A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
For more years than I care to remember, I’ve been attending weekly Board of Public Works and Safety (BOW) meetings, admittedly on an irregular basis, although still often and depressingly enough to justify frequent bottles of gin.
Just think of the books I’ve missed reading.
BOW's weekly grind largely consists of a procession of engineers, contractors and utility company representatives, who march to the podium and ask for permission to destroy existing infrastructure in order to improve it, by digging holes, felling trees, milling streets and maintaining essential backflow -- which in this instance means those many rivulets of convenience cash flowing into eager campaign finance ponds.
I’ve heard hundreds of these requests during the past 15 years, followed by the replies of BOW members and other city officials in attendance. Their words in response seldom vary.
“Will this digging/clearcutting/dynamiting, which we’ll be numbly and ritualistically approving anyhow, even dare impact passing drivers in their cars?”
Once in a blue moon someone thinks to ask a different kind of question.
“Will this digging/clearcutting/dynamiting impact sidewalk users -- walkers in the general sense, but especially disabled persons, who might have no other options to bypass closed sidewalks when BOW’s stated objective is to coddle drivers?”
On those rare occasions when a board member or functionary utters such heresy, he or she recoils immediately, as though smacked in the face by an evil spirit bearing a two-by-four.
“No, no, Mr. Nash -- I take it all back! Go ahead and pile dirt and debris on the sidewalk, even when it’d be easier to take up a parking space for them. By all means, leave your work trucks to block passage by those on foot or using a wheelchair. In fact, make those wheelchairs go out into the street so we can blame the disabled when speeding cars hit them broadside -- anything, just don’t rescind my invitation to the paving company’s annual costume ball.”
The preceding is an example of how car-centrism is reflective of institutional bias in places like New Albany.
A tendency for the procedures and practices of particular institutions to operate in ways which result in certain social groups being advantaged or favored and others being disadvantaged or devalued. This need not be the result of any conscious prejudice or discrimination but rather of the majority simply following existing rules or norms. Institutional racism and institutional sexism are the most common examples.
Institutional bias helps to explain why Jeff Speck’s proposals to revolutionize our city’s street grid suffered a grim and meticulous death by a thousand belches and almost as many farts.
Speck’s plan was pruned again and again until the majority of design mechanisms intended to bring about the greatest positive change for the greatest number of overall users, whether behind the wheel of a car or navigating a skateboard, were left despoiled on the cutting room floor amid the laughter of Pinocchio Rosenbarger and David “Playboy of the Western World” Duggins.
Isolated in an otherwise untouched design vacuum, stripped of Speck’s ancillary buttresses, two-way traffic alone couldn’t have ever proven capable of transformation. It has been slightly helpful within its straitjacket, as tailored by the most intellectually deficient mayor in this city’s history, but it needs lots of help, beginning with one simply imperative.
Flush the fuckers, ASAP.
Institutional bias and institutional inbreeding aren’t exactly the same concept, although it might be argued that the first is an inevitable outcome of the second.
In the case of bureaucrats appointed to BOW, the redevelopment commission and other city agencies, we see the same “idea” people making the same decisions in conjunction with the same engineers, contractors and vendors -- and with the same underachieving results. At times these functionaries swap positions, but seldom is there any challenge to basic assumptions.
Hence the design conformity that comes to characterize closed systems. No new ideas can penetrate the circled wagons, and in political terms, the clique chooses to optimize whichever “outside” contributors (HWC Engineering and Jacobi, Toombs and Lanz being prominent local examples) who understand best how to prime the pump for maximum political patronage.
It's recurringly revolting, hence the generalized institutional bias, because dude: it’s always been this way. Cars come first. Multiple users of a street? Do they even vote? Why don't they have cars to begin with?
Planned paving obsolescence and proper pothole prioritization -- now there’s the ticket to many happy electoral returns.
After Chloe Allen was killed by a driver who went scot free, I wrote a fictional statement that we should have heard emanating from Jeff Gahan’s graft-smeared lips, and of course did not, because cynical and self-aggrandizing political calculations are why he’s here, or in the case of human emotion, they’re why he’s never, ever, here at all.
Kindly allow me to update it, but first, note that when the city of New Albany’s piecework feed supplier at Twitter deigned to mention Matt Brewer’s death, he or she already had been instructed that the paramount mission in any such mention was to declaim responsibility.
Yay! It wasn't our fault! Can't blame us!
Right. You know what this is?
It's just plain sick.
AN IMAGINED STATEMENT FROM OUR MAYOR
My fellow New Albanians, as your mayor – no, strike that.
I’m sorry. This isn’t the usual boilerplate.
As a human being, I’m saddened that a resident of New Albany lost his life skateboarding along Spring Street. Matt Brewer was only trying to return home after doing what he loved, and now he’s dead.
It’s unacceptable, it’s tragic, there are no excuses, and we’re going to do something about it. We cannot restore his life, but we can heed the words of Ms. Lori Kay Sympson, a friend of the late Chloe Allen, who in 2016 lost her life trying to cross Spring Street:
"If anything good can come of this, it'll be that this intersection is made safer."
In 2018, we’re referring to the intersection at 9th Street and East Spring, but actually the topic is enhanced safety for all street grid users on Spring (and Elm, and Market, and for that matter, all our streets).
We’ll be taking a fine-tooth comb to our street grid, because for too long, we’ve ignored the dangers at this and other intersections in New Albany. This is going to change.
It’s critical for everyone who uses city streets that safety is not restricted to one or another crosswalk, or to this or that street. We have a problem.
We also have an opportunity.
Hazards are abetted on a daily basis by the way we’ve chosen to manage the city’s street grid. Indiana law plainly advises drivers that walkers have the right of way – and just as plainly, walkers in New Albany know that our streets are a coin flip at best. We may have sidewalks, but we don’t have walkability.
That’s because traffic safety has come to be viewed entirely as safety for drivers of cars, and not the city as a whole, including those who move about in other ways -- walking, biking, in wheelchairs or carts, or using skateboards. The problem at intersections like 9th and Spring, or Spring and Vincennes, extends for many blocks in all four directions.
We cannot improve safety by merely treating symptoms. Only major surgery will be effective. We had the chance last year, and frankly, we blew it.
When I chose Jeff Speck to pioneer a walkability study for New Albany, it was done with the recognition that his factual, reality-based recommendations would preface a bold new chapter in the city’s history by restoring an environment suitable for all citizens and all users of our streets, whether on foot, riding a bicycle or driving a car.
Automotive traffic was never intended to move at highway speeds through built-up urban areas intended for the speed of your child at play, not for limited-access conditions like those on an interstate highway.
Unfortunately our city officials lost sight of the possibilities. So did I, so did HWC Engineering, and now we’re all going to return to Speck’s tool kit and do the things we failed to do with the two-way grid modernization program, and with the ultimate objective of slowing and calming traffic.
When it comes to humans driving cars, speed, inattentiveness and recklessness kill. It’s intolerable, and it has to stop.
Certainly law enforcement plays a part in any potential solution, but Speck’s proposals were based on empirical evidence. They were based on facts, and we simply didn’t implement them. We closed our minds to innovative thinking, and now it’s time to do the right thing and implement area-wide traffic calming as quickly as possible; not only must safety be our first imperative, but we also must apply principles of “quality of life” to this city as a whole, and to manage the city according to best practices for all grid users, not just some.
Call the street reform process as you will, so long as you grasp the necessity. Walkability, complete streets and street calming are good for neighborhoods, property values, quality of life and small business success. Cities all across the country provide examples, and we need only follow suit.
Some might point to statistics, and say that when it comes to deaths by walkers and bicyclists at the hands of people driving cars and trucks, New Albany is better than the national average.
That’s no consolation, and it is no reason to refrain from proven methods of doing better. Public safety is the very last place to be miserly, whether with money or scrutiny. An active, progressive, forward-thinking city is far more than the sum of its automobiles.
Rather, a city is about people like Matt Brewer and Chloe Allen, and the best -- the only -- way for us to honor their sacrifice is to get this damn thing right, once and for all.
I hope you’ll join us in the effort -- now, not later.
Mayor Jeff M. Gahan
Yes, I know. An unlikelihood of epic dimension, but a boy can dream about mayors who aren't built from silly putty and composite Disney caricatures.
Meanwhile, one after the other, Team Gahan's merry practitioners of institutional bias -- those arrogant products of institutional inbreeding -- step forward at the BOW meeting to insist our spanking new flashing yellow pedestrian crossing lights actually work (they don't), that speeds have appreciably slowed since two-way traffic was instituted (they haven't), and if deficient citizens in wheelchairs and carts, on foot or with skateboards, wish to avoid being killed or maimed, can’t they just stay on the sidewalk?
Of course, only in those cases when BOW hasn't already approved blocking the sidewalk so as to spare inconvenience to drivers, most of whom never notice they're being fellated because they're too busy staring at their phones while driving.
Team Gahan surveys the neighborhood carnage, and says: "Who are you going to believe, us or your own two eyes?"
Lasik isn't necessary to answer that one. In truth, Team Gahan is the problem, not the solution, and it’s them, not us, in immediate need of being institutionalized -- and yet we have a far better solution: #FlushTheClique and #FireGahan2019.
Flush Gahan’s toxic legacy, and it will travel through the sanitary sewer system, eventually re-entering the Ohio River at a point just downriver from the skate park by the amphitheater.
It's time for them to go. Then maybe we can get something accomplished in this town.
August 2: ON THE AVENUES: Daze of future passed.
July 26: ON THE AVENUES: Maybe, just maybe, you really can go home again.
July 19: ON THE AVENUES: Confusion, exile, ignobility and resistance amid various other Chronicles of New Gahania.
July 12: ON THE AVENUES: Thanks to Joe Phillips, there'll be pints, union and good times downtown.