A blog about our common life

They shall neither hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain--ISAIAH 11:9a

I am a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Jew.--MOHANDAS K. GANDHI

And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets--ZECHARIAH 8:5

NOTE: The perspectives herein are solely the author's, and not those of Coe College, or any other organization of which he is a member.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The future of religious places (III)

Source: faithandform.org
It's mid-January already, way past time to have a good long look at the 2016 International Awards for Religious Art and Architecture announced by the journal Faith and Form. Jurors represent artists, architects and clergy, so there's an interesting mix of considerations in the awards.

A marked trend this year, notes journal editor Michael Crosbie, is the use of natural materials and particularly of natural light. This might represent a long-term trend away from the dark, cozier and more mysterious sanctuaries of the early- to mid-20th century, which of course are the churches in which many people of my generation grew up. (A number of people note that movie theater-style churches are their own, quite different trend.) The Palm Beach (Florida) Synagogue has light coming in all around the worship space, with room for stained glass at the top of the windows:
Source: faithandform.org
Chicago's Chapel of St. Ignatius might overdo it, in that it's hard to imagine being comfortable in there on sunny summer days:
Source: faithandform.org
James F. White (cited below) wrote a lot about considering what the worship space says about the role of the worshiper. The Chapel of St. Ignatius above has members of the congregation facing each other, with those officiating in their midst, suggesting a more participatory orientation. Many older churches, like the amazing and recently-restored St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, have their services officiated in a space at the front of the church, separated from the congregation. This can put the worshiper in the role of spectator, although that effect surely can be mitigated with hymns and responsive prayers and such.
Source: faithandform.org
As I noted last year, the Faith and Form awards focus on the buildings themselves, particularly the interiors, as opposed to how the buildings interact with their surrounding neighborhoods. That interaction matters, however, because it articulates the social role of the worshiper as well as an understanding of society. To what extent does a worship structure relate to the buildings (and people) around it? To what extent does its exterior invite the stranger in? I was rather surprised, in seeing Stefan Haupt's documentary on the spectacular Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, that despite its size and the ongoing construction, to the extent the film showed it, it fit quite well with the streets around it.
Source: mybarcelona.pl
Churches of whatever design, surrounded by acres and acres of surface parking, don't do this nearly as well.
Source: myamericanodyssey.com
Worship spaces matter to our common life because we ask them to provide a number of things--quiet and comfort for individuals (whether members or not), a space to come together in common activity, a base for action in the neighborhood and the world, the familiarity of home for long-time members, a place accessible to potential new members--while they are themselves neighbors as well as important civic buildings. We should celebrate design that can do all this!

Michael J. Crosbie, "2016 International Awards Program for Religious Art & Architecture," Faith and Form 49:4 (December 2016)
Aaron M. Renn, "Why Contemporary Protestant Church Architecture is So Poor," Aaron Renn, 14 August 2014
"Sagrada Familia: The Mystery of Creation" official site (First Run Features, 2012)
James F. White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture: Theological and Historical Considerations (Oxford, 1964)

"The Future of Religious Places (II)," 24 January 2016
"The Future of Religious Spaces," 8 January 2015
"Homes, Home Churches and Hometowns," 15 September 2014

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The changing (not so much) electorate

Source; WikiMedia Commons
The eccentricities of our new President aside, American national politics and government in 2017 seem mostly similar to those of the past generation or so. The same policy challenges face us, most notably environmental sustainability, climate change, accommodation of diversity in our communities, security, and the fiscal solvency of government at all levels. All of these raise questions of subsidiarity i.e. the doctrine that public problems should be addressed at the level of government that is as close to the people as practicable. There are serious questions about whether national government involvement in, for example, transportation funding, leads to better outcomes or worse policies (Marohn).

At the heart of all of these issues is the one I think the biggest of all: economic opportunity. It is difficult to sell affordable housing, or immigration, or environmental regulations, or even sidewalks, if people feel their economic prospects are fragile, while those below them on the economic ladder are likely to be idle and dangerous. The 2010s have seen improved economic conditions, including a record 75 consecutive months of job growth, but an NBC/Wall Street Journal in October found nearly half of respondents still "worried or uncertain" about the country's economic future (Source: pollingreport.com). On a variety of policies, it's hard to take the long view if you're worried about the short term. And it's hard to come together on policy solutions without the social trust that I'm sure would be facilitated by broader economic opportunity.

Now comes, to this familiar menu of problems, the 45th President and the 115th Congress. We only have exit polling data so far, but as far as we can tell from that, the demographic groups that elected them followed patterns similar to other elections dating back to the 1980s. It was during the Reagan years that the New Deal's primarily economic-based party alignment (with a side order of Civil War nostalgia) became crosscut with cultural issues. Demographic group behavior in 2016 looked a lot like 1988 and all the elections in between.

The widely varying electoral outcomes of the past thirty years or so reflect differences in turnout between the party's bases. Increasing polarization in the electorate means mobilizing the base is as much or more important than appealing to the middle (Theriault, Abramowitz). Voting turnout is up among strong partisans and down among independents, and "ideological sorting" means those strong partisans are also strongly ideological. Moreover, geographical sorting means voters live in more politically homogeneous neighborhoods and counties (Bishop); this far more than gerrymandering accounts for the shrinking number of swing states and districts. (The two presidential candidates in the close election of 2016 were within five percentage points of each other in only 11 states, albeit that number is up from five in 2012. Trump won six of the 11, including the big prizes of Florida [29 votes by 1.2 points], Pennsylvania [20 by 0.7] and Michigan [16 by 0.3].)

In the 2016 exit polls produced by the National Election Pool and reported by The New York Times and Cable News Network (CNN) we see typical patterns of partisan support from categories of sex, race and religion. The Times report includes changes from 2012, and there are some interesting ones--Asian Americans voted 11 percentage points higher for Trump than they did for Romney--but they don't come with a ready explanation and are subject to question given the nature of exit polls.

Socio-economic status is a different story. For a long time, Republican support has increased with income level, though the effect is less strong in the post-Reagan era. Education, meanwhile, has for three decades typically shown a strange pattern, with Republican support increasing with education level up to bachelor's degree, then shifting sharply Democratic for those with education beyond a bachelor's degree. The 2016 exit polls sort of continue these patterns, but the groups are extremely compressed. The highest income level is only seven percentage points more Republican than the lowest income level, which is probably neither statistically nor substantively significant. Education groups are all similar, except for "postgraduate" which remained decidedly Democratic. Broken out by race, we see why: Trump won heavily among whites without a college degree, while the candidates split more highly-educated whites and Clinton retained the traditional Democratic advantage among nonwhites regardless of education level.

What's going on here? Political scientists who've studied public partisanship, like Alan Abramowitz, note that it is pronounced among the engaged public. "This group," says Abramowitz, "is made up of citizens who care about government and politics, pay attention to what political leaders are saying and doing, and participate actively in the political process" (p. 4). Engagement has been found to increase with socio-economic status. But maybe that changed this year? It seems on this superficial examination of exit polls that lower-status groups have now polarized along partisan-ideological lines, which worked, at least this year, to Trump's advantage.

This begs a number of questions which, thanks to this not being a natural science using laboratory experiments, are impossible to answer with any certainty, but I'll ask them anyway. What if the 2016 Democratic candidate had been a more ideological candidate capable of channeling public outrage (think Bernie Sanders)? What if the 2016 Democratic candidate had been from the mainstream of the party but without Clinton family baggage (think Joe Biden)? What if the Republican candidate had been from the mainstream of the party without the weaknesses exposed in the 2016 field (think a non-92-year-old Bob Dole)? What if the election was decided by popular vote not the Electoral College?

We move, then, from fruitless but fascinating speculation back to the issues that started this post, and which generally fuel this blog's discussion. I am not hopeful. Trump, despite his blunderbuss of a personality and erratic policy statements, has apparently not been disruptive enough to break the familiar patterns of American national politics. The Republican Party has parlayed a marginal advantage in nationwide vote distribution into unified control of the national government as well as many states, but has shown less interest in solving these issues than in denying their existence. Experience in states like Kansas, North Carolina and Wisconsin show the policies we're likely to get from unified Republican control are those that payback their constituencies, some ideological (limit abortions, support Israeli settlement in the occupied territories) but mostly economic (lower taxes and less regulation for health and safety).

Even for those who want to take a principled approach to our most troublesome issues, there is a notable lack of readily available policy solutions, particularly as there is neither a pile of money nor the political will to pay for them. (Is it me, or has every nation policy advocated since the rise of supply-side economics in 1980 been required to be "free" i.e. paid for either by somebody else [the 1 percent, smokers, Mexico, e.g.] or by magical thinking about future economic growth? I mean, I love free stuff, too, but these are serious problems worthy of serious collective thinking!)

Hence the attractiveness in 2016 of expressive politics. The 2016 election makes sense if voting for Trump (or Clinton, or Sanders) is seen as a gesture rather than a constructive choice among alternative policy futures. Trump's odd collection of statements and policy reversals, which would have done in many an earlier candidate, don't matter because the election wasn't about policy, or problems, or even empirical reality. It was about making a statement about who is "us" and who is "them." In that case, the president-elect's insults and taunts in the run-up to his inauguration are far more important to his electoral appeal than his health care policy.

Thursday's New York Times carried two columns about health care on their Op-Ed page. One, by Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation, warned based on focus groups that Trump voters "will not be happy if they are asked to pay even more for their health care" as appears highly possible given naming of Rep. Tom Price as his Health and Human Services secretary. Really? Unhappy enough for health care to be a voting issue? Directly below Altman's column, and next to the other health care one, radio news director Robert Leonard approvingly quotes former Republican Representative J.C. Watts on the cultural differences between the parties: We become good by being reborn--born again. Democrats believe that we are born good. that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong--not us. If Leonard's right that that's what conservatives think about liberals, and if liberals think something equivalently condescending about conservatives, we're a long way from serious thought about fixing the health care system or anything else.

Expressive politics can be fun, I'm sure, but not constructive. Their ongoing prominence shows how far we are as a country from the level of social trust needed to have conversations about solving our problems and build stronger communities.

Alan I. Abramowitz, The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy (Yale University Press, 2010)
Bill Bishop, The Great Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
Charles Marohn, "A Big Pot of Money," Strong Towns, 6 January 2017
Sean M. Theriault, Party Polarization in Congress (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

PLUS: I just ran across this citation... haven't read it, might be worth a look...
Huddy, Leonie, Lilliana Mason, Lene Aaroe. 2015.“Expressive Partisanship: Campaign Involvement, Political Emotion, and Partisan Identity.” American Political Science Review 109(1): 1-17.

"The Election and Our Common Life," 18 November 2016
"Deliberation and the Shutdown," 3 October 2013
"Climate Change and the Dysfunctional Congress," 27 June 2013
"What's the Matter with Congress," 30 May 2013

Thursday, December 29, 2016

What the hell, Chicago?

Source: Chicago Tribune
Eleven people were shot to death in Chicago over Christmas weekend, bringing the total number of murders in the city in 2016 to over 750 (Bosman and Smith). It has been a distressing year, to say the least, in the Midwest's largest city, and it casts doubt on the whole urbanist project.

The murder epidemic comes after a 25 year decline in violent crime in the United States, including in the State of Illinois, where the rate per 100,000 population dropped from 1039 in 1991 to 370 in 2014. Nationally, violent crime in 2014 was 51.3 percent of the 1990 rate (Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports, aggregated at disastercenter.com). As I wrote in August, there are at least 11 explanations for this decline, which is too many to be encouraging, particularly when crime comes roaring back as it has in Chicago this year. And if that's not enough to worry about, consider this: the number of people shot in Chicago in 2016 exceeds 3,500 (Bosman and Smith again). Were it not for advances in medical science the number of deaths by murder would be much higher, wouldn't it?

Confoundingly, but happily for the rest of America, Chicago's year has not been replicated across the country, and indeed most of the homicides have occurred on the South and West sides. The Times article notes that neither Los Angeles nor New York has had anything like Chicago's experience; in fact Chicago's 2016 total exceeds those of the two larger cities combined. Smaller cities, too, have had widely varying experiences. So, what is going on? And what can be done?

Arthur Lurigio of Loyola University, cited in the Times article, suggests Chicago's suffers from a combination of easily available guns, persistent poverty, and escalating gang violence exacerbated by social media. One of my students who grew up on the South Side has written feelingly of how his neighborhood became increasingly unsafe beginning around 2006, when he would have been eight; his conversations with law enforcement suggests that a mid-decade scrambling of public housing residents put members of rival gangs in close and dangerous proximity to each other. Meanwhile, the police feel hamstrung by politicians critical of police shootings of black youth.

Chicago's experience is of national interest, because when a lot of people hear "urban" the image they get is not walkable, sociable neighborhoods with opportunity for all--or the commercial meccas of Michigan Avenue and New Bohemia--but the image of crime-infested, dirty streets filled with drug addicts. Whether the issue is sidewalks or affordable housing, design form or corner stores, at the root of pushback is: Don't bring the city to my neighborhood. Because we know what cities are like! (See above.) I can relate to this, having spent an embarrassing proportion of my suburban youth scared to death of Chicago. And, frankly, if there are going to be 750 murders somewhere, I'd rather it not be in my neighborhood.

But the deadly ghettos of Chicago need urbanism; they are not examples of  it. The poor areas of America's inner cities and first-ring suburbs are the flip side of the suburban development pattern that created well-off areas on the metropolitan edge. Those left behind need urbanism as much or more than anyone else.
People struggle, and on top of that, in many instances, people have lost hope in their government. They've lost hope that something is going to change for them. And if we can't keep hope alive, then you don't have to wonder whether things are going to get better or worse: They'll get worse. --ALD. DANNY DAVIS, quoted in Bosman and Smith
Everyone needs access to economic opportunity--a difficulty even for the middle-class in these times, much less for the poor who have been cut off for decades by the suburban development pattern. That means redesigning, or undoing a lot of the design of the last several decades, in order to make our cities more inclusive. That means, in part, breaking down barriers and encouraging more spontaneous interaction. There are dangerous people out there, and they should be in jail, but even justifiable fear does not justify cutting off huge chunks of the population. And then blaming them when they don't prosper.

Investment in our cities is fine, but must be aimed at ensuring opportunity for all. Which brings us to the the interesting case of City Center DC...
Source: citycenterdc.com

...a development in downtown Washington with high-end shopping, fancy restaurants and super-luxury condominiums. Backers of the project point to the flow of tax revenue to the city from sales and rents; apparently at these prices it doesn't take many of either to generate some nice cash flow. But, as a discussion last week on WAMU's "Kojo Nnamdi Show" pointed up, the area has not seen the foot traffic you'd expect from a successful retail area. But more popular stores would not be "driving value upstairs," because condo buyers would rather live above Louis Vuitton than above McDonald's or Wal-Mart. All this proves, I guess, is that a lot of people don't want to live around a lot of other people, and some are able to pay handsomely for the privilege. I hope they're paying very handsomely, enough for Washington to upgrade its education, transportation, small business resources and social services.

But CityCenterDC is not a model for urban development. It's another example of what Michael Mehaffy (cited below) calls the "trickle-down" approach to development--"concentrating attention at the top and in the core, in the hopes that it will 'trickle down' to all"--albeit CityCenterDC was financed by a Qatari sovereign wealth fund rather than the local government itself. He calls, in the spirit of Jane Jacobs, for cities to shun quick fixes and instead
to diversify geographically and in other ways--to move into a system of polycentric complete neighborhoods, and find ways to catalyze more beneficial growth there... In addition, diversity in types, ages and conditions of buildings is also important to maintain diversity in populations and incomes.... Furthermore, while public investment is still important under this approach, it is not used as a way to "socially engineer" problems like affordability through direct expenditures, but rather, it is a catalyst for an alternative kind of pervasive growth that is more beneficial. This is an approach that treats the city as an organic whole, rather than a top-down money-making machine that can be tinkered with at will. (non-italics mine)
I'll admit to being often the pessimistic voice in the crowd, but I think, in spite of such Chicago-specific factors in this year's upsurge in homicides, that Chicago is probably just the first sign of fraying in our national fabric. President-elect Trump's bluster notwithstanding, we can't shoot our way out of this mess. Nor, the urbanists argue, can we blast our way out through big civic projects, no matter how many jobs they allegedly create. The only way out is by making great places by solving the puzzles of economic opportunity and inclusion. Maybe we could start with ice cream?


Julie Bosman and Mitch Smith, "Chicago Tallies Grim Accounts of Violent Year," New York Times, 29 December 2016, A1, A13

Michael Mehaffy, "A Tale of Two Futures," Public Square: A CNU Journal, 15 December 2016

Jonathan O'Connell, "D.C. Got Everything It Wanted Out of CityCenterDC--Except the Crowds," Washington Post Magazine, 8 December 2016

Pete Saunders, "Something Amiss in Chicago," Corner Side Yard, 1 April 2016

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Urbanist existentialism?: "At the Existentialist Cafe" and other stuff I've recently read

Works discussed:
Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Other Press, 2016)
David Bosworth, The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America: The Moral Origins of the Great Recession (Front Porch Republic, 2014)
Ben Kaplan, "I Love You, Cedar Rapids," Corridor Urbanism, 28 September 2016
Brandon Kendhammer, Muslims Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy and Law in Northern Nigeria (University of Chicago, 2016)
Katie Kennedy, Learning to Swear in America (Bloomsbury USA, 2016)
Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Paragon, 1989)
Kate Wagner, "A Pictorial History of Suburbia," Welcome to McMansion Hell, 18 December 2016

Heidegger and Sartre, drinking poppy tea
I could have sworn last night I passed out in my van
And now those boys are pouring one for me

I first encountered existentialism in high school French class--L'Etranger by Albert Camus--and it was not a happy encounter for either of us. Learning an unfamiliar worldview in a foreign language magnified its apparent weirdness to this Midwestern suburbanite. In In Search of Authority (Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), Henry S. Kariel describes Camus's "ideal of the absurd man" as the ultimate realizations that we are unable to impose meaning on our lives, that "there is nothing in the end except extinction," and that "our plans are simply ours and not derived from God, History or some transcendent Rationality" (pp. 172-173). I don't know what would have happened had I adopted those realizations at age 16, but I was not willing to risk even giving them serious consideration. My high school experience probably had more in common with the unfortunate M. Mersault than I was willing to admit; simply to make it through the absurdity of each day I needed desperately to believe it would somehow make sense in the end when my efforts would pay off. So, no existentialism for me!

That lesson unlearned, I've come to urbanism with a strongly utilitarian-positivist bent. I always want to know what things are good for, what works, to see the data. When I first read Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, 1961) on how cities work and the disastrous effects of urban renewal, it was her piles of evidence that spoke to me. When Jeff Speck in Walkable City (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012, pp. 179ff.) commends one-way-to-two-way conversions because studies have shown they're better for businesses and safer for pedestrians, that speaks to me. I like books like The Smart Growth Manual (McGraw Hill, 2010) and Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic (Knopf, 2008) and websites like Strong Towns and Place Makers and Human Transit, and speakers like Ellen Shepard of Community Allies. Alongside the utilitarianism are the ethical concerns of my Christian upbringing, though truth be told I think my utilitarianism has influenced my religious beliefs as much or more as the opposite.

But there remains some of the urbanist message that speaks to a soul I wasn't sure I had. Thanks to Sarah Bakewell's lively and intelligent At the Existentialist Cafe, I'm thinking I might have at some level been speaking existentialism all this time without knowing it. Urbanists, take note! The story of existentialism even begins over drinks at a third place, the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Paris. Bakewell's biographical approach to the story highlights the conflicts among this group of philosophers as well as individual twists and turns, but one theme that runs through all of this is the quest for authentic existence. On the other side of the same coin, to be truly and fully human is to be free. Moreover--unlike the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who found his freedom in the isolation of his cabin in the woods--for most of the existentialists authentic existence required not only engagement with other people as individuals but with rectifying conditions in society. It was surely difficult to remain in a free state of consciousness while engaging publicly, if only because public action requires compromise, and they were many of them difficult people. Bakewell pulls no punches in this respect, but it's inspiring to see great minds at work getting toward the root of things amidst the noise and harangue of conventional wisdom, and then trying to live their conclusions.

Existentialists might agree on one thing: There's got to be more to freedom than driving your SUV to Wal-Mart to buy a gun. Or being able to deny your employees health insurance coverage for birth control.

In Katie Kennedy's young adult novel, Learning to Swear in America, physics prodigy Yuri Strelnikov is summoned to the United States from his native Russia to help save us from being wiped out by an asteroid. He faces threats to his freedom from governments: American security agencies have decided he's learned too much and are determined to prevent his leaving, while at home Putin's government has helped itself to credit for his advisor's research. But the biggest threat to his freedom is his own lack of authentic existence, because he's been living in a scientific bubble (to which is now added a security cordon). It's an unplanned encounter with an eccentric girl--an urbanist event that is set in a very un-urbanist parking lot--which begins his quest for himself that drives the story. "You gotta learn to live life, not just save it," she tells him on page 108.

Photo accompanying Ben Kaplan's essay. I will probably get around to asking permission soon.
The non-fictional Ben Kaplan knows this. Ben has a mind like a steel trap, and can cite the relevant studies on any urbanist topic. But at the core of his connection to his city is the authentic experience of ongoing engagement with his neighborhood:
It felt like as I grew up the city grew up with me. A futon and Ikea tables got replaced with real furniture from Mad Modern. I met people who owned their own businesses, who volunteered, who had great big dreams for what this place could be. I got to follow the first cohort of the Iowa Startup Accelerator as an embedded journalist. I’ve had two serious boyfriends while I’ve lived down here. I’ve stormed out of CSPS during intermission in anger and I’ve watched the sunrise paint the skyline pink from my 
balcony while I rested my head on someone’s shoulders. I have a built a group of friends whom I love and who I can’t imagine my life without. I have learned that I will never make better falafel than what I can get at Zaytoon’s.
Authentic existence through engagement with others drives Ray Oldenburg's urbanist classic on third places. Oldenburg bemoans "the lack of community life in our residential areas" (p. 4) as American counterparts of the Bec-de-Gaz fell victim to the suburban development pattern and longer work hours. (They may well be making a comeback, though, which he celebrates in a later work, Celebrating the Third Place [Marlowe, 2001].) The negative aspects of this loss are partly empirical--higher levels of individual stress including heretofore-unheard-of childhood depression, crime, marital stress and divorce--but also spiritual: "The processes by which potential friends might find one another and by which friendships not suited to the home might be nurtured outside it are severely thwarted by the limited features and facilities of the modern suburb" (p. 8). Too much structure, however willingly accepted, means a less free and less authentic existence.

David Bosworth's book is about virtue not being, and he doesn't call himself an existentialist, but as he documents the many ways "Evangelical Mammonism" has perverted America's core principles ("virtue"), they invariably involve a gradual surrendering of engaged, authentic existence. Writing in the wake of the 2008 recession, which surely was as much a moral failure as a financial one, he dissects ways that the stories we tell ourselves obstruct us from authentic existence by pretending that the most imminent threats to our freedom aren't making our choices for us.
The problem hasn't been just a few "bad apples," nor even a mismanaged orchard on the left or the right, but the long-term revision of a cultural environment whose "moral field" we all share and for whose current ill health we are collectively, if not equally responsible. To make sense of that decline, we need to consider instead a broader set of ruling ideas, managerial decisions, and architectural designs that, taken together, have slowly revised the underlying logic of everyday experience and so, too (if often cryptically), our conventional beliefs about the good, the true, and the beautiful. (p. 2)
We have medications to combat sadness (ch. 4) and aging (ch. 7) which may not make us feel any happier or younger but surely are making some people richer when we buy them. Disney World (ch. 3), nostalgic political ideologies (ch. 5) and various stripes of electronic media (ch. 8) all peddle fantasies of how good life could be when purged of the messiness of other people.
The virtue of [Disney's] moral logic depends, finally, on the truth of its Mammonite claim that more (profits for the seller, consumption for the buyer) must equal better. It requires that we agree to believe in the Magic Moment and in the Fable of Innocence, and that we heed the crooning voice of its animated conscience that "no request is too extreme." (p. 77)
 And so much manufactured noise penetrates public spaces, like the banks of televisions in the airport lounge where he tries to read, that the clear message is "THANK YOU FOR NOT THINKING" (p. 17).

Swiped from www.mcmansionhell.com
Urbanists trying to mitigate the suburban experiment will note the marketing of housing developments similarly elevated consumption at the expense of virtue: clean, leafy and safe spaces in which you could build your dream house with its dream den and dream television. The Federal Housing Authority and local zoning, as well as official eagerness to flatten neighborhoods to make room for interstate highways, bear a lot of responsibility for the suburban development pattern we've inherited (Wagner). But a lot of people were eager to buy what they were selling. (And, I've been finding, are pretty defensive about how what they've bought is responsible for the state of the world.)

The struggle for free, authentic existence also goes on in the predominantly Muslim sections of northern Nigeria, where Brandon Kendhammer did the fieldwork documented in Muslims Talking Politics. His interviewees are voting to impose Islamic law on themselves, seemingly an odd choice from a Western perspective. Yet these Nigerians are working out in their political conversations what it means to be both democratic and faithful to Islam. While rejecting a society unmoored from what Bosworth calls "virtue," they also reject the more imminent threat to their freedom represented by the would-be totalitarians of Boko Haram. (See chapters 6 and 7. By the way, Kendhammer's early chapter bring Americans up to speed on political Islam, particularly shariah law which has been made a bogeyman in our security policy discussions. You're not thinking freely if you don't understand what you're being made to be afraid of.) Kendhammer concludes: "Based on the evidence I've gathered here, what Nigeria Muslims seem to want from a reconstructed system of Islamic law is not (with the exception of Boko Haram's small community of participants and supporters) the creation of an 'Islamic state' governed according to some harsh reimagining of the Arabian past but a political and legal system that renders the outcomes of a new and unstable democratic government a little less uncertain and a little more just" (p. 22).

The threat to freedom in the West does not come from radical Islamists--although, just to make sure, some state legislature (Oklahoma?) has recently barred the use of shariah in the state's legal system. Our Boko Haram is a more subtle enemy, the cultural messages that seduce us away from seeing the probability that our freedom--our most authentic human experience--lies outside the gates, physical or psychic, that we've bought for ourselves. We can invite people into our homes, however remote their location, but a hand-picked group of friends in a private setting is hardly all there is to life. In the gospels of the New Testament, the risen Christ almost always appears to people outside of their safe spaces (outside an Empty Tomb, after a long night of fruitless fishing, on the roads to Emmaus and Damascus). Can it be that authentic engagement with others, like authentic engagement with God, also requires us to get out of spaces where we think we are in control? Our consciousness needs to be free from government coercion, but also from seduction by commercial power, and maybe most of all from our own desire for comfort! And from ambient noise.

Bakewell shows us the existentialists didn't agree on much, changed their minds a lot, and were often wrong. That's all okay, as long as we take on the strenuous work of asserting our free consciousnesses against corporations who are selling us individualism and politicians who are selling fear. That's a project for each individual, but implies a role for government in removing those barriers (one-way streets, lack of sidewalks, exclusionary zoning, commercial policies that disadvantage small businesses, and so forth) to walkability, which is prerequisite to engagement with others.

"Existentialism," The Cry, http://www.thecry.com/existentialism/
C.S. Wyatt. "The Existential Primer," http://www.tameri.com/csw/exist/exist.html

Friday, November 25, 2016

Black Friday Parking 2016

Entrance to Westdale off 33rd Avenue...
Decidedly unwalkable
In 2013 the City of Cedar Rapids awarded $11.7 million in economic development tax breaks for the redevelopment of Westdale Mall, a 1970s creation that had fallen on hard times what with the Internet and an even grander mall down the road in Coralville. Two years later, the city provided guarantee for an $11.5 million bank loan. The original plan had a fair amount of greenwashing in it--walking trails, affordable housing for the elderly--that disappeared over time as costs mounted.

This year's Black Friday Parking walk reveals what taxpayers helped buy. While there is still ongoing construction, what remains on the site are stores but without the public features the mall used to offer: a place to walk (albeit one you had to drive to get to), a common area, public restrooms, and a warm place to wait for the bus. When the Super Wal-Mart is kicking your ass on walkability, you've got problems.

What also remains on site is parking. A lot of parking. J.C. Penney's was doing a brisk business Friday afternoon, but even so there was plenty of parking outside.

The parking lots of Westdale were at best 50 percent full. While it's true that the Black Friday phenomenon may be losing its commercial mojo, and that the highly popular University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team was playing archrival Nebraska this afternoon, it's fair to say that the new Westdale has vastly overbuilt parking. I don't know whether it's due to city requirements or the developer's choice, but either way there are civic costs to overloading the town with parking lots. Someone is on the hook for keeping them in repair, plowing them, &c. The adjoining streets are a dreadful mix of car traffic and unattractive shopping plazas full of chain stores and restaurants:
Edgewood Rd looking north from 29th Street

Edgewood Road view of one of the plazas that comprise the new Westdale
Down the street at the big box stores, the Black Friday parking story was much the same, albeit the parking lots were somewhat less frightening to walk across. Wal-Mart's parking lot was about 55 percent full.
Near the store

Farther out
Plenty of parking at the strip mall next door
Target's lot was I'd guess about 40 percent full.

Westdale Mall-That-Was sits on a triangle formed by three stroads that truly are traffic sewers: Edgewood Road, Wiley Boulevard and Williams Boulevard. That's a lot of accumulated bad planning, and a lot of surface parking, but now that's all water under the bridge. Those costs are sunk, that ship has sailed. It can't have been worth $11.7 million to polish it, but I'm pretty sure it's not worth trying to impose urbanism on it either. It should at least serve as an object lesson for future development: Let whatever you do be human-scaled, let it be walkable, and let development decisions rely on market mechanisms like price signals instead of how much pull a given developer has with the city government.
A cold-looking blogger waits for the bus.
To quote our new state motto, "Suck it up, buttercup!"
"Black Friday Parking," Strong Towns, 25 November 2016
Sarah Kobos, "Black Friday Proves We Have Too Damn Much Parking," Modern Cities, 23 November 2016, 
B.A. Morelli, "'Open for Business,'" Cedar Rapids Gazette, 20 November 2016, 1A, 7A

LAST YEAR'S MODEL: "Black Friday Parking," 27 November 2016

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Election and Our Common Life

I am, I’m afraid, not ready to make nice.

Despite calls from such worthies as Barack Obama and ChuckMarohn, and the rather clear results in the Electoral College count, I find myself unreconciled to the results of the 2016 presidential election. President-elect Donald J. Trump ran a campaign that was relentlessly antithetical to the notion of a common life, and his election stands as a repudiation of the core of that concept. This appalling result is the more hard-to-take because it was unexpected, but even a previously-expected Trump victory would have been a calamity.

I began this blog 3 ½ years ago in an effort to corral all the material I was reading about the concept of place. The more I read and wrote, the more I was led to an understanding of place that is centered on people, and so the challenges places face in the 21st century are precisely those faced by people: economic opportunity on a broad scale hasn’t caught up to globalization and automation; environmental challenges (pollution, climate change, &c.) both threaten and are threatened by life as we know it; and governments everywhere are sinking into ever-deeper financial holes. All of this means, at a fundamental level, we must accommodate ourselves to diversity—we simply cannot afford financially or environmentally to live apart from all the people we don’t like—and then to celebrate the wealth of ideas and practices it brings. The better-off might declare themselves exempt from the realities everyone else faces, but sooner or later prosperity in the 21st century comes down to successful, inclusive, sustainable communities.

So for all the issues and scandals and corrosive rhetoric that made the 2016 election the most unpleasant in anyone’s memory, the core issue for me was inclusion. That meant, of course, looking past the very real weaknesses of Hillary Clinton: the scandals, her frequent personal ham-handedness and naked ambition, her lack of vision, and her inability even to resemble a change agent to an electorate screaming for change. Chicago blogger Pete Saunders notes:
Set aside Hillary Clinton's vast political and public policy experience; I agree, there's probably been no one more qualified to step into office and hold the reins from day one.  But that's precisely what the electorate was saying it did not want.  Hillary Clinton is about as establishment as establishment gets -- a political insider with close ties to Wall Street, and a hint of corruption thrown in.  She was never going to be a change agent, and in retrospect she shouldn't have been asked to try to be one.  That led to lower energy among traditional Democratic supporters, who couldn't match the intensity of Trump's followers.
That having been said, Clinton seems to me no more compromised personally or ethically than the average politician, albeit in somewhat different ways. She’s no saint, but neither is Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Bernie Sanders or anyone else you can name. A lot of her enhanced bad reputation is thanks to WikiLeaks and the relentless efforts of congressional committees to discredit her. Compare the amount of scrutiny she’s received over her political career with Donald Trump, who didn’t even release his tax returns. Thanks to a multi-million dollar out-of-court settlement of fraud cases involving Trump University announced this week, his business dealings will remain mysterious.

I understand conservative policy preferences—I used to be one, and still have some sympathies in that direction. We don’t have to agree with everything they’re selling, but surely limited government, traditional values and a strong military are occasionally nice to have around. I understand people attached to the Republican Party. But I find it difficult to swallow that any of that can take precedence over Trump’s repeated middle finger to America. What needs to be clear to conservatives is that to the extent their ideas are connected with racism and other equally noxious forms of bigotry—and Trump’s campaign prominently featured them all, and his naming Steve Bannon as his chief strategist is far from being a hopeful sign—it discredits the whole set of ideas. It may not be immediately apparent, what with Republicans dominant in all branches of the national government and in most states, but in the longer term it is not a successful strategy, much less a moral one. (Says who? asks Trumpworld, noting that exit polls gave him 34% of the Latino vote and a majority among white educated women.)

Donald Trump on women: video video more videos 

Donald Trump on immigrants: video 

Donald Trump on judge in his fraud case: video   

Donald Trump on Muslims: video video video

Donald Trump on the Khans, gold star parents  video

Donald Trump on John McCain video

Donald Trump's collection of Twitter hates

Donald Trump on climate change

Donald Trump on torture

Add in the name-calling (Lying Ted, Crooked Hillary, Little Marco) and that's a lot to overlook. If only Overlooking were an Olympic event, right?

Trump supporters in St. Clairville, Ohio. Source: sonofsaf.blogspot.com
Some people found Trump’s spewings refreshingly alternative to “political correctness,” whatever the hell that means. Other people don’t approve, but are able to overlook it so they can get tax cuts, or an end to Obamacare, or the right kind of Supreme Court (pun intended). Those seem like issues that can wait, that we can discuss after we’ve first decided to live together in community. If the price of stricter policies on abortion, or tax cuts on upper incomes, is sidling up to Trump and his friends, that may not be worth it. I sure hope it isn’t anyway.

So I can’t agree with Chuck Marohn, in his recent podcast “Elections 2016”, that both Clinton and Trump were “despicable.” Interestingly, Marohn then discusses a moving interview with the church historian Fr. John Dominic Crossan, motivated by Marohn's understanding (which I share) that America is headed for a rough patch, and that only by looking past our differences to higher ideals will we get through it. On that point, surely, Trump and Clinton are not equivalently despicable. It was Trump who repeatedly provoked division among Americans, who legitimized hateful rhetoric, and who used those to promote his own candidacy. It is not enough to say, hey, the election’s over and Trump won, time to move on. No other major party presidential candidate of my lifetime remotely resembles the campaign he just ran for opportunistic nastiness. Because of Trump, the fabric of America has been torn and will be a long time healing.

Kristen Jeffers, "Election Breakdown (and a Call for Self-Care)," Black Urbanist, 15 November 2016 
Leonard Pitts Jr, "Trump Presidency Means Mourning in America," Miami Herald, 11 November 2016
Pete Saunders, "'Whitelash'," The Corner Side Yard, 9 November 2016
Steven Shultis, "This is Also What Democracy Looks Like," Rational Urbanism, 13 November 2016

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A silent but needful protest

At Coe College, where I teach, nearly 100 members of the community responded yesterday to a call by the student organization Multicultural Fusion to stand in silent protest during the noon hour. Late last week, a poster like this one...

...was defaced with swastikas. The group's call was spread by David McInally, President of the college, and Kristin Hutson, college chaplain, and the protesters included faculty and staff as well as students.

I counted about 30 there shortly after I arrived, but then a whole bunch more came so we might have had 100. We stood in a mass in front of the Union; those in front, the first arrivers, held posters of the type that was defaced. We stayed silent, though I smiled at people I knew, and a reporter for the campus newspaper went about interviewing some of us. People on their way to the cafeteria mostly ignored us, but a few smiled. One young (white) man shouted twice with evident irony, "All white people are racist!" Not all seeds bloom at once.

On one level, this response might seem like overkill, an excessive reaction to what surely was a petty act by a maladjusted young person. But I don't think it is overkill. Our common life, in Cedar Rapids, in America, on planet Earth, depends on our ability to live with each other, arguably moreso than ever before. That's what this is all about... not casting individuals or groups as victims, which can only lead to the pointless competition I call the Victim Olympics. Let's not play that.

An act against any part of the community, whether it be the act of a young vandal, or any of the vile and disgusting things Donald Trump has spewed about assorted groups he wants to stigmatize for fun and profit, is an act against the whole community. And so it's right the whole community should rise up and condemn it, because in doing so the community reaffirms its own existence.

MORE ON DIVERSITY: "Strength through Diversity (II)," 9 March 2014, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2014/03/strength-through-diversity-ii.html