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Monday, 14 July 2008
Notes from Italy

It seems like I've been away from my blog for a long time - and yes, it's been more than a couple weeks since I even checked in. But my absence was for a good cause: a trip to Italy, with lots of biking there (I brought my Dahon folder, which fits easily into a couple suitcases for air travel) and now some impressions to pass along.

My trip took me to several northern Italian cities: first to Modena, home of fabled tenor Luciano Pavarotti, almost equally fabled soprano Mirella Freni, and oddly fabled, expensive, gas-guzzling Maserati, whose headquarters are not far from downtown. Modena's population is about 177,000, and I'll bet the figure includes about 40,000 regular cyclists. As in many European communities, regular Modenites in huge numbers get around by bike, doing the shopping, dropping around to the caffe/café, going on dates (two per bike, and not on tandems), and otherwise getting through the day. If you wander the deliciously narrow and pedestrian-friendly streets and alleyways of the old parts of town, you see hundreds of bikes locked up everywhere. The bikes tend to be utilitarian, affordable models, some of them decades old and well-worn. (It's only out in countryside, on the beautiful but narrow ancient roadways, that you see helmeted, bright-jerseyed riders on fancy road bikes.) Partly for economic reasons, and helped along by a human-scaled urbanscape and bike-friendly traditions, Italians depend heavily on appropriate transport technology.

The principle held true for two other communities I visited: the small city of Vignola, the mid-sized Parma, and sizable Bologna (ca. 400,000 people in the urban core). I recommend all three to bikers and walkers - again, it's the traditional urbanscape that makes the difference. Bologna, with plenty of piazzas and 38 km of "arcades," i.e. Gothic-arched covered walkways, is especially attractive to pedestrians. I think this town's Renaissance and Baroque architects could teach our RenSquare planners a thing or three. (And isn't it odd that not long ago, Rochester was courting Parma interests for a deal to redevelop Midtown Plaza - without so much as considering the physical features that makes the city of Parma a resounding success?)

Not that Italy is a total Paradiso for bikers. At least in the Emilia Romagna region that I toured, the secondary highways are miserably clogged with trucks and cars moving at excessive speed, and there's precious little space for bikers or pedestrians. But in town, everything's rosy: ample bike paths and lanes, urban traffic that's respectful of cyclists, and an official commitment to alternative transportation. Modena also has begun a bike-borrowing/rental program. You just put down a deposit and get a key, then access publicly-owned bikes at any number of parking stations around town. There's no fee for the first three days - perfect for travelers, though I must say the bikes themselves are a little stodgy in design, not suitable for serious riding.

Well, I'm now coping with transpo-culture shock. I went to the Rochester Public Market last Saturday, as usual, and did a few errands. Amazing how few bikes you see around the market (I counted about a dozen), considering the huge turnout (thousands on- or just off-site) on a Saturday morning. Part of this is the durability of the Auto Craze, part is the result of the Rochester's failure to create the infrastructure that would seduce people into going to the market by bike. Why, the city only recently added another parking lot, this one on Railroad St. And still - as any competent traffic planner should have foreseen - the cars and "light trucks" jam the access roads and turn the market grounds into ground zero for air pollution and conflicts with mere persons who make such daring, self-indulgent moves as trying to cross a street! Maybe RocBikers (check out RocBike.com, by the way), joined by Critical Massers and others, should target the market for some kind of actions. City Hall shouldn't be allowed to ignore or downplay bike issues any longer. (I note with pleasure the departure of Dumbass Supremo Steve Minarik, the Republican boss who did something to offend everyone - and did everything to maintain the status quo that barely acknowledges alternative transport. Not that I expect M's replacement will be much better.)

One last note: Italian towns also are home to vast numbers of motorbikes and scooters. This was especially evident in Bologna. But the odd thing is, I didn't hear any straight-pipe monstrosities like those that take over Rochester-area roads every summer. Interpret that as you will.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 08:17 EDT
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Friday, 30 May 2008
My archive: articles from 2000-2004
Topic: Archive: journalism

Some of you may have noticed that the articles and columns I wrote for City Newspaper (ending in spring 2004) are not retrievable on the paper's "improved" website by author search. This is the result of what was originally a technical glitch - somehow the bylines, and not just mine, were not transferred from the old online archive to the new one. But as the months turn into years, the glitch is becoming a more and more serious ethical lapse. To my knowledge, City management has never explained the situation to readers. Nor have they responded adequately to my personal communications. So I'm assuming that the bylines are forever lost. As you can imagine, the situation presents us writers with real practical difficulties; in the internet age, online archives serve as primary research sources not just for readers but for employers and others. Thus a new feature of this blog: I am beginning a long project to scan and save (in my Photo Album; see the left margin of this page) many of my City pieces so they can be retrieved more easily. The first article I've scanned (a March 2004 piece about windmills) is now in the album. Send me your comments - and by the way, I retain hard copies of almost all my articles for City (from the late 1980s to 2004) and can supply you with a scan on request.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:44 EDT
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Friday, 23 May 2008
The Renaissance squares
Topic: urban issues

I made the mistake of going to the Renaissance Square dog-and-pony show this week. The organizers - the seemingly unbreakable coalition of downtown business interests, county government lickspittles, and engineering and construction firms - did a good job of hiding the event in the inner reaches of the Riverside Convention Center. No signs directed the few attendees to the room. But that turned out to be good for social intercourse: you had to ask directions from passersby in the hallway.

You didn't actually need to get into the room, though, to understand what the project - a perennial shapeshifter now hastily reconfigured to meet funding deadlines - is all about. You only needed to meditate on the convention center itself. Remember when the East Main-South Avenue area was packed with historic buildings and storefronts? And remember when so many of them came tumbling down to make way for a, well, conventional design?

That's exactly what the well-connected downtown crowd wants for East Main and Clinton. Go to the Democrat and Chronicle feature on the new RenSquare plan and see for yourself. The plan is pure Suburban Office Park: a series of off-the-shelf, boring facades, varied at the eastern extremity with a few big windows, and shown up big time by the magnificent Granite Building to the west. (The bus station is hidden in the back, with a platform design that will require buses to back up as they leave the bays. I can't wait to stand there and take in the music and fine aromas of the massed diesels.)

Nothing in any of the RenSquare literature or on the dog-and-pony-show placards refers to green features, intermodality (remember the case made long ago for putting the buses at the train station?), accessibility, or bike-and-pedestrian friendliness. Choose your favorite element from the pro-environmental list - and you won't find it at RenSquare.

When I said some of this to a honcho at the unveiling (and put that veil of shame back on, pronto!), I was asked if I wanted to see downtown continue to deteriorate. This is the rhetorical equivalent of what the RenSquare design team has done: deploying the crassest of clichés to weaken the opposition. They surely must understand that downtown's real friends want an entirely different pattern of redevelopment to unfold: compare the incremental growth and repopulation of the East End, accomplished organically and on a human scale - with, admittedly, some aesthetic clunkers thrown in.

But look for RenSquare honchos to stay on message. If you're not on board with their scheme, you're an enemy of downtown and an impediment to economic revitalization. And don't be so cheeky as to talk about transportation policy or green ideas. What do you think this is, a transit center? And where do you think you are, Copenhagen?

In their relentless campaign to saddle us with an example of old-fashioned, white bread Americana, the RenSquare pushers are leading with a rhetorical cousin of "if you're not with us, you're against us." And make no mistake, in regard to the fine points democratic engagement, they have taken more than a little from the playbook of Rove, Cheney, and Bush.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:47 EDT
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Tuesday, 6 May 2008
Straighten those priorities
Topic: antiwar

At this moment, while results from the Indiana and North Carolina Democratic primaries roll in, we're a bit closer to knowing which pair of warmongers will duke it out for the presidency. John "Bomb Bomb Bomb Bomb Bomb Iran" McCain may ultimately face off with Hillary "Obliterate" Clinton. Or McCain's opponent might be Barack "Hit Pakistan" Obama, a relative pacifist who has a soft spot for diplomacy - at least before he becomes commander-in-chief, a role that history shows is synonymous with "lock-and-load."

The three contenders' silence about the situation on the ground in Iraq (and Afghanistan, Somalia, etc.) excites almost no concern from the people or the media. Gas prices and the nose-diving economy have grabbed the top spots in the opinion polls. Not that Americans shouldn't be worried about high prices and stagnant incomes, especially since they're accompanied by the usual profiteering - hedge fund thieves as well the classic merchants of death. But really... Everyone should be shaking with outrage about the mass murder now being committed in our name.

Thank goodness the Friends Committee on National Legislation is on the job. Today this Quaker organization, the sort of group that shows a "lobby" doesn't have to have bloody or dirty hands, issued a call about US attacks against Iraqi civilians. Here are the opening paragraphs of an open letter the group has addressed to the White House:

"Press reports indicate that more than 900 Iraq civilians have died so far in the ongoing U.S.-supported assault on militia forces in the Sadr City section of Baghdad. Many of the civilian deaths are the result of US air strikes in this densely populated and impoverished urban area in the heart of the Iraqi capital. A photograph published in newspapers last week of a two-year-old child killed in the rubble created by one U.S. air strike is grim evidence of the toll the offensive and the U.S. tactics to prosecute it are taking.

"We at FCNL condemn the U.S. government's decision to launch an airwar against Sadr City, an area of Baghdad that is roughly equivalent in size to bombing of Chicago's South Side, West Philadelphia, or Southeast Washington. As Quakers we oppose all war. But this use of airpower against a civilian population estimated at 3 million people is immoral and a violation of the law of war. We urge you immediately to order a halt to this illicit use of U.S. military force."

The FCNL is asking all of us to join this call for a cessation of violence. It's obvious that many people in Congress, too, need such a letter in their inboxes. And that emphatically includes McCain, Clinton, and Obama.

(After you write your emails/letters, tune into the peace march to Fort Drum, the western branch of which begins this Thursday morning at the Peace Storefront on Monroe Ave. For detailed info, go to nysmarchesforpeace.org.)


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:09 EDT
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Sunday, 27 April 2008
Go figure - MLK's "greatest purveyor of violence" by the numbers

Like so many communities today, the Rochester area is being hit with a fiscal three-fer: the city's looming annual budget deficit (on top of deficits and liabilities past), the county deficit (in part the effect of long-term regressive tax policy), and inadequate federal aid. And like others caught in the crunch, many Rochesterians are hitting back at convenient targets: public sector jobs, services, and taxation itself. Layoffs, cutbacks, rollbacks, austerity in all its miserable forms is on the march.

But the biggest target of all - truly a global bulls-eye - goes unnoticed. It's the fact that the nation is now spending $1.45 trillion annually, well over 10 percent of GDP, on organized violence and its aftereffects. And that's a lot of dough that can't be made available for schools, libraries, fire departments, and all the other vital functions of local government.

The $1.45 trillion figure comes from the War Resisters League's annual publication, "Where You Income Tax Money Really Goes" (go to www.warresisters.org). The total, based on the 2009 federal budget, includes current annual military spending of $965 billion; the Pentagon (DOD) accounts for the bulk of this, but other federal programs account for plenty more, like nuclear weapons under the DOE ($17 billion), Homeland Security's military ops ($35 billion), veterans benefits ($94 billion - and in this one case, a morally necessary expenditure), and not least, military-related interest on the national debt ($390 billion).

And of course we can't overlook the "War on Terror," which, including the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, eats up around $200 billion all by itself - most of it in new debt that future federal budgets, not to mention hungry children, will have to deal with.

Yes, a trillion here and a trillion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money. But get this: according to the War Resisters analysis, which is scrupulously based on the relevant federal budget documents, points out our non-military spending comes in at $1.21 trillion, considerably below what the warrior-state gets.

Note that all these figures don't include Social Security and Medicare, which are funded through payroll taxes and thus are properly considered off-budget - though the feds fold the trust funds into the "unified budget" precisely to mask the true proportions of outlays for America's grossest domestic product: state-sponsored terror.

Viewed in the most basic moral framework, maybe the constriction of local budgets is simple justice, another form of Malcolm X's, and more recently Jeremiah Wright's, "chickens coming home to roost." But in the present crisis, only the privileged and insular can take refuge in such a conclusion. The point is, we need to take action against the warrior state while resuscitating the best aspects of the increasingly embattled, and misunderstood, welfare state.

We owe a moral debt to the poor and distressed of America as much as to the millions worldwide who've been at the wrong end of our gun. And we should find no contradiction or irony in the fact that when we turn away from organized violence as a policy tool, we'll make ourselves infinitely safer than we are today.

 


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 12:52 EDT
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