Thursday, November 12, 2015

ON THE AVENUES: The mayor’s race was about suburban-think versus urban-think. The wrong-think won.

ON THE AVENUES: The mayor’s race was about suburban-think versus urban-think. The wrong-think won.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

On election night, a friend in the beer biz messaged me.

John: Rooting for you from Chicago. Good luck.

Roger: Thanks, I'll need it. Democrats already have the cemeteries locked tight.

(John’s as hardcore a Chicagoan as it gets. He’s been in selling beer since forever, and knows where all those bodies are buried, too. We proceeded to have a chat via the marvel of electronics devices)

J: What’s the early returns?

R: Short version: I lost.

J: That sucks. Sorry Brutha. Don't give up the good fight.

R: Don't worry. I might have to go underground for a while, but being an underdog never gets tiring.

J: You've been underground since I've known you, lol.

R: Underground has levels ... like a parking garage.

J: The deeper it goes, the uglier it gets.

R: Just as Dante informs us.

J: Dante Bichette?

(That’s gut laugh hilarious; either you get it, or not. John bleeds baseball, hence the punch line)

J: You got big balls to try it. Lesser men prevail, I find as I get older. The Peter Principle speaks louder today than ever before.

R: Thanks, man. All one can do is get up, dust off and resume throwing punches.

J: Now go get fucked up.

(In short, these were words I needed to hear)


For eight months, I concede to having juggled conflicting emotions. Every time I was asked why I wanted to be mayor, it was necessary to suppress my inner Groucho Marx. After all, is anyone gullible enough to trust a person who really, really WANTS to be mayor of this or any other city?

It’s self-evident: There must be something terribly wrong with anyone who would seek the office, although the monetization’s undoubtedly savory, as the incumbent has proven.

Seeing as raw ambition’s never been my default setting, I eventually fell back on a long-term strategy for life in general terms: I work my side of the street, and you work yours. Do what you can with what you have, and never forget to have a life along the way.

I’d have liked to win, and failing that, it would have been nice to get more votes, but what I really, really wanted to achieve in this campaign for mayor was to locate, gather and articulate platform planks for a third way of local governance, in a future tense, and in the hope that they might still come in handy, if not for me, then for someone else.

I believe we succeeded in doing just that, and this achievement soothes the final result. Given local political tradition, the process of introducing subject matter ranging beyond the aptitude of one’s high school graduating class always was going to be tantamount to swimming against the tsunami.

We were a handful of insurgents without substantive financing, and yet almost 500 of you took notice, thought about it, and agreed with us. Thanks again. Next time we'll do better. Perhaps it’s little consolation at the moment, but I firmly believe we’ll be proven right in the end.

Over the short term, a whopping 53 percent of the 20-odd percent of registered voters in New Albany bothering to cast ballots chose surface glitz over substance and reality. Walt Disney’s hold is pervasive, but pyramid schemes never last.

We can hope only that when the hollow shell of Gahanism collapses into the ash heap of intellectual and fiscal history, the city still will have the opportunity to correct his many and manifest failures.


The year 2015 has been as intense a personal education curve as I’ve experienced in a while, and whatever comes next, I wouldn’t trade the insights gained for anything. Chief among them is a veritable epiphany as to the reasons why we keep fighting the same civic battles, over and over. It’s also a unifying theme to 11 years of analysis at NA Confidential, culminating in the mayoral bid.

It explains almost every misdirected act of the Gahan term, from Main Street beautification (nice flowers absent engineering benefits for the whole of the street grid) to feel-good parks lust (we need high tech rec centers for team sports, not places to ride bikes). It also says quite a lot about the thought processes of all the rest of the mayoral teams preceding the current one, probably dating back to the 1970s.

It’s all about suburban-think versus urban-think. The wrong-think won. Then again, it always has. 

Without going too deeply into the historical patterns of suburbanization, we all understand that especially after World War II, a far-flung development pattern exploded across the American landscape. The seemingly limitless possibilities of inexpensive automobile ownership were almost evangelical in nature. The suburbs would render urban living obsolete apart from those too lazy or poor to pursue alternatives, and so laden with hidden costs, we expanded outward in all available directions.

Today, many of us see sprawl differently, particularly in a context of urban infrastructure cost efficiency. At the time, when it was happening all around them, urban power elites in places like New Albany first reacted by playing the role of the deer in your headlights. Then, after decades of flailing and inertia, they finally reacted to the gospel of suburbanism by converting to it, having concluded they were on the wrong side of history.

If you can’t beat it, join it. They were mistaken, but generations of city governments here and elsewhere reacted by applying suburban precepts to what were, and remain today, urban conditions. Political systems evolved accordingly, monetizing decay management.

In short, how often do slumlords live in the same neighborhoods as their properties?

You don't think they make political donations, do you?

In New Albany, urban density was gutted for the sake of suburban traffic patterns and auto-centric imperatives. We warehoused low-income people in housing projects rather than expose the "right" people to the "wrong" ones. We sought to cure downtown retail woes by negating the best conditions for downtown retail, and imposing mall-think.

Again and again, mayor after mayor, council after council, to the present day. Never have more than a few of them grasped what it means to exist as a densely populated urban area in need of little more than thoughtful policies to assisting its function as our founders originally intended.

Now, with a mother lode of alternative strategies available to rectify the imbalance, our local political system remains firmly embedded in suburban envy. It’s more than just a revenue stream for the aggrandizement of politicians (see Coffey, Wizard). It’s a set of mental assumptions that presuppose all planning and decision-making.

It’s what I ran for mayor against. Not against Gahan, but against his political worldview.

I’ve never met Darin Givens, an urbanist from Atlanta, but he does a fine job here of explaining what we campaigned for. New Albany isn't Atlanta, and yet if you substitute one place name for another, there is remarkable symmetry.

City leaders bend over backwards as they prioritize mega developments like stadiums and corporate relocations. That’s when they bring out the big guns and use all the available municipal tools for making something happen — rezoning, tax breaks, grants, partnerships, fees… whatever it takes.

Leaders are likewise capable of prioritizing things like safe streets, blight, disused land near transit stations, geographic segregation of economic classes, the need for comprehensive services for people experiencing homelessness … all of this and more. Those issues should be getting the priority treatment.

Atlantans: don’t be afraid to step up and lead with boldness or to support others who will.

Stand up to the voices that dismiss ideas about good urbanism by claiming “that won’t work here” or “Atlanta isn’t that kind of place.” A great city is never a single kind of place. It has multiple personalities that all serve a diverse and changing population. Innovations in urbanism can have a positive impact on all those people and help the city roll with the changes in a sustainable way.

If a leader tells you that Atlanta is “world class” because it has attractions and offices that appeal to suburbanites, challenge that view. A great city center doesn’t exist to serve suburbs. Instead, it’s a livable place that carefully juggles the needs of residents and visitors together, while prioritizing the former rather than the latter.

Welcome to the next four years. We may be down, but we're not out.


Recent columns:

November 5ON THE AVENUES: Confusion, exile, ignobility and resistance.

October 29: ON THE AVENUES: A year later, the backroom politics of pure spite at Haughey’s Tavern still reek.

October 28: ON THE AVENUES REWOUND: How many businesses already have died because of City Hall’s street grid procrastination?

October 26: ON THE AVENUES EXTRA: Gahan says speeding sucks, but street safety can wait until after he is re-elected.

October 22: ON THE AVENUES: My career as a double naught capitalist.

October 19: ON THE AVENUES REWOUND: Courtesy bicycle to the Hotel Silly (2010, 2013).

October 15: ON THE AVENUES: To the New Albanians, each and every one.

October 8: ON THE AVENUES: There’s an indie twist to this curmudgeon’s annual Harvest Homecoming column.

October 1: ON THE AVENUES: No more fear, Jeff.

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