Thursday, March 31, 2005


Blowback Revisited

Chalmers Johnson, author of the Blowback Trilogy, has laid out a truly terrifying scenario for In These Times. I'm not 100 percent on board with Johnson -- I've long argued that capitalism is a far more resilient system than many of its critics suggest -- but I certainly believe Johnson's essay merits more attention and discussion than ITT's small circulation will allow.

Johnson paints a bleak portrait of a nation teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe: "Within the next few months," he writes, "the mother of all financial crises could ruin us and turn us into a North American version of Argentina, once the richest country in South America." That's probably hyperbole, but then again history is strewn with the wreckage of nations and empires previously seen a immune to the crises that plague lesser states. I also do sense that a lasting legacy of the Bush administration will be to leave a far weakened economic foundation than it inherited. (And I don't believe the Clinton administration did a great job of shoring up the long-term underpinnings of the economy. No, my sense is the Bush administration's reckless mismanagement of the economy -- major tax cuts during wartime, come on -- hacks away at an economy that was already heading in dangerous directions.)

But Johnson's essay is not about the US economy, it's about America's role in the world and its relations to other nations. (Johnson argues that shoring up the economy and ridding ourselves of neocon aggression and imperial hubris are essential preconditions to our playing a decent role in the world.) I was struck by just how dependent we've become on some of the world's most unattractive states, notably the People's Republic of China and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Johnson writes:

"In 2004, the United States imported a record $617.7 billion more than it exported, a 24.4 percent increase over 2003. The annual deficit with China was $162 billion, the largest trade imbalance ever recorded by the United States with a single country. Equally important, as of March 9, 2005, the public debt of the United States was just over $7.7 trillion and climbing, making us easily the world’s largest net debtor nation. Refusing to pay for its profligate consumption patterns and military expenditures through taxes on its own citizens, the United States is financing these outlays by going into debt to Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and India. This situation has become increasingly unstable, as the United States requires capital imports of at least $2 billion per day to pay for its governmental expenditures. Any decision by Asian central banks to move significant parts of their foreign exchange reserves out of the dollar and into the euro or other currencies in order to protect themselves from dollar depreciation will likely produce a meltdown of the American economy. On February 21, 2005, the Korean central bank, which has some $200 billion in reserves, quietly announced that it intended to 'diversify the currencies in which it invests.' The dollar fell sharply and the U.S. stock market (although subsequently recovering) recorded its largest one-day fall in almost two years. This small incident is evidence of the knife-edge on which we are poised.

"Japan possesses the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, which at the end of January 2005 stood at around $841 billion. But China also sits on a $609.9 billion pile of U.S. cash, earned from its trade surpluses with us. Meanwhile, the American government insults China in every way it can, particularly over the status of China’s breakaway province, the island of Taiwan."

Now, I would argue that our reliance on China is mirrored by a Chinese reliance on us (and I would never characterize the China-Taiwan imbroglio in such a way -- accurate as it may be, I more sympathetic to Taiwan's struggle for democracy than I am to sovereignty claims rooted in the history of a Chinese empire), but our Chinese embrace does pose economic challenges and it limits a future administration's ability to promote human and democratic rights in China.

Ditto for our relationship with Saudi Arabia:

"The United States imports about 3.8 billion barrels of oil a year, or about 10.6 million barrels a day. These imports are at the highest levels ever recorded and come increasingly from Persian Gulf countries. A cut-off of Saudi Arabia’s ability or willingness to sell its oil to us would, at the present time, constitute an economic catastrophe."

Like I say, troubling and even terrifying reading. I have more to say on this, but life and real work beckons. I'll return to this topic later in the week.

Friday, March 25, 2005


Urban Property Abandonment

While I was writing the previous post, I received an e-mail from Harold Simon at the National Housing Institute. He recommended viewing the streaming video of an online discussion of urban property abandonment hosted recently by the Fannie Mae Foundation. The video can be viewed here. The link takes you to Fannie Mae's Knowledgeplex, a truly wonderful online entrypoint into the world of community development and affordable housing. The next online discussion will be on market-based approaches to community economic development and will take place at 2 pm on March 30.

Saving America's Communities?

It now appears that the Bush Administration's "Saving America's Communities Initiative" won't move forward this year. The proposal would have restructured federal community development programs, including the flagship Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, consolidating them under the Department of Commerce and reducing overall funding. The proposal, which was contained in the administration budget proposal, drew an immediate negative reaction from leaders of the country's cities and counties, affordable housing developers and advocates, community development specialists, and members of both parties in Congress, and both the House and Senate approved budget resolutions that saved the CDBG program and actually increased funding for it (although at the expense of other discretionary funds which could otherwise help communities and low-income people). The National Low-Income Housing Coalition offers this round up of congressional action:

"In action on the Community Development Block Grant and programs in the President's Strengthening American Communities Initiative (SACI), the Senate approved an amendment by Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) to add $2 billion above the President's request and opposing the transfer of the program from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Department of Commerce.

"However, the offsets for this $2 billion will come from other discretionary programs. Earlier the Senate defeated on an amendment by Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) that would have restored funding with offsets from closing corporate tax loopholes.

"In its resolution, the House adopted an amendment to restore $1.1 billion to CDBG, to be offset by a reduction in the spending account for other low income programs. Moreover, the House amendment did not take a position on where the program should be housed."

Although the administration appears unlikely to get its way this year -- too many GOP legislators, mayors, and other city and county officials make use of the CDBG program, which was, when it was created, a relatively conservative initiative by the Nixon administration -- SACI signaled the direction the White House would like to move in: less overall funding for community development, targeting funds towards jurisdictions that fall below established median-income levels, and transferring responsibility to Commerce. (According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities: "The Administration is proposing to consolidate 18 community development and community service programs — including the Community Development Block Grant and the Community Services Block Grant — into a single block grant with reduced funding. Under this proposal, funding for community and economic development to states and localities would fall by more than one-third in 2010.")

All three of these are problematic.

Community development funding meets needs created by market failures, racial discrimination, economic transitions (for example, the collapse of certain industries), and other trends or events that are typically beyond the control of the places targeted for spending. The current spending level -- the programs Bush wanted to consolidate under the SACI received a total of $5.3 billion in 2005 -- is already insufficient to meet the nation's affordable housing and economic development needs, and demand for funds is not only found in what might be described as poor jurisdictions. Even affluent cities have poor districts and lack the ability to mobilize sufficient resources internally absent federal support. San Francisco, for example, one of the nation's more affluent -- and costly -- cities is looking at a severe budget crunch that's forcing layoffs and cutbacks.

On some level, however, its the transfer to Commerce that I find most troubling. Commerce's role in the administration is to promote business interests and business opportunities. More and more, people working on the ground are discovering that promoting business is not enough. The city of Long Beach, for example, California's fifth largest municipality with roughly a half million residents, has discovered that business promotion is not enough. It's enjoyed decent growth, but many of its people, particularly Latino and Cambodian immigrants, continue to suffer from rather high poverty rates. As a result economic development and planning officials in the city want to focus on a more balanced jobs and business development strategy, this would consider the quality of employment offered by investors and the establishment of programs that qualify local residents for higher paying jobs. Planners in Washington, D.C., have also noted the need to move beyond simple business attraction strategies in trying to uplift the capital's poorer eastside neighborhoods. Consolidating the various HUD, Department of Agriculture, and Commerce block grant programs in Commerce would single a retreat from the notion that the priority is community development and the advance of the idea that economic development is synonymous with business development.

The Bush initiative forced many community-oriented progressives into a defensive posture, fighting, ironically, to save a community development structure created by the Nixon administration. In part, this suggests just how conservative Inside the Beltway politics have become, but it's also because many of the block grant programs have worked fairly well, despite their limitations. But defending CDBG and other existing community development programs does not a progressive community policy make. Fortunately, there are a lot of good ideas and campaigns floating around out there -- the campaign for a National Affordable Housing Trust Fund, labor-based movements for accountable development and "high-road" economies, initiatives to build more downtown residences and housing more generally close to workplaces and transit, mixed-income and mixed-use development, innovations in local affordable and public housing development, and so on -- the challenge is to bring these initiatives together in a comprehensive agenda for economically just and environmentally responsible community development.

Over the weekend, I had a brief conversation with Robert Gottlieb, co-director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Bob suggested that in the current political situation, much of the progressive thinking and action that has the possibility of having real impact is taking place on the local or regional level. He was in San Francisco, in part, to pursue a dialogue between northern and southern California, believing, as I do, that we can learn from each other and have a greater impact on Sacramento if we get over our regional differences. I think there's a lot of truth to what Bob says, but I also believe that part of changing the political climate in the nation's capital involves the creation and promotion of policies and visions than can compete with those of the right. The material for a progressive place-based vision is available, pulling it together is important.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Fenway Saved

Bravo! Yesterday, the Boston Red Sox announced plans to remain in the cozy confines of Fenway Park, Major League Baseball's oldest playing field, for the long term with no strings attached. I'm cheered as a lifelong devotee of the World Champs -- I think of Fenway as my childhood cathedral, treasuring memories of hot weekend afternoons and warm summer nights in Fenway, rooting for the Sox with my father, grandfather, and brother, and last summer, I had the distinct pleasure of taking my 15 year-old daughter on a pilgrimage to the park -- and as an urbanist. Fenway is an integral part of the urban fabric of the neighborhood, and though I'm not a rabid preservationist -- my belief that cities need to grow and change overtime is reflected in my appreciation for another Boston location, Copley Square, where HH Richardson's Trinity Church is reflected in the glass of IM Pei's soaring Hancock Building, and McKim, Mead & White's Boston Public Library is neighbored by The Architecture Collaborative's late modern Copley Place (check this link for a catalogue of Copley Square architecture) -- but destroying Fenway Park would be more akin to tearing down a replacing the Old North Church than doing away with, say, the original Patriot's stadium in Foxboro.

Neil deMause, who critically tracks stadium development issues on his website, Field of Schemes (he's co-author of a book of the same name), has this to say about the Red Sox decision:

"There will continue to be squabbles over future renovations, no doubt (some of the Sox' recent additions, like the Green Monster seats atop the left-field wall, have been cheered by fans; others, like increased ad signage, not so much), and of desired "improvements" to the neighborhood, like a new parking garage that Sox execs hinted might be paid for with city money. But with team president Larry Lucchino proclaiming that "this is a no-strings-attached commitment" to stay at Fenway indefinitely, the future of baseball's most historic park looks more secure than it has in decades.

"Looking back, many factors conspired to save Fenway from what once looked like a near-certain wrecking ball. The $100 million in state funds were approved, but an additional $212 million in city money became stalled when city councillors questioned what if anything the public would be getting out of the deal. Bankers balked at lending the Sox $352 million for their private share of the stadium, reasoning that the team was making money hand over fist at a perennially sold-out Fenway, so it would be hard-pressed to improve on that much at a new park. And finally, when Henry bought the team from its former owners in late 2000, the Sox front office became markedly more interested in preserving what it had rather than lusting over what it didn't; one of Henry's first moves was to bring in architect Janet Marie Smith to see how the team could make the most of its current park.

"It's hard to say if any of this would have mattered, though, were it not for the folks from Save Fenway Park! This thrown-together assemblage of preservationists, good-government advocates, and Fenway bleacherites lobbied the city council, held design symposiums for upgrading Fenway without doing damage to its historic character, and simultaneously pressured and encouraged Henry to find ways to cheaply improve upon the old, rather than take the usual route of demanding that taxpayers build anew. (The latter, incidentally, being a tack that Henry had tried, and failed, when he owned the Florida Marlins in the late 1990s.) Drawing from prior grassroots campaigns - I think it's fair to say that Detroit's Tiger Stadium Fan Club provided a major inspiration - SFP volunteers were a ubiquitous presence at Sox games, handing out newsletters, proffering petitions, and relentlessly asking the question: Isn't there a better way to do this?"

Read the entire post, it's well worth it.

As Neil says, there will be issues to come. Anytime thousands of people pour into an urban neighborhood at night, they have an impact. The Red Sox are talking about increasing parking, I hope the city, the Sox, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, and AMTRAK can come together to figure out ways to improve already decent transit links to the park. That the Sox decision to stay comes with no strings attached is a good thing. I hope that's a signal that they're willing to be good neighbors.

If nothing else, the decision to remain in Fenway should add some stability to the neighborhood and the planning process. Now's the time for some participatory planning about the future of the Fenway neighborhood.

As deMause suggests: "There should be celebrating across the country as well. Not only has a great ballpark - a great historic building - been saved for future generations, and the people of Massachusetts been saved $330 million. But also, it's been shown that with the combination of foresighted management, a handful of elected officials who won't roll over for a public-stadium steamroller, and organized community activists, the tide of history can be turned. In a world full of tragic tales - many of which appear in our book and on this website - it's inspiring to see a happy ending once in a while."

Me, I'm celebrating 'cause I'll be able to share the Fenway experience with my daughter for years to come.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Gaming and Change in Indian Country

A couple of years ago, I drove north from Klamath Falls, Oregon, to visit the chairman of the Klamath Tribes. Along the way, I passed a small casino operated by the tribes, and I met the chairman in the new tribal administration building . . . a well-built modern building that incorporated subtle elements of indigenous culture in its well-thought-out design. Among other things, the chairman and I discussed the changing place of the tribes in the local economy and, as a result, the changing relationship of native people in south-central Oregon to the white majority. White people -- many of whom apparently harbored ill-will towards local Indians, witness the racist outbursts and taunts during the areas frequent water wars (the native desire to protect fisheries put them on the opposite side of white farmers and ranchers) -- now work for the tribes or do business with them. The small casino was a motor of economic development in the area.

I've encountered similar stories of success and change elsewhere in Indian Country. Just outside of Albuquerque, for example, the Sandia Pueblo operates a very successful casino. In addition to being an important local employer, casino profits have been reinvested in the pueblo, allowing many tribal members to move out of dilapidated trailer homes and into sturdy new housing, much of it designed to reflect the traditional culture. Similarly, in and around Palm Springs, California, the Aqua Caliente and other Indian bands have parlayed successful gaming operations into engines of economic development for the tribe and for the surrounding area.

I thought of this when I attended a workshop presented by the Indigenous Planning Network of the American Planning Association, yesterday. There, representatives of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin spoke about their plans for a new tribal administration building and a bit about the nation's place in the community near Green Bay. The tribe employs 3,000 people, 49 percent of the employees are not members of the nation, and 50 percent of the 3,000 work in the gaming operation. In addition to plans to consolidate tribal operations in one location -- a project Nathan King, the nation's deputy planning director, described as the largest capital undertaking in Oneida history -- the nation has an ambitious plan to reclaim property currently owned by nontribal members of the Oneida reservation. Gaming has provided the tribe with the resources it needs to pursue these plans and goals.

As an economic development tool, gaming has not been perfect. In southern California, for example, labor disputes have pitted tribes against mostly Latino workers and union organizers, and traffic, environmental, and social impacts of casinos has been problematic in places. Gaming has also benefited a limited number of tribes. The poorest corners of Indian Country -- Sioux territory in South Dakota, parts of the Navajo Nation, for example -- are too isolated to attract gamblers. Traditionalists amongst Native Americans frequently decry the impact of gaming on tribal cultures. And, of course, there has been corruption, particularly when big money is at stake.

Several small tribes are trying to secure land near where I live in Berkeley, California. The various proposals have stirred a tremendous amount of controversy: about social, environmental and traffic impacts, the legal status of some tribes, the nature of their land rights, the role of fixers and major casino operators, etc., etc. Some of the complaints ring true, and one tribe has apparently agreed to scale back its plans in response to local concerns. While there are things to watch out for, my travels in Indian Country keep me from jumping on the anti-gaming bandwagon. Perhaps its a sad commentary on our times and our history that gambling offers some of the nation's poorest and most victimized the best chance of progress, and perhaps the move into urban areas perverts the original intention of Indian gaming, but, hell, if it's gonna help who have suffered so much in the past escape the indignity of poverty and dependency, well, who am I to say no?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


Losing HOPE VI

Today, I heard a team from Metro Louisville, the recently combined city and county governments, describe their successful use in using federal HOPE VI funds to replace a decaying, 60 year-old public housing project with a new mixed-income development and to contribute to the revitalization of the surrounding Park DuVale neighborhood. From what they said, it sounds like Louisville is doing a lot of things right -- for example, investing serious money in relocating and housing people displaced by reconstruction and the introduction of a market-rate housing, involving the community in planning, and learning from their mistakes. Louisville is now embarking on a second major HOPE VI project, and the city's housing and planning directors believe this one will be even better. Unlike many HOPE VI projects, the new one includes the replacement of every affordable unit lost, either on site or elsewhere in Louisville (primarily in two nearby neighborhoods) and the housing authority won't be requiring credit checks of potential tenants as it did in the prior project.

Yesterday, I listened as a group of researchers from Alabama A&M, a historically black college in Huntsville, noted the positive contribution HOPE VI money made to preserving at least some affordable housing in a downtown neighborhood that's becoming more attractive to residents with money.

HOPE VI is not an ideal program. A couple of years ago, I visited a new HOPE VI project in Baltimore. The project was very attractive and provided high-quality ownership opportunities to moderate-income working people in an areas close to downtown Baltimore and the University of Maryland medical center. If memory serves me correctly, new condominium and townhouse-style units were selling for as little as $71,000. The drawback was the project replaced low-income rental housing, few low-income units were replaced, and the city did a poor job of tracking former residents. But as the example of Louisville shows, HOPE VI local officials can make HOPE VI work iof they're committed to it.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration is again trying to eliminate new HOPE VI funding from the HUD budget. This is part of a broader assault on public housing and community development funding that has public housing professionals and residents worried about the fate of their programs and their homes. Personnel from Louisville and other cities say they cannot depend on federal funding being there for them in the future. Some communities have established trust funds or other local tools to finance affordable housing, and almost all are looking for private sources (private funds accounted for half the Louisville project budgets), but without an increased federal commitment to funding construction of housing for the poorest Americans, the shortage of housing that our neediest residents can afford will continue to grow.

This is a serious problem that is not getting nearly the attention it demands. It's easy to forget about housing and affordable housing when there is a war going on and when the administration seems fixed on gutting social security, but if a broader cross-section of the public doesn't join housing and community development professionals and advocates in making some noise, than many of our communities might well run out of hope.

Monday, March 21, 2005


Regional Equity: Detroit

I spent the weekend and will spend the first half of this week at the national conference of the American Planning Association, the organization that publishes a magazine (Planning) to which I am a contributing editor. It's a wonkish gathering with lots of truly engaging workshops and an opportunity to meet people from across the country. Yesterday, I sat in on a session on regional equity. The session looked at a pair of cities -- Baltimore and Detroit -- where the inner city has declined in absolute terms and in comparison to surrounding suburban areas. Detroit, for example, has lost roughly one million residents from its population peak in the 1950s. While most of those who departed were white, the city also lost many of its middle class black residents, leaving the city with a population that is roughly 70 percent impoverished. Anika Goss-Foster, program director for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) in Detroit, used a slide to illustrate the gap between Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs: On the Detroit side of a wall -- yes, a physical wall -- separating the city from suburbia is a vacant lot, on the suburban side, nice single-famility homes.

LISC is supporting a creative initiative meant to bring urban neighborhoods together with neighboring suburbs (some of which are very wealthy, others working class) in an effort to uplift both and close the gap between the city and the suburbs. What intrigued me was that this was not a government-to-government approach, rather, it is an attempt to forge partnerships between community organizations -- typically Community Development Corporations in the city -- and other entities, be they government, religious, civic, or business groups. The program's in its infancy -- the LISC will choose five local intitiatives to support in late June -- but bears watching as a possible grassroots model for making regionalism a reality in a very difficult situation.

Friday, March 18, 2005


Cushing Dolbeare

I just learned from the National Low Income Housing Coalition of the death of Cushing Dolbeare. Dolbeare was founder and for many years executive director of that group, a member of the millennium Housing Commission, an effective advocate and political strategist, and an important thinker on issues involving housing for low-income people.

According to the release from the NLICH : "Cushing was one of the nation's leading experts on federal housing policy and the housing circumstances of low income people. She designed the
methodology for and was the original author of Out of Reach, NLIHC's widely cited annual report on the gap between housing costs and wages of low income people. She was also well-known for her work on analyzing federal housing subsidies, documenting the disparity between the cost of tax-based subsidies that benefit homeowners and direct spending on housing assistance for low income households."

Dolbeare was 78 when she died in her Maryland on March 17. She'll be missed.

Back from the Bricks and Mortar World

I've been absent for quite sometime, but I haven't forgotten this spot. I simply got sidetracked on other matters, and lost in uncertainty about where I want this to go. Looking over my previous commentaries, I'm not unhappy with what I posted, but I believe it could be better and could be more reflective of the work I do. So, I plan to start things up again with less general commentary on the news of the moment, and more reported entries and commentary informed by the reporting I do. This means more on place-based politics, design, planning, and policy, more on labor, and more on Southeast Asia and less on broader domestic and international concerns. With the baseball season upon us, I suppose I'll be posting reactions and comments as the season progresses, and I might chose to entertain (or is it bore) readers with tales of my own travels and (I hope) adventures from time to time.

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