Monday, August 25, 2014

"Tear It Down," Sayeth the Councilman, Part 5: The ghost of Orwell enjoys a pint at Haughey's Place.

Perhaps by the end of the week, the city will have finished with the demolition of the old Haughey's Place tavern building, and of course, the world won't come to an end.

However, certain illusions perhaps are best terminated, the sooner the better, and that's why I've posted exhaustively on the topic today. No one else will; might as well be me. Let's begin with a classic of restrained understatement.

There are obviously intertwined matters of transparency, "advise and consent" and planning, and the 922 Culbertson imbroglio has exposed considerable and ongoing deficiencies in these areas. 

First and foremost to my mind is City Hall's seemingly pathological desire for secrecy and control. It is an administration seeking always to conduct business by means of carefully sanitized, upbeat press release -- long after the details have been squared away safely behind the scenes ... and I'm phrasing this mildly.

If readers believe I'm exaggerating, then think of it this way: Can you imagine City Hall as currently constituted conceding error or uncertainty on any topic, in any way?

That's what I thought.

As 3rd district councilman Phipps's comments in today's series illustrate, the council as currently constituted shares much of the blame for the condition of non-transparency. The council's president tends to run its affairs as though he were the mayor's appointed whip. Due diligence on the part of council has been almost entirely absent amid huge expenditures, as with the aquatic center. Individual members veer wildly back and forth between contradictory self-definitions:

"We're here to do something; no, wait, we can't do anything at all. We can't decide, so we'll ward-heel ... unless, of course, we don't."

The inevitable result in terms of practical effect is little more than old-fashioned party machine politics, and it reeks of paranoia and cliquishness. It squelches ideas and outside-the-box thinking as effectively as a one-party dictatorship -- which quite frankly, it is.

As pertinent questions of the sort prefacing participatory democracy continue to go largely unasked, both by a newspaper that exists solely to entertain at a 4th-grade level, and by elected officials meekly willing to toe the party line -- whether actively or passive-aggressively -- substantive dialogue is subsumed by vapid buzz-phrases:

Quality of life
Public safety 
Fundamentally better

These are merely three of the recently minted ways of evading scrutiny and intellectual honesty by what amounts to modern variants of Orwell's newspeak.

Specifically, I find City Hall's "public safety" position v.v. the doomed building at 922 Culbertson to be flagrantly insulting. The city's outmoded one-way arterial streets are more unsafe by the day, and nothing is done to correct or even address the situation aloud. The recent onslaught of heavy truck traffic has exacerbated an already ugly scene, and City Hall's reaction has been to lock lips and fold arms even more tightly.


Because it must wait for Jeff Speck's political cover to confirm the daily lesson of its own sets of eyes, and that, my friends, is political cowardice.

Consequently, public safety currently means one thing, and one thing only: Just demolish as many buildings as possible, and triumphantly point to this quasi-suburban standard of vigilant cleanliness as City Hall's equivalent of fascism's ability to make the trains run on time:

"We're orderly in the city, folks. We're eliminating the unsightliness. Look at the nice grass where once a slumlord reigned. Come here and invest -- not that we'll be doing anything to make investment fruitful after the rubble is hauled away."

Naturally, these were rampant slumlords untouched by the city's "enforcement" arm over generations of inert passivity ... but let's not urinate in the broth, quite yet.

Yes, of course unsafe buildings need to be addressed, by demolition if necessary.  

No one denies that, but what needs to be addressed concurrent with their escalating demolition is what happens when they're gone. Urban areas need density to function as intended, not suburban standards of cul-de-sac green-space propriety. We have hundreds of weedy holes in the urban fabric, but what we don't have is a plan to sell, give away or rebuild on them.

The fact that every such debate as 922 Culbertson's conjures from scratch a different, ad hoc response should tell the scattershot tale clearly enough. After all, "redevelopment" has a prefix that suggests new beginnings, not merely efficient bulldozing.

Where the hell is the plan? You DO have one, right? You ARE aware of modernity ... please?

And so the newspaper put the worst possible photo of 922 Culbertson on its Fb page, and asked whether the building should be saved. 

Maybe, maybe not, but nothing should be done until Mayor Gahan tells all of us (a) what happens to the vacant spot in terms of redevelopment, (b) what happens to all the other vacant spots, and (c) exactly who has shown interest in the vacant spot such that the building's removal suddenly has become so important that the mayor himself is involved with the decision. In this context, I asked Habitat for Humanity whether they sought the space, and once again, they've answered "no."

Jeff and I tried to ask these questions of Councilman Phipps, and were surprised to learn that he has become the evasive politician he professes to loathe.


I'd just appreciate a yes or a no to those questions I ask that offer these two simple options. This doesn't mean I personally dislike my councilman, or intend to write mean things on his locker at school. It does mean that I'm quite disappointed that his now-evident personal zeal to demolish 922 has blinded him to the numerous larger issues, but I can only pitch the ball and hope someone hits it.

And yes, the public safety argument at 922 Culbertson is a red herring of epic proportions. If public safety were the overall municipal objective, we wouldn't have one-way arterial streets slicing through these same residential areas, undermining all the purported advantages of rampant demolition.

It's plainly hypocritical, but at the moment, it's all we have.

For now.

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