Sunday, July 25, 2010

Place-Making For People of Small Means

Placemaking (or place-making) can be defined as, “the process of creating squares, plazas, parks, streets and waterfronts that will attract people because they are pleasurable or interesting...Being in places involves social encounters, immersion in the sights, sounds, sun, wind and atmosphere of a locale, and curiosity about the traces of thought, imagination and investment that have guided their construction and use over time. ” (Wikipedia, Placemaking.)

Another definition is, “An integrated and transformative process that connects creative and cultural resources to build authentic, dynamic and resilient communities or place.” (Toronto Artscape, Glossary.) I like this definition much better.

One of the challenges of this present time of economic contraction is figuring out how to make the places where we live into places that sustain us on a number of levels. This involves not only trying to create places that provide some or all of the essentials we need, but also creating places that encourage and promote a sense of community.

Some writers and thinkers have addressed this challenge, notably architects and urban planners from the “New Urbanist” movement. Their assumption has been that placemaking is primarily an activity reserved for governments, developers and other large entities with lots of resources to create well-designed, resilient communities from the ground up, or to re-fashion defunct, poorly designed communities into the sorts of communities that could be called good places to live. Things like redevelopment, transit-oriented development and gentrification come to mind when discussing the re-fashioning process.

The problem is that the money and resources for such a refashioning have already been largely blown in the United States. It's as if the nation collectively went to a store with $5 in its pocket, and blew the money on candy and soda instead of beans, rice and vegetables. Some key writers and economic analysts believe that the industrialized world in general, and the United States in particular, are in the early stages of a massive deflationary depression which will destroy the ability of large-scale entities like governments to do anything on a large scale.

It will therefore be up to ordinary citizens to make good places out of the places where they live. But there's another challenge, namely, that not that many of us own our own living places outright, and even now, not many can afford to pay for a place in cash. A deflationary depression will cause a drop in prices of assets like real estate, yet it will depress wages even faster. Such a drop in wages will make it hard for people who own “on margin” (that is, who owe money on the houses they “own”) to continue making payments on their debt, and it will turn many other people into sojourners without definite roots, as many young people in college and recent college graduates are now.

How can these renters - young people in college or recently graduated, and working poor people - make sustainable places for themselves in the places they rent? How can they make their neighborhoods into sustainable places? How can they engage in good placemaking?

In an attempt to answer that question, I interviewed Neil and Naomi Montacre, proprietors of Naomi's Organic Farm Supply in inner southeast Portland, Oregon. I first met Neil and Naomi during a tour of homes with backyard chicken coops in 2008. Their house impressed me, with its large chicken coop, its varied gardens, its “Hens for Obama” sign and a poster with pictures giving a guided tour of the place and their efforts. I asked them several questions about their place, the plans and steps they had taken in altering the place, and its impact on the neighborhood. In 2009, they added a greenhouse and more garden plantings. This year, they moved to a leased property of about an acre where they set up their store, and they continued with the activities and philosophy they had developed while living in their former house. In all these things, they took bold steps with property they were renting, to make that property a place that could at least partially sustain them.

In this week's interview, Neil talks in more detail about their activities with rental properties, and his philosophy regarding making good places out of the places where people live. The interview can be found at the Internet Archive, under the title, “Place-making For People Of Small Means.” There's also a video on Vimeo which shows a partial tour of Naomi and Neil's new location, as well as an interview with another renter in inner southeast Portland. The video can be found at Place-Making for People of Small Means, or you can watch it by clicking on the link below. Note how prominently urban agriculture figures in both examples of placemaking.

Place-Making for People of Small Means from TH in SoC on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Meretrix Activists

I want to know what became of the changes

we waited for love to bring.

Were they only the fitful dreams

of some greater awakening?

I've been aware of the time going by,

They say in the end it's the wink of an eye

And when the morning light comes streaming in

You'll get up and do it again,


Jackson Browne, The Pretender

I was thinking recently of some of the geeky things I did as a kid. Some of those things were expressions of nascent idealism and activism. My family was living in Southern California and I had become convinced that the place had to have a decent, modern mass transit system. So I ripped some blank pages from a class notebook and penciled a paragraph at the top of one of the sheets stating that I was collecting signatures to make the Government give us all a slick, technically advanced monorail system. (Those weren't the exact words I used – hey, I was only twelve years old at the time.)

I took my “petition” around to a couple of supermarkets and a nearby Thrifty Drug store, and asked the store managers if I could ask people to sign up for a modern mass transit system. I don't know what impression I made on them, but they all said “No.” So I knocked on people's doors and asked for signatures. I even managed to get a few. But to this day I can't remember what finally happened to my “petition.”

That experience formed a picture in my mind of participatory democracy as an expression of the energies and choices of motivated, idealistic people freely volunteering their time for causes they believe in, and manifesting their belief in the championing of both candidates and the citizen-sponsored initiatives that are supposed to be the backbone of direct democracy. But lately that picture has fallen apart. It's not as if someone threw a rock suddenly at the picture frame, but rather that the entire picture has been left out in the rain for a while.

I'm thinking of the last several months, and how my old employer was slow and very light on work, and then there was a period where we were so light on work that I stayed home for about five or six weeks. And I was diligently scouring and Craigslist and other venues for employment offers. I am an engineer by schooling, but I have to confess that I looked at some of the other headings under “Jobs” on Craigslist. One such heading was titled, “Nonprofit Sector.” From January until just a few weeks ago, this heading was chock full of announcements that ran something like this: “ACTIVISTS NEEDED! $9-$14/hour,” or, “Fight for Change and Make $$$!”

To be sure, such ads generate a response. I got to meet several of the people who responded to these ads over the course of the late winter and spring. They tended to congregate on MAX trains, collecting petition signatures from a captive audience as we all whisked from station to station. Or a person could run into them at a New Seasons or Whole Foods market or at Trader Joe's, or in front of a post office, or at the Lloyd Center mall. Some of them seemed to be representatives of genuinely counter-cultural, grassroots organizations. And some of them actually seemed to believe in what they were doing. I am thinking especially of several petitioners I met who were collecting signatures for some medical marijuana initiative. (Now that's “grassroots”! But I didn't sign their petition, sorry to say.) I was also glad to meet people from the Bus Project.

There were also signature gatherers whose masters had a more troubling agenda. For instance, there was a group gathering signatures for a new casino east of Portland under the premise (and promise) that this casino would benefit schools, police departments, parks, and other public agencies. However, the backers of the casino initiative are in Toronto, Canada, and they have spent over $800,000 to insure that their measure is on the November ballot. I met a lot of signature gatherers working for this initiative, including one group a few weeks ago consisting of newly-hired canvassers on a side street who were being given an open-air training talk in the art of “selling” their petition to potential signers. (I have to tell you, they reminded me of a flock of pigeons converging on a loaf of bread.) I asked a couple of them how they found out about this job, and whether they knew anything about the petition for which they were about to collect signatures. Craigslist works wonders, doesn't it?

Then there was the usual suspects from Vote Oregon out collecting signatures for initiatives sponsored by Kevin Mannix, Bill Sizemore and Loren Parks. One such initiative, Petition 13, would impose mandatory minimum jail/prison sentences for certain felony sex crimes and driving under the influence convictions. I saw some of the “Vote Oregon” operatives at work selling this initiative, and they were slick - “Would you like to sign a petition to keep sex predators off the streets?” Who wouldn't say “Yes!”? There are only three problems, however. First, they don't tell you what laws exist at present to provide the very protection they claim their initiative will accomplish. In other words, maybe we don't really need this initiative. Second, the fine print of their initiative targets things other than sexual predation. And that leads to the third point, namely, that Mannix, Sizemore and Parks have long wanted to create a prison-industrial complex in Oregon just like that which exists in California, because they see prisons as a lucrative growth opportunity for themselves.

The thing about almost all of the signature gatherers is that they were all paid. The money came from somewhere. It was a lot of money. It would be nice to think that all that money came from altruistic souls giving their bounty of spare change to altruistic, civic-minded nonprofits concerned only for the common good. But the reality is that in too many cases, the money came from “point sources” – individuals or small groups of individuals with a lot of wealth and a vested interest in using the political system to generate a little more wealth for themselves. Anymore, it takes a lot to get an initiative qualified for a state ballot. And states are populous, big places. And getting people to notice your petition takes a lot of expensive advertising. My run-ins with signature gatherers were yet another reminder that the political system in the United States is almost wholly owned and run by wealthy people, whose sole aim is to engineer the system for the maximization of their own personal profit. Almost gone are the days of true grassroots activism of the kind that makes kids draft petitions and knock on doors just for the fun of it.

I won't even get into the funding that goes into candidacy, except to say that over the last month I have become rather frightened by everyone who is running for political office, both locally and at the Federal level. I recently rode past a big sign saying “We Need So-And-So for Governor!” and asking myself, “Just why do we need So-and-So? Who's paying that so-and-so to run for office?” Here's what would be very nice to have – political candidates who told us all the straight truth, who said, “I make no promises to 'fix' the economy and bring prosperity back again. Those days are over. American society in general and our locality in particular face an unavoidable contraction of the official, formal economy, due to resource depletion, environmental degradation, and the resulting collapse of our debt-based financial arrangements. All I can offer is to tell you the truth, and to arrange our government in such a way as to facilitate your adaptation to our new reality.” It goes without saying that there are no candidates willing to say such things, and few voters willing to hear such things. It's the people who promise the moon right now – and the people dumb enough to vote for them – who scare me.

Some bloggers have proposed a boycott of the next elections, and a few of them have gone so far as to say that such a boycott might withdraw enough support from our corrupt political system that it crashes. It would certainly be nice to have a government that had been rendered incapable of ruining our lives. But if you want to crash the system, a voting boycott is not enough. Some systems react strangely when lightly loaded. If there were a massive voting boycott in this country, who knows what kooks might make their way into office? It would be easy for the wealthy to find a few people who were willing to vote a certain way in exchange for a few bucks, thus buying an election and guaranteeing that our government continued to be a government by the rich, for the rich.

If one really wanted to withdraw his support from our present government, he would have to go farther than choosing not to vote. He would have to take away the power the government has to accomplish things and to funnel wealth to the wealthy. The removal of this power could be done legally, but it would be painful. For it would require that people chose to live very frugally – thus reducing the money that flowed to large businesses via the mass participation of consumers in a consumer economy. Secondly, once people drastically reduced their expenditures, they would have to drastically and voluntarily reduce their income. This would reduce the revenue available to the Government via taxes. Not many people are willing to take the first step. Even fewer are willing to take the second.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tea And Xenophobia

Somehow or other, this past week I ran across a short essay by James Howard Kunstler, a social critic whom I have mentioned a couple of times on this blog. He is the author of the Long Emergency, a book I read in 2007 concerning Peak Oil and its likely societal impacts. Anyway, the title of the essay I read this past week was, “My Tea Party.”

The essay made a few good points, but it also contained two errors, one quite serious. The first error is a technical, factual error. Kunstler takes great pains to badmouth radical Christian fundamentalism, and I am sure he would hold up examples such as Sarah Palin and Pat Robertson. However, this is not quite accurate. Genuine, orthodox, by-the-Good-Book Christianity bears very little resemblance to the materialistic, jingoistic, greedy, violent, hyper-patriotic religion that is American evangelicalism. There are many Scriptures I could quote to prove this point, especially from the New Testament, but I won't take the time in this post. (Feel free to check out some of my other writings.)

I have to say, however, that this error of Kunstler's doesn't bother me all that much. For too long, too many of us who have called ourselves Christian have tolerated a freak show, to put it bluntly. We should have all risen up long ago and excommunicated the Republican Party, the moneychangers who have infiltrated our worship, and a number of key figures in the American Religious Right. Maybe it's not too late for that...

His other error bothers me much more, for it is a moral error with serious societal consequences. Kunstler writes, “My tea party would reduce legal immigration to a tiny trickle and get serious about enforcing sanctions against people who are here without permission...The truth is that neither party really wants to do anything about the extraordinary influx of Mexican nationals because they want to pander to a growing segment of Hispanic voters (or secondarily want to maintain the pool of cheap labor for US businesses). My party does not believe in unbounded multi-culturalism.” And, “My party views the global population overshoot problem as a condition that requires a more rigorous defense of US territory, sovereign resources, and even whatever remains of American common culture.”

There are several problems with that line of thinking. First, it undermines the whole concept of the American society as a society of immigrants who have chosen a common new identity that transcends the original cultures from which we came. That concept is what was taught to me in countless hours of grade-school civics classes, and it is the concept embodied in the present form of the Constitution. If being American is no longer defined as the acceptance of this new common identity, then who gets to define what an “American” is? Whose culture shall we all adopt? And shall we then eradicate all other cultures and expressions of other cultures in this nation?

The problem is that over the last ten years, one dominant group has tried to force its own culture and the culture of its ancestors on every other group in American society (not to mention the world), while doing its best to stamp out any expressions of genuinely different cultures. These other cultures have a lot to offer, and we can learn a lot from them. People from other cultures, especially those found in lower-income countries, have a lot to teach us native-born “Americans” concerning how to be happy and not neurotic when confronted with having to live on less.

We might also ask why Mexicans are coming to the United States. It's not like they're coming here to steal jobs from architects, engineers, investment bankers, brain surgeons or college professors. No, rather, they are taking some of the dirtiest (in some cases, most dangerous) and least respected jobs in the United States – from meat packers to day laborers to gardening/landscaping workers to nannies to house cleaners. (In fact, I recently got a flyer in the mail from an outfit called the “Cleaning Authority.” The front of the flyer shows a picture of a blond, blue-eyed dad reading a bedtime story to a blond, blue-eyed child, with a caption that says “Life's too short to clean your own house.” On another page is a picture of a Hispanic woman dressed in a Cleaning Authority uniform, and holding a vacuum cleaner.)

As has been true in the past, it is still true today that many Mexicans and other Hispanic people are coming here to take jobs that no American wants, jobs that pay so poorly that often two or more families are forced to share a cheap apartment or small house. Why do they do it? Could it be that what they have in their home country – what they have left behind – is far worse? The honest answer in many cases is “Yes!” And why is this? Could it be because of predatory “free market” capitalism as practiced and pushed by the wealthy citizens of the United States and other First World nations, the policies that destabilize and rob ordinary citizens of Third World nations while trashing their homeland?

Certainly we see this in Europe and the African continent. European nations have instituted Draconian crackdowns on illegal immigration from Africa – even as these nations continue to plunder Africa while polluting it. Think of things like European factory fishing vessels despoiling African coast fisheries, or the many oil spills caused by the activities of Royal Dutch Shell in the Niger Delta. When we look at Mexico (and much of the Caribbean and South America), we can see the same things being done to the citizens of those lands by the United States. What, for instance, has the Deepwater Horizon blowout done to Mexican coastal cities and villages? You probably won't hear many people in U.S. mainstream media asking this question. And where do the Mexican drug cartels get their money from? And who gets to keep most of the wealth now being generated by American-owned or multinational factories and assembly plants now operating in Mexico?

It goes back to this: The United States – five percent of the world's population – gets to consume 40 percent of the world's oil, and a huge fraction of the rest of the world's resources. We've got an excess of prima donnas, muscle trucks and cars, gigantic houses, fat people, lame pursuits and stuff – “mountains, oh, mountains of things” – and so few people in this country ask how things got to be this way. Too many Americans seem genuinely surprised and distressed at the thought that maybe disadvantaged people from disadvantaged lands might want a few crumbs of our bounty. The Mexicans have no trouble grasping climate change – anthropogenic climate change caused largely by the refusal of the First World to give up its conspicuous consumption. See, for instance, “Bad News Blues (the Writing on the Wall)” from Aimee's blog, New To Farm Life, or “Hispanic Health” from Baylor University. What do you think they will do as we continue to make their land unlivable? What would you do?

“Population overshoot” is a convenient code phrase used by some to communicate the idea that our societal problems are the result of too many people on the earth – especially the “ignorant people from other cultures who don't look like us,” rather than the result of excessive consumption on our part. But if many who are now afraid of immigrants want to reduce immigration to this country, they should start by consuming a lot less. That will remove the profit motive from those who are now making a killing by robbing other countries to enrich the United States.

In the meantime, I think it's wise for people who want to build resilient neighborhoods to realize that multiculturalism is here to stay, in one form or another. Forward-thinking people who live in mixed ethnic neighborhoods would do well to learn something of the languages and cultures of their fellow residents, and to begin to make friends and build bridges among them. Go with the flow - learn to be flexible and open to others. Or, as the Good Book says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Friday, July 2, 2010

Post-Peak Finance for Vulnerable Neighborhoods

I am pleased to present another interview this week. The themes of today's interview are banking and local neighborhoods during a time of economic contraction. This week's guests are Scott Bossom, Vice President/Credit Administrator for Albina Bank (Martin Luther King branch) and Teri L. Karren-Keith, Vice President/Branch Manager, Albina Bank (Martin Luther King branch). They both graciously gave me an hour of their time for today's talk. Albina Community Bank is a locally-owned bank in Portland with a reputation for strongly supporting the local community, and especially minority neighborhoods.
In arranging for this interview, I sent Mr. Bossom a note in which I outlined my questions thus:
I have three general areas of interest. First, there's the subject of the general future of finance in an age of economic contraction caused by the depletion of natural resources. Others have written on this topic (for instance, there's Gail Tverberg's work at and, but I'd like to know how banks view this issue.
Second, there's the subject of how economic contraction affects local communities. Specifically, what barriers are now appearing in front of people who want to finance projects? Especially, what existing hindrances faced by vulnerable communities are now being amplified by economic situation? How have big banks contributed to making vulnerable communities even more vulnerable?
Third, what can local communities – especially working-class and poor communities – do now to finance necessary projects? How is Albina Bank helping these communities? And have locally-owned banks experimented with emerging approaches like establishing local currencies and microloans for small-scale businesses?”
These questions laid the groundwork for our discussion. During the interview, we talked about the current local economic picture, and whether that picture actually lines up with government and mainstream media reports of economic “recovery.” Scott and Teri told me of the weaknesses in the commercial real estate market, and the impact of resource shortages on the decisions of local banks. Terry voiced the opinion that our present crisis will not suddenly go away.
I asked point-blank, “What have big banks done to destabilize local neighborhoods?”, and we talked about the impact of predatory and discriminatory lending practices by big banks such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo. (For more on this subject, and on discriminatory pushing of subprime mortgages on minorities, see “Wells Fargo, Ghetto Loans, and 'Mud People',” “Race Discrimination Lawsuit Filed Against Bank of America, N.A.,” “Countrywide Sued For Discriminating Against Black And Latino Mortgage Buyers” and “Study Finds Disparities in Mortgages by Race”.) And we discussed the Fox News reports from several months ago, which blamed minorities and Federal anti-discrimination laws for the subprime crisis of 2008. Scott and Teri were genuinely surprised by this sort of reporting (both stated that they do not watch Fox), and wondered how Fox managed to create such a story.
(On a completely unrelated subject, it seems that Fox and spokespeople like Sarah Palin are now blaming the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Gulf oil spill on environmentalists and left-leaning members of the Federal government. In both the subprime case and the case of offshore oil drilling, the right-wing message is the same: “Oh, here, look at this mess that we've made. Only, it's not our fault! The mess has actually been caused by people trying to pass some semblance of laws designed to keep us from making a mess!” If lying made people rich...but then again, these people are rich.)
Regarding subprime loans, we discussed the fact that lenders deliberately presented a picture to potential borrowers that was not clear or full. Scott tied this in to credit card policies that are also deliberately made unclear, in order to insure that borrowers are liable to be penalized.
We talked about what vulnerable communities can do to become resilient and self-sufficient. Teri stressed the value of localism and supporting local businesses. Scott mentioned microloans and organizations such as Mercy Corps who provide guidance to small businesses. Both Scott and Teri agreed that there is a swell of interest in entrepreneurship and starting one's own business among people in the Portland metro area. I mentioned the rise of local currencies, which seems to be a new concept to those who are involved in traditional banking.
Lastly, we tried peering into the future of banking in an age of general economic contraction and collapse, and Scott and Teri shared their perspectives of what such a future might look like. Teri returned to a simple prescription for the survival of local banks in such a time: to focus on community relationships and actions that build trust.
A podcast of the interview can be downloaded from the Internet Archive at this address: Post-Peak Finance For Vulnerable Neighborhoods.