Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jewel-Box May Save the World Trade Center
Santiago Calatrava's design for St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at the World Trade Center

I like it.

I really do.

Now, I still don't like the idea of an Islamic worship center near New York City's World Trade Center site.

I still don't like the idea of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey dictating what any religious institution can do with land it rightfully owned, even if that land was right next door to the target of Muslim extremists on September 11, 2001.

I still don't like the overall re-design of the World Trade Center site in general, or the design of the new One World Trade Center, that project's signature building.  Frankly, I don't like any of the buildings that replace the Trade Center I knew from my days working in the Financial District.  Of course, the old Trade Center was no architectural masterpiece, although two of its buildings were tall and iconic, so maybe it's par for the course that no architectural masterpiece is replacing it.

Yet, behold the plans to replace a tiny structure pulverized under the crushing fall of the Twin Towers.  In all that has been lost, and bungled, and wasted, and argued over, and vilified, and already rebuilt to lukewarm affirmation, there is still hope!  And it appears to be coming in the form of a brilliant solution to at least one of the many problems vexing the reclamation of the Trade Center site. 

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church used to occupy an old, narrow, four-story building that sat forlornly surrounded by parking lots next-door to Two World Trade Center, making for a bizarre juxtaposition between not only a sacred worship facility and a correspondingly profane commercial establishment, but also the church's humble white-stucco box and Two World Trade's mighty superstructure.

Despite their glaring differences, both buildings met the same fate that awful September morning, then afterwards, the differences between their rebirth diverged yet again.  While the World Trade Center has been the subject of intense speculation, political power plays, public contentiousness, and billions of dollars in recovery spending, the sparse congregation of St. Nicholas has been forced to wage a lopsided battle on its own to remind officials who've commandeered their property that, although their worship space no longer exists, that didn't mean they themselves were now irrelevant.

Part of the problem involved the vast new infrastructure requirements the reality of terrorism posed for a rebuilt World Trade Center.  The pre-9-11 complex had a massive underground network of parking garages and commercial delivery bays that needed to be completely re-imagined for a new age of security, inspections, and other protective measures.  As politically-potent design components emerged for the new trade center, it became clear all of the new underground delivery and parking logistics were being shifted southward, outside of the original trade center's footprint, to land that used to be occupied by those parking lots and St. Nicholas.

But officials making all of the changes seemed to keep forgetting that St. Nicholas owned their property, and they didn't simply want to be bought-out like the other property owners.  The congregation has existed at that site since 1916, when it served Lower Manhattan's teeming immigrant population, as well as the stevedores and longshoremen who worked the city's famous docks, then situated at the end of the block.  St. Nick's building dated back to the 1830's, and while it was old, it wasn't particularly historic.  But that didn't mean that the congregation itself didn't deserve to continue its presence in the neighborhood, did it?

Well, if the designs beginning to emerge depicting a new worship center for St. Nicholas mean anything, the church will soon have a renewed presence in Lower Manhattan after all.  The firm of celebrated international architect Santiago Calatrava has created what looks to be a crisp, fresh, yet timelessly engaging interpretation of faith for the physical home of Greek Orthodoxy at the World Trade Center.

I can't speak for them, but St. Nick's congregation must be marveling that it might have been worth the wait after all.

Some in the community around Ground Zero have already complained that it looks like a mosque, and indeed, it does.  But that's not Calatrava's fault.  The proposed St. Nick's incorporates the ancient domed splendor of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, but on an even more intimate scale, like a jewel box.  And therein lies Calatrava's remarkable idea.
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia is a Byzantine masterpiece built by the emperor Justinian I in 537 as the Church of Divine Wisdom.  In other words, it was one of the first great churches in Christianity.  However, it became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.  It features a stunning, expansive, shallow dome supported by pendentives, a marvel of structural ingenuity, that support 40 ribs that, in turn, hold up the dome.  Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum, and features towering minarets on all four corners that were added by Muslim worshippers.

What's clever about Calatrava's design is that he chose to incorporate the look of a prominent building from both historic Christendom and Islam.  It's a deft diplomatic nod to Muslims who have been hoping to construct an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site in the wake of widespread anti-Muslim sentiment triggered by the 9-11 attacks.  Remember that fracas from a couple of years ago?  Currently, remnants of that non-profit group are running a low-profile community center they call Park51 out of their same old, nondescript building.  And yes, they're still hoping to someday replace it with a more prominent structure.  But their leadership is foundering, their fundraising has stalled, and there's no reason to believe public sentiment has moved any more in their favor.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the New York Times today came out with a story that tried to pit St. Nicholas against Park51, but it must be said that the two have little in common.  Most importantly, St. Nicholas was an established congregation at their old site long before the World Trade Center was ever built, let alone destroyed.  In addition, St. Nick's has always been forthright about hosting regular events that were intentionally Greek Orthodox.  There was nothing ambiguous about their organization.  They didn't start out under the subtle guise of being an innocuous community center.  Religion was their focus from the start.

If the organizers of Park51, who, remember, started out under the religiously provocative name Cordoba House, had originally publicized their religious intentions, perhaps the public outcry over their plans would have been less histrionic, since their goals would have been front-and-center.

"Okay, we want to build a mosque as a sign not of conquest, but of reconciliation," they could have said bluntly.  As it was, their ambiguity fed a sense of deception that backfired on them.

Meanwhile, it was the leadership at St. Nicholas who commissioned Calatrava to incorporate a conciliatory tone in their new church facility, which will include an ecumenical chapel-type space for contemplation by people of all faiths visiting what is now one of the most famous historic sites on the planet.  And although the venerable Trinity Episcopal Church has two facilities practically across the street from the World Trade Center site - their sanctuary, and St. Paul's Chapel, it will be St. Nick's church that will be within full view of the memorial and just about all of the trade center's new office towers.  It will anchor the eastern corner of a linear park that is being built atop a long, underground service drive for trucks delivering the supplies that all of the offices, stores, restaurants, and mass transit agencies in the complex will be needing.

St. Nick's construction budget is approximately $20 million, a piffling amount compared with the billions being spent elsewhere in the trade center project.  And this time, St. Nick's won't own the land underneath their church, but they'll be leasing it from the Port Authority, so the governmental agency can now maintain control of it.  How long do you think it will take before some separation-of-church-and-state group will file a lawsuit opposing that arrangement?

Overall, however, the positives of this design appear to far outweigh the negatives.  The church finally gets a building that looks like a church.  And, ingeniously, a mosque.  If the colors in the building when all of the construction is complete are as white and radiant as they appear in the mock-ups from Calatrava's office, then St. Nick's will provide a dazzling counterpoint to the shiny, dark, monotonous glass sheathing the adjacent office towers.  People definitely won't be looking at a stubby white stucco building in a sea of parking lots and asking, "what's that ugly thing by the Twin Towers?"

Perhaps most importantly, even though I'm not Greek Orthodox, I appreciate the idea of having a Christian worship facility juxtaposed so prominently and creatively against a site so fraught with emotional conflict.  I'm glad the Greeks stuck to their guns and pressed their case with the Port Authority, and didn't give up.  Granted, none of St. Nick's has been built yet, and since this is all unfolding in unpredictable New York City, anything can still go wrong.  But at least things are looking good at this point in the process.

Too bad it's taken this long to get a new home for St. Nicholas, but then again, too bad they lost their first one in such a tragic way to begin with.

Maybe now, the World Trade Center will actually be a better place.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sears Never Grew Up

Remember Sears?

"Sears."  You know - the department store?

When I was a kid, living on the quaint, quiet north shore of Oneida Lake in central New York State, a trip to Sears down in suburban Syracuse was sheer excitement for me.  I remember it was an odd, mansard-roofed concoction of a box sitting in a prime spot right alongside Route 81, which is now an Interstate highway.  Oddly enough, the developers of this Sears store didn't build any sort of direct access from the divided highway, meaning my parents had to follow a circuitous route from the freeway to its parking lot.

But that didn't matter to me - the extra drive simply helped build my excitement and anticipation!

We'd usually park at the far end where the garden stuff - or, this being suburban Syracuse, the snow blowers and shovels - would be displayed.  Right next to the bags of fertilizer and rock salt for one's driveway and sidewalk sat the toy department, and what a department it was!  Several aisles of sheer heaven.  It's where I discovered my first true love:  those 1:25 scale plastic model car kits.  When I purchased my very own 1975 Chevrolet Caprice 2-door coupe model, I didn't want to paint it, for fear I'd choose the wrong color, I prized that toy so.

I don't know what it says about me, but I could rattle off several of the other 1:25 scale model kits that I purchased all those years ago.  That's how much that Sears store near Syracuse meant to me.  It was only one level, but to me, it had everything a person could possibly need for a full life of consumerism.

Just down the wide aisle of white linoleum tile from the toy department sat an olive green dishwasher, the main display for the kitchen appliance department.  That dishwasher was situated facing the aisle, with a glass front, and it was always on, so passers-by could witness its power-cleaning action.  I remember being amazed that no water ever leaked out of that dishwasher, and regularly bugging my parents to buy one.  We lived in a century-old farmhouse with a fairly small kitchen and old pipes that probably wouldn't have enjoyed having to sustain a luxury like an automatic dishwasher.  But boy, watching that water splash about inside that olive-green box at Sears sure convinced me we were missing out on something special.

Did my parents ever purchase anything there for themselves?  I honestly can't recall, because I'd usually head straight for the toy department and occupy myself there for most of the time we were in Sears.  Well, it was either the toy department, or the clothing department for boys.  That was down at the far end of the wide, white-tiled walkway, in a corner of the store that was all dark brown and plastic wood.  Still, it smacked of grandeur to me, with its child-sized mirrors and individual dressing rooms, and all of that grown-up 1970's Oak Room pastiche.  Back then, parents and their little boys used to dress up for church, and I remember the miniature clip-on polyester ties my Mom would buy for me.  One of those ties was brown with blue, orange, and green stripes.  You wouldn't catch me wearing anything like that today, but back then, I was stylin'!

Then one day, when we visited Sears, the glass windows near the boy's department were all boarded up, and outside, the parking lot was being bulldozed.  Mom said she'd learned from a sales clerk that something called a "mall" was being added to the Sears store.

A "mall?"  What's that?  They're not closing this Sears, are they?  I think I panicked a little at the possibility.

Turns out, building shopping malls had become all the rage in the middle of the 1970's, and in the Syracuse area, a number of them got built within rapid-fire succession of each other.  Central New York was sprouting malls like mushrooms after a rainstorm.  My beloved Sears store soon became the anchor tenant of Penn-Can Mall, a name that nobody has been able to explain.  At one time, people thought it had something to do with some business connection with Pennsylvania and Canada.

Well... New York stores, even with the state's high taxes, do attract a lot of Canadian shoppers, whose taxes and prices are even higher on their side of the border.

Today, however, like many malls around the country, Penn-Can is no more.  In fact, the Sears store closed before the mall did.  Eventually, what had been the Sears building was demolished, and the old mall became an indoor car dealership, which actually is a clever re-use of a building in a particularly weather-challenged part of the country.

And it also seems fitting to me, considering how I loved to browse the selection of plastic model cars at that grand old Sears store.

We moved from the Syracuse area to Texas a few years after Penn-Can Mall opened, and with two levels, the Sears store here in Arlington dwarfed my old favorite in size.  Considering the shopper I'd become, you'd have thought a two-level Sears would be double the excitement for me, but hey - I was growing up, and my tastes were changing.  Besides, they never kept the toy department in the same place at this Arlington Sears, and it would shrink drastically in size between Christmas shopping seasons.  What was up with that?  Weren't toys important every week of the year?

Suffice it to say, Sears soon lost its appeal for me.  Mom and Dad kept buying appliances, furniture, and even televisions at Sears, but by now, I was a teenager, and I new cheap, tacky clothing when I saw it.  And those plastic models?  We discovered that we'd moved to a neighborhood with a fantastic hobby store, Hobby Hub, just down the street, and their selection was way better than Sears' ever was.  A few years ago, I discovered some old unbuilt models still in their flimsy boxes that I'd purchased at Hobby Hub years and years ago - and had forgotten about.

I don't think boys build those plastic models anymore.  My four nephews were never interested in them.  I think I lost interest in them once and for all after I learned to drive, and could spend my time with the real thing, instead of 1:25 scale plastic mock-ups.

And Sears?  Goodness... I can't remember the last time I was inside one.  Oh, yes I do - I think it was when my Mom was looking for a new washing machine.  And that's been a while ago.

Every now and then, over the years, I've heard stories in the news about how bad Sears had gotten in terms of its merchandise and even the condition of its stores.  Apparently, a lot of Americans have been just like me - we've graduated from Sears, tired of its polyester clothing, and grown out of the idea that it was the best place to buy just about anything.  I understand that Kenmore and Craftsman products - two of Sears' big brands - are made by third parties now, and sold under other brand names as well.

Retail experts point their accusing fingers at corporate management that seems bent on running the storied store into the ground.  And while that's probably the case, since other retailers have come along and stolen Sears' thunder without a fight, the demise of the once-great retailer has been building steam for longer than the current ownership group has been in charge.

Sears started out as a mail-order business, and I can still recall waiting for the annual Christmas catalog to come in the mail, and then pouring over its toy section for weeks with my brother, until the pages were worn and frayed.  It would be tempting for a company that built so much of its reputation on printed catalogs to blame the Internet for costing it customers, but Sears stopped publishing its main catalog in 1993.

And it hasn't been able to keep its mojo since.  The place that provided me with such simple happiness in my childhood seems to have about as good a chance of resurrecting itself as my childhood does.  American retailing has changed so much over the decades, practically the only stores that manage to keep their brands alive are luxury ones.  Woolworth's is gone, along with Mervyn's, Montgomery Ward, and countless regional low-price chains.  Nowadays, Target and Wal Mart are the principle players in Sears' old segment, but perhaps for them to survive longer than the century Sears managed to, they'll have to learn from Sears' many mistakes and missed opportunities.

Sometimes I think I would like to have my childhood back, since in my memory, that time was a lot less complicated, and opportunities seemed so much more plentiful.  But, even though sometimes it doesn't seem like it, I have matured, and learned, and progressed since then.

Too bad Sears didn't.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Flights of Fancy in the UAE

"It's the biggest in the word!"

Used to be, America was home to the world's biggest stuff.

But that was then.  This is now.  The tiny cluster of seven Persian Gulf principalities called the United Arab Emirates has put our world on notice:  they are in a race with China and other developing countries to out-build the West, and America in particular.  They want the biggest and best of everything.

But then again, how many of us don't?

With the UAE, however, oil money goes a long way to getting you what you want.  If you're keeping score, Dubai has already built itself the world's largest dancing fountain, the world's largest and most-visited shopping mall, and the world's tallest building, while Abu Dhabi boasts the world's largest Rolls-Royce dealership.  Now we can add to this list of "world's biggest baubles" the world's biggest airport.  It opened Sunday in Dubai, with the arrival of - get this - a plane of 100 Hungarians.

No joke.

Technically, Al Maktoum International Airport isn't the world's largest airport - yet.  Its cargo facilities have been in service since 2010, but the broader effort to create what is projected to be the world's largest airport has been beset by delays, and won't be completed until 2027.  Nevertheless, with the landing of cut-rate carrier Wizz Air's inaugural flight from Bucharest, yet another super-sized airport for the developing world has begun to take off.  Two more passenger carriers - another discount airline from Kuwait, and a full-service airline from Bahrain - will join Wizz Air's operations as the $33 billion airport continues to conquer the airport industry.

Dubai already has another international airport in another part of town, and it's already the13th-busiest in the world.  It handled 58 million passengers last year in its own nearly-new, state-of-the-art designer terminal.  However, that's not good enough for the UAE, since Al Maktoum is being built for 160 million passengers per year.

Meanwhile, the world's current busiest airport, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, handled 95 million passengers last year.  And have you ever met anybody who has anything positive to say about their experience at Hartsfield?  Which begs the question:  can an airport be built that can satisfactorily process an additional 65 million passengers annually?

And if the world's commercial airspace needs that kind of capacity at one facility, is the UAE the ideal locale for it?  Those emirates aren't exactly the largest of countries, either in population, or land mass.  And although their economies are booming now, what happens when the oil runs out?  What happens if other oil countries that have already started diversifying their economies manage to parlay their riches into other successful ventures first?

Miracle Mirage on the Desert

For all of its pretensions, Dubai never really had a lot of oil to begin with, so it's been banking its future on becoming some sort of bizarre amalgamation of Las Vegas, Manhattan, and Hawaii, subversively tempered by a moderate Islamic vibe.  Their brand of Islam isn't as hard-lined as Saudi Arabia's, which is already the major tourism destination for Muslims, thanks to their religion's Hajj to Mecca.  So the UAE's hoping their veil of moderation can help them forge a more nuanced reality.

So far, despite some financial hiccups during the global recession, things seem to be clicking along for them.  Expatiates with American corporations find the UAE's oversized bling just awe-inspiring enough to compensate for their worries about drinking alcohol in public.  The burgeoning throngs of middle and upper income tourists from China, Russia, and India have yet to tire of the UAE's sand and scorching heat.  And Europe's nouveau riche love being pampered by the plentiful and dirt-cheap domestic servants staffing the emirates' gaudy hotels.

As long as you don't think about how any of it is sustained, the UAE can make a lot of sense.

But let's go ahead and think about it, shall we?

What would happen, for instance, if militant Islam gathers steam in that part of the world, and crushes even more personal liberties than moderate Islam currently does?  Ostensibly, the UAE tolerates religions other than Islam, but foreigners brought to court are tried by Sharia law.  And the watchdog group Human Rights Watch holds a dismal view of the UAE's record on torture, free speech, and women's rights.

Then there are the human rights abuses critics are already uncovering in the nearby kingdom of Qatar, readying to play host for the 2022 World Cup, and an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood.  We already know that much of the UAE has been built from scratch with what even pro-business Western capitalists would call slave labor from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.  But all of those countries straddling the Persian Gulf appear to have the same mindset when it comes to democracy (against it), law and order (by the book - the Quran, that is) and the oppressed laborers who are building their skylines (who?).

Defenders of the UAE's stunning and provocative rise from the desert point to America's history and how we set the standard for always striving for bigger and better things.  But aren't we supposed to learn from history, and take pains to not repeat what was bad, and be diligent to work for what was good?  Just as America's history with slavery was no glorious epoch, and indeed has contributed significantly to the social disparities that persist to this day in our country, so neither can the way most workers are being treated in the Persian Gulf's construction-crazy countries be justified simply because other countries have done it.

Dune Bubble?

And let's talk economics here.  It's not like the UAE, Qatar, and their kindred countries are responding to a resounding demand for all of this construction from market-driven economic forces.  In America and the West, new office towers and shopping malls need to be planned and executed to address reasonable economic expectations.  In other words, can you build something without going bust?  In the UAE, such practicality apparently is for infidels.  Sure, there is a measure of demand, but there's also an overwhelming amount of fanatical hubris on the part of its autocratic, patriarchal, and provincial monarchies.  Sure, Dubai managed to plant within its kindgom the world's tallest man-made (actually, male-slave-made) structure, the Burj Khalifa, and it's a feat of engineering.  But such towers - many of them being built in developing Islamic or Communist countries - seem to defy logic.

Fortunately for the spindly Burj Khalifa, it's just audacious enough of a conversation piece to have attracted plenty of wealthy foreigners who wanted to purchase the supertower's private luxury apartments.  Not because they needed them, of course, but for their novelty, and their prestige factor back home in countries where owning an apartment in a tower stuck into the sand - (literally - it's the sheer force of sand's friction that keeps its foundation in place) - is something to be admired.  Its residential success helps hide the fact that hardly any of its office space has been filled.  Indeed, across Dubai, the office vacancy rate is 35%, which itself isn't a bad figure for a business district that didn't even exist twenty years ago.  But the entire UAE is trying to create a whole new economy for itself out of real estate.  Just because enough people are willing to go along with them doesn't mean it's not one big, sandy bubble.

All of this makes for both an enticing opportunity for bottom-feeding capitalists, and also an increasingly problematic dilemma in our global era of sustainable development.  Has anybody bothered to ask what product is being created there, other than glitzy hype and hollow bling?  Why do cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi need such expansive and expensive infrastructure, especially since their native populations are a fraction of the numbers of people coming to build, and coming to admire what's been built?  What are all of the resources being poured into the UAE actually supporting?

Again, it's not like the Western world hasn't known a few egocentric kingdom-builders.  But for this corner of the Persian Gulf, sustainable development is a mirage in more ways than one.  Consider the region's dire lack of clean drinking water, which has been the main reason its population has been stagnant for centuries.  Currently, the UAE is literally banking its survival on energy-thirsty desalinization plants, a process that could guarantee a nearly limitless supply of seawater from the Gulf, but is profoundly fossil-fuel-intensive.  Indeed, the tiny UAE now commands the world's largest carbon footprint, making it even more ecologically dangerous a threat than the entire United States.

At least we Americans' aren't the world's worst ecological villains anymore.

Still, the UAE has surprised the world before, and since nobody in authority over there seems troubled with all of the ancillary human rights issues surrounding the actual construction of their shiny new air-conditioned world, it seems they can build whatever they want with impunity.  Major international corporations that scold American conservatives about our stances against homosexuality and abortion seem unpreturbed with the UAE's even harsher stances on these and other social issues (such as legalizing rape) and enthusiastically open offices and stores there.

Flying High

Which brings us back to airports, the facilities through which most people arrive in and depart from the UAE.  One of the reasons why all of the emirates fuss so much about their airports, and are incessantly expanding them, involves the fact that airports literally serve as their global entry doors.  The UAE is pretty much stuck out in the middle of noplace, between barren desert and the hotly-contested shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf.  How else are these millions of visitors going to get there?

Airlines and the airports they serve watch two major lists in their industry to keep themselves apprised of their pecking order.  One of the lists has to do with how popular certain airports are among the flying public, and the other is a more nuts-and-bolts listing of passenger counts to see which airport is the busiest.

Of the top twenty most favorably-ranked airports, only one is in North America, and it's the international airport in Vancouver, Canada.  Seven are in Western Europe, and all the rest are in Asia, with the exception of twentieth-ranked Abu Dhabi.  Dubai's current airport is at the 33rd spot.


Well, considering the fact that American airports are designed less for comfort and more for economic considerations, perhaps we shouldn't be.  In capitalistic, democratic republics, building and operating an airport involves a lot more than a government's dictates, which likely explains why America's airports fare poorly in popularity contests.  Taxpayers will fund what is sufficient, but not what isn't essential.

Indeed, of the world's busiest airports, six are in one country:  the United States, with Atlanta's colossal aeronautical juggernaut taking top prize, for whatever it's worth.  Another five of the top 20 busiest are in Western Europe.  And one is in Dubai, with the rest in Asia.

Surprisingly, seven airports are on both lists, representing a mix of European and Asian cities, and proof that airports can be both big and busy and passenger-friendly.  But apparently your country has to be either socially liberal, or Communist, or run by Muslims to get the best of both air traffic worlds.  America's busiest airports are merely aviation workhorses; all business and little pleasure.

So, maybe the UAE is on to something with their desire to build the world's busiest airport.  Few people apparently care that they're using slave labor to build everything else about which they're boasting.  Or that one person in the UAE is causing more ecological damage to our planet than any American.  "Bling it on, emirates!" the vacationing world seems to be cheering.  "There isn't a marble-floored shopping mall or a glassy super-skyscraper that you can't chill with desalinated water, or pay some foreign schmuck pennies on the dollar to build and clean."

Kinda makes Americans look like suckers, doesn't it?  Thinking that what we build should, somehow, both respect human rights and turn a profit.  Of course, we're not perfect.  Rightly and wrongly, we've been criticized by other nations for all sorts of problems, and it doesn't ever seem like we can please anybody.

Then along comes the UAE, and a few pimped-out buildings later, everybody's marveling at how wonderful a place it is.

Who knew?  All it takes to gain the world's admiration is being more brazen at things for which the world faults us!

World's Top 20 Airports as Rated By Passengers - from World Airport Awards
(Dubai's airport is ranked #33)
  1. Singapore Changi
  2. Incheon International
  3. Amsterdam Schiphol
  4. Hong Kong International
  5. Beijing Capital International
  6. Munich
  7. Zurich
  8. Vancouver International
  9. Tokyo Haneda International 
  10. London Heathrow
  11. Frankfurt
  12. Auckland International
  13. Central Japan International
  14. Kuala Lumpur International
  15. Helsinki Vantaa
  16. Narita International
  17. Copenhagen
  18. Kansai International (Osaka)
  19. Shanghai Hongqiao International
  20. Abu Dhabi International

World's 20 Busiest Airports - from Airports Council International
(All caps denotes a top-20 highly-rated airport from list above)
  1. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International
  4. Chicago O'Hare International
  6. Los Angeles International
  7. Paris Charles de Gaulle - Roissy 
  8. Dallas Fort Worth International
  11. Denver International
  12. Jakarta Soekarno–Hatta International
  13. Dubai International
  15. Madrid Barajas
  16. Bangkok Suvarnabhumi
  17. New York JFK International
  19. Guangzhou Baiyun International
  20. Shanghai Pudong International

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Detroit's Water Park Gate

Hurlbut Memorial Gate at Water Works Park, Detroit

By virtually any measure, the bankruptcy of Detroit, Michigan, is a sorry shame.

And we're talking bankruptcy in more than the financial sense of the term.

But speaking of its finances:  Detroit's are the worst of any city in the country.  Theirs is the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, affecting a city that's probably lost more of its population than any other in the country.  The industry for which it's been celebrated the world over now employs less than 20,000 people within Detroit proper, roughly ten percent of its peak.  Half of those jobs are at two small factories, and 6,000 at downtown's Renaissance Center, where General Motors retrenched its office staff in a bid to keep the city's central business district from completely emptying out.

One of the stipulations in its 2009 bailout was that GM keep its headquarters in the city.  So it's continued presence in town represents no bellwether regarding the city's economic viability.  Ford's headquarters never were in Detroit, but in Dearborn.  And Chrysler's headquarters bailed from Motor City for its suburbs in 1992.

Left behind, after all of the white flight, the exodus of over a quarter-million manufacturing jobs, and even a sizable chunk of its black middle class, are the relics of a bygone era.  Relics from when Detroit was a great American boom town.  These relics aren't just what's become "urban porn:"  the empty hulks of abandoned factories and office skyscrapers, or boarded-up church buildings and banks and shopping centers, or block after block of crumbling houses and vacant lots, where generations of the city's families used to live.

Amongst all of that rubble are relics of a different sort.  Detroit is still home to some fabulous architecture in the form of Art Deco office buildings, some of which Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert has been snapping up in the hopes that Motown will find a new corporate groove.  There are also rows of opulent mansions that have survived in leafy neighborhoods with names like Indian Village and Sherwood Forest, built by the first waves of auto executives and manufacturing moguls to earn their wealth in the once-powerful metropolis.

And then there is the grand public art, the stuff with which old cities can remind newer residents and visitors of the glory they used to claim.  There's Campus Martius and Grand Circus parks, the downtown plazas from which several of the city's major streets radiate.  There's Belle Isle, in the middle of the Detroit River, that despite the city's dysfunction, continues to hold glimmers of its idyllic past.  And there are smaller, less prominent artifacts from better days, tucked into the city's now-decayed fabric.  Artifacts such as the Hurlbut Memorial Gate.

A gate, you say?

Ahh, but this isn't just any gate.

Celebrating Transitions as Public Art

Back in the 1800's, America's cities were dirty, noisy, and unlovely places.  Comparatively speaking, even today's Detroit is paradise, at least in terms of its paved streets and sidewalks, without all of the mud and piles of horse manure.  Can you imagine?

One of the popular ways Nineteenth Century cities sought to make life a little more aesthetically pleasing for their residents was by gracing their public spaces with ornamental pedestrian attractions.

Remember, this was before automobiles, trucks, and city buses, when traffic consisted of horse-drawn buggies and good ol' walking.  Creating a feeling of space and arrival could be done in ways with which people could personally engage.  There was no sheetmetal or tinted glass creating a motorized cocoon for commuters, insulating them from the streetscape.  These ornamental attractions were tactile, accessible, and functional, borrowing European design ideals while applying a New World sensibility.

Green-Wood Cemetery's gates in Brooklyn. Photo by Jason Dovey
But they could still be quite monumental in scope, such as the soaring Gothic Revival triumph of the main entrance gates at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.  Walking through them, with their flying buttresses and filigreed spires, the transition between a comparatively profane streetscape and the sacred reverence of a burial ground is unmistakable.

And, on a smaller scale, the Hurlbut Memorial Gate in Detroit accomplished a similar feat, standing between the commercial boulevard of Jefferson Avenue and a sprawling city park stretching down to the river.

A smaller scale than Green-Wood's, yes, but the Hurlbut gate is still quite impressive, with its Beaux Arts opulence commanding three tiers of limestone, topped with a triumphant American eagle.  When it was built in 1894, it served as the actual gate to Water Works Park, one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world at that time.  Carriageways for entering and exiting the park flanked either side of the Hurlbut gate, and a pedestrian gatehouse, plus two water troughs for horses, anchored its base.  On the opposite side, facing the park, two ceremonial staircases reach down, welcoming visitors to the gate's terrace level featuring a pedastal that used to hold a bust of the gate's namesake, Chauncey Hurlbut.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the bust was stolen as the neighborhood faltered.  Why somebody thought they needed it remains a mystery, but perhaps being marked by such modern antisocial behavior is apropos, considering this is Detroit.

Industrialization Needed Lots of Water, and Detroit Obliged

For its part, Water Works Park was begun in 1868 to supply the city of Detroit with drinkable water.  It straddles the riverbank north of downtown, near Belle Isle, and for decades after its initial construction, was open to the public.  Water Works Park represented the rampant civic enthusiasm of Detroit's heady days, when the threat of fire on wooden construction couldn't contain the city's rapid growth.  In 1852, an agency had been created in partnership with both the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan to manage the growing city's water needs, and in 1879, Water Works Park opened as the agency's first project.

Today, that agency, now called the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, serves 40 percent of Michigan's population, and a much-modernized Water Works Park is still one of the department's signature operations.  The whole department is owned by the city, and is well-managed and profitable, which is rare in modern Detroit.  In fact, experts following Detroit's current bankruptcy proceedings have mentioned it as one of the assets the city could sell to help pay off debts.

Water Works Park was closed to the public long ago over fears that somebody could contaminate the city's water supply by taking advantage of what had been relatively unlimited access to its acreage.  There used to be walking paths, ponds, manicured lawns and shrubbery, a towering turret almost as high as the Eiffel Tower, a library, and a children's play area.  But all of that is gone today, while underneath its vast acreage, now cleared of trees and ponds, hides a concrete catacomb of cavernous water processing bunkers.  The Hurlbut Gate has nothing to welcome guests into, and the city has even gated off the gate, running a wrought-iron fence right across its entrance, and plopping a traffic signal control box in front of it.

When the gate was remodeled in 2007, some city residents complained that sprucing up a frivolous stone bauble from Detroit's past was a waste of money.  Actually, the money to construct the gate in the first place came from Hurlbut's estate, which is why it's named after him.  Plus, his estate included funds for its care.

Unfortunately, the quarter-million-dollars or so that Hurlbut left behind may have been a lot of money in his day.  It was enough to prompt angry relatives in New York to contest his will, since they didn't want what they considered their inheritance squandered on a silly gate in Michigan.  Nevertheless, even with compounded interest, those funds likely proved insufficient to pay for a complete overhaul more than a century after Hurlbut's death.  The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, custodians of his estate, likely had to find more money from other parts of their budget to cover all of the costs.

Whether it should have been simply relocated, of course, is another debate altogether.

If You've Ever Navigated on the Erie Canal

So, who was Chauncey Hurlbut? And why did he have this thing about ornamental gates?  In front of water treatment plants?

Hurlbut was born in 1803 in Oneida, New York, which is situated on the Erie Canal.  In 1825, when the Erie Canal opened, linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, Hurlbut left Oneida to seek his fortune out west in Michigan's frontier.  His first job was as a harness maker, but after he married, he and his brother-in-law opened a grocery business, and, riding on the coattails of Detroit's surging prosperity, he became a wealthy wholesale grocer.

In those days, entrepreneurs and the moneyed elite didn't leave prominent municipal jobs to civil servants.  Instead, they volunteered the credentials and expertise that earned them their money and prestige in the first place to the business of running various departments in the cities where they lived.  For Hurlbut, he had a thing for the fire department, so he made himself available to be fire commissioner.

And what do fire departments use to fight fires?  Water, of course.  So Hurlbut next served on the water commission board, first during the Civil War, and then from 1868 to 1884, when for twelve years, he was its president.  At first, city leaders wanted to name their sprawling facility on Jefferson Avenue in his honor, but the "Hurlbut" name never resonated with the public.  Instead, popular vernacular insisted on calling it Water Works Park.  Apparently, that didn't bother Hurlbut, who died in 1885, never seeing his gate, which wouldn't be built for another nine years.

Still, he wanted his legacy to be something the people of his adopted hometown could enjoy and claim with pride.  Little is known of what happened to his business, or his family, but his record of volunteer service exists today as a hallmark of one of Detroit's prized civic assets, and we're not simply talking about his gate, but both Water Works Park and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Today, many wealthy Americans would scoff at immortalizing themselves in a gaudy gate, although some will lend their names to prestigious institutions like universities, hospitals, or libraries.  And times have changed for city boards, too, where professionals with advanced degrees in the disciplines over which they're responsible make decisions and guide planning for things like water purification systems and public safety departments.  Mostly, this evolution makes sense, since even in Detroit's case, their water board was constantly struggling to keep up with advancing technologies, the demands of a rapidly-growing economy, and new scientific and public health discoveries.

Gateway to Symbolism

Perhaps what makes the Hurlbut Gate notable today isn't just its elaborate architecture, although its design alone makes it worthy of preservation.  In addition to that, however, is the dedication to the public good and the service to one's community that it represents.  Hurlbut's gate symbolizes his desire to give something back to the city where he made his fortune, and he apparently didn't begrudge Detroit the taxes it was levying for the construction of its ever-more-sophisticated water treatment facilities.  In fact, this self-motivated, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps entrepreneur celebrated the civic spirit, and the things governments can do when the public good is its end result.

Of course, this is one reason why many wealthy Americans today don't willingly give their money for civic projects, since we've come to learn how wasteful and autocratic government agencies can be.  Not everybody in civic life today cares very deeply about the public good.  In fact, judging by the many reasons why Detroit is facing its perilous bankruptcy today - indeed, its first trial in the process started yesterday - a lot of people who were supposed to be serving the public good of their fellow Detroiters cared only about themselves and their self-aggrandizement.

People like former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who just got slammed with a 28-year prison sentence for corruption in a federal probe that convicted another 32 Detroiters.  People like attorney Ronald Zajac and trustee Paul Stewart of Detroit's pension funds, who were indicted this past March for corruption.  And this is just the list within the past several years.  Detroit's history in the latter part of the last century is littered with city council members who either intentionally ignored the city's growing crisis, or refused to admit they were unqualified to address it.  To be sure, corruption and incompetence are not the only factors contributing to Detroit's current state of affairs, but they - and the people who committed them - play prominent roles.

So it's not simply that the Hurlbut Gate today represents the altruism of a forgotten generation of American wealth-builders.  It also represents the way powerful Detroiters used to give of themselves to their city, instead of being so concerned about whatever they could get for themselves.

Maybe there's no practical place for people like Chauncey Hurlbut in administrating today's municipalities.  But there shouldn't have been any room for the people who acted most unlike Hurlbut during these past several decades of the city's stunning decline.

The fact that, today, the Hurlbut Gate is completely fenced off, voiding its practicality, simply provides another bitter bite of irony for the city it was built to serve.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

MacArthur Stokes Strange Fire

Strange fire, indeed.

Last week's seminal Bible conference about the Holy Spirit has created quite a tempest in our evangelical ghetto's teapot.  Held at celebrity pastor John MacArthur's California megachurch, "Strange Fire" sought to address what MacArthur and his invited guests believe to be egregiously false teachings about Who the Holy Spirit is and how He works in our world today.

But if MacArthur and his fans were hoping to resolve anything, they must be seriously disappointed in the aftermath of their conference.  They took an issue that has been simmering on a back burner for years, and whose contentiousness many American churchgoers were probably unaware of, zapped it in a cauldron of broad aspersions, and let Christianity's digital denizens bicker and feast with its acrimonious broth in cyberspace's ether.

If you didn't know what a cessationist or a continuationist was before this past week, you still may not.  And if you did, you probably still don't know anything different about either of them today.

MacArthur, an established personality within our evangelical industrial complex, serves as the senior pastor at Grace Community Church in suburban Los Angeles.  His "Strange Fire" conference, with four thousand registered attendees, was the largest conference his church has ever hosted.  Tim Challies, another prominent figure within Christianity's "new Reformers" wing, has been quietly writing about this debate for years, and has taken great pains to present MacArthur's recent conference in as neutral a manner as he can.  Quite frankly, if this whole topic is entirely new to you, Challies' blog is an excellent resource for you to consider.

Basically, the whole controversy boils down to whether or not you believe that the Holy Spirit still manifests Himself today through the "demonstrable gifts" like tongues, healing, and prophecy, or whether the Holy Spirit ceased using those tools sometime after the New Testament's books were written, in the church's early days.  If you believe that the Holy Spirit does not use these special gifts today, then you are what's called a "cessationist," or somebody who believes those gifts have ceased.  If you believe that the Holy Spirit still gives His people special gifts, like speaking in tongues, for instance, you are what's called a "continuationist," since His gifts are continuing.

What's the difference?  And why does it matter?  Well, according to theologians, the difference involves the way we view how God works among His people, and that matters because we could be blaspheming the Holy Spirit if we say that He can't do something, or we ascribe to Him things that the Devil instead is doing.  Some people claim that Christians shouldn't say that they felt God telling them to do something, because then, it would be akin to prophecy, and most evangelical scholars from both sides of the debate agree that God does not give individual revelations of His will to anybody.  The extent of God's will that He wanted to be revealed to His people is complete in the Bible.

For the past 14 years, I've attended a congregation that is part of the Presbyterian Church in America.  A number of years ago, a small group in which I was involved did a study of the Westminster Confession, which serves as an explanation for why Reformed theologians believe what they believe about God and the Bible.  And wouldn't you know it?  The very first paragraph of the Confession says this:

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.  (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.1)

Back then, I had no idea what cessationism or continuationism were, and, also unbeknownst to me, theologians have debated whether or not this particular paragraph - or indeed, any part of the Confession - expressly lays out a definite viewpoint for either side.  However, I didn't need to know any of that at the time.  It struck me as odd - and even a bit patronizingly European - to phrase "God's revealing His will unto His people" as having "ceased."

How do we know what God has stopped doing, and what He's continuing to do?  And what right do we have to expect to know?  He's God, and we're not, right? 

It could be argued that, strictly in terms of the holy canon of Scripture, God indeed does not continue to add to it.  Sincere, Christ-following evangelicals on both sides of this debate agree to that.  But the language used by the Confession's writers is ambiguous on that aspect of its interpretation.  Since the PCA wants its members to officially acknowledge the role the Confession plays in understanding the Bible, its lack of clarity has remained for me one of the main reasons for not joining the church I've been attending.  (For what it's worth, the other major reason is that I don't believe that infant baptism, which the PCA practices, is the best expression of the sacrament.)

Admirable people within our evangelical community disagree strongly on a lot of issues.  When it comes to cessationism and continuationism, some of the Christian personalities advocating the former, in addition to MacArthur, are Joni Eareckson Tada, Norman Geisler, and R. C. Sproul.  For continuationism, we have some equally-heavy hitters in Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and the pugnacious Mark Driscoll, who attempted to crash "Sacred Fire" with a clumsy PR stunt promoting his own book on the subject.

Which brings up a complaint some observers to last week's goings-on in California have already pointed out:  Both MacArthur and Driscoll, two popular preachers, each with large churches, both have new books supporting their opposing views of this debate coming out soon.  How much of this conference was merely a promotional event for MacArthur?  Having Driscoll show up and claiming that MacArthur's security detail confiscated his book certainly does not paint Driscoll's continuationism in a very positive light, either.

One of the reasons Driscoll gets all hot and bothered over this issue is stems from his adamant support for the gift of speaking in tongues.  Other evangelical continuationists have been less vocal on this, one of the most provocative aspects of their perspective, because it is considered more an extremist part of the charismatic, Pentecostal movement, where some believe you're not saved until you can speak in tongues.

According to reports from MacArthur's conference, this more salacious branch of the continuationist camp is where most of its problems lie.  People like Grudem and Piper are not charismatics in any modern definition of the term, since charismatics believe a whole host of unBiblical, extraBiblical, and outright heretical things, like prosperity theology, snake handling, and even sexual favors.  Indeed, one of the speakers at MacArthur's conference, Conrad Mbewe, a pastor in Africa, described how Pentecostal continuationism's immoral excesses are destroying the legitimacy of evangelicalism all over his continent.

And then there was the reportedly moving testimony from Eareckson Tada, who was rendered a quadriplegic after a diving accident as a teenager.  She used to pray fervently that God would miraculously heal her, but that physical healing has not yet come, and probably won't here on Earth.  Nevertheless, God has been able to use her physical infirmity to not only minister in unique ways to people across the globe, but also to fashion within her soul a faith that has had to overcome her excruciating doubts, questions, and frustrations, and still loves Him.

The problem with testimonies like Eareckson Tada's, of course, is that God might have taught her all of the things He's been able to teach her in some other way, even if she had been healed.  If you're going to be cynical about it, just because God hasn't provided a miracle to Eareckson Tada doesn't mean He can't provide a miracle to anybody else, either.  We don't necessarily have a grasp on what - or how - God is doing and working in other parts of the world.  Parts of the world that aren't as, well, cynical as ours.  Remember the latent ethnocentrism I detected from the men who wrote the Westminster Confession?  Just because Westerners would likely question the legitimacy of a miraculous cure as probably some secret medicinal trick doesn't mean less sophisticated societies in areas where medical access is marginal can't credit God with the power to instantaneously heal.

And speaking of speaking in tongues, and ethnocentrism, did you know that the correct term is "glossolalia"?  It can also be called xenoglossy, which refers to an instance when somebody correctly speaks a legitimate language they previously did not know.  Which, Biblically, is what happens when a person "speaks in tongues."  According to Acts 2, speaking in tongues must involve three things:  the speaker must speak in a language that is spoken somewhere on Earth, but it not native to them; what is said must be immediately translated by somebody else for the benefit of everybody in the audience; and it must bring glory to God by affirming His Gospel.  In other words, it's not a mumble-jumble of incoherent sounds.  It's not a proof of salvation.  And, yes, it is just bizarre enough of an event that God may not consider it a widely applicable tool now that His church has been established.  But does that mean He doesn't use it somewhere, with somebody, today?

Might MacArthur and his like-minded evangelicals be a bit threatened by the thought of a God Whose ways are so weird and unconventional?  Granted, a lot of the Gospel is weird and unconventional, especially to the unsaved.  In his Strange Fire conference, MacArthur says he wanted to create a dialog of respectful warning of what he sees as an unBiblical encroachment of Pentecostal dogma within more orthodox areas of evangelicalism.  Unfortunately, some of his critics are now complaining that he's stirring the pot too much with divisiveness, or that he's being too public with his criticisms, or that he's not being loving and respectful of differing views.

To a certain extent, some of MacArthur's language is his typical blunt, no-apologies style.  He's been quoted as saying Pentecostalism has brought "chaos" to Christianity.  Yet, it's also worth pointing out that people like MacArthur can't win in these types of debates, because it's become unfashionable to criticize anybody these days.  Everybody's entitled to their opinion, every athlete gets a trophy, and all roads lead to Heaven.  It's easy for people who don't agree with MacArthur to blame him for how he says what he believes, instead of simply analyzing what he believes.

In all of this, no matter what side any of us are on, what's the one constant?  It's that God is looking at all of our hearts, right?  He's looking within MacArthur, and within everybody who spoke at his conference.  He's looking inside your heart, and mine.  If MacArthur is truly trying to be a bully, or trying to maliciously argue that it's his way or the highway, then even if none of his critics can prove it, God knows it.  And if any of his critics simply don't want to admit that what MacArthur believes is true, God knows that, too.

And isn't this what matters most?  Obviously, with learned, respectable scholars on both sides of this debate advancing Bible-based arguments for their perspectives, this is not something that will likely be resolved to everybody's satisfaction this side of Heaven.  MacArthur makes some valid points, particularly regarding the dangerous extremes of Pentecostalism, yet more conservative views of continuationism cannot be definitively refuted.  Isn't what's left the measure with which we seek to honor God with what we believe about how the Holy Spirit uses these debatable gifts?

The value in MacArthur's Strange Fire lies in his willingness to call out the egregious heretics within Pentecostalism for what they are:  "deceivers... false teachers... in it for the money."  Unfortunately, he sees the root of Pentecostalism's problems as being how believers imagine the Holy Spirit operates, instead of the blatant sins charismatics may commit in God's name.  For MacArthur to rest his claims on something that's actually impossible to prove - instead of the many factual instances in which Pentecostal leaders have led people astray - he may find it ends up working against him.

Strange fire, indeed.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Gambling With Fun

What is "bluffing?"

It's the deliberate attempt to manipulate reality, isn't it?  It's an overt action designed to either convey something that isn't true, or to create significant doubt regarding the veracity of something.

Bluffing is an action that subverts another person's well-being for the sake of our own.

In other words, it's a form of lying.

And Christians who play poker say bluffing is just part of the game.  So what does that tell us about poker?

And, indeed, the Christians who play it?

Jerry B. Jenkins is co-author of the wildly popular Left Behind series of Christian books, and a former vice-president of publishing at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.  Jenkins still sits on the board at Moody, and serves as its chairman.

He's also an unapologetic poker player.  According to World magazine, Jenkins defends his poker playing by claiming to reporter Daniel James Devine that since poker is a game of skill, he's not gambling when he participates in poker championships from California to Indiana.  He thinks he's pretty good at it, even though he says he's lost about as much money as he's won playing it.  So it's not like he's taking unreasonable risks with his money.

Nevertheless, if, using Jenkins' self-professed experience, one has to be a pretty good poker player to just break even at it, what does that say about the game itself, and what one must do to win?

One of the main reasons gambling, of which poker has traditionally been accused by fundamentalists as being, is such a "bad sin" involves how financially costly it can be.  Neither gambling in general nor poker specifically are listed as sins in the Bible, but we're not supposed to waste the money God gives us, either.  Some people also point to gambling's addictiveness for some people, plus the fact that most gambling halls are run by people who also profit from clear-cut sins, like prostitution.  But many Christians are loathe to dwell on addictions, let alone gambling, since addictions can include even more common items like coffee and chocolate.  And if we were to start not doing business with people who make money in other, more nefarious enterprises, where would it end?

If you want to knock Jenkins for wasting money on his poker, that's a hard sell in his case.  For a guy who's sold tens of millions of books, and readily admits to being "a high income person," the amount of money he's won and lost becomes a relative concept.  Perhaps the $12,000 or so Devine has tallied in Jenkins's winnings over the years really is the chump change Jenkins claims it to be, as are his corresponding losses.  For him, it would be similar to normal-income Christians playing for dimes, quarters, or even dollar bills.

But is it really losing money that makes poker bad?  Is the amount of money you win worth the losses you accrued in building up those wins?  Can Christians keep a slush fund of cash that isn't important, and can be marginalized in the broader spectrum of their income and ability to generate positive cash flow?  Who gets to decide how much money we can afford to lose at something unnecessary like gambling?  What's the difference in determining the skill necessary to win at poker, and to win at Wall Street, or any number of speculative entrepreneurial ventures a person might undertake?  And what if you win?  What if you can bluff your way out of anything, and you're making a ton of money at the poker table?  Does winning justify poker and gambling?

And what about this whole freedom-in-Christ thing, the umbrella of grace under which people like Jenkins enjoy what others consider to be vices?  Jenkins even says his winnings go to charity, so what's to complain about here?

One of the issues here involves the reasons why we do these things.  Why poker, or gambling in general, or even drinking alcohol, or smoking, or any number of things that Christianity has broadly identified as sinful behavior in the past?

Why do we want to do these things?  Because we believers in Christ are entitled to have fun!

And We'll Have Fun, Fun, Fun, 'Till Daddy Takes...

Quite honestly, "fun" is not a Biblical concept.  Having fun is not unBiblical, but no believer in Christ is guaranteed fun.  We're not to expect it.  Christ did not die so we could have fun.  Could it also be that our well-argued freedoms in Christ aren't so much about what we can do, as they are what we don't have to do?

Let's be clear:  God is no cosmic kill-joy.  Think about it!  He has created many things that don't directly impact the essential functions or functionality of His Creation, yet from which we can still derive "fun."  The changing colors of leaves in autumn, for example:  instead of purples and reds, God could have just let them fade to a nasty, brownish black.  God could have avoided humor altogether (as some people think He did with my sense of it).  And have you ever heard of the Fibonacci sequence?  It's a naturally-occurring, mathematically-irrefutable series of numbers replicated in things as diverse as pine cones and architectural form that is pleasing to the eye and structurally perfect.  Only God could have created it, and we see it so often, we take it for granted, but God could have just plopped a bunch of seeds onto a flower.

God's fascinating arrangement of seeds, petals, and spacial hierarchies isn't necessary for our existence on this planet, yet He has given them to us for our enjoyment.  So we're not talking here about believers in Christ having to live in pious refutation of all things pleasurable.

But often, we act as though we have a right to all of these things.  We're justified so we can justify our fun.  We like to frame it with spirituality and say that we glorify God by having fun, but might it be more a frame of fuzzy rights and responsibilities?  The only thing to which we have any rights before we're saved is damnation to Hell, and the only thing to which we have any rights after we're saved is the Kingdom of God.  And what is in God's Kingdom?  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Obviously, fun does not automatically correlate to sin.  But seeing as how fun is not a Fruit of the Spirit, shouldn't we exercise particular diligence in those things from which we derive our fun?  Many Christians bristle at such a question, because to them, it smacks of legalism.  But might it simply be bothersome because, if we were to analyze the things we do, we might actually end up parsing them against our true motives, and perhaps, our hidden flaws?

Slavery, Freedom, Sin, and Righteousness

Isn't it easier to just claim grace and call it a day?  We love Galatians 5:1, which says, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."

But what is this "yoke of slavery?"  We like to read Romans 6:14-20 with an eye towards the "not under law" part, but there's more to it than that:

For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.  What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?  By no means!  Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey - whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?  But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.  You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.  I [Paul] put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves.  Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.  When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.

Many Christians forget that freedom does not exist in a vacuum.  When we were slaves to sin, Paul points out that we were free from Christ's control.  But were we really free?  No, we were slaves to sin.  Now that we're supposed to be under Christ's control, we're free from the law, but slaves to righteousness.

Now, maybe there's something righteous about trivializing our responsibility to what we consider to be small amounts of money God gives us.  For people like Jenkins, who have earned millions in their "legitimate" careers, a couple of thousand dollars here and there "lost" via poker might mirror the couple of hundred dollars somebody else of lesser means might spend on a hobby.  After all, we all like to have fun, and Jenkins' version of fun simply happens to cost more than somebody else's.  He's probably still tithing, still giving to charity, still providing for his family, and still paying his bills.  Are we going to say that no Christian can have a hobby that costs any money?

Then maybe there's something righteous about spending our hobby money with organizations that have historically enjoyed ties to organized crime, prostitution rings, and even money-laundering.  If you've ever eaten at a restaurant in New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago, how do you know you weren't helping to fund less legal activities?  Maybe there comes a point where we need to be strictly responsible for how we spend the money God gives us, and the people to whom we give God's money become immediately responsible for how they spend it.  We wash our hands of it when the money leaves them.

Addiction to gambling?  There's plenty of resources out there to help you.  In Jenkins' case, it sounds like he knows his limits, so who are we to judge?

If you've gotten this far in your quest to legitimizing gambling, there's likely little fault left to poker.  Hey, you don't even have to play for money!  You can play for Ritz crackers or pretzel sticks.

Face Poker

But what about the way poker is played?  What is a key ingredient for success in poker?  It's a player's ability to bluff, isn't it?  If you're not bluffing, you can still win a hand but, according to, you're not really playing poker then.

So, what is a bluff?  According to, it's "an act of deception - meant to make your weak hand look stronger than it is - with the intent of getting your opponent to fold."  According to, bluffing can vary in its execution, but it still involves an attempt at falsifying reality.  You're also capitalizing on another player's insecurity, which is hardly a Christian ethic, but the main point is that you're deploying deception for personal gain.

Oh, but it's just a game, right?  What's the big deal?  All I want is a little fun.

Christ died so that we could have life, and have it more abundantly.  If abundant life to you means that you get to have fun, and bluffing is an acceptable way to have fun, then how would you react to the idea that Christ is bluffing when He says He died for you?  All in the name of fun.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  How are we supposed to treat each other?

If we want what we want when we want it, and we expect it despite the reality of what Christ's gifts of freedom and grace are supposed to do through us for Him, then perhaps you're really a gambler for whom poker makes a lot of sense.

Meanwhile, sometimes we've just gotta know when to fold 'em.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Taxing Our Health, One Way or Another

Garbage in, garbage out.

It's a phrase used in the technology world to describe how the quality of computer code impacts the quality of what it produces.  Work hard and create good computer code, and the program supported by that code will generate good results.  The amount of effort you put into something will be reflected in what you get out of it.

Well, the same approach techies use to create the computer codes that, increasingly, run our world is the same approach we probably should be taking regarding our diets.  Our physical diets, that is.  What we eat.

After all, we are what we eat.

In other words, those of us who rely on a junky diet are likely going to end up with junky health.  And in our society, junky health usually affects more than just the patient.

New York City's Michael Bloomberg took a lot of flak for proposing that the city impose restrictions for sugary sodas, a move that was initially struck down in court, but will now be reviewed by the state's supreme court under an appeal by Bloomberg's administration.

It's easy to castigate Bloomberg for being a soda Nazi.  But what gets lost in all of the acrimony is his original goal:  to try and get people on welfare to eat healthier food.  Taxpayers in New York City pay exorbitant costs for their welfare recipients' healthcare issues caused by obesity.  In many low-income neighborhoods, the only clean, affordable restaurants are fast food joints.  So Bloomberg - acting, actually, on an idea posed in jest by the late, great Ed Koch - decided to wage war on super-sized sodas, since carbonated beverages are a primary source of unnecessary sugar.  Reduce sugar intake among welfare recipients, reduce obesity, and reduce the costs to taxpayers for obesity-related healthcare for welfare recipients.

Seen in that light, what's been called Bloomberg's soda "ban" isn't quite as draconian as his critics have assumed it to be.  It's still not very good public policy, which is the reason why former mayor Koch was only joking when he gave Bloomberg the idea several years ago.  But conservatives have been advocating for even more stringent measures against entitlements for years.  Perhaps conservatives should be careful what they wish for.

Meanwhile, last night in Mexico City, that country's legislature took a big step towards creating new taxes on sugary foods of all types, not just sodas.  Mexico's lower house of Congress has proposed a new 5% tax on packaged sweets that is likely to pass the country's upper house and become law.  And it will become law on top of an already-proposed one-peso-per-liter levy on sodas.  Once enacted, these new taxes will make Mexico one of the newest stars in the growing movement towards penalizing people for eating food that isn't good for them.

Still, is it really government's role to do that?  Sure, we penalize smokers, and we create legal restrictions for how much alcohol people should consume in public, but when it comes to foods we've come to consider a normal part of our diet, is having the government set limits for us going too far?

Let's think about this logically.  We know that processed foods are not healthy, and that too much sugar isn't, either.  We know that if we choose to eat foods that are unhealthy, we should exercise even more than we would if we lived on vegetables and raw fish.  Usually, however, one of the reasons we eat food that's bad for us - such as fast food, or other packaged, processed foods - is because we tend to be in a hurry, without the time to stop and prepare a dinner with fresh, natural foods from scratch.

Another problem is that a lot of food that isn't good for us sure tastes mighty good.  And the negative effects of such food don't show up right away.  Unhealthy eating has a cumulative effect on us, unless we're already diabetic and gorge on Ding Dongs.  Plus, most of us have jobs which keep us pretty sedentary.  It's not like the olden days, when we'd be out plowing or something.  We're putting garbage in, but garbage may not come out for quite a while.

But when it does, things can get expensive.  Many of us are upset with Obamacare and how it's been foisted upon our country, but it's hard to ignore the fact that, at least in part, Obamacare is a desperate attempt to try and address the growing healthcare needs Americans have.  It may not be a good solution at all, but Obamacare might not have been as necessary as some liberals claim it to be had all of us been eating better over the past 50 years.

Heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, cancers of all kinds:  the list of physical maladies that could be partially prevented by a good diet is pretty long.  And we know it!  We know that we can avoid some problems simply by eating more raw vegetables and less raw Ben & Jerry's.  But yet, few of us do.

I know I don't.  Ever since I moved away from New York City, where I walked everywhere, I've struggled with my diet.  Actually, when I lived on East 28th Street, I knew all of the delis and bodegas that daily replenished their stock of Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk, and many evenings, that heavenly elixir - preceded by a bowl of corn flakes - was my dinner.  There were many things about bachelorhood in the city that I didn't like, but getting to make my own dinners wasn't one of them!  Nevertheless, I managed to keep a 29" waist simply by walking as much as urbanites do.

Down here in Texas, my downfall became breakfasts, with a Dunkin' Donuts right near my workplace tempting me daily like a vile seductress.  Then it was Shipley's Donuts, a local favorite here in Arlington.  And I'm paying for it still today, all these years later.  I not only have a 29" waist, I have one and a half of them!

Not that I'm bragging, mind you.  People like me can become a drain on our healthcare system, no matter who's paying for it.  And maybe, people like me should be held liable for choosing a dietary lifestyle that is not economically sustainable in the long run.  I think people who smoke should pay more for their health insurance, I think people who drink and drive should pay more for both their health and auto insurance, and frankly, I think people who don't eat right should pay more for their health insurance.

There are some people - a very small number of people - whose weight problems are more hereditary than anything else.  Or their weight gain is caused as a complication of some other health issue.  Not everybody who's fat or unhealthy has gotten that way by eating garbage.  But plenty of us are because we have.

What if the government prevented food stamp recipients from purchasing a certain amount of packaged foodstuffs?  What if the bulk of what they were allowed to purchase on their SNAP cards was fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat?  What if Crisco and Miracle Whip were banned?  Or Oreos, and Doritos?

How much of a difference is there between the government preventing SNAP users from procuring certain types of food, and the rest of us - for the same reason:  our health?  After all, even if you have great health insurance, that's not paying the entire bill for your healthcare.  Like it or not, our government subsidizes a lot of our healthcare, with or without Obamacare, from tax breaks to ambulance companies and retirement communities, to research grants to find cures for cancers, dementia, and other diseases that are impacted by poor diets.  We tax tobacco products heavily; why not the stuff that makes us fat?  And why not penalize those of us who otherwise might not have the willpower to eat properly on our own?

Too much government interference?  Too much big-government-invading-my-life? 

Probably so, but like they say:  garbage in, garbage out.

What our poor diets cause could eventually take the form of lots of things we won't like.  At least, if we don't change our own eating habits... on our own.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Calvary's the Buckle in NYC's Billionaire Belt

Suppose you attended this church.

Maybe you were even its pastor.  Or one of its elders.

This church is historic, and enjoys a high-profile location in its town, on a busy street.  It is known for preaching the Gospel, which means that while a lot of townspeople may respect its right to hold unpopular positions on various issues, that unpopularity unfortunately extends to their lack of enthusiasm for visiting your church.  The people who do attend your church, however, represent a broad spectrum of incomes, ethnicities, and races from all over town, and even nearby communities.

All of a sudden, you find that the neighborhood around your church is being inundated with billionaires.  Dozens of them.  Spectacular new homes are being built for them, just down the street from your church, and some practically next door.  These billionaires are so rich, they're beyond celebrities; you don't know their names.  You're not even sure what they do for a living.  But they're buying up property like crazy, and paying crazy prices in the process.

Technically, it's not just billionaires buying these homes.  Billionaires are buying, but so are people "only" worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  All of this wealth, and it's literally next door to your church.

Sound utterly absurd?  Well, it's happening right now, even as you read this.

The church is Calvary Baptist, and the neighborhood is Midtown Manhattan, in New York City.  57th Street, to be precise; what author Michael Gross has dubbed the "billionaire's belt."

And Calvary is its geographic buckle!  Smack-dab between Sixth and Seventh avenues, two blocks south of Central Park, and being rapidly surrounded by some of the priciest homes on the planet.

Do you remember, back during Superstorm Sandy last fall, the news about a construction crane that high winds twisted from its moorings atop an uber-luxury residential tower in Manhattan?  Well, that uber-luxury tower, called One57, is a couple of doors down from Calvary Baptist.  It's a building where two condos - that aren't even completed - have already sold for a reputed $95 million each.

Ninety-five.  Million.  Dollars.


And One57 is just the beginning.  Today, there are no fewer than seven super-luxury high-rise residential towers planned within a few blocks surrounding Calvary and 57th Street.  Towers where apartments are commanding prices in the tens of millions of dollars apiece.  Currently, the average price of these apartments is $20 million, with at least one listed for $115 million, but bidding wars may force prices even higher.  That's why everyone assumes it's only billionaires who can afford these places.  For billionaires, real estate in the world's most elite cities has become one of their safest investments, and New York - and Manhattan in particular - is one of those elite cities.  The others are Singapore, Hong Kong, and London, where similar trophy apartments at similar prices are already being snapped up.

You and I might expect at least a couple of trees and a manicured lawn for $20 million, let alone $115 million, but these homes in Manhattan's billionaire belt are all about the two V's:  verticality and views.  Prices go up the higher the apartment is, and the better its views are.  Trees are for Central Park, views of which are New York's most coveted.  And manicured lawn space can be found in one of the other exclusive properties most of these wealthy homeowners maintain in other parts of the world.  After all, it's not likely that many of these super-luxury apartments will actually serve as their owner's family home.  These will be extravagant crash pads when family members visit the city on business or pleasure.  Something to brag about to the little people back in the Mother Country, or the yacht club in the south of France, or one's clients - or competitors.

Indeed, while developers, real estate agents, and their clients claim all of this is about careful investing, it's as much about conquering the aspirations of others as it is sound portfolio management.

As far as verticality is concerned, One57 has topped out at 90 stories, and while some towers in the billionaire's belt will being shorter, others will be even taller, although their floor count may be less.  How can that be?  Because the ceiling height per floor in some of these buildings could range from ten to 15 feet or more per floor.  And, as New York's building frenzy has developed over the years, incorporating things such as hotels and department stores into lower portions of these skyscrapers, the methods builders use to number their floors has become a laughably imprecise science, with hubris and marketing accounting for curiously inflated floor counts.  Remember, the higher the floor, the higher the rent.

Gimmicks abound in all housing price points, even at the tippy-top.

After 9/11, skyscraper planners worried that people wouldn't want to live or work in tall buildings any more, and briefly, rents for lower floor spaces actually increased.  But that's all ancient history now.

This is a new level of luxury, folks, in every way.  And the market for these trophy homes is known to exist, because the first tower of its kind, a marble bauble nearby at 15 Central Park West designed by Robert A.M. Stern, recently saw an apartment sell for the then-record amount of $88 million to a Russian oligarch.

Which helps explain where all of the people to buy these stratospherically-priced homes are coming from.  Most of them are not Americans.  For one project, over on Park Avenue, where listings are going for $80 million even though half of the building doesn't yet exist, marketing material is available in Russian, Chinese, and even Portuguese, for wealthy Brazilians.

It's not that New York City isn't home to its own bevy of billionaires, but they're not as used to thinking of trophy residential real estate outside of discreet enclaves in the Upper East Side like Sutton Place, or maybe facing the park along Fifth Avenue.

Yes, West 57th Street is a prominent boulevard, but with the billionaire's belt being centered more towards Seventh Avenue than Park, it's a bit of a paradigm shift for traditionalists.  When, really, it shouldn't be.  Manhattan's money has been spreading out for generations now.

Even Calvary Baptist's history helps chart Manhattan's evolution.  For example, Calvary's move from its previous location on 23rd Street to its present spot on 57th occurred in 1883, shortly before the city's elite began their own transition from individual family mansions to luxury apartment buildings.  It was a transition that began to stall around Calvary's neighborhood, which sat between the city's wealthy East Side and historically less-affluent West Side.

Today, however, the high rents being asked - and paid - in even formerly-notorious Hell's Kitchen would make protagonists from theater's West Side Story gag with incredulity.

Not that, frankly, things will probably change much at Calvary itself, even as it becomes the buckle in the city's Billionaire's Belt.  It's been generations since the church, as a Bible-preaching, evangelical outpost in an increasingly pluralistic and hedonistic city, has attracted a lot of its pedigreed neighbors.  Interestingly, it probably has more respectability among members of its local business association as one of the district's legacy establishments.  After all, there aren't many things older than Calvary on the block.

Well, older than the congregation, anyway.  Their church facility is relatively new, by New York's antiquity standards.  Its sanctuary is actually carved out of the first four floors of a 16-story hotel owned by the church.  In 1929, when the city widened 57th Street, all of the buildings on the north side of the street - Calvary's side - were demolished for the project, so the congregation's Gothic structure from 1883 was replaced with a facility that could host missionaries coming through New York's bustling harbor on their way to and from foreign countries.  A neat idea, huh?  These days, the hotel is managed by a third party and charges market rates, of which the church receives a percentage.

Several years ago, a developer approached Calvary with an offer to buy their unique structure and replace it with a luxury residential skyscraper, similar to what's being built at One57.  He'd even re-build a sanctuary and office space for the church in the bowels of his new project, similar to Calvary's current set-up.  However, the idea proved too unconventional for the congregation, and they passed up the offer.  With their current sanctuary, the motto "We preach Christ crucified, risen, and coming again" is etched in stone over the doorway facing 57th Street.  What kind of identity would the church be allowed to have as just another tenant in an exclusive apartment tower?

So... suppose you attended Calvary Baptist.  How would you react to this invasion of your church's neighborhood?

Usually, churches worry about their neighborhood going bad with crime and deteriorating property values.  This is a whole 'nother ballgame.  Would you scramble to figure out what really, really, really rich people like in their church services?  Would you revamp your programming to attract people who probably only view the time they'll be spending in your church's neighborhood as a lark, or part of a high-intensity economic transaction?

Or would you hope that Calvary continues to worship the Lord, preach His Word, pray for the city, commission cross-cultural missionaries, minister to the poor, administer the sacraments, and keep the lights lit over their doorway with its "We preach Christ crucified, risen, and coming again" motto?

Yes, I hope Calvary does the latter, two.  In a way, it's a buckle for much more than today's billionaire belt.

Calvary Baptist's sanctuary entrance on W. 57th. St.