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

Friday, September 23, 2005

Tied Up in the Cell

We had free tickets for last night's Sox game vs. the Twins, so we took the El down to 35th Street to check it out. The sausages, as usual, were great. At the Ballpark Formerly Known as Comisky, you can get Brats with brown mustard, saurkraut, and grilled onions. The onions get a little soggy by the late innings, but if you get a brat in the 1st they've just started to carmelize . . . my mouth is literally watering as I write this. Anyway, the food's better on the South Side.

The baseball is actually a familiar flavor. A tense pitcher's dual, with a 1-1 tie persisting into extra innings. The Sox bullpen finally collapsed in the 11th, and the Southsiders got spanked 4-1. They left the bases loaded in the 9th and a man on 2nd in the 10th. Chicago baseball in all its glory.

But the fans? I just don't get it. The guys behind me started carping and demanding that Sox manager Ozzie Guillen be fired, after the first out. They screamed "You Suck!" and other obscenities at their own team. They had all but written off the game in the third inning, while it was still tied 0-0. After the Sox went up 1-0, they prayed for rain (and got it, although the game was never delayed).

Keep in mind, while the team has been sagging in recent weeks, they are still in first place. What are these people like when they're trailing? For some of these people, I think a record of 161-1 would not be good enough. "You suck, Guillen. How could you lose that game?"

Worst of all, a group of "fans" in front of me were training an 11 year old to scream along with them. So nice to see a community passing on its values to the next generation.

Sox fans like to mock Cubs fans as wine-drinking elitists who don't know anything about baseball. Guilty as charged, man. And as for the shirt being peddled on 35th Street proclaiming Wrigley Field to be the "World's Largest Outdoor Gay Bar," that's probably true, too. So what's you're point? I'm having fun at the ballpark. My girl, my beer, my brat, the first evening of Autumn and still not cold yet . . . if you're idea of fun is screaming obscenities at your own team, I feel sorry for you. As for the alleged rivalry, there is no rivalry. They envy us, because we know how to live.

Maybe I should have bought a T shirt.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Brave New World

Just a little update on what's been going on with the neighborhood. I've stopped posting pictures of demolished buildings recently because I never seem to have the camera handy. But I thought I'd post a couple bfore and after pictures of some of the sites I've talked about in the past so you can see what's happening to the neighborhood and the new world that's emerging on the Near West Side.

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This building was a neighborhood landmark and a favorite. It was demolished because it was too small, and didn't feature any condos with balconies like the rich people like. They are willing to accept less footage to be able to live close to cool people like me, but they demand a view.

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The big problem with this building is that it faces the wrong way. It ignores Damen, Bucktown's main thoroughfare, in favor of Shakespeare, which at a quarter-block south of Webster is not even a real street, since it doesn't fit the grid. From it's balconies, the moneyed classes will be able to gaze south along Damen and see the trendy business district with its boutiques and restaurants and funkily dressed babes, oblivious to the way their homes have deteriorated the quality of life for everyone around them. By facing south, the building presents a side view to Damen Avenue, with little bathroom windows that are asymmetrical, too much empty brick, and the edge of the balconies visible on one side only. In short, it's lopsided, deformed and ugly. The designers apparently decided that if they put retail with an attractive awning on the ground level, nobody will notice how the little group of buildings has become scarred and disfigured.

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The new condo building at the corner of Damen and Webster, by contrast, faces the right way and even manages to present an attractive and fairly symmetrical face to the residential side street.

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An attractive two-story commercial-residential building with decorative 19th Century iron metal details. Not enough units on the property, once again no balcony for rich people to store their bicycles and gas grills.

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Fairly attractive modern commercial-residential condo building going up on a portion of the site. This building pays more attention to detail than do most new condos I've seen, the splash of color brightens up what is quickly becoming another shopping/residential quarter. I am pleasantly surprised. An identical building will rise next door, and then a skinny half-building that will look like the right half of this one, on the site ofthe old building. Unfortunately, this four-story complex will pretty much overwhelm the pretty Victorian turret next door.

Still, as industrial uses fade from the area, they are trying to extend the Wicker Park trendiness all the way up to the Congress Theater and beyond. Unfortunately, retail jobs do not pay what industrial jobs did, and people who work in these buildings could never dream of living in them, or increasingly, living in the neighborhood at all. Fortunately there is an El stop a couple blocks NW on Milwaukee.

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Well, another digger, signifying another teardown is about to take place. I took pictures of all the likely suspects, but I was wrong. A little house that used to be a storefront was the victim. I don't really remember it and I walked by it several times a week for three years, so it's probably not the biggest tragedy ever. Still, I wish these people would leave my neighborhood alone. They are filming a movie here tomorrow so we won't be able to park on our own street. Maybe once people see the 'hood on film, someone (like the Alderman) will conclude it is worth something more than the value of the land underneath it.

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This doesn't really mean anything, Trope took it and it's just cool (I played with the color a little to make it pop more). If you have any idea what it might represent, drop me a line.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Dogs and cats, living together

Apparently President Bush made a big speech in New Orleans last night during prime time. I wouldn’t know, I don’t watch much prime time TV, especially not when there’s a Cubs game on the radio. Pat and Ron do a pretty good job of explaining what’s going on, so you can get other stuff done while you listen, something you can’t do with the TV guys. Listening to Bush, but contrast, makes me want to throw and smash things. Which, now that I think of it, is exactly the way many Cubs fans are reacting to the game. The game was rained out during the last out of the Cubs’ 6-1 loss to the Cardinals, which rather than regarding as a mercy, fans are viewing as another example of the dreaded Curse. See, the Cubs had just scored one run, and had a couple guys on base, so obviously if it hadn’t rained, they were going to come back dramatically, beat the Cards and get back in the wild card race.

“The Cubs Fan Universe,” as my wife put it last night, is “disconnected from reality.” A prime example of this is the little jingle WGN plays during commercial break, the one that gets stuck in your head for the next couple days: “Everybody loves the Cubs. Every-Body loves the Cubs!” In addition to being an annoying little earworm, it’s obviously untrue. Just the sound of the jingle is enough to get your neighborhood White Sox fan worked up into a foaming lather. Which, now that I think of it, is probably intentional on WGN’s part.

Speaking of the White Sox, the team that spent most of the year as baseball’s best team just lost a series to the Kansas City Royals, universally regarded as baseball’s worst. They have squandered a 15-point lead in the AL Central to just four and a half games ahead of Cleveland, a team they will be playing for six of their remaining 17 games. The Tribune has (gleefully) stopped printing their “magic number,” at least for today.

In another astounding development, the East Village Landmark District is becoming a reality. In spite of the overwhelming presence of neon orange “Stop the Landmark District” signs in neighborhood windows, 53% of property owners voted to approve the district, which covers 195 properties in the heart of the East Ukrainian Village (the quarter mile square boxed in by Ashland, Chicago, Damen and Division). Proponents of the landmarking have been called “cultural elitists.” Early meetings on the subject were marked by complaints about “condo people and their SUVs.”

Well, what of it? Many of the people who live here do so because they like it the way it is, and think it’s better than other places. They don’t want it torn down and replaced by giant, bunker-like condos that look more like the barrier wall in the West Bank than Chicago three-flats. As for people who just moved there in the last couple year because it’s close to the highway, or to work, but would really rather have more room for their SubZero industrial kitchen appliances, they can get in their big, black SUVs with the W04 stickers on the back window and go back to Aurora. As for owners disappointed they won’t be able to cash in as much on the development craze, your desire to make a buck doesn’t give you the right to destroy everything in the neighborhood. But I digress. We won a fight, which makes the world turn upside down.

In more news of a world gone mad, there's the weather. It's cool, cloudy and raining, and the people are ecstatic about it. Our first week of 80 degree plus weather was in April, and over the next five months we have had fewer than 20 cool days, and virtually no rain to speak of. The grass in many neighborhoods hasn't so much turned brown as crumbled into dust and blown away. Add to that the fact that a large proportion of the younger set moved to a colder climate just so they could walk around all day looking cool and brooding in their black leather jackets, and you begin to understand how much five solid months of nice weather has been cramping our style.

Speaking of upside down, there’s the President. I guess in his speech he promised to rebuild New Orleans out of federal money, send cash to displaced workers, and proposed something called the Urban Homesteaders Act, which would give abandoned urban land to low-income people who agreed to build a house there. I’m not sure whether it applies only to New Orleans or to all of our abandoned urban areas, but still – a good idea out of the Bush Administration! And a big government, pro-city idea at that! I think my head’s going to explode.

What’s he going to do next, officiate at a gay wedding in the Rose Garden?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

ripples in the upside down lake of the void

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been spending my time doing other things besides blogging over the summer. I’ve done a lot of gardening, I took trips to Wisconsin and Virginia with Trope, saw the Violent Femmes, went to Around the Coyote, a kick ass arts festival . . . It’s been a good coupla months.

I’ve also been fighting off an unhealthy little addiction. I started surfing the net and stumbled upon a website where people come to talk about TV shows. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be interested, because I don’t watch a lot of TV – at least not a lot that’s actually on, rather than on DVD. But this year there’s a show I’m actually interested in, so I started reading the discussion there, and eventually posting some of my thoughts.

Well, okay. I started posting things that I thought would provoke a lot of argument, which they did. But that’s what I do. Professionally, personally, whatever. Provocation is my stock in trade. I’ve recently been seen having a loud argument about terrorism, oppression, and democracy at the Gold Star Inn, during which my lovely wife was afraid we’d come to blows. Actually I was arguing with someone I like and respect, and we parted friends. I think we just missed Jimmy’s.

In any case, addiction. I got to where I was posting a couple times a day or more, when I had better things I could be doing. Like working. The cause was mostly a heated debate on ethics, one worthy of a weeknight at Jimmy’s. At issue were the “ethical issues” involved in the extra judicial execution of an enemy soldier who is trying to defect. Yes, my controversial and provocative position boils down to "murder is bad, so you should only kill people in self defense." But if you read the paper, you're probably aware that there's a certain amount of disagreement on this issue.

Debating it got me to delve deep into why killing is a Bad Thing, which was useful and productive. But it also got me to the point where I really, really wanted to convince people that murder is wrong, which is frankly insane as well as pointless and silly. People on these boards had previously defended a military overthrow of a democratic government, and the torture and killing of another prisoner. They comment how "cool" and "strong" characters are when they take swift, violent action. Didn't I learn anything from the last election?

Apparently not. I ranted on until I got booted off the board, at least temporarily. Which was fair, because they have clearly posted rules, which I broke. I don't like those rules much (I'll get to that in a minute), but that's not really the point. They have to have some rules, and enforce them, it they want to keep it a nice and reasonable place. That's why I was posting there, and not at other places, where the last time I checked, madness reigned. If I weren't so lazy I could start my own board. But I don't really care, so I won't.

The thing I don't like about the rules is you can't really engage someone else's arguments. Reasoning by analogy, trying to restate someone's arguments to clarify them, is considered rude. Unfortunately (from a certain point of view), that's what I was trained to do both as a crisis counselor back in the day, and as a late-night debater at the U of C. So when I finally said stuff that worked, in the sense that it drew out replies that clarified other people's arguments so I could understand their premises, etc. I also got banned for rudeness.

I see where they're coming from, but to me this kind of politeness is a lot like the "fairness" you see from the mainstream media. One 'side' states an opinion, the other 'side' does the same. Without engaging in real dialogue, nobody ever mentions it whan one side is complete horseshit. The right gets away with passing off complete balderdash as fact. Saddam has WHDs. Gay parents are bad for children. On and on and on. What good't the internet if you can't be more participatory than that?

And I was trying to be polite. Here’s what I didn’t say:

What the hell is wrong with people? Here, in this country, with our history and Constitution and all this blabbering about freedom we do on flag holidays, why the hell did only 73% of Americans believe that the kind of abuse that went on at Abu Ghraib was "never justified?" Why do we sit here and allow people, some of them American citizens, to be detained by the government without charge, without showing any evidence to anyone, for years? Why do we tolerate tens of millions of people living in poverty in such a wealthy country? Why do we have a religious leader revered by millions on TV advocating the assassination of a foreign leader. Why did 59 million people vote for this bullshit?

And why, oh why, do we have people who sit up day and night at their keyboards and argue that torture is justified, that a country in crisis can't "afford" democracy, and the killion someone is not only permissable, but necessary, if you suspect, without evidence, that she might, at some point in the future, be a threat. What the hell is wrong with such people? What guilt are they running from that the feel such a need to spend so much time justifying murder, arguing that we owe nothing to anyone but our own, that self-interest and perceived safety justify destroying whatever we fear. What kind of society are we that we produce people so threatened by the idea that a life is a life is a life?

Should I have said that?


Ripples in the upside down lake of the void, is what I should have said.

Let it go already. The whole thing is meaningless and bizarre. It's another fistful of peas that this monkey should let go of. And anyway, antagonizing people by calling them names isn't likely to change anything they think about killing people, other than possibly to start daydreaming about killing me. The thing is, the show was designed to provoke debate on these issues, but at some level it just doesn't work. According to the creators, many of the events in question were written precisely to
embody one of the main allegorical themes of the show, which is the tendency to dehumanize the enemy in times of war. This has been going on since the dawn of time. We convince ourselves that the enemy is somehow less than human, does not value life the way we do or share any of our common values. This enables us to rationalize and justify the terrible things we do to our enemies such as kill and torture them."

But many people are not terribly bothered by dehumanization. They intended to hold up a mirror to our own times and show us our nobility, but also our pigheadedness, our flaws, our failure to understand that there are other perspecives out there besides our own. But people are not necessarily disturbed by what they see. Kick Ass! they say. Woo Hoo!

I’m not sure whether it says more about the moral blindness of the population or the utter irrelevance of artists in the modern world. It’s like Picassos hanging on the walls of banks or corporate office buildings. Are the bankers and businessmen dupes, or was Picasso? He died a rich man, so maybe it's just me that's the idiot. Probably. Perhaps his radicalism was never relevant, and his legacy is just that rich people will pay a big chunk of money for a piece of canvas.

The failure of art to reach people shouldn’t be surprising. Intellectual debate on ethics doesn’t mean much to most people, either. Which is all right. Compassion and humility will steer you the right way nine times out of ten. But how to deal with people when they won’t be guided by those values, that’s where the trouble starts. Frankly, I'm at a loss. With acquaintances and family members, it's often a choice between awkward silence and yelling matches when it comes to the issues of the day. Neither option is very comfortable.

I promise I won't post about anything this geeky for at least a couple months. In the mean time, a new neighborhood paper showed up on my doorstep this afternoon. Check it out.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Coyote Beautiful

Over the weekend I finally had the opportunity to do something useful rather than sit around fuming. The City has set up a shelter and service center at Fosco Park for hurricane evacuees from the Gulf Coast. Fosco isn't really a park at all, it's just a fieldhouse that normally offers community activities, basketball and stuff to residents of what used to be the ABLA housing projects (the Jane Addams Houses, Robert H. Brooks Homes and Extension, Loomis Courts, and Grace Abbott Homes). Now the area's one big construction site as ABLA gets replaced by a new mixed-income development called Roosevelt Square. Actually, I'd kinda hoped I might find something I could buy down there, but poking around their site I didn't see much that an ABLA resident, an evacuee, or I could afford and make it work.

Anyway, the fieldhouse is the designated shelter and referral center for people arriving from Louisiana. As of last weekend while I was there, FEMA hadn't got their act together enough to actually send a plane full of people up here yet, but many people have been arriving on their own, to stay with family or to look for a familiar face. I only saw a few dozen cots that looked occupied, mostly people were coming in looking form services from the city, the Salvation Army, or more permanent housing. Most people are quickly referred out to other organizations offering to put people up for a while, since nobody really wants to sleep on a cot, in a gym, in the projects. Obviously Jesse Jackson's people are a big help in that area, as is his protege Rev. Meeks, who manages to be both a state senator and the leader of a mega-church ("The Greatest Church in the World"). I'm not sure which hat he's wearing here, but his flock have been very generous in opening up their homes to the newly dispossessed.

It occurs to me to wonder what's stopping us from mounting such an effort on behalf of the homeless people who wander our alleys every day.

Anyway, I mostly worked with kids, which was nice. Kids are very resilient and these seemed to have come through all the chaos pretty much intact. Their parents, on the other hand, seemed very stressed out. I helped make paper hats and played air hockey while the parents filled out paperwork or just took a nap or whatever. It wasn't much, but it was something, and being constructive tends to soothe my incoherent rage dcwn into a fitfully napping, fuzzy little fire breathing monster. I highly recommend it. If you live in Chicago and want to help, you should call 311.

Later on Saturday the Violent Femmes played a kick ass block party on Division Street east of Damen. Guinness paid for the whole thing, there was beer, oysters, and crab meat. Also there was an awesome local Irish punk band called the Tossers. I have no idea what the occasion was. I was just there because the night before I was playing Trivia at the Riverview and Lowell said it would be cool. And it was.
And Lowell's pretty damn good at trivia. So's my wife.

Suday was Around the Coyote, a huge neighorhood festival of visual arts, theater, music and poetry. There are still a lot of working artists in the neighborhood, mostly painters, and other artists come and set up in the hallways of the Flat Iron studios, the Northwest Tower, and other neighborhood landmarks. Paranoid Girl was there, which was very cool. She asked me to draw a postcard for her collection. She was sort of disappointed that more people weren't doing this, which puzzled me. I was thinking that any weekend where I had perfectly valid reasons to play with crayons two days in a row was a pretty good weekend. Later on I caught some one-acts down at the Chopin Theater, including an interesting piece by a new high school company, and a performance/dance thing called Inventing Eve about women in the Old Testament.

I love this neighborhood, and this town. But recently I see it destroyed again and again in my imagination. I asked some of the emergency workers at the shelter if Chicago has an evacuation plan. They said there was a plan, and they'd recently participated in a drill. But I got the impression that they felt it could have gone a lot better. Chicago has six times as many residents as New Orleans, a million of whom do not have access to a car. How the hell would you evacuate Chicago? Food for thought.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The last, hard core hunker down in surreal city

Chris Rose, from the news blog at
They're telling the people they have to go. They're going door to door with rifles now.

They came to our little hovel on Laurel Street Uptown - a dozen heavily-armed members of the California National Guard - they pounded on our door and wanted to know who we were.

We told them we were the newspaper, the Big City Daily. I admit, it doesn't look like the newsrooms you see on TV. I suppose if we wore shirts, we'd look more professional.

The Guard moved on, next door, next block.

They're telling people they have to go.

It won't be easy. The people who stayed here have weathered 10 days of unfathomable stench and fear and if they haven't left yet, it seems unlikely that they're going to be willing now.

In a strange way, life just goes on for the remaining. In the dark and fetid Winn-Dixie on Tchoupitoulas, an old woman I passed in the pet food aisle was wearing a house frock and puffy slippers and she just looked at me as she pushed her cart by and said: "How you doin', baby?"

Like it's just another afternoon making groceries.

I love the way strangers call you baby in this town.

Outside the store, there's an old guy who parks his old groaning car by the front door from sunup to sundown. There are extension cords running from his trunk into the store, which still has power - don't ask me how; I have no idea - and he watches TV in his front seat and drinks juice.

That is what he does, all day, every day.

At this point, I just can't see this guy leaving. I don't imagine he has anyplace else in the world but this.

A young guy walked up and said to him: "I hear you can charge your cell phone here?" and the old guy said "Yes, indeedy," and walked him into the store and showed him a plug that still had juice.

And life goes on. Down on St. Claude Avenue, a tribe of survivors has blossomed at Kajun's Pub where, incredibly, they have cold beer and cigarettes and a stereo playing Elvis and you'd think everything was in standard operating procedure but it is not: The Saturday night karaoke has been indefinitely suspended.

The people here have a touch of Mad Max syndrome; they're using an old blue Cadillac for errands and when parts fall off of it - and many parts have fallen off - they just throw them in the trunk.

Melvin, a bar owner from down the block, had the thing up for sale for $895, but he'll probably take the best offer now.
Melvin's Bar and Kajun's Pub have pooled their inventories to stay in business.

"We've blended our fortunes together," said Renee dePnthieux, a bartender at Melvin's. "We carried everything we could down here, and we'll make the accounting later. What else are you gonna do? In case you haven't heard, Budweiser ain't delivering."

A guy with a long goatee and multiple tattoos was covering a couple of aluminum foil pans of lasagna and carrying them up to the roof to cook them in the sun on the hot slate shingles.

Joann Guidos, the proprietor at Kajun's, called out for a game of bourre and they all dumped their money on a table and sat down and let the cards and liquor flow.

A National Guard truck pulled up and asked if they were ready to leave yet. Two guys standing out on the sidewalk in the company of pit bulls said: "Hell no."

DePonthiux said: "We're the last fort on the edge of the wilderness. My family's been in exile for 300 years; this ain't s---."
I just don't see these people leaving.

Uptown, on what was once a shady street, a tribe is living in a beautiful home owned by a guy named Peanut. There is a seaplane in his driveway, a bass boat in the front yard and generators running the power.
Let's just say they were prepared.

All the men wear pistols in visible holsters. They've got the only manicured lawn in the city. What else is there to do all afternoon, really?

Christine Paternostro is a member of this tribe and she is an out-of-work hair stylist from Supercuts in a city where no one shaves or bathes. Not many prospects for her at this point.

"Everyone will need a haircut when this is over," I offered.

While members of this tribe stood talking on their street, a woman came running out of the house, yelling: "Y'all, come quick. We on WWL! We on WWL!"

Everyone ran in the house and watched a segment about how people are surviving in the city. And these guys are doing just that. (Although I think the airplane in the driveway is a little over the top.)

As I was leaving, the WWL woman said to me: "Are you staying for dinner?"

I was not, but I asked what they were having. "Tuna steaks," she said. "Grilled."

If and when they rebuild this city and we all get to come home, I want to live near people like this. I just can't imagine them ever leaving.

They make me wonder if I ever could.

To contact Chris Rose, e-mail, or call (504) 352-2535.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Lake George

The one thing all of the Bush Administration's failures have in common is that they just don't give a crap about people like us. Regular people, stripped of their retirement, send to die in the Middle East, or left to drown or starve in their flooded homes, all for the same reason.

Conservative ideologues like the guys who run the Bush Administration just don't want to admit that government can do any good in society. Why? Because they're rich, so they want to end the redistributive function of government - they don't want rich people like themselves to have to pay for any services for the not rich. They want people to get what they pay for out of government services, which means that the poor, who can't afford to pay for anything, don't get anything.

Their approach to Social Security is a good example. Basically, their plan is to take the risk-pooling social insurance function out of Social Security, turning it into an investment in which you receive a return on what you put in. The problem with this is, of course, if you're not one of the lucky ones who can put a lot in, you're return will probably be small or run out before you die, meaning the program will no longer function as a solution for the problem of poor people living in poverty.

The disastrous response to hurricane Katrina is the result of the same ideological thinking. Basically, the conservative argument is that it's not government's role to take care of people in need, it's their responsibility to take care of themselves. If government action is warranted at all, it's warrented at the local level.

Now, it should be obvious that poor families are not really capable of protecting themselves from a deadly hurricane. But the same is actually true of local government. Like most big cities in today's America, New Orleans is actually quite poor. That's because most of the white middle class has fled to the suburbs, where they can hoard their tax money for their own, better school districts and such while leaving lower-income African Americans to fend for themselves. Again, the goal isn't really to give people more control over government, it's to prevent the redistribution of resources from one group to another. In other words, to make sure the rich stay rich, and the poor stay poor. Add to this the fact that the two states hardest hit by the hurricane, Louisiana and Mississippi, are also quite poor compared to most states, and quite unable to guarantee an adequate level of services to all of their residents, and you see that any attempt to protect their citizens organized and funded only at the state and local level is doomed to failure.

If George Bush represents anyone in this country, it's big corporations and well to do suburbanites. His goal has been to allow them to hoard as many resources to themselves as possible, by minimizing the amount redistributed to the less fortunate through taxes and government spending. How ironic that he has drawn so much of his political support from regions in the American South filled with precisely the kind of working-class folk he's been so determined to dick over. Maybe that will change someday. Survivors and rescue workers have nicknamed the new body of water submerging much of the Gulf Coast "Lake George" after the do-nothing president who stood by and watched as so many died there.

In Monday's Tribune, Dennis Byrne argues that
Maybe the finger-pointing comes from today's mindset that someone else always must be ready and in charge of ensuring our safety and comfort. Or from an arrogance that we can plan in advance for every imaginable catastrophe.
"It's your own responsibility to save your own ass. There's nothing the government could possibly do to protect its citizens from natural disaster." It's exactly the kind of argument you'd make, if your top priority was reducing taxes on the wealthy, rather than building a better society for everyone. The sad thing is that so many people who aren't rich, have bought into this crap.

Some other random notes on the disaster

I am dismayed to hear so many otherwise intelligent people immediately start declaring that all foreign aid should end because we have our own problems now. The fact is, aid like that we gave to Asia after the tsunami builds up a great deal of goodwill around the world. And we're getting paid back - many countries around the world have offered aid to Katrina's victims, both in money and personnel. Even ostensible enemies such as Iran have offered to help. After all, we helped them after the 2003 earthquake in Bam, disregarding the bad blood that lingers between our two countries.

There's been a lot of discussion about the wisdom of too much development in vulnerable coastal areas. In 1960, there were 180 people per square mile in the coastal United States; by 1994, there were 275 per square mile. And Michael Powell and Michael Grunwald point out in the Washington Post
In 1998, Deputy Assistant Army Secretary Michael L. Davis tried to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from rubber-stamping casino applications without studying the impact dredging would have on marshes that shelter wildlife, purify drinking water and help prevent flooding. This angered Lott, then Senate majority leader, who had recently flown to Las Vegas in a casino executive's jet and had raised $100,000 for Republicans at a casino-industry fundraiser.

Lott got the moratorium lifted, then he got the Army to launch an investigation of Davis. No wrongdoing was found, but Davis was removed from Gulf Coast permitting issues.

So even suggesting that overdevelopment might be a bad idea is enough to get you blacklisted. Personally I think that the lure of the ocean is too overwhelming for government policy to effect it too much. But in terms of spending public resources, shouldn't our focus be on shoring up and protectin existing communities rather than subsidizing the construction of new ones?

This blog entry on the history of New Orleans is too cool to describe. You should just read it.

Louisiana and Mississippi Guardsmen whose homes have been destroyed in the disaster are being reassured that their families will be guaranteed housing at Fort Polk, if they choose to remain on active duty or enlist in the regular Army. How's that for a novel way to improve recruiting?

Friday, September 02, 2005

When the Levee Breaks

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For anybody who was worried, Fats Domino has been found alive and safe. But the rest of the news is bad, as New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast has spiraled downwards into anarchy, violence and despair.

The death toll is unknown as decaying corpses are shoved aside by rescuers still trying to reach survivors stranded by floodwaters. Conditions are grim even for those who have managed to make it to shelter. For some reason the government had been unable to get food and water to refugees gathered at the Convention Center in downtown New Orleans by this morning. People are dying of heat stroke and dehydration as they wait in line for a seat on a bus out of town. Their bodies are left on the curb or tossed in dumpsters. In Gulfport, Mississippi, National Guard troops arrived with truckloads of water and MREs to find that no one was there to meet them and no system of distribution had been put in place. The situation is the same throughout the affected area - there is no plan in place, no one is in charge, there are not enough supplies, there is public disorder, hopelessness, desperation, death.

It's not as if the disaster comes as a complete surprise. People have been warning of the looming danger to New Orleans and the region for years. As Paul Krugman puts it in the New York Times:
Before 9/11 the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America: a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans. "The New Orleans hurricane scenario," The Houston Chronicle wrote in December 2001, "may be the deadliest of all." It described a potential catastrophe very much like the one now happening.

So why was nothing done about it? I'm not even talking about the long and expensive process of improving New Orleans' defenses against natural disaster. I'm just talking about putting in place a plan to deal with disaster, including a comprehensive evacuation plan to be put in place before the storm hit. It was clear by Thursday or Friday of last week that large-scale disaster was possible. Why wasn't the National Guard called up last week to assist in the evacuation? Not to mention that a third of the Louisiana Guard is in Iraq, along with much of their watercraft. Authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation of the area but did not organize transit for poor residents without cars. FEMA rejected a plan to buy a sizable piece of land and prepare for the construction of a tent city for refugees in just this sort of situation because, in the words of one administrator, "Americans don't live in tents."

Why is this happening? Because we have a government and ruling party that believe that a strong state is not necessary to provide support and assistance to the poor and disadvantaged. They believe that low taxes and less government "interference" will allow citizens to take care of their own needs. The whole idea is ridiculous. No individual can weather a storm of this magnitude alone. Societies overcome these traumatic events by banding together, working as a team, and organizing. Our leaders are not there to lower the state's "burden" on wealthy and privileged individuals. They are there to organize the resources of state and society to serve the public. That's their job. And they didn't do it.

But not only does our national "leadership" not take responsibility for their failure, they instead appear to blame the victims. Illinois' own Speaker Denny Hastert remarked to the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., that it makes no sense to rebuild New Orleans where it is. "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," he said. The Waterbury, Connecticut Republican-American goes further, suggesting that it's a waste of taxpayer money to rebuild a city below sea level. It's true that the sprawling of the American public accross former wetlands, into areas with no local water supply, and so on is inviting all sorts of evironment problems of potentially catastrophic proportions. But that's not what has happened in New Orleans, which has long been one of the jewels of American civilization, mired though it has been in recent decades in the poverty and abandonment that have afflicted many of our urban centers as wealth whites have moved away to avoid paying their taxes. And there's the true cause of the disaster - a nation which, once again, has refused to supply the basics of shelter, food, public health and safety to its poorest residents.

Music: When the Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin. "It's got what it takes to make a modern man leave his home . . . "
Mood: Angry

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Fats Domino is Missing

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I still have few words for all the tragedy and horror of the past few days, but if there's one story in particular that's caught my attention today it's that rock'n'roll legend Fats Domino is missing. The 77-year old musician was last heard from on Sunday night, when he said he planned to ride out the hurricane in his 9th Ward home. As most of you probably know by now, New Orleans' lowlying 9th Ward has been flooded, covered by as much as 12 feet of water the past couple days, with potentially many people trapped on rooftops or in attics, with no food or potable water. Of course, almost nobody's been heard from for days, since all telephone and broadband service, as well as electricity, has been down for days at this point.
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