•April 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The Nation appears to have discovered Richmond:

In 2013, Richmond was the eleventh most unequal large American city (most of the cities populating the bottom tier of this collection are Southern cities). And it is ringed by suburbs which are largely inaccessible to city residents, thanks to a complete lack of public transport routes from city into suburb and by the toll-roads which were built on land previously lived on by black residents. Nearly 109,000 suburbanites commute into the city to work. Yet the city receives none of those workers’ tax dollars.

Out of sight, out of mind, Richmond’s poverty has festered for decades.

Is the Former Capital of the Confederacy Finally Ready to Confront Its Poverty—and Its Past? | The Nation.

Upcoming Event: Future of WMATA Panel

•March 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I have made shamefully little comment on the slow collapse of WMATA (and still have some words on the “Millennial urbanism” of Tysons and the Silver Line upcoming), but there’s a panel next monday intimating what we might be able to do about it.

WMATA Wants a Circle Line

•December 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Faced with a serious existing core capacity crush – something that’s expected to get worse when the Silver Line spreads rolling stock even thinner, at least in the interim – WMATA has decided the best long-term solution for downtown is a circle line.

True to WMATA planning tradition, the maps make it look much more complicated than it has to be. Metro went thru periods in which each train color indicated a different direction of service in the early 1980s, and more recently proposed the current Rush Plus service changes as a bifurcated blue line that intersected with itself before better design prevailed on them. Deconstructing the diagrams, we can see that this is actually a jughandle circle line combined with what appear to be express tracks bypassing “Orangington“.

Because some idiot decided to describe this one long-term concept for heavy rail as WMATA’s “long-term plan”, there’s already been tons of outrage over its lack of connectivity to just about anywhere else – neglecting the Purple Line, communities east of the Anacostia, and any number of desired extensions to Centreville, Laurel, Fort Belvoir, etc.

On one hand, this is overstated. The concept ignores existing proposals for surface transit, especially levied by other agencies like the DDOT streetcars and the Purple Line (officially an MTA project). On the other, however, this does highlight that Metro doesn’t appear to find heavy rail connectivity EOTR to be of sufficient value or importance to plan for and/or consider funding on its own, and this is a problem.

Personally, if it were my fantasy, I would combine a plan like Neil Flanagan’s circle line and Blue Line to National Harbor with various existing light rail/premetro and streetcar plans, as well as much higher frequencies, more stations and thru-operation on MARC/VRE akin to SEPTA Regional Rail, which has historically set best practices for commuter rail service in America. But as long as I’m dreaming, I’d also like Blue Line service to Landmark and Shirlington, to solve some of their respective be-on-the-way issues:

Metro 2040

The Question Of Affinity, viz. Craziness/Smelliness

•September 25, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Why I talk about intersectional affinity sometimes when I talk about urbanism, from a friend. The last paragraph is golden, and addresses something I regularly have problems with, to be frank:

The question of ‘identity politics’ – whether there is any politics without ‘identity’ or whether the description ‘identity politics’ even marks out anything coherent – is much more interesting and complex. I find virtually all blanket denunciations of ‘identity politics’ to be, well, dunderheaded. They’re invariably from people who know a fair bit of Marxism but have read virtually nothing else in the history of political philosophy, so they’re arguing some kind of straw man. Yet there’s also something about the critique which gets at something real that I’m finding it hard to articulate….

‘What! You want me to ignore class, which is produced by material relations of production, and organize ourselves around class-posterior forms of subjectivity like sexuality and race! That just divides!’ Yeah, except nothing about that characterization is true of any politics I’ve ever heard of, because it’s absurd. Why would anyone recommend that?

There’s a moment I always had with students when they would finally get to the point of extracting a main idea from a text, and then they’d push it to some kind of mutant extreme and say to me, always in this same tone, ‘Why would anyone believe that?’ To which I’d always say, well, it’s really on you to figure that out. (By that, I meant on us, because this was a class, and it was a teachable moment, but in the privacy of your own home it probably is on you.)

Partly, it may be you’re missing what they’re really saying. It may also be you don’t get the context yet, or understand what the idea is trying to do. But you’ve missed something.

For all the problems of such a notion, there really does need to be a moment of interpretive charity – if the idea seems to you an insane dead fish, just lying there, crazy and smelly, please consider that you may actually have it wrong, and you should try to figure out why a smart person may have said this, other than that they’re a crazy asshole who wants to hurt you. That should not be your first recourse.

Sprawl or Ratchet: Prince George’s False Equivalency

•September 24, 2013 • 1 Comment

Westphalia is happening. Like Konterra, National Harbor and almost anything else that gets green-lit in Prince George’s County outside of the College Park corridor over the past twenty years, it’s in the middle of nothing, equally inconvenient to six distant and practically barren Metrorail stations that are ripe for development.

The charitable explanations for this are twofold: that land in this area, which supposedly will be “transit-oriented” but not in any kind of on-the-way sense, is very cheap; as such, it is more than worthwhile to the developer to provide a LRT line or busway to Westphalia. At the same time, we could argue, PG County is desperate for redevelopment in its southern tier and will approve anything.

Yet the leadership of Prince George’s doesn’t seem to be desperate enough to zone land around most of its 15 Metro stations to support high density. I’ve long believed that this has to do with PG County’s status as a nexus of black affluence, in which middle-class black Prince Georgians desire to conform to post-war white bourgeois norms of affluence, and driving and detached housing is one of them. While I’m not unsympathetic to this, clinging to the majority norms of a generation ago becomes neurotic when these norms actively work to stifle agency as a consequence of the evolving needs of a more sustainable and pluralistic society.

As some influential Prince Georgians would see it, suburban sprawl, like patriarchal attitudes, represents a graduation to respectability, away from land use patterns they see as “ratchet” or associate with the “ghetto” from which they may have fought very hard to escape. Unfortunately, as the auto-dependent squalor of south Los Angeles or large swathes of regional Atlanta and Houston or even Iverson Mall would suggest, sprawl, wealth and security aren’t really highly correlated at all. But the ability to pay to drive around everywhere, even if it means you ultimately have to, is as much a signifier of wealth here as it is among the Buick drivers of China.

This emotional relationship between car-dependent sprawl and the signifiers of respectable black affluence, however, might in part help to explain the remarkable backlash against criticism of PG County’s development strategies, such as they are: that they’ve fought for and earned the right to make the mistakes that Loudoun County continues to make. But they are mistakes, and even if familiarity breeds contempt, Prince George’s does not have the excuse of unfamiliarity Loudoun does in continuing to plan for the prior century’s land use. It does, however, have a great opportunity to create something better than the notion of living in someone else’s dream.

The Rise Of The New New New New New New New New York

•September 13, 2013 • Leave a Comment


I’ve read “The Rise Of The New New Left”, that Peter Beinart essay that’s been going around. It’s fascinating, and I do believe Millennials have definitely moved leftward, but I think Beinart’s analysis is a bit flawed, especially after reading it in the context of Charles Stross’ own generational analysis. For one, I think he uses the term “political generation” to refer to what I’d think of as “political realignment” in the context of U.S. electoral politics. Usually this refers to geopolitics but it can mean demography as well (these things interrelate). This isn’t to say that there isn’t a generation gap – 30+% shifts in opinion about Occupy are quite something, and this does a lot to explain the Gen-X resentment of Millennials, which often seems asymmetrical – but it probably means a larger systemic rebalancing act is in the works.

The article partly focuses on the New York mayoral election as a bellwether: as Koch was contemporary to Thatcher and presaged Reagan, so it apparently is with Bill DeBlasio. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but DeBlasio was the only mayoral candidate I’m aware of that was both Not Quinn (i.e. by extension Not Bloomberg) and also was not threatening to rip up transportation infrastructure to pander to a nebulous anti-hipster vote. But the presumption on the part of, say, Anthony Wiener that every bicycle rider in New York is a white, young, affluent and able-bodied hobbyist is another issue; DeBlasio also ran on the platform of generally being less racist and more class-conscious, which drove Bloomberg insane and made him more electable in the end than Quinn.

(Speaking of New York mayors, tho: “Ed Koch [was] liberal on many cultural issues” except for that part where he let tens of thousands of New Yorkers die horribly of a treatable and debilitating plague so no one would think he was gay. And this amidst a protracted debate about New York’s AIDS history. I honestly have no idea how to respond to this; it’s like a money quote of myopia. LOL unto death.)

I do think Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul are setting up the eventual political future. I’ve often felt the Democrats, once the DNC finally collapses, should brand themselves more explicitly as social-democrats (like we see in Minnesota, as the Democratic Farm and Labor party in their case). And a lot of young voters are willing to put up with neoliberal economics and even incidental racism from the GOP as long as they’re serious about reducing the military- and prison-industrial complex, which I think the very youngest Republicans are. (Like Charles Stross, I think Millennials and post-Millennials have very complicated opinions about the surveillance state.)

I think Beinart misunderstands, at the very least, my opinion as a Millennial about Social Security: I don’t want it privatized, necessarily, I just want it now. As it stands I’m pretty resigned about it not existing in any fashion when I’m “retired”, which I’m not expecting to be able to actually do. I hope someone will have the balls to try to reform it into a guaranteed minimum income, which would give us a lot of, well, social security and the kind of economic flexibility we need in the face of the “sharing economy” and its ongoing casualization of work – but I don’t think they’d be able to talk about it on the campaign trail. Boomers love two things most of all: maintaining the status quo in the Social Security system and pulling up the ladder behind them to access it.

Where Food Slows To A Stop

•August 27, 2013 • 1 Comment

A friend of a friend on Facebook showed me this Twitter, uh, narrative “explaining” poverty and food insecurity to British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver of “pink slime” fame, amid other “things [he] will never understand”:

1. When you’re poor, you’re often poor of time/energy. It’s hard to cook when you’re working 3 jobs.

2. When you’re poor, shopping is restricted by transport. you shop where you can get to by bus or on foot. You can only buy what you can carry.

3. When you’re poor, the local shops in the poor neighborhood are often poor as well – poor in choice and price and balance. (Google “food deserts”.)

4. When you’re poor, you can’t invest £10 in buying bulk supplies, staples, spices… because you only have £20 to eat for whole the week.

5. When you’re poor, you live in a constant state of food insecurity, and there is a biological brain imperative for calories. Your body doesn’t know where its next meal is coming from – it wants crisps/chocolate/cheap *calories*, and overrides apples.

6. When you’re poor, and you have to choose between £1 on mince or £1 on a microwave pizza, which is the most economic re: calories/time/energy?

7. When you’re poor, your cooking facilities are often very restricted. Slow cookers? Freezer space? Electric mixer? HOB???

8. When you’re poor and you’ve been eating pasta every day for a week and you find £1 in your pocket, fuck yeah you’re gonna buy a Coke.

Oliver has some seriously bourgeois food politics, and a lot of my contempt for the implicit class presumptions of “slow food” is rooted in the relatively recent personal experience of having to painstakingly develop poor-skills after a year on food stamps, working part-time, never having really been poor before – where I learned how easily and cheaply Mexican leftovers can be tricked up into two more meals, but where I also learned that spending $3 and change on a McGangbang or three McDoubles will give me 70g of protein (along with a day’s worth of fat). Sustainability is one thing; making blithe presumptions about the amount of time and labor that every person should or could spend on sustaining themselves and their families is an entirely different animal.

It implies that he doesn’t understand the opportunity costs associated with food because he doesn’t really have to pay them, in the same way that he doesn’t quite seem to understand that kids will feel emotionally betrayed when you take their comfort foods away, nevermind why; and that taking a cabbage and just pickling it doesn’t make kraut into “kimchi” any more than “beet gazpacho” is anything other than borscht. (Both of these unlikely euphemisms, the latter barely two years old, indicate some class anxiety about “peasant” foods with Slavic/Jewish origins – but what is Jamie Oliver if not a basket of class anxiety about food?)

More to my own point: this is ultimately the fundamental irony of the Walmart living wage bill fight in DC. The company will not legally commit to paying the prevailing local wage, and has reneged on previous agreements to do so. This will exacerbate poverty in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia already in thrall to the business and logistics cycles of food deserts, patched only occasionally there by high-markup, low-quality corner resellers, liquor stores, and Chinese-etcetera takeouts.

Yet those neighborhoods desperately need grocery stores of some kind – any kind – where there are none within walking distance, and the only locations Walmart is threatening to cancel over the bill are the ones east of the River (plus one on New York Ave NE) that fill these voids. Walmart will continue with their traditional category-killer model in more affluent Northwest neighborhoods, potentially crushing many existing and beloved local businesses.

As local activists and unions rally tonight, I still wonder if there’s any solution to these problems, legal or otherwise, that simultaneously satisfies the growing spatial stratification of poverty and also works at the underlying logistical problems of food production and distribution. Or are all of the currently available solutions short of open revolt ultimately symptomatic or, worse, non-solutions indicative of larger feedback loops? What can we do now, or at least soon?


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