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Sunday, 19 February 2006

I'm still stunned about Dennis Monroe's passing. But through the disbelief and pain come so many memories of his music, his voice, and his unfailing humanity, and such strong affirmation of what he meant to Rochester.

For those who didn't have the good fortune to know Dennis - well, you missed one of the most genuine human beings around. He was a master of strings: guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, you name it. And he sang up a storm, too, everything from lute songs to blues and rock. Above all, he was a man of community, one who lived for his students, friends, family. Certainly his kids and wife Joni are devastated by their loss. But hundreds, if not thousands of Rochesterians are in mourning still.

I knew Dennis for more than 30 years. In the early days, we played Renaissance and Baroque music together once in a while. There was a memorable Christmas concert in Mendon Center one year; I attempted a couple Polish carols, with Dennis accompanying on guitar. Now I think we didn't do enough of these collaborations. Nor did we hoist as many beers together as would have been ideal.

He and I shared a love of nature and the outdoors, too, and the hikes we took were spiritually the flip side of the music. On the trail, Dennis was as genuine as he was when holding a fiddle. I recall one hike especially (it became an in-joke). We were climbing up through the streambed in Clark's Gully, near Naples, and soon enough we found ourselves stuck above a waterfall that seemed impossible to go down, though we’d scrambled up the thing safely, or maybe foolishly.

Anyway, we had to improvise a way up and out via a steep, gravelly wall dotted with foliage. Dennis started up the wall up first. The gravel gave way a little, but soon he found some handholds and called back down to me: "No problem. There's plenty of stuff to grab onto." I followed tentatively. A minute later it was smooth sailing. But suddenly we realized the handholds were clumps of poison ivy. We stuck to the upward path, though. What else to do? But at the top, we had to furiously scrub our hands and arms with soil to remove the sap before it could do its dirty work. Then we laughed like crazy, as we did many times afterward, thinking about that Laurel and Hardy moment.

Well, I can’t say why this sticks in my mind. I do know I always admired – and tried to learn from – Dennis’s humor, his sense not so much of the absurd but of the delights of silliness, boyishness. He had a way of breaking through the small stuff. I’ll try to keep my eyes on that prize, as Dennis would want.

All of us can seek comfort in the music, of course, which, as Dennis knew, means a lot more than notes on a page or physical sounds.

(I urge you all to check out the tribute page soon to be at

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 06:48 EST
Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006 15:25 EST
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Sunday, 5 February 2006
At war with ourselves
Topic: economy
The Republican right wing’s economic promises long ago became tangible threats, even to its geographical base. I’m sure plenty of Louisianans in the lowland suburbs woke up to this fact even before George Bush slighted them in his State of the Union last week. Everyone an entrepreneur, says Bush. That means you’re ultimately responsible for digging yourself out of the muck, and never mind reconstruction of the levees and floodwalls. New Orleans and Fallujah: two faces of compassionate conservatism in action.

And now comes the president’s budget proposal, with severe cuts in domestic spending across the board, except for defense of the Fatherland, I mean Homeland Security. The Washington Post reports Bush wants to slash Medicare funding by $36 billion over the next five years. He’d also take the axe to Medicaid. Overall, says the Post, 141 programs would be eliminated or cut back. Over at the Pentagon, of course, things would be rosier. Bush proposes a five percent increase in military spending, up to $439 billion, a new world record. That’s not counting tens of billions for the criminal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The full obscenity of this is not being reported, however. The War Resisters League calculated that last year the nation spent $643 billion directly on the military – the sum of the Pentagon budget, military-related parts of such agencies as NASA and the Department of Energy, and the off-budget outlays for Afghanistan and Iraq. And as WRL says, for a fair accounting, add another $384 billion for the fraction of the national debt attributable to past wars. So that comes to more than $1 trillion for “defense” in just one year.

Meanwhile on the home front, where Monroe County and Rochester both face huge budget deficits the next couple of years and federal cuts in revenue-sharing already are being felt, what are politicians asking for, Democrats prominently included? Local leaders are toying with a plan to spend $300 million, much of it from federal transportation funds, for a rapidly metastasizing complex of structures downtown: a combo bus terminal, college campus, and performance center at Main and Clinton, plus a couple more performance halls just to the east.

Maybe they’ll call it Renaissance Squared, a bad idea that seems to grow exponentially – and again the R word seems appropriate, evoking the urban policies of, say, 16th-century bourgeois who lived large while sharing just enough with their slum-dwellers to prevent revolution. (Luckily, the servant class didn’t always cooperate.)

Why aren’t the locals protesting what’s happening in Washington? Why do they keep pretending that “all politics is local”? Why aren’t they drafting realistic strategies to deal with the urban landscape, starting with a Northeast inter-urban collaborative to force change in Washington?

If Rochester saves itself, it won’t be by going it alone, and certainly not by building redundant arts complexes. Check out a recent AP story the Buffalo News carried on the front page. With the suitably Dickensian (though clich?d) headline “A Tale of Two Cities,” the article told the story of Detroit as it welcomed this year’s Super Bowl. Detroit is Rochester writ larger and lower - the world’s premier blue-collar metropolis now depopulated (down to 900,000 from a height of 2 million) and depressed, except for its grand downtown architecture, an off-color Emerald City of casinos and stadiums.

Poor Detroit. Poor Buffalo. Poor us. It’s enough to make you mix some oil-and-water historical allusions. “I have seen the future, and it works [for a few].” And “After me, the deluge.”

But enough pouting. Some day you'll see me in the ticket line for the inevitable road-show production of Les Miserables – at spanking new Renaissance Square. Can't wait.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:24 EST
Updated: Sunday, 5 February 2006 15:35 EST
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Sunday, 15 January 2006
Buffaloed by local boy - again
Topic: media criticism
Hometown loyalty can be treacherous. Look what it’s done to many Buffalonians, who go on and on about NBC newsman Tim Russert, the biggest mediocrity to come out of the Queen City since Grover Cleveland.

There he was this past Sunday morning – Russert, not Cleveland, unfortunately – enlightening a colleague on the narrow policy options facing the US and allies in their moves to stem Iran’s nuclear program.

According to TR – Russert, not Teddy Roosevelt, who rushed to William McKinley’s Buffalo deathbed in 1901 to grab that era’s oddly familiar imperial torch – we can do one (or more?) of three things. The US can pursue diplomatic action against Iran, with one and only one tolerable outcome, Iran’s capitulation. Or the US can attack Iran’s nuclear facilities as Israel did with the Iraq’s French-built nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. Or the US can unleash Israel to attack Iran’s facilities.

End of story. No mention of alternatives like these: true diplomacy by the US, i.e. without implied threats of force; US support of multiparty negotiations toward general nuclear disarmament in the region and beyond (with unilateral removal of US nuclear-armed or -capable naval vessels from the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean as a nice opening gambit); US (and hopefully multiparty) rejection of "peaceful" nuclear power, with quick moves toward safe energy technologies to be shared with Iran and other developing nations.

None of these, though, are for Russert, who in a nice-guy, teddy-bear kind of way offers rationales for the raw projection of lethal force. Oh yes, the diplomatic option comes first on his list, but it's made clear that this is pro forma. When push comes to shove, might makes right.

In other times and places, such journalistic behavior has been described as collusion with war criminals. So it will be again, if justice makes a comeback.

Russert has invaded some liberal hearts by sounding tough, including that of The Nation’s David Corn, who’s described him, with reservations, as Sunday morning’s Grand Inquisitor.

Russert does often sound persistent. For example, last December he grilled (the word is relative) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on presidential wiretaps and the “inaccurate” (his word) intelligence that led to the US invasion. He tried to pin Rice down on the naked illegality of wiretaps that Bush could easily have gotten authorized through the FISA law, a framework that allows almost total leeway. And he did cast doubt on the administration’s internal processes.

But did he challenge Rice on the legality of the invasion and occupation?

Are you kidding? He wouldn’t dare. His NBC bosses would have his head for thus alienating the dear Secretary, who would never cross the NBC threshold again.

So on and on Russert goes, every bit the noble pundit, sometimes the boy next door, sometimes sounding like an inquisitor but acting more like a courtier when the chips are down.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 14:07 EST
Updated: Sunday, 15 January 2006 16:39 EST
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Thursday, 12 January 2006
Rochester's past ferry
Topic: environment
The trip was short and expensive, and the passengers – a whole community taken for a ride – are feeling the pinch.

However you cut it, the fast ferry that was originally sold as an “economic engine” will leach tens of millions of dollars more from the public purse - and some ancillary private businesses - before this transportation fiasco is over.

How could anyone have failed to see this was the final destination?

Even before fuel prices spiked, the ferry was simply too expensive to run. Every round-trip to Toronto burned up more than 7,000 gallons of marine diesel – roughly $10,500 worth a couple years ago, and $14,000 today. Let’s assume each passenger paid $100 for the round-trip: this means the ferry needed the proceeds from 140 passengers just to pay the fuel bill. But as winter began, the ferry was reportedly carrying fewer than 100 – sometimes as few as 40 - passengers per trip. So if the ferry was financially viable, it was only during the warmer months. And you can’t maintain an operation like this year-round on the strength (if that’s the word) of its fair-weather performance.

Local commentators are now lamenting the loss to Rochester’s image. Seems we needed a flagship project to boost our self-confidence. But I think that line of thinking is as off-track as the ferry project was.

Never mind images – we’re talking transportation here, the most down-to-earth of basic services. What the region needs is not confidence building, but real-world engagement with projects that will simultaneously improve mobility and preserve the environment.

The starting point is a comprehensive transportation plan that deals with everything from sidewalks and pedestrian routes to streetcars and inter-city rail. And such planning starts with service within the community: i.e. developing the most efficient, most environmentally-friendly ways to get people where they need to be for work, leisure, and culture.

Is it too much to ask that we get on with this - instead of succumbing to the next razzle-dazzle fantasy that drops anchor here?

Sidebar: A couple of weeks ago, WXXI talk-show host Bob Smith took yet another call about Rochester’s need to develop light rail. And once again, Smith bleated in response (I’m paraphrasing): Fine, but where are we going to find the several hundred million dollars? Well, Bob, we’ll divert some of the money that now goes for unnecessary roadways, ill-fated boats, decorator bridges, and (worst “transportation” scheme of all) expeditionary military forces. Radio personalities can help by acknowledging the possibilities, not drowning them with the flip equivalent of “We can’t afford it.”

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:52 EST
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Monday, 9 January 2006
River City West
Topic: urban issues
For East Coasters, there’s nothing quite like Portland, Oregon - the myth and the reality.

The city has become justly famous for its land-use policies, above all the imposition of an “Urban Growth Boundary” to stem sprawl and maintain a lively downtown core. The UGB, which neatly divides rural from urban-suburban space, is not static, as sometimes assumed. It’s periodically adjusted to meet targets for overall population and economic growth. Most of the adjustments, though, are minor.

A quick look at a Portland regional map tells the story: The city’s obvious natural boundaries (the Willamette and Columbia rivers, plus some precipitous forested hills) are supplemented by wide greenspaces that have kept a growing population from gobbling up too much land.

A quick walk or bike around a Portland neighborhood tells the same story from another angle. Homes and lots seem a little smaller than those in other cities. Parts of town, particularly the Northwest and the central business district, have a more “urban” feel than you find in most cities this size (population 530,000 in 2000).

Many Portland neighborhoods foster a wonderfully retro pedestrian culture that’s vanished from most American cities of any size. But - in perfect harmony with its many converted light-industrial spaces - Downtown Portland shows mature capitalism's dark side: at night, long queues form outside a cluster of shelters and soup kitchens not far from the glitz, and the homeless put down their bedrolls under a bridge where, during more civilized hours, shoppers swarm a crafts market.

These walker-friendly parts of town are expensive, though – and increasingly subject to yuppification. So Portland’s alternative cultures seem to be doing better on the east side of the Willamette River. The Southeast area is home to a couple of consumer co-ops (another is in the NW, a holdout among the boutiques), an anarchist collective bookstore, a worker-owned bike shop, and so forth. The housing is more modest here, too. But it’s all relative: According the National Association of Realtors, the median price of an existing home in the greater Portland area in 2004 was $206,500. In the Rochester area, the figure is exactly $100,000 less, and city homes in Rochester are much cheaper yet.

These facts and figures can be found in report after report. But how does Portland measure up to a real-world test?

When Liz Henderson and I visited Portland recently, we got out on our bikes (loaners, actually) and saw the city from best possible driver’s seat. Portland is very bike-friendly, with plenty of bike lanes, dedicated multi-use trails, locking facilities, and more. The city has a real bike culture. Two-wheeled transportation commands respect there.

Portland is truly intermodal, as well. You can hop on the streetcar, ease your bike up onto a designated hook near the door, and cruise in pleasure. Every municipal bus has a two-bike carrying rack affixed to the front bumper (same as in Rochester). I saw some interesting amenities, too, like some “bike shells” at a train station that allow you to lock your steed under a plastic or fiberglass cover, out of the elements and a bit more beyond the reach of thieves.

I think Portland’s policies on bicycling, walkways, and intermodality are equally as important as the UGB in preserving a high livability score. And policy-wise, things in Portland seem well-coordinated and open to public input. But all is not perfect. UGB or no UGB, bike lanes or no bike lanes, Portland carries a terrible burden of motor traffic. The freeways are clogged at rush-hour, just as in any North American city. Some urban arterials, even in the heart of downtown, are four-lane, one-way, relatively high-speed affairs with little or no marginal space for alternative vehicles.

The Portland weather can deter cyclists. The rainy season runs for eight months of the year, October through May. There are around 150 days with some rainfall, few of them in the warmer, drier months. So you find most Portland bikes, at least those used for transportation rather than occasional fun rides, have fenders mounted. Still, I was surprised at the low number of cyclists on the streets during our visit – hardly more than I see on Rochester streets in all but the heaviest winter conditions. Daytime temperatures in Portland last month were in the 40s and 50s, and the rain was medium to light. And when you consider the wealth of biking amenities, you’ve got to wonder why so many Portlanders are keeping their bikes in the basement.

Yet you can’t avoid this conclusion: Portland is far ahead of Rochester on all aspects of transportation. How come we never hear Rochester pols talking about decent locking facilities, lanes, intermodality, and so forth? And how come a major race for control of City Hall just happened here without any candidate uttering the word “bicycle”? It didn’t reach my ears, at least. If you heard the B word, let me know. In a related matter, pass along your thoughts on the double F word: that’s Rochesterese for fast ferry.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 09:15 EST
Updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2006 09:55 EST
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