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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 41

[ 7 ] July 24, 2016 |

This is the grave of Thurlow Weed.

2016-06-04 16.55.21 HDR

Thurlow Weed was a political kingmaker of the Whig Party. Born in 1797 in New York, Weed became involved in politics at a young age, first supporting DeWitt Clinton and then John Quincy Adams. He was elected to the New York state assembly in 1824, becoming a leader of the Anti-Masonic Party. He took over a series of newspapers and effectively became the boss of the New York Whigs during the 1830s. He was a major player in a series of Whig presidential nominees–Henry Clay in 1832, William Henry Harrison in 1840, Zachary Taylor in 1848, and Winfield Scott in 1852. He was originally close to Millard Fillmore so had hopes when Taylor died that Fillmore would see his policies through, but the new president proved quite susceptible to southern influence and Weed grew distant from him. With the Whigs’ collapse, Weed moved into the new Republican Party and worked to elect John C. Fremont in 1856. Typically for Weed’s ambitions, this ultimately failed. Weed was very close with William Seward and hoped to get him the 1860 Republican nomination. When Abraham Lincoln won it instead, both Seward and Weed were disappointed but supported the nominee. After the Civil War, like Seward, Weed turned far to the right, becoming an important supporter of Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies, which effectively made him politically irrelevant by 1868. Weed lived until 1882, but had little political pull after this.

Thurlow Weed is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery, Menands, New York.


How Stepped Pyramids Screwed Us Over, or, Respect to the Lurkers

[ 121 ] July 22, 2016 |

Aerial photo of Portland

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, the worst possible outcome for you tonight was watching Donald Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention.

Wait, Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president? What?

Anyway, tonight was the Portland LGM meetup. Thanks to Anna in PDX for setting it up. Good to meet Amanda in the South Bay. My old friend Solid Citizen was of course there because what would an Oregon meetup be without him? Stepped Pyramids pledged his (I think?) attendance. But Stepped Pyramids was a total no show. Probably couldn’t escape the Trump speech. We were devastated.

What was most interesting though is that almost everyone who came to the event said “oh, I’m sorry, I’m a lurker. I never comment.” It was a whole event full of lurkers. Which was great! I know that most of our readers never comment. So this thread goes out to them. Thanks so much for reading, even if you never comment. We really appreciate it. It was awesome to meet some of you.

So this is an open thread for lurkers. Obviously the most appropriate response is for this thread to get 0 comments since lurkers don’t comment. But if anyone wants to start, now’s a good time. But no pressure!

Portland Meetup Reminder

[ 25 ] July 20, 2016 |


Hey Portlandia,

Quick reminder that there is an LGM meetup on Thursday evening. We are going to have dinner at 6:30 at Cha! Cha! Cha!, a Mexican restaurant at 5225 N. Lombard. We will then move at 7:30 to the Chill n’ Fill bar next door at 5215 N. Lombard, which has beer, cider, and wine on tap. If you are interested in the dinner and didn’t mention it in comments, do so in order to get an approximately correct reservation. Or just show up for drinks.

Good News in Human Rights

[ 29 ] July 20, 2016 |

Romero headshot
El Salvador’s terrible 1993 law granting amnesty to everyone involved in the government’s horrible terror campaigns of the 1980s was recently overturned by a court, giving some hope of bringing the guilty to justice.

Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan is dead or maybe he could be brought to trial for war crimes too.

Why the Police Need Unions

[ 196 ] July 20, 2016 |


You can disagree with the police unions’ political positions. You don’t have to support their ideas or their positions. You don’t have to respect the police. But I refuse to accept arguments from the left that the police should not have unions. Jeff Spross has more on why the police need unions.

Cops are workers, too. They are workers put in an almost impossible position. And they need a union to stand up for them.

Go down the standard list of proposed police reforms — more accountability for bad cops, body cameras, demilitarization, more federal monitoring, civilian oversight, transparency, and so on. They’re all worthy, but what they all have in common is getting police to behave better within the role of “police” as we already conceive of it; namely, as the state’s enforcers of law and order, whose primary tools are the threat of violence and the ability to throw people into cages.

What these reforms don’t deal with is the possibility that our society has rendered this role an impossible one to pull off in any sort of successful, functional, or healthy manner.

Cops must deal with everything from gang violence to drug addiction to mental illness to domestic abuse to helping single parents to broken taillights and speeding cars. They respond so often with violence and incarceration because those are the tools we train them to use. They are no more immune to racism than any other human institution in American society. And of course the well-being of cops themselves often resembles what you’d find in veterans from a war zone.

Meanwhile, America’s long history of racism has left many black American communities deeply damaged. And poverty and crime go hand in hand. So when cops are shoved into the role of what is often privileged white society’s sole institutional interaction with black Americans’ world, and left with nothing but violence and incarceration as their tools, of course racism still permeates the way they operate.

Our society has pulled out of supplying the resources, the institutions, and the personnel that could support cops in handling this societal breakdown. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” said an exhausted David Brown, Dallas’ police chief, in the aftermath of the killing of five cops at a protest march. “Policing was never meant to solve all of those problems.”

Can anyone be surprised when police unions bristle and revolt at reforms aimed at drawing even greater virtue out of cops in the course of performing very difficult tasks? Cops wield an immense amount of power in our society. But that abstract privilege does not change the lived experience of being a cop, which is what the police and the unions that represent them draw upon when deciding how to defend themselves. We can’t just keep trying to make the police better-armed saints in the very places where the injustices of U.S. society collide the hardest. Nor can we assume that combating racism is merely a matter of enlightening individual cops or their departmental culture.

Getting rid of police unions will do precisely nothing to solve any problem with the police the left has. All it will do is make the lives of the police worse and make these problems harder to solve. If you believe that unionbusting is the answer, you need to examine where you are coming from on this. And you need to answer the question of how this will solve the problems of police brutality and racist violence.

Palm Oil Horrors

[ 2 ] July 20, 2016 |


Because I would do literally anything other than watch 1 second of the Republican National Convention, I’m going to assume that at least some of you hold the same policy. So if you want to learn more about the terrible things going on in the world and why we need to fight it, here’s a new animation on the abuses in the palm oil industry, which is in many of the food products you buy everyday.


[ 122 ] July 18, 2016 |

This was the prayer offered as the benediction to today’s session of the Republican National Convention.


Blue-Green Alliances

[ 11 ] July 18, 2016 |


There’s a lot of tension between parts of the labor movement and the environmental movement right now. This can often be painted too broadly. Basically, the building trades hate environmentalists for not supporting building every dirty power project and the UMWA hates environmentalists for supporting restrictions on coal. But there are lots of unions with perfectly fine relationships with environmentalists, even if the big public sector unions like SEIU, AFSCME, and AFT could do much, much more to represent the interests of their members in supporting a clean, sustainable environment with plenty of recreational opportunities. But even within those hostile unions, it’s not as if there isn’t room to work with environmentalists on issues where their interests coincide. And this is one of the lessons of so-called blue-green alliances. It’s not as if unions and environmentalists have to agree on everything. They may never be a force marching together for combined ecological and economic justice. Rather, this sort of alliance-building is going to be dependent on the given issue. And that’s OK so long as there is enough dialogue to allow that alliance to happen when it can. That’s what groups like the BlueGreen Alliance try to do. And we are seeing it pay off with both labor and greens outraged over Flint, which has shamefully fallen out of the headlines in the last 2 months.

When you think of an environmental hero, a plumber might not be the first person who comes to mind. But the BlueGreen Alliance gave its “champion” award this year to the union representing plumbers and pipe fitters. The big reason: people like Harold Harrington, of the United Association local 370 in Flint, Michigan. He says during the lead in water crisis there, his members volunteered to go door to door and replace faucets and water filters in people’s homes. “We replaced 650 faucets, just because the filters wouldn’t fit the old faucets. And they’re carbon filters, so they do remove lead,” he says.

Leaders in both the environmental and labor movements say the country could prevent more public health disasters like Flint, if old infrastructure is fixed or replaced — like leaky drinking water pipes, and natural gas pipelines. And at the same time, the repairs would create jobs. Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club. He gives the example of new regulations in California to fix old gas pipelines. They were passed in response to a four-month leak of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – in Aliso Canyon, in southern California. “And there will be lots of jobs and there will be a cut in the pollution from these pipelines,” says Brune.

We need a lot more of this. New infrastructure building is the kind of agenda that should create broad agreement on the left. First, this nation really, really needs it. Second, it would be a huge spur to the economy. Third, that new infrastructure could create a far-more sustainable network of power and transportation than we currently have. But even when that’s not available, working together over issues of the relationship between the environment and everyday people is the kind of thing that can bring unions and greens together.

I have long stated that environmentalism ultimately hurt itself by focusing more on wilderness and wildlife preservation over the broad-based anti-pollution measures that made it politically popular in the 1960s and 1970s. There were lots of good reasons for that–the fact that the Clean Air Acts and Clean Water Acts were so successful that the obvious need for stronger laws diminished, the growth of conservatism making it necessary to defend laws in the courts instead of push for new laws, and the wealthy people funding environmentalism who wanted campaigns around wilderness, rain forest protection, and wildlife protection. Add to this the deindustrialization, outsourcing, and automation transforming the American economy and making working people scared of supporting environmentalism because their employers were threatening to move their jobs overseas (which they were often planning on doing anyway) and the political calculus for environmentalism changed rapidly. Yet this is unfortunate and needs to change. Building alliances around environmental injustice and infrastructure is at least a starting point.

Organizing Seattle Uber Drivers

[ 41 ] July 18, 2016 |


David Bensman has a really great piece on how the Teamsters are taking the lead on organizing Uber drivers in Seattle and how doing so has relied on the kind of community effort necessary for organizing in the modern day. It’s taken building not only union power but connections within immigrant communities, working with politicians, and building alliances with environmentalists and community activists. This is the sort of campaign that can make a long-term difference and as Uber has begun facing political pushback for its exploitative model, is highly necessary. And how bad are things for drivers now that Uber has flooded the market?

Since Uber and Lyft came to town and recruited ten times the number of drivers that had been issued licenses under the city’s regulatory taxicab regime, earnings of all drivers have tumbled. While Uber started out allowing drivers to keep almost the same amount per mile driven as the regulated taxi drivers were getting, it has since cut that rate from $2.35 to $1.35 per mile. Now Uber drivers charge lower fares, and they get the lion’s share of the business. But with their low mileage rate, they have to work seven 12-hour days each week to make enough to live in the expensive metropolitan region. Mohammed, a somali driver I met near the Al Aqbar mosque that was the first to allow drivers to hold organizing meetings, told me that he knew driving such long hours was dangerous. “But what choice do I have?” he asked. “I have to pay for my car, my apartment, to put food on the table.”

Mohammed told me he pays $600 per week for the car Uber pressured him to lease from Toyota. He also pays the company $1.40 per passenger as a “safe rider fee,” though he can’t figure out what he or his passengers are getting for the money, since background checks are minimal and fingerprinting is unknown. On the day I visited the airport parking lot, Uber drivers waited 40 minutes, on average, before they got a call to pick up a passenger. Some days are better, Mohammed informed me; by now the drivers know when the planes are landing, and they try to time their arrival at the airport to minimize their wait. But even when they time it right, their earnings are limited; a ride from the airport to town only nets them $16, and there’s no tipping. Worse, a recent company-imposed pooling policy requires drivers to pick up multiple passengers at different places to take them to common destinations at severely reduced fares. This “innovation,” communicated to drivers through Uber’s app, really has the drivers grumbling.

Licensed-cab taxi drivers probably have it worse. At nights and on weekends, millennial customers use their Uber app. As a consequence, most licensed drivers work an early shift, from 4:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon, seven days a week. Driving cab number 718, a Somali driver who was afraid to give me his name told me that before Uber arrived, he used to be able to make a decent living driving eight hour days. Now he has a choice; he can drive seven 12-hour days or he can reduce his lifestyle. He’s moved to a cheaper apartment and settled for straitened circumstances. He’s philosophical about his change of life, but he doesn’t think it’s right. “I don’t mind competition,” he told me. “Competition makes everyone play their best game. If you are skilled and have a good strategy, you can win. But this competition is unfair. Uber doesn’t pay the standard mileage rate, its insurance is no good, and it makes its drivers work unsafe hours. This competition you can’t win.” Another driver, an Ethiopian, made the other choice, working seven 12-hour days. “My kids think I’m an ATM machine,” he told me. “I never see them.”

This is total exploitation. There’s nothing wrong per se with having more cabs on the road. There is something very wrong in driving workers into poverty and pooling profits at the top.

The Activist NLRB and the Future of Organized Labor

[ 17 ] July 18, 2016 |


Shaun Richman asks a fundamental question: When the hell did the federal government get bolder than most labor unions about asserting the legal rights of workers?

On Monday, in a 3-1 ruling, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed a Bush the Younger-era precedent that gave employers a say over whether temporary and subcontracted workers can be included in the same bargaining unit as the regular, full-time employees with whom they work beside. Go figure, most employers said “no” to the proposition that people who work shoulder to shoulder, but are paid from separate checkbooks, could bargain together in the same union. But the new Miller & Anderson, Inc. decision could force subcontractors to bargain with a certified union over the wages and working conditions determined by the controlling employer.

The ruling comes hot on the heels of the Board’s American Baptist Homes decision. That case re-established a balancing test for whether a boss’ employment of permanent replacement strikers is actually motivated by a desire to bust a union —which goes a long way towards restoring a legal right to strike.

And, of course, the Board’s attempt to expedite representation elections by holding frivolous management objections in abeyance until after the workers vote nearly broke the Congress. (Seriously, if you want to drink some delicious boss’ tears Google “quickie NLRB election.”)

As veteran union organizer Stephen Lerner succinctly puts it, “Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it.” I have advocated that unions should pursue an agenda of judicial activism. These recent NLRB actions prove that the time is ripe to challenge the rules of the system that keep unions shackled. I’ve spent most of my career complaining about how slow and ineffective the NLRB is, as have most union organizers. That bias should not blind us to the opportunity of the moment.

Speaking of Lerner, this is worth your time:

Austerity, growing inequality, and the economic and political domination of billionaires, bankers, hedge funds, and giant corporations make the current moment ripe for birthing a movement that can radically transform the country and the world. This is a time of great peril, but also of extraordinary opportunity and—yes—reasons for hope. The last four decades have been characterized by unrelenting attacks on the working class, the weakening of unions and the financialization of capitalism. The fiscal crisis of 2007-2008, the burgeoning wealth gap, and the flood of money from corporations and the rich drowning our democracy have exposed the nation’s political, moral, and economic decay, creating conditions that beg for an alternative to a system that increasingly only works for the super-rich.

I agree that there are a lot of reasons to hope right now. I don’t see the failure of the Sanders campaign or the Walmart organizing campaign as actually failures. I see them as moments leading to something much larger, something we are already seeing in the debates around income inequality, the growth of minimum wage legislation, and even Republican politicians sometimes having to admit that these are real problems (even if their solutions are as anti-poor as ever).

So what role do unions play now, given their decreased density? Lerner suggests several possibilities. Each of these have longer descriptions but let me just lay out their intros with a brief comment. First:

Unions need to understand and educate the public about what is going on in the economy if labor and other social movements are to seize this opportunity and figure out how to turn frailty into strength. They need to demystify the complexity of the how the economy works, so that working-class people and social movements can respond in kind.

Unions are well-placed to do this, as they hire labor economists and analysts who produce perceptive critiques of the economy. In this, I would say that these unions should (and of course they already do) work in conjunction or in conversation with left-leaning think tanks like the Roosevelt Institute to build up these critiques, and then find ways to disseminate this through the politically active population.

Assert control over wealth and capital: In the post-World War II era, unions made two related mistakes that have contributed to labor’s isolation and to unrestrained corporate control of the economy: First, organized labor focused nearly exclusively on winning higher wages and benefits for only the unionized sector of the economy; and second it declined to challenge how companies were managed or how capital and wealth were invested or controlled. In the auto sector, the United Auto Workers (UAW) won higher wages in Big Three assembly plants at the same time the companies spun off and outsourced manufacturing of parts that used to be done by UAW members. These two moves both lowered standards for these workers and undercut the union’s overall power in the industry.

All of this was predicated on the idea that unions and collective bargaining were accepted by the corporate and political elites as a permanent fixture of the system and as a legitimate method for setting wages and benefits. Since the 1970s, however, union membership has been in a steady free fall with today’s union density at roughly 11 percent. This means that, in addition to having ceded control over wealth and capital, unions have largely focused on protecting the interests of only a small fraction of workers.

Some unions have already moved in this direction, especially seen in SEIU’s support of the Fight for $15, for which they have expended millions of dollars without organizing a single establishment under a contract. Lerner also points to labor support of immigrant rights in recent decades as another example of this. Of course, there are some tricks here. A union has to remain financially viable and it has to serve its own members. Those things are paramount. But that can be done while also fighting for the broader agenda of all workers. Of course, not all unions are doing this and thus you see unions arguing for exemptions to minimum wage laws for their own members. That’s the kind of negative leadership unions have to stop doing. Broadly, unions need to be allies in other mass movements. Sometimes that is happening, sometimes it isn’t. But some unions are just never going to adjust to thinking of themselves as part of a social movement.

Unions are still the best-resourced progressive organizations in the U.S., but they have been far less successful at capturing the national imagination than other movements that have no resources. If unions limit their mission to the four walls of the workplace, then they become less relevant as they represent fewer workplaces. But by embracing other mass movements—without attempting to control or hijack them—unions can grow alongside of them and those movements will benefit from the organizational resources that organized labor can bring to bear.

The idea in Occupy Wall Street that unions would co-opt the movement was laughable from an evidentary standpoint. As if the unions had that power! But the fact that activists thought it was a real thing is a sign of the distrust a lot of activists in other movements have toward organized labor and to no small extent, that reputation has been earned over the past century. But Lerner provides several examples of how unions have been doing a much better job on these issues in recent years. Such alliance building is not just about the economy, but also making unions leaders in the fight for racial justice. That’s also going to take internal organizing in many of the unions, which are not always made up of racially progressive people.

Lerner concludes:

At this moment financialized capitalism is dominant, but also incredibly fragile, caught in cycles of booms and busts. Wall Street, mega corporations and newly minted tech billionaires boast of using “creative destruction” to reshape companies and the economy while enriching themselves at labor’s expense. Instead of accepting their dominance and control unions can start to counter their destruction with their own “creative disruption”, demonstrating just how fragile their control is and the potential power of labor—if unions are willing to flex their muscles.

By articulating a vision of a more just world, going on offense, demanding more instead of accepting less, and aligning campaigns against the billionaires at the top, labor can inspire and organize a movement dedicated to redistributing wealth and power.

Going back to Richman to end this long post, he argues that unions need to build upon this newly aggressive NLRB and start making real demands of the agency (assuming that Hillary Clinton wins the general election) that would push back against the decades of corporate attack upon workers:

A good case in point is employers’ “right” to force employees to attend mandatory anti-union “captive audience” meetings during a union organizing drive. Most organizers accept that it “is what it is”—another fucked up way that NLRB election rules are rigged so that unions lose a ton of representation elections. (Although, it should be noted that unions used to lose half of all representation elections during the Clinton I-era and now tend to win about two-thirds of elections, thanks partly to more strategic organizing choices and partly to the NLRB’s recent return to its historic mission of encouraging unions and collective bargaining.)

Meanwhile, apparently, the NLRB has been on the record for half a century as inviting unions to make a case that there should be some kind of equal access standard for unions if an employer forces workers to attend mandatory meetings on the subject of union representation. A group of 106 leading labor scholars, led by Charles Morris and Paul Secunda, have filed a petition at the NLRB to re-establish just such a rule.

The speculation is that the NLRB is unlikely to act on Morris’ and Secunda’s petition, as it prefers to act on union (or employer) initiated procedural cases. The Miller & Anderson decision came in response to a union representation petition; the American Baptist Homes decision in response to an unfair labor practice charge. To win equal time, a union will have to file exceptions to a losing representation election in which the employer made use of mandatory captive audience meetings. Surely, and sadly, someone reading this article has recently lost an election under such circumstances, and can take the initiative.

Similarly, most unionists just accept that an employer has a “right” to permanently replace striking workers. For example, Jane McAlevey, in her organizing memoir Raising Hell (and Raising Expectations), incorrectly chalks it up to a law signed by Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t. It was a poorly decided 1938 Supreme Court case that was dusted off in the 1980s. Like referees in a schlocky Hulk Hogan wrestling match, Reagan’s NLRB appointees looked the other way as employers engaged in a coordinated union-busting drive that weaponized the unfrozen caveman Supreme Court precedent.

After an unsuccessful attempt to legislatively ban permanent replacements during the first Clinton era, most unions seem to have shrugged and accepted that workers can legally lose their jobs for striking—that is until the NLRB reverted to the pre-Reagan rules. But the Board can go further. The crucial phrase in that 1938 Court decision, NLRB vs. Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co., is that an employer can hire permanent replacements if it is necessary “to protect and continue his business.”

In other words, to meet the Supreme Court standard, the NLRB could force Verizon or any other Fortune 500 company to prove that they would otherwise go out of business unless they can hire scabs to steal the jobs of their striking workers. Good luck with that. Unions should get in the habit of filing unfair labor practice charges any time a boss advertises for scabs.

The NLRB even potentially has the power to reverse “Right to Work.” The statutes, passed on a state-by-state basis, aim to prevent unions from collecting fees from all of the workers they are legally obligated to represent. But the federal law that allows “Right to Work” statutes has, until recently, faced very few judicial challenges. One open question is whether the legislative intent of the Taft-Hartley act was merely to ban union membership as a condition of employment—not whether unions could negotiate mandatory fees for grievance representation services. Seattle University Associate Professor of Law Charlotte Garden notes that the NLRB could approve such a formula, and has indicated openness to cases arguing for it.

There’s a lot of potential here. But it’s going to take unions taking the offensive to make that happen. I believe that even with their decreased membership, unions have an absolutely vital role to play any future left-leaning organizing in this nation. The potential is there for far-reaching changes that would go far to reset the playing field between workers and employers. We’ll have to see if they can take advantage of it. But the first thing that has to happen is Hillary Clinton must be elected to the White House. Otherwise, the rules of the game are going to get much, much, much worse.

Stop the Sprawl

[ 122 ] July 17, 2016 |


If cities are to keep growing, as they will, they must stop growing outwards and start growing upwards. The environmental and human consequences are too great to consider otherwise.

As cities grow, perhaps our most serious concern should be how they expand out into the surrounding countryside. Contrary to popular belief, over the past century urban settlements have not only expanded demographically, they have also sprawled outwards – covering some of the world’s most valuable farmland in the process.

The result has been a steady de-densification of urban settlements, by about –2% per annum. Even where inner-city areas have densified over the past few decades (Copenhagen, for example), the citywide trend is still for an overall reduction in average densities.

In 2010, the total area covered by all the cement, asphalt, compacted clay, park areas and open spaces that comprise the footprint of the world’s urban settlements was around 1 million sq km. In comparison, the total area of France is 643,000 sq km.

If the urban population and long-term de-densification trends continue, the area of the planet covered by urban settlements will increase to more than 3 million sq km by 2050. And since the most intensively cultivated farmland is typically located near where the bulk of the food is consumed, much of this additional 2 million sq km is currently our most productive farmland.

In short, continued urbanisation in its current form could threaten global food supplies at a time when food production is already not keeping up with population growth.

Moreover, density has to be achieved with people in mind, not cars.

Across the world, it would be a mistake to focus solely on improving the average densities of cities. Los Angeles has a higher average density than New York, for example, yet LA is regarded as a dysfunctional urban form while NY is functional, because it comprises a network of high-density neighbourhoods interconnected by efficient and affordable mass transit systems.

Seoul is similar: a megacity that has avoided sprawl with this approach. When the mayor decided to dismantle the eight-lane highway that used to run through the centre of the city, he said: “Seoul is for people, not cars.”

An alternative road was not built – resulting in an increase in the number of people using mass transit which, in turn, made mass transit financially viable. Building more highways for cars, then introducing trains and buses in the hope that they will be financially viable, simply does not work (the greater Johannesburg region is learning that lesson now).

China, meanwhile, has urbanised hundreds of millions of people over the past three decades. This has tended to be in high-rise, multi-storey buildings located in “superblocks” with wide, traffic-congested streets and few intersections per sq km. The result is relatively low densities in neighbourhoods with virtually no street or community life – in short, not the kind of urban area one would call liveable.

Compare this with the neighbourhoods you find in Barcelona, where buildings are five to eight storeys high, located on narrow streets with pavements, trees and small piazzas for social engagement, and all well connected to both motorised and non-motorised forms of transport.

This is what makes for liveable urban neighbourhoods. China has realised its mistake, adopting an urbanisation strategy that breaks away from sprawled-out superblocks in favour of a high-density neighbourhood approach, with narrower streets, a high number of intersections, and improved public transport.

The environmental consequences of suburban living will soon be enormous. On the other hand, what this article does not address is cost. At least in the United States, but also certainly in cities like London, Paris, and, yes, Barcelona, the global Gilded Age has driven the costs of urban living through the roof. To some extent this is the lack of housing supply in a nation like the U.S. that had been disdainful of urban living for most of its history. But it’s also about the size of apartments, the profits for building for millionaires instead of the poor, the global mega-rich owning multiple huge apartments in the world’s cities for their jet-setting lifestyle, etc. It’s not just about building up or density or pedestrian-friendly. It’s about affordability and democracy. If those aren’t values in our cities, then they are no more functional than a model of endless sprawl.

Black Protest and Transportation

[ 21 ] July 17, 2016 |


Interesting essay on the connections between recent Black Lives Matter protests that block freeways and the long-term relationship between transportation networks and race.

Transportation, however, has long been central to the black civil rights movement, with the Selma march, the Freedom Rides, and Rosa Parks’s appeal to equal rights on public buses. Fifty years ago this summer, the March Against Fear inspired by James Meredith walked 220 miles of Southern roads from Memphis to Jackson, Miss.

If anything is new, what’s different today may be the occupation of urban interstates for the purpose of bringing them to a standstill. Protesters in Selma, Moss argues, wanted to use the Edmund Pettus Bridge — on their way to Montgomery — not block it.

Reed, who angered many activists with his comments in Atlanta, later defended them on Facebook by saying that King prepared for weeks and worked with Selma officials to ensure public safety, rather than flooding the bridge in a spontaneous and “dangerous” way.

To the extent that activists today are committed to a more urgent kind of disruption, planning ahead with police would defeat some of the purpose of bringing daily life to an abrupt halt, calling attention to the fundamental structures of inequality. And it’s hard to imagine officials assenting ahead of time to closing an entire highway.

Highways also carry a particular resonance for the grievances today of black civil rights activists, given that many deadly encounters with police, such as Castile’s, began with traffic stops (this patten has also prompted a new cry from transportation planners: “not in our name!”).

Historically, the same thing that happened in St. Paul — where the black Rondo neighborhood was destroyed — happened in Minneapolis, and Baltimore, and Oakland, and Atlanta, and in Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s childhood home of Charlotte.

Planner Robert Moses used highways to clear slums through poor and minority neighborhoods in New York. Mayor Richard J. Daley used the new Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago to wall off the old Irish white neighborhoods on the city’s South Side from the black neighborhoods to the east where the city built blocks and blocks of high-rise public housing.

Black neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s had little political power to block these engineering behemoths. And cities that wanted to redevelop poor neighborhoods — another government goal of the same era — got more federal money by building highways through them than by appealing for “urban renewal” funds.

“If your goal was to clear slums,” Connolly, the historian, said, “the best way to get bang for your buck was to use the highway as a slum clearance instrument.”

The resulting highways were then meant to speed whites who’d moved to the suburbs back and forth to jobs and attractions downtown, leapfrogging minority communities along the way. As Connolly suggested, they still serve this function today. And often, highways that passed through black communities weren’t planned with on- and off-ramps to them.

“They’re not designed for, nor do they serve, low-income communities who are actually already close to downtown,” said Brown University historian Robert Self. “If you live in West Oakland, you don’t need a freeway to get to downtown Oakland.”

This infrastructure that destroyed black communities then helped build white ones, in the form of far-flung bedroom communities that boomed once these roads made longer-distance commuting feasible. “Fremont exists before the freeway is built,” Self said of the town 25 miles south of Oakland. “But once you build it, then Fremont becomes this massive possibility. Or San Mateo, or Redwood City.”

Good stuff, quoting several of the best historians working in the United States today.

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