Sunday, January 31, 2010

More thoughts about neighborhoods and artists...

People want to be close to the arts. I think it is required of all white people to go through a phase where they dream of living in an area like Greenwich Village and neighbors with a character like Bob Dylan. Or maybe you would prefer to move into the an apartment over Pioneer Square and hang out with Tommy Dean. But of course, investing in Artists is often like investing in volcanoes. Science can tell us, beyond a doubt, Mt. Rainier is a volcano and could blow up any day. The problem is, science can not currently tell us when Mt. Rainier is going to blow. Nor can any economist tell us when Tommy Dean is going to become famous.

Friday, January 29, 2010

How Neighborhoods Change and Why People are Often Left Behind

"Neighborhoods change," said Lyle Bicknell. Like the people who create them, "communities are continually evolving. They get richer. They get poorer. They change in complection. That's just the human condition."

Lyle is the big man at Neighborhood Planning. His job is to lead a team of skilled city planners in aiding Seattle neighborhoods along to realizing their inner ideal. Yeah. Its pretty holy stuff.

The ideal neighborhood is self contained and sustainable, said Lyle. Of course, it hasn't always been this way. What was ideal in the 1950s might not be ideal in the post-global warming, post-housing crisis American landscape.

At the turn of the century, for example, cities like Seattle and San Francisco relied on the street car system to keep their neighborhoods connected. A good trolly line could connect urban families from the apartment to the grocery market to the public park. At the end of the day, workers could follow a trolly line from the office to the bar back home.

After World War II, America was able to resume its love affair with the automobile and families shifted from urban living, out to the suburbs. This shift was made possible, I imagine, due to low gas prices and low interest housing loans. But if the low prices of the strong economy paved the roads to the suburbs, family values and desire to own land fueled the transition.

Let us refer back to our Platonian understanding of the relationship between things and ideas. Ideas, such as the perfect neighborhood, are the models by which city planners and developers shape things such as real neighborhoods.

The Pike / Pine Corridor for example, is a beautiful manifestation of neighborhoods. Ideals in the flesh. God came down to Earth and said, 'let there be a neighborhood' and God saw that it was good. In this case, God was a team of urban developers like Liz Dunn, urban planners like Lyle Bicknell and small business like Cupcake Royal. No single person can take credit for the success of the Pike / Pine Corridor.

What happened between the beginning of the 20th century and end of World War II was not a rebuilding of cities but a metamorphosis in American values. Specifically what changed is, the values of people who had money.

Suburban life was the ideal maybe in the 50s, said Lyle. But we are beginning to see things differently. People want more options.

Wait. What happened?

Global warming, unstable gas prices, the internet and evolving family values are among the factors to be considered but return to urban life, like the sprawl of the 50s, was ultimately determined by the values of people with money.

Through the 20th century, the ideal lifestyle was to live in the suburbs with Sloan Wilson and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Somewhere along the way, people became sick of life in the suburbs and decided to move back to the city. The age of Ricky Ricardo gave away to the age ofJerry Seinfeld.

When money leaves the suburbs and returns to the city, urban neighborhoods experience growth.

Neighborhood growth is a beautiful thing, said Lyle. When a light rail line is introduced to a community, for example, everyone benefits. Local businesses benefit from the extra foot traffic, streets are relieved of congestion, property values go up and everybody prospers.

Of course, as one thing is gained another is lost. Such as with the transition from the street car to the personal automobile, there is a story of triumph and tragedy to be told behind the mass yuppie congregation in areas like Ballard.

The problems arise when we look to preserve what is already there, said Lyle. People notice when local icons such as when Mr. Spot's Chai House was forced out its formative Market and Leary location and sent looking for a home elsewhere.

Short sighted is the narrative about Ballard small businesses closing up shop when you consider the small business owners who have taken their place. Still relatively new to Ballard are Delancey, Bastille and Blackbird's Field House.

Also short sighted is the narrative that tells how condo developers are kicking out the artists when you consider how Nicole, and artist in her own right, has been experimenting with her nationally recognized Blackbird brand. Blackbird's Candy Shoppe could be compared to such bold career changes as Dylan goes electric.

I sincerely doubt anybody will long for another rendition of Knocking On Heaven's Door at Mr. Spot's Chai House.

And yet, we can't help but to reflect upon what we have lost.

As cost of retail space goes up, businesses that cater to low-income communities are expected to either grow with the neighborhood or move out. The customer base of endangered retail stores, such as Mr. Spot's then must decide if they are going to start hanging out at Bastille or follow their retail stores out of town.

There is a story in here about what it means to grow together with your neighborhood. It is also a story about what is so attractive about city living in the first place. That is, you need to duck dodge and weave everything they throw at you or else, the city is going to wash you away with the rain.

Ballard developers may be setting themselves up for failure if they do not plan to serve a diversity of cultures. And "there is a notion," Lyle explains, "that neighborhoods are like forests and tend to thrive better with a diversity of cultures. The monoculture forest is most vulnerable because if anything happens, everything dies."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Brothers Keeper

I used to have a friend who I will call Chuck. I loved Chuck like a man might love a brother. In the prime of our love, I would have given the shirt off my back for Chuck. Because he was my brother and I loved him.

I met Chuck when I was living in squalor in the University District. He worked at the convenient store up the street and he was my neighbor in an apartment house.

When I decided to begin the long struggle of pulling myself up by my bootstraps and go to school at Seattle University, Chuck remained where I left him. I didn't speak to him for two years.

Then, a phone call out of the blue. He needed help.

He slept on my dorm room floor for a lengthy period. My love life suffered. Understandably so, my partner did not want to sleep over when I had a strange man sleeping under my bed.

Chuck was kind of like a pet. I could not make him a key to my dorm so I would have to be there to let him in at night. Often I would come home and he would still be there, waiting for me.

Once, I came home and I caught him attempting to enter in coitus with a friend of mine. At that point, I was tempted to get Chuck neutered and reduce his natural urge to breed.

At this point I start asking myself about the value Chuck brought to my dorm room. Chuck was an expensive pet. I paid with my wallet to keep my fridge stocked so we wouldn't starve. I paid with my sex life. I paid with the risk of being caught breaking the rules of my housing agreement. What did I get in return?

A friend of mine one congratulated me on being kind enough to help the homeless, one man at a time. Of course, this was the same friend who I later found grooming a cross class romance under my bed so her opinion of my generosity was a bit biased.

The irony of sacrificing my love life for the benefit of his is not beyond me.

If Chuck and I started an epic scale rock band of such artistic genius of MGMT proportions, the price to pay might have been diminished by the infinite rewards of the riches and fame that come from being MGMT.

If I was able to support Chuck on a journey of self fulfillment, I could justify the physical expenditures by the non-material benefits. If I could have helped Chuck perfect his resume and watch him get his first stable job. If our late night conversations about our true inner selves resulted in a life changing decision, to join the military or commit to a life of religious piety, I could justify my sacrifices.

My partner rather wisely suggested to me that I did this for Chuck out of guilt. She could not explain it to be, but with growth and hindsight I am able to see what she was trying to tell me.

When I struggled in the University District, my parents supported me in the same way that I later supported Chuck. They helped me pay the bills when day labour was not enough. They helped me pay for food so I would not starve and they waited patiently for the moment to come when I would decide to change and choose to engage.

Chuck was not lucky enough to have parents like mine so I felt guilty. And from this guilt, I was able to reap nothing but dependency.

Providing for Chuck with what little provisions I was able to acquire for myself was out of a shameful kinship based on an inability to own up to my own responsibility to myself to further my own destiny. My negligence to own my responsibility turned into an unjustified feeling of responsibility for my friend Chuck.

I do not want to say that I am not my brother's keeper but I am compelled to amend all notions of brotherly love with an explanation of personal growth and co-development rather than co-dependancy. Friendship can be a beautiful thing but without notions of friendly competition and challenging each other to grow, I am afraid to say that the bonds of love can just as easily turn destructive.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Sheriffs First Act

The Sheriffs First Act (HB-2713) is scheduled to be out of committee February 2. It is part of a package of small government themed house bills, Matt Shea explains in full in Resist DC, an article he wrote for a small government think tank.

The Sheriffs First Act affirms the County Sheriffs role as the senior law enforcement officer both in terms of rank and legal authority in a county by regulating the jurisdiction of federal employees to perform arrests, searches and seizures in Washington State. It asserts that the federal government was created to serve the states and not the other way around.

It is not unconstitutional, said Shea. People who say this do not understand the history behind Anglo Saxon Common Law.

The social logic behind these small government house bills is to empower the people of Washington State and affirm the value of local knowledge. For example, nobody understands the interests of Clallam County than the people of Clallam County.

The Squim Gazette documents a story here about Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict, who wants to delegate the disposal of unused prescription medications to the man who initially dispensed them, Cy Frick of Frick's Drugs in Squim. Trivial conflict with federal DEA ensues.

Fox television show Bones alludes to sovereignty rights of local sheriffs in January 14 episode titled "X in the File" in which local sheriff character refuses to release evidence of a crime to federal agents.

Both mainstream news sources and progressive bloggers describe this recent push for small government legislation as coming from a wacky fringe element GOP, an effort to undermine the union. But it is important, says Shea, to make a distinction between national politics and state politics. At a state and county level, Shea says, GOP politics have traditionally been in favor of small government practices.

Update: Ron Periguin, undersheriff at Clallam County gave me a call. He said he would not be surprised if the Sheriffs First Act is soon found to be unconstitutional.