Its morning in america again

If I may be permitted to borrow a title from the annals of history it is because I feel it is absurdly appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in. Although the dust has yet to settle, what we have witnessed tonight will go down as a paradigm shift in history. Numerous commentators more wise than I have referred to Obama as the first post-60's candidate, or a postmodern candidate . While this is certainly significant in terms of historical lineage I believe it is tangential to what might be termed a landslide victory.

The battle that (hopefully) concluded four hours ago with John McCain's concession speech was the struggle for the political doctrine of this nascent century where the Axelrod message of unity, hope and constructive contribution eclipsed the ever darkening Rovian tactics of division and fear. After the news began to sink in I realized what I was feeling might have been akin to my parents reactions in 1960. This is not a coincidence. Although some might draw parallels between the oratory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Barack Hussein Obama, it is worth noting that the vein of bile and fear that Karl Rove so successfully tapped into was in most part originated by Richard Nixon. The moral of the story seems to be that while negativism is unfortunately successful in small doses there is an invisible fulcrum beyond which our nation realizes its error. While this balance may continuously shift over the centuries tonight affirms the core philosophy of the American psyche drawn from Rosie the Riveter through Obama's acceptance speech: We can do it!

The second point will hopefully serve as a warning to all aspiring politicians. NEVER totally compromise your beliefs to ascend to power. This would obviously be hypocritical and unethical, but the events of November 5th 2008 prove that it is ultimately unsuccessful. John McCain has made great sacrifices for our country through his years of military service and his political career. It seems his achilles heel was his failure to both select and exercise control over his advisors and associates. From the days of the Keating Five to the disastrous selection of Sarah Palin this flaw has been magnified to tragic proportions. In the last six months McCain lost control over his own policy to the extent that sources from The Economist to the Chicago Tribune were forced to take note.

While this election doesn't immediately provide solutions to the myriad of problems facing our nation, I can only hope that through considered bipartisan examination and deliberation the new administration may set an example for years to come of a successful political strategy that will correct our failings and engage the best of our national spirit and ability for the good of our country and our planet.

I ain't got no home in this world

"An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it"
-- Livy

"Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today."
-- Langston Hughes

I am getting depressed.

This is not being helped by my work assignment to go around Pagedale and document foreclosed and abandoned houses. Apparently there may (or may not) be enough money coming from the federal government to demolish or replace a third of the ninety some houses I have to visit in the upcoming days. Neighbors are rightfully curious and when I explain my purpose I realize that they want one of two things more than anything.

They want help in their current situation so they don't lose their homes.

This is the hardest.

No, I say this money is only for the government to do something about those that have already fallen. What can we do? Hope that the new president puts the country deeper in debt to China to extend a lifeline to these people? I recall Bob Hansman's charge to the freshman class I TA'd before we walked to Wellston: "There are no easy solutions to these problems. If there were they would be already fixed."

The second question is unspoken.

It is more of a plea to do something about the house next door which has been vacant/abandoned for weeks/months/years. Even if they are remaining afloat the presence of this house next door is slowly destroying the value of their greatest (and often only) asset. But there are certain criteria to decide which houses will receive attention. The pain is in the realization that the rest will continue to drag down the values of the neighborhood and afflict those who need help the most.

I awoke this morning to an impassioned plea on KWMU from my friend Michael Allen to not allow the built environment of the city to be desecrated as it was during the Regan economy and S&L crisis of the 80's. I hope that the city will be spared, but I also have grave concerns for the residents of neighborhoods such as The Ville, Hyde Park, College Hill, Carondelet and more in the current situation. As a result of my hometown I arrived here a militant urbanist for what little interesting urbanism Columbus had was precious and had to be defended at all costs. I have moderated as a result of numerous community meetings for different projects as I understand what many of these residents are up against. When the conflict comes down in the end to a truly honest divide between people and buildings I will side with the people. However, at this point, including the mass clearances for urban renewal in the postwar period, St. Louis has seen the erasure of something over 900 city blocks. Many more will probably fall in the upcoming years leaving precious little of the character of this adopted city I love intact.

So what to do? I mean I am helping in an absolutely trivial way.

Counting the bodies at the crime scene.

Maybe the monies and the efforts of Beyond Housing will help to stabilize Pagedale. Pagedale is only one community though. We need a president who makes the rebuilding of America a priority. Not just the retooling of industry or the realignment of production, but a complete overhaul of the way we spend money on our cities and towns, on our physical infrastructure, on our educational and social support infrastructure and on our standing in the world. We are a nation in economic, social and physical collapse. The American Dream as it has been practiced in the last half century itself is bankrupt.

We need a new deal.

Anything else would be fiddling while Rome burns...

At this point we must do everything we can to help each other and our country. We must lend our experience, our talent, our labor to our neighbors new and old and to our land.

or as Langston Hughes so beautifully wrote (and it still gives me goosebumps every time I read it):

"O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be"

Caoineadh Dooley.

Like many memorable forays into the built environment this particular story begins with a trivial errand; one day this past August my watch died coincidentally at the same time as my co-worker’s. One of the partners mentioned there was a jewelry store by the Old Post Office that might be able to replace watch batteries and we set off at lunch to take care of the errand. The city I grew up in was predominantly a post-war city so the existence of a independently owned fine jewelry store that simultaneously sold breitling and rolex and replaced timex batteries for five dollars was somewhat of a welcome novelty.

We dropped our watches off and went around the corner to Dooley’s for a burger. Dooley’s was a famously non-descript pub lodged in the Chemical Building across the street from the Old Post Office in the most intact and urban area in St. Louis. The disregard for fenestration so often seen in truly exemplary watering holes made the gloomy two story space a welcome relief from the hot and sunny street and as my eyes adjusted I realized I had stepped back in time. Not only were the furnishings and plaid wallpaper strikingly dated but the weathered faces of the employees suggested they could have easily worked there for forty years, which in fact most of them had. As I finished off my cheeseburger (topped with a strangely satisfying pimento spread impersonating ball cheddar applied with an ice cream scoop) I thought to my parents stories of trenchers carving roast beef in dark saloons in early 60’s New York and realized this was my analogous experience.

Such experiences are generally antithetical to our the ideas of progress held by our society. Both the old trenchers in the Bowery and Cheddar Ball Cheese have now fallen victim to the desire for urban lifestyles that has been loudly proclaimed by persons such as Richard Florida It is of course a sad reality that as redevelopment occurs increased rents lead to the increasing property values that raise taxes and eventually force the redevelopment of almost all properties. In a related cycle, the capital necessary to redevelop forces the kind of massive rent increases that are not kind to independently-owned small businesses. Thus, in a bitter irony the laudable preservation of the long-endangered Old Post Office played an indirect but important role in the St. Patrick’s day demise of Dooley’s. Although many downtown developers and politicians, such as the CEO of Downtown St. Louis Partnership, were frequent customers none were able or willing to buck the market reality and facilitate the relocation of Dooley’s. As Dooley’s, Everest and several other recent cases attest there is now no room in downtown redevelopment for niche-defying small businesses. If given the option of the old sterile downtown-as-office park scattered with small struggling businesses or the current bland and overly safe disneyfied condo-land I would choose the former, but I'm sure Barb Geisman would beg to differ. After all, granting half the city twenty year tax increment financing is certainly a wise move in a a city with a notoriously constrained tax base. But then again, at least the dwindling conventioneers have a comfortable place to sip Gee and Tees.

Following recent trends, the condos in the Chemical Building will undoubtedly have a restaurant downstairs but if I am allowed to prognosticated I am sure it will contain “fusion” “pan-asian” or some other buzzword and probably be out of business within four years. The persistent irony of urban redevelopment is that the same unique local color that draws residents back to cities is so often obliterated by the demands they place on urban space. In this case the residents will certainly enjoy the ability to still live only yards from their cars in a dense city due to the convenient mid-block parking ramp that has replaced an authentic and distinctly local restaurant.

We interrupt this irregularly scheduled blog

for a hefty dose of design nerdry:

Typecast Yourself!

To some extent right, but certainly over-amplifying the trope. For the record I enjoy fixing and repurposing things too much to ever be a minimalist and really it depends on what your definition of loft is. If that means sign a 10 year cheap lease on an entire floor of a derelict warehouse building and create my own space, well then sign me up! Also 80's lugged steel bikes are way cooler and more sustainable then Priuses.

< /nerdry >

and back to the highbrow discussion at hand...

Stoplight Urbanism Pt. I

Many of the interventions that have most radically reconfigured the urban environment are also those which paradoxically have evaded examination and refinement through their ubiquity. On a walk or drive through the city recent interventions such as parking meters, traffic lights, signage and one-way streets remain out of mind due to their prosaic and common nature. While some degree of control is of course necessary, there has been little inquiry into the effects of the present systems and into the possibilities that exist beyond the current reality. The following series of writings on the traffic light seek to detail its history, to examine its effect on social life, and to explore alternatives to the automated device. While almost any such element in the city could have been chosen, the traffic light poses an intriguing subject at the confluence of philosophies of control, technologic determination, and modernization.

For millenia movement through cities and villages was regulated by mutual interest and rooted in a notion of common-law that began to be restricted with the enclosure movements of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Under such a system no traveller had a superior right over another; no person or vehicle had dominance and all spatial claims to the space of the road were recognized to have equal value. Such informal systems did not end with the enclosure movement or industrial revolution, they continued decades into the early twentieth century.

While in many western countries the establishment of the primacy of the automobile led to a drastic shift in custom and space, in developing nations the assimilation of motorized transportation in society has been unable to change customs regarding road use. In this regard, Stanford Gregory’s comparison of the informal driving practices of Egyptians with the linguistics of pidgin languages is fascinating. As a modern western observer, Gregory paints the typical first impression of chaos but is able to “discern an order in the madness,” which he believes is clearly emblematic of “social interaction at a fever pitch” [Gregory, 337]. Such intense systems of concession, predicated in intense interaction, result in the ability to change formation instantaneously and avoid obstacles and stoppages as they occur. These fluid dynamics utilize the whole of human reaction and intellect and exhibit a complex relation of communication and instinct not present in the smartest mechanical control.

In the developed world the industrial revolution initiated an era of technological determinism in which centuries of developments in civilization were rejected or radically reconfigured by an increasing reliance on totalizing rationalism and a preoccupation with efficiency through mechanical means. The technological pace of development was far faster than ever seen in human history. As a result of this pace, nothing other than the easily quantifiable instantaneous result was considered to have value. In the face of the accepted perfection of the machine, humans, especially those of lesser breeding and education, were considered to have little value.

The first traffic signal in human history was installed on December 10th 1868, outside the Houses of Parliament in London. The signals were intended to protect Members of Parliament crossing the busy street. They also helped to afford them a degree of separation from those whose interests they ostensibly represented. Like many traffic control devices, it had its lineage in railroads, who had been using semaphores for several decades. The London signal was a combination of a standard railroad semaphore arms and gas warning lamps but was not automatically controlled. The signal acted as a mechanical appendage of the constable who stood on the traffic island by telegraphing his orders to the mass of carriages, carts, and pedestrians. The signal was a technological aid but not a technological determinant. The London Signal was also an epitomization of the uneasy relationship between human and technological control: less than a month after the signal was installed the gas lamps exploded injuring the police officer “who had thought he was in control” [Pile and Thrift, 262]
and the age of the machine in traffic control had begun.

To be continued in Part II.

Works Cited

1. Gregory Jr, Stanford W. “Auto Traffic in Egypt as a Verdant Grammar.” Social
Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 48, No.4. 1985: 337.

2. City A-Z. Ed. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift. New York: Routledge, 2000. p. 262.

A Modest Anarchic Proposal

No I have not abandoned the blog. I am reaching the midpoint of my graduate studies and am feeling the results of both my chronic over-commitment and my desire to start using this media as a vehicle to disseminate my research in a more serious way.

In short I have been hoarding content and will gradually begin releasing it as soon as I am confident in its readiness.

The first inquiry I would like to present is a series of essays is drawn from recent research into the nature of structured traffic control and the effect that such control has had on our cities.