Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

thinking about cities 7...

How do urban planners bring that same sort of renaissance to the communities that are not rich? How do we bring the urban renewal into communities that struggle to make ends meet?
My answer is agriculture, but it is not the only answer. Urban agriculture - and the aggressive conversion of abandoned and dilapidated properties into arable farm space - not only suggests an answer to the urban decay into something less dangerous and more useful to the folks who remain, but also creates an instant industry where entrepeneurs can work land and seek out markets for the excess produce that is not eaten directly. It could create a meaningful alternative for the children of the poor who have only to choose between risking prison or joining the military for any escape from their poverty-stricken situations. Improving food security and health in these communities, as well, would also mean a reduction in missed school days. Healthy food means healthy kids. Sick kids miss school. The leading predictor of a potential drop-out is days of school missed. Protecting the health and promoting the health of children helps promote their education, and, as a result, the future potential of their whole lives being unlocked with opportunities.
The cultural barrier, of course, is that farming is hard work; farming is menial work; farming is what the white people dragged all those non-white folks around to do because it was just too hard for us to do. Agriculture, at a certain level, is an exploitive action that requires a huge amount of labor to generate the excess that passes along to the folks who do not need to work that hard to get by.
This is a barrier that will take a long time to break down, and one of the most important barriers to break down is the cultural barrier of white farming, itself, that refuses to see the humanity of the workforce as anything but a hindrance to good business practices. Farmers assume because they are paying their workers well, that is enough. Providing water, perhaps a place to sleep, all these things, are simply not enough. We must never stop trying to create a more humane system for our agricultural work force. If we wouldn’t want ourselves or our kids or our grandkids out there, hunched over the strawberry patch on a hot summer day with a bandanna and a jacket against the insects and wind-blown pesticides and chemical fertilizers, then we must find a different way, because everybody is somebody’s child, grandchild, and best beloved. Until the system is built upon respect for all workers, and a constant quest for equitable systems beyond just dollar payment becomes the norm, no one would want to abandon the office for the fields, and even standing on a street corner slinging drugs would be seen as a better alternative to hard work sunrise to sunset, such dehydration-inducing, cancer-causing, back-breaking work. Ultimately, everyone should participate in the life of the soil, and in agriculture. But no one should if it means dying young with complications of dehydration creating liver failure, and the various chemicals and pesticides encouraging cancer cells, and the back so used up that it creates disability.
Farming is only as hard as we make it. The most amazing thing is no one ever thinks that maybe the system needs to change. OFten, even the folks who notice it discuss how the economics are what they are, and no one is willing to be brave enough to change the economics. Ultimately, we are eating ourselves to death. Our system of agriculture, created by freemarket economics, is destroying the world and our fellow man. The cost of destroying others is figured into the payments made by the farmers. The cost of destroying the land will be borne by future generations, and it makes little difference over the course of the forty or so years any single farmer will be working his or her land. Over the course of 80 years, though, the constant desecration of soil life and microbial life and irrigation practices creates a cascading system of failures that threaten to destroy us all as a species. The cheap strawberries we buy at the store every spring have a hidden cost that we don’t pay today. It’s like the thing that financial advisers tell us about buying clothes and household goods: Buying cheap clothes will mean replacing them constantly, so buy quality things that will last and try to maintain them even if it looks more expensive today.
I read an article about strawberry pickers in the fields of California, and the backbreaking labor therein. The white farmer looked out at his fields and stated with certainty that only illegal immigrants would be willing to work hard enough to excel as a picker of strawberries. He said this with such moral and economic certainty, that I wanted to reach through the newspaper and grab him by the lapels and shout: “Than maybe there’s something wrong with the fields, themselves, that you’ve made such work like this for people! Maybe you are the one who has to change.”
In our own backyards, we have consumed the empty farmlands, expanding upon the dead ground around the city, where developers buy up cheap land near urban centers that used to be farms, because the ground is dead and the next generation of farmers have all moved off the farm, to other pursuits. THis is where our suburban tracks are built. These empty farms and old landfills that used to surround our urban centers have become empties out wastelands, because our food is being grown so far away, and shipped so far. We plant our castles on the deserted ground. We mark our fences, and our driveways, and hire policemen to stalk the streets against the urban flood.
And, we shop in stores where we can find anything we desire, nearly year round. Anything that isn’t available 24/7 is being developed so it can be available 24/7. The availability issue means more land is torn up and turned into farm country, farther from the city, where drones fly overhead and “farmers” who live miles away, where their kids can go to nice, suburban schools, manage workers with levels of science and research that are both very impressive and very depressing. I am not going to wax mythological about the sadness of the loss of the family farm. I am not depressed that science is involved. I am depressed at how science is being used.
The crops are vessels for our needs, and not independent, living organisms. By treating these living things as commodities, we aren’t using science to increase our respect for the crop. We are using science to exploit the crop, and use it up in full.
The recent GMO debate, to me, often misses the point. We have a system of agriculture so destructive to the very crops we propose to be cultivating that we must extricate and replace the very DNA of the crop, itself, annihilating a living organism at the genetic level and replacing it with this other, new thing. It will continue until the next build-up of tolerances, and then the cycle repeats of annihilation after annihilation until very little is left of our crops and ourselves that came from the soil and the wilderness and the aeons of time before us.
Speeding up the evolutionary process is dangerous because the process is by definition one of death. There is no way to know what the long-term effects of any new crop will be because crops dont stop breeding when we are done with them. They crops with Wild species. The super weeds continue on, as well, spreading into the wild. What changes we make Wil tumble forward into an unknown future where the changes can never be undone. In this, and for this, the wise elders who respect the land and the earth cry out about the dangerous changes wrought, by men who only see the danger of what can be proven in a laboratory. Safe to eat is not the same as safe for tge seventh generation of man. The number of unknowns is too great.
And, if we imagine our cities differently, and design them around different goals and dreams, and reshape this public imaginarium we call suburban sprawl, we would not need to commodity so many living things.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

thinking about cities 6...

Personal freedom means I get to light a cigarette at 5 AM, throw back a shot of whiskey for breakfast and sit on a stoop shouting at people as they walk past about polarized political issues all day long. Freedom means that I have the right to do anything I desire within the boundary of non-harmful behaviour established by state and local laws. The very laws that prevent me from getting arrested if I decide to have a shot of whiskey for breakfast are of the same spirit of laws that make it possible for corporations to flood our communities with cheap and non-nutritious food, loaded with salt, fat, and sugar. This very morning, due to oversleeping, I had to rush to work at the community college, and along the way, I picked the best of the worst option available to me, along the way. My breakfast did not have a single vegetable, unless the starchy potato gets in on a technicality. It had an entire day’s worth of sodium. It will probably shave years from my life if I do this on a regular basis.
The way the laws work: It’s my fault.
I don’t think that’s true. I do the best that I can, every day. Some days that means I have to choose between making it to work on-time and making breakfast. On those days, I also must try to find the least bad solution to navigate my day. And, the city does not support healthy decision-making. In fact, I was up late last night working in the garden and washing dishes, because we try to grow some of our own food, and we try to cook for the week ahead. The end result of this reduction in available weekly time was an exhausted rush to work, and a decision of which method is the least bad. Life is a negotiation of competing, difficult, and urgent priorities. In this case, creating a system that promotes healthy decision-making will be a universal good.
Fast food should be regulated like a sexually-based business. I don’t believe strip clubs or sex toy shops shouldn’t exist. I do believe they should not be permitted to be ubiquitous and omnipresent.
Seriously, count how many burger shacks there are, all around you. Imagine the environmental destruction caused by all those beef cattle herded into close pens, wading through shit while eating corn and belching methane fumes. Imagine the corn they are fed, the cheap GMO corn, and how very much of it, along with GMO soy and GMO sorghum and GMO anything, we toss into the cattle pens, to fatten up beef to make burgers.
Burgers don’t come from the whole cattle, either. There are cuts of meat.
The steak available at nearly every sit-down restaurant in America came from many of the same cattle. The divided animal is raised and sold for a high volume of high-quality beef, and the rest is separated out to fuel the cheap burger joints that pollute our communities’ arteries with low-quality, low-health, discount food.
For me, this morning, even desiring a healthy breakfast, and even willing to pay premium to achieve one, I had no choice. The only fast option available to get me to work on time was fast food. I drove past a hundred places with sausage burritos, egg and bacon sandwiches, and egg and bacon burritos and sausage sandwiches. There was no vegetable stand. There was no fresh oatmeal without all sorts of strange and unknown chemicals, without a deadly dose of sugar. There is an unofficial line between “food” and “junk food”, but the way marketing works, the line becomes blurry, and the blurriness errs on the side of convincing people that “junk food” is actually a health food. You see, junk food is chemically-designed to be addictive. It is engineered to induce cravings that are only enhanced by marketing and branding efforts that reinforce the cravings with a media narrative that embeds into the brain.
Basically, this shit is evil, and we allow it. We welcome it because the consumer gets to choose their own addiction over their health.
And, we have zoned things in such a way that this lamprey can continue sucking the life out of our communities while extracting the wealth of the community, taking both and leaving nothing else behind.
Generally speaking, when wealth is traded for something the community truly needs, this is the purpose of wealth and a good thing; imagine the farmer selling CSA shares for organic produce and jars of fresh pickles. When wealth is traded for something that diminishes the community and causes irrepairable harm, this is the lamprey-like wealth extraction of corporate evil. Trading wealth for something that helps the community builds up the community and improves it. Trading wealth for something that diminishes the community, and takes away from its health and wellness, is a symptom of a diseased society. These weeds have taken root in the cracks of our sidewalks. They are noxious and polluting and harmful, but they cannot be removed without rethinking the way our cities and food systems work on a massive scale. These are the parasites in the system that exploit our personal freedom for their own material gain at our expense.
Urban planning has the power to correct itself.
Fear of regulation is a definite thing, and part of a healthy society that tries to balance competing interests that may or may not have uneven power distributions in the discussion. Fear of regulation prevents the powerful from pushing through changes that cause harm. Obversely, fear of too-little regulation also is part of a healthy society.
How many burger joints does your neighborhood actually want or need, and are they unbalanced regarding other forms of healthier eating choices? Where are the healthy, fast choices for a vibrant, wholesome society?
I propose two alternative solutions that each are likely impossible.
First, I propose strict dietary guidelines for restaurant meals based on their price points. The cheaper something is, the healthier it must be to protect our society’s poor and powerless from the myriad issues involved with the exploitation of corporations. This will create some issues because healthy food isn’t necessarily the cheapest food. But, a little of something good is far better than a lot of something bad, for your health. And, I suspect that once faced with the limitations of regulations, the companies that can create healthy, affordable options for a low price point will excel and expand quickly. This leap of faith, of course, supposes that once given the opportunity not to exploit, companies will refrain from doing so. Unfortunately, what we have seen is that whenever something is permitted, a corporation will attempt to profit from it, and whenever something is not forbidden, a corporation will attempt to profit from it. In either case, this is not a permanent solution to the food crisis ravaging our urban and suburban and rural communities. We are literally dying because we have put our faith in companies to do right by their customers’ health. Heart disease is our #1 killer. Cigarettes, if not for extensive regulation, would still be on the lips of everyone, everywhere.
My second proposed solution is to zone fast food restaurants exactly like adult entertainment facilities, and prevent them from dominating our communities. They need to be spread the fuck out, and dissipated as the sinful thing that they are. Currently, one could not go to a grocery store without passing multiple fast food destinations wrapped around it in a kind of obstacle course of temptation. One fast food restaurant per square mile is plenty. Strictly defining fast food, in this case, would come from the caloric density of the food set against the nutritional density. What is the set ratio permitted per meal per items? I don’t believe in portion control. I do believe in nutritional density. Set a strict nutritional density requirement, and anything that does not meet that requirement must be zoned like a sinful temptation that blights our community’s health, safety, and children. Anything that is more calorically-dense than nutritionally-dense belongs out on the edges of our towns and cities, where only those who are specifically-seeking them will encounter them, and they will know that what they are doing is potentially harmful to their health.
Also, any food company that needs to make television commercials instead of relying on the testimonials of customers and goodwill is basically making terrible food. That they target children with their horrible products, and attempt to create a lifelong bond with children through targeted advertising of food that causes Diabetes, Heart Disease, and Cancer, is one of the great evils of our society.
Corporations are basically robots. They are tools that are created to perform functions and operate independently of any one or two operating individuals, to make decisions without close direction, etc. That their processing power comes from a large number of managers and middle-managers and employees is irrelevant, because they function in all other respects like giant, amorphous robots. In this, Asimov’s laws of robotics must come first. They are not required to operate this way.
They certainly aren’t operating that way in our towns and communities.
Another corporation that seems disinterested in the health and wellness of the community - construction companies - are in the business of building things that can be used for profit through either the sale of the buildings or the leasing of them.
These have all been built according to codes, set by the government.
The government regulation that is often seen as some kind of evil has actually been subtly enforcing a status quo through building codes for centuries. These codes save lives, ensure appropriate access for disabled and elderly folks, and do all sorts of other hidden goods. But, they also ensure that doing things differently from what has been done before is prohibitively difficult. For a construction company to take a chance on unconventional urban planning, unconventional design, often means finding ways to reduce the cost of the procedure, and mitigating the risk.
The urban renaissance currently happening in our cities, where the wealthy and upwardly-mobile push into condos and residences that are deep in the heart of cities, as opposed to rushing out to the suburbs, is exactly how to do that, for a risk-averse construction firm. The vibrancy of repurposing old buildings happens because community leaders make it fiscally profitable through tax breaks and regulations, and the community gets behind the project. The famous Riverwalk of San Antonio is exactly that sort of project. A civic-minded community leader saw the value in a revitalized destination downtown, and united the community behind the idea that has since taken off and formed the heart of a revitalized downtown in a city that has since become a major tourist destination as a result, in part, of that Riverwalk project. In other areas, old factories left abandoned that happened to have a fortuitous location have been turned over into a multi-use notion, with condos above the restaurants, and shopping and various offices all sharing tiny pieces of lease space inside constructs that used to be used for a large, single purpose. Also in San Antonio, the Pearl Brewery Complex has become a major destination for locals, where once there was an empty and decaying former brewery of a beer notorious for its cheapness and poor quality, now there is the Culinary Institute of America, high-end retail, and all sorts of restaurants and offices.
How do urban planners bring that same sort of renaissance to the communities that are not rich? How do we bring the urban renewal into communities that struggle to make ends meet?

Friday, August 29, 2014

thinking about cities 5...

People love their cars.

Okay, what’s the most dangerous thing people do every day, with the highest-likelihood of our own death, dismemberment, etc.? It’s driving. Driving is extremely dangerous. More people die on the road every day than die from getting mugged or carjacked in the urban communities of our country.
People love their cars, right?

In urban California, people had better love their cars, because they’ll probably be spending more time in their car than they will eating meals, and one daily meal will probably be eaten inside of a car. The average commute for people who drive to work in San Francisco is over 30 minutes one-way. One hour every day is lost to a mechanical action, with no physical activity, extremely high risk, and very low levels of human interaction, skill mastery, and personal development. It is a loss of time, and a loss of happiness. The hole in the day also takes away from time spent cooking meals.

Ask this question, then: How many fast food restaurants do you pass on the way to and from work? It is very likely that people in households where every adult works, the norm in America, will be able to mentally drive to work and count restaurants because it is very likely that people in that household stopped in those restaurants for meals, because time is a precious commodity for the American worker. In a sixteen-hour day, eight of it will be spent working. One will be spent commuting. That leaves seven hours for showering, eating, cleaning up after ourselves, and taking care of our pets and families. Often, the negotiation of time that happens never impacts our careers, which must come first. Our negotiation of time comes from the rest of the day, where the easiest things to let slide - housework, eating - happen in the kitchen. Eating out not only saves preparation time; it saves cleaning time. 

It also destroys our personal health, our personal happiness, decimates our communities’ well-being, and turns our planet into a disastrous superheated ball of death.

The side effect of eating out: We eat shitty food. We are tired, stressed, looking for comfort. We eat shitty food. It is cheap. It is readily available. At no point in the creation of the shitty food does a company think about the health of their customers. In fact, food exists that seems to revel in how unhealthy it actually is as if that is a selling point. Size of the meat patty sells burgers. Bacon added on to meat patty sells burgers. Even relatively healthy-ish options like sandwiches with vegetables on them are quickly doused in over-sweetened and over-salted sauces that will trigger our primordial impulse for fat and sweet.

As a country, we are eating ourselves to death.

The solution is to eat out less, and make healthy meals at home.

Even people who do not eat out will rely on prepackaged foods and sauces as time savers at the house. How many frozen pizzas does a family of four eat in the average month? (Answer: tk seeking source on this.)

Pre-made foods, pre-packaged foods, frozen heat and eat foods, all must be pumped with preservatives to retain shelf life, and are often made extra-enticing by hidden fats and sugars that seem out of place. Time is a precious resource, and it is consumed by long commutes, which, in turn, lead to consuming faster alternatives to prepared, healthy meals.

Health is time. Time is health. We trade one for the other, caught in a system that rewards us with time temporarily for making decisions that will impact our health some day. Why anyone would do this, even knowing the cost to their own health, is often because of the value of the home and the quality the schools. Wealthy people have many choices for schools, including private schools. Poor people have no choice. Their children's future is circumscribed by their zip code. Education opportunities increasingly go to the people who can disconnect from their communities, and chase the wealthier neighborhoods and better schools. Financial advisers do regularly suggest pushing a family mortgage to the limits of what is possible if it means a substantially better school for the kids. Building a better future for the next generation is a worthy investment: What's the point of money without a better future for our kids? But, it is unevenly distributed. Poverty accumulates in poverty. Kids from poor neighborhood have no exposure to kids from rich neighborhoods. Kids from middle class neighborhoods remain with middle class kids. We sort ourselves by our wealth, and we sort our children by it, too, and train them to sort their future by wealth. 

Wealth also buys better food. When we are poor, we will often die young in terrible chronic pain that drains our bank accounts and leaves little for the next generation. If we are a little luckier, we who are poor, we will die suddenly without lingering from some unknown chronic condition, and some part of our life will be passed on to our children, who may be able to get out of poor neighborhoods with that boon of minor generational wealth. 

Anyway, revenge comes in the form of commuting times. Rich people often commute greater distances, eat terrible junk food as a result of long commutes, and face many of the same conditions as those who spend an hour on a bus will face.

Driving is the most dangerous thing we do, and we do it every day. We move out into the hills to escape minor likelihoods of criminal attempts, and we extend our commute, increasing the likelihood of accidents, which are a leading cause of death. And, this drive feeds into our gnawing addiction of terrible fast food, and this leads to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, which are all leading killers of men and women.

Move out into the suburbs if you must. But do so with your eyes open. Time and health are the only two things you truly have. Everything else is a cultural affectation.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

thinking about cities 4...

Tax revenue is the key to urban bliss, isn't it? It certainly looks like the only thing that is truly measured and taken seriously.
With the proliferation of WalMarts across my fair suburbs, I have done some research into why big box stores seem to be the preferred method of physical retail space in this country. Certainly, they are full of things that people might like to buy. The cost savings of piling them all together into a silo probably does lower the costs. The large bulk purchases likely does create a discount possibility where everyone saves money, and that’s basically fine as long as no sweatshops and child labor operations are involved. Heck, the modern organic milk movement’s defining moment was the embrace of organics by WalMart!
Still, as a consumer, I find big box retail unpleasant. I have to cross great distances on foot to get what I need. Customer service is harried, at best, and absent most of the time. Much of what I find in these places is made in foreign nations under questionable conditions, and it often breaks quickly, needing to be replaced again with another inexpensive thing from the same unpleasant shopping experience and the purchased thing will also break. With this experience in mind, and ignoring the critique of Big Box retail from those that mythologize a diverse Main Street with many little shops, it is absolutely no surprise that on-line retail is clobbering Big Box stores, and will likely dominate these festering cesspits of oversized Americana.
But, more important to our current debate, is this question: Why do these huge shopping experiences take hold in drought-stricken areas, small towns with few resources to spare, and even densely-populated urban areas that can barely afford the parking space, much less the square feet of cluttered, messy shelves?
Tax revenue is the answer. The local city councils see tax dollars in their eyes.
The store comes in, and presumably will become a source of employment for many, and a steady stream of sales tax for the community, and this drives the decision to approve construction of the hideous thing.
Tax revenue is also tied to the revenue for the city in that residences are taxed based on property values.
Tax revenue has created a system where the better a neighborhood looks, and the larger and newer and more valuable the homes are in that neighborhood, the more money the city has. Tax revenue has also created a system where the larger the stores, the cheaper the stuff, and the more likely the stuff will need to be replaced, the more revenue the city generates in sales tax.
Ergo, push. Push out into the surrounding hillsides and build. The infrastructure and roads and highways will all be paid for by someone else with bonds both municipal and federal, but the tax revenue will continue and continue for years. The organs, once opened, will pulse with the liquid green blood of economics and spoo out their revenue stream into the municipal coffers.
The municipal coffers will swell and burst in a monthly pulse to pay down the bonds that were approved to build the streets and police stations and fire brigades that support the town.
The bondholders will own shares of the big box stores muted and dispersed among funds and portfolios that will include the bonds. This gelatinous green goo congeals into a ticker somewhere in a bank, that someone owns. Our taxes paid to our government, and the profits paid to our local big box businesses, are actually a fee paid to a banker for the privilege of debt to the banker. This debt is dispersed into the portfolios of thousands through all sorts of mutual funds and funds of funds and funds of funds of hedge funds and funds designed to mitigate risk to the investor and/or maximize return to the investor.
At no point in the process is our community’s health and well-being part of the equation. It is all strictly based on the notion of tax revenue. The whole pulsing, beating spoo heart of Big Box Store materialism is the hydra vampire of global finance extracting the life essence of our communities on every front imaginable, to accrue wealth from time, debt, and raw materials. The roads, themselves, that connect the Big Box store to the city, likely paid for with a bond issuance, is built by another company that is paid out to the other owners of fund management firms.
When WalMart comes to town, wages drop, household income drops, and American-made products are driven to the brink by products made in slave labor conditions in some of the poorest and most desperate places on the planet.
The amount of oil and carbon that goes into the production and distribution of these goods is substantial. Again, the same individuals and organizations that extract wealth from our cities and shopping malls also extract wealth from the gas and shipping lines. Every step is monetized, and becomes a dividend or stock to someone, somewhere, and the accumulated ownership has congealed into a clear overclass and underclass. Global warming happens as a result of the extraction and long shipping and power plants and it is a very profitable thing for the  profit-reapers. 
It all began, of course, with the notion of tax revenue. The city council desired tax revenue, jobs that will increase municipal and state funds, and went about this goal by destroying the world for the 1%. It approved zoning plans, expanded city limits perhaps, and issued bonds to pay for roads and infrastructure to support the retail establishments and new homes (fly from these inner cities, somewhere safer, somewhere newer, with gates and an HOA!).
Hyperbolically reductionary, I know. Life is always more complex than this simple thought experiment.
But, this thought experiment did exactly one thing: It followed money. The very city managers that push tax revenue growth will be invested in retirement portfolios managed by the very companies that are approaching them for bonds. Everyone has a financial interest in creating this horrible, destructive hellscape of what is commonly referred to in speech, among employees of these places, as “retail hell”. Again, the financial rewards go to people who are willing to inflict this monstrous retail hellscape upon their communities, destroy their local “mom and pop” shops, and submit their communities and landfills to wave after wave of cheap, plastic crap shipped in from distant, wage slaves. There is no alternative system. Opting-out is opting out of a roof over our heads, a municipal fire engine, and building code enforcement. Which is to say, it’s an even worse idea for individual safety to step away from the herd on this one. The best thing for us is to go along, and let it happen. For us, it is where the rewards outweigh the risk in the system we have built.
And, the broken cheap stuff we buy doesn’t just go away when it is placed out in the street for pickup. The landfills swell with all these things that are potentially toxic to our environment and build up and build up in vast architectures of piled-up wastematter.
Consider the landfill. It is your neighbor as much the city park. In fact, it will likely someday become a park as the piles of filth are buried and covered with sod. New houses wil be built upon the junk. We will buy junk to fill our houses built of junk, and everyone will be smiling and keeping up with their neighborhood’s appearances, and it will all be so wonderful.
I’m smiling. Everybody smile.
Someday we will run out of plastic from the available oil, and we will strip mine old landfills to recycle old plastic. At this time, presumably, the ocean gyre will be so dense, we can just scoop it up in trawlers like we used to do with fish, and from there it will be recycled, thrown out, built up…
This is the system we create when we build our cities based on the measurement of tax revenue.
It is a very profitable system for us on the short term, and it is particularly profitable for the people who will not end up working in these retail nightmares.
The majority of Americans who work in these hellscapes are paid below a living wage and must supplement their income with food stamps and government assistance to get by. Ergo, the very taxes that are presumably raised by expanding tax revenue should be measured against the expenditure of so many families on welfare and public assistance.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

thinking about cities 3...

Inner city crime is a thing, and it is not a small thing. But, how can any community curb their crime when their responsible homeowners and residents flee to the hills? Instead of staying behind and forming community watch operations and working with local community leaders to create a healthy, happy community, the American method is for individual households to save up enough money to escape, and then to escape. Imagine what would be different about the mythical inner city if the drug dealers had no great concentration of poverty to exploit. They can mark their territories and lay down their exploitations, but they wouldn’t be pushing against powerless people without money, but the very landed gentry who can buy security measures and operate effectively with lawyers and politicians and policemen. In some sense, the us versus them aspect of race and class relations might exacerbate, but on the whole, I suspect that staying and fighting in our blighted communities would make it harder for crime to operate unchecked, harder for blight to take root, and easier for the young people in those neighborhoods to see a better way of living. But, it would be asking us to be fighters, and asking our kids to be fighters, and it is a hard thing to ask, when the community at large does not support the idea. We chase property values. We fly out to the hills and edges of our towns and communities. We see the encroaching decay not as a call to action, but as a call to flee.
One of the great myths of urban crime is the relationship between crime and poverty. In fact, the vast majority of impoverished people commit no crimes whatsoever. [] The small percentage of people who commit crimes will commit them whether rich or poor. The difference is, in urban planning terms, in the environment where the crime occurs. Concentrated poverty creates an atmosphere of hopelessness and decay that creates a system of crime recurrence in the community.
To protect the value of our personal investment in homes, we flee.
Ergo, the people who do not flee the encroachment of urban blight for reasons of wealth or personal values or a sense of community in their neighborhood will be damaged by the escape of those who can afford to leave, and have a low-enough commitment to their neighborhood that they can leave without feeling a loss.
In this, we reward people who have no connection to their community. We punish people who would stay and push back against the encroachment of decay. The property values of people who move into these gates suburban communities at the edge of cities are rewarded with a false sense of security. [citation:] The rising crime rate is not in our inner cities, but in our suburban communities, where gun violence is on the rise. [] Depression, alcoholism, drug use, all are on the rise in our suburbs. They are on the decline in inner cities that have exactly one common thread: viable public transportation. When the situations of poverty are allowed a release valve into the larger community of jobs and opportunity, the people who live in those areas find less crime in their areas.
Critics will argue that it just means criminals have a broader base from which to operate their illegal actions. Again, there are criminals everywhere. Some percentage of the population will engage in criminal action no matter where you live. The alleviation of poverty conditions does change the cost-benefit-analysis of crime for a large number of people living in poverty, because it reduces the desperation that would otherwise drive marginal members of society into the true fringe where crime becomes the path of least resistance.
The most dangerous thing we do, every day, is drive. Nothing else we do has the potential for severe bodily injury and dismemberment and sudden death. Increasing the distance we drive everyday has a direct correlation to our level of personal safety. Extending the taxbase out into the hills around the city, and permitting more and more construction farther and farther away from the city center ensures that risk goes up across the community.
Infrastructure does not always follow our housing developments into the hills, and the winding loops that prevent casual entry and cross-through in our neighborhoods make it harder for emergency services to access our communities.
And, fear stalks the streets out in the gated communities. People live in fear of difference, of declining property values, of imagined criminality spilling out from the inner city. It causes the continued criminalization of our brown-skinned young men, and the targeting of them by violent, terrified white people. [I would love to see statistics between the number of crimes committed by white men upon black men versus the number of crimes committed the other direction.]
The castle mentality does not extend to land management.
The most irrigated crop in America is turfgrass. It is irrigated with potable water, that has been treated and includes chemicals that are mostly fine for people but bad for soil, like chlorine and flouride. Exacerbating this incorrect water usage, turfgrass, itself, is a monoculture that provides no meaningful pollination opportunities for insect life, and chokes out competition for other plant species that might thrive on native soils without the continued watering, overwatering, and overwatering - in a serious national drought, no less! - of turfgrass. Lacking enough resources in the soil to maintain said turfgrass, fertilizers and weed killers are purchased en masse. [citation needed about fertilizer sales figures and weed killer sales figures] These additives salt the ground with excessive mineral content, causing the need for more and stronger fertilizers, which exacerbates the issue. The effect of these chemicals on our environment, on a large scale is clear. [citation needed about run-off of fertilizer and weed killers in the environment.]
The manor house mentality, again, traditionally was primogeniture. The eldest would inherit the home and grounds upon the passing of the head of the household. The land was managed to provide not just for the peace and happiness of one person, but viewed as a legacy that is to be passed down from generation to generation. In our modern iteration of that mindset, the house is sold upon the passing of the head of the household, and the home value is what is passed on. The land, itself, then, is managed by everyone to promote high home prices. The community that forms around children and homes does not extend to the next generation. Once again, the people that are willing and able to disconnect from the community, and from the land itself, receive the highest rewards in our culture.
The material rewards are highest for people who have no connection.
Is it any wonder our society is fragmenting into gated communities, politics is polarizing, and we are becoming a lonely bunch of depressed people, living in giant, empty palaces with few real-life friends?
The homeowners associations that exist to maintain home value do so because that is more important than existing to promote charitable works for residents. Keeping up appearances is more important than addressing the isolation that plagues our communities. Keeping out people who might not be able to keep up with the Jones’ with the maintenance of homes is more important than reaching out to other communities.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

thinking about cities 2....

“Little boxes made of ticy-tacky”

Homeowner Associations (HOA) often appear in the news negatively, but people who love their HOA, along with people who are mildly disinterested in theirs but vaguely positive, seem to outnumber the people who would abolish their HOAs at a moment’s notice, if given the chance. With current drought conditions all over the country, including neighborhoods under the stewardship of HOAs, have competing goals. Goal 1) Conserve water. Goal 2) Keep up appearances. Along with the latter goal, homeowners who have been lax in keeping their lawn green have recieved ominous and threatening letters from their HOA boards about keeping up appearances. Maintaining property value is the goal of an HOA, and the way to achieve that is to make sure that neighborhoods have a sameness, as if the houses are sitting on a shelf in a store waiting to be purchased and personalized, slightly, within the strict boundaries permitted by the HOA.
The original goal of a “covenant community” was to separate and push back from the poor and lower-classes, to create the kind of gated suburbia that only the few and the select could ever achieve. But, we’re not quite there, yet. First, let us consider the process of the creation of a new homeowners association, to understand how these things continue to dominate even as they often make the news, and as many of these organizations struggle to find people willing to sit on their boards, at all.
First, new home builders choose a plot of land that is ripe for development. In Texas, this generally means finding a place that is sort of within half an hour of a major employer of some sort, though it is currently empty land or an aging, fallow farm. This area is stripped bare, all trees removed, and giant holes are dug for pipes and electrical wiring. The ground is surveyed. The land is checked. The land has been checked and checked again. Then, construction happens and houses go up. Along with the first houses, a corporation forms strictly to manage the property through the home builder, and it is the birth of a new HOA.
Anyone looking to buy new houses in large swaths of the country are practically required to join in to an HOA of some sort. These organizations exist to keep up appearances, and make sure - initially - that the homebuilder has some control over what the first residents do until all the houses are sold. At the time when the home builder is done building houses, the management corporation of the HOA is handed over to residents, unless 75% of the residents want to get rid of the HOA. (Good luck going door-to-door to get 75% of a neighborhood to sign any petition whatsoever, on any subject.)
The new HOA enforces policies, strictly or loosely, that attempt to create a series of standards for the community, nominally to ensure the value of homes in that community remain high.
The idea of landownership, homeownership is one where the owner of the property can do whatever they want to do, on their land, and as long as zoning isn’t impacted. Right, it’s your land. Make your mark on it, if you can.
Here’s a question for every homeowner in the audience: What are the names of the people on your street? Generally, what happens in these neighborhoods is this: People come home from work and pull into their garage and barely know anyone in their neighborhood. [need source about isolation of suburbs like Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam...]
Free from the shackles of urban decay, people live alone and lonely in little boxes, and everything looks the same. The community is judged by its appearance, which feeds the property values, which feed the tax revenue, not by anything that measures the robustness of a community to face a crisis, and not by the ability of the community to weather climate change, and not by the happiness of the people therein. What the people have done, by planting a few landscape trees and having a fenced in yard for a dog, or perhaps children, is create a miniature castle in the hills, fortified by picket fencing and security lighting. And, everyone is watching everyone else’s castle for signs of decay. We fled out here to get away from it, to protect the value of the home requires protecting ourselves from decay. Any sign of decay, unkempt and messy, means the value of our homes goes down, which means the HOA must do something..
Most of these constructions, push out the urban community, spreading away from the center of the city, lengthening commutes, and building into zones at higher risk of natural disasters - wildfires, floods, mudslides - because the federal dollars that fight against these fears are not connected to the tax revenue that the city generates through property taxes. The local city council has every reason to approve new construction in disaster-prone areas. Homeowners move there by choice, after all, and the risk of an occasional disaster can be factored into homeowner’s insurance rates which are, again, a choice. The expanded tax revenue creates an incentive, locally, to permit the new construction.
People, then, have much longer to drive to get to work. How much time does anyone have in a day? The amount of time it takes to cook a meal and clean up after a meal is relatively fixed. Let’s say, an efficient home kitchen cook with a microwave and some frozen foods can get a meal on the table and clean up from the meal in half an hour. For many, that half-an-hour is stolen by the long commute past numerous take-out and eat-in options. That’s time in a fitness center lost to a commute. That’s time with kids doing homework lost to a commute.
Time and health, and their interactive exchange, are, in fact, the only resources humans actually have. Everything else is ephemeral. Trading time for this mythic dream of land, space, and room away from urban decay creates a system where we are chasing our own lonely, sickly death far from the communities where we spend the most time of our days.
Again, the question becomes: What are we running from?

Monday, August 25, 2014

thinking about cities...

    Within about five miles of my house, there are three different Wal-Mart stores, a mall, a Super Target, a community college, multiple Big Box home improvement stores, and a metric ton of hamburger restaurants of some sort or another. 

In San Antonio, out on the northwest side of town, our houses and big box stores are all relatively new. About thirty years ago, this was a big, empty scrubland. The flood of development hadn’t turned this way much. We came here because the highways were built here, really. Our lives are pushed into the box we live in, in our community and our society. We keep our yard as the HOA demands. We shop increasingly at what is most convenient to us. We eat what is available to us when we are hungry. How we live is deeply marked by the space where we live. We only have a limited power to alter our living conditions. Much of the decision-making happens far above us. And, our health is generally going to be decided by our zip code. Our longevity and happiness will be tied to the community that provides for us. 

Economic opportunities are circumscribed by our physical location, while the less dynamic career choices exacerbate the options presented to us in our little corners of the world. There are statistics that can be looked up, but the esoteric numbers about health and happiness and economics and pet ownership, and I’ll talk about those. 

What I think is important, though, is that physical space is a kind of destiny. Where you live will change who you are. And, urban planners in America generally don’t do a good job of planning our cities. If they did, we’d be healthier, more-connected, safer, and green. Instead, we have palaces built for white flight and cars, extending deep into the hills. The redlined urban communities are left to rot alone, in a self-fulfilling prophecy of corrupted corruption, impoverishment becoming poverty, and criminal districts begetting crime. The rich folks drift out into isolated enclaves, where the disconnect from the rest of their community is so palpable, they can be seen watering their lawns in a serious drought, and actively discuss ending welfare benefits for people they do not know in neighborhoods they don’t ever see, because they truly don't know anybody in their lives who is from outside their way of life. 

There is a destiny in urban planning. The statistics, in this case, are humans. The way cities are planned out, mapped out, and built, is a kind of destiny. It is the path of least resistance down which our lives flow. And, our urban planners have almost universally betrayed health and happiness by following myths without true meaning.  

Everything is designed. Every road is planned out, run through a committee. Every building is commissioned based on plans made by architects, approved by people with money who have a vision for that space. We live in a public imaginarium, and all we do and all we see is part of that shared dream of what our city is, and what it needs, and what it ought to be.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

So close to shelter dog goal...

Howdy internets,

My wife is home all day when I am off working two jobs and trying to write. She starts a new job, soon, at a newly opening facility. Before her schedule kicks in, it would be nice to settle a dog into our lives. We are very close to being able to afford a dog. We are so close that I am asking you, the internets, to look over to the sidebar and pick yourself up an eBook. If I sell about 75-100 ebooks this month, which really isn't that many at all, then we can put money down on a shelter dog.

This isn't a kickstarter or anything. This is much easier. There are eBooks to your right on this screen. They are inexpensive. I hear they're good books, too. It wouldn't take a lot of eBooks to push our budget over into dog ownership. Writers don't make a lot of money, and I work every minute, often leaving my wife alone. A dog would be a very useful stand in for me when I am writing to keep her company with someone quite similar to me in appearance and demeanor and attention span. I could then be free to write more books. Everyone wins! You get eBooks! The homeless dog gets a great home! My wife gets a better companion animal than a husband! And, I write more books!

We have a nice backyard, squirrels everywhere. We have a lovely walkign trail nearby with deer and armadillos to chase. The dog would have three other dogs to play with at my dad's house when we visit his acre in the woods by a lake. We are awesome potential dog owners hampered only by the reality that I don't make much money, and it almost all goes to bills. But our little savings has built up close and we can almost afford it, and I am asking you, the internets, to please consider completing your eBook collection of my work, and aiding us to get our resources over a critical hump towards the adoption fee and initial costs of dog ownership.

We would be the best dog parents. If only we had your help. Please, go eBook shopping today.


J. M. McDermott

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Your Narrative Matters, or If I Ruled the World

Too many people have died by the hands of policeman.

And, the media narrative does seem to favor images that display the worst, scariest qualities of the people involved.

And, it wouldn't matter if the people involved were hardened criminals, with decades of murder and mayhem and bad behavior behind them, who were verbally threatening the police and trying to do harm (by all accounts, the young man recently killed had his hands up and the videos of Eric Garner's death do not show any sign of meaningful intimidation to warrant the amount of force done to him). It doesn't matter if the scariest of the scary, Anton Chigurh, is glaring down the police with the cattle gun in one hand, wearing a bomb strapped to his back, and carrying an M-16 in the other. Absolutely no one, not a single human being, should ever - ever - die because of police.

That's sort of the difference between a policeman and a soldier. They are not the same thing. The goal of the soldier is different than the goal of the police. The police should be about non-lethal and escalating levels of force to ensure that no harm comes to the community, the laws are obeyed, and people who break the law are brought to justice. The criminals should always be taken alive, and handed over to the appropriate judicial situation for what society deems is appropriate for the laws that are broken.

I cannot state this enough: Police should not kill anyone. Ever. It is the failure of our police force that so many people are killed by them. This should not be such a long list. It shouldn't be a list, at all.

Now, regarding the narrative that is created, when media reports these deaths, all too often we see images that feed into the "good guy versus bad guy" mentality by presenting young people as some kind of thug or criminal. Firstly, it doesn't matter if that young person who is killed is actually a thug or not, because ABSOLUTELY NO ONE SHOULD BE DEAD BY THE HANDS OF A POLICE OFFICER. Secondly, by creating the narrative that this person was a tough or intimidating or thuggish person, the narrative feeds into the mythic, cowboy, old west notion that good guys (the police) can and should shoot the bad guys (a.k.a. our neighbors and community members).

This is why we need to stop posting that image of the young tough or thug or intimidating person, as a national media. We should always post the images of fathers holding children, young people who graduated from school, or attended prom. We must never forget that even being a criminal does not mean you aren't a human, and does not mean a policeman should kill you if things get tough. We need to create the media narrative that everyone is a human deserving of life, and the failure of the police officer to keep someone alive is a true tragedy, and always a tragedy, and forever and ever a tragedy, regardless of any alleged crime.

One of the most successful rehabilitation systems in the criminal justice system is the witness protection program. The recidivism rate is lower than the national average. Individuals who enter this program do so with their families, and are given support to locate a new life, both inside prison and out of it, and receive training in how to survive with a normal job, a normal life. They are mentored by the US Marshalls. They do better than the young people who are just revolved through the prison system and kicked back into the same situation they came out of without support.

The percentage of people who will be criminals is exactly the same regardless of socio-economic or racial background. It doesn't matter if you are in a suburb, or an exurb, or a dense, urban downtown. Most people aren't criminals, period.

Militarizing the police, then, is responding asymmetrically and inappropriately to the problem of crime. It tends to overly punish the people with the least social power, in our impoverished areas, and does not create an increase in safety for people anywhere. What it does, though, is create an "us versus them" mindset, where people do not feel like they belong in their own society.

My proposals are simple.

1) Cops should not carry guns on their hips. Let 'em have guns in the trunk of the car, sure. Shotguns, only, and maybe long guns for the rare situation where they are up against long guns. On his physical person, cops should only be carrying non-lethal force weapons. If someone pulls a gun, the response shouldn't be a gun right then. The response should be backing off, clearing the area, and getting backup to come in and address the situation. Everyone should know that pulling a gun on a cop means the cop will leave you alone long enough for you try to get away. (And good luck with that. Cops know where you live. They know where your momma lives. They know where your friends live. They have a very long memory. They are very good at finding people that they want to find. Seriously, good luck. You're gonna need it.) The cops have numbers and data access, and that's the thing that should be used against people who pull guns. If you don't have ten to one, and bullet-proof shields and all that non-lethal defensive technology, don't take on the guy with the gun. (And, in case you didn't know, give cops about 8 minutes, and they can swarm you 10-to-1 with bullet-proof gear. Seriously, these guys are awesome, tough, brave, and very smart and very organized.)

2) People shouldn't carry guns, either. We need meaningful and deep legislative solutions about the overabundance of dangerous deadly weapons in our society. Urban and suburban communities have no need for weaponry, except as it relates to doing the job of the police. Which they shouldn't be doing. Guns should not be outside of the home, or beyond special circumstances where a special permission slip is needed for concealed carry. If you are woman trying to escape an abusive partner, you get to concealed carry. If you are a man concerned about your personal freedoms being diminished, you do not ever get to carry, ever. There are circumstances where we can discuss this. The default should never be that we get to do whatever we want with deadly and dangerous things that can kill us, and everyone around us. Bullets are generally the worst thing to bring to a crowded city street.

3) The number of bullets someone has in their guns needs to go down. No one should have magazines with hundreds of bullets. How many bullets do you need to hunt deer? How many bullets do you need to defend yourself in case a stalker is coming to get you? Certainly not the number of bullets you need to storm an elementary school and slaughter innocent children. Less bullets means less death. Even in the guns we do allow, we need less bullets. Imagine a situation of a shoot-out, which is a horrible situation, and imagine what it's like if the only guns available have small magazines that take time to reload. Our guns have way too many bullets, and it is simply too fast and easy to refill those bullets in the chamber with new bullets. Manufacturers need better regulations to slow down the flow of bullets, and reduce their number. Less bullets means less death.

4) If someone dies by the police, that police officer is done. They are no longer police. They may or may not face criminal charges, but they are no longer allowed to be a policeman. Plenty of excellent cops manage their whole careers without accidentally or intentionally killing anyone. Those are the ones who ought to stay on the force. If you cause someone's death, you are no longer permitted to wear the badge. It should be a privilege to serve the public, and that privilege needs to be revoked when the public is harmed. Again, it doesn't matter if it's Anton Chigurh, or Dylan Klebold, or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama Bin Laden. It doesn't matter who is killed, or for whatever reason. Killing someone while doing the job of the police force ought to mean that you lose your job. That should be the basest baseline of consequences upon someone's death. Creating that consequence will definitely encourage cops to try not to kill anyone a little harder than they currently do.

Now, I love seeing the police patrol my neighborhood. I feel safer because of it. I have had nothing but professional and courteous interactions with policeman. I have never felt endangered by police. I, in fact, am very appreciative and awed by what they do every day. I believe taking away the military mindset in the police force, a little bit, would only bring out the best in the officers I've encountered. I believe it will make our communities safer, and I believe it will make the job of policing safer for these dedicated men and women.

Just yesterday, I read about a family that was killed because a suspect was fleeing the police in Houston, and the suspect hit their car on the road. In many communities, police do not make chase because the accidents and danger that result are higher risk than letting the criminals run. And, again, the police know where you live. They know where your momma lives. They know where all your friends live. They know where you work. They don't need to chase you to get you. They just need to think it's worth their time, and receive the funding to do it. I'm all for that.

Public safety is more important than "catching the bad guy" and we need, as a nation, to rethink the narratives we tell about the police. We are so busy painting this as a good guy versus bad guy situation, with the pictures we choose for the victims, and the attitudes we promulgate as content creators of narratives. It is such an easy narrative.

Let's be clear: If a policeman causes someone's death, regardless of the circumstances, that policeman has done a bad thing. No one should die at the hands of the police.  It is always a tragedy. Sometimes it is even a crime done by the police.

That should be the baseline of our narrative, where reporting and story-telling begin.