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

Monday, February 28, 2005

More on Eminant Domain

More on Eminent Domain abuse from today's New York Times:
DAN GOLDSTEIN loves his new home, a 1,280-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath, roughly finished condominium in a former warehouse building on Pacific Street near downtown Brooklyn. Which is why he does not want to leave, even though he is being pressed to do so.

The approach to the building is not the grandest. Across the street are the dormant subway cars of the Atlantic Avenue rail yards, loosely corralled by a chain-link fence. Beyond the yards lie the dubious aesthetic pleasures of the Atlantic Mall.
But the former warehouse - the Allied Storage Building, designed by the architect George S. Kingsley and built in 1926 - with its blue and white ceramic medallions and florid stone rosettes, presents a noble face (and a singular one) that harks back to a time when even a building made for storage hoped to be beautiful. Besides, Mr. Goldstein's apartment, on the seventh floor, faces Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue, and its views of Brooklyn are glorious.

Mr. Goldstein is the only resident of the condo, now called the Atlantic Art Building, who has not sold his or her apartment to Bruce C. Ratner and his Forest City Ratner company in the last year to make way for a development that is to include a new home for Mr. Ratner's New Jersey Nets.

I've taken some time off the last couple days to start reading The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, the excellent biography of Robert Moses that Wells gave me. The book helped destroy his reputation, but since I've only heard the bad stuff before it's actually made me more sympathetic. I want to hate the guy (he's known as a builder of superhighways and horrible modernist housing projects), but really I find him fascinating. He definitely had an idealistic side, and his later obsession with organizing power to transform the world is scary, but something I totally understand. He was an early force behind civil service reform, reforming prisons to rehabilitate rather than just punish, creating the state park system - and all this by the time he was my age. His habit of looking out the window of a car or train and obsessively building stuff in his head is one that I share.

No name is as closely associated with eminant domain as Robert Moses. The guy demolished whole neighborhoods to make New York accessible by automobile (and by any reasonable standard he failed). He's also (mostly wrongly) often blamed for causing sprawl and massive white flight to the suburbs (racism and misguided federal policies had a lot more to do with it).
Atlantic Art was the name given to the 31-unit building by its developer, Marc Freud, who briefly tried to brand its neighborhood NoFA, for, north of Flatbush Avenue, when he converted the building in 2002. It now sits in the middle of a development planned by Mr. Ratner, Forest City Ratner's president. In addition to the new home for his basketball team, Mr. Ratner hopes to put up office and apartment towers designed by Frank Gehry. Company officials say they are poised to sign a memo of understanding with the city in a few weeks.

The 21-acre footprint for the controversial plan, which the company estimates would raze about 140 apartments, stretches from Atlantic Avenue to Dean Street and from Flatbush to Vanderbilt Avenues. It would erase the area's most recent incarnation as a yuppies-on-the-edge outpost of Prospect Heights, one organized by developers like Shaya Boymelgreen, whose conversion of the former Daily News printing plant at 700 Pacific Street into condominiums spurred hasty copycat conversions of other industrial buildings, including Allied Storage.

(That incarnation, of course, rests on the shoulders of more grass-roots conversions made by artist pioneers, who colonized the largely industrial area 15 or so years ago.)

While he's rightly criticized for riding roughshod over the rights of property owners, destroying once-great neighborhoods and creating ugliness on a monumental scale, at least Moses was seizing property to build public roads, parks and housing. Today's eminent domain battles seem to be all about benefitting private organizations (such as the Jets or the, er, Brooklyn Nets) or well-connected developsers. Moses was at least part of the movement to make government accountable and use it to wrest control from the plutocrats who controlled the country in his Guilded Age youth - in the decades since his death power seems to have shifted back into the hands of big corporations and the wealthy to an extent not seen since before the Depression. It almost makes me miss a bastard who would seize land from the private estates of guys with names like Vanderbilt, Wintrhop and Whitney to build a park.
"I'm a person living in the home I love," he said, "and I intend to stay in it. I haven't had any construction problems. Anyway, I may be the only one in my building opposed to the Ratner plan, but there are thousands living within and without the footprint who are against it."

Indeed, as members of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, Mr. Goldstein and others have collected 12,000 signatures opposing the project. The group, which has the support of many community leaders, offers as an alternative a more organic, home-grown development, the Unity Plan, that calls for keeping, not razing, the existing buildings, and for new construction on the rail yards.

The week before last, Mr. Goldstein's front door was decorated with a red and white poster with the slash-in-a-circle graphic surrounding the words "Eminent Domain Abuse"; a sisal Peter Max "Love" doormat sat below. An old desk topped with a hamper and some glass vases sat outside a neighbor's door, the discards from the neighbor's exodus.

Inside, Mr. Goldstein's apartment was both folksy and industrial, with smoke-colored walls and wood and resin furniture made by his friend Sebastian Hamilton. Jane Jacobs's manifesto on new urbanism, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," lay on a coffee table.

. . .

When he read about Mr. Ratner's plan to move the Nets near the mall on Atlantic Avenue, Mr. Goldstein said, he thought, "Well, that's nice, I like sports."

"I didn't think an arena would be built on top of a residential neighborhood," he added.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Is Urban Renewal Constitutional?

Whether the ancient protection of English common law of the rights of private property against incursions by the State shall be wholly abandoned is a question which probably will have to be left to history since we seem to be well on our way.

-L.D. McKendry, vice-president, Chicago Title and Trust Company,
to Holman D. Pettibone, November 9,1948, Holman D. Pettibone Papers,
Chicago Historical Society
The Supreme Court Tuesday heard arguments on the constitutionality of a municipality using "eminant domain" to seize property from one group of private owners and transfer it to another. At issue is a plan by the government of New London, Connecticut to seize the homes of seven families in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, demolish the homes and re-sell the land to private developers.

The constitution gives states and municipalities the right to take private land for public use as long as just compensation is given. At issue is whether governments can take land for private use. The city of New London is arguing that this is a legitimate use of government power because the new development would produce more tax revenue for the city. The residents argue that this argument is nonsense. "Every city has problems, every city would like more tax revenue," said Scott Bullock, the attorney for the families who are suing to keep their land. "But that cannot be justification ... for the use of eminent domain." Doing so would put everyone's home at risk of being torn down for a property-tax producing Wal Mart or Home Depot.

To understand the implications of the case, we should look at how this practice began, over fifty years ago, here in Chicago. The practice began in an attempt by powerful Loop interests to deal with perceived threats to their investments posed by the decline of the central city and the departure of the middle class to the suburbs. For details I refer to Arnold Hirch's excellent book, Making the Second Ghetto, which describes the creation of Chicago's segregated black ghettoes, of both the slum and public housing varieties, in the immediate post-War period.
Not only did the burgeoning suburbs attract much of the Loops' clientele, but the subsequent decay of the inner city placed severe financial burdens on the city and, especially, its large businesses. Slums meant increased costs for police and fire protection and decreased revenues resulting from tax delinquencies. Should the physical deterioration of hte central districts continue, immobile businesses and institutions would have to pay increased taxes to offset the city's rising costs and shrinking income. It was necessary to "restore deteriorated areas to profitable uses: so that "the speedign up of decentralization with further loss of jobs, bussinesses, families and tax revenues" could be halted.

Sound familiar? These gentlemen of note convinced Mayor Kennelly and Governor Green to push for passage of the Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act of 1947, which allowed municipalities to create bodies - such as the Chicago Land Clearance Commission, which could seize property using eminant domain for the purpose of selling this property to private developers for large scale redevelopment projects. Many Republicans who remained steadfastly opposed to public housing found they were much more comfortable with the private sector "taking the lead" in redevelopment.

A willing developer was quickly found for the targeted Near South Side neighborhood - the New York Life Insurance Company. New York Life planned to buy a huge swath of land just south of the Loop to build a series of huge Modernist highrise apartment buildings in "superblock," surrounded by parking lots and private green space, provided the city would seize and clear the land, and close and tear up the existing grid of city streets in the neighborhood.

Once the private developer became involved, however, it quickly began making large demands on the city government in exchange for funding the project. A new school and park were demanded, and Cottage Grove Ave. would have to be closed at 33rd Place. And while the project was initially conceived as a way to remove deteriorating "slum" housing, New York LIfe insisted on shifting the project site east, where it bordered on the railroad tracks which run parallel to Lake Shore Drive - in order to secure the lake views which would attract middle class residents, in spite of the fact that these easternmost properties were in fact well maintained did not fit the definition of "slum housing" or "blighted area," unless those terms are to be interpreted simply as code for "black people."

So a project originally intended to produce tax revenue and customers for downtown merchants by replacing degraded housing quickly became a way for a private corporation to co-opt government power to seize property from other private owners, who did not particularly want to sell, for their own private gain. And what happened to the less well off residents of the existing neighborhood?

In relocating the residents of the Dearborn Homes site, the [Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council] noted that in "many cases" it had been "necessary to break up the family in order to place them in any kind of home" . . . A family consisting of a grandmother, mother, and four children, unable to relocate themselves, followed a CLCC suggestion that the grandmother leave the family to permit the others to qualify for Aid to Dependent Children and public housing. Two months after the grandmother left, her daugher and the chidren were placed on ADC and in the Dearborn Homes.
Helped on their way to welfare dependency and the projects - another great victory for Progress! All to make way for the majestic glory that was Lake Meadows. Although today few sane people will defend them aesthetically, they have been held up by some as a model of middle-class integration in a segregated era (for years a "racial balance" was achieved by discriminating against black applicants to keep the population about 45% white in spite of a preponderance of blacks in the applicant pool. The pros and cons of such a policy in such a time are debatable - today such practices are quite illegal).

Most Chicagoans today are familiar with the overwhelming blandness of the looming highrises, which echo the (subsequently built and recently demolished) State Street Corridor public housing highrises they presaged. The complex still serves the same purpose - providing middle-class housing close to the Loop. The loons who write about architecture and real estate at the Tribune seem to like the place. Contemporary tenant reviews of Lake Meadows are mixed. Recent development in the neighborhood seeks to re-urbanize the space to some extent by re-introducing more typical urban housing in the shadow of the Modernist towers.

At the end of the post I should get back to the Supreme Court, I suppose. What's there to say? I doubt very much Fort Trumbull residents will get much of a hearing, the Supremes will be very reluctant to break with precedent in the case I fear. From what little I heard of the proceedings, only "Swinger" Scalia - oddly enough - seemed sympathetic. But obviously I don't believe transferring land to a private developer is truly a "public use" of land. I doubt very much the city's claims that the area cannot be redeveloped using the existing plan of streets and lots, and leaving alone those residents who don't want to move. And I can't help but remember the historical roots of this type of project in the desire to remove "racially undesireable" citizens from potentially valuable land.

Note: in researching this post I found this wonderful photo essay at Gaper's Block, documenting in excruciating detail how much of Chicago has been lost to the wrecker's ball. Looking at these should help my non-Chicagoan readers and friends understand a bit why I get so upset about this. Note how many of the North Side sites still remain, compared to the widespread destruction elsewhere - this is not due to any sort of protected status (in Chicago? are you kidding?) but simply to the fact that theses places haven't been seen as "blighted." Developers looking to provide units with more square footage, or provide more units per lot, are beginning to demolish even these neighorhoods - as well as my own, more modest 'hood which escaped the wrecking ball for decades mostly because it had escaped notice altogether.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

"The First Rule of Journalism is You Do Not Talk About Journalism"

Wells sent me this clip of Jon Stewart on bloggers that's so priceless you have to see it right now (click on the picture or here). The crack about journalists not talking about journalism brought me right back to all the New Journalism thoughts I've been having the last day or so (thanks again Wells).

1) For one thing, the press used to have a good rule about not talking about eacdh other--no matter what they thought, or even what they knew. In the good old days a newspaperman would always protect his own kind. There was no way to get those bastards to testify against each other. It was worse than trying to make doctors testify in a malpractice suit, or making a beat cop squeal on his buddy in a "police brutality" case.

2) The reason I know about things like "malpractice" and "police brutality" is that I used to be a "cop"--a police chief, for that matter, in a small city just east of Los Angeles. And before that I was a boss detective in Nevada--and before that a berat cop in Oakland. So I know what I'm talking about when I say most "journalists" are lying shitheads. I never knew a reporter who could even say the word "corrupt" without pissing in his pants from pure guilt.
-Hunter S Thompson, graddaddy of blogging, writing as Raoul Duke in Scanlan's Monthly, June 1970 (no, he was not really a cop).

The Flag has fallen in the dirt, gentlemen. We should pick it up.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Post-Post-Modern Post

Thinking about the "New Journalism" since hearing about the death of Hunter Thompson and the zombie-like undeath of Tom Wolfe has made me pretty angry at the arrogance of the whole "post-war" era. I mean, who did these people think they were to try to claim the labels "New" and "Modern" for themselves for all time?

"New" Journalism and the "New Left" are pretty much old hat at this point. "Modern" architecture looks chintzy and dated at this point, boring and conformist even in those rare cases it doesn't actully look like junk. Anything built since the, um, "modern" era ended gets labeled "Post-Modern" to establish a relationship, even when it's quite clear the architect wanted nothing to do with that Modern crap at all.

And how about intellectual "post-modernism" or "post-feminism?" What, they're claiming everything after the heydey of those movements, until the end of time, for themselves? Why can't they come up with a name based on what the movement believes in, rather than what it comes after? ("Deconstruction" instead of "Postmodern" for example, or "Subjective Journalism" for "the New Journalism.") I get the feeling these new modern thinkers really thought the world was about to end, and their ideas would be the last. Perhaps they saw themselves as the Seal of the Prophets or something.

Well, the world is not about to end, and we're not going to spend the next 5,000 years calling ourselves post-postmodern because the 1950s were such an important, crucial milestone for civilization. I find myself hoping Reconstruction comes soon to this post-intellectual, post-industrial, post-enlightened, er, post-society we live in. I'm not really advocating imprisoning anyone who won't sign a loyalty oath to an observable, testable reality where conclusions must be based on reasonable evidence and can be disputed by logic, but daydreaming about it certainly gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Does anybody else think "Reconstruction" has a nice ring to it? Hey, New Urbanists, you guys are cool and all but the name has to go. I think "Reconstruction" would be cool, "Smart Growth" is okay but kinda soft and fuzzy. You can stick with "Urbanism" if you must, but fifteen years on it just isn't "New" anymore. Okay? The present is transitory. Everything "New" is old again.

"Anything I write is going to be about the death of the American Dream"

Hunter S Thompson killed himself last night. He shot himself with a handgun in the kitchen of his Woody Creek, Colorado home.

"I wouldn't recommend sex, drugs, or insanity for everyone, but they've always worked for me."
Thompson was a pioneer of what was known as the New Journalism, or "gonzo journalism" as he called it, in which the journalist actively involves himself in the story. In other words he was a proto-blogger. Part of his schtick was reporting, or claiming to report, while taking large amounts of hallucinogenic drugs.
"There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest
old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you've followed him around for a while."
He told a lot of truths about the worlds of politics, journalism and sports, and those establishments defended themselves the best way they could - by characterizing him as a crackpot. an empty self-promoter, or worst of all as a brilliant writer of fiction. But while his style was unorthodox, who among the orthodox would even mention someting like "structural deprivation in domestic poverty pockets," let alone do it in a sentence that a young person grotesquely misinformed by our public eduacation system would even read and think about. Hell today's young people came up in the era of "personal responsibility," unaware that society has a structure, that it might be corrupt, or that they might be in part culpable for it. But that's not what our Hunter will be remembered for. It's best to let him speak for himself:

Weapons are my business. You name it and I know it: guns, bombs, gas, fire, knives and everytthing else. Dam few people in the world know more about weaponry than I do. i'm an expert on demolition, ballistics, blades, motors, animals--anything capable of causeing damage to man, beast or structure. Thsi is my profession, my bag, my trade, my thing . . . my evil specialty. And for this reason the editors of Scanlan's have asked me to comment on a periodical called The Police Chief.

At first I refused . . but various pressures soon caused me to change my mind. Money was not a factor in my decision. What finally spurred me to action was a sense of duty, even urgency, to make my voice heard. I am, as I said, a pro--and in this foul and desperate hour in our history I think even pros should speak up . . .

Here's a crowd of suck-asses putting out this magazine that says it's the voice of cops. Which is bullshit. All you have to do is look at the goddamnj thing to see what it is. Look at the advertizing; Fag tools! Breathalysers, "paralyzers," gas masks, sirens, funny little car radios with voice scramblers so the scum can't listen in . . but no ATTACK WEAPONS!!! Not one! The last really fuctional weapon that got mentioned in The Police Chief was the "Nutcracker Flail," a combination club and pincers about three feet long that can cripple almost anybody. It works like a huge pair of pliers: the officer first flails the living shit out of anybody he can reach . . . and then, whin a suspect falls, he swiftly applies the "nutcracker" action, gripping the victim's neck, extremities or genitals with the powerful pincers at the "reaching" end of the tool, then squeezing until all resistance ceases.

Believe me, our city streets would be a lot safer if every beat cop in the nation carried a Nutcraker Flair . . .

Another fine source of weapons info--particularly for the private citizen--is a little known book titled, How to Defend Yourself, Your Family, and Your Home--a Complete Guide to Self-Protection. Now here is a book with real class! It explains, in 307 pages of fine detail, how to set booby traps in your home so that "midnight intruders: will destroy themselves upon entry; it tells which type of shotgun is best for rapid-fire work in narrow hallways (a sawed-off double-barreled 12-guage; one barrel loaded with a huge tear gas slug, the other with Double-O buckshot). This book is invaluable to anyone who fears that his home might be invaded, at any moment, but rioters, rapers, looters, dope addicts, niggers, Reds or any other group . . .

But why grapple now with a book of such massive stature? I need time to ponder it and to run tests on the many weapons and devices that appear in the text. No professional would attempt to deal lightly with this book. It is a rare combination of sociology and stone craziness, laced with weapons technology on a level that is rarely encountered.
-writing as "Raoul Duke" in Scanlan's Monthly, June 1970

Hunter S. Thompson ran for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado in 1970 on the Freak Power Party ticket and narrowly lost.

"Willard is a great man," said the letter. "He is an artist and a man of taste." As it turned out, he also was a prodigious drinker in the tradition of Brendan Behan, who was said to have had "a thirst so great it would throw a shadow." I was making my own beer at the time and Willard put a great strain on the aging process; I had to lock the stuff up to keep him from getting at it before the appointed moment. . . Willard arrived shortly before I packed up and left for the East; we had a convivial few weeks, and, as a parting gesture, I left him a five-gallon jug of beer that I did not feel qualified to transport across the nation. It still had a week or so to go in the jug, then anohter few weeks of aging in quart bottles, after which it would have had a flavor to rival the nectar of the gods. Willard's only task was to bottle it and leave it alone until it was ready to drink . . .

Unfortunately, his thirst threw a heavy shadow on the schedule. He was living on a hill overlooking the southern section of the city, and among his neighbors were several others of the breed, mad drinkers and men of strange arts. Shortly after my departure he entertained one of these gentlemen, who, like my man Willard, was long on art and energy, but very short of funds.

The question of drink arose, as it will in the world of art, but the presence of poverty cast a bleak light on the scene. There was, however, this five-gallon jug of raw, unaged home brew in the kitchen. Of course, it was a crude drink and might produce beastly and undesired effects, but . . . well . . . The rest is history. After drinking half the jug, the two artists laid hands on several gallons of blue paint and proceeded to refinish the front of the house Willard was living in. The landlord, who lived across the street, witenssed this horror and called the police. They arrived to the front of the house looking like a Jackson Pollack canvas, and the sidewalk rapidly disappearing under a layer of sensual crimson. At this point, something of an argumant ensued, but WIllard is 6 feet 4, and 230 pounds, and he prevailed. For a while.

Some moments later the police came back with reinvorcements, but by this time Willard and his helper had drunk off the rest o the jug and were eager for any kind of action, be it painting or friendly violence. The intrusion of the police had caused several mottos to be painted on the front of the house, and they were not without antisocial connotations. The landlord was weeping and gnashing his teeth, loud music emanated from the interior of the desecrated house, and the atmosphere in general was one of hypertension.

The scene that followed can only be likened to the rounding up of wild beasts escaped from a zoo. Willard says he attempted to flee, but floundered on a picket fence, which collapsed with his weight and that of a pursuing officer . . .

the gentlemen of the press showed up for the usual photos. They tried to coax Willard up to the front of his cell to pose, but the other artist had undertaken to rip the toilet bowl out of the floor and smash it into smjall pieces. For the next hour, the press was held at bay with chunks of porcelain, hurled by the two men in the cell. "We used up the toilet," Willard recalls, "then we got the sink. I don't remember much of it, but I can't understand why the cops didn't shoot us. We were out of our heads."
-National Observer, April 20, 1964

Thompson was a refugee from a time when it was possible for single people to "drop out" - that is, by forgoing lots of material goods they could live cheaply enough to separete themselves from mainstream society and get an external view of it.
In 1958, I drifted north from Kentucky and became a nonstudent at Columbia. I signed up for two courses and am still getting bills for the tuition. My home was a $12-a-week room in an off-campus building full of jazz musicians, shoplifters, mainliners, screaming poets and sex addicts of every description. It was a good life. I used the university facilities and at one point was hired to stand in a booth all day for two days, collecting registration fees. Twice I walked almost the lenght of the campus at night with a big wooden box containing nearly $15,000. It was a wild feeling and I'm still not sure why I took the money to the bursar.

Being a "non" or "nco" student on an urban campus is not only simple but natural for anyone who is young, bright an concvinced that the major he's after is not on the list. Any list. A serious nonstudent is his own guidance counselor. The surprising thing is that so few people beyond the campus know this is going on.
- The Nation, September 27, 1965

His influence on me as a young man was tremendous, both with the power of his watchful cynicism and the paradoxical sense that he could find his own way, live by his own lights and still somehow have an influence. I'm at least a generation behind Thompson, he would have been about my age now when I was born, already accomplished and in the middle of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

But even ten or fifteen years ago, there was a sense that you could live outside the mainstream and be free, as long as you avoided going into debt. I lived in a cooperative with artists, radicals, free lovers and druggies as recently as 1996. Ambitious nonconformists from Kentucky don't run off to Haight Street or Greenwich Village to paint thses days - you can hardly be a beatnik when you need to come up with $1000 or more for rent every month. If you can afford that kind of money, you're not an outsider anymore. Sure, you're probably not a plutocrat, but you're certainly effective enough at begging for scraps from their table.

Often I hear it asked why, in these times, there doesn't seem to be a widespread social movement against the war and the Bush Administration in general, considering how many people appear to hate what's happening. There are of course a number of reasons, including the fact that these mass social movements have a decidedly mixed record. But a key factor, I think, is that rich people have us over a barrel. We need to work so much just to pay for housing and health insurance, we don't have the time or means to mount a visible opposition. Official GDP figures show a great deal of economic growth since the 60's and 70's, and a much higher average income. But anyone who has to deal with the cost of living in the real world knows those figures don't tell the whole story. In reality, we have a stagnant or declining standard of living, even with more workers per household, for most people - and a new class of petit plutocrats laughing at us from the great rooms of their exurban mini-mansions.

So the promise that America used to offer even the most cynical, that one could strike out alone and create a new way of living, seems to be vanishing. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a complicated question. Too many people have internalized individualism as a birthright to such an extent that they no longer feel any responsibility for the well-being of other or of society. This extreme selfishness is the emotional core of todays conservative movement. But without the ability to break free from mainstream society's prescribed behaviors and outlooks, we can never really look at ourselves and see the corruption and hypocrisy which pervate our self-righteous society.

Is that why Thompson killed himself? Or was he struggling with depression? Or did he mean it as some kind of fucked-up artistic statement? Who cares?

Fuck you, Hunter. How could you leave us like this? I miss you already.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


As part of our celebration of African American History Month, the members of Third Unitarian attended services at Pilgrim Baptist Church today. The church meets in an amazing building built by famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan at 33rd and Indiana in the Bronzeville neighborhood. It was built as Kehilath Anshe Ma'ariv synagogue in 1890 - Sullivan's trademark lattice-like designs in the sactuary feature the Star of David as a repetitive motif. I would have brought a camera, but that would have been rude. Pilgrim Baptist has been meeting there since 1922. They still have some original members - one church lady will be turning 108 this week.

Outside the world of architecture, the church is best known because Thomas A. Dorsey was music director there. His widow still attends. The music was still pretty powerful, buy the choir and the congregation seem to have diminished in number in with the passing years. In fact, beyond the obvious difference (Baptists generally "accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior," Unitarians as a rule do not), the two churches seem to have a lot in common. Both churches are in poor neighborhoods which are seeing the first encroachment of gentrification. Both were active in the civil rights movement. Both congregations are smaller than they used to be, with many elderly members. So it seems like a pretty good match for an attempt at cross-cultural understanding.

A few thoughts - every time I'm somewhere we sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" it sticks in my head for days. At Pilgrim they have meals together before and after the service every week. We should start doing this - the few occasions we have had meals together at Third we've always bonded with new people. Of course, they're there all day, apparently - after the three hour service there was a choir concert in the afternoon. I would have stayed if I weren't laid up with the flu this weekend.

I don't know how the understanding thing is working out. Frankly, a lot of the old Unitarians were a little put out by all of the "Jesus" and shouting and applause for God to hear the Rev. Hycel Taylor's message. Which is a pity, because he was trying to get at something important. He spoke to his increasing feeling that our attachment to what he called "superstition" - our specific doctrines and beliefs about the nature of God and the universe - we are losing track of something essential within us that binds us to the sacred. He suggested that if we could realize this, Christian and Jew, black and white, Sunni and Shiite might be able to love each other and stop with all the killing. While committed to his own tradition. he longs to be part of something universal that can transcend all the differences and allow us to love and accept each other and to live toghether in peace.

He doesn't look much like me, we don't talk alike, and I certainly can't sing like he can. But there's a thirst in this guy that I recognize. I don't think we're that different after all.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

There Goes the Neighborhood (Demolition of the Week)

It's finally happened:

An organization identifying itself as "Rock Builders" has notified us of their plans to demolish the apartment buildings next door in order to "start the project of building new house." This is tragic both because of the noise, work crews and dust that will inevitably accompany the project, and becausethere's such a great building there now.

It's a classic three-flat on two lots with addition units in the coach house on the alley.

When we moved in the property included five or six units which were mostly occupied by older Polish immigrants with modest incomes and modest English language skills. The building was owned by a nice old German lady named Rosie who had lived in the neighborhood since marrying an American GI in the aftermath of WWII and accompanying him back to Chicago. Rosie died last year, and some investors apparently bought the property and kicked the residents out. One older woman remained in the coach house until a few weeks ago, I suppose she was the only one with an actual signed lease.

I like the building because it integrated more affordable housing into a street of single-families and two-flats which is getting more and more expensive, and because if its modest but effective use of decorative detail.

I had no idea they planned to knock it down and I'm really upset about it. Just a block away, a similar building has been converted into very nice condominiums that I migh even be able to afford. Why not this one?

The answer probalby lies with our f-ing property taxes. Since the buildings sit on two lots, the property is valued and taxed at the price it can bring on the open market - as many as eight large condominium units or two full-lot mansions. Moderately priced rental units are never going to cover mortgage and property taxes, and while the main building could be converted to three condominiums, the coach house will never appeal to an upscale buyer, and there is only one parking space, in the garage to the west of the main building.

Chicago zoning, of course, requires a parking spot for each new unit built. Yet another way city policies promote destruction rather than preservation.

I've been so busy lately with work and life that I haven't been able to keep up with writing this blog, much less respond to comments. Several people have commented on the neighborhood destruction situation:

At 1/18/2005
10:05:54 AM
, Wells said...
Its the little details, like the workmanship on the trim - or even how the entrance of a building (inside) is put together. What drives me crazy is when there are building with terra cotta roofs and other easily saved parts that are not used. One building in New York was probably three stories and was knocked down for a 10-12 story building - but they supposedly are incorporating the old roof into the new building. I have seen it a few times in New York, but I hear it is very common in San Fran to use a system where steel beams are used to hold up the outside while the inside of the building is completely demolished and the new building is put up within. The exact name escapes me, but I believe one of the new buildings recently renovated by the SF Music Conservatory or whatever it is called used this method.

At 1/28/2005
03:05:27 PM
, Stockton&Tweed said...
In Washington they tear down buildings but leave the original facades. (Building height restriction makes this pretty easy to do.) The result is new buildings behind the historic facade. It works out quite well, except that some of the smaller buildings' interiors are probably very interesting and get demolished all the same.--Tweed

At 2/3/2005 04:35:40 PM, Anonymous said...
I'm always concerned about these demolitions as well. i'm a member of preservation chicago ( the organization advocates for the preservation of such architecurally important buildings. It is a shame about this bank, indeed.

East Coast cities including Washington and New York have generally done a much better job at neighborhood preservation. They consider their histories as important and the unique character of their neighborhoods as something special which attracts people to the city and is a source of pride for residents. Another great example is Boston. While I was there a few weeks ago I saw block after block of old school neighborhoods in very good shape. While there were naturally some newer buildings interspersed, they had been carefully desinged to fit in with the look and feel of the existing urban fabric.

Beacon hill has kept the narrow streets and steep hills of its storied past, even though this neighborhood design means that a severe snowstorm can paralyze the neighborhood for weeks.

In Chicago, rows of apartment buildings like this would be interrupted by horrible glass modernism.

Bostonions even try to preserve what's left of historic buildings destroyed by fire. The new church incorporates the remaining wall of the old, burned church.

I have a couple thoughts on why this doesn't happen in Chicago. First of all, the neighborhoods people have preserved in the East tend to have remained upscale for most of their history. Secondly, it seems like the population has been more engaged and supportive of historic preservation. Polls about development concerns in Chicago conducted by Metropolis 2020 have shown preservation dead last on the public's agenda, at about 11%. Why? Because Chicago stands on a ledge. It hasn't flourished as a modern international metropolis over the past couple decades, but it hasn't collapsed into ruin like Detroit or Baltimore either. Residents feel that things have been steadily improving, but they worry that the next economic downturn or new burst of suburban development (say a new state highway in the southwest suburbs or the apocalyptic nightmare of a suburban airport at Peotone) will suck resources out of the city and bring about its final collapse and the exodus of the rest of the middle class. So people, and expecially politicians, are desperate for "development," any development, even if it's Wal-Mart. They view any attempt at preservation or neighborhood building rules such as height restrictions, as lowering property values and threatening to turn healthy neighborhoods into ghetto. Many people here don't like old stuff because they've only seen it in the context of segregated, sub-standard ghetto housing that has not been maintained, in neighborhoods where crime has been rampant, schools are crappy and you can't even buy decent produce. Old housing stands in the neighborhoods their parents fled in panic 40 years ago. In those neighborhoods, residents often wish they could get rid of "obsolete" structures and infrastructure in the vain hope that development will give them jobs, rather than push them out. It doesn't occur to them that other neighborhoods with exactly the same kind of built environment and infrastructure are thriving, because in this most segregated of cities, they never visit those neighborhoods.

Chicagoans are almost certainly wr0ng about this, by the way. Landmarking the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights in New York has had exactly the opposite effect, sending property values skyrocketing over the past few decades.

As for Preservation Chicago, they are certainly fighting the good fight when it comes to trying to save the old Cook County Hospital. But overall my impression has been that they are too cozy with the city and developers and not willing to go to the matresses in most disputes. Some board members have even worked at architecture firms that have designed the replacements for demolished landmarks. What we need here are not public relations campaigns to save popular landmarks, but changes in public policy that put a priority on neighborhood preservation, even if that means some wealthy investors won't get to make as much money from their property as they had hoped.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

What's the Matter With [fill in the blank]

Just got my Atlantic Monthly the other day (thanks Wells). It included a nice little essay by Walter Shapiro called What's the Matter with Central Park West? In it, he riffs on Thomas Frank to ask why so many of New York's economic elites seem to vote against their class interests.
The thirty-seven blocks of residential towers that line the western edge of Central Park, from its lower end at Columbus Circle to the age-old social barrier of Ninety-sixth Street, make up a self-contained world whose sprawling apartments, with their high-ceilinged living rooms, formal dining rooms, and unobtrusive maids' quarters, are home to investment bankers, corporate lawyers,
and media executives. And yet in a baffling testament to the failure of Americans to grasp their economic self-interest, the residents of CPW (as locals colloquially call their street) overwhelmingly voted for John Kerry and the Democrats.
It's a funny piece, but it also highlights just how Shapiro (and Frank) might be missing the point.

The preeminant accomplishment of the conservative movement has been to convince Americans. that we are radical individuals, pioneers carving out our living from a harsh landscape, rather than members of neighborhoods, communities, classes or interest groups. While Frank is obviously trying to explore class implications of contemporary politics, he still seems to be plucking people out of context to some extent, looking at their "culture" as a narrative or ideology, rather than at where and how they live.

But context matters. None of you reading this are really self made. You don't grow or hunt your own food, you didn't chop down trees to build your own house, except for you knitters you don't make your own clothing, and even the knitters buy yarn at Arcadia or the Knitters Niche. My point is that you use money. You get it either by working or through shadier means (stealing it, inheriting it, selling drugs, pretending to be a minority-owned business and contracting with the city to drive a dump truck). You have to live somewhere and work somewhere.

If there is an underreported truth to American politics that I'd like everyone to learn, it is this: the parties are not geographically neutral. The Democrats are based in esblished urban areas, the Republicans are based in new sprawl development. The parties' self interest is to enhance their own regions at the expense of the other. Republicans should seek to cripple established urban areas and promote more sprawl. Democrats should promote new development in urban areas and older suburbs, and yes, "gentrification." They should push for limits on new sprawl development - this could appeal to some sprawlers who always seem to oppose "development" as soon as they move in, but that's not the point. The point is to retard the growth of Republican areas.

Some progressives, especially some dolts who post at dailyKos, have argued that Democrats should increase their appeal in the fastest-growing counties. This is wrongheaded - it's like saying we should increase our appeal among homophobes and Creationists - it's impossible. What we should do is promote policies that stop those areas from growing so fast - so called limits to growth, refusing to use government funds to subsidize new roads and sewers, etc. Where Democrats should look for votes is in old, formerly Republican suburbs which are starting to feel the effects of the same kinds of "urban problems" which are in fact the result of the same kinds of disinvestment these very suburbs once inflicted on the central cities.

What I'm saying is that people's political allegiances, in suburban Kansas or in Manhattan, may look odd in terms of individual economic interests, but make perfect sense in terms of community economic interests. Both communities are acting to preserve their collective economic well-being by backing parties and policies which favor them. Politics is civil war pursued by other means. Republicans seem to understand this; Democrats, for whatever reason, don't seem to get it (I'm talking about party leadership here, not really the rank and file).

For a good look at the urban/exurban split, check out this study by pollster Stanley Greenberg, sort of a "What's the Matter with Minnesota?" Not the group I'm not discussing here, rural and small town voters. They are voting on conservative cultural issues, largely because neither party gives a damn about their economic interests. Rural America is rapidly shrinking, both in absolute and proportional population and even economically. As the family-farm economy which sustained these communities has vanished, small-town America is slowly rolling up its sidewalks and disappearing. Neither party has proposed anything that could remotely stave off the destruction of these communities, even as both try to lay claim to the heritage, tradition and "values" of these places. Outside of rhetorical nostalgia, rural America basically does not interest our political leaders other than as a big source of cannon fodder for the military.

End of Sermon.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Where's Elwood?

I apologize for my lack of posting and complete unresponsiveness to e-mail. My work situation right now is such that I have to spend all of my time at work actually working and blogging on my lunch break is no longer an option. Also all the traveling we've been doing the past six weeks has left me completely exhausted. A lot has happened in my neighborhood and the world over the past few weeks that I should have something to say about, but I just haven't had the time to put anyting down in pixels. Here's the short version.

Work - I should start a workin' blog. It would be called Close Enough for Government Work and chronicle the foibles of public employees in a big city government bureaucracy. I could write about trying to produce reports for the eyes of barely literate public officials, providing training on Web-based reporting systems for non-profit delegate agencies with no internet access and not a single computer literate employee, and union work rules that do not allow Spanish-speaking public employees to conduct trainings in their native language. Not to mention the Orwellian environment you encounter working on a Federal program that the Federal administration wants desperately to kill. It would be fun and informative. But I would get fired.

Play - My wife scored tickets to a big fundraising shindig for Planned Parenthood. Barack Obama and Sara Paretsky (author of the V.I. Warshawsky detective novels) were there, as were two people I voluteered with for the Kerry campaign in Wisconsin. The whole thing was basically a big liberal pep rally. Apparently I got tanked.

The good Senator is much better looking in person, if such a thing is possible. Swarms of young feminists flocked to him when he entered the hall to the extent that the other side of the room emptied out. It was like the Beatles at Shea Stadium.

Senator, Gap model, future President?

When he runs for president, he's going to have a lot of volunteers.

Boston - We spend the weekend in Boston for the wedding of two of Trope's college friends - a Hindu from Morocco and a white girl from the Midwest. The union hasn't always been the most popular among all members of the families involved, so the festivities were an elaborate attempt to reconcile the "needs" of the different families - there were American traditions and Indian traditions and many costume changes. It seemed to go off very well, in the sense that no one lit themselves on fire in protest, or even fought while I was there, so I guess the whole thing was worth it. My old friend Jon, who is the chaplain of the small liberal arts college so many of us seemed to have attended, headed up the Western part of the ceremony, in which he brought together the history of the couple's relationship with his knowlege of their spiritual journeys, beginning with an accout of his journey with the groom to a Lakota sweat lodge a few years ago. I thought he did a great job.

The Indian part was more complicated. It was almost two hours long, and involved chanting, tying the bride and groom together and throwing rice and vegetables into a sacrificial fire. I couldn't follow everything, but it did involve an offering to Ganesh, which I can appreciate.

Ganesh has the head of an elephant. This is because when he was young, he startled his father, Siva, while he thought he was alone in the woods, and Siva ripped him apart. Repentant after the fact and desperate to keep his wife from finding out, Siva tried to put him back together but couldn't find the head. So he did what any self-respecting deity would do, and ripped the head off an elephant and stuck it on his son. Needless to say, Parvati noticed.

I remember Ganesh fondly because one time in college Tony and I realized that we were not going to get our Historiography papers in by the drop-dead due date. We had not slept in at least 24 hours. Tony explained that Ganesh was the remover of obstacles and would clear a path for us, and produced a box of animal crackers from the convenience store. We set the elephant cracker atop the window sill, and broke the other crackers before him, beseeching his assistance in not failing out of school. The papers were late, but the professor accepted them anyway - miraculous enough for government work, I guess.

Anyway, it was a good trip. Trope loved it because there was string, and henna, and friends. I had a good time because the food was good, and Jon was there, and we mostly hung out with Trope's old drinking buddy, who's a lot of fun. Also I got to walk around Boston - there will be pics here whenever I can be bothered to get them off the camera. But I was really not feeling the spirituality, in part because I wasn't sure they were either. As they noted themselves, the whole thing felt like a seminar on the various things they've explored on their spiritual journey. And I respect what they were trying to do in blending all the different traditions. But a seminar explicitly reserves judgement about the truth of the subject studied to the students. Perhaps they were trying to include something for everyone in abbreviated form - a full-blown Indian wedding apparently involves at least five days of partying and dancing with everyone you've ever met, a tradition I could really get behind. But not an event I would have been able to attend.

But I got the feeling that a ceremony that reflected more of their real feelings and beliefs - I have talked to them enough to know they have them - would have meant more to me than the seminar - like approach which touched on several different beliefs without taking a stand on any of them. I could be wrong - perhaps as students of religion, they just find all the different forms fun to play with while content, other than the marriage itself, was beside the point. The whole thing did make me want to get to know them better and find out what they really believe about things. But in the context of my ongoing grudge match with religion, it wasn't much of a truce. Jon can embrace the truth in all religions without taking a stand on the truth of them. I can't. If religions are just metaphoric language to express eternal truths, than I'd prefer to dispense with metaphor and speak plainly.

The weekend was interesting to say the least. But I'm glad when we got married we didn't do that much to try and please anyone but us. Perhaps we were just too lazy, but we weren't that concerned with anybody's needs but ours. And our friends were there, and most people had fun, and the process lead us to a new church and a so many new things. Six and a half months later, I'm still amazed we pulled it off.