Worse than Katrina? Anti-density bombs over Detroit

September 28, 2010 at 11:25 pm | In cities, futurismo, land_use, politics, scandal, social_critique, urbanism | Comments Off on Worse than Katrina? Anti-density bombs over Detroit

Caught a Sept.23 post by David Byrne today, Don’t Forget the Motor City (found via a tweet by Richard Florida). Byrne writes:

This is a city that still has an infrastructure, or some of it, for 2 million people, and now only 800,000 remain. One rides down majestic boulevards with only a few cars on them, past towering (often empty) skyscrapers. A few weeks ago I watched a documentary called Requiem For Detroit by British director Julian Temple, who used to be associated with the Sex Pistols. It’s a great film, available to watch on YouTube, that gives a context and history for the devastation one sees all around here. This process didn’t happen overnight, as with Katrina, but over many many decades. However the devastation is just as profound, and just as much concentrated on the lower echelons of society. Both disasters were man-made.

That film Byrne references – Requiem for Detroit – occupied a chunk of my evening. It’s truly haunting – unbelievable, except it’s true. (The link Byrne gives goes to Requiem for Detroit in 10-minute segments; the link above goes to the entire 1hr.16min.45sec. film – not sure how that was uploaded to Youtube, but I hope it stays up).

Byrne includes this photo, a google maps overview of a couple of “city blocks” in Detroit today …no density, hardly any houses (most have been razed, the city is trying to “shrink” itself), a sorry accompaniment to the more frightening destruction that has taken place in other areas:


I believe it was in his 1740 essay The Anti-Machiavel that Frederick the Great wrote that the Netherlands, with its small land mass but large population of educated citizens, was far richer than Russia, with its vast but sparsely populated land mass – a population furthermore kept in servitude and ignorance due to a feudal system that enshrined serfdom.

People – engaged, educated, integrated – matter more than machines or raw land. Looks like land use policies (racist) and factory practices (automobile production) came together to make Detroit turn into 18th century Russia instead of Holland.


September 11, 2010 at 10:41 pm | In politics | Comments Off on Obviously

It’s 9/11 and many of us have abiding memories – for me, I was in Europe (in Baden-Baden, actually), and we had to access internet at the public library to find out if a friend was on one of the planes.

He was.

Watching the events on my mother-in-law’s TV was compelling, but seeing the scene a few days later, after we landed in Newark and were taken by bus to Logan (in Boston), was more visceral. Everyone on the bus was very quiet.

A lot has changed since the end of the 1990s. Security theater, and lots of frothy bullshit around ideas.

…Wait, …maybe a lot has stayed the same…?

Of the many things that glimmered across my computer screen in the last couple of days, this (regarding the ousted asshat who’s trying to gather attention via book-burnings) stood out, however:

The problem is not the Web. Anti-JFK rallies “revealing” to every school child in Orange County, California that Communists planned to colonize the United States by the year 1970 drew bigger crowds than Tea Parties today, with nary a blogger among them. (source)

That’s from Rick Perlstein’s NYTimes article, When a Fringe Figure Becomes News. “…by the year 1970 …bigger crowds than Tea Parties today…”?

You have to wonder why we’re paying attention to scoundrels like that “minister.”

You have to wonder what we’re paying attention to (and what we’re ignoring), …and why.

Connect the dots

September 1, 2010 at 11:08 pm | In politics | Comments Off on Connect the dots

Three articles popped up on my radar in the last few days. I got the impression there is a connection between them – all three chronicle a kind of hijacking of democracy and – dare I say it? – meritocracy in favor of expedience and will to power. Prepare to be disposable, they seem to suggest.

First, Vivek Wadhwa on Silicon Valley’s Dark Secret: It’s All About Age. Brilliant piece, reminds me of his talk on the difficulties in finding the women and minorities in tech:  video here

Wadhwa’s most recent article builds as well on his observations in a 2008 Business Week article, How to Foster Tech Entrepreneurship. The thread that ties these pieces together (to my mind) is in how they illustrate a disconnect between reality “on the ground” and its various mediated forms.

And what of that mediation? Read the August 28 opinion piece by Frank Rich in the NYT, The Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party, and follow that up with “Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?”: America’s misguided culture of overwork in the August 25 issue of Slate.


Tea Partiers may share the Kochs’ detestation of taxes, big government and Obama. But there’s a difference between mainstream conservatism and a fringe agenda that tilts completely toward big business, whether on Wall Street or in the Gulf of Mexico, while dismantling fundamental government safety nets designed to protect the unemployed, public health, workplace safety and the subsistence of the elderly.

Yet inexorably the Koch agenda is morphing into the G.O.P. agenda… Their program opposes a federal deficit, but has no objection to running up trillions in red ink in tax cuts to corporations and the superrich; apologizes to corporate malefactors like BP and derides money put in escrow for oil spill victims as a “slush fund”; opposes the extension of unemployment benefits; and calls for a freeze on federal regulations in an era when abuses in the oil, financial, mining, pharmaceutical and even egg industries (among others) have been outrageous. (Frank Rich/ NYT)

Then, turn to Slate’s interview with Thomas Geoghegan. Here’s his comment on measuring economic worth (especially if using GDP):

We don’t have any material value of leisure time, which is extremely valuable to people. We don’t have any way of valuing what these European public goods are really worth. You know, it’s 50,000 dollars for tuition at NYU and it’s zero at Humboldt University in Berlin. So NYU adds catastrophic amounts of GDP per capita and Humboldt adds nothing. Between you and me, I’d rather go to school at Humboldt.

So much of the American economy is based on GDP that comes from waste, environmental pillage, urban sprawl, bad planning, people going farther and farther with no land use planning whatsoever and leading more miserable lives. That GDP is thrown on top of all the GDP that comes from gambling and fraud of one kind or another. It’s a more straightforward description of what Kenneth Rogoff and the Economist would call the financialization of the American economy. That transformation is a big part of the American economic model as it has morphed in some very perverse directions in the last 30 or 40 years. It’s why the collapse here is going to take a much more serious long-term toll in this country than in the decades ahead. (Thomas Geoghegan in Slate)

The idea that’s mediated is to keep working harder, to keep bootstrapping, to innovate and to be entrepreneurial. This is great – seriously. Who wants to live in a world where everything is preordained? I don’t, so I agree it’s a nice ideal to believe in merit, in change, and all that. But at the same time there’s a reality working against that ideal – the reality created by those who either already have power or who are (in the case of the insane politics taking hold in the US) working to consolidate something quite different.

Nation of know-nothings: “intervention, now” time

August 28, 2010 at 11:50 pm | In politics | 5 Comments

Sometimes I think it would be great to have just a tumblr, a sort of Walter Benjamin 2.0 version of blogging (see Benjamin’s Arcades Project).

But I can repurpose my blog to the same ends, I guess (quasi-surrealistically), and just post this one paragraph from Timothy Egan’s excellent column, Building a Nation of Know-Nothings:

It would be nice to dismiss the stupid things that Americans believe as harmless, the price of having such a large, messy democracy. Plenty of hate-filled partisans swore that Abraham Lincoln was a Catholic and Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew. So what if one-in-five believe the sun revolves around the earth, or aren’t sure from which country the United States gained its independence? (source)

Yes, that would be nice, “to dismiss the stupid things that Americans believe as harmless,” if only they were harmelss. I’m sick of how Americans’ belief in nonsense continues to wreck the country – and the world. A laconic tumblr post would be just the thing, so I wouldn’t actually have to think about the moronic stupidity of what I’m posting about. Props, Timothy Egan, for doing it for us – here’s hoping that enough people get a clue that laissez-faire has serious drawbacks, especially when it’s manipulated by evil geniuses like Limbaugh and his ilk.

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus, a work Benjamin theorized on: this angel faces the past, he is being blown into the future and he gazes, horror-struck, at the wreckage piling up before him (our past and present). The gusts that propel him, backwards, into the future emanate from history.

Done deal all done

August 12, 2010 at 11:19 pm | In johnson street bridge, politics, victoria | 4 Comments

Spent the morning at City Hall, where mayor and council – all but one, namely Councillor Geoff Young – voted in favor of replacing the Johnson Street Bridge. Thank-you, Geoff Young, for throwing some well-placed questions out there, not that it made any difference to your colleagues.

Anyway, a few notes:

  • Less than 30 minutes into the meeting (at 10:36am), Counc. John Luton put the motion on the table to replace the bridge.
  • Mayor Dean Fortin made ominious noises about how if we don’t get to borrow the money that’s needed to replace the bridge, we might have to raise taxes or raid the capital fund. The “raise” and “raid” homonym caught my ear.
  • Councillor Lynn Hunter’s voice nearly cracked with emotion when she rose (figuratively speaking) to defend “our professional staff” who have “been models of public service”; she said that she’s “disturbed” that they’ve been “verbally abused and have their professional ethics questioned” because these poor public servants cannot “fight back” (their hands are tied). She emphasized how astonished she was by criticism of public service staff in “a public service town” – a reference to government’s role as major employer in Victoria. (Editorial note: Yes, well, maybe that’s part of what’s wrong with Victoria: no criticism allowed…)
  • Councillor Geoff Young said he’s not surprised by the poll results (see also my post from yesterday about opinion poll games…) and that the results were obvious, given the information presented by council. Even the Chamber of Commerce fell into the trap of voting for the “cheaper” option (which council presented as the replacement option, because the refurbishment option was presented as the more expensive one), but what people really want is the cheapest option (which means “no” to the Cadillac refurbish option – an option that was never given as an option on the survey). This means people (including the Chamber) say “cheaper” by default (again, talk about gaming the survey…).
  • Counc. Geoff Young continued to question all the repair conditions given, including the 100-year-life-span; the luxury multi-modal addition; and the bullet-proof 8.5 seismic upgrade.
  • Counc. Geoff Young also referenced the Aug.11 op-ed by Ross Crockford (Councillors need to ask tough questions), where the latter points out that the replacement design – an oversized version of the Canary Wharf rolling bascule bridge – is untested and we have no idea how this bridge will wear, or what it will actually cost. The “cost uncertainties” with this design, Young noted, “are bigger than we might think.”
  • Counc. Geoff Young also noted that council has told the public that the $21million Federal infrastructure stimulus fund contribution is certain with the replace option, but not with repair; this isn’t quite true since the replace option has changed since the $21million was granted (council is proposing eliminating the rail portion, something that the Federal grant assumed was included), and therefore we do NOT have certainty about getting the grant for the replace option.
  • Counc. Geoff Young also again pointed out that the Johnson Street Bridge is actually two independently operating bridges, not one, and that this opens the door to creative refurbishment (where one bridge is closed for rehab while the other remains open, with a reverse switch when the first span is finished).
  • Counc. Geoff Young also pointed out that council has said that the bridge faces closure in 2012, but that it will take four years (till 2014) to build a new bridge – so what happens in the two year gap? Or does the bridge not need to close in 2012 after all?
  • Councillor Sonya Chandler spoke at length about “the community” and seemed to channel “the community” repeatedly, for example when she said that she doesn’t believe that “this community” wants “the cheapest option.” (Editorial aside: really? This community – me – does. I don’t think we can afford a bridge that’s going to end up costing $150million to $200million at the end of the day…)
  • Counc. Sonya Chandler also said that she thinks “we’re making urban history” (she meant the decision process at today’s meeting, with its result of voting to replace the Johnson Street Bridge). (Not sure how she arrived at “making urban history” since this whole replacement scheme will simply suburbanize downtown, but, oh well…)
  • Councillor John Luton said that we’re not just dealing with heritage, but with an “essential piece of transportation infrastructure”; he then noted that “form must follow function” and that “this piece of transportation infrastructure has hit the wall.” (Huh?) He added that he “supports a new bridge as the most supportable option.”
  • Councillor Pamela Madoff spoke lengthily about her experience with heritage and how she traveled to sites that have experienced earthquakes. She told us that earthquake damage can be quite unpredictable because the waves travel through the ground in ways that can’t be foretold. Even though the Johnson Street Bridge is heritage-worthy, “seismic performance” is at the top of her list of priorities, followed by multi-modal performance, which is a guarantor, she said, of a democratic approach. No one should feel like a second-class citizen on the bridge – whether they’re a wheelchair or scooter user, pedestrian, cyclist, etc. (she pointedly omitted drivers of cars, and therefore also riders of public transit – including trains).
  • Counc. Pamela Madoff pointed to a 2008 Vic News article by Keith Vass, which noted that the city (Engineering Dept) had requested a condition assessment report on the bridge sometime in 2007, and that the bridge would be on the new (post-2008 election) council’s agenda. She suggested this vindicated council in the face of criticism that the bridge was not on the agenda during the election. (Editorial note: it wasn’t on the agenda during the election, and if incumbent councillors knew that it would be, pre-election, perhaps they should have spoken to the issue during the election. Live and learn.)
  • The other councillors really didn’t add anything of interest. Several (including some of the ones cited above, with the exception of Young and Madoff) spoke at far too great a length about themselves, as if we cared.
  • Mayor Fortin concluded the comments by repeating the poll results (that 80% of respondents said they would find the replacement option acceptable – but again, see Young’s comments about how the questions leading to that result were formulated and presented).
  • The vote, as noted above: everyone except Geoff Young in favor of replacement.

Quelle malheur, as they say in France…

Photo by Eric Porcher

Opinion Polls: Getting the results you want

August 11, 2010 at 11:26 pm | In johnson street bridge, politics, victoria | 3 Comments

Opinion Polls: Getting the results you want is the title of a Yes Minister sketch (click here to view).

From Wikipedia:

Set principally in the private office of a British government cabinet minister in the (fictional) Department for Administrative Affairs in Whitehall (the sequel was set in the Prime Minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street), the series follows the senior ministerial career of The Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP, played by Paul Eddington. His various struggles to formulate and enact legislation or effect departmental changes are opposed by the will of the British Home Civil Service, in particular his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Nigel Hawthorne. His Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, played by Derek Fowlds, is usually caught between the two. Almost every episode ends with the line “Yes, Minister” (or “Yes, Prime Minister”), uttered (usually) by Sir Humphrey as he relishes his victory over his “political master” or acknowledges defeat—and, more rarely, to acknowledge a joint victory.

Not until I returned to Canada after living in the States for nearly two decades did I realize just how veddy veddy similar the system here is to England’s, right down through every level, it seems, of government, from senior (Federal) to middle-senior (Provincial) to local (municipal). It strikes me that the people who run the show are the staff (the unelected bureaucrats), not the politicians. Call me naive, but I have a bit of a problem with that.

I mean, we can’t vote them out, can we?

I’m betting that tomorrow City of Victoria council (the politicians) will follow recommendations from staff (the bureaucrats) to go forward with replacing the historic Johnson Street Bridge. From where I’m sitting, as a very interested observer, it looks like this: the politicians, like well-played puppets, will fulfill the plan set in motion by staff some time ago (probably about 18 months, maybe 2 years ago). I don’t know whether they (the politicians) really have any idea what sort of shit-storm of public anger is going to hit them, …but, frighteningly, I can’t see that staff give a hoot – and therein lies the problem. After all, when the next election rolls around in 2011, staff will still have their well-paid jobs and glorious benefits, while the politicians will be out on their asses – and we the public will be left holding the bill.

From day one, it was clear that Engineering was hell-bent on getting a new bridge (to the point of presenting the Delcan Report in an extremely biased and one-sided way to council in April 2009), even if expenditures for a new bridge mean that this city has to go into massive debt and forgo every other sort of infrastructure project along with many opportunities for civic improvement. Their single-mindedness – and what it has cost in resources (human and financial) – is astonishing. The political capital, as well as the social capital, squandered on this gold-plated Cadillac project (whose true dollar cost is still unknown) could have been spent so much better on far worthier endeavors.

Talk about playing the public – and the politicians. On the one side, bureaucrats with benefits, on the other …chumps.

Postscript: I picked this particular Yes Minister segment because opinion polls will figure in a big way in tomorrow’s meeting.

Potted economy

August 6, 2010 at 10:22 pm | In addiction, crime, politics, social_critique | 2 Comments

Everybody is talking /writing) about pot, including pot in Canada, it seems. Nothing new, really: every Canadian (especially every British Columbian) knows it’s a resource and a big economic contributor.

Now a recent Guardian article by Douglas Haddow, Marijuana may cause Canada’s economic comedown, prompted even our local press conglomerate to publish a pretty good piece, Could legal California pot send Canadian profits up in smoke?, that takes a closer look at what’s surely a most interesting ecosystem of resource and distribution.

It’s not news to read that marijuana production is a big piece of British Columbia’s economy. And it’s not inspiring to read that we could kneecap the criminal element with the stroke of a pen (by legalizing marijuana production and distribution, and controlling it, the way we control and tax alcohol and cigarettes). I don’t care for pot myself – haven’t smoked it in decades, mainly because it’s not like wine, which goes with food (and I like my pleasures well-rounded!). That said, wine isn’t entirely harmless either, is it?

But wine is legal, and we have a culture of wine – whatever culture of pot actually exists doesn’t yank my chain, but that, too, speaks to the importance of cultures, which are created and nurtured, never given in a vacuum or created ex nihilo.

Right now, we’re creating a culture of pot that’s not exactly desirable.

I’d like to see a rational approach to “soft” drugs like marijuana especially, which would knock the legs out from under organized crime and gangs. And then, by all means, let’s go after the a-holes that produce and spread crack and meth (which imo is total poisonous garbage).

See, my take is this: Lumping all the qualities – the various drugs – together as a similar quantity is a huge, huge mistake. Instead, differentiate and sort the qualities: there are differences between pot versus crack or meth or IV drugs. When the legal system makes these very different qualities into the same thing, no one wins. I don’t want to get into discussions around legalizing hard drugs and garbage drugs – it seems to me (and this may sound cruel) that they affect such a small percentage of the population as to warrant a different approach that excludes accommodation. Marijuana, on the other hand, is total mainstream – has been since I was a kid, and I’m all grown up. Wasn’t a gateway back then for most of us, and isn’t a gateway now – the dastardly bastard organized crime element, however, is: they’re a vector for evil. They’re a gateway, no doubt about it, but it’s one that’s easy enough to close …through legalization.

My two cents.

Civics assignment, part 2

July 28, 2010 at 9:10 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, johnson street bridge, politics, victoria | Comments Off on Civics assignment, part 2

Very important for City of Victoria British Columbia residents/ taxpayers: Click through to FOCUS Magazine‘s poll, How should Victoria City Council solve the Johnson Street Bridge problem? As FOCUS notes, this is for “City of Victoria residents only, please” – so if you live in Saanich or Oak Bay or Esquimalt (or beyond), skip this (unless you own a business in Victoria and pay taxes to the City).

No need to tell regular readers that I’m all for option 3.

Go vote in the poll if you’re in Victoria.

What prompts a municipal CAO’s expenses?

July 15, 2010 at 7:39 pm | In johnson street bridge, local_not_global, politics, victoria | Comments Off on What prompts a municipal CAO’s expenses?

Victoria British Columbia hired a new City Manager one year ago (July 2009). Recently, the city released its 2009 Public Bodies Report (PDF), which itemizes the city’s expenditures. On p.8, we read that the City Manager’s 2009 salary was $186,418.09 – and that her expenses were a staggering $168,443.94.

What prompts expenses that come to ~90% of annual salary? No one else comes even remotely close.

Knowing the cost of buying a house around here, I have some guesses. But if I’m right, it’s a shame that property tax paid won’t go back to the City of Victoria – its manager, according to what she told me in conversation, lives outside the municipality.

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