coffee shop and would feel "safer" with Starbuck's and McDonalds, if you don't like having to park your Lexus SUV on the street, if the noisy neighbors bug you, if you are so scared of the people who live here that you need to build a security fence around your property and buzz people in and you're afraid to walk the two blocks to the store and want one with a bigger parking lot so you can drive there - than please don't move here. As much as I want to see the city recover in terms of its population and economy, the fact is that you people won't move anywhere that needs you, instead you want to come in and take over neighborhoods that other people worked hard to make nice. The people who are moving out don't even want to leave - they can't afford the property taxes because their property is appraised according to what someone is willing to pay for it to tear it down and build condos. Suddenly working people are being taxed for the houses they paid $150,000 for as if they were worth hald a million or more.

I realize this is not your fault, this is part of a screwed up system of government in which local authorities are responsible for services which should be funded at the state or national level, and must fund then through unfair property taxes rather than progressive income taxes. Income taxes are based on your ability to pay, property taxes are based on what someone else would pay for your house. In addition Americans generally rely on home equity to fund their retirement rather than saving and investing like normal people, so property prices must always go up or they are sunk. But until we can change that system, the only way somebody like me can afford a home is if you leave us alone. Not only is the "market" not building anything I like, it is systematically destroying the existing neighborhoods I like to meet your demands.

So go away. People who want to move here, cool, but if it's not good enough the way that it is than go somewhere else. If the houses on the Near West Side are too small for you, and you won't look further West or South because you are afraid of black and brown people, then please (and I can't believe I'm saying this) just go to the suburbs or something. They build really big places there and the land's a lot cheaper. I hate the burbs myself and don't thing anyone should live there at all, but that seems like a better solution than tearing down a 120 year old house so you can have a room just for your exercycle when there's a perfectly good street outside to ride on. Otherwise, the whole city will end up looking like this:

And that sucks.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Caption Contest

I used this picture already at the North Arlington All-Stars blog but I like it so much I'm going to use it again here. This is questionable legal behavior on my part because I stole this picture from Yahoo! news and I should technically be paying the photographer to use his work. But I don't know who took this picture, and it appears he's got other things to worry about right now. I like this picture because I have no idea what's going on here, and I don't even know who does. This was taken yesterday in the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq. This guy appears to be an Iraqi "insurgent," carrying American-supplied police gear. I have read reports that insurgents in Mosul have overrun several police stations and stolen weapons, equipment and ammo. I have also read that some Iraqi police have switched sides and started fighting alongside the insurgents. In addition, apparently there have been US airstrikes in Mosul, and parts of the city have become Vietnam-style "Free Fire Zones" - anyone seen crossing the Tigris after curfew is to be shot on sight. This situation is interesting because Mosul used to be fairly quiet. I mean, last year when Saddam's sons were cornered and killed there, you didn't see the city rise up and defend the Hussein boys, and didn't we train all these cops since then? It seems to me that the "former regime elements" story we've been spoon-fed is rather unlikely.

Hence my "caption contest." Somebody explain what's going on here. Is this guy a good cop gone bad? A Fallujan guerilla who fled the fighting there, deciding he'd rather get himself killed in the much more pleasant northern climate? Or an Iraqi trick-or-treater caught in the wrong place in the wrong time? (Gimme candy or I'll blow up your car). If you don't know what's going on here either, just make something up. The mainstream media has been doing exactly that for the past two years, printing all kinds of things about WMDs, Saddam being killed by airstrikes, "dead-enders," reconstruction of Iraqi schools, Ansar al-Islam, foreign fighters, Najaf, Fallujah, and elections that they just made up or heard from somebody who worked for the CIA or was Iraqi or had been to Iraq or anyway wore one of those headdresses and looked kinda swarthy. And they get paid for this kind of thing. So you tell me - what's going on here? Don't be shy - nobody else in this country knows anything about it, either.

Grand prize is a twelve-pack of beer. I am the sole judge and abiter of truth.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Veteran's Day

Day off today for Veterans Day. Didn't realize this until I got home last night. Nice to have an unexpected break. I haven't done anything Veteran related today, but caught up on errands and stuff. I did end up getting a pulled pork sandwich - good call, Bob!

WXRT is calling this U2'sDay - they just got the new U2 album How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and they have been playing it all day, the whole album over and over again. It's actually very good, but damn . . . I haven't been able to listen to NPR much since the forces of ignorance got their pet monkey re-elected President, I just don't wanna hear about it right now.

In spite of the non-Veteran-activity day, I can't seem to get my mind off the war, just like most days. At this point we have lost at least 298 soldiers and Marines since the "handover of power" in June that was supposed to fix everything. They said that with an Iraqi government, the insurgents would lose their legitimacy. Instead they seem to be getting more support and sympathy from mainstream parties, the Iraqi President, the Sunni parties etc. Every prediction these people make is wrong and yet we re-elected them and let them keep the disaster going. If we won't learn from history we are gonna end up as one bitter ex-empire.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

It's Still the Sprawl, Stupid

David Brooks is a very annoying man, but his observations in today's New York Times are important and deserve attention. Since the cheap bastards make you pay for stuff after 7 days, I'm going to excerpt it rather than link to it because it's important enough to linger over for a few days:

About six months ago I came out with a book on the booming exurbs - places like the I-4 corridor in central Florida and Henderson, Nev. These are the places where George Bush racked up the amazing vote totals that allowed him to retain the presidency.

My book started with Witold Rybczynski's observation that America's population is decentralizing faster than any other society's in history. People in established suburbs are moving out to vast sprawling exurbs that have broken free of the gravitational pull of the cities and now exist in their own world far beyond.

Ninety percent of the office space built in America in the 1990's was built in suburbia, usually in low office parks along the interstates. Now you have a tribe of people who not only don't work in cities, they don't commute to cities or go to the movies in cities or have any contact with urban life. You have these huge, sprawling communities with no center. Mesa, Ariz., for example, has more people than St. Louis or Minneapolis.

In my book I tried to describe the culture in these places - the office parks, the big-box malls, the travel teams and the immigrant enclaves. But when it came to marketing the book, I failed in two important ways.

I couldn't figure out how to tell the people in exurbia that I had written a book about them. Here I was writing about places like Loudoun County, Va., and Polk County, Fla., but my book tour took me to places like downtown Philadelphia, downtown Seattle and the Upper West Side. The places I was writing about are so new, and civic life is as yet so spare, there are few lecture series or big libraries to host author talks. The normal publishing infrastructure is missing.

. . . I realized there are two conversations in this country. I was in the establishment conversation, but somehow I needed to get into the Rick Warren conversation and I could never find a way.

That's why I'm so impressed by Karl Rove. As a group of Times reporters demonstrated in Sunday's paper, the Republicans achieved huge turnout gains in exurbs like the ones in central Florida. The Republicans permeated those communities, and spread their message.

A lot of the "news" coming out of last week's election isn't really news at all. Nearly a quarter of the population of the United States in white evangelical Christians. 33% of the population describe themselves as "conservatives" while only 21% describe themselves as "liberals." Gay people aren't real popular in Ohio outside of the Short North and Victorian Village neighborhoods of Columbus (basically anywhere in walking distance of the Coffee Table). None of this is news to anyone who's been paying attention. What's going unreported is that every community built on what was farmland ten years ago went for Bush, overwhelmingly. America is decentralizing, segregating in fact, with the Lexus SUV crowd withdrawing more and more into their their disneyfied little la la lands. Of course they don't have libraries, Dave, new ideas are exactly what they are running away from. Our Mr. Brooks continues:
. . . I couldn't get most of the people I spoke to really fascinated, even in an anthropological sense, by these new places. That's in part because I was struggling against a half-century of stereotyping. Movies from "The Graduate" to "American Beauty" have reinforced the idea that the suburbs are bland,
materialistic, ticky-tacky boxes in a hillside where people are conformist on the outside and hollow within. The stereotype is absurd, but it closes off fresh thinking.
No, Dave, what limits fresh thinking is living in a big-box mini mansion miles from the nearest real library or live theater or real sidewalk and doing all your shopping at strip malls with big parking lots and not meeting anyone on the street because there is no street and only talking to people like yourself and only reading the newspapers and web sites you already agree with. And don't tell me about how absurd that stereotype is, because I grew up there, Dave, and it's worse than those movies tell it. You want to learn about Ohio sprawl from a movie, you gotta watch Heathers.

The other problem I had is that I didn't adequately describe the oxymoronic attraction these places have for millions of people. On the one hand, people move to exurbs because they want some order in their lives. They leave places with arduous commutes, backbreaking mortgages, broken families and stressed social structures and they head for towns with ample living space, intact families, child-friendly public culture and intensely enforced social equality. That's bourgeois.

On the other hand, they are taking a daring leap into the unknown, moving to towns that have barely been built, orking often in high-tech office parks doing pioneering work in biotech and nanotechnology. These exurbs are conservative but also utopian - Mayberrys with BlackBerrys.

No Dave, running away from society's problems is not courageous. Solving those problems would be courageous. In point of fact, people have been fleeing established communities for new ones for three generations now. The reason is that new communities, through the magic of exclusionary zoning, are able to limit the number of people of limited means who can live there. As a result, tax rates can be low, schools can be good and so on, because a community of means can fund big projects with fairly low rates of taxation. Cutting-edge businesses can thus locate there because of low taxes. Meanwhile, older communities with a disproportionate number of poor and elderly citizens to care for, must raise taxes to do so and as a result tend to lose jobs to the new exurbs, and get still poorer over time. Mr. Brooks' analysis assumes there is no relationship between the new communities and the old ones, when in fact they camp out at the outskirts of established communities like giant bloated leeches and suck the life out of them. They take advantage of economic and social infrastructure put in place to serve the old cities, without bothering to pay their fare share. This is precisely the reason why conditions tend to be worse in the older, settled areas. The exurbanites aren't running away from urban collapse, they are causing it. Then these people have the nerve to imply that their tax money goes to the city, when usually the opposite is true: the population density of suburban sprawl is usually too low for the residents to be able to fund the roads and sewers they will need, this is done with state and federal funds from urban taxpayers. New York City pays $11 billion dollars a year more in federal taxes than it receives in federal spending. It has a similar problem with Albany, to the extent that suburban and rural voters are entirely responsible for the city's budget problems. If they returned the money they have been pickpocketing, NYC would be on sound footing indeed. In short, these exurbanites are being subsidized to develop a less efficient, less productive lifestyle which is still economically viable only because they are able to externalize costs by shifting the responsibility to care for the poor and elderly onto other communities. This is the genious of localized American government, the ability to reap the benefits while some other guy the next town over gets to pay the costs.

Yet these sprawlville Republicans think of themselves as pioneers, as individualists, as winners who have made it through hard work and perseverence. Why do they think this way? Maybe because they have so much grass. Maybe because their house is so far away from their neighbors it's almost like homesteading, right? This far away from anything resembling culture, we must be roughing it!

This isn't about moral values and it isn't about the Rapture. It's about greed and segregation and fear of the Other, reified into a landscape of exclusion, intolerance, and willful ignorance. So is progressive America doomed? Is there no hope for those of us Left Behind in the ruins of pre-War America? Hell, I don't know. But I suspect that it's just not possible for a majority to join the privileged elite - it's not such a privilege, then. I suspect as new suburbs are built, old ones will have little choice but to band together with the city for survival.

I'll end with this thought on strategy: the conservatives claim to love the market and hate Big Government. But it isn't the Federal Government that is interfering outlandishly in the economy to distort market prices and produce a less efficient outcome - it's Local Government. It's zoning, and minimum lot sizes, and huge tax breaks enacted to get businessess to locate away from the more efficiently designed urban core. So if they love the market so much, make 'em eat it. Insist on a free market in development, and push for regional government, and end to burdensome zoning regulations such as minimum lot sizes, and an end to subsidies and tax breaks to lure jobs away from the unemployed. And make the bastards pay for their own roads, or go back to horses and buggies if they're so amped about being pioneers.

Demolition of the Week

I regard the impending destruction of the Chicago Sun-Times building with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it's an eyesore. In fact, it's maybe the ugliest building in Chicago, which is saying something in a city that slavishly worships the architectural atrocities of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. On the other hand, Royko worked there, up until he quit after Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, saying "no self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch paper." As the Chicago of Mike Royko and Slats Grobnik vanishes into dust, I find myself longing for some part of them to hold on to.

As the 5o's atrocity is demolished to make way for a fantastical monument to one man's ego, I comfort myself with the thought that Royko's real home base, th Billy Goat Tavern, still skulks in the underground alley just a block away.

Within two years' time the Sun-Times site will be home to Donald Trump's new monument to Donald Trump:

Tasteful, no?

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Onward to Fallujah!

George and Donnie's Excellent Adventure

Jesus Saves at Riverview Community Bank

Brian Covell’s sermon this morning was striking as usual. For text he referred to an article in the New York Times Magazine on faith in the workplace in modern America:

Chuck Ripka is a moneylender -- that is to say, a mortgage banker -- and his institution, the Riverview Community Bank in Otsego, Minn., is a way station for Christ. When he's not approving mortgages, or rather especially when he is, Ripka lays his hands on customers and colleagues, bows his head and prays: ''Lord, I pray that you will bring Matt and Jaimie the best buyer for their house so that they have the money to purchase the new home they feel called to. And I pray, Lord, that you grant me the wisdom to give them the best advice to meet their financial needs.''
The article goes on to discuss how various Americans of different faiths are integrating their faith into working life. Brian went on to discuss the implications of the ongoing religious awakening in American society, the discomfort it brings to many Unitarians, and the possibility that we may be able to join forces with mainstream Christians to effect positive social change.

But the sermon, and the article, hit a nerve with me, and helped me understand the source of a lot of my anger with the ongoing fundamentalist revival.

What bothers me isn’t people being openly religious. What bothers me is that people ask God to help them get a bigger house, which is just as inane as praying for your football team to win. The biggest problem of the fundamentalist “third great awakening” is how remarkably free it is of ethical content. People are going through their lives pursuing the standard set of goals considered normal for our society: career success, nice home, happy family, good health, new car, a vacation in Hawaii, and so on. To fill the emptiness of the materialistic quest for happiness, they adopt religion. This religion gives them rules to follow in order to be one of the good people and get into heaven. If they fall short of these rules, they ask God for forgiveness. Overall, the rules give people pretty fair guidelines about how to be a successful productive member of society.

But is that what religion should call people to do? What this kind of worldview fails to do is raise ethical questions about what you should do with your life. Essentially, these goals people are pursuing come from society, and they use religion as a guide or self-help tool to help them achieve these goals. But are they pursuing the right goals? Is economic and social success the thing that religion should be helping you pursue? I don’t think so.

Part of my beef with the fundamentalist movement is its denaturing of the gospel. By claiming the Bible is “literally true,” they are able to treat it as part history text, part rule book and ignore any ethical implications it might have for the way we live our lives today. In the article, one banker describes the job as the opportunity to minister to people in financial trouble and help them with their problems. That’s certainly a good thing to do. But shouldn’t a religious person ask whether a bigger house or a new car is really what the family should do with its extra resources? Instead of praying for help getting a mortgage, shouldn’t a Christian suggest perhaps doing something with the money to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or heal the sick as Jesus clearly taught? But of course, the bank wouldn’t make any profit if it did that, now would it?

These loudly religious people seem to simply assume that they live in a Christian society and that the Bible just gives them rules to follow to live in it well. At most, they will argue that society used to be Christian but has fallen a bit because of widespread sexual immorality, abortion, and secularism. But what past society do they long for? J.P. Morgan era plutocracy? Jim Crow? Widespread and widely accepted violence against women? Child labor? To me it looks like many of these so-called Christians are using religiosity to justify their self-interested lifestyles to themselves and others, and to avoid examining their increasingly segregated society in which power and opportunity are closely held by a privileged few, a society in which many good (and Christian) people are trapped in dying communities with inferior access to jobs, education, medical care, even food, a society which continues to ruthlessly, mindlessly, suicidally destroy the very national resources upon which it depends?

Religion should call people out of their everyday lives and force them to evaluate the ethics of how they live their lives, and the ultimate question of what their lives mean, and should mean. We live in a society that increasingly tells us that if we all look after our own self-interest, it will all average out to the greatest good for the greatest number. Every religion I ever heard of says that ain’t the case. The fundamentalist movement wants to dodge the question entirely, get saved, and get raptured out of here before the shit hits the fan. But we don’t need to be rescued. We need to stay and fight.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

A Candidate for the People

Democrats need a new kind of candidate to take back this country. I've said before, we need a Democratic answer to George Bush. We need someone who can raise a great deal of money. We need someone who doesn't speak too good, so the common people can relate to him. We need somebody born to power and privilege who comes off as a regular guy. We need a candidate to present simple themes, not complex policy positions. They need someone who can connect to good, old fashioned God-fearing family values, so he can take socially liberal positions without alienating the heartland. We need someone who will campaign hard and dirty. We need someone whom scandals will roll off of like water rolls off a duck because of his winning personality. We need someone who talks like a tough guy on TV. We need someone with political experience from outside Washington DC. We need someone with a record of fighting crime and improving schools.

We need Richard M. Daley.

Daley '08!