Sunday, April 29, 2007

Turning for Home

The primary campaign enters its final stretch this week. I've been to all the council districts in what I now recognize was a futile attempt to knock on all the doors of city residents. If I am fortunate enough to survive the primary, I will again .set that goal for the fall campaign.

One thing has surprised me during my walking; I did not encounter a single inhospitable person. My closest encounter with unfriendliness was an indiffernt response from someone who said she and her household have no interest in politics. Of course many people were not home and some of them could have been the surly ones. I tried to make my visit brief out of consideration for the person's time as well as for the efficiency of my task. After introductions were complete, I would ask if the person had any concerns they'd like the council to address. Except for near unanimity about fixing Spring Street Hill while walking in Siver Hills, the most common answer has been "nothing in particular that I can recall right now". This answer does not provide evidence of people disengaged from local issues but it does suggest that the majority of citizens are relatively contented. For those of us who peruse the various blogs and attend a few City Council meetings, I suspect that finding would not jibe with expectations. One explanation for that may be that I only gave these people a brief window to respond, although quite a few times, the answer to my brief question stretched out to almost a half hour. People who did answer my question offered answers from very specific drainage issues in their yards, to a need for better parks for their children, to cleaner alleys and better maintenance of rental houses nearby. Some said they'd like to see new faces on the council or in the Mayor's office. Some said the Mayor has been edged toward sainthood for the tribulations of dealing with the Council. Some said the Council is like the Jerry Springer Show. Almost every person exhibited something about their surroundings, whether their house, their family or their yard that gives them pride. This closer contact with people, closer than driving by a house on a street, is reassuring because it showed me an essential openess about people, an essential trust that makes this town a lot more hopeful than I had feared. I'm sure the result would be the same in most towns.

If I am successful now and in the fall, I am going to try my best to stay in contact with people outside the Council chamber. I feel that, although most people are not the proverbial squeaky wheels,that is, they might not take the time to attend a meeting, they might not feel comfortable making waves, but they do stay informed about local issues and, generally, they do believe this city can improve itself and realize more of its potential. The power to guide this city is here in its people. It is the task and it is the privilege of the city's leaders to show people that their concerns are valid and that together we can run this place like a city. Too often, politicians pledge to run the city, the state or the nation like a business. No thanks.

I wish I had taken better notes in school. One of my teachers in an introductory class in Classical Studies offered a quote from, for me now, some nameless Greek. I won't even call it a quote, a paraphrase : The greatest thing man can do is live together in a city.
It isn't likely we'll match the ancients as we lay out our civilization here on the banks of the Ohio but let's aim higher.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Fun in the Sun


This photo was featured on Truthout. Credits and caption appear there.
I'm thinking an SPF 32.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bill Moyers

Yesterday I posted comments here reflecting my view of the dismal state of journalism and our role as citizens in demanding more of both ourselves and the purveyors of fluff who pander to our inner-lowest-common-denominators.

Redemption is at hand. Tomorrow night, Bill Moyers will offer an examination of the herd mentality at work in the leadup to the war against Iraq. The special program is "Buying the War" and it airs on PBS Wednesday April 25, at 9:00 PM. ( I think that's opposite "Dancing With the Stars" but the quest for knowledge involves sacrifice. ) Mr. Moyers then returns to weekly television with "Bill Moyers Journal" Friday nights on PBS.

Yesterday also claimed the life of one of the best and the brightest of our journalists--David Halberstam. This quote was lifted from an Associated Press obituary:

"The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on anybody who doesn't salute or play the game" he said. "And then one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around and they've used up their credibility."

Monday, April 23, 2007

Bubble Gum or Broccoli

A few items in the news recently would appear to be outside the orbit of concern for local residents: Britney Spears' hair, the guy on American Idol, Tom Cruise and whomever, and Brad Pitt and whomever. Packed in among the dross are stories of real concern to all citizens regardless of their hometowns: the Virginia shootings and the on-going toll exacted by the occupation of Iraq are two of the most significant examples. I wonder how many people can recount all the details about the items in the first list and yet not get within a couple hundred on a guess of how many deaths the U.S. has paid in the war in Iraq and now during the occupation*.

Perhaps cynically,I think the cable news media's take on the shootings is a vestige of the electronic media's roots in print journalism. In pre-electronic media days, the sensationality of a story could be measured in ounces of ink required to get the story out. Today, because of the 24-hour nature of cable news, is it possible that the people in that field think it is necessary to validate the lives of the victims by devoting more attention, measured in broadcasting minutes, to telling their story or, is it simply an updated version of the maxim, "If it bleeds, it leads."?
The cynicism I mentioned is the nagging thought that any story regardless of its impact on peoples' lives is simply grist for the 24-hour news mill. On the one hand, news people are filled with the same emotions as all the rest of us and they can empathize with the students and relatives of students involved in the shootings, but can't they do that in a more restrained manner that is more respectful of the feelings of the victims?

I remember remarking to my wife as the "Runaway Bride" story was in its infancy, that "I'm glad she came forward so the story will die". If you recall, the story did not die. I believe it was powered into a second, third or fourth life by the menacing gaze of the Bride herself.

The detrimental effect these stories have on local issues and important national issues is the diversion of attention away from the important issues. In the heyday of newspapers, headline size and story placement signaled the importance of a story. When hour upon hour of broadcast time is devoted to the trivial or to an over the top treatment of a real tragedy such as the Virginia shootings, the media have abdicated one of their legitimate functions: editing, and also prioritizing. While it may be good to note that the media has been democratized--we're all editors now--it is, sadly, not a task all of us are equipped to handle. How can the mundane workings of the City Council or the Mayor's programs compete with the sensationalism of television? That may sound like a softball lobbed right over the plate to regular attendees of Council meetings, but I mean it as a legitimate question. Delve into how New Albany can be made to work for everyone, or figure out why Britney's acting so weird. Think about reversing a long-standing trend of dwindling home ownerhip and increasing poorly maintained rental properties, or figure out why that guy keeps getting voted back on American Idol ( I hate to admit it but I know, through cultural osmosis I suppose, that he's gone now ). Figure out how we can bring responsible stewardship of the planet to our hometown decision making or figure out a good combination name for Brad and Angelina. Bubble gum or broccoli?

*The current number of U.S. dead in Iraq is 3,325

Monday, April 16, 2007

Chamber of Commerce Questionnaire

The Southern Indiana Chanmber of Commerce, One Southern Indiana, sent out a questionnaire to candidates. It consisted of two questions and asked that answers be kept to 300 words or less.

I am showing here my answers to the questions.

Question 1.
One Southern Indiana believes that regional partnerships and cooperation are key elements for a business-friendly environment and economic progress. How do you plan to work with county leadership, surrounding Indiana counties and cities, and with Louisville in achieving economic prosperity and strategic planning for your city?

Answer 1.
We need to have in place, at all levels of government, people who have the attitude that any good growth opportunities benefiting the entire region benefit all of the people of the region. Obviously, if we had our choice, economic progress would be tilted in favor of the nearby Indiana communities, but it is more likely that major economic events will occur in Louisville. We must keep open communication between all levels of government; one way to do this would be to have periodic gatherings or conferences for local governmental representatives to hear speakers address various topics on the theme of regional cooperation. It goes without saying that these meetings would include representatives of the local Indiana cities and counties and the Louisville Metro government. While these gatherings may not produce instant results they can only have positive results over time.

The City Council does not have much latitude in setting policies of regional scope, that power resides more with the Mayor, and I would work with any Mayor who pursues good cooperative relationships. I would do my best to stay abreast of the issues affecting regionalism and offer advice, and votes from that informed perspective.

Question 2.
One Southern Indiana focuses on economic development--either through attraction of new businesses or by helping our existing companies to expand. If elected, what would you do to increase economic development opportunities and improve the attractiveness of your city for investment and growth?

Answer 2.
As a Councilman, my ability to initiate such policies would be limited; the main force in economic development is the Mayor, and I would work to be an ally in pursuit of his efforts. I would not, however, be hesitant to present to the Mayor my ideas that promote that objective.

My view is that New Albany, and the other communities of southern Indiana, must acknowledge that the dominant economic force in our region is Louisville, and our interests are best served when we exploit our proximity to Louisville. This, by no means suggests that we should forego any opportunity we may have to compete for locating potential employers or investors on the Indiana side of the river but that, especially in the case of New Albany, our primary regional role is as a bedroom community for Louisville. Once people return from their jobs in Louisville, New Albany's best bet is to keep them here until they go back to work. Therefore, New Albany's vendors have a relatively well-paid pool of customers upon which to build business. In order to compete against Louisville's stores and restaurants, New Albany's retailers need to offer variety that compares favorably to Louisville's even though it can not match the number of choices available there. We could stress quality over quantity.

We should make sure that municipal purchasing decisions favor local, independent providers before we purchase from a non-local vendor. The order of priority should be: New Albany, Floyd County, Metro Louisville, Indiana, Kentucky, the U.S., and then anywhere else.

We should capitalize on our stock of decent affordable housing by taking every step possible to increase home ownership. We should also follow a course of rental inspections to insure that rental housing is above all safe, then we should insure that it is not detrimental to the efforts of conscientious home owners nearby. As a bedroom community of the Metro area we need to make sure that New Albany is seen as an attractive, safe place to live, and that it is a vibrant part of the larger regional scene.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Use It or Lose It

Bob Herbert's column in today's Courier-Journal discusses the sorry state of our nation's infrastructure . Herbert cites a finding of the American Society of Civil Engineers that the infrastructure is in such " sad shape, and it would take more than a TRILLION and a HALF DOLLARS over a five year period to bring it back to a reasonably adequate condition." (emphasis added)

This national abdication of responsibility has had local consequences. If the federal government can simply walk away from a crumbling infrastructure, why should we be expected to do more in our own city? The bar has been lowered to such a depth that we simply write off as unnecessary such extravagances as Main Street Hill and now Spring Street Hill. Herbert points out that the Current Occupant (as Garrison Keillor so eloquently refers to The Decider) has decided to forego, for the time being, New Orleans. These solutions to difficult problems are the result of a mindset discussed in a "greatest hits" version of New Albany Confidential posted yesterday on that site. The New Albanian pointed out that, like excercise-averse chubsters, we have chosen as a nation to throw our lot in with tax-averse hucksters. We'd like a city that can keep its streets open, or fix its sewers, or clean up its alleys, or rejuvenate its neighborhoods, or fix up its downtown, or enforce its ordinances, or fill in the blank. Yes, we'd like those things, but not at the expense of higher taxes. When reading NAC, I was reminded of an episode of Seinfeld in which George is trying to combine the satisfaction of two appetites, one of which is for food. As George tells Jerry of his plan, Jerry utters a candidate for best line ever as he says, "George we're trying to have a civilization here."

That is precisely the trouble with a short-sighted view of infrastructural inattention. We can avoid the pain of taxes. We can avoid the pain of decisions. But we are trying to have a civilization here. Regardless of the success of our efforts, we need to at least try. It is the evidence of effort that can convince people to take a look at New Albany. If we will try to increase home ownership while also improving the necessary rental housing stock, we might succeed in attracting businesses and people; and this then becomes the source of new revenue for the city. Why do we need to fix housing to get businesses to locate here? Because businesses look at the environment where potential workers will live. They also guage the seriousness of the community by how it handles such a basic need. It's like the decision-making process we all go through when evaluating an unfamiliar restaurant in a strange town: do we opt for the well-lighted place with plenty of cars out front or do we choose the seedy establishment advertising sandwiches and bait?

It so happens that we have available to us a pool of accessible fiscal steroids provided through the work of John Miller and New Albany Community Housing. Every time his organization closes a sale on a house it generates a large amount of federal match, which can allow the housing stock of this city to be increased, and can also work toward strengtening existing neighborhoods by fixing up existing housing stock.

As we have ignored the built-infrastructure, we are also seeing irrefutable signs that we are, through inattention, causing harm to the natural infrastructure we call planet Earth. Everything we do here and now to make ours a more livable city can place us on the side of those who are working to have a civilization here.

Earth Day will be celebrated at the Falls of the Ohio park this Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00PM. Admission is free.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Worth a Look

Anyone who has attended City Council meetings can attest to the fact that the council chamber is an inadequate venue for those meetings. The City-County Building itself is overcrowded. In order to insure the satisfactory delivery of services the public expects, it is time to look for additional space for both a meeting room, and as a means of relieving the general space constraints at the City-County Building. Some have even suggested that an entirely new government center be built.

While the construction of a new government center would be a costly project, there is a more modest step which could go a long way toward solving the space problem at the City-County Building. This more modest step has the added virtues of preserving a historically significant building, while also consolidating government buildings into a campus.

The Baptist Tabernacle on Fourth Street between Spring and Market Streets is currently for sale by a motivated seller. I visited with him briefly today. He said he has heard various proposals for alternate uses of the old church constructed in 1879. Most of these have been for restaurants or other entertainment uses. A better use would be as the main meeting room for official gatherings.

The structure has a striking facade that would make an impressive governmental building. It has the added benefit of facing into the large parking lot of the new fire house (the fire house faces Spring Street) which would create a kind of a governmental complex. The interior of the church has been drastically altered; the old floor was removed and a new floor installed, cutting roughly in half, the air space of the church's congregational room. The installation of the new floor caused three-quarters of the window area to be bricked in. Reclaiming this building for governent use would be a strong statement in favor of historic preservation. It could also help lend support to revitalization efforts along Market and Spring streets.

The most daring reclamation effort would remove the existing floor, and replace it with a floor at the original elevation. This would provide truly impressive space with a ceiling height of about 32 feet. Less daring, but perhaps more practical, would be reclamation within the current layout of the building. That scheme would provide twice the floor space with a still impressive upper floor and a ceiling height of about 16-18 feet.

In either case the public would be able to attend meetings in a commodious setting. They would be able to use existing city-owned parking spaces in the lot behind the fire house. And some of the overcrowding of the City-County Building could be alleviated as the current City Council room could be converted to office space.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Bits and Pieces

Friday's Tribune carries the story about the imminent razing of houses deemed "unsafe". One of the five houses discussed in the article is 1746 Ekin Avenue. This house was re-roofed a year ago at city expense.

The specific house on Ekin Avenue was cited by Greg Sekula as "definitely salvageable".
Building Commission president Steve LaDuke pointed out that this house and the four other houses have existing demolition orders. Sekula would like the demolition order rescinded, and speculative rehabilitation by city-hired contractors undertaken to bring the structure to a level of "safety". Then a buyer would be sought. The city would recover its investment through enforcement of a lien against the property, or at the close of a sale.

This situation has the fortunate markings of a success in the making, with one caveat. The "opposing" parties are represented by reasonable people on both sides of the issue. In fact, Steve LaDuke proposed a sensible solution to the problem when he said, as the article states, "the city could take possession of a house, receive an estimate for repairs, market the house for a certain period at that price and perform the repairs only if someone bites." Absent any interest, the demolition order would be carried out.

The caveat: where is evidence that the city has reached the catalytic moment where a buyer can have confidence in the surrounding neighborhood's ability to justify his/her faith in the rescued house? Is it more likely that, lacking a concerted effort toward revitalization, the buyer of a rescued house would be a speculator, who would take a flyer because he's going to rent the house rather than live in it?

This points up rather clearly the need for a rental inspection program undertaken with a consistent application of building standards throughout the city. Simply make sure that landlords act responsibly by offering two minimal amenities: safe housing, and units that meet accepted standards of good exterior housekeeping. If those restrictions were placed equitably and forcefully on all landlords, I believe owner-occupiers would feel confident that they are investing in what is termed in accounting, a "going concern".

Paving is on the agenda for the City Council Monday night. Apparently we don't have enough money to do all that is needed.

In the March 28, 2007 Courier-Journal, Metro Councilman Tom Owen wrote a glowing remembrance of Charles Farnsley, the progressive mayor of Louisville in the late Forties to early Fifties. What does that have to do with the price of asphalt in New Albany?
Mayor Farnsley implemented a systen of "half-soleing" some of Louisville's streets. The new pavement was applied only to the driving lanes; the parking lanes were not paved. The asphalt budget was stretched and Farnsley was called a great, progressive, leader. Perhaps New Albany could retrieve an idea from the middle of the last century and claim the mantle of "Progressive".

Briefly, another thought on paving. Recently the idea of making one-way streets two-way was offered as a method of traffic-calming. There are a number of streets in town that were brick not too long ago. In fact, the roughly one-inch of asphalt applied 20-30 years ago has predictably worn thin and has disappeared in places. Some of these blocks could be returned to brick, having the result of a quaint appearance, and necessary traffic-calming as people tend to drive slower on such streets. It would save asphalt, too.