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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Citylab: Remove the 6/10 Connector

From Citylab:
"One of the most dramatic examples of urban freeway removal is in Seoul, South Korea, where a highway that once carried over 160,000 vehicles daily was dismantled in the early 2000s. The highway was built over a river, which was uncovered with the removal of the highway and is now a beautiful park in the heart of Seoul called the Cheonggyecheon. As James Kennedy, one of the founders of Move Together Providence, points out, part of the Cheonggyecheon’s inspiration comes from Waterplace Park, the uncovered river and park in Providence."
Thanks to Norman Garrick for touring the area with me.

Now's a good time to ask Gov. Gina Raimondo to direct her Department of Transportation director, Peter Alviti, to choose the less expensive and more development-friendly boulevard plan over the expensive and destructive highway plan his department currently favors. And reminding Mayor Jorge Elorza that his office needs to return to its ambitious roots and demand more of the state government couldn't hurt either.

When the crazies are in charge of the federal government, all progress must happen at the local level. 


Why Trump is Wrong on Infrastructure

It's tempting to support Donald Trump on infrastructure, a goal for which (nominally, at least) he has bipartisan support. Donald Trump's plan is actually wrong for a bunch of reasons.

Today an op-ed by Paul Krugman highlighted one reason: the plan calls for semi-privatizing roads, sewers, and other infrastructure in such a way that taxpayers pick up most of the cost (as they normally would) but private investors get to treat the (publicly paid-for) investments as their own. This is the worst kind of crony capitalism, says Krugman, and he's right.

There are other reasons to be concerned about Trump's infrastructure plan as well, though.

The sheer cost of the plan should stop people in their tracks: $1 trillion. I can speak most deeply about the transportation aspects of infrastructure policy (rather than, say, water treatment). The United States has a clear pattern of spending more money on expansion of its road infrastructure than it spends on maintaining existing projects. Organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers get bipartisan praise for claiming that a whole lot of extra money is needed to fix our roads, but the reality is that the ASCE acts like any other trade group, protecting the bottom line of the professionals whose interest it's in to spend more money on roads.
The Citizens Bank project in Johnston, RI used public infrastructure debt to
benefit crony capitalism.

Another concern is that the Republican Congress has worked long and hard to dismantle any shred of transit-, bike-, or walking-related funding from the transportation budget. Should Donald Trump issue a trillion dollars in federal money, that money will cycle through state DOTs. Anyone who reads this blog knows how frustrating that can be even in Rhode Island-- and believe me, though RIDOT deserves all the criticism it gets, there are many state DOTs that are far worse.

Roads are not the only type of infrastructure that is spent on in wacky ways. Radiolab just did a very insightful piece explaining Texas' sewer maintenance districts (see second segment), which unleash hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to as-yet-not-built towns on the hope that new sewers will bring development. As Rhode Islanders might remember, the "shovel ready" Citizens Bank project in Johnston moved jobs from Cranston while adding expensive new road infrastructure and sewer infrastructure and extending large tax exemptions to Citizens Bank (Citizens had a lot to say about the "expensive" city life that it couldn't afford, but was totally fine with taking the suburban largesse). Unfortunately, Rhode Island is (again) not the worst state for this type of behavior. Strong Towns has done a very careful review of how suburban-style projects create spectacular growth cycles based on public and private debt in infrastructure that can never be fully repaid.
By all means, this is not to say that there are not real infrastructure needs in the U.S. that need our attention. One that comes easily to mind is the crisis of water pipes made of lead, which exist mostly within highly built-up, pre-WWII areas of the country. I suspect that exactly the sort of math that shows that infrastructure expansion is a bad investment would support the idea of making targeted investments in this type of project. But even if we do take on a project like that, which would benefit Providence as well, we need to think only partially in terms of what new money we can bring to the table, and also be thinking about the types of wasteful projects we can eliminate.

If you think I'm criticizing this plan because I hate Donald Trump, believe me, you're right. I hate Donald Trump. But I also had a lot of similar things to say about Bernie Sanders, a man I regard as practically a secular saint. This is a bipartisan problem in our country. As you'll note, such liberal luminaries as Rep. David Cicilline and (*cough* *eyeroll*) "climate champion" Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse were among the shovel-ready politicos who were ready to dig in for Citizens Bank. 

We need to unite and oppose this plan.



Peanut allergies are best prevented by feeding a small amount of peanut puree to children when they're babies. It prepares them, by giving their system a bit of the thing that could cause a deadly shock.

A good bit of the time, I think the term "political correctness" deserves to be put in scare quotes. A potent example would be the #sanctuarycampus hashtag which is currently trending (partly for good, and partly for bad reason-- I'll get into that). Students around the country are bravely and correctly marching and organizing to demand that their campuses protected undocumented immigrants from deportation (there is a similar concept, a "sanctuary city" which Mayor Elorza is pursuing, which you should support; it's possible-- though a long shot-- that Rhode Island could become a "sanctuary state").
The attacks against people standing up for other people have taken the tone of derisively calling the sanctuary campus a "safe space" where allegedly coddled college students can be free of anything that challenges their points of view. This is a disgusting way to illegitimate the organizing work that is being done to protect families of immigrants. Colleges (and everywhere) should be safe from deportation. 

And then there's the other side of political correctness, the kind that I would say should not go in scare quotes.

Political correctness, to me, doesn't mean standing up for people's rights (as it does to many people who use the term "politically correct" to dismiss those struggles). It doesn't mean accepting that we all have different power, or being willing to take a backseat as a person in privilege to give someone whose not normally in power a leadership position. Political correctness is akin to an allergic reaction: it happens when the system of thought around you becomes rigid enough that it loses the chance to be challenged, and thus get stronger.

One of the things I strongly expect the incoming Trump administration to do, especially through its cabinet (say, a Rudy Giuliani), is to turn our notions of power on their head. The right-wing response to the sanctuary campus is already an example of this. The rhetoric is all about the excesses of privilege for college students, because attacking that straw man is easier than acknowledging to oneself that the attack is really against very unprivileged people trying to leave their lives in a constant barrage of racism. Don't frame the argument as about immigrants. Attack those lazy students! Counter-intuitively, we need to be ready to support the privileged people who are standing up as well as those who are not privileged, because our internal logic of disliking privilege will be used as an Achilles Heal against us.
This attack isn't fair. But we have agency to help defeat it, even if its origins are dishonest. I recently had a professor more or less dress me down for using the word "we" in a sentence describing movements to defeat Trump. The gist of my previous comments had actually all been about the varying degrees of power and privilege we have: that people of color, for instance, should not be responsible to nurse the wounds of white working class people, but that white people should be doing that work.* 

Most voters didn't vote for Trump, I reminded people. Many more voters voted for Hillary Clinton, and some voters voted for clearly anti-Trump third parties. And people who voted up and down the ticket for other offices often withheld their vote for president out of disgust for either party. So the question we need to ask about white working class voters isn't why they're so racist (though some are), but why both white working class voters and some African-American voters felt disgusted with the Democratic candidate. I summed it up with "This is why we lose elections. People decided they could cast a protest vote in states they thought were safe, and it turns out enough people did that that it cost the election."

What followed was my professor attacking me for using the word "we" to describe anti-Trump people, and for describing blue states as "safe". Apparently, even though I had carefully marked out the fact that we all have very different relationships to the policies of this nation, and that some of us have more power and privilege than others, just the fact that I used "we" was "triggering" to my professor. Even though "safe" was clearly being used in the context of "electorally safe", it somehow signified my ignorance to the dangers people can face in states across the country. The conversation turned into a forty minute shouting match (me mostly being the one shouted at). 

This is political correctness. In order not to have the Sasquatch of scare quote "political correctness" (being a decent person aware of one's privileges) turned into a real thing, one has to call the real gorilla in the room what it is. It's not representative of the left as a whole, but it is a subset of the left: a group of people who are so captured inside a bubble that they haven't been challenged. A paper cut-- the use of the second person plural-- is enough to send them into anaphylaxis. We need to speak up against this, not to give fodder to the people who will cut-and-paste our stories and misuse them, but to reach out to people who should be allies against oppression but who only remember that time that cousin so-and-so yelled at them at a family barbecue for saying "transgendered" instead of "transgender" (I have been cousin so-and-so, I'll admit it).  

Let's fight Trump. And sometimes, the people who have supported him are beyond being reached out to. But sometimes they're not. And moreover, we need to lose this narrative that what lost the election is people who were confused enough to cast their ballot for a demagogue. We lost because we failed to present a vision: a vision of we.


By the way, if you're wondering why this isn't about bike lanes, bike lanes shouldn't be your top concern right now. :-/

On "Adolescent Emotionalism"

Figuring out when and how to draw lines in the sand, and when and how to bend with the breeze, is going to be an incredible challenge in the next four years.

My feeling is that we should not assume that this is just any normal presidency, because of the range of overtly fascist statements made by the soon-to-be-president as he ran for office. The New York Review of Books had a pretty thoughtful piece on the challenges of living in such a time. It's important to draw lines in the sand because the things on the table are not normal, and should not be normalized. The slow movement of abhorrent things into the mainstream happens through this process.

People didn't think Trump could win (and by the popular vote, he didn't). So even people who very much liked what Trump had to say felt social pressure to distance themselves from him. And yet, each time Trump triumphed, those people moved a little closer. People online are expecting Paul Ryan to somehow speak up and stop the worst of the Trump administration, for instance. That's not going to happen. Paul Ryan was unsure if he wanted to take a stand when it looked like Trump was tearing the party apart. Now that Trump is president-elect (barring some sudden pang of conscience by the Electoral College in December), he's going to fall in line. So we need to get used to the disorientation of that.
But it's important to sway in the wind because the vast, vast majority of the people who voted for Trump did so while hating all of the things we hate about him (I think Michael Moore has made the strongest statements on this so far). This is both hopeful and dangerous, because autocratic regimes rely much more on the power of support they get from ordinary people voting on bread-basket issues (e.g., trade) than they do colorful, rabid support from the base of their fascist movement. A regime which promises the torture of family members of suspected terrorists (a war crime) or to ban religious groups, or to ethnically-cleanse (the term for mass, forced mobilization) millions of people can sometimes count on the population both not being particularly rabid about these things, but also not especially concerned enough to pick up and resist.

I love many people in my life who I know don't have a racist bone in their bodies, who held their nose and voted for Trump because to them, that seemed like a rational response to the perceived (and often real) corruption of Hillary Clinton. The left (and truly, even the democratic right, that still believes in liberal democracy) must speak to these people, listen, and not insult their valid concerns. They are not bad people. They're attracted to the feeling of hope and pride that Trump's angry message fills them with, a message not entirely different than other fascists in the past. 

But then their are those who intentionally mislead everyone around them, who lie, who demagogue, and whose purpose is merely to create hate. And this is where drawing the line becomes a vital exercise. 

One of the way that fascism creates power for itself is by nurturing the sense of alienation that people have that no one hears them, and by creating a sense of victimhood. Justin Katz's latest tweets and articles have focused heavily on this tendency (though it is a longterm trend in his writing as well). Declaring that "the left must reject fascism in its midst" would be incredibly tone deaf in the present climate if it weren't part of a strategy to dehumanize people in civil society who oppose Donald Trump, a man whose every fiber of being is dedicated to fascist causes. But it's not a mistake when Justin Katz writes things like that. His purpose is to mislead, sit back, and wait for the ugly results.

I feel a special responsibility to speak out on what Katz's site is, because I have been published there several times. I chose to harness the anti-government energy of the Ocean State Current to try bolstering the boulevard cause. The first article I wrote there, I recall, was right above an anti-immigration article. I remember feeling compromised by that, but I also thought that some of the stuff the Current had to say about immigration was so off the wall that it would never come to power. It has. And so now I wonder what it is I've done to legitimize this source.

I commented to this online, providing an image of an article from May when Justin Katz fumes that he's close to overthrowing the government with violence because of the requirement that lobbying groups register so that the public can identify the source of attack ads. His statement says:
With regard to Mr. Quindazzi’s question about calling for the violent overthrow of the United States government, I’d suggest that, yes, that is protected speech.  In fact, I’m getting ever closer to endorsing the suggestion, myself. (my italics)
Katz wrote a full article about my supposed "adolescent emotionalism" because I tweeted that journalists have a responsibility in the next four years to redisplay that statement every time Justin Katz tries to fume and manipulate about "left violence" (the tweet series has a small typo: I meant to say "I think I made serious mistake, to which owe RI an apology: I took seriously the idea that [you] might be honestly mistaken." 

Then I blocked Katz, because my purpose in tweeting was not to get into a conversation with him, but to make sure I'd said what I need to say on the matter to Rhode Island. Katz's is so insidiously good at spinning straw men, that I knew he would tweet some completely dishonest thing back that I would then feel obliged to clarify, turning the whole thing into an hour-long affair. And lo and behold, he did it again! Katz's new article has alleged that I said that the press should sideline him from view, which is part of his paranoid and/or intentionally dishonest narrative that the left is full of actual fascists who are trying to take the rights away of good, honest, white nationalists like Katz. I think the media should give all the access in the world to Katz's rantings. But whenever he makes a statement about the violence of the left, I think newspapers should print his call to arms next to it. 

By the way, since we're on the subject of "adolescent emotionalism":

We have to remember: many people read the Ocean State Current because they're tired of corruption within the Democratic Party. I worked closely with one of Katz's colleagues, Lawrence Gillheeney to fight the 6/10 Connector rebuild, which is exactly the sort of government-taking-care-of-its-friends project that infuriates the Trump base. No one should tell Trump voters not to be angry. What we have to do is create our own narrative about what there is to be angry about, and try to pry them away from people like Justin Katz.


Emergency Meeting at Hope High School Draws 1,000

My state representative, Aaron Regunberg, and many, many other people deserve kudos for putting together a gigantic meeting to confront the challenges we face in the coming Trump years.
Mayor Elorza came to the event, and announced a series of broad-reaching proposals about economic justice, and maintaining the safety of the immigrant and people-of-color communities in Providence, and I would like to call readers of this blog to do as much as they can to support the mayor in those goals, and to push him (and your city councilors!) towards accountability on those issues. I expect that Steve Ahlquist at RIFuture will have a more comprehensive list of those proposals than I have here. Please check that out as he posts it.

I would like to reiterate what I said to the mayor, which is that we really need him to more forcefully take on RIDOT in the coming years, because without the progressive counterbalance that Sec. Anthony Foxx has had at the Department of Transportation, RIDOT and other state DOTs are going to be even more emboldened to build additional roads, and ignore or sideline transit, biking, and walking. The 6/10 Connector proposal continues to need additional improvement.

The mayor is not superman. He is a mortal man, and I know he works hard. He will not do those things which we do not demand. Please embolden yourself, because what does not get done in "blue" states in the coming two to four years will certainly not be done anywhere else (And if you are a Trump person-- well, I don't understand you but-- check this out).

RIDOT's plan is awful, and the city's plan needs to improve as well.


Protesting the Electoral College is Not an Urban Plot

I've recently seen the argument that getting rid of the Electoral College would be an urbanist plot to aggrandize the power of big cities. (You can find some of this under the trending hashtag, #TellTheElectoralCollege). This is not true. 

For context on why this is important-- TAKE YOUR HEAD OUT OF THE SAND!-- Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by hundreds of thousands of votes, but lost the electoral vote 299.5 to 238.5. The Electoral College has the ability to change its vote if the electors desire, but it remains to be seen whether that is at all realistic to hope for. 

Here's a map of electoral votes in conveniently viewable hexagons representing the votes.

In today's politics, cities do in fact tend to have more clustered groups of similarly-minded voters than suburbs or rural areas, which vote consistently Republican but with much smaller margins of victory. But that issue isn't exactly what's going on in the Electoral College. Part of what's going on is that that same pattern happens at a state level as well.

Many of the states that Donald Trump won in the Electoral College were by very narrow margins, while lots of states Hillary Clinton won were by significant margins. Us Rhode Islanders can attest that being small doesn't mean the Electoral College treats you with added importance. Rhode Island voted for Clinton at a much lower rate than it did Obama, but the margin was still decisive. Every vote that goes beyond a bare majority is essentially "wasted" by states like Rhode Island, making it highly attractive to stay home.

My experience of having first lived in Pennsylvania, in a very large city, and now living in Rhode Island, in a fairly small city, is that the electoral system greatly expanded the power of Philadelphia while diminishing the power of Providence. Philadelphia has enough votes that if people turn out in large numbers, it can sway an election. Providence is actually a bigger percentage of the Rhode Island vote than Philadephia is of the Pennsylvania one, but Providence is more similar in voting patterns with its statewide vote than Philadelphia is. It's about homogeneity, not size.

And part of this is a "sample size error". If you drew a Rhode Island-shaped box over Philadelphia (which, for reference, is about the size of the Bay) than its 1.6 million people and the 4 million or so living in the suburbs would be just as Democratic as Rhode Island (but worth a lot more electoral votes). If you did that somewhere else in Pennsylvania, it would change the math in a different way.

Lots of small states-- by population-- Vermont, Nebraska, Hawaii, Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, Utah are irrelevant year after year (Utah briefly was discussed as an important race because of a third party conservative candidate, who was believed to be able to mix up the race, but that proved incorrect). What makes a state more important in the Electoral College is not that it's small, or rural, or urban, because large states are also fairly irrelevant to politicians: New York, California, Oregon, and Washington are all fairly decided places, despite being large or medium sized. Republicans in places like Massachusetts and Rhode Island have no incentive to turn out and vote for president, just like Democrats in Utah or Kentucky do not.

This brings us to the central point: Would getting rid of the Electoral College suddenly unleash a saturnalia of urban political power? Yes and no. You could not win an election just by swinging big cities (or, at least, it would be no easier than today's system). If a Democratic (let's say) candidate came on the scene arguing that suburbs and rural areas should be ignored, the margins of victory for Republicans (say) would grow. This would be especially powerful in suburban areas and smaller cities that don't vote in a lopsided way. 

So what it really comes down to, in the end, is whether you think it's right to continue a system where voters are undercounted because they live next to each other.

In the meantime, it's not undemocratic to argue that the Electoral College should change their vote to represent the plurality of voters who voted for Hillary Clinton, and the majority who voted against Donald Trump. It's also not a sign that people are ignorant of the Constitution. The Constitution allows for the Electoral College to vote however it wants. Protesting to make that option attractive is exactly what our country is about.


Why Height Limits Aren't the Right Answer to High Land Prices

Informal settlements often consist of fairly incremental and modest buildings of the type that Marohn discusses, but in dense forms not usually allowed by modern American zoning. Rio de Janeiro is so dense that the only transit solution to moving people up and down the hillsides was to put in these ski-lift style transportation centers the streets are too small and steep for anything else).
Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn has started an interesting discussion of Portland Oregon that is worth reading. The discussion builds off of other pieces Marohn has written about height limits in the past (for a good reply, read Alon Levy). Portland is having growing pains, and Marohn says that the cause is too liberal a zoning regimen. From the article:
On a walking tour there, we strolled through blocks and blocks of gaps -- empty and underutilized lots -- just off of their core downtown. I pointed out a nice little home as an example of what the city should be striving for to fill in these gaps and then pointed to the adjacent vacant lot as the perfect place to start. That was when I was informed that the vacant lot was zoned T-5 Urban Center (2-5 story multi-family housing) and that the owner wanted $600,000 for it, making my proposed modest home financially impossible. 
I asked why this land was zoned T-5 when there was so much underutilized property in the area, so much dead space. The answer was exactly what I heard in Portland and exactly what I heard in Austin: we're growing. 
Supposedly there is so much demand for housing in San Marcos that T-5 zoning is needed -- all that high density development is necessary -- to meet the demand. I walked around for hours and experienced an endless amount of underutilized property, just as I had outside the cores of Portland and Austin. It was more property than would ever be utilized as T-5 and it was sitting there, high priced and waiting for the right buyer to come by and make the owner rich. 
The highly-planned city of Brasilia, which became the capital of Brazil in the 1960s, has this tower-in-the-park style that people found entrancing and beautiful at its inception, but which has proven to be extremely auto-oriented and alienating (where can you walk?). But would you solve this problem with height limits, or would you open up access to development of the kind that happens in Rio?

Marohn says that this problem is caused by zoning for high density. The areas that are underdeveloped have the right to put in taller buildings, but that process of zoning them for higher use means that the land prices spike. Therefore, it makes no sense to develop something that is less than the highest use. You won't pay $600,000 for a small plot to put a single-family house on. It only makes sense to do so if you're going to build something that can house a lot more people. Hence, you get a binary effect: either you get really dense development, or you get nothing.

I agree with the core of Marohn's diagnosis, but not his prescribed treatment. According to Marohn:
The simple answer is downzoning. 
What if along all these rail corridors and at all of these rail stops, instead of being able to build an eight-story condo unit, all a developer was allowed to build was the next increment of intensity? For most of that area, that would mean single family homes. In that case, what would happen to land prices? They would drop. They would crater, in fact. This would free up an incredible amount of land for cheap, affordable development while also taking a substantial amount of pressure off of the existing single-family neighborhoods.
Marohn is right to say that cities should be okay with accepting smaller buildings in place of high rises, with the assumption that over time those buildings will gradually upzone themselves as demand pushes for those changes. In a way, I feel vindicated to hear a national leader say this, because in Providence at least I've heard a lot of urbanists propose that the Jewelry District has to spring into fully-formed high rise status from the starting point of being a parking crater, and to my mind it would be much more realistic to expect fairly small buildings to pop up first, like the succession of a forest.

GCPVD's "parking crisis" captures the problem of vast stretches
of un-used land in Providence's downtown. Would a land tax fix
that problem?
I think the better way to fix the problem would be to institute a very high land tax, and to lower property taxes with whatever revenue that tax raises (why this isn't front and center in Marohn's proposal isn't clear to me, since he does make strong arguments elsewhere in his web writings). If someone has a very expensive piece of land, what makes them hold out on that property until the perfect high rise comes along is the calculation that there's no downside to that speculative bet. Putting a high land tax in place would fix this. Down-zoning is silly, because it tries to force what development does come to spread itself out along a whole corridor. If land prices were lowered, it would not necessarily lead to people not being willing to build high rises. It would just increase the amount of other development options that were available. So, in that way, I think Marohn's solution doesn't really attack the roots of the problem, and it creates a lot of other ones.

Dense places like Philadelphia can be built as mostly two- and three-story places, but that doesn't mean that requiring cities to follow that pattern is a good idea. The streets of Philadelphia are mostly very small (sometimes almost Medieval in scale; more often just "normal" scale streets at 10' with a parking lane beside it). Philly does have height limits, but I don't think height limits are what produced this effect (and now that Philadelphia, like Portland, is growing, those height limits could actually worsen gentrification).
Bringing it back to Providence, this issue of speculation is one reason I propose a really high parking lot tax, which in the case of the Jewelry District would be a tax on most of the underdeveloped land, and using that funding to lower property taxes. A parking lot tax is essentially a land tax, except it's a somewhat more targeted one. It hits the development style that is by far the "lowest use"--parking-- but it doesn't try to prescribe a "highest use" (in most cases, high rise development). That way, the neighborhood can grow more naturally, sometimes producing large buildings, but probably more often producing what Marohn calls "the next interval" of development.
Dense cities can be made up of relatively small buildings. The oldest residential
block in the U.S. is Elfreth's Alley (the 100 block of Cherry Street) which is just
made up of the preserved working class rowhouses of the 18th Century. But these
houses are very expensive now. Requiring entire cities to stick to height limits 
does not allow the city to grow with its population.

Being "density obsessed" in the way Marohn describes is a problem. The city I was most aware of growing up was Philadelphia, which despite being the second largest on the East Coast and one of only a handful of truly dense, transit-oriented cities in the country, is basically a two- and three-story city almost everywhere but Center City. The density of Philly is based on every space being filled, and on the walkability that that creates, rather than on towers in the park. So I think that this discussion of how to build middle intervals of development is really important (and all the more so because I agree with Marohn's fear that having only the extreme ends of development worsens sprawl and/or gentrification). But the way to fix it shouldn't be through down-zoning, which I think just adds one more spiral to the Rube Goldberg machine.