Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Negative Urban Renewal?!

How “Urban Renewal” Destroyed San Francisco’s Fillmore District
By Carl Close on Jul 21, 2008 in Economics, Housing, Property Rights

The great urban journalist Jane Jacobs probably had New York City in mind when she wrote about the potentially devastating effects of government-sponsored “redevelopment” on the inner city, but her lesson applies in many cities across the world. San Francisco’s Fillmore District is a prime example of an “urban renewal” disaster.

“The agency’s time there has not been a happy story,” Fred Blackwell, the new executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. “There is no way to make up for clearing large swaths of land and displacing thousands of people.”

In 1948, city officials declared the Fillmore, an ethnically diverse but largely African American neighborhood, to be “blighted” under the California Redevelopment Act of 1945. Over the next few decades, and with the help of eminent domain and federal funding, 4,729 businesses were forced to close, 2,500 households were pushed out of the neighborhood, and 883 Victorian houses were demolished. What the Fillmore got in return for its troubles—a high-rise residential project, some fast-food restaurants, and, late last year, a posh jazz nightclub—was too little, too late.

What went wrong? Several things. First, the urban planners of the day got it wrong: Rather than being “blighted,” the Fillmore was the center of the city’s vibrant, black commercial district, providing goods and services, gainful employment, and upward mobility for thousands. If it wasn’t broken (and in the eyes of many of the Fillmore’s residents and shopkeepers at the time, it wasn’t), it didn’t need fixing. Second, the economic opportunities and complex social networks that fostered economic empowerment and community spirit were fragile things: Hoping that they would boldly spring forth years after they had been dramatically disrupted was no more realistic than trying to unscramble an omelet. Third, the powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and contractors who profited from “redevelopment” had different short-term interests than those displaced by program.

What can be done to prevent future “urban planning” disasters? Several things. First, eminent domain must be drastically curtailed. (That’s no real loss: Bruce Benson argues forcefully that the “holdout problem” is a bogus rationale for eminent domain.) Second, rent control, which, as Paul Krugman notes, inhibits the creation of new rental property and contributes to the deterioration of existing rental properties, must be dismantled. Similarly, below-market housing mandates, which curtail the creation of new housing and therefore drive up housing prices, should also be scrapped. Third, the power of politicians to dole out favors to special-interest groups should be greatly restricted. (The harms of interest-group politics and other sources of “government failure” are ably explained in Beyond Politics, by William Mitchell and Randy Simmons.) Fourth, urban planners and residents themselves must better learn the nature and positive potential of the voluntary institutions, networks, and patterns that arise without government planning. (For details, see the Independent Institute book The Voluntary City, edited by David Beito, Peter Gordon, and Alex Tabarrok.)

San Franciscans better learn these lessons fast: Last June, the city’s voters passed a redevelopment initiative for the Bayview/Hunters Point area.


"My own private Idaho."

…in Saginaw.

Oh the experiences I have had. Evidently I have been single for far too long, because I am starting to exude so many single gay man pheromones, that construction workers in Saginaw are trying to pick me up. So the story goes something like this:

I went to Saginaw to visit Steve, and just as I was walking into Dawn of a new Day a middle age man in a truck with a trailer pulled up and called me over. I just assumed that he needed directions, which was kind of the case I guess.

Worker guy: “Where is Janes Street?”

Me: “I think it is back that way.”

Worker guy: “Do you need a job?”

Me: “No.”

Worker guy: “Okay. How about food, or dinner sometime, or something?”

Me: “Um okay?”

Worker guy: “Can I get your number?”

Me: *Insert fake Detroit phone number here*

Worker guy: “Oh okay I’ll give you a call sometime. Do you not live around here?”

Me: “I live in Detroit.”

Worker guy: “What are you doing here?”

Me: “Visiting family.”

Worker guy: “Okay...have a nice day.”

So after our conversation I go in to Dawn’s and tell Lindsey about it.

So I thought it was over. But it goes on from there. He then shows up at the coffee shop.

At this point I promptly had to go find Steve and I left. So, once again, I thought the end of the story.

After a brief break at Steve’s house, we head back to Dawn’s. So a little time passes and he [worker guy] calls Dawn, and asks for me. Dawn’s phone messes up and I loose the call, and then he shows up again, and the conversation went something like this.

Worker guy: “Hi, the number you gave me was wrong.”

Me: “Oh you must have taken it down wrong...”

Worker guy: “Oh. well, can I get it?”

Me: *Insert real phone number* "Oh but I am going to be Europe and my phone won’t work.”

Worker guy: “Oh. well, do you want to get together tonight?”

Me: “Um, I have lots of things to do today. I’ll be back in the end of June.”

Worker guy: “Good”

He exits stage left. At this point Dawn is freaking because her world had been blown: Our worker guy’s wife is going to be making glass vases with Dawn.

For a cross reference on how I feel about this check out my post on straight acting gays.

Nick Piotrowski

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The things you try to survive.

A man walked into a coffee shop near the river and settle into his favorite corner – between the front window and the yellowed brick wall – to read “Rolling Stone.” He was just part way through an article about the Grateful Dead that had a photograph of the group performing in what had once been a synagogue in New York City.

The building still had much of its original bones…the women’s gallery, the very gothic windows, ornate gates set into the back of the bemah with Hebrew script above them. Over all was a blend of light varying in color from gold to lavender and the man thought the synagogue full of rock music just might be one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen when he looked across the shop and saw that a casual acquaintance was looking his way.

The acquaintance, a young man with dark curls and an ever-concerned forehead, got up and came over to the first man as though he suddenly decided he must.

The second man came to the first, offered his hand and sat down, asking the first man, “Do you ever feel as if you didn’t want to be here anymore?”

“You mean here in the coffee shop, or here in this life?

“Here in this life.”

“Yes,” said the first man.

“Well. What do you do with that? What keeps you together?”

The first man had to stop and think on that for a moment before replying because such feelings are not often voiced, and the dealing with them is more instinctual, more survival driven, than carefully planned and worded. In this moment, words were needed because the second man was not making casual conversation. He was seriously enquiring.

The first man told the second that he had learned he would have such feelings just about every March. March is the month when the world has been frozen long enough that giving up is easy to do.

So, knowing this, the first man told the second that he had to be prepared.

“Prepared how?” asked the second man.

“Well…I know that in those times it is really important I have some kind of outlet to create. I force myself to journal, or to cook or paint more. You can’t create anything out of a funk, so that means you have to look back beyond that funk to find the things that are bright enough to be inspiring to creativity. That way your mind yourself that the thing you are going through is really only a small fragment of your whole story.

Sometimes you have to remind yourself that God just might have a sick sense of humor, but the joke always comes to an end. Sometimes you have to stop what you are doing and remember there is something or someone bigger than you are and that – even though you feel alone and nowhere – you aren’t alone and never really will be.”

“Hmph. That’s interesting, but I don't do those things and it's not much to hang onto when you feel like letting go,” said the second man.

The first man thought for a second and then said, “You attend a synagogue, right?”

“Yep,” said the second man.

“What has your Rebbe told you about creation?”

“What do you mean? Like, the beginning of creation? The creation of the world?”

Said the first man, “I mean the continuation of creation. Has your Rebbe ever told you that creation is not finished? That we were put here to continue the creation of the world?”

“Sure,” said the second man.

“Well,” continued the first man, “we are told we are here to continue that creation. To make more than was here when we arrived. So, logically, leaving a work unfinished could possibly be the worst thing we could do to the world around us. Have you ever been very close to giving up or moving on and some tiny act from another person changed your mind or reminded you what you were about to lose?”

“Sure,” said the second man with a slightly puzzled expression.

“Did you ever stop to think,” asked the first man, “that perhaps this random thing that changed your mind was the result of something random itself? What if somewhere – five, six, or maybe seventy persons removed from you – a word, look or gesture had set in motion a chain of events that led to the moment that changed your mind and perhaps saved your life? But, what if – seventy persons before you – someone had decided they had lived enough, that they would leave this life unfinished regardless of the consequences? That chain of events might never have happened to save your life. So, then, that person seventy people removed from you – by leaving their life unfinished – left holes in countless other lives he or she may have never known of.”

“That’s kind of a big thought,” said the second man, looking at his hands folded on the table.

“I suppose it is,” said the first man, “but it is also an amazingly hopeful thing to think that the world is not out of control, that perhaps it is just unfinished and there is still a great deal to do in it that requires every hand and every tiny gesture if it is ever to be a finished work. So, then, it would be an incalculably selfish thing to deprive the world of one pair of hands, or even one tiny gesture or look that might help finish this world, wouldn’t it?”

The second man thought a moment before saying he agreed with the first and that, somehow, the thought that your life could be such a big deal if you looked at the ripples that came from it made the thing you were trying to survive seem a lot smaller.

They chatted for a few moments longer about all the ways you could impact the universe with all of the tiny things you had to do anyway: You had to live somewhere, so why not choose that place so you could help make it over new? You had to see people, so why not listen a little more and share a little more so life was broader for the meeting? You had to buy your food and somewhere, so where would you buy it so it could help the place in which you live in?

So between getting excited about the things they could do, the things the two men had to try to survive got so small - so very small - that they disappeared entirely when compared with the great business of creating the world they lived in.

(Took place at the Redeye in Old Town)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Almost Charming

“Falling out of love is chiefly a matter of forgetting how charming someone is.”
Iris Murdoch

Someone. Something. Someplace. Dame Murdoch’s words gave me cause to stop and wear a somewhat pissy grin for a moment. In that moment I suddenly found a reason for the perfectly confident and seemingly ever-negative comments about our neighborhood delivered by persons who have as much connection with it as I have with an affluent lifestyle:

They do not know its charm. Period.

Opinions regarding certain parts of, and people in, our city seem to spring from the same root as malicious gossip: If it’s good, why mention it? If it’s bad, then repeat it into immortality.

Is it still true that white people and black people in Birmingham, Alabama attend different schools and must only ride certain public conveyances? Is it still true that women cannot vote in this country? Is it still true that any child born of unwed parents is still socially unacceptable? Is it still true that all Americans are rude and all Germans have expansionalist ideas? (Well. The American bit is mostly true. Ask the French.)

No, these things are mostly untrue today and so are many of the rumors passed to and fro regarding our neighborhood. It is not mostly made up of rentals where drug lords party the night away and no one cuts their grass because they are too busy stealing each other’s rims and shooting one another’s dogs.

There are films and exhibits at the Castle Museum, Spires of historic churches that chime at evensong and shine at night, the library Jesse Hoyt endowed, amazing homes waiting for a combination of love and skill to pull them away from extinction and a network of neighbors and organizations quietly having dinner in each other’s homes, tending gardens on long evenings and organizing events. The neighbor hood has slept quietly after a long period of violence and decrepitude, but it is stirring and soon there will be more life than it was build to hold.

Venice may or may not be sinking, GM may or may not survive, Obama may or may not be the economic Messiah of the United States and the Cathedral District may or may not be the ghetto its clairvoyant critics seem convinced it is. How will you know if you do not visit yourself?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Exact Centers

“This is one of the exact centers of the universe & it's in charge of a lot of the beautiful & amazing things we'll take for granted in the future.”

Brian Andreas

Friday, April 17, 2009

Have you Seen This Child!?

St. Parsimonious: Paint, pencil, copper leaf on reclaimed oak panel. Salvaged hardware for hanger. If you know her, feel free to comment, lol. SPM.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The heart of prayer is a quiet, empty place.

“But there was no prayer in Joel’s mind; rather, nothing a net of words could capture, for, with one exception, all his prayers of the past had been simple concrete requests: God give me a bicycle, a knife with seven blades, a box of oil paints. Only how, how, could you say something so indefinite, so meaningless as this: God, let me be loved… And in this moment, like a swift intake of breath, the rain came.”
Truman Capote
Other Voices Other Rooms
(At least, I *think* this was the work's name.)

This was our second Easter morning at St. John's, Old Town. The service was helpful in a very pertinent way, and the brunch afterward was lovely and a massive treat...so. Easter may stay, I suppose.

Friday, April 10, 2009

“”What is it, my dear?”

“Ah, how shall we bear it?”

“Bear what?”

“This. For so short a time. How can we sleep this time away?”

“We can be quiet together, and pretend – since it is only the beginning – that we have all the time in the world.”

“And every day we shall have less. And then none.””

A. S. Byatt

Life has moved so oddly, so randomly, this last six months. Passover last year was a hectic, jolly affair at our apartment on Warren Avenue with much thought, a lot of chat and barely a Jew in sight. It was a healing, starting over sort of evening. Passover this year was a much more sober thing to behold: Our good friend, Bob, had passed only the Sunday before and there was just too much going on at our house so far as demolition and destruction in the kitchen that a meal there was out of the question.

Nick, Roderick, Lindsey, Gabe and myself had date-studded roast and gefilte fish salads and swapped some chat standing in the kitchen at Dawn's. It was good. It was just different. So here's to next year in a finished house...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Lights on the River

“Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen.”

There was no question in this statement. It was always said with just such a tone and twinkle as to imply we were about to do something that might land us in trouble, and always followed the statement with an infectious grin as if the fun now would be worth the trouble later.

More importantly, Bob always said, “Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen,” in a way that made it clear he had absolute faith in the ability of determined individuals to accomplish whatever it was they set out to do.

It was this confidence that inspired some of us for years, and others of us only more recently. So, for the “others”, this attitude of Bob’s was one of the first impressions of Saginaw. That being the case, who wouldn’t want to live in a community where one could change the things that one did not agree with or improve the things one was willing to work for?

Bob passed on Sunday the 5th after an incredibly long fight with an illness that swallowed his physical being whole but could not touch his scallywaggish optimism.

His funeral filled St. John’s Episcopal on Michigan Avenue to standing only. Sitting in the front out of sight behind the organ with Mel Curry waiting to do our bits, it was amazing to think that one life could have touched so many others.

Tonight a group of Bob’s friends and family – bizarre and inspiring in its diversity – met at a boat launch near Old Town to release paper lotus flowers – each holding a lit tea light – onto the river in remembrance of Bob’s life.

As the dark closed in, the group huddled in the chill night with their children, their mothers, wives, lovers and friends to take a moment and quietly reflect on what a life could be and what it could do when driven by a mad twinkle and seemingly endless energy.

Tiny lights swirled in circles as their number grew…round and round in the launch until, finally, they were taken by the river slowly toward Old Town and it’s lit spires.

It is only appropriate, I suppose, that so many tears and so many lives should meet together to make light and more light as the clouds rolled back and the moon joined the company. I think Bob would have approved. I think he would’ve grinned and said, “Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen.”

(Photo, Michael Hollenbeck, Saginaw News, 3"x5" painting on wood panel with pencil, silver and copper leaf, SPM)