Monday, June 17th, 2013
[ I'm delighted to be able to share this meditation on Lakewood, CA by lifetime resident DJ Waldie. I could make a lot of preliminary commentary on it, but I think I'll let this great piece speak for itself - Aaron. ]
Where I live is where most Californians live: in a tract house on a block of more tract houses in a neighborhood hardly distinguishable from the next, and all of these houses extending as far as the street grid allows.
My exact place on the grid is at the southeast corner of Los Angeles County, between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers. But my place could be almost anywhere in the suburbs of Los Angeles and Orange counties.
My suburb may seem characterless, but it has a complex history of working class aspiration, of assumptions about social hygiene, of urban politics, and the decisions of many who imposed their imagination on the landscape.
Where I live is a tract of wood-framed houses on a 5,000-square-foot lot at a density of about seven units per acre, where houses are set back 20 feet from the sidewalk and a street tree the city trims, and where neighborhood businesses are clustered at intersections so that anyone can walk to the store or a bar or to a fast food place.
It’s also a place with 10 parks of 20 or more acres each so that everyone is about a mile from supervised open space with playgrounds, ball diamonds, picnic tables, and bar-b-cues.
There is a persistent belief that suburban places like mine must be awful places. They must be inhuman and soul-destroying places. That belief persists partly because of these photographs, taken by a brilliant young aerial photographer named William Garnett who worked for the developers of Lakewood between 1950 and 1952.
The historian and social critic Lewis Mumford used Garnett’s photographs in 1961 to indict the post-war suburbs which, he said, had become “A multitude of uniform unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly at uniform distances on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste inhabited by people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers … .Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.”
The architectural historian Peter Blake used these photographs in 1964 to define the post-war suburbs as “God’s own junkyard.”
In 1969, Garnett’s photographs were part of Nathaniel Owings’s The American Aesthetic, a passionate critique of 20th century urban planning.
Today, you can go to the Getty Museum in Brentwood and the Autry National Center in Los Angeles and see these photographs used as defining images of the suburbs of Los Angeles.
They are beautiful and terrible photographs.
With no little irony, these images of Lakewood became emblematic of the suburbs at the moment when Lakewood no longer was the eerie and empty place Garnett had photographed only a few months before. Between 1950 and 1953 – in less than 33 months – 17,000 houses had been built, sold, and made someone’s home. Nearly 100,000 people lived there, including my parents. In 1954, Lakewood had even become a city in the political sense, having completed the first municipal incorporation in California since 1939.
We can presume that the developers of Lakewood – Mark Taper, Ben Weingart, and Louis Boyar – saw Garnett’s photographs mostly as a record to be filed with work logs and construction accounts when the project ended. But I also imagine that they looked at Garnett’s photographs and read into them a grandeur, a collective heroism that still attaches itself to the great construction projects of the 1930s and 1940s.
And we know that Boyer, Taper, and Weingart and Fritz Burns and Joseph Eichler and Henry Kaiser understood that the Progressive era model of low-cost housing they had adapted to mass production would result in new relationships to the idea of place. Garnett’s photographs of deeply shadowed forms on a titanic grid would for some critics and many Americans permanently define that relationship as dread.
In a memorable speech by James Howard Kunstler at the 1999 Congress for the New Urbanism, the kind of place where I live was described as a perversion of a place. “It is the dwelling place of untruth,” Kunstler told the New Urbanists. The title of his speech was “The place where evil dwells.”
My parents and their neighbors more generously than Mumford or Blake or Kunstler understood what they had gained and lost in owning a small house on a small lot in a neighborhood connected to square miles of just the same.
Despite everything that was mistaken or squandered in making my suburb, I believe a kind of dignity was gained. More men than just my father have said to me that living in my kind of place gave them a life made whole and habits that did not make them feel ashamed.
As far as I could tell by their lives, my parents did not escape to their mass-produced suburb. They never considered escaping from it. Nor have I.
I’ve lived my whole life in the 957-square-foot house my parents bought when the suburbs were new, when no one could guess what would happen after tens of thousands of working-class husbands and wives – so young and so inexperienced – were thrown together without an instruction manual and expected to make a fit place to live.
What happened after was the usual redemptive mix of joy and tragedy.
The suburb where I live is a place that once mass-produced a redemptive future for displaced Okies and Arkies, Jews who knew the pain of exclusion, Catholics who thought they did, and anyone white with a job. Left out were many tens of thousands of others: people of color whose exclusion was not just a Californian transgression.
Today, futures still begin here, except the anxious, hopeful people who seek them are as mixed in their colors and ethnicities as all of southern California.
I continue to live in Lakewood with anticipation because I want to find out what happens next to new narrators of suburban stories who happen to be my Latino, Black, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese neighbors.
There are Californians who don’t regard a tract house as a place of pilgrimage like my parents and their friends did. They were grateful for the comforts of their not-quite-middle-class life. Their aspiration wasn’t for more but only for enough despite the claims of critics then and now who assume that suburban places are about excess.
I actually believe that the place where I live is, in words of the Californian philosopher Josiah Royce, a “beloved community.” The strength of that regard, Royce thought, might be enough to form what he called an “intentional community” – a community of shared loyalties – even if the community is as synthetic as a tract-house suburb or the Gold Rush towns that Royce knew in his boyhood. I believe Royce was right: At a minimum, loyalty to the idea of loyalty is necessary, even if the objects of our loyalty are uncertain.
Urban planners tell me that my neighborhood was supposed to have been bulldozed away years ago to make room for something better, and yet the houses on my block stubbornly resist, loyal to an idea of how a working-class neighborhood should be made.
It’s an incomplete idea even in Lakewood, but it’s still enough to bring out 400 park league coaches in the fall and 600 volunteers to clean up the weedy yards of the frail and disabled on Volunteer Day in April and over 2,000 residents to sprawl on lawn chairs and blankets to listen to the summer concerts in the park.
I don’t live in a tear down neighborhood, but one that makes some effort to build itself up. All this is harder now, for reasons we all know.
The suburbs aren’t all alike, of course, and there are plenty of toxic places to live in gated enclaves and McMansion wastelands. Places like that have too much – too much isolation and mere square footage – but, paradoxically, not enough. Specifically, they don’t have enough of the play between life in public and life in private that I see choreographed by the design of my suburb.
With neighbors just 15 feet apart, we’re easily in each other’s lives – across fences, in front yards, and even through the thin, stucco-over-chicken-wire of house walls. When I walk out my front door, I see the human-scale, porous, and specific landscape into which was poured all the ordinariness that has shaped my work, my beliefs, and my aspirations. Out there, I renew my “sense of place” and my conviction that a “sense of place,” like a “sense of self,” is part of the equipment of a conscious mind.
We often find it difficult to talk coherently about these issues or to make coherent policy choices for places to which our loyalty is only lightly attached.
It seems to me that the abiding problem of southern California, indeed of the entire West, is the problem of home. We long for a home here, but doubt its worth when we have it. We depend on a place to sustain us, but dislike the claims on us that places make. Each of us is certain about our own preference for a place to live, but we’re always ready to question your choice.
How do we make our home here, in new and sudden and places like Lakewood, like Irvine, like Santa Clarita? We’ve been asking that question for a very long time sometimes in despair. At almost the beginning of California, a disillusioned 49er named Thomas Swain wrote in 1851, “Large cities have sprung into existence almost in a day. . . The people have been to each other as strangers in a strange land ….”
And too many of us are strangers still in a place that too many regard as uniquely perverse. And because much of southern California looks roughly the same too many of us see all these suburban places as aesthetically, politically, and morally perverse as well. And no place – however well crafted – is immune from the peculiarly American certainty that something better – something more adequate to the demands of our desire – is just beyond the next bend in the road.
The question of “home” is increasingly acute because there’s hardly anywhere left to build another Lakewood or Irvine or Santa Clarita.
The closing of the suburban frontier in southern California ends a 100-year experiment in place making on an almost unimaginable scale. The experiment was based on a remarkably durable consensus about the way ordinary people ought to be housed, beginning with turn-of-the-century beliefs about the power of a “home in its garden” to ameliorate the lives of working people and ending in the 1950s with tract houses turned into an affordable commodity.
Today, most of southern California is what it will continue to be: uniformly dense and multi-polar, urbanized in fact but suburban in appearance, characterized by single-family homes in neighborhoods with a strong – but provisional – dependence on more “urban-like” nodes.
This is a form for living and working, but it is neither “incoherent” nor “mindless sprawl.” That form in the future will, of course, be somewhat more dense – but our evolving suburbs cannot deliver mere density. In tandem with greater concentration of housing types must come what working-class people have always sought in southern California: a home with enough private space around it and enough public space adjacent to it so that this assemblage of house, lot, street, and transportation grid form the neighborhood-specific space that answers our desires.
We can lament that too many suburban places are less than they some wish them to be, but I see no perfect way to bring “utopias” out of these suburban habits both good and bad. I see only a persistent longing to make fit places in which to live.
Many of these places will look an awful lot like Orange County – dispersed, uniformly dense, and embedded in a metropolitan region in which historic downtowns function as “nodes.” The contest for the soul of our suburban region hinges on whether this constitutes enough to make a place where memories might be unblighted and desires assuaged.
The author and environmentalist Barry Lopez considered some years ago what might be needed to make a durable life for ourselves in southern California. And in considering the problem of home, Lopez asked a challenging question: “How can we become vulnerable to the place where we live?”
If that might be a goal if that tenderness were possible we might ask different questions when we build or approve a development project. We could ask, "What aspects of its design encourage loyalty to this place? What is built into this place that might evoke someone’s sympathy? Would anyone ever become vulnerable to this place?”
What I have been speaking of is the acquisition something more than an idiosyncratic sensibility but a communal achievement that requires something from all of us. Built-out, maximally diverse, and more grown up, southern California requires courage to extend one’s imagination across its whole, tragic, human, and humanizing body.
As for me, my suburb’s modesty keeps me there. When I stand at the head of my block, I see a pattern of sidewalk, driveway, and lawn, set between parallel low walls of house fronts that aspires to be no more than harmless. We live in a time of great harm to the ordinary parts of our lives and I wish that I had acquired all the resistance that my neighborhood offers.
What I hope we might gain is a larger “moral imagination” … the imagination by which we might write ourselves into the story of our place and negotiate a way from the purely personal to the public.
I don’t really know how (or perhaps I do only dimly). But faithfulness to what can be found in our history – to what can be found in our shared stories – impels me forward.
It may surprise you to learn the object of Lopez’s meditation on vulnerability was the place where he grew up – a tract house neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. And Lopez had this additional insight while contemplating his Valley home. He wrote . . . “Always when I return there, I have found again the ground that propels me past the great temptation of our time to put one’s faith in despair.”
Despair or regret: “There once was a perfect Eden,” the conventional story goes, “to which gullible people were lured and as a result this Edenic place declined into the horrors of suburbanization.” And the moral of that story is “people ruin places.”
I believe that people and places form each other … the touch of one returning the touch of the other. What we seek, I think, is tenderness in this encounter, but that goes both ways, too. I believe that places acquire their sacredness through this giving and taking. And with that ever-returning touch, we acquire something sacred from the place where we live. What we acquire, of course, is a home.
It’s a question of falling in love … falling in love with the place where you are; even a place like mine … so ordinary, so commonplace, and my home.
# # #
D. J. Waldie is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times and a contributing writer for Los Angeles magazine. He is the author most recently of California Romantica with Diane Keaton. He blogs for KCET TV at http://www.kcet.org/user/profile/djwaldie.
This post originally appeared in New Geography on June 8, 2013.
Friday, June 14th, 2013
After my post on Wednesday I discovered yet another Streetfilm, this one focused exclusively on the incredible Indianapolis Cultural Trail. Clarence is churning them out faster than I can post ‘em! This is a truly innovative, world-class project so until I finally churn out my own post on it, this will give you a great look.
One caveat. I think the title of the film (which I used for this post) is a misnomer that might throw you off. Bicyclists may look at this and see that it is really isn’t great for high speed bicycle commuting. That’s true. But this was never intended to be specifically a bike path. There were many other design goals. Keep in mind this is a downtown area with lots of traffic, the type of place that in a US city is typically populated with bike messengers or other experienced cyclists. One goal of the Trail was to create a facility that made average people feel safe enough to cycle downtown – including bringing their children. Look at the kids bicycling around downtown. It’s amazing. The unique design is also a safety reassurance mechanisms for fearful suburbanites or visitors so they will know a) they won’t end up in the ‘hood if they are on the Trail and b) they can’t get lost if they stay on the Trail. Additionally, the role of the Cultural Trail is to be not a bicycle superhighway, but rather a sort of modern day boulevard for the 21st century flâneur strolling between downtown cultural districts. Plus Indy isn’t New York City and just plain doesn’t have the volume of people to contend with.
I have much, much more to say on this. However, it will have to wait until I post a complete article on it, which I hope to do at some point.
If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
The Citibike-Rabinowitz Affair also made the Colbert Robert. This segment frankly isn’t that funny, but since I’ve been posting videos about this, I thought I’d include this one for the sake of completeness. Again, New York manages to continue raking in the press on this. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Thursday, June 13th, 2013
One of the major controversies following the appointment of Kevyn Orr as emergency financial manager for the city of Detroit has been the exploration of whether or not the art at the city-owned Detroit Institute of the Arts can or should be sold to satisfy creditors in the event of a bankruptcy filing. This obviously sent shock waves of indignation through the community.
Following on from that, the Detroit Free Press took a look at what other assets could be on the auction block. In addition to extremely valuable masterpieces by the likes of Van Gogh and Matisse at the DIA, there are also classic cars at the city history museum, the animals at the zoo (estimated price of a female breeding giraffe: $80,000) and Belle Isle Park.
Obviously with $15-17 billion in long term debt and no way to pay it off, Detroiters are delusional if they don’t think they are going to face painful sacrifices. This is the day of reckoning for a region that has failed in its basic duties.
On the other hand, having an asset fire sale is not a good idea. Cities are not companies, where you can file Chapter 7 and liquidate. Indeed, cities can’t be forced to sell assets at all under bankruptcy, though certainly pressure can be brought to bear.
This reminds me of the approach that has too often be taken regarding privatization. Mayor Daley in Chicago seems to have selected assets for privatization not based on any public interest criteria, but based on where he thought he could generate cash. This seems to be common. What public assets have positive market value? Sell them off! Similarly, the Orr seems to be looking at Detroit’s assets merely as sources of cash.
NYT Economist Paul Romer presciently told me that better handling of assets in bankruptcy is a key issue for cities and something on which private sector restructurings might shed some light. Corporate bankruptcies not only restructure debts, they ensure assets are allocated productively. But municipal bankruptcy today is almost entirely about paying what is owed. “How can we make sure that civic assets end up used more efficiently in municipal bankruptcy?” Romer asked.
I think it’s a good question, and one that deserves thought well before bankruptcy emerges. Cities accumulate assets over time but often fail to manage them. Corporations suffer from the same issue, but there’s generally a more rigorous asset management approach. For example, when I was working in corporate technology, we held quarterly asset impairment reviews to ensure we fairly valued any capitalized assets on our balance sheet. We also performed application portfolio reviews to classify systems in terms of things like “invest and enhance”, “maintain”, or “retire” and formalized these in our annual SLAs with user groups.
Retiring assets is a hugely contentious issue anywhere. I’ve yet to not find a corporate software application that someone somewhere didn’t scream bloody murder about getting ride of. A common tactic for things like reports is for IT departments to simply stop producing one to see if anyone screams. (I one time launched a new system where the legacy environment that was being replaced had over 1,000 reports. We managed to go live on the new system with 15. Given that it has been in production for a long time now, I suspect they are back up to a thousand).
I really haven’t seen much in the way of analogous processes for government. But I think there should be. That is, there ought to be some type of criteria developed to articulate the public interest and policy goals with regards to assets, and then the existing asset based managed according to that. The idea is to invest limited resources wisely and make sure that the asset base of a city is being utilized properly. And when assets are to be disposed of, it’s not some emergency cash raising exercise.
When it comes to asset disposals, perhaps cities should in fact look to museums. They are organizations that hold precious assets in trust with the idea that they will be cared for in perpetuity. However, there’s also a recognition that disposing of artwork can sometimes be appropriate, if safeguards are put in place.
As one example of how to do it right, the Indianapolis Museum of Art developed a formal deaccessioning policy that includes reasons for disposing of art work, the process for doing it, and restrictions on the use of proceeds. They also maintain a deaccessioning database where the public can review and comment on artwork that is proposed to be disposed of, and see which works were sold and where the proceeds actually went.
Something analogous for cities, along with an actively managed process for asset review and management, might help help avert these frantic searches through the attic looking for heirlooms to sell and such. It would also provide a robust framework for saying No to privatizations and/or asset sales. Otherwise there will be no way to separate the signal from the noise because some group of people will always complain loudly when you want to do something.
It might be too late for Detroit to do something like this at this point, but other cities should look to develop more rigorous asset management policies and procedures.
Wednesday, June 12th, 2013
A few items hit the news recently about better transport in Indianapolis. The first is this Streetfilm featuring Mayor Ballard talking about his bicycling initiatives. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
One item highlighted is the Indy Cultural Trail, a truly unique downtown trail system that took eight miles of lanes away from cars and gave them to people in a system that includes a super high-quality separated bike path, public art, unique lighting and signage, etc. I’ve been hoping to do a story on this for some time, but don’t have photography yet. Stay tuned.
Another is an announcement of a 500 car all electric car share system based on the Paris Autolib’ program. This will be the largest all-electric cars share system in the US. It’s also the first foray into the US for this company. The system will feature 1,200 charging stations at 200 locations that are available to the public, and the city and others are looking to use it to reduce their fleet size and also to support the city’s goal of converting its entire vehicle fleet to “post-oil” technology. This is a pretty sizable system for a city like Indy, though it appears that full rollout is years away, so this is an aspirational announcement.
There’s also a bike share system that was just announced, but it’s very small and appears to only be focused on the Cultural Trail.
Of course I’d be remiss if I did not mention the huge elephant in the room here: the Indianapolis Department of Public Works. Despite these first class types of endeavors, DPW still can’t build a decent street. The streets they build in the urban core are actually worse than what a lot of suburbs are building. Both the Cultural Trail and a similar project on Georgia St. were outsourced to non-DPW designers to make them happen. Until an updated street design manual with 21st century approaches to street design is put in place, there’s no way Indy can get an overall grade of anything higher than “Incomplete” for its liveable streets agenda.
In the meantime, the Cultural Trail, car share, etc. can be celebrated and enjoyed.
Oh, I apparently missed this follow-up video that highlights the green stormwater detention and landscaping on the Cultural Trail. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Tuesday, June 11th, 2013
Nashville has been on a roll in recent years, with a rapidly growing population (including a rapidly expanding immigrant base), robust job growth (#1 among large cities in 2012 on a percentage basis), and lots of positive national press. I’ve been visiting about once a year in recent years and have always had a good time and been very impressed with the ambition level and positive change and growth.
But one symbol of the coming of age of Nashville, the nearly new Schermerhorn Center, home to the Nashville Symphony, is now an emblem of trouble, though perhaps less for the city than for classical music in general.
In short, the building is in foreclosure. Bank of America, which received more government bailout money than any other bank, is threatening to seize and auction the building for cash on June 28th. The Symphony’s auditor has given it a going concern warning, and bankruptcy is looking likely.
This would appear to be a strange turn of events for a town and a symphony on the rise. The Nashville Symphony was nominated for a slew of Grammy awards, at least one of which they won. Just last year the symphony’s president was talking about “a golden age of classical music” in the city. The Schermerhorn Center was a symbol of both the orchestra’s and the city’s ambitions to be taken seriously.
But there were warning signs from the beginning. A planned major endowment never materialized. With only $9.2 million in the endowment, the Nashville Symphony is effectively a pay as you go organization. Other orchestras can get up to a third of their budget from large endowments. The symphony also apparently borrowed a significant sum of money to build the structure and did not pre-fund it with donations. As noted by the University of Chicago report “Set in Stone,” cities across America pumped vast sums into cultural facilities in the last decade. Many of these are struggling in a post-crash world.
Also, as I’ve noted before, classical music is troubled, and the symphony orchestra is the most difficult type of classical music organization to reinvent because of its lack of multimedia experience a la opera, and its high costs. If orchestras struggle even in boomtowns like Nashville, that augurs poorly for their success elsewhere.
Also, it appears that outside of truly top tier cities like New York and Chicago, the symphony is no longer considered a must-have civic marker. At least not to the extent that local elites are willing to part with their own money to fund them. As we’ve gone to an ultra-casual world, and theories on urban success like creative class move explicitly away from traditional high culture, orchestras seem increasingly expendable. Cities want to keep one around to avoid looking bad, but they aren’t willing to ante up for true excellence.
In any case, this is one to watch, especially considering how great Nashville as been doing otherwise.
Here is more complete coverage from the Nashville Tennessean:
Sunday, June 9th, 2013
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Photo via Wikipedia
Let me stipulate that I think Toronto’s Rob Ford is a terrible mayor. In fact, while I might not go so far as Richard Florida, who labeled Ford “the worst mayor in the modern history of cities, an avatar for all that is small-bore and destructive of the urban fabric, and the most anti-urban mayor ever to preside over a big city,” I’m willing to say he’s probably in the running for the title.
The roots of Rob Ford lie in “amalgamation,” the forcible merging of the city of Toronto government with various of its suburbs by the Ontario provincial government. The idea was cost savings, but of course costs went up. Also, it created a Mars-Venus situation that ultimately led to Ford, a former city councilor in Etobicoke, being elected mayor. This would be like a consolidation of Chicago with Cook County in which a member of the Schaumburg city council ended up mayor. Not good. The urban intelligentsia that despises Ford now find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to explain to their friends that they are in total agreement with Wendell Cox, an implacable foe of government consolidations, who predicted these results.
But there’s a big difference between Florida’s bashing of Ford, which falls within the principles of democratic discourse as we’ve come to know it, and what appears to be an effort by some to subvert democracy by finding any pretext to run Rob Ford out of office.
I’m not sure where the idea that the loser in an election tries to undermine the legitimacy of the government of the winner came from. But in the modern era it could be the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton that launched it. This quickly proved to be standard fare. There was the brouhaha over the “selected not elected” George W. Bush as well as the more passionate strain of “birthers” when it comes to President Obama. Given that, especially in the big leagues, there is always some dirtiness in politics, it’s easy to find things to seize upon to claim someone’s holding of an office is invalid. After all, it appears that Clinton really did commit perjury and there was shall we say some murkiness down in Florida. However, these aren’t truly what the people raising a ruckus cared about. What they cared about was the man in office they didn’t like – and getting him out of it.
Canada has a reputation as a kinder, gentler nation, but they now appear to have imported from America what Clinton labeled “the politics of personal destruction.” Rob Ford has been the target of a series of vicious attacks, generally aided and abetted (if not outright instigated) by the old city Toronto media that clearly don’t like him, designed to drive him out of office.
One was a lawsuit that claimed he should be tossed out of office because of events related to his using official letterhead and such to raise $3,500 for a charity. Believe it or not, the trial judge actually agreed with this and ordered him removed from office. If that’s the threshold for getting someone kicked out of office, I dare say every major politician in America would be gone. Yes, politicians do often use affiliated charities as a, shall we say, lubricating mechanism. Yes, there’s the appearance or even the reality of some impropriety in these things. But this is such small fry stuff that to throw the mayor of the biggest city in the country out of office over it defies belief. If you think this is removal worthy, I’m confident I can find something just as bad in almost any politician that you actually like. Fortunately, saner heads at the appeals level prevailed and the ruling was overturned.
Recently we’ve also seen reports originating from, I kid you not, Gawker, in which some shady Somalis supposedly showed a reporter a cell phone video of Rob Ford smoking crack. Shortly thereafter the Toronto Star got in on the act, saying their reporters had seen the video in the back seat of the car, though with the CYA proviso that they had “no way to verify the authenticity of the video.” Other media that may not have directly originated such a story have piled on and thus there’s a firestorm awhirl.
Where is the video, you might ask? Good question. Supposedly it’s for sale for $200K but oddly no one snapped it up, not even one of the extremely wealthy Ford haters that Toronto has in abundance. So you want to buy it? Oh, Gawker now tell us it might be “gone.” Hmmm…..
I’m not saying there’s no video. Rob Ford has certainly acted like he’s guilty of something. But it seems amazing to me that in this era in which all types of tapes and documents spontaneously get loose, this one is no where to be found. Also, the idea of the mayor of Toronto smoking crack with a bunch of Somalis while they film him falls into the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” category. The still photo is interesting, but I’ve seen many compromising photos of mayors, who are routinely snapped with all sorts of random people who they may find out later are unsavory characters. I can’t imagine this sort of media feeding frenzy over say, similar allegations against Michael Bloomberg or Rahm Emanuel.
The Toronto Globe and Mail is a serious newspaper that’s roughly Canada’s New York Times. Though they didn’t break the video story, they did follow-up with a rather tabloidesque article about the history of Rob Ford’s family with drugs. Ford’s brother Doug, the focus of the piece, is on the city council himself, so is a legitimate investigative target so to speak, but the piece also digs into other family members.
Not only is the Globe and Mail digging up dirt on Rob Ford’s family, this piece did it entirely with anonymous sources. They claimed to talk to no fewer than ten people who called Doug Ford a drug-dealer, but curiously none of them were willing to talk on the record. That didn’t stop the Globe and Mail from reporting:
Ten people who grew up with Doug Ford – a group that includes two former hashish suppliers, three street-level drug dealers and a number of casual users of hash – have described in a series of interviews how for several years Mr. Ford was a go-to dealer of hash. These sources had varying degrees of knowledge of his activities: Some said they purchased hash directly from him, some said they supplied him, while others said they observed him handling large quantities of the drug.
The events they described took place years ago, but as mayor, Rob Ford has surrounded himself with people from his past. Most recently he hired someone for his office whose long history with the Fords, the sources said, includes selling hashish with the mayor’s brother.
There’s nothing on the public record that The Globe has accessed that shows Doug Ford has ever been criminally charged for illegal drug possession or trafficking. But some of the sources said that, in the affluent pocket of Etobicoke where the Fords grew up, he was someone who sold not only to users and street-level dealers, but to dealers one rung higher than those on the street. His tenure as a dealer, many of the sources say, lasted about seven years until 1986, the year he turned 22. “That was his heyday,” said “Robert,” one of the former drug dealers who agreed to an interview on the condition he not be identified by name.
Upon being approached, the sources declined to speak if identified, saying they feared the consequences of outing themselves as former users and sellers of illegal drugs.
The Globe also tried to contact retired police officers who investigated drugs in the area at the time. One said he had no recollection of encountering the Fords.
The article is full of innuendo about the Ford’s such as the idea that Rob Ford recently hired a drug dealing associate of Doug’s from the old days (highlighted above), along with curious mentions and links to beatings, killings, and white supremacy/KKK. (Rob Ford is a white supremacist who likes to smoke crack with Somalis???) It’s capped off by having various anonymous sources given pseudonyms so that they appear to be actual people on the record. As this excerpt notes, the police record and police contacts don’t back up the story, which just adds to the general notion of dubiosity and suggests this is a very exaggerated piece that tries to throw things to the wall to see what sticks.
All it all, given the extreme reactions to financial dealings that, even if they were proven, would have been a non-issue almost anywhere else, along with a firestorm of allegations about smoking crack and so much more with no actual proof, the Rob Ford affair has thus far generated much more smoke than fire.
Rob Ford is the price Toronto is paying for the foolishness of the provincial government and the failure of an urban candidate to offer a compelling vision for the entire amalgamated city. But it strikes me very much that a group of old Toronto city partisans, who are incensed a guy like Ford had the temerity to win an election, are determined to use any means necessary to correct what they see is that injustice. But just as with what happened in America and its politics in the wake of the Clinton impeachment, Canada may come to rue the day a group of its citizens decided to try to overturn an election by destroying the winner rather than waiting for their next opportunity at the ballot box.
Saturday, June 8th, 2013
The local and even national furor over the Citibike bike share roll-out in New York continues to entertain. What’s more, it illustrates the huge advantage New York has in grabbing attention. The eagerness of its residents to make public spectacles of themselves over whatever it is that fires them up serves as fodder for these kinds of stories which the media that is centered in New York then eagerly devours. The amount of coverage this thing is getting is unreal given that this is a pretty prosaic bike share deployment.
Comedy Central even got in on the act. Here’s an awesome segment featuring Dorothy Rabinowitz’s now infamous video plus a number of man on the street type interview. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
Rather than embarrassment, this segment made the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz proud of the blowback she caused. She was back with a followup. This one is not quite as hilarious, but she manages a few laugh lines. My favorite was when asked what would make a bicyclist leave a bike lane (and specifically to respond to the idea that the bike lane might be blocked, as frequently does happen), she replied, “This question should ultimately be answered by the therapist we hope this bicyclist is consulting.” If the video doesn’t display for you, click here and again note this is an auto-play link.
Lastly, John Stewart also did a segment that mocked the bike share program somewhat, but it wasn’t super funny. I’ll include it for completeness’ sake. The problem is that bike share is actually pretty darn boring and normal, so it can be a bit difficult to make fun of. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Friday, June 7th, 2013
My latest blog post is online at GoLocalProv and is called “Three Economic Ideas for Rhode Island.” In it I give three ideas for improving the state’s economy, one tactical, one strategic, and one I call “the impossible dream.” Here’s a sample:
A more difficult but potentially more beneficial item would be regulatory harmonization with Massachusetts. Trying to negotiate with them would be pointless. Trying to beat them is nearly impossible. But neither is required. Simply pass a law that says, in effect, “If it’s legal in Massachusetts, it’s legal in Rhode Island. If you’re licensed to do it in Massachusetts, you’re licensed to do it in Rhode Island.”
What a scheme like this does is in effect creates a common market between the states, similar to the European Union except not based on treaties and bureaucracy. A state like California can get away with bespoke regulations like proprietary emissions standards. California is a huge and rich state, so businesses simply can’t ignore it.
By contrast, Rhode Island is small and not rich, so companies and people will not pay and price, bear any burden for the privilege of living and doing business here. But by in effect joining forces with Massachusetts, you’ve now got a market of seven million, which is more attractive.
This approach also reduces to some extent border arbitrage, and lets Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts function as the integrated economy that they are. There will still be fiscal policy disparities, but you can’t fix everything at once. But anything reasonable that reduces barriers to doing business in Rhode Island is a good idea.
Thursday, June 6th, 2013
In his recent post, Pete Saunders described how, after being built in part with eastern money, West Coast outposts like San Francisco and Los Angeles never relinquished their East Coast connections. This created bi-coastal connectivity that continues to play dividends for both coast at the expense of relatively disconnected “flyover country.”
But I wonder: did most places in the Midwest ever have great connections to the East Coast (especially New York City) to begin with? It brought to mind William Cronon’s tour de force book “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” in which he documented the rise of Chicago and the rest of the Midwest together as an integrated system. One of the things he did was try to trace financial flows. This wasn’t easy, but he looked at things like bankruptcy and probate records, as well as other people’s research into correspondent banking relationships.
What Cronon found is that Chicago served as the the gateway that connected the rest of the Midwest to eastern markets. This was true physically via the industrial works in Chicago that converted raw materials into finished goods, railroads, etc. But it was also true financially. Cronon notes:
By choosing Chicago to be the greatest concentration of railroad capital on the continent, and by giving Chicago merchants special access to credit and discounts that made wholesaling possible, New Yorkers and other eastern capitalists place it atop the western system at the very moment that settlement in the region began its most explosive growth
Canadian geographer A. F. Burghardt has used less grandiloquent language to describe this same process. In his phrase, Chicago became a “gateway city” by serving as the chief intermediary between newly occupied farms and town in the West and the maturing capitalist economy of the Northeast and Europe.
Writing specifically about finance, Cronon notes:
In 1884 a Chicago guidebook author could report, “Our banks are now depended on to a great extent to furnish Eastern exchange for other cities, and Chicago has become the recognized financial center of the West – bearing the same relation to the West that New York does to the entire country.”
If one moves further down the urban hierarchy, the implications of these banking linkages for Chicago’s regional hinterland become clearer still. By looking at medium-sized cities that used Chicago banks for their principal correspondent relations, one discovers that Chicago’s financial hinterland extended from Cleveland in the east to Denver in the west. Three decades later, in 1910, it extended all the way west to Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
What this suggests to me, though I didn’t see Cronon explicitly state it, is that much of the Midwest may never have had much in the way of independent East Coast connections. Rather, their connections were with Chicago, relationships that definitely continue to the modern day. Thus it may be less a matter of Midwestern cities giving up East Coast ties as never having had much of them in the first place.
Chicago, by contrast, had not only its original East Coast connections, but also developed networks to the West. The persistence of these networks is one of the many factors that enabled Chicago to more readily adapt to the global era than other Rust Belt locales. Chicago may be the only Midwest city with reasonably strong coastal connections.
It would be interesting to study the development of financial relationships in cities over time. Saunders posited that New York money originally financed San Francisco, but Cronon notes the dominance of Chicago connections by 1910. San Francisco ultimately became the major west coast financial center in its own right and retains a significant finance center function through its venture capital concentrations.
Cleveland as the easternmost extent of Chicago’s hinterland is something we see today. Indeed, I’ve been told the west side of the Cleveland region tilts towards Chicago and the east side towards New York even today.
In any case, I’m not making definitive claims, just looking for potential explanations for the paucity of Midwest networks. Cronon basically makes the argument that Chicago and the Midwest were the original “megaregion” and as a result, perhaps Midwestern cities developed networks that were excessively Chicago-centric. Given the historic status of Chicago as a gateway city to national and global markets, my idea that Chicago should see itself as the Midwest’s global gateway seems directionally correct.
Wednesday, June 5th, 2013
Update: New York Magazine posted this awesome Venn diagram of why so many conservatives hate bike share (h/t commenter Racaille):
I’m a big believer in transit and liveable streets as you know. But even I find the overly self-righteous and sanctimonious attitude of some bicycle advocates (as well as the reckless riding style and flagrant disregard of traffic laws by all too many bicyclists) rather grating. They’ve piled on Nicole Gelinas, for example, for some minor transgression of orthodoxy regarding the bike share system despite the fact that she’s been a cheeerleader for Bloomberg’s transport enhancements (“Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation reforms have unclogged New York’s streets and made them safer”). And she’s done it on the conservative side of the aisle, which can sometimes be a challenge.*
But just when you think they’re bad, along comes something like this unbelievable video featuring Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz to make them look like paragons of rational discourse by comparison. I realize I’m late to the party here, but this is simply too over the top to let pass without comment.
I’ve watched this multiple times and I still can’t figure out if it’s for real or a Saturday Night Live skit. It’s titled “Death by Bicycle” (I’m not making this up), and in it Rabinowitz proclaims the end of New York is nigh thanks to Citibike, via a series of incredibly overwrought claims and soundbites:
“Do not ask me to enter the minds of the totalitarians running this government of the city”
“I represent the majority of the citizens. The majority of citizens of this city are appalled at what has happened.”
“…a government before which you are helpless.”
“…a city whose best neighborhoods are…begrimed is the word…by these blazing blue Citibank bikes.”
“It is shocking to walk around this city and see how much of this they have sneaked under the radar.”
“Before this every citizen knew, who was in any way sentient, that the most important danger in the city was not the yellow cabs, but the bicyclists.”
“…the mayor and his ideology-maddened traffic commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan”
And my personal favorite: “The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise.” Who knew? Apparently the bike advocates make the folks over at Bilderberg look like pikers.
I think everybody would admit there’s some truth in the idea that Bloomberg has a personal agenda he’s not bashful about cramming down the public’s throat without regards to public opinion. (Big Gulp, anybody?) And as I said, cyclists and their advocacy groups do deserve a chunk of their reputation. But this is so over the top and ludicrous I don’t even know where to start. It’s a parody of itself. Instead of blue bikes, Rabinowitz apparently sees the Red Menace. Definitely not what I’ve come to expect from the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
In any case, this is a must watch, for entertainment value if nothing else. I cannot imagine another video will compete with this one in the “video of the year” awards this year. It’s destined to be a legend. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here and note that it’s an autoplay link.
* I don’t know Nicole but I have been a contributor to City Journal