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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

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 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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Wednesday, 9 April 2008
A deplorable state of affairs
Topic: politics

"State of..." speeches are supposed to be taken as grand civic convocations, celebrations of unity and shared purpose, but they're really no more than elites talking to one another - just like most other aspects of very small "d" democracy. You know how it works: the president or governor or mayor appears before the citizenry secondhand - quite literally mediated through the camera and microphone. His or her principal, if not exclusive audience is the assembly of legislators, political appointees, business leaders, and other powerbrokers, joined by certain invited guests who serve as rhetorical props when the Head of State must soften the script with a touch of humanity. Everything's carefully scripted, and the speaker is showcased to convince Everyman and Everywoman that he or she is the center of attention. But that's illusory. There's no real communication, no give and take, no opportunity for the voice of the powerless to be heard.

You're probably already seeing Dubya in your mind's eye - and indeed, he and his handlers are true professionals in this context. But the principles of the "State of..." speech apply even to the best of leaders. Take Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy's "State of the City" 2008, delivered at the Hochstein auditorium this week. I think Bob Duffy is an honest man - Rochester has been lucky in this regard, having had decent, honorable mayors in Tom Ryan, Bill Johnson, and now Duffy - but this year's address did not engage the community as it might have, nor did it go to the heart of the problems facing the city.

The venue itself was a confession of failure. Hochstein is a great place for music and theater, but it's not suitable for a true democratic mass gathering. The mayor should be energizing the multitudes from a downtown bridge, like the fireworks on New Year's. Or he could speak at the War Memorial or Frontier Field. Why is it that sports events attract people by the thousands, while actual civic events draw mere hundreds (and small radio and TV audiences)? I remember being at a grand public event commemorating the Triumph of the Revolution in Managua, Nicaragua, in the early 1990s. The Sandinista leadership spoke from a platform directly to 100,000 or more highly charged-up citizens. Why do such things never happen here?

They don't happen here because of a democracy deficit. And because of a string of analytical fallacies and dead ends. Consider, for example, what Bob Duffy didn't say the other night. He spoke about urban problems - you know the litany - but he didn't identify the source. He didn't speak about structural racism, even though his State of the City came only a few days after the much-observed 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. But isn't racism the core issue in places like Rochester and Monroe County? We live under an apartheid regime of impressive persistence. All the more so because it's generally unacknowledged - by whites, that is. Our leaders deplore poverty and violence, but they do nothing to change the paradigm.

Similarly, leaders never, never, never blame the corporate classes for regional decline. The manufacturing sector may have largely abandoned us - tens of thousands of jobs gone down the drain as whole industries left for sunnier climes and more easily exploited labor - but our political leaders won't even mildly criticize, much less sanction the business leaders who made it all happen. No, it's a lot easier to dwell on "entrepreneurship" and "innovation" - witness the bullshit campaign now in full flower at RIT under new President Bill Destler, a man who seems almost genetically wired to deliver empty speeches - and trash the public schools and generations of young people for their shortcomings.

And then there's the war and military spending. The plain fact is that American cities, most assuredly including Rochester, are suffering precisely because we're spending ourselves silly and mortgaging our future to keep the imperial legions operating at levels that would have embarrassed Hadrian and Trajan. What's the figure, 737 foreign military bases? And three-quarters of a trillion dollars in current annual military spending (including the Pentagon, the Dept. of Energy's weapons programs, the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, and other incidentals)? Meanwhile, we're strangling every community that doesn't hop onto the hypermilitarist gravy train.

Shouldn't all decent, honorable mayors point out this little contradiction?



Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:12 EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 9 April 2008 22:23 EDT
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Friday, 4 April 2008
A poem to help commemorate National Poetry Month
Topic: poetry
Campbell’s Ledge

From across the Susquehanna
The striated ledge looks
Like a bundle of taut springs
Capable of lobbing a
Volley of boulders
Smack into the floodplain, crumpling
The rail depot
Like a broken toy.
I come the long way around
To be safe.
There’s the trailhead
At the base of the mountain,
Carpeted with sheet metal scraps
And, naturally, coal and cinders
Arranged like scat.
Then comes something of a gate:
A refrigerator frame
Pierced with red maples about my age.
And then comes the climb with a
Vengeance on clay stairs,
More handholds than footholds,
And gusts that could throw you down
As legend says these heights
Threw a man named Campbell,
The only man who knew
If he really made his escape.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 15:56 EDT
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