Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Naughty, Naughty; You Guns, You


Perhaps you've already read the most recent New York Times hit piece on guns.

It came out yesterday, and is full of sweeping presumptions and rapid-fire conclusions about the evils of guns based on an arsenal of gun statistics from around the world.  At one point, its authors, Max Fisher and Josh Keller, actually claim that "the guns themselves cause the violence."

Wow.  And this from none other than the auspicious, venerable New York Times, which seriously expects us to believe that all of these guns - America has far more of them than any other country - actually get up, load themselves, pull their own triggers, and spray bullets from their barrels.

Kinda like a freaky form of automatic weaponry - the real "automatic" guns that work without anybody touching them.

Now, to be clear, I am not a pro-gun type of person.  I don't own a gun, have never owned a gun, don't plan on ever owning a gun, or even want to own a gun.  Of any kind!  But I have friends who own guns - lots of guns - and I'm not afraid of them, or their guns, or to be around them and their guns.  I have friends that always pack heat, and I'm never uneasy in their presence.

Why?  Because I'm not afraid of any gun.  The gun is just sitting in a holster, minding its own business, like any inanimate object tends to do.  You see, it's one of the basic laws of physics:  an object at rest tends to stay at rest, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.  It's technically known as Newton's First Law of Motion, or the Law of Inertia.  (One would think as prestigious a newspaper as the Times would hire reporters who'd attended a school where Newton's Laws were taught.  Most ordinary, poorly-funded public schools have taught Newton's Laws for generations.)

Perhaps it's ironic that in the Law of Inertia, it takes an "unbalanced force" to change an object at rest.  And when we're talking about gun-involved violence, that's precisely what happens.  An unbalanced force takes a gun and uses it to commit some sort of crime.

So that makes it the gun's fault that it was used in a crime?

Apparently so, at least according to the New York Times' First Law of Gun Control.

"A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner," Fisher and Keller report, "but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process," and "the discrepancy, like so many other anomalies of American violence, [comes] down to guns."

Well, that's assuming a mugger isn't using a knife, but yes, the presumption that most muggers use guns is probably accurate.  Wouldn't you agree?  But still, does that mean the gun is at fault?

What is it about guns that makes them more likely to be used in a Gotham mugging, instead of a London mugging?  According to Fisher and Keller, it's our easy access to guns here in America.

Our intrepid Times reporters go on to explain how the more a government reduces their citizenry's access to guns, there tends to be a corresponding drop in gun-involved violence.  So I clicked on the link they provide in their article, which is to study entitled What Do We Know About the Association Between Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Injuries?  It was published last year and is a surprisingly easy-to-read synopsis of various other published reports on various types of gun-involved violence.  However, it includes things like suicides, which don't directly impact the general safety of the population at large.  Besides, wouldn't one suspect that a person contemplating suicide is probably going to simply use whatever gun is available, regardless of whether their selection choices have been limited by the government?

In other words, it's still gonna happen.  Is a person going to decide life must be worth living after all, 'cause they can't find the perfect gun to kill themself with?

Another type of gun-involved violence included in these studies are accidental shootings, which of course, would also probably be lowered if access to guns is reduced.

Indeed, these statistics may show a reduction in various types of gun-involved violence, but I can't see where they show a decline in mass killings.  Which is what most Americans are concerned about when they talk about gun control.  Besides, the authors of this particular study list a number of other studies that don't show much of a correlation one way or another between gun control laws and some types of gun-involved violence.  The fact of the matter remains that while law-abiding people may comply with government rules for gun ownership, that doesn't necessarily mean that people who are intent on committing a crime won't still find a way to procure a gun.

And another thing these studies fail to prove is that people who are intent on committing a crime, and discover that their access to guns has been limited, don't go and find some other lethal way to commit their crime.

Undaunted, the Times, smugly confident that it's proven that guns are the problem, regales us with a few more statistics in which they compare our broadly heterogeneous society, comprised of many people from all over the planet and all of its various cultures, with sharply homogeneous countries, like Japan, and Finland, where gun ownership rates are minuscule compared to those in our country.

I mean, at some point, how is comparing apples to oranges helpful in trying to prove anything?

But then, towards the end of their article, Fisher and Keller inexplicably unravel much of their previous work.

"An American is about 300 times more likely to die by gun homicide or accident than a Japanese person. America’s gun ownership rate is 150 times as high as Japan’s.  That gap between 150 and 300 shows that gun ownership statistics alone do not explain what makes America different."

Bingo!

The light is beginning to dawn.

"Swiss gun laws are more stringent, setting a higher bar for securing and keeping a license, for selling guns, and for the types of guns that can be owned.  Such laws reflect more than just tighter restrictions.  They imply a different way of thinking about guns."

Okay, they're almost there, in terms of comprehending the fallacy of their "misbehaving guns" argument.  But then they miss it again.  They deduce that the problem is that Americans believe "people have an inherent right to own guns."

The way Fisher and Keller word what they consider to be a stunning realization, however, is misleading.  Perhaps in Texas, and in other states where gun ownership is particularly a hallowed concept, the idea of guns as practically a human right runs mighty strong.  Yet across America, gun ownership is a valued right because of how our Constitution has been interpreted for decades.

America, after all, began as a rebellion, and that rebellion involved guns owned by the folks who sought to overthrow the British.  And ever since 1776, part of our national ethos has been our country's relatively unique ability to successfully reinvent itself through an uprising of the populace, not a conventional top-down insurrection led by a disgruntled government or military figure.  In other words, the "militia" language in our Constitution means that ordinary citizens have the right to protect ourselves from a government or military takeover.  It's a fairly unique aspect of America's pre-Revolutionary War history, as well as its history as an independent nation.

And it's not the National Rifle Association that's responsible for making sure that ethos remains robust in our national consciousness.  It's the many individual Americans who remain, to this day, fundamentally skeptical of over-reliance on concentrations of authority from places like Washington DC, and even their respective state capitals.

The fact that a small - minuscule, in fact - number of gun owners exploit this history and commit mass murder isn't because guns are just laying around the house, and shucks, somebody might as well put them to good use.  It's not because a gun just happened to be laying on the ground outside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, and inexplicably mowed down a sanctuary full of worshippers.

No, the atrocity in Texas this past Sunday happened the same exact way every other mass shooting happens:  Somebody decided to kill as many human beings as they could, and a gun was the easiest way to do it.

There is no law that can stop that kind of behavior.  Murder is already against the law.  There is something else, something other than guns, or knives, or explosives, or poison gas, or any other mechanism of achieving mass murder, that's the problem.

And I've already told y'all what that problem almost certainly is.  An "unbalanced force," remember?

A guy who cracked the skull of his wife's child, physically and sexually abused several women throughout his life, beat his dog with his own fists, was a prisoner in the Air Force... violence was more of a hallmark in his life than anything else.  I mean, if you don't cringe after reading each of the ways Sunday's shooter acted on his violent temperament, you're likely as accepting of violence as the culture is that nurtured his behavior.

For some reason, the Times prefers instead to blame inanimate objects.


Monday, November 6, 2017

Guns an Easier Target than Violence


A young white guy shot 26 worshippers to death during Sunday services in a small, rural Texas church yesterday.  And it's being said that the only thing still sacred in America are gun rights.

Although this isn't America's first mass-murder in a church, it is the largest.  So far, anyway.  And it's the largest mass-murder so far here in Texas, a bastion for gun rights.

So lots of Texans are asking lots of questions today.  For example, should people be allowed to bring guns into their house of worship?  Right now, some white folks say that sounds like a good idea, but I suspect they'd second-guess that preference when reminded that such a law would also allow Muslims to pack heat at their local mosque... 

We white Texans are still adjusting to all the diversity joining us here in the Lone Star State.

At the church I regularly attend, we've had armed rent-a-cops present in all services for years.  Many large churches do.  In fact, many places where several thousand people gather for all sorts of things probably have armed guards present.  That's just reality these days.

And in churches particularly, with almost everybody facing the front, and their backs to the rear door, congregants are sitting ducks.

Shucks, as a choir member, I can recall the time, sitting up in the chancel, perched behind the pulpit, watching a grim-faced guy in a dark suit inspecting a certain pew for an unusually long period of time, before disappearing and then, in a few moments, helping a well-dressed elderly gentleman to the same pew.  Then he left, not staying to worship alongside the elderly man.  I figured he was a personal, private security detail for the gentleman, who was not a celebrity, but obviously somebody who figured even a church wasn't an inherently safe place.

Then there was the Sunday when two dark-suited guys stood through the entire service on either side of the wide platform leading to our church's pulpit.  And then, when the service was over, our senior pastor waited until they'd approached him, and then all three of them left the sanctuary in lock step.  I later heard chatter that a couple in the church was involved in a nasty divorce, and that unsubstantiated threats had been made against our church's leadership, so no chances were being taken that particular Sunday.

Our world is full of angry, unbalanced people.  Especially our churches.

Lol.  I didn't even attend church yesterday, when all this shooting went down far to the south of Dallas.  Sometimes I just get tired of the church politics and need to take a break - not just for myself, mind you; but for the folks at church I exasperate!  I'm sure that to some people, I'm angry and unbalanced as well.

But I don't hate anybody.  I have to think that for a person to do what that young man did yesterday in Sutherland Springs, they'd have to be consumed by hate.  Hate, and anger, and a warped disposition that somehow figures violence could somehow reconcile those destructive emotions with an opportunity to be freed from them.

We're still learning about yesterday's shooter*, yet from the various reports that have been posted about him, it's already apparent that he lived a troubled life.  He was court-martialed and received a bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force after physically assaulting his first wife and their child.  He had been accused of abusing a dog.  He didn't seem to be able to hold down jobs - as a private security officer - for any significant length of time.  He was currently in a heated domestic dispute with his second wife's family.  His application for a Texas gun license had been denied, but we don't yet know on what grounds.

Incredibly, the Air Force never reported those assault allegations to the FBI, so even though yesterday's shooter was able to purchase guns, he didn't have a license for them.  "SMH" - isn't that what the kids cryptically type in their tweets these days?

President Trump has hinted that the shooter was "deranged" with "a mental health problem at the highest level."  It's unclear if our president, well-known for his hyperbole and speaking out of turn, was simply jumping to conclusions, or if he was privy to the shooter's legitimate medical records.  Nevertheless, if Trump was merely voicing his opinion that only a madman could slaughter dozens of people inside a church, his is a widely-shared belief.

And probably quite valid.

As has become customary after events such as yesterday's, a lot of anti-gun folks have taken to the media, calling for new legislation against guns, hoping against logic that somehow, despite our nation already being awash with all sorts of weaponry, some new law can somehow avert a similar tragedy down the line.

Yet the gun control advocates tend to create a red herring that everybody in America - whether you're pro-gun or not - can focus on, and thereby avoid dealing with the broader issue.

Because the broader issue is one that can't be legislated away.  The broader issue is America's infatuation with violence.

By now, this violence argument has itself become rather time-worn, with many Americans dismissing it as a problem that, even if it did exist, requires too much personal responsibility from people who don't really want to kill anybody.  So most of us are content to let those few people among us with anger issues act out that anger in violent ways, so long as we don't have to admit culpability in our society's infatuation with violent movies, video games, television shows, books, websites, water cooler humor, and the like.

We prefer to ignore the blatantly obvious:  That a display of anger such as with yesterday's shooter likely stems from a culture in which people are no longer taught a socially-approved matrix of what is right and wrong.  And how to right wrongs.  Yesterday's shooter may have experienced a series of disciplinary actions for his misdeeds, but how much training did he receive before them - and after them - to learn the proper ways of expressing himself in difficult interpersonal situations?

For many Americans - and American men in particular - de-escalation is for wimps.  Right?  Fighting is a virtuous way to prove one's point, or exact retribution.  Two wrongs really do make a right, if indeed, you still think violence is wrong.

It's probably one reason why we Americans always seem inordinately eager to fight wars, rather than patiently wade through complex diplomatic channels.  It may be one reason why we can't seem to lower rates of domestic violence, or why racism persists in our country.  Everybody thinks they're right, everybody thinks they're entitled to something, and fewer and fewer of us seem content:  The perfect storm in which violence can erupt.

An easy rebuttal to the violence question usually involves the fact that, in our society, nearly all of us are exposed to it, yet so few of us actually perpetrate such violence, so it can't be society's fault.  Individual agency, right?  It's like the argument that lots of guys view pornography, but not all of them abuse other people sexually.  We're each responsible for our own behavior.

Which, of course, is true.  But still, if the rates of people participating in exceptionally violent acts are low enough, it's OK to ignore probable causal factors?  That's the argument, actually, that gun rights advocates use in their refusal of more gun laws:  Only a tiny fraction of gun owners become mass shooters.

The hole in that argument is that other countries in the world have as great a proportion of gun owners in their country as we do in America, but they don't have the mass shootings we do.  Which doesn't mean that we need more laws, since other countries don't need more laws either.

But
We
Still
Have
A
Problem!

So there must be something else in our American DNA which makes us more prone to perpetrating violence (with guns) than gun owners in other countries.

How about we start with our American infatuation with violence, and then we mix in the military industrial complex that has made America our planet's lone superpower.  Indeed, isn't it more than coincidental that so many of these mass shooters have a military background?  Did World War II veterans come home so lusty for blood?  Or might our modern systems of warfare be corrupting the ability of today's veterans to rationally process their civilian anger?

Remember the famous sniper, Chris Kyle, and how he tragically died?  He was murdered trying to help a marine deal with PTSD, when Kyle thought taking his friend to a gun range would somehow be therapeutic.  It's this naive dismissal of a weapon's association with violence that many Americans continue to perpetuate for themselves.

And then there's the whole macho warrior thing.  How many other countries would so glorify a government-paid sniper - a person able to so perfectly focus on precision shooting that they can block out the violence they are so selectively perpetrating?  It's not that what Kyle did for a living was wrong, and I'm as much a beneficiary of his work as any American.  But doesn't it bother you - even the slightest - that we  train human beings to become killing machines, even in the defense of our country?

What is it about guns that so fascinates people, anyway?  I have heard that firing off assault rifles at a gun range, for example, provides the shooter with a tremendous adrenaline rush.  It's visceral.  It's multi-sensory.  It's immediate.  It leaves you in awe.  And all that can probably make it quite addictive.

If you think about it, so much of what so many Americans search for in our lives is a variation of that adrenaline rush - the need for a quick affirmation of power, or authority, or supremacy.  Which, actually explains a lot about our politics, too, doesn't it?

All of which means that by focusing on guns, we let ourselves off of the moral hook of exploring less obvious and more personal considerations.  Gun control advocates like to play a moral card, and that just infuriates gun rights advocates, who dislike having their favorite hobbies - and favorite interpretations of our Constitution - questioned.  Yet America's love of violence crosses all political lines.  Which means the moral card isn't so much about guns, or whether any further legislation could discourage future mass shootings.  The moral card is about the levels of violence we consider acceptable in our society. 

Mathematically, in terms of body counts, the strict calculation in all of this is that mass shootings remain relatively insignificant, compared with our nation's large population.  Mass shootings may seem sensational and incessant, but that's largely because of our saturation today by 24-7 news coverage and social media.  It's still extremely unlikely that you or I will be killed in a mass shooting.  More people die in car accidents, or by suicide, or drug violence, as Chicago's dismal murder rate testifies.

So we Americans will banter amongst ourselves about gun control.  And then the next mass shooting will happen, and once again, as if by hitting the replay button, we'll be asking ourselves "another shooting?"

"Why here?"

"When will it end?"

Experts say Americans are slowly becoming immune to the violence being displayed in our society.  Notice, it's not the guns we're growing immune to.  It's the violence.

The guns are just sitting there.  What we're growing immune to are the motivations of human beings with the capacity to decide for or against using violence in an attempt to resolve their demons.

Yes, we are the problem.

But its easier to blame guns.  So we'll probably do that instead.
_____

*Various law enforcement officials in Texas have asked that media coverage of the shooter omit his name, so as not to somehow provide notoriety for him.  Such notoriety might be used as motivation for attention by somebody else contemplating a similar crime.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Gentrification: Whither (or Wither) Community?

Navigating this 3-part series
- Part One  Gentrification: Some Background
- Part Two  Gentrification: Abandonment Issues
_____


Most people have one of three primal reactions to the word "gentrification."

One group gets excited by it, enthusiastic about new opportunities for redevelopment, money-making, and "new urbanism" usually afforded by gentrification.  Another group immediately recoils, angry about and afraid of the potential for deep population displacement typically caused by gentrification.  And yet another group - mostly middle-aged suburbanites - don't really care one way or another.  They have no immediate interest in living in a big city, and they can't see how the things that happen there directly affect them.

Older Suburbs May Not Be Immune

So, OK; maybe gentrification doesn't directly impact suburbanites.

But if you're a suburbanite living in an older, closer-in ring of suburbs, don't get too ambivalent.  The conventionally urban phenomenon of gentrification may, as you read this, be lapping at your subdivision's doorstep anyway.  After all, gentrification is a trend, just as suburbanization was a trend.  And trends exist by turning the status-quo upside down.  Or at least cross-ways.

And at its roots, gentrification involves simple supply and demand.  For cities that have been - and are currently - experiencing a robust overhaul thanks to gentrification, there may soon come a point at which the urban core will run out of neighborhoods economically eligible for a makeover.  And then, where will all of this renovation momentum turn?

Those folks interested in moving back to the city probably won't simply shrug their shoulders and say, "you know, that farm country in Nebraska looked pretty appealing after all."

Most probably, the folks who continue arriving at the urban party will start to take a new look at older, stale suburbs.  Back in the day, these towns were the first to be built around your closest big city.  By now, however, they are probably pretty dated, with a rapidly aging housing stock and shopping centers that are largely vacant, thanks to the big-box phenomenon which swept through newer suburbs a decade ago.  These aging suburbs may not have the grim sophistication that old cities have, but they likely have the one thing developers love:  under-utilized properties at relatively low prices.

How do I know that?  Simply by applying the basic corollary that motivates most Americans:  Whatever looks dated isn't trendy, and whatever isn't trendy is ripe for a makeover.

So, just because you may be blithely ensconced in suburbia right now, don't imagine that gentrification is something that will never impact you.  Unless, of course, you live in an affluent neighborhood with homes that consistently sell at the top of the market.  Like I said earlier, most wealthy neighborhoods that are immune to most other changes are also immune to phenomena like gentrification.

And no, the McMansion craze currently sweeping most American cities doesn't necessarily count as gentrification.  It just means that some people have more money than taste.

The New Urbanism Zeitgeist Shows No Sign of Stopping

Back in the mists of time, around 1990, I was a graduate student at the urban studies program at the University of Texas at Arlington, smack-dab between Fort Worth and Dallas, when even Arlington was a booming, fast-growing city in its own right.

I had thought that a master's degree in city planning would be an ideal synthesis of my undergraduate studies, first in architecture, and then sociology.  Yet in grad school, all the professors wanted to talk about was how many lanes of freeways were necessary to accommodate all of the explosive growth suburban Texas was experiencing.

That was the seminal issue of the day:  Getting drivers from one part of suburbia to office parks in other parts of suburbia, and back home again.  All while spending as little time as possible in the big, bad cities.

Today, however, freeways are what's big and bad.  Freeways are evil when it comes to city planning.  Freeways are what destroyed America's greatest old cities, and freeways are preventing America's newer cities from becoming fully-functioning urban centers.

New York City's controversial planner, Robert Moses, is the great satan of New Urbanism.  Moses is the demigod who bulldozed residential neighborhoods throughout Gotham for the construction of freeways that have never actually alleviated traffic congestion.

On the other side of America, and completely opposite of New York's design, Los Angeles literally built itself around freeways, yet today, LA can't shake its reputation as our country's most traffic-choked city.

You may be unaware of this, but New Urbanists have created a religion now followed by city leaders around the world, and this urban faith is placed not in the automobile, but in walking, bike lanes, mass transit, light rail, buses, and telecommuting.  New urbanism is all about environmentally sustainable connectivity and, ostensibly, community.  It's about sharing.  Reducing the individual human footprint (except when it comes to walkability).  It's about living as closely together as humanly possible, a concept for which high-density city life should be ideally-suited, right?

Meanwhile, the automobile is not about our environment, sustainability, high density, sharing, or community; it's about individuality.  One person ensconced in a multi-ton transportation pod is not community, not even if people are carpooling.  Community is everyone sweating it out in bike lanes, or sharing personal space on a sidewalk, or crammed into trains and buses to commute between centralized concentrations of shared activities.

Remember, all of this community is most easily accomplished with greater densities.  Greater densities of homes, businesses, schools, and people.  And guess what?  The older a city is, chances are it was built for greater population densities than almost any suburb, before the proliferation of the automobile.  Which means that the older an urban neighborhood is, the greater its chances that New Urbanists have already targeted it for gentrification, because that's the best way to evangelize for the progressive city.

Older urban residential lot sizes are generally smaller and closer together, most neighborhoods probably have sidewalks, and zoning probably still allows for mixed-use developments that have been anathema in suburbia.  Streetscapes are probably more grid-like, another feature that suburban developers sought to avoid, with their curving subdivision "drives" and cul-de-sacs.  The benefit of a grid-based street system is that mass transit is generally easier to deploy, and it's harder for pedestrians to get lost.

All of which is good news for cities that have been struggling to keep their oldest neighborhoods relevant and vibrant.

Yet...

Company's Coming, and It's Staying Beyond Dinner

Most old urban neighborhoods never were abandoned, remember?  And "relevance" is a relative concept.  Whites left them, yes, but people of other skin colors moved in.  These newer residents may be poorer, but we can't forget that these are their neighborhoods now.  Just as they were white neighborhoods in an earlier time.

It's not racist to acknowledge the reality of a community.  But we should be respectful all the same.

So how would you feel if a group of new people started coming into your community, and driving up the cost of living simply because they can afford to pay more for things, and they don't balk at doing so?  Maybe where you now live is where you've raised your family.  Maybe you own your home, but you can't afford to pay more taxes on it if its value suddenly increases.  Maybe your rent is currently the highest you can afford, but your landlord could get a lot more for the same space from newcomers.

Newcomers.  They're the folks who didn't stick it out all those hard years in your beleaguered neighborhood, like you did, when crime was at its worst.  Newcomers who act much differently than what you're used to, dress much differently, and seem to be flaunting their wealth in front of you, even if they don't mean to.  After all, in an urban environment, where privacy is scarcer than in the 'burbs, it's harder to just blend in, or disguise one's differences.

After all, that was part of what fueled white flight back in the day.

So, how would you feel?

If you can afford to make financial adjustments to accommodate such cost increases, maybe you'd actually be happy that your property values are appreciating, and that better restaurants are locating near your home.  And granted, not everybody in neighborhoods being gentrified are upset at all of the improvements taking place around them.  Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find anybody complaining about better street maintenance, cleaner parks, better litter control, better policing, better street lighting, fewer blighted properties, lower crime, and improved public schools.  Many urban neighborhoods that, for generations, have been "food deserts" are now welcoming brand-new, clean, full-service grocery stores.  Suburbanites rarely get excited about a new grocery store, but for the urban poor, fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats practically signify a revolution.  Their diets no longer consist mostly of processed foods or produce from local dingy bodegas, sold far beyond their suburban sell-by dates.

Without gentrification, it's unlikely that most major-chain grocery store companies would be investing in these neighborhoods.  The economics just didn't work before gentrification.  Fresh food is far costlier to stock than other basic commodities such as clothing, hardware, cell phones, and the like.

For the past couple of generations, urban dwellers were mostly dependent on government food stamps, which isn't much of a profit incentive compared with suburbanites with broader purchasing power.  In addition, urban crime rates posed significant profitability challenges to supermarket companies concerned about loss prevention and theft.  With gentrification, it's simply easier for retailers to make money, because more money is flowing into old urban neighborhoods.

You see, it's not that gentrification is a bad thing.  Gentrification actually pumps new resources into old neighborhoods and helps to iron-out some of the economic disparities that previous existed in urban centers.  Politics may have given the urban poor a feeling of power, but economic vitality is really the only thing that makes genuine, productive change happen.  Obviously, there are severe economic and social problems that gentrification itself cannot fix, but in the sense that a rising tide can lift all boats, gentrification represents just such an opportunity for both long-time residents and new ones.

At its best, gentrification is an expression of property rights, and the ability of people to get the fullest fair market value they can for properties into which they've dutifully invested.  Granted, the concept of "fair market value" is entirely subjective, depending more on what a person is willing to pay, rather than on what a property's materials and location are actually worth in raw figures.

How Can We Make Gentrification More People-Friendly?

Where things get bitter - and sometimes nasty - during gentrification is the speed with which it happens, or the degree of change it introduces, along with a corresponding lack of opportunity for input from long-time residents.

Oftentimes, developers assemble parcels of land subversively so that property owners don't realize that a new, game-changing project is being planned.  The reason for this is simple enough - if a developer announces their plans before purchasing the necessary property, land values would soar in anticipation of new development, cutting into the project's profitability.

Other times, individual newcomers with an adventurous spirit "discover" an older urban neighborhood at attractively low price points, at least compared with far more desirable and expensive neighborhoods.  If demand for in-town moderately-priced real estate is strong enough, other urban pioneers soon follow, combining to change the look and feel of an entire block, and eventually, even a neighborhood.

There's no set point at which newcomers switch from being urban pioneers to gentrifiers, but it usually happens around the time when long-time residents begin to notice that their neighborhood is fundamentally changing right in front of their eyes.  And that is when tempers begin to rise, anxiety begins to percolate, and even resentment begins to set in.

Then again, maybe all this sounds mostly esoteric to you.  Maybe even anti-capitalistic?  Maybe you've read this far and now you're angry, thinking that anything less than full-blown market-rate redevelopment is just socialism in disguise - not allowing free markets to work out for the most profit at the exploitation of opportunity?

If people can't afford to keep up with whatever changes are taking place in their neighborhood, they simply have to move out, right?  We can't guarantee a person the right to stay in their home if values rise to a point where they can't afford to.  If you want to live in a better neighborhood - even if it's your own - you need to work even harder and earn more money to do so.  That's the American way...

And, yeah... if you want to make this all about money, then the urban poor don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to gentrification.  And the raw capitalists have nothing standing in their way when it comes to redeveloping aging inner-city neighborhoods for wealthier newcomers.

So we just shrug our shoulders and, instead of "white flight," we call gentrification "white fight"?  Or "white bite"?

Or is there a way to better navigate urbanity's new zeitgeist without simply tolerating its pain?

For one thing, let's remember again that this isn't all about race.  New Urbanists aren't exclusively white, just as all the people who "abandoned" the inner city weren't exclusively white, either.  For another thing, plenty of non-white property owners of inner-city properties will make out quite handsomely by selling out to developers at prices that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

We need to look past skin color and focus on motives, and ways that change can respect both the people fearing it, and those pursuing it.

We can't forget that just because urban decay has happened, residents in these neighborhoods have no claim on their spirit of community.  Whites and the affluent don't have a corner on "community."  Remember that whole thing I discussed concerning rap music, and about how it's come to represent the poor, non-white culture of urban America?  I personally don't like rap, but neither do I like the non-gentrified "hoods" rap describes.  Few people do.  Indeed, there's no denying that rap effectively represents much of the ghetto culture experienced by America's minorities.  Which means that even though our ghettos are unpleasant places, they are still considered "home" by many people.

It's not that gentrification is something that must be stopped (even if it could be).  Instead, it's how we treat people during the process that affords the best chances for improving gentrification's results, after all of the upheaval, change, displacement, integration, newness, and learning curves have worn off.  It's how we handle the disparity between greed and need, not just the gaps between different levels of purchasing power.

Not because cities are worth the investment of our concern, patience, and congeniality.  But because our neighbors are.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

John Piper is Wrong on Works


We interrupt this monologue on gentrification to report - or, more accurately, retort - on Minnesota pastor John Piper's surprising claim that salvation by works is Biblical.

Last month, the megachurch preacher, famous within Christian circles for being a Reformed Baptist, surprised many evangelicals by claiming that works (good deeds) are indeed a part of God's plan of salvation.  In other words, Piper now appears to be arguing that for a person's salvation to be Biblically genuine, it's not just faith in Christ that God requires.  Piper says that a person who claims to be "saved" must also perform good deeds.

Which, disturbingly, flies in the face of the historic "Five Solas" of the Reformation, whose 500th anniversary the Protestant Church is celebrating this year.

The "Five Solas" are:
  • Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  • Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  • Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  • Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  • Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone. 
One of the main reasons we had the Reformation involved the Roman Catholic Church's insistence that people needed to perform good deeds in order to receive salvation.  But that requirement is nowhere to be found in the Bible.

What are found, however, are verses like James 2:14-26, in which phrases like "faith without works is dead" have been mischaracterized as proof texts for works-based salvation.  Taken in the entirety of Scripture, the phrase "faith without works is dead" means that if a person truly, genuinely appreciates God's love for them, and Christ's sacrifice on their behalf, and desires to honor God out of love for Him and His truth, then a natural outflow of that faith and love will be good works.

But there is no ulterior motive for those good works.  Otherwise, they wouldn't be "good," would they?  Believers in Christ don't do good deeds because we're supposed to.   We can't brown-nose our way into Heaven.  We do good deeds as a way to show our loyalty and affinity to our Savior.

When Christ told the wealthy young man to go and sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, that wasn't so the young man could prove his salvation.  Christ wanted to show the young man that unless his heart had been changed by the Gospel, he would find the prospect of suddenly having no earthly riches distasteful.  Which, indeed, was true, because the young man couldn't bring himself to follow Christ's command.  But that wasn't the reason he refused Christ.  He refused Christ because His heart was opposed to the Gospel, because the Gospel calls us all of us who follow Christ to turn aside from everything else - everything! (gulp!) - and follow Him alone.  That is very hard for any of us to do.  And we all fail at it, to one degree or another.

That's why God looks at our heart.  He knows our motives, and our desires.  He doesn't look at our deeds to determine our worth, or our salvation.  Shucks, plenty of unsaved people who profess no faith in Christ whatsoever do plenty of good deeds all the time.  So, does that mean they're saved anyway?  Or maybe half-way saved?  Can one be "half-saved"?  No.  So why should good deeds play as crucial a role in our salvation as Piper now says it does?

Simple answer:  It doesn't.

"For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."  Bam!  There it is.  Straight from Ephesians 2.

None of this is to say that people who claim faith in Christ don't need to act like it.  Because straight on the heels of "for by grace you have been saved," comes this:

"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

One follows the other.  And to a certain degree, works act as a sort of proof for salvation.  But works aren't part of salvation.

Don't believe me?  Let's think about this for a minute.  Supposing we actually have to do good works as part of our guarantee of salvation.  Define "good works."  Are they things for which I get absolutely no ancillary benefit?  Just purely out of the "goodness of my heart"?  Or do things that benefit both me and somebody else count?

And how much good stuff do I need to do?  Does Piper enjoy a greater degree of salvation because he's led more people to the Lord than, say, Tim Keller?  Or your pastor?  Or me?  Or you?

How much money do you give to the poor?  How much do you tithe?  Do people who give more money than you do get a greater confirmation of salvation?

Remember the Widow's Mite?  Christ said that the widow who gave all she had - two copper coins hardly worth anything - gave a more valuable gift that the large offerings far wealthier people calculated they could afford to give out of their abundance.  How could Christ say that, unless faith is what counts, and not works?

"Good" is a relative concept.  So, actually, is "works."  What about works we don't do, such as sins we're tempted to commit, but don't?  Other people don't see those, so do they count towards salvation?  Do other people need to see what we do for our deeds to count?  Can we bank our good deeds, so an overage can somehow cancel out some of our sin debts?

Do you see how nutty this "works" stuff is to us Protestants?  And do you know why?  Because it was the same type of stuff people like Martin Luther were struggling with back when he ended up nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  On All Saints Eve, October 31, in 1517.

The pivotal moment when the Reformation began.

The Bible doesn't tell us how much good works is enough for salvation, BECAUSE WORKS DON'T GUARANTEE SALVATION.

Only faith guarantees salvation.  Faith, through grace alone.  In Christ alone.

Amen.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Gentrification: Abandoment Issues

Navigating this 3-part series
- Part One  Gentrification: Some Background
- Part Three  Gentrification: Whither (or Wither) Community?
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Cities Were Never Abandoned

Generally speaking, gentrification is mostly about white people.  Yes, gentrification is social, political, and economic, but there's no getting around it:  If there hadn't been white flight, gentrification probably wouldn't be occurring today.

The extent to which white flight was not based on racism is the extent to which white families really did want to live in the new invention of suburbia, and to create new lives for themselves in some sort of mix of rural and urban, which the suburbs started off as being.  And it's not like the suburbs have never been populated by anybody but whites.  Blacks, too, who could afford to leave cities did so, and they were usually welcomed in suburbia with as much enthusiasm as they'd been welcomed in cities, when cities were still mostly white.

Racism was and is bad, but in terms of white flight, let's not give it more sway than it held.  In 1966, for example, my parents moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York.  My father's employer transferred him there to work with one of their important customers.  Dad had not asked for that transfer, but since, as a Brooklyn boy, he dreamed of owning his own home with its own yard and lawn, and since Mom was originally from rural Maine, they eagerly took the opportunity to leave the city behind.  And they'd been living in a desirable, almost-all-white neighborhood - Bay Ridge - which remains desirable and mostly white to this day.

Yet racism still haunts our discussion of urban America after white flight.  And of gentrification itself, since most of the people participating in the phenomenon of gentrification are white.  We whites tend to presume that once most whites left the inner cities, those neighborhoods became hollow shells of their former, bustling selves.  And, to be sure, for most cities, significant population declines did indeed began to be recorded, as early as the 1950's, for most of America's largest cities.  Declining population numbers persisted well into the 1990's, and even the 2000's, before stabilizing, and then beginning to turn around, and increase.

Thanks mostly to gentrification.

With population declines, property values suffered, which meant cities collected fewer taxes, which meant reductions in city services.  A housing stock that had been constructed for a bigger population now had excess inventory, some of which ended up staying vacant for long periods of time, which rendered them vulnerable to undesirable ends.  Some of the housing stock being vacated by whites fell into disrepair, and became either uninhabitable, or inhabitable only by squatters, the homeless, or drug dealers and users.

However, the common white misperception of America's old cities being abandoned is a false narrative.  It persists mostly because it was mostly whites who abandoned central cities in the first place.  In reality, though, for many neighborhoods, a new, browner and blacker population settled in to replace the exiting whites.  This new population was primarily African-American, or immigrants from other countries, here both legally and illegally.  In some cities, such as New York, and some West Coast cities, the replacements for whites included Asians.  In Texas and California, they included Hispanics.

The numbers of non-white "replacements" often failed to make up the net population losses being experienced by white flight, particularly in older, northern, rust-belt cities.  One of the reasons was that northern cities were rapidly losing good-paying manufacturing jobs, forcing both white and black workers with marketable skills to move generally south, and generally to the suburbs.  Another reason was that when census counts were taken, immigrants illegally in our country made themselves invisible, to avoid being counted, afraid of being found out and arrested.

Indeed, illegal immigration has been an unexplored enemy of urban areas.  Unscrupulous landlords would rent sub-standard housing to illegals, knowing that the official status of their tenants made them unlikely to complain about unkempt or dangerous living conditions.  Such landlords routinely violated city codes for protection against faulty wiring, plumbing, and gas lines.

Of course, such practices weren't limited to buildings housing illegal immigrants.  If you were poor, and desperate for housing, no matter your skin color or ethnicity, you didn't complain about what your landlord did - or didn't - do.  You just paid your rent as best you could, and hoped your home wouldn't blow up for lack of proper maintenance.

These are the types of buildings that are prime candidates for gentrification today, if they haven't been rendered so deteriorated that they aren't better suited for the wrecking ball.

Same Neighborhood, Different Community 

Much has been made of the puzzling social disparities that became evident as non-whites replaced whites in the same houses, apartment buildings, stores, and schools that remained in place during white flight.  While most neighborhoods - when they were white - tended to display a certain amount of cohesion, and a robust sense of community, the same couldn't always be said of the browner and blacker populations that struggled to thrive after whites left the same neighborhood.

It has been speculated that white communities may have enjoyed some shared heritage, such as a national culture salvaged from the "Old Country." This shared heritage helped to identify particular neighborhoods, such as "Little Italy," "Germantown," and the like.  And obviously, when these ethnic whites eventually dispersed into the suburbs, they took their culture with them. 

We now realize that most American blacks and other minorities who replaced whites probably didn't have the same familiar touchstones to help make living in close proximity - an inherent characteristic of urban life - especially easy.  American blacks, for example, generally couldn't gather around their ancestral culture, since most did not know their family's history beyond our country's regrettable slavery era.  And there is no culture of "Africa," since Africa is a continent, comprised of dozens of countries with hundreds of distinct indigenous people groups.

Economically, the whites who left also took their jobs with them, and minorities who moved in generally were poorer from working lower-paying jobs.  The housing stock was also aging, meaning that as repairs became more frequent, and more expensive, new homeowners couldn't keep them maintained as easily.

For a variety of reasons that are still debated today, marriage rates among non-white urbanites never managed to match those of the whites, when they had lived in the same cities.  Poverty was stronger among non-whites, education levels lowered, crime rates rose, and decay of all sorts - social, economic, physical infrastructure, etc. - set in.  Urban American may never have been Eden, but for a long while, it had been tolerable.

Until now.

Eventually, even among new minority residents of the inner city, the objective became getting out while a person could.  Impoverished minority parents struggled to put their kids through college and encouraged them to follow whites out to the 'burbs, where the good jobs and good housing were.  Cities were no longer seen as havens of opportunity, not even by the blacks, Hispanics, and other non-whites whose parents had come to the city in search of a better life.

Ironically, this type of turnstile effect ended up working against urban minorities.  You see, as older generations of replacement urbanites died, or moved out themselves, their more prosperous children weren't taking their place in the neighborhood either.  Many times, whenever any urbanite of any skin color, race, or ethnicity achieved the economic wherewithal to leave the city, they usually did.  The cumulative effect of this resulted in the deepening of poverty's downward cycle.  Cities became even less prosperous, more dangerous, and more undesirable.

Urban Blacks Find Their Populist Voice

From this dismal tableau, eventually, a new confection of cultural identity emerged.  Initially, it was primarily for urban blacks, but it spoke broadly to American urbanites who were generally minority, generally poor, and almost universally frustrated with the disparities they saw between their city lives and the lives of suburban whites.

Rap is reputed to have been invented early in the 1970's in New York City's teeming public housing projects (which, as public entities, are only part of the gentrification movement if these projects are sold on the open market for redevelopment).  And it quickly became an iconic cultural touchstone.  For the urban poor, rap represented a new type of community - that of the black ghetto.  The 'hood.  The street.  The thug culture, with its mechanical grit, darkness, raw survival instinct, the smell of death, the visceral sense of victimization.  While some people dispute the lumping-together of these terms, they do end up referring to the same disaffection, distress, dysfunction, and disenfranchisement that has come to characterize much of the urban minority experience in the United States.

So, in a way, black urban America eventually managed to craft a sort of community for itself, and a culture.  However, it was not a commemoration of glorious ancestry, or a fond perpetuation of venerated nostalgia, such as the white identities that preceded it among America's urban neighborhoods.  Instead, rap was a grim reflection of what inner city existence meant for one of our country's most marginalized people groups.

Before slavery, African Americans could see only ambiguity.  After slavery, there was little to be nostalgic over.  Left to their own devices in the 'hood, many black Americans, for various reasons, failed to become participants in the broader national narrative, which, for better or worse, centered mostly on suburban ideals.

For them, rap became that narrative.

Unfortunately, and I'll be blunt here, even though rap and its various corollaries have become popular across racial and socioeconomic lines, it has not proven to be a particularly ennobling ethos.  Rap's tendency to fixate on darkness, violence, guns, and misogyny is a frustrated and angst-ridden substitute to the more provincial and celebratory cultural touchstones of more conventional cultural expression, whether it be among Italians, Greeks, or even the Chinese and Vietnamese.  To the extent that rap is a language that reflects anger at what urban minorities have had to endure during America's long slog through suburbanization, despite its cultural solace to some of its fans, rap's broader narrative of discord can also be seen as a prelude to how today's poor minorities are being affected by gentrification.

You see, we cannot avoid the reality that gentrification is overwhelmingly being perpetuated by whites.  Yes, there are many blacks and other non-whites who are rediscovering the inner city from suburbia.  And yes, while this is an encouraging and welcome change, since it means that non-whites are steadily climbing America's socioeconomic ladder, the face of gentrification is still mostly white.

It's all the new white faces on the streets that mark the most immediate change urban America's long-time residents see.

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Up Next:  What All This Means For Gentrification

"White fight"?  "White bite"?  How can we best navigate urbanity's new zeitgeist without repeating past mistakes?  Or can we...?



Monday, October 23, 2017

Gentrification: Some Background

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.  My late aunt's longtime neighborhood.
This was just about the lowest that Brooklyn's Sunset Park ever got,
before the neighborhood began to stabilize in the 1990's, with a dramatic influx of Chinese immigrants.
However, the fingers of gentrification began to reach into Sunset Park only a few years ago.
_____
Navigating this 3-part series
- Part Two  Gentrification: Abandonment Issues
- Part Three  Gentrification: Whither (or Wither) Community?

_____



Let's talk gentrification.

It can be easy to understand, yet complex in its reality.

Gentrification is what many cities hope happens to their marginalized neighborhoods, yet what most folks living in those marginalized neighborhoods want to avoid.

Unless they own property there.

Indeed, with gentrification, the biggest winners are property owners, especially those who've owned property during a time when it was practically worthless - at least in comparison to what it's worth now, with gentrification taking hold in their neighborhood.

Those property battles can take on lives of their own, like they have in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights district, which has practically become a war zone; not between urban street gangs, however, but between affluent newcomers and advocates for the neighborhoods' longtime (and poor) Hispanic residents.

Gentrification is an urban phenomenon with economic, sociological, racial, and political characteristics.  It can also be caused by any or all of these characteristics, and create deep changes within any or all of these characteristics.  And just as many urban neighborhoods have been gentrified over the past few decades, the phenomenon is even beginning to impact older suburban areas in the United States; suburbs that comprise the earliest ring of development around urban cores, where many whites initially decamped after beginning their mass exodus from cities after World War II.

What is Gentrification?

Gentrification is the process by which neighborhoods that have been in decline are economically reinvigorated and socially re-populated.  It's not simply that property values increase, or that the demographics change, but both of these have to happen for a neighborhood's evolution to be considered gentrification.

Gentrification isn't so much about aesthetics, especially since the grunge look, based largely on the urban slum ethic from the latter half of the Twentieth Century, has become very trendy across the urbanized (and suburbanized) West.  But gentrification creates an environment where grunge exists because people want it to exist, not as a de-facto result of residents not being able to afford anything different.

As a process, when it happens, gentrification can make aging urban neighborhoods relevant again in terms of their ability to provide a relatively safe and robust social environment.  This environment nurtures a community in which people can enjoy many of the things we consider important components of a desirable lifestyle.  Things like clean stores that sell a variety of healthy items, restaurants that aren't just fast-food outlets, schools where students can learn in physically safe environments, and homes that meet and exceed all building codes.

Of course, gentrification occurs where there has recently been a decay in these desirable lifestyle standards.  By contrast, gentrification doesn't happen in neighborhoods that have always been wealthy or socially stable.  Just because a luxury home experiences a rapid rise in its value doesn't mean that gentrification is happening.  However, gentrification in neighborhoods near traditionally affluent ones can drive up prices in long-desirable neighborhoods, further expanding the economic benefits of urban revitalization.

America's Post-War Urban Experience

It's the neighborhoods that experienced white flight after World War II that are the most obvious candidates for gentrification.  Today, in neighborhoods that were initially built for whites, but are now owned or rented by minorities, housing costs are typically the lowest in the city.

By the way, very few cities - particularly in the North - have neighborhoods that were built for blacks.  There are cities in the South that have traditionally been neighborhoods where blacks have lived, but their housing stock has never been considered as desirable as the better-built housing for whites.  Many black neighborhoods in the South had to struggle for the same water and sanitation systems that cities were expected to construct and maintain in whiter neighborhoods.

Yet although racism has played a role in urban blight, a blight which is now being rehabilitated with gentrification, other factors were at play in post-war America that laid the groundwork for today's gentrification.

And please be forewarned:  while an overview of a topic like gentrification can seem overly-dependent on simplifications and generalizations, be aware that to almost every facet of gentrification, there are exceptions depending on the city, the state, and the part of the country where gentrification is taking place. 

Nevertheless, it's a proven fact that across America, many whites moved out of inner cities during the 1950's through the 1980's because suburbanization was considered more desirable than city life.  For one thing, young post-war parents didn't want to raise their children in the same cramped, congested, dirty cities in which they themselves had grown up.  And developers were happy to oblige, buying up farmland and building sprawling new subdivisions with relatively roomy houses and big yards.  American industry was also happy to oblige, offering even more automobiles so suburbanites could put even more miles between their families and the big, bad cities.

Indeed, cities have historically been places of noise, congestion, and filth, where privacy was rare, congestion was commonplace, sanitation was dubious, illnesses could spread quickly, and corruption was rampant.  It's easy for us today to forget how attractive suburbia was when it was invented. 

Unfortunately, another reason suburbanization was considered more desirable rested in the fact that blacks were disproportionately moving into inner cities, making city whites uncomfortable.  Ever since the end of the Civil War, during America's booming Industrial Age, blacks had been migrating to big northern cities in search of work.  And if blacks weren't going north, they were moving from the South's old plantations to southern cities, where work was more abundant. 

For decades, before World War II, there was deep segregation between the races in virtually all American cities.  Because of a variety of factors, including racial prejudice in the job market and in public schools, a significant number of African-Americans were never able to latch onto the rising economic tide that was lifting white boats across American society.  Although big cities have always struggled with poverty, especially among ethnic whites (Irish, Poles, etc.), it was just as noticeable when blacks began populating public housing as when more affluent blacks began moving into formerly white middle-class neighborhoods.  The specter of black crime became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially when poverty rates among blacks began to increase as factories began moving out of their old, outdated urban facilities... and to the suburbs, where their white employees were already moving anyway.

Back in the cities, remaining whites were growing increasingly restless, as property values began to plummet on their block, the more black families moved in.  Banks started redlining entire neighborhoods in racist attempts to preserve housing values so white mortgage-holders wouldn't become "upside-down" in what they owed banks.  Rising crime rates occurred at a suspiciously similar time to what whites saw as a black infiltration into their neighborhoods, and for many whites, it sure seemed like all the street thugs were black.  Of course, as urban black populations grew, and white populations declined, more blacks were being arrested.  Criminologists debate whether that was because so many more blacks were criminals, or whether there were so fewer white criminals, thanks to suburbanization.  It's like a "which came first" game.  But when it comes to urban blight, whites decided that that last one out of the old neighborhood was the rotten egg.

So they kept leaving.

The Tide Turned

This went on unabated across North America until sometime during mid-1990's, when Generation X began to wonder if their parents, the so-called "Greatest Generation," the people who'd left the inner cities decades ago, hadn't given urban America enough of a chance.

You see, to the extent that suburbanization was a trend, we all know what happens to trends:  they change!  And although there's little scientific proof, it's surely no coincidence that after the phenomenal popularity of Gen-X-era television sitcoms set in cities, such as "Seinfeld," "Friends," and even "Cosby Show," a new generation of young people began to rediscover city life.  It looked so cool, so fun, so convenient - everything suburban America no longer was.  The old architecture was intriguing again, as urban buildings suddenly seemed to have more character than the shoddily-built suburban stuff.  So what if cities were noisier than the 'burbs?  America's newest trend-setters were young, and they liked noise.  Suddenly, the bohemian asymmetry that many poorly-maintained urban streetscapes now boasted, after years of make-do budgets and little new construction in financially-stressed cities, was hip, not horrible.

And there it was.  Suburbs had lost their trendy edge.  They were no longer fashionable.  All at once, it seemed, everybody realized they could tell how easy it is to quickly identify when a tract house had been built - simply from looking at its facade.  Suburbs had also lost their ability to fascinate, since by now, suburban life was so ubiquitously American.  And convenience was a rapidly disappearing feature of suburbia, since you needed a car to get anyplace, and traffic congestion was always increasing.

Suddenly, living within blocks of one's work, and hip restaurants, and museums, and not always needing to drive to all of those places - it was like a whole new world was opening up to young people eager to leave their parents' lifestyle behind.  So they did. 

Of course, by now, most inner-city school districts had gotten so bad, that many Gen-X'ers still decided to decamp back to the 'burbs when their own progeny hit the pre-K stage.

But the suburbanization trend had definitely been reversed.  Sure, some hard-core suburbanites continued to press outward, past the older ring of dated suburbs, to the exurbs, even further away from the city.  But America's return to its cities, which were now seen as desirable places to live and work, has been a surprising and welcome change for many long-beleaguered city halls.

Property values have risen in old cities, banks are now lending and offering market-rate mortgages in some admittedly decrepit neighborhoods.  Indeed, if there are red lines today, they're around neighborhoods bankers see as ripe for redevelopment opportunities.  Builders are constructing new apartment complexes and office buildings on previously discarded or under-utilized land, and new mass transit projects are trying to help new urbanites secure as much of that walkability factor as possible.

This all means that cities are collecting more in taxes, "brownfield" land has been re-purposed, crime rates are lower, and even if some suburbanites still don't want to live downtown, they're now far more willing to go there for pricey dinners and entertainment options.

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Next Up:  Cities Were Never Abandoned
Only white people have considered cities to have been abandoned.  But that's because it's been mostly whites who abandoned urban America (to be continued...)



Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Bill, the Lillie of the Valley


Bill was a tiny spitfire of a woman.

She never much cared for her given name, Lillie, so she went by “Bill.”  However, we always called her "Mrs. Watson."  Even my parents did.  It confused us greatly when Mrs. Watson signed her first Christmas card to my family with “Bill."  Back in 1978, at least, seeing “J.C. and Bill Watson” on a Christmas card seemed so odd.

J.C. was her husband, a tall, giant of a man who always wore a black suit and a white shirt – probably even on Saturdays.  I never saw him wearing anything else.  Back in the day, he and his brother owned a small chain of department stores across a few then-small towns between Fort Worth and Dallas, at a time when “main streets” really were main streets, and townspeople did all their shopping along them.

Mr. and Mrs. Watson made for quite a study in contrasts – with him so tall and stocky, and Bill so short – incredibly short – and petite.  And their personalities didn't seem terribly similar, either.  He was quiet and unassuming; she was not loud either, but she talked more, and had definite ideas about things, and knew how to advance those ideas firmly yet graciously.

She was always a traditionalist, while at the same time, she could defy convention.  She personally designed their beautiful yet unpretentious home, and acted as general contractor during its construction, which was indeed an unusual thing for a woman in the late 1960's, in provincial Texas.  Her design is simple and elegant - a long, low-slung one-story home based on the type of farmhouses that were typical of her growing-up years in far south Texas.  Her parents owned quite a bit of fertile acreage in what Texans call "the Valley," near Texas' southernmost border with Mexico, a region particularly famous for its distinctive ruby-red grapefruit.  She incorporated a full-length covered porch on the front, and an other long porch on the back, all with Saltillo tile flooring she'd personally selected from a tile factory in Mexico.  The tan-colored hand-made bricks sheathing her home she'd also selected in Mexico.

It's a theme you'll notice often in Bill's life:  her love of hand-crafted things.  Their intrinsic uniqueness seemed to speak to her.

She installed hand-made front doors from Spain, and while their wood is beautifully fashioned in a classic Spanish style, she'd specified the wood to be of a particular variety.  A variety that, even today, has some sort of wormy, gooey fungus that, from time to time, oozes out of the wood.  It's as gross as it sounds, and the first time I saw it, I feared Mrs. Watson's doors were woefully flawed. 

"Mrs. Watson!" I remember exclaiming, "You have puss oozing from your doors!"  It looked like a case of really bad acne.  Oh, it was so gross.

Yet the ever-proper Mrs. Watson was mostly surprised that I was unfamiliar with this species of wood (I can't remember what she called it; I researched it for this essay, but can't find anything like it on the Internet).  Apparently, she'd chosen it because it helps to keep the wood moist, which is technically a feature to accommodate Texas' often-arid summers.

The more I've thought about it, her front entry doors contribute a great deal to understanding Bill Watson's character. On the one hand, viewed from the street, they look attractive, but not particularly exceptional. Yet upon closer inspection, they were obviously constructed with extraordinary craftsmanship, each piece of wood still solidly in place, as if straight out of an old-world carpenter's shop.  And they possess that secret, intrinsic ability to provide for their own maintenance; a quality even a botanist friend of mine was entirely unfamiliar with when I asked for her input.

Once behind these doors, those pink-hued Saltillo tile floors extend throughout the home's main rooms.  So although Mrs. Watson had plush Aubusson rugs on her floors, sounds do tend to echo a bit.  And her crisp voice tended to predominate in those echoes, while her husband’s was far more muted.  Not that she ever yelled, of course.  Bill was a genteel Southern lady, with a lilting laugh and a poised diction that disguised her humble roots from “the Valley.”

Almost certainly, it was those humble roots, during the Great Depression, with little money available for travel, and little opportunity for cultural enrichment beyond "the Valley's" Tex-Mex pluralism, that helped push Bill towards something different.  Something beyond the miles and miles of fields and placid agriculture in which the inquisitive and gregarious little woman had grown up.  After graduating from high school, Bill went on to college, which was a rarity for women in those days.  She ventured into office work for large oil companies in New Orleans and Los Angeles, and joined the foreign service to help with America's rebuilding of Japan after World War II.

In photos from her time there, Bill looks exceedingly comfortable, especially for a small-town Texas farm girl, in the cosmopolitan culture of a capitol city, in a country that had been a bitter enemy of the United States just a few years earlier.  Her incredibly short stature helped her fit in physically with the Japanese.  She loved the propriety of their culture, the proud nature of the people, and their fastidious industriousness.  Their wartime allegiances aside, the Japanese were just like her.  Which, for Bill, seemed to affirm not only the similarities that can be found across humanity, but also her own enthusiasm for her country, since the United States was participating in a vast humanitarian exercise to rehabilitate a nation it had just defeated.  There was a virtue in America's civilized response to victory that energized Bill's patriotism, and continued throughout the rest of her storied life.

I’m actually fairly uncomfortable referring to her as “Bill,” since when I met her, I was 13; an age at which I was expected to politely refrain from calling my elders by their first names.   She was Mrs. Watson to me then, and she’s Mrs. Watson to me now.

My brother met her first, shortly after we’d moved to Arlington, Texas, from upstate New York.  He’d been riding his bike around our new neighborhood, and Mrs. Watson had been in her front yard, tending to her immaculate landscaping.  She saw a young boy riding down the street – the Watson’s lived at the top of a hill, which was a fun spot for young bike riders, as you might imagine – but she didn’t recognize him, since we were brand-new to the neighborhood.  And being an outgoing person, she introduced herself.  And my brother came home, remarking on how friendly one of our new neighbors was… and about how fun that hill was in front of her house.

She was in her mid-sixties by then, her husband’s business was slowing down thanks to America’s newfound preoccupation with regional shopping malls, and she was about to become a grandmother for the first time.  Much of her days was spent on what had become her favorite hobby - her yard.  She used to have turf grass as her lawn, the type you see on golf courses, and she owned a lawnmower specifically designed to cut it.  She clipped the edges of her lawn as precisely as any groundskeeper at any prestigious country club would, and she kept her shrubs trimmed to within an inch of their lives.  It wasn’t until she developed skin cancer from being outside so much – despite always wearing a huge, floppy hat – that she finally hired a yard crew… which she supervised like a mother hen.

And the stories she’d tell, as she'd take breaks in her yard chores!  At first, I struggled to understand why a young woman would go to Japan to work so enthusiastically in a nation we’d just defeated in war.  I’ve never liked traveling, and foreign cultures are… well, foreign to me!  But Mrs. Watson would almost glow, regaling me with anecdotes of her time in Japan… or about the time when she wanted to see the Caribbean, and somehow ended up as the only paying passenger on a freighter sailing to Barbados.

Not that she was a loose woman by any means – she was utterly moral.  She wasn’t exactly the type of woman who’d risk her virtue by sailing on a ship populated only by burly men.  Yet she ended up subduing those mariners and earning their respect at a time in history when women typically weren’t widely successful in that regard.

Her son-in-law reminisced with me recently about how she used to drive - well, "fly" would be a more accurate term!  She drove like a bat-outta-you-know-where, and she always drove silver luxury cars.  We could have called her a silver bullet, I guess.  And she was so short, in a couple of the cars she drove, they had to pay to have the driver’s seat removed from its factory-installed track, and re-bolted into place even closer to the steering wheel, so she could see over the dashboard to pilot her cruiser.  Her husband couldn’t drive her cars, because he was so much bigger than she, and the seat couldn’t be moved to accommodate anybody else but her.

I’ve never enjoyed driving into Dallas, which is about half an hour away from us, but Mrs. Watson treated Big D like it was her backyard.  She had friends from around the world, thanks to her many travels. She also enjoyed maps, and would study up on places she was planning to visit in such detail that one time, after flying into a city she’d never been to before, she accurately instructed her cab driver on how to get to her hotel.

Over the years, she stayed abreast of many details related to her husband’s business, and after he died, when their store in Arlington was finally shuttered and the property sold, she was indignant at its selling price.

“J.C. purposely built that store with a reinforced sub-basement and elevator shaft that could support several additional stories, so it could be re-purposed into an office building,” she sputtered to me.  “From day one, he knew that building probably wouldn’t always be a department store.”  And Mr. Watson was correct.  Today, it’s an office building for the University of Texas at Arlington.

Over the years, Mrs. Watson’s health would have its ups and downs, but the only reason we ever knew she had skin cancer came when she hired that outside crew to begin doing her landscaping.  She never complained about her health, except when her failing eyesight kept her from enjoying television and reading.  Eventually, those prized Saltillo tile floors came back to haunt her, when she fell on them more than once, but even then, she kept her stints in the hospital shrouded in secrecy.  Not because she was afraid of getting older, but because she didn’t want to burden other people with her problems.  She knew how fortunate she’d been in her life, and she knew that other people had things far worse than she did.

I did know about one of her surgeries, but not from Mrs. Watson herself.  Her beloved daughter told me – or, at least, told me when Mrs. Watson was due back home from the hospital!  The next day, as I was on my usual evening walk, before the sun set, I went by Mrs. Watson’s house, and down that hill into the cul-de-sac, and I saw her daughter leave in her own silver Cadillac.

I didn’t think anything of it until I began to hear some rustling and banging going on in the toolshed attached to Mrs. Watson's backyard carport.

“Who would have the audacity to break into Mrs. Watson’s toolshed at this hour, with the sun still out, and her daughter having just left?” I wondered as I rounded the cul-de-sac.  The odd noises continued, so when I reached her driveway on my way back up the hill, I simply strode down it to the end of her driveway, where her carport and toolshed were.  And through the open door of the toolshed, I saw Mrs. Watson, not yet a full day home from the hospital, in her housedress, fussing with that cumbersome turf grass mower of hers.

She looked up and saw me coming.  And with a stiff index finger pointed swiftly at me, she sternly ordered, “Don’t tell my daughter!  She thinks I’ve gone to bed.”

Instead, Mrs. Watson had been hoping her daughter would leave while it was still daylight, so she could fiddle with that turf mower, an apparently cantankerous machine that she didn’t entirely trust to her yard crew.

So I obeyed her command.  Until last week, that is, as I talked with her daughter, who was planning Mrs. Watson’s funeral.  She died two Fridays ago, after a three-year struggle with all sorts of ailments; quietly, in the house she’d designed herself, with her family around her bedside.  Elegantly, in full command of her family’s affections, and a nurse hovering next to her; well into her nineties, having outlived everybody else of her generation in her family.

I figured it was now safe to tell her daughter about the turf mower.

And she laughed.

It was so Bill... the Lillie of the Valley.