Watts Towers

February 29, 2016

For someone of my age and skin tone, the word ‘Watts’ elicits definite feelings of unease. wattstowers7While I am probably too young to actually remember the images of the 1965 uprising, it was part of the mid-to-late 60s period when American cities seemed engulfed in fire, destruction and racial tensions. I certainly do remember the 1992 riots, living here in Los Angeles at the time, standing on the roof of our apartment building, a 10-15 minute car ride from the south-central area of the city boiling over, watching the smoke from the fires that were alight in the city again.

“But Watts is country which lies, psychologically, uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to travel,” Thomas Pynchon wrote in a New York Times essay, 9 months after the ’65 August riots, in the wake, incredibly, of another shooting of an unarmed black man, in his car, in front of his pregnant wife, by a white police officer who, unsurprisingly, was not charged with the death. “She’s going to have a baby,” was the last thing Leonard Deadwyler said. I Can’t Breath. Watts, 1966. Staten Island, 2014. Ferguson, Missouri.

To my discredit, these were some of the thoughts running through my mind as I made my way to Watts last week, wattstowers8the reasons why I never had even thought to make the trip back 20 years ago when I last lived here. This is not my part of the city. Terra vetita.

It is does such a disservice to the place and communities living here. This blinkered, limited view diminishes what Watts actually is, what it’s been, the totality of its history. How can anywhere be reduced to any one thing? I’ll tell you how. Willful ignorance.

Like much of Los Angeles, Watts was, with the appearance of the Europeans, originally farmland. Then the railroad came in the late-19th century, and Watts grew into a working class city, connected to other parts of Los Angeles by an extensive intra-urban public transit rail system. (It’s important to always make that point for people who still think this is a city built for the car.) Many of the residents, in fact, worked for the railroads. Watts was incorporated as a city in 1906 and became part of Los Angeles in 1924 through annexation.wattstowers6

Three years before that, Sabato Rodia, an Italian immigrant and tile worker, had begun what would be a 33 year quixotic art installation endeavour. The Watts Towers, or Nuestro Pueblo, Our Town. It was an imaginative recreation of elements of Rodia’s hometown in southern Italy, single-handedly constructed in his backyard with scraps of metal, cement and other neighbourhood detritus and found objects of broken tiles, glass, seashells.

It is a staggering work of artistic imagination and determination. And defiance. And the individual idiosyncrasy that Los Angeles is noted for.

Not long after completing it, at the ripe old age of 75, Rodia handed over ownership of his house and property to a neighbour before leaving the city to live with family in central California. He never returned, never came back to look upon his creation. Subsequent owners spent five years or so, fending off the city’s attempts to tear the work down, citing safety concerns. wattstowers5But in 1959, after it proved to be earthquake sturdy, the city backed off and the towers remained in place, now part of a community arts centre.

Today, wandering through the project, looking up at the spires which have no logical reason for still being up there, the Watts Towers seem to symbolize for me a constancy, a sense of permanence that withstands the pressures of change and evolution that neighbourhoods and communities are always subject to. Sabato Rodia chose the location, the house with the backyard facing the railroad tracks so that lots of people would see his work of art as they commuted back and forth to work. Before he was finished in 1954, the rails had been torn up, nearby jobs departed further afield, a working class neighbourhood transformed into a highly racialized one, rife with all the tensions and conflicts that boiled over into an uprising one week in August, more than 50 years ago.

Like the Towers, some things haven’t changed that much. “50 Years And I Still Can’t Breath” was an exhibition on display in the adjoining gallery, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion. wattstowers7Yes, the hate and oppression and state-sanctioned violence against marginalized communities has not gone away. In many ways, it remains as virulent as ever, gone underground and re-emerged, more covert than overt.

But, in Watts, like other economically and social segregated parts of Los Angeles, the trains have returned, in the form of LRTs, re-connecting neglected and ignored neighbourhoods to the wider region. The demographics are changing too as new immigration seizes the opportunities to make a better life for themselves. There’s an amazing resiliency, a potent timelessness, as represented by the towers, to the struggle against all the malignant forces that have besieged places like Watts pretty much from the outset. Conformity, misguided city building, economic dislocation, prejudice, both hard and soft, that see places like these only through a very narrow lens of skewed preconceptions set in mind a long time ago. Preconceptions I should have known to let die a long time ago.

shamefully submitted by Cityslikr


Transit Intransigence

October 30, 2015

Just a quick (here’s hoping) update on the post yesterday re the Brampton city council rejection of the north of Steeles section of the proposed Hurontario-Main LRT, and the ugly horrors the intrusion of parochial interests have on transit planning. columbo1(Still looking at you, Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker).

I late linked to a more in-depth article about the Brampton debacle from Sean Marshall at Marshall’s Musings. If you didn’t catch it then, I advise you to do so now. Here’s a snippet.

The Hurontario-Main corridor was selected for LRT simply because it is one of the busiest transit corridors in the Greater Toronto Area outside the City of Toronto; it connects three GO lines and several major bus corridors, it would help urbanize south Brampton and several neighbourhoods in Mississauga. It’s part of a larger regional network, yet six city councillors in Brampton, looking out for narrow, local interests, sunk it.

Earlier in the post, Marshall points out that the line at its proposed southernmost terminus, at the Port Credit waterfront, had been snipped off in a similarly, if less dramatic fashion, due to what he called “community opposition”.

This brought to mind stories our Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, told us about the obstacle that city faces in its transit plans, a place called Beverly Hills, swimming pools and movie stars. It is one of 88 municipalities in Los Angeles County, home to 35,000 of the county’s 10 million people, and yet it has the heft to be constantly throwing up road blocks to wider regional projects. Bike lanes? Forget it. Rush hour dedicated bus lanes? No way, José. As for a westward subway extension tunneled under Beverly Hills High? Ummmm…

Yikes!

What often times gets lost in the back-and-forth debate over transit planning and proposed projects, all the wonkery and nerd talk pushing it from polite conversation, is any discussion on class and race. The northern portion up into Brampton of the HMLRT was opposed by that city’s well-heeled living in big houses on Main Street. This group included former Ontario premier Bill Davis. monoclewearingTerms like ‘heritage preservation’ or ‘maintaining neighbourhood character’ get tossed around but it’s hard to avoid looking at the deeper context. Public transit is for other people.

Rarely do you hear those who depend on public transit — many, economically and socially marginalized — complain that the service is too close to where they live. That it negatively impacts the character of their street. That it threatens the heritage of their neighbourhood. How the overhead wires interfere with their view. Those kinds of concerns are for other people.

Equally, just how much say should we be giving to individual communities when it conflicts with wider objectives? Yeah, I’m talking about the greater good here. As Marshall writes in his post, the proposed Hurontario-Main LRT was chosen because it runs along “one of the busiest transit corridors” in the GTA and “connects three GO lines and several major bus corridors”. upyoursAnd it gets tossed aside because a handful of elected officials, listening to a handful of voices, albeit persuasive ones, don’t want it?

It’s a prickly situation, to be sure. I’m advocating for the railroading, so to speak, of local opinion because it’s acting as a detriment to a wider regional transportation plan for no other discernible reason aside from self-interest. But I’m at a loss how else you put the ‘we’ ahead of ‘me’ when it’s the emphasis on the latter that’s got us all bogged down in the first place.

classically submitted by Cityslikr


CAPITALIZING The Future

June 9, 2015

“Realistically cars are NEVER going to disappear.” [Capitalization ENTIRELY the author’s doing.]

So proclaimed former city councillor and transit advocate, Gordon Chong, in this weekend’s Toronto Sun, and in one sentence putting out there EVERYTHING that is wrong with the Gardiner East’s “hybrid” supporters – led by Mayor John Tory — argument.blinkers

They cannot get see a future that will not be exactly like the past, their past.

That no one I’ve ever heard (or, at least, taken seriously) has stated that the private automobile is going the way of the dinosaur is of no consequence to “hybrid” proponents. Hyperbole and the assigning of extremely held beliefs to opposition voices is the hallmark of those pushing policy that lacks any sort of evidentiary base. The entrenched status quo sees any change as wild-eyed and unthinkable revolution. Utopian. Idyllic. Latte-sipping.

The fact that driving patterns have changed since the Gardiner first went up seems of little consequence to unabashed automobile enthusiasts like Gordon Chong. The number of drivers using the Gardiner, the ENTIRE Gardiner, during peak commute hours has remained relatively stable since the 1970s despite the explosive growth the GTAs have seen in the period. Why? Because there is only so much road space. Only so many cars can fit onto it at any given time.

So people use alternative methods to get around the city and region. Public transit, for one. There’s where you’ve seen a corresponding EXPLOSIVE GROWTH to our population boom. Despite what the TTC CEO called this morning “a chronic lack of funding” for public transit in this city, people in greater numbers keep using it. keepdiggingStill, “hybrid” supporters don’t think it’s up to the task of accommodating whatever overflow may occur if the elevated portion of the Gardiner East is removed.

Which is a funny position to take because, looking at the morning rush hour to downtown (that is where the Gardiner east is located), there isn’t a ward in the city that has more than half its commuters driving. (h/t Laurence Liu). Fun fact? In Ward 2, the beating heart of Ford Nation, transit users coming downtown in the a.m. outnumber drivers, 77%-22%. You read that correctly. Unfortunately, I can’t capitalize it for emphasis.

Driving has become only a component of how people move around the city and not the primary one either, certainly not downtown. There is a shift in our relationship to automobiles. Many more of us aren’t experiencing the freedom we’re promised in car ads. Trends suggest more people are settling down into the core. Driving becomes less desirable.

That’s before we even get to the hard charging technology of driverlessness which promises to alter not only the occupant’s experience but the efficiency with which traffic flows. Will it? Who knows? But pretending it won’t possibly be a factor is tantamount to suggesting computer chips haven’t changed how we live our lives.

Refusing to accept reality, though, is a big part of the “hybrid” game plan. caradIt’s no mistake in his speech yesterday to the Empire Club Mayor Tory raised the spectre of Fred “Big Daddy” Gardiner, the first chair of Metro Council and the political architect of urban expressway building in Toronto. The mayor talks Gardiner, and speaks of cars and driving, while ignoring process.

Gardiner (the man) threw his energy into making Toronto car-friendly because he was operating on the best available evidence of the time. The private automobile was about the future, with cheap gas and limitless land in which to build our suburban getaways as far as the eye could see and the mind imagine. It’s easy, with more than half a century of hindsight, to roll your eyes. What were they thinking?!

Unless, of course, you support the “hybrid” option. You can’t let go of that thinking. As it was, so it must ever be. Mayor Tory touts Fred Gardiner. Who can argue with Big Daddy, am I right?

In their mind, as expressed by Gordon Chong in the Toronto Sun, “ …an expressway under Lake Ontario is the REAL VISIONARY FUTURE [capitalization mine], much like the Bloor Viaduct was decades ago.” Build more car infrastructure! Screw the cost (BOSTON) or technical nightmares of tunneling near water (SEATTLE). This ‘guerilla war fought against the car for decades’ must come to an end. Driving is not the source of congestion. aroundinawarenessNot enabling more driving is.

It’s not that cars are NEVER going to disappear (although, it seems, they do if you take road space away from them). It’s the zombie-like belief Gordon Chong, Mayor Tory and all the other “hybrid” supporters hold in the primacy of cars as the transportation mode people will use that refuses to die or, at least, face reality. Driving habits have already changed since the time of Fred Gardiner. Evidence heavily suggests it’s a trend that will continue into the future. Investing unnecessarily to fight congestion in the name of cars is doing nothing more than fighting the future, and investing in a dream Fred Gardiner had more than 50 years ago.

As it turns out, a dream that has not aged particularly well.

submitted by Cityslikr


Picking Sides

December 22, 2014

It’s difficult for me to determine which of this is the most dispiritingly fucked up. The number of civilians killed by law enforcement officers in the United States since… well, pick a number, any number. Incredibly, these kind of statistics aren’t routinely kept. The execution style shooting of two New York police officers over the weekend. Or the statement issued in response to the shooting, allegedly by the inaptly named Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, one of the NYPD’s unions:

“The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies, and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.”

It is the latest twist in the uneasy saga between New York mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s police force, going back to the election campaign when he talked of reform. The police have viewed his not critical enough opinion of the protests which emerged in the city after yet another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, was killed at the hands of the police and yet another grand jury refused to pursue prosecution.

Not to diminish anyone’s deaths here, not the slain police officers, not the hundreds of civilians killed annually by police and law enforcement officers but the above statement has to be as close to treasonous as you can get if that’s possible in a non-military situation. Officers sworn to uphold the rule of law declaring war, essentially, on those who have granted them that right. ‘We will act accordingly’ uttered threateningly in the direction of an elected leader.

How can that not be the most shocking element in this already shocking story?

The fact that no solid record or numbers have been kept in terms of civilian deaths at the hands of police forces is shocking.

The blind eye we as a society turn to excessive force and brutality from our police officers is shocking.

The ease with which a convicted criminal with acknowledged mental health problems could access a firearm is shocking.

But little undercuts a democracy more than the idea of armed insurrection by those expected to serve and protect.

Am I missing something in those ‘wartime’ words?

I ask this from my privileged perch where my last interaction with the police was getting the speed reduced on a ticket I received in order to avoid losing points. I am not unaware that large segments of our society already see the police in a much less benign way than I do. People of colour. Those with mental health issues. The poor, the indigent, the outsiders.

Police baring their teeth at them is nothing new.

But we, those of us on the safe side, collectively shrug. It’s a dirty job, right? Where angels fear to tread…

Increasingly however, the net of undesirables has seemingly widened. Somehow expressing understanding of mostly peaceful protests against the death of another unarmed black man has made the mayor of New York complicit in cop killings. You’re either with the police or you’re with the police killers. Levelling any sort of criticism of the men and women in blue is now akin to levelling a gun at their temple.

Toronto’s police union president got into the frenzy, penning an editorial in the Toronto Sun, pointing his finger at ‘anti-police rhetoric’ as destabilizing. Carried to the extreme – “police officers are the enemy”, McCormack puts in quotes, although I’m unsure exactly who he is quoting – can only lead to the tragedy we witnessed in Brooklyn on Saturday. Police actions have no consequences. Criticisms of those actions, which amount to anti-police rhetoric, do.

The murder of police officers is indeed a tragedy. But so is the murder of every person who dies at the hands of our police. To say those deaths are beyond questioning, or the anger that arises when those deaths are not properly investigated and prosecuted is somehow anti-police, threatens, if not democracy, maybe that’s too broad a stroke, it undermines the quality of justice.

Some lives are more valuable than others. Everyone is not equal in the eyes of our law. That kind of eats at the heart of our democracy.

This isn’t about us-versus-them. It’s about order-versus-justice. Some of us think out of the former will come the latter. Right now, I’m seeing very little evidence of that. Instead what we’re witness to is that without justice, there is no real order.

— unYuletidely submitted by Cityslikr


An Off-Kilter Moral Centre

October 22, 2012

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled flow of municipal news, information and opinion to give way to our wayward colleague, Acaphlegmic – back from hinterlands unknown – and his thoughts on yesterday’s death of Senator George McGovern.]

*  *  *

If you’re reading this there’s a very good chance that I am much older than you are. The news of George McGovern’s passing, in likelihood, had the same impact on you as being told a distant great-great something or other had died peacefully in their sleep. A compassionate shrug and I’m sorry for your loss. This does not make you a bad person. Only a young one.

But if you find yourself these days disturbed, dismayed, disappointment at the far right drift of our society, the cult of hyper-individualism, the deification of greed as sound economic policy, wars without end waged against vague concepts, you, my friends, are all children of George McGovern.

It can be argued that his landslide loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 American presidential election was the official death of the 1960s (although I would mark the occasion 4 years earlier and the assassination of Robert Kennedy). Dirty hippism was soundly relegated to the fringe sidelines; pet projects and peeves of hapless Marxists, jobless malcontents, the socially and sexually deviant. The counterculture was out. Reactionism was all the rage.

We are all Nixonians now.

(And let’s not take comfort in the naïve notion that the likes of Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan would be too liberal for the Republican Party these days. Both would’ve changed their skins to suit their political needs. They were as conservative as they needed to be and are the progenitor’s of our age’s radical right chic.)

By voting so overwhelmingly for Nixon in ’72, Americans signalled to politicians that appealing to our worst instincts, dividing rather than uniting, operating under craven cynicism and not any sort of honourable principles would be the surest way to winning elections. From that point forward, no decent candidate would get anywhere near the White House. Jimmy Carter was merely a blip on the screen, an electoral eeek! at the revealed hideousness of the Nixon administration, a collective statement that we may be bad but not that bad. Four years later, Americans shrugged and proceeded down the low road.

Now hold on a minute, I hear you saying. No decent candidate? What about Bill Clinton? What about Barack Obama?

Read the following passage from the New York Times OpEd on McGovern and imagine either of them taking such a stand in terms of the country’s foreign ‘entanglements’ in Afghanistan, Iraq.

Yet unlike most presidential candidates since 1972, Mr. McGovern had a moral streak that he refused to suppress regardless of the cost to his ambition. During a remarkable campaign speech at fundamentalist Wheaton College in Illinois, Mr. McGovern called upon his audience to grieve not only for American casualties in Vietnam but also for the Vietnamese lives lost from American military actions. Indifference to Vietnamese deaths troubled him, so he insisted that Americans confront their own responsibility for the consequences of war and “change those things in our character which turned us astray, away from the truth that the people of Vietnam are, like us, children of God.” Words like these led critics to castigate Mr. McGovern as a moralistic scold who was angry at his own country.

‘A moralistic scold’. An apologist. Forty years after that election and it is still considered fringe or radical to question the actions of your country and leaders. America, Love It Or Leave remains the norm.

And look not southward so condescendingly, Canada. Our governments can hardly be viewed as paradigms of good democracy at the moment. Don’t believe me? Even Mr. Andrew Coyne righteously and rightfully has his knickers in a twist.

Now, the strength of many 1960s causes has resisted crippling pushbacks. Women’s rights, gay rights, visible minority rights – equality and inclusion in a word or two – continue their inevitable march toward wholesale acceptance. Not unscathed or free of the relentless and mindless attacks from the right thinkers who remain doggedly in our midst. Still, it would be too overly pessimistic and entirely incorrect to conclude that George McGovern and politicians of his ilk ultimately died in vain.

But we are less of and a smaller society because the likes of George McGovern were pushed aside and thought of as being too out of touch with the mainstream, a far left extremism. By demonizing basic common decency and morality as fringe traits, nice to haves not need to haves, we normalized radical, anti-social political thought. Liberals began to quake in their boots at the prospect of being labelled as such. Tories took flight. True and destructive radicalism from the right assumed the pole position in the race that is now winner-take-all.

sadly submitted by Acaphlegmic