Chuck Grimes cgrimes at
Mon Aug 16 02:16:49 PDT 1999

NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani has effectively privatized one of the great public spaces in the U.S., Central Park. Though the city still owns the park, it's managed by the Central Park Conservancy, whose chair is Wall Street hedge fund hotshot Richard Gilder (who was also a major stockholder in Valu-Jet Airlines). It's now illegal to hold any kind of event involving more than a handful of people without a permit - and permits are not easy to come by. You can even be arrested for carrying a protest sign in the park. Not on the grounds of prohibiting speech of course - on quality of life grounds.


I would furthermore argue, however, that urban environment makes it far easier to fight such political restrictions than suburban one. Yoy can still organize a demo in NYC, even if behind police lines. You cannot organize even that in, say, Westchester county - for a very simple reason, the lack of public space and social cohesion (aka solidarity) make it virtually impossible.


Simply scaring away homeless people, intimidating racial minorities, and turning prime commercial real estate over to Disney and its ilk doesn't really create the basic "quality of life" differences that make for a decent city.



The problems of re-vamping metro centers and very similar solutions are going on out here in the Bay Area. I know a couple of guys who work in the city planning depts of SF and Oak, as well as my ex-wife who used to work in Berkeley's planning dept. (Hey, Pat E., see if you can convince Jeff Levin to subscribe and put out the current Oakland story) Of course the underlying problem is the long standing erosion of the city tax base (prop 13 here). So the solutions have all been to try to encourage and then manage private money and development. It was do that or do nothing.

What makes all this very difficult to understand is that almost an entire generation ('70's) of current senior staff planners have essentially the same aesthetic and political views as those implied above. The same goes for many of the architects and even a few of the developers.

However, the same sort of destruction of public space, privatization of ordinary public services, the use of national chains and franchises at the expensive of local business and so on, proceeds apace. SF and Oakland are involved in trying to develop the dismantled military base infrastructure and real estate in the region (thanks to republican manipulation of military budgets to close bases in the most liberal regions first), so these problems are screaming in the immediate present. It is a mess. Unfortunately Brown & Brown are both following something like Guiliani's lead--although with some but not much moderation.

Berkeley resisted chains and franchises for years and was actively promoting local business development in their downtown plan. The result was dozens of small trendy shops that line the main city thorough fares. Since the surrounding suburbs have either national chain strip malls or nothing, all the suburbanites flow into Berkeley on weekends to shop and hang around--the consequence is of course nightmare traffic--which the city refuses to address in principle.

At long last even San Pablo Ave is undergoing a similar transformation. This is a long street that used to be the locus of working class and mostly minority businesses, shoppers, and residents. It was predominately machine shops, auto repair, industrial suppliers, equipment rental and so. In other words working class. It now sprouts a major mall development with ValPac, HomeDepot, CompUSA, OfficeMax, and others. Which in this particular case isn't a bad thing, since the location alone opens up a poverty ridden and declining area to cheaper, easily accessible food, and supplies. However, it will probably not stop with this--and it should. The immediate housing in the blocks around this mall are all converted to upper income condos and live-work studios--naturally out of the range of the locals. Technically this mall is in Emeryville, a small incorporated area on the Oakland water front and former industrial area. Emeryville city policies amount to a complete whore roll over for capital and developers. I work in a warehouse/repair shop in this area. Our building used to house an industrial paper distributor and plastic bag manufacturer. These have left and the current landlords are playing around with the idea of turning part of the building (one full block) into studio living spaces--of course completely priced out of my range.

Meanwhile the most distant suburbs out 50 miles as far as Tracy and Oakdale or not quite half way to Yosemite are filling up with housing sprawl and bogus industrial parks, eliminating agricultural land that used to be orchards, dairy farms, vineyards, olive and almond groves.

In other words all the usual suspects. And, yes Oakland was more than ready to vote Jerry Brown into office, because of a combination of get tough on crime, clean up city corruption, bring in money and jobs, and straighten out the town--all very Republican like policies. But the key was swinging the inner city voters away from a variety of minority candidates--the inner city vote was critical and it hinged on their trust of Brown's positions on race--their gut intuition that he was not a racist.

What to do? For starters, of course the minority and white working classes still have to be politicized Left. Capitalism still has to be reigned in by force of popular and smart government. People still need to sophistic their own sensibilities and be made to understand that being a citizen means that a significant part of their working life has to be devoted to keeping their cities together.

In other words, forget the yuppie consumer life-style. It is the worst drug on the market. It is the equivalent to alcohol and hard drugs (the working class means to achieving the same oblivion). The total consumer life-style erodes income, destroys lives, obscures and depresses public spirit, and is central to all the problems of cities. The whole Shop-til-we-drop dead of fat and heart disease, and leave a wake of soulless greedy children at that the funeral pyre (burning the traditional styrofoam and designer graphic packaging materials consider sacred to this cult)--that's at least one of the core problems.

Chuck Grimes

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