Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The craziest thing I've seen in a newspaper lately

From the NYT story on the Somali pirates who are holding 25 members of an oil transport ship hostage:

Once pirates get aboard, however, the ship is theirs, because crews on commercial vessels are rarely armed, according to Mr. Choong and other maritime experts. “They are not mentally or physically fit enough to handle weapons,” he said.

I guess the mental part goes without saying, but not physically fit to hold guns?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What Happened Last Night

We were dancing in the streets last night. We were throwing arms around strangers’ shoulders and talking earnestly about what we’ve been called to do, all of us. We were lined up facing each other, maybe once it was a firing line but last night, no, it was dancing, cheering as cars processed between us. We were cheering the garbage men, the hipsters on bikes, even the cops (cheering even when they gave us citations for public drinking)—in short, we were cheering ourselves, because we did this, we—not our parents and not our grandparents, but we—made this happen.

Everything was spontaneous but still had a feeling of a being on a stage. First we stood on Flatbush and cheered and cars honked back their love. We stopped people on the street and gave our love; we gave high fives and what-the-fucks and hosannahs and maybe-it-aint-all-shits.

There was talk of Going East, where the Black People live, because we all knew this is theirs first. Then we got it in our heads: Go East!: because one day we all went West, but we bounced off a wall a hundred years ago, and since then been we’ve been reverbing in Wasilla or some such shithole Wal-Mart parking lot. But now we go Back East: we reclaim. It’s ours. Or so we all thought last night. So we went East, so far as Vanderbilt and Soda Bar at least, an ersatz outpost now certifiably New Brooklyn. And they, Old Country, came West, they whose this is. And we stood on opposite sides of the streets for a while, then we crossed over and we loved and danced and cheered.

When we woke up this morning, we knew we had something: This is ours, all of ours. But more important, for the first time in our lives we knew that such a thing as we actually exists. The birth of the Obama Generation.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Reappropriating industrial New York

A neat article in the NYT on a forum at the Municipal Arts Society for finding new uses -- including low-income housing -- for abandoned industrial buildings.

This is a truly remarkable statistic, if it's true. ("She" is a real estate historian from the Municipal Arts Society.)

"Demolition is incredibly wasteful,” she said. “In New York City, 60 percent of our waste stream is demolition and construction debris which is significantly higher than the rest of the country, and we have to ship our demolition debris to other mid-Atlantic states."

60% of our trash is from demolition! Our trash is, quite literally, historical debris!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

All that needs to be said about the debate

Well said, by Andrew Sullivan:

At no point have we seen a grace note from McCain. When dealing with the negativism of the campaign, it would not have killed him to seem genuinely horrified at calls for violence rather than offended that anyone dare criticize him or some of his supporters. Or to wish Obama well. It's this lack of generosity of spirit that he lacks and that people want in a president. Obama still manages to say when he agrees with or admires McCain. In this whole dynamic, Obama seems more secure, more self-controlled, more mature. He is the Alpha Male on this stage, and McCain the bristling teen - aged 72. No wonder women seem to be so disproportionately pro-Obama.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Perfect Storm?

From the NYT:

New York, of course, has over the last 15 years seen an extraordinary drop in crime, from the most serious to the mildly irritating. But across all those years, economists and sociologists have debated how much of the success was attributable to new trends in policing and how much to other factors, including a robust economy.

Now, if the dire predictions of economic hardship prove accurate, the city may be poised to find out in a real-time experiment. And it will have to conduct that experiment with thousands fewer police officers than it had in 2001.

Impact on low-income banking?

Anthony Weiner expects bank consolidation to mean closed branches in poor neighborhoods.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Bloomberg's War on Ciggies, High and Low

A (somewhat) unanticipated consequence of NYC's War on Smokes - stemming the flow of cigarette bootlegging into the city. The administration is suing several Indian reservations, which it says is the behind the smuggling operation.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A pitch-perfect piece of reporting

William Finnegan in the New Yorker tells the tragic story of the suicides of an Iraq veteran with debilitating PTSD and his brother, himself long suffering from mental illness.

It is simply perfect reporting: Finnegan interviews the veteran's widow, the brothers' parents and other loved ones, as well as marine buddies -- all this within 3 months of their deaths. He perfectly captures the veteran's charm and wit, and the depth of love his wife had for him; as well as the clinical experience of PTSD and the men's path towards self-destruction.

There are just some wrenching quotes. A sampling:

He and Kellee planned another family weekend, but Travis didn’t show up. Kellee was furious. When he finally arrived, on Sunday evening, he was drunk. She wouldn’t let him in the house, or allow him to see the girls. Instead, they sat together on the front porch and talked for half an hour. Her regrets from that night are ferocious. “If I had just brought him inside,” she said. “Just taken him upstairs and made love to him, or tried to. Just told him it would be O.K., played that role.” She never saw him again.


Nancy [the mother] recalled a letter Travis had sent from Iraq to be read at his younger sister’s wedding. “It said, ‘You may not be able to see me, but I’m there.’ I thought of that when we saw him so messed up. We could see him, but he wasn’t there. It just wasn’t him.” Douglas said, “None of us had ever seen him like that. It was like he was in a trance. He didn’t sound like himself. He was flatlining, like he had no personality. He had lost all that stuff of his, that love of trying to fool people. He said, ‘Dad, I think I’m very sick.’

Please, read this article. It'll mess you up right.

Another interesting and disturbing detail: the Pink Floyd cd "The Wall," about suicide and trauma, was found in the car in which the men killed themselves. Trauma breeds trauma: I wonder how Roger Waters will cope with this impact of his music?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Only 5 of 17,000 NYC-sponsored affordable housing mortgages in foreclosure

It's a pretty responsible lending program, especially compared to its peers. This seems to add some weight to increasing calls for Bloomberg as the next Secretary of the Treasury - or of the World.

Death By Taser

The NYPD used a taser on a mentally ill man, who subsequently fell to his death. The department's Emergency Services Unit - a modified crisis intervention team, which for reasons not warranting explication I know a hell of a lot about - again failed to do its job: mediate the conflict.

MTA: Bigger Assholes Than You Thought

From a City Room article on a Council hearing on the MTA's customer complaint protocol:
Remember the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member, David S. Mack, who justified the free use of E-ZPasses and MetroCards by authority board members, saying it encourages them to take the subway and call in complaints? He said that complaints from average riders are not heeded. “If you saw something and called it in, it goes right there,” Mr. Mack reportedly told reporters at a committee meeting, kicking a garbage can.

Good, clear pitch for the bailout

From the Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein:
The basic idea is to use special auctions to recreate a market for these securities with many competing sellers and one buyer (the Treasury), so that a credible "market" price can be established. If that price turns out to be below what those securities are now valued at on the banks' balance sheets, then banks will have to take the loss. If the price turns out to be higher, then banks may be able to record gains. The point isn't to bail out institutions that have made bad bets and suffered credit losses, but to provide a buyer of last resort so the market can begin pricing again.
Pearlstein makes clear that the time to act is now:
The financial situation is now downright scary. Don't look at the stock market -- that's not where the problem is. The problem is in the credit markets, which are quickly freezing. I won't bore you with technical indicators like Libor and Treasury swap spreads, but if you talk to people who work these markets every day, as I have, they report that the money markets are in worse shape than they were last August, or even during the currency crises of 1998.

Banks and big corporations and even money-market funds are hoarding cash, refusing to lend it out for a day or a week or a month. Even the best companies are having trouble floating bonds at reasonable rates. And the shadow banking system -- the market in asset-backed securities that ultimately supplies the capital for most home loans, car loans, college loans -- is almost completely shut down.

People are so nervous, and there is so much distrust, that all it would take is one more hit to trigger the modern-day equivalent of a nationwide bank run. Financial institutions would fail, part of your savings would be wiped out, jobs would be lost and a lot of economic activity would grind to a halt. Such a debacle would cost us a lot more than $700 billion.

House Republicans have a very simple decision to make: fix the problem or try to teach Wall Street a lesson. Pearlstein makes an apt point: sometimes you have to let the experts just do their jobs:
The reality is that these guys will be operating in uncharted territory, making things up as they go along. That means there are no assurances that any particular approach will work and no assurances that this will be the final solution. It also means that, just as we entrust generals to fight a war, we are going to have to trust the Treasury to find a way out of this crisis.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

Goodwill couture

Thrift shops are the new Manolo Blahnik, according to the Washington Post.

Does this mean that if Carrie Bradshaw were around today she'd be rocking a threadbare t-shirt with a fading silk screen tiger imprint on it? Probably.

A good rundown on the state of Bloomberg's homelessness prevention plan

In short, a failure.

From the Coalition for the Homeless:
Perhaps most importantly, the mayor and administration officials remain mired in the false notion that family homelessness is a behavioral problem, not what it primarily is: a housing affordability problem. Thus, addressing it must involve proven, housing-based solutions.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mayor wins legal control over family shelters

A two-decade legal standoff between the mayor's office(s) and the Legal Aid Society over access to and conditions in family homeless shelters appears to be resolved. The two sides struck a deal, with LAS ceding the judicial oversight it had established through dozens of court petitions; and the administration making certain baseline guarantees, such as a right to shelter and improved intake.

This seems a major victory for Bloomberg, winning a free hand to run the system as he sees fit.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

AMAZING New Yorker piece on Mayor Mike

While researching a story on a Bloomberg poverty program, I came across a priceless New Yorker piece on Bloomberg written shortly after his election. I particularly howled at the outspoken-yet-diminutive billionaire's attitude towards journalists: in short, extreme and justifiable disdain. Here are some choice excerpts below (sadly New Yorker's archives are atrocious - let me know if you'd like to read the whole article and I can send):
Speaking, as usual, without notes, he continued, "Oscar Wilde once said we are dominated by journalism. And that is both the good news and the bad news. The good news is that journalism is what keeps us a free society. If it wasn't for a free, aggressive, investigatory press, we really would have totalitarianism, and we should never forget that, no matter how many times we get annoyed with the press for intrusiveness, or whatever. And I do think sometimes, and this is my personal experience-you have a right to ask, but the great thing about the First Amendment is I have a right not to answer. You have a right to write it; I have a right not to read it. And that was the way I got through my campaign. I basically said I wasn't going to read any of this stuff anymore, and it's amazing, if you don't read it, life goes on." He concluded, "Anyways, congratulations to all of you."

In general, Bloomberg has a hard time masking his feelings toward the journalists who now trail him. Not long ago, he went record shopping, to demonstrate his support for merchants in lower Manhattan, and flipped through a rack of CDs as the cameras clicked away furiously. I happened to be standing nearby when he muttered, to no one in particular, "The dumbest things in the world, they're taking pictures of." (He bought two CDs by Crosby, Stills and Nash.) On another occasion, he was heading into a routine press conference at a Manhattan middle school when he ran into someone he knew. "You're not joining this gaggle!" he exclaimed.

Doubtless it is aggravating to be covered by the New York press, and while Bloomberg has been widely praised for his budget, his appointments, and his restructuring of City Hall, he has also been taunted. The first time he suddenly dropped out of view for the weekend without letting reporters know his whereabouts, the Post ran a picture of a milk carton with his face on it, asking "HAVE YOU SEEN ME?" The next weekend he disappeared, a Post photographer showed up at the home of the deputy mayor for operations, Marc Shaw, in Queens. The paper ran a picture of a dishevelled-looking Shaw, who appeared at the door in jeans and a T-shirt, above a caption identifying him as "the man in charge when the mayor's gone." The conceit was then picked up by David Letterman, who broadcast Shaw's photograph as the lead-in to a Top Ten list of the "Ways New York City Is Different When This Guy's in Charge." No. 1: "First city official since Koch to take a leak in the Hudson."

Yet Bloomberg's disdain for the press clearly goes beyond the missing-person gags. "If I had a heart attack in the sales department, everyone would come around and immediately give me CPR," he once announced to a group of reporters at Bloomberg L.P. "If I had a heart attack in the newsroom, you assholes would stand around and scribble notes." During the mayoral race, I asked him for his reflections on the campaign, and his response was to reflect on the stupidity of reporters. "I don't know whether it's just that they're not all that smart, or maybe they just don't think it sells," he told me. "But there is a focus on finding something wrong."

An Anarchist Ice Cream Truck

From the City Room:
Inside, the ice cream shared freezer space with emergency gas masks, and the condiment shelves held equipment for protesters at demonstrations to use when confronted by the police. The ice cream inventory is limited, because cabinets are used to store rolls of film for documenting police action, Ibuprofen for billy-club headaches and rain ponchos in case of fire hoses and water cannons. There were pepper spray treatment kits and the counter-weapon of choice: water balloons.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Two old haunts on Atlantic Ave.

For Brooklynites - ever wonder what the deal with the Long Island Restaurant and Montero's is? Why are there these two extremely anachronistic establishments right across the street from each other, and do they have any connection?

Looking into a story along these lines, I realized the NYT covered it about two years ago.

And if you've been wondering why the LI Restaurant is always closed, here's the answer.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Walking that fine line

A city ordinance in a mostly black rural town in Arkansas imposes a curfew and allows police to stop and frisk with neither a warrant nor probable cause.

And this odd detail:
But it wasn't a violent murder that inspired the curfew. It was in response to, as city officials and residents alike describe, a small-time card game and some stray bullets.

The story goes like this: A guy from Third Street lost a bet to a guy on Second Street. When the loser refused to pay, the Second Street man roughed up the one from Third Street. A group from Third Street then went to Second Street, where 10 bullets landed in the side of a house. No one was injured.

MI GOP Foreclosing Foreclosed Voters

In what appears to be a typically cynical swing-state vote-blocking tactic, the Michigan GOP is using lists of people who lost their homes in foreclosures to deny access to polls (since the listed addresses are no longer legal residences). The presumption, it appears, is that those hit by the foreclosure crisis are more likely to vote Democratic. Gross.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

This just happened to me...

I sat down to blog about this strange conversation I just had, and realized it could make a good article. It just so happens that it also fulfills a class assignment, due Friday. Two birds!

Returning from dropping off my laundry this morning, I was harangued, for the first time, as an agent of the gentrification of historically-black Brooklyn.

It just so happened that at that very moment I was thinking about my childhood nanny, an immigrant from Barbados named Rosemary. I had seen her a week earlier, the day of the West Indian parade, which was also the day I moved into my Crown Heights apartment. I've always struggled with the fact of my privilege, most notably through my relationship with Rosemary. That I spent time with her the very first day of my new life—for years, while I wrote about police interactions with the mentally ill for a public policy research firm, I lived on a quiet street in Park Slope; it was perhaps the single-least diverse block in Brooklyn—had a symbolism and poignance which did not escape me.

"Now why you want to live in a black neighborhood?" asked a man, around 40, who was leaning against the brownstone wall in front of the house next door to where I rent a room from an elderly Jamaican family. The man wore a green guerilla cap, slightly askance. His face was matted in short silver stubble, and his eyes, bloodshot, had a manic look. He was drunk. Based on the time of day and where he stood, I guessed he had just been turned out of the shelter in the Atlantic Armory two blocks away.

I paused. I wanted to be thoughtful. But the man didn't wait. "Because if I was me in a white neighborhood, you know I wouldn't be there like that."

I had a response formed, but regrettably I took his bait.

"Now why do you say that?" I asked.

Immediately I felt foolish. I thought about what I was wearing: gray running shorts from my alma mater, Wesleyan University, and a green Teach For America t-shirt. (A friend of mine likes to drunkenly award "Liberal Arts Student of the Year" awards when someone goes on about "institutional racism" or Evo Morales or Talk of the Town pieces. I no doubt would have won an honorable mention for best-dressed.)

"Come on now, you know why." Realizing my mistake, I eagerly nodded ascent. He continued: "You know now, if I was in Bay Ridge or something like that..."

I thought, 'Thank God he didn't mention Park Slope,' but decided to go another direciton.

"I live here because the people here are friendly, and because it's a nice place to live."

If he was caught off-guard, he didn't show it. "Well thank you for saying that," he said. "Now not everyone…" he started, then trailed off. He then mumbled some thoughts about the police, which I didn't understand, and the shelter, which indeed had kicked him out.

Perhaps sensing that he was losing me, he abruptly cut himself off, straightened up, and looked me in the eyes. "Well, you have a nice day," he said, and staggered away.

I turned the other way, smirked, and hurried up stairs to write about it.

Talk about mission creep

The NYC Teaching Fellows program either has a serious problem vetting its applicants, or supporting them once they're selected:

A Harlem teaching fellow who vanished nearly two weeks ago may have gone into hiding because she was afraid to return to the troubled school where she was assigned, sources told The Post.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Berg: Times, Don't Do It!

Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger calls for the New York Times to reconsider its plan to eliminate the stand-alone Metro section.
This is a city with eight million residents, after all. Given that I see fewer and fewer people on subways reading the Times, surely it harms company profits when you lose local circulation wars to far inferior publications, which provide more coverage to the type of local news that city residents crave to read.
Berg mentions the Times' often excellent reporting on the City Room blog - where the paper runs most of its local political and social coverage - but argues that this is little more than relegating the local beat to where fewer people will read it, and abdicating coverage to the tabloids.

Read Berg's letter here.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Stop hating on guvment

Research shows that the economy grows in times of higher tax rates and government expenditures, contrary to popular (mostly Republican) opinion.
Rather than harm the economy, the evidence shows that government spending, when done well, contributes critically to economic growth. Americans rely on the government for the free primary and high schools that educate the workforce. The government subsidizes college education and has built the immense transportation infrastructure that moves goods across the country and gets people to work. Federal, state, and local government have been essential to the nation's health, building clean-water systems and developing vaccines that have eliminated or minimized diseases like diphtheria, tuberculosis, and polio. The government can waste money, too. But the national rhetoric about the economy needs to stop focusing on how to shrink the government, and start focusing on how best to use it.

The story of our times

The proliferation of subprime lending--creditors targeting those with bad or no credit, with the intent (or at least willingness) of having the consumer default--is far broader than the housing market. We see it everywhere: payday loans, cash checking institutions, credit card companies, car dealerships, health care, to name a few. There are dozens of such places within a 5 block radius of where I live in Crown Heights.

Bill Moyers reports on two illustrative cases that capture the times we live in: JR Byrider, a subprime national car dealership (with a heavy credit line from Bank of America), and a billing agency that gets contracts from nonprofit hospitals and charges nearly 6% interest for those without health insurance. It's a great short piece (27 minutes) that summarizes the reporting of a Business Week investigator who broke the story. (The Moyers' piece is also fascinating as a window into good investigative reporting -- e.g., how Business Week got the dirt.)

Key points:
  • The debt of those earning less than $30K a year (25% of the US) increased 250% from 1984 to 2004. This means the "poverty business" has proliferated like never before.
  • Companies are using complex crediting software to develop "opportunity pricing" schemes-- looking at a consumer's credit vulnerabilities to develop optimally exploitive pricing schemes. They're using technology to tighten the screws.
  • The poverty business is franchising and mainstreaming (as we know from the trend towards securitizing subprime mortgages on Wall St.). The product is the loan, not the car or house. In other words, the creditor is not only ok with the consumer's default (money is still made with high interest and resale potential), but designs loans explicitly with this in mind. I'm reminded of the recent Times' cover story on the mechanics of subprime mortgage financing -- a good process piece on how money is made lending to the poor.
  • State regs. are behind the ball on this, and -- surprise surprise-- the poverty business has an organized, cohesive, and powerful lobby.
This is real scary stuff, and we all need to get smart on it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Punishment over rehabilitation

A good overview of the American prison crisis--high rates of incarceration, bizarre and extreme sentences, and poor re-entry trends (e.g., high recidivism rates)--that ran as the front-piece to Mother Jones's series on crime and punishment in America.

Here's what it boils down to:
We've become a two-tier society in which millions of ostensibly free people are prohibited from enjoying the rights and privileges accorded to everyone else—and we continue to be defined by our desire for punishment and revenge, rather than by our belief in the power of redemption.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Destroying Baltimore to save it

I have a post on rooflines.org commenting on an NYT article on a major urban renewal project in east Baltimore. Spearheaded by Johns Hopkins and Forest City, the project is the single largest instance of urban renewal in the country. Though it's a highly controversial project, the NYT article, run in the real estate section, is unapologetically supportive. The Times essentially ignores the thousands of people who are being bulldozed and who were denied meaningful voice in the planning process.

You can find my article here.

New American City also has an article on the Hopkins project, covering mostly the same ground as my post, with some added revelations on how Hopkins may have induced the dilapidation of the neighborhood in order to facilitate the eminent domain process.
Long before the first phase of demolition occurred to make way for the Biotech Park, Johns Hopkins was already in the market for new property. In the New York Times, Dr. Edward Miller, CEO of Johns Hopkins hospital confesses to purchasing vacant housing in East Baltimore “with an eye to the future.” Some see this practice as having exacerbated the fundamental problem of urban decay, the very problem the institution seeks to address through redevelopment; purchasing vacant rowhouses and letting them rot caused further degradation of property value. Moreover, in the initial planning of the project, there was little or no appeal to the community; when the plan was finally announced to Middle East residents in 2002, it was already a done deal.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

People, please, don't watch CNN!

A probing analysis of why Wolf Blitzer is the single biggest ass-clown on t.v., and why CNN, MSNBC, Fox (obviously), and the networks interfere with knowledge acquisition by obsessing on the absurd conflict-drama of the convention. Been saying it the entire election cycle: CNN is not news. It's something between Sally Jessy Raphael and a gossip circle.

UPDATE: A good tidbit from NPR's media analyst on how t.v. pundits just don't know when to pipe down and what the real reporters are paying attention to.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ever wonder what NYC learned from the Robert Moses-era?

Gotham Gazette has a good run-down on the city's land-use process and the myriad controversies surrounding it: in short, it's byzantine, political, and highly contentious.

Errol Louis, Daily News columnist (and a former professor of mine at Wagner) convincingly makes the case that the complex process through which the city changes its face is the product of decades of political compromise intended to balance community interests, city-wide interests, and intelligent planning principles--in other words, to offset the vast powers that rested in the hands of Robert Moses for most of the 20th century.

The Gazette describes the issues raised by this process in the context of the changing face of NYC in the post-industrial Bloomberg years.
All of these changes represent the new New York, one that has shifted from industrial and manufacturing to finance and services. To accommodate that shift and the population growth that has occurred with it, the Bloomberg administration has rezoned one sixth of the total land in the five boroughs -- more than the last six administrations combined...

Such impressive numbers, though, conceal a growing unease in many parts of New York. Advocates in some neighborhoods fear the administration is fueling gentrification by giving developers a relatively free hand in working class neighborhoods, while simultaneously protecting more affluent areas from larger-scale development.

Many people in affected communities claim they haven't been a part of the process -- their voices are left out on the policy fringe, teetering on the edge of irrelevance. In response, some planners and politicians hope to boost the community's role in the land use process.
Three major blocs are represented in the land use process: 1) the community, via the Community Board; 2) the "people," via City Council; and 3) the Mayor, via the City Planning Commission. The first group represents the affected neighborhood, the latter two the broader interests of the city. But the process is anything but fluid, and some say anything but democratic. The CB's input is non-binding and reactive by design, and Council's role, Gotham Gazette argues, has largely been that of a rubber stamp.

"Right now, it's from the top down. The administration and the city planning determine the zoning,"the article quotes Councilmember Tony Avella, the city's most prominent community-oriented development advocate, saying. "I want it to be from the bottom up." (Of note: graffiti on Carlton and Dean near Atlantic Yards endorses Avella for mayor.)

But the article presents the important, often overlooked counterpoint to a heavily community-based planning process: "Most experts, including Been of the Furman Center, do not think communities should have veto power -- most agree the city would then have no waste transfer stations or other controversial necessities."

I waded into land use issues in my long Rockaways zoning article published in City Limits. There I found a common story: a community in desperate need of a careful, inclusive planning process felt themselves the object, rather than subject, of the forces changing the face of NYC.

Obama's urban agenda

The Dem. candidate has used the DNC to issue his revised urban agenda, reports the WSJ.
The wide-ranging plan contains bedrock Democratic principles, pledging to increase funding for affordable housing, raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011, triple the income-tax credit tied to that wage and fully fund the federal No Child Left Behind policy for schools.

Centerpieces include creation of a new White House Office of Urban Policy and the restoration of billions of dollars cut from community block grants, a key source of funding for cities.

In a nod to one of the mayors' top priorities, Sen. Obama would open a national bank, seeded with $60 billion over 10 years, to finance road, bridge, airport and other public-works projects in metropolitan areas. The bank would be modeled on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., with an independent board of directors.

Sen. Obama says his administration would shift urban-policy making to so-called smart-growth strategies that synchronize transportation, commercial and housing needs for entire regions, rather than following the tradition of focusing first on fighting poverty and crime. He would fund $200 million in annual grants to develop "regional clusters," such as the high-technology-focused area known as the Research Triangle in North Carolina.

McCain's plan, such as it is, sees crime as the major impediment to healthy cities and calls for a "surge-type strategy" to clear the path for investment, specifically praising Giuliani. It sounds a bit like Gotham to me.
"You go into neighborhoods, you clamp down, you provide a secure environment for the people that live there, and you make sure that the known criminals are kept under control," he said. "And you provide them with a stable environment and then they cooperate with law enforcement."
For obvious reasons, Obama senses a dominant advantage on the urban policy front - but as Drum Major Institute argues, this is all the more reason to expect and demand more than Obama's earlier, vague commitments to urban funding and growth.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fallows on the debates

The Atlantic has a great article by the brilliant James Fallows dissecting the primary debates in both political and media and media terms. It's a must read for anyone who watched the debates and was in the least-bit dismayed by the hacky media approach--game show and gotcha questions, absurd hypotheticals, playing the favorites, and process over policy questions.

Atlantic also does a good job integrating video. It's a slick production.

Of particular interest is how Fallows treats Tim Russert, who was one of the worst violators and probably set the trend (especially because he was smart and informed, unlike say Wolf Blitzer).

Let's hope those in the MSM (I'm officially a blogger now ;) reads Fallows' article closely.

Turf wars among 99 cent stores

The NYT reports on how cheap goods bazaars in NYC are adapting to the economic slowdown--by undercutting competitors, selling the crap no one else sells, and classic bait and switch.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The economy is everywhere, man!

We’re in a recession (maybe).

Whatever you call it, people are in a bad way. The causes are complicated. Both everyone and no one is to blame. In any case, the future doesn't look so good.

Reporters are at least are having some fun with it.

We’ve all seen the typical housing article: a financially-shaky homeowner, often black or Latino, gets pulled into a loan they can’t possibly afford by some shady lender who knowingly ensnared the borrower, often leaving a once-hopeful community in ruins.

What started as a housing crisis has become much more. Journalists across the country are heeding the call, documenting the major story of our times in myriad strange ways. Here’s a sampling of some of the more interesting articles that have caught my eyes.

Speaking of eyes—the New York Times reports that rates of corrective eye surgery has gone down because of the economic slowdown. And if you’re still in the market for plastic surgery, apparently now’s the time to avoid the long lines.

The recession will rock you in ways you didn’t know. Better ration your popocorn at the movies next time. Actually, just get used to rice and beans.

Disaster creates opportunity, especially for us entrepreunerial Americans. The new bootleggers have already emerged, with a pandemic of gas-motivated crime and smuggling sweeping the nation. And all those stores in poor neighborhoods and guys whose jobs make them jerks seem to be doing all right for themselves.

We live in a self-conscious, media dominated age. Some of us are already asking: who’s the next Dorothea Lange? And what would Bob Dylan have to say about this mess?

If you’ve come across any bizarre or particularly illuminating economy stories, send ‘em my way. I’ll keep my eyes (uncorrected, sadly) open.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Article on Obama's affordable housing record

I recently ran an article on the housing policy site rooflines.org reviewing an investigative piece by the Boston Globe on Obama's state senate record on affordable housing.

Some proof for all of you who accused me of Clinton-loving: I'm your guy!

ProPublica accountability pieces

ProPublica is dedicated to accountability journalism--holding those in power to accountable to those whom their power is meant to serve.

Here's a couple short things I've done in this vein.

ProPublica series on candidates' views

Here are two parts of a series were doing on the presidential candidates' positions on under-reported issues:

ProPublica media analysis clips

Some clips I've run at ProPublica (a nonprofit investigative newsroom... worth a look, with or without yours truly). Here are two media analysis pieces.

One a Q&A with the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer on his mid-size paper's groundbreaking work on security-contractor Blackwater.

This one a short piece on a series by McClatchy (the national chain that took over for Knight-Ridder) on a great series on Gitmo detainee abuse (for more: a great interview by my colleague with the author of the series).

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My month on opposite sides of the world

I spent June encamped in an empty room at my friend Adi’s apartment on the 38th floor of a brand new building. It’s three blocks west of Lincoln Center somewhere between Hell’s Kitchen and the upper west side—did you know there’s such a thing as “west of Lincoln Center?”—in an area that no one lived in 10 years ago and was probably a sand bar 50 years ago. Even today it’s a bit of a no man’s land, though buildings are going up all around. There’s a waste disposal facility a couple blocks south—really a dock where they load trash on a barge headed for Staten Island; the real upper west side doesn’t start for at least another 15 blocks to the north. From the Columbus Circle subway stop (brought to you by Time Warner) you walk through some projects, where the people are friendly and sociable, though Adi claims a disheveled woman once threw an egg at him at 4 in the morning after she bummed a cigarette and he said no. Politely, he insists.

The entire building smelled like a swimming pool, in a nice hotel-y kind of way. The first night I was there Adi warned me not to sleep on the mattress left in my room. The prior occupant, it turns out, rarely bathed and everything he touched turned to skank. He also apparently had a bit of coke thing: I found enough rolled up bills to buy a sandwich!

So on Adi’s instructions, I called the doorman, who said leave the mattress outside and we’ll take care of it. And voila! no more skank! They also do your laundry and dry-cleaning, bring your newspaper (in my case, three papers, since the guy before never cancelled his subscription) to your door, fluff your pillow (not really), and generally act extremely courteously and help you get over the paternalistic reality that you’re young enough to be their child but probably make more money than them.

The month was easy and blurry. I slept on an air mattress that sagged to the floor by 3 a.m. and stored my clothes on a bookshelf. I smoked two hookahs—Adi is known as “Flavor Country,” after all—a night, and watched lots of very large, very HD tv.

Most of the month not on the couch smoking rose-flavored tobacco was spent looking for apartments—a future post, one involving a Hasid who complained incessantly about non-existent traffic and an amped-up pay-day loan realtor who drove me to distraction, crumbled a housing group, and indirectly ended a promising flirtation I had a-brewing. The last day of the 20 some-odd apartment search, the very last apartment, the sole remaining stop between my real life and the realer reality of living with my parents for a really long summer, I found my mecca: an illegal loft in Crown Heights.

Here I am now, the ceiling 20 feet above me. The usual occupant is an artist, so plants and strings and umbrellas are dangling from the rafters, drugstore kitsch and pyramids of old decorative luggage are piled within and atop antique bureaus. I'm happy as can be. It’s a creative space, filled with creative people, and I’m probably only writing now to taste the spirit a bit. The whole place is entirely self-made: a circa 1950 Vernois Constellation oven found in a junkyard; cabinets that formerly housed beakers and bunson burners at the Pratt science center; halogen lamp light fixtures connected by extension cords; and so forth.

(I’ll be posting pictures soon: I apparently left the cord in my long-term storage room, that place in my life on 4th Avenue between here and there and then and now.)

No door man in Crown Heights. No tv. That chlorine smell isn’t the complimentary pool, but rather the industrial strength cleaner used at the factory next door.

Yes, perhaps I’m a gentrifier, maybe even an alarming sign of things to come (future post number two: riding the front wave of gentrification a couple years before the tide comes in). But for the guys on the corner, the group of a half-dozen West Indians who sell watermelons out of a cardboard box (to whom, I don’t know; but they start at $7), I suspect I’m more of a tourist than a colonizer. They chat me up, not because it’s their job, but I think because I’m a weird and new presence to them. And they’re just friendly like that.

All in all, it feels like home. Man, I missed Brooklyn.

Matt makes the NY Post, sort of...

Looks like my Rockaway story was "picked up" by the NY Post.

She hits on all the same points as my original piece, so I suppose I'm flattered. Plus she writes for the Post and the Manhattan Institute--both right-leaning--so I can feel good that I'm not just singing to the anti-development choir.

Still, a shout-out would've been nice, Ms. Vitullo-Martin. Some of us have a career to try and kick-start!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Internet, meet Mia

My baby niece Mia Vivian Schwarzfeld the first day in the Age Of The Exersaucer.

I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone that happy. My friend Lauren (not to be confused with Mia's mom Lauren) observed on viewing this photo that we spend the rest of our lives trying to reclaim this level of happiness. It got me thinking: is there an Exersaucer for adults? If so, I worry that it's probably illegal or at least taken best in moderation.

Rockaways spec development

I just ran a long piece in City Limits on spec development in the Rockaways, Queens. It came from a basic observation: blocks of new homes were rotting away and everyone is seethingly angry at city government for somehow letting it get that way.

It's a long complex story of with no easily identifiable bad guys - including city government. The closest thing to a villain are the spec developers, who would be better described as reckless rather than malicious. Mostly just people trying to make a quick buck but failing miserably.

A sad story of a place that has always been left behind.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The antidote to eminent domain

An 86 year-old woman lived in this Seattle cottage -- once a working class neighborhood, then a rotted-out junkyard, now a chunk from a future Trader Joes -- until she died last week. The neighborhood literally gentrified around her. I like how her old buick stretches the length of the house -- about enough room for the future chutney aisle.

From the Seattle Times

Our beloved filthy streets

I was recently riding the DC metro. Easy, user-friendly, acoustically-sensible... and astonishingly clean. You can't not notice the smell that's deafiningly not there.

I was horrified.

Where are the smears, the splotches, the steamy liver-and-onion stench? Where are all the black globby splotches on the floors?

The experience got me somewhat obsessed with NYC's splotchy sidewalks. I asked around, and the answer: gum. It's all gum. Us New Yorkers are apparently chronic gum litterers.

The Times ran a story on the phenomenon a couple years back. Some highlights:
  • It takes a wad of gum 24 hours to turn from pink/green/blue to dark black.
  • Shapes differ mostly because you stretched the wad out when you got gum on your shoe.
  • Because of the composition of cement, there's really no easy way to clean it up. It requires a special solvent and some serious, back-breaking scraping. Unsurprisingly, some clever entrepreneurs have taken up the cause.
  • For decades, city officials have bemoaned our sticky streets but never really had a coherent response.
  • The problem is less pronounced in more touristed and affluent areas. Street cleaners employed by business improvement districts, such as Downtown Alliance or Times Square Alliance, pick the sticky fight. As do the Doe Fund's employees. Because sidewalks belong to property owners, and because the city has bigger fish to fry, Sanitation workers pretty much look past the blemish.

All of this apparently has DC feeling a little bit haughty -- but I'm guessing most of us would take New York, gum-warts and all.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Crown Heights riots, redux?

Been a long time, blogworld, but I'm back.

Racial tensions in Crown Heights, and the Shmira, the Hasidic civilian police force, seems to be at the center of it. Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn DA, is going after them:
“You can’t have a group, whether it’s the Bloods, Crips or Shmira, acting like vigilantes,” Mr. Hynes told The New York Jewish Week last month.
Pretty stunning comparison, and especially bold in light of the publication he was talking to. But I find it rather refreshing to see an elected going after a group that raises some pretty sticky ethical questions and tends to racialize its rhetoric.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Subway breakdancers

I came upon a dozen or so breakdancers, organized as a kind of troupe, at the Herald Square subway station last Saturday afternoon. I was fascinated. First, they were amazing - the athleticism and training it requires is fairly awesome (for a taste..). Second, they worked the crowd beautifully, lining us up in an orderly but cozy circle, and greased our pockets with some effective one liners (of the large collection bucket: "Let me introduce you to my friend, Putin, as in 'For you to put in your money.'"). It was clearly a well-worked routine. But what most stood out to me was the social dynamic of the group. All but one were African-American (the oldest and most talented was Latino). They ranged in age from about 30 (a guess) to 7 or 8. They performed in age-order, oldest (who were the best dancers) to youngest. The older ones clearly ran the show: they worked the crowds, got the dancers in line, ran the music, barked the orders. The younger kids weren't very good - they clearly lacked both the experience and the upper-body strength - but the older guys made sure the crowds clapped for them anyway.

I wondered how the group is organized - how did these dozen or so guys meet? Is there a social network through which these guys got to know each other (like a dancing club), or is it just a bunch of neighborhood kids who were messing around and realized they could make some money off of it? Does the group operate as a training camp, with the younger kids working through the ranks? I wonder if groups splinter and compete against each other.

If anyone's looked into this, let me know... otherwise, more to come on the blog...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Crime rates in New Orleans

Interesting article in Radar Magazine on some very scary trends in New Orleans' crime rate. Paints a picture of complete lawlessness and a police force that lacks both ability, capacity, and will to do anything about it. Part of the problem, from a policing perspective, is that gangs don't operate as an organized institutions, but as loose, mostly direction-less packs; thus reducing the police department--already thoroughly undermanned and poorly led--into a reactive posture.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Simon's final shots

From David Simon's Huffington Post article last week, a good description of the fate of the modern mid-size daily and its consequences in most American cities:
Amid buyout after buyout, the [real] Baltimore Sun conceded much of its institutional memory, its beat structure, its ability to penetrate municipal institutions and report qualitatively on substantive issues in a way that explains not just the symptomatic problems of the city, but the root causes of those problems... But absent that kind of reporting, we will all soon enough live in cities and towns where politicians and bureaucrats gambol freely without worry, where it is never a risk to shine shit and call it gold. A good newspaper covers its city and acquires not just the quantitative account of a day's events, but the qualitative truth and meaning behind those events. A great newspaper does this routinely on a multitude of issues, across its entire region.
It's too bad, though, that Simon can't help but be all McNulty about the whole thing and pick fights with anyone who doesn't see things his way. ("I confess I thought that journalism was still self-aware enough to get it, that enough collective consciousness of the craft's highest calling remained, that reporters still worried about what their newspapers were missing.") Though I agree with him in spirit -- way too much of the press on this season was about production elements rather than sociopolitical themes -- his obsessive pugilism has started to get on me. He himself says "show don't tell is the rule," but then submits an article telling his critics how dense they are for not getting it. He should let his work speak for itself.

A Brief History of Race in Post-Civil Rights Politics

An interesting article in today's Sunday Times provides an overview of major trends in how presidential candidates have dealt with race, occasioned, of course, by Obama's remarkable Philadelphia speech. Like many, the author identifies LBJ's Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the final wedge between national Democrats and white Southerners, though this was certainly a long drift by the party that started in the working-class struggle rhetoric of FDR, Truman's desegregating the army, and the anti-segregationist 1948 campaign of Henry Wallace. On the Republican side, the infamous "Southern Strategy" -- culminating in Reagan's launching his campaign in Philadelphia, MS, where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964 -- widened the racial divide to galvanize white voters. But the article is most interesting in its consideration of how candidates have used code to describe race:
Race did not disappear entirely from presidential campaigns; it went under cover. It lay buried in code phrases like “crime in the streets,” “states’ rights,” and “welfare mothers.” Michael Klarman, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School who specializes in the constitutional history of race, said, “Nixon talks about ‘law and order,’ which is a code term for the urban race riots and rising crime rates. He talks about appointing strict conservatives to the Supreme Court, which is a code term for justices who won’t insist on mandatory busing. And he talks explicitly about how we ought to have ‘local control of schools.’ Without explicitly using the language of race, he is saying whites shouldn’t have to go to school with blacks.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

You can survive, but you can’t win

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this unless you've seen the last episode of The Wire.

David Simon has told us, as long as we've been listening, that the good fight can't be won anymore. There's no justice, there's no stopping the tide. There's only principled stances against the flood of venality and cynicism. Tonight he took a principled stance for his own.

Most of our heroes beat a way out of their traps. Bubbles earns his way upstairs. McNulty destroys his self-destruction once and for all. Daniels escapes his ghosts with his back stiff and his head high. Carver earns his stripes, Pearlman her robes, Carcetti his office, Freamon his happiness. If it’s not a new day in Baltimore, then at least it’s a full moon.

But that doesn't mean they win. Survival may be possible, but victory never is. Our renegades walk away, perhaps even better for it, but they all lose their wars. To a man, they lose. (As Bunk says, it’s a hell of a lot easier to get in a war than it is to get out.) The stats stay juked, the corners still hopping. Levy keeps afloat, thrives. Innocents are destroyed. Michael might become Omar, Dukie might become Bubbles, Sydnor might become McNulty, but there’s no happiness in these outcomes. The trap closes tighter.

And for some, survival is another step towards annhilation. Our anti-heroes remain ensnared. Each time he embraces Carver, Herc gets dirtier. Valcheck—the man who destroyed a culture over a window—bears the shame of a hopeless institution. Templeton climbs higher but destroys H.L. Mencken’s paper and makes some dangerously just enemies along the way. Marlo returns to the street and the street spits him out. Chris and Wee-Bey play gangster together for the rest of their lives. Cheese walks away to make his move, but the street comes to collect, it always does. A man without a code gets got.

To me, Bunny Colvin and Bunk are the moral of the story. You either fight to win, fight the good fight, break all the rules because they’re dirty and cruel and wrong; and when the inevitable happens, when the trap closes, you dig yourself a foxhole, do a good deed or two, and save you and yours. Or you bunker down (pun intended), chomp on your cigar, do your job, and drink off the bitter taste of it all.

With characteristic hubris (you catch Simon and Burns placing themselves in their natural settings tonight?), Simon points to lofty inspiration, the Greek tragedies. Those who taunt the Gods will be smote. In the post-modern city gasping for air, our civic institutions are the Gods. There is no victory, only survival, and only once the Gods chew you up and spit you out.

Here’s to David Simon, laid on the green felt, a true free born man of the U.S.A. And here's to us, who picked up the paper one day and read something that felt true and right.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

David Simon on Terry Gross

A great 45 min. interview, by one master of her craft to another.

He talks about the real-life origins of Bubbles and Bunk, his introductions to Ed Burns (a man who doesn't get nearly enough credit, overshadowed as he is by Simon's massive personality and talent), ethical questions in embedded crime reporting, the disparity in quality roles for talented African American actors, and the now-familiar story of Simon's falling out with the Sun. (Though he comes close--by his standards--to questioning himself, he says the paper was "as institutional as anything you've ever seen on the Wire.").

Terry Gross gets in some great ones too: "Have you, like McNulty, ever done or thought about doing something illegal in the interest of some greater good?" (paraphrase) and getting Simon to talk about the origins of the vacants-as-tombs plotline.

Hearing his voice, you really hear some of the dialogue coming out--the hard-boiled, street-tough language spoken by cops and metro editors and MOPs alike.

And as always, he gives a heavy dose of his damning worldview. We're all under the yoke of cold and cruel postmodern institutions. Resistance is futile.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Times lets a bad guy off the hook

A healthcare counselor at Rikers was arrested last week for attempting to sell cocaine to an undercover cop less than a block away from the bridge to the detention facility. Apparently this was his second bust in the past year. He was responsible for counseling 40 inmates with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders—the hardest cases to treat, even if you yourself are clean. He was an employee of Prison Health Services, a national prison healthcare provider that is the city’s sole contractor for healthcare in city detention facilities—a contract worth $366 million.

Observers have known this is a shady company for a long time. Since the city first contracted with Prison Health in 2001, the New York Times has done some great investigative reporting on the company, including a weeklong series, “Harsh Medicine,” published in the last week of February and first week of March 2005. The series looked at how a spate of suicides in 2004 and 2005 and the company's liability, how the inmate patients weren't necessarily the bad guys, whether the quality of service violated legally required standards of treatment, the city's inconsistent and inadequate efforts at oversight, and the myriad heads a- rollin' that resulted from the increased scrutiny on the company’s performance.

Between late February 2005 and January 2006, the Times wrote over a dozen pieces on Prison Health Services, starting with the “Harsh Medicine” series and tracking the follow-up. Most of the series was written by Paul von Zielbauer, the Times prison health beat reporter.

But from January 2006 until last week, the Times didn’t run a single story on Prison Health Services. (Zielbauer has been covering the wars from Iraq and Afghanistan since July 2006.) It published only two stories on Rikers healthcare in the past two years.

The Times dropped the ball on this important issue. It did great investative work over the course of a year, but turned off the spotlight as soon as some good things started to happen. It appears editors decided that their coverage adequately stirred the pot, though the underlying situation (e.g., the contract between the city and the shady provider) remained the same.

Sad, and an indication of how newsroom cuts hit metro beats and investigative teams the hardest... even with the country's paper of record.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Panhandlers and the first impression

Full confession: I live in yuppified Brooklyn. The only “urban fringe” in my neighborhood is the sales rack at Brooklyn Industries. This fact gives me considerable consternation. The upside, at least for someone like me, is that money attracts poverty. It’s not too much money—mostly good young liberals only slightly fattened with their early career riches—so the neighborhood doesn’t rub out the dirt too aggressively. An old white guy sells used books everyday, 7-3, in front of the bagel shop. Another old guy sits on a folding chair in front of the bank and plays an accordion for quarters. The streets in front of a nearby church are cleaned by Doe Fund workers. And there are beggars everywhere.

I’ve gotten to know one of the panhandlers, Jake, reasonably well. He’s tall and thin, African American, probably in his late 50s. He’s almost always smiling, though missing a fair amount of teeth. I’ve found Jake to be lucid and sharp, with a good memory and sense of humor. He runs a focused, purposeful conversation, a skill that always impresses me: first some small talk—weather mostly—then the ask which often builds on the smalltalk: “Cold night tonight. Can you spare some change? Just enough so I can get warm inside.” He stays at an SRO in Crown Heights. It’s not much, he says, but it’s safe and clean enough and “sure beats the shelter.” He’s usually at the same corner from about 5 – 10 pm—enough to work up the $20 nightly cost for the room.

There’s another guy on a nearby corner, though I’ve never really spoken to him. He mutters to himself. He rocks in place. He doesn’t really smile. Sometimes he’ll make comments that can be construed as aggressive (complimenting women’s hair styles and clothing, for example). He’s slightly overweight and balding and wears ill-fitting clothes. He carries two large shopping bags everywhere, filled with hundreds of smaller bags. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by guessing he has a mental illness.

Jake is good at what he does. He’s always talking to folks like me and he seems to be on the streets less than the other guy. He has good resources—a clear mind, his smile, good chit-chat—that he uses well. The other guy isn’t as good. He has a bad vibe, and it hurts him.

You probably know where I’m going with this. Though I know the other guy probably has a greater need, I more frequently give money to Jake. I don't think my preference for Jake derives from a negative judgment of his counterpart, nor even necessarily from a greater sense of comfort with Jake. These are probably factors at some level, but not primary. Rather, I feel like I "invest" in Jake in a way I can't with the other guy: the money goes somewhere, not just to his nightly room but also to a short and sweet conversation that makes me feel good about myself (a selfish and smug, if well-intended, sensation).

The kicker, of course, is that I've never really given the other guy a chance. Based on what I've seen I've decided to keep my distance. It's unfair, to be sure, but I don't think I'm the only one doing it. Who knew you had to dress to impress when begging for quarters in Park Slope?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Village Voice article

I have a piece in this week's Village Voice on the NYPD's struggles to retain young officers, viewed through the lens of two cops in a small outer borough precinct. Read away!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Venkatesh and Kotlowitz on the decentralization of public housing

As part of their Slate dialogue (previously posted on), journalist Alex Kotlowitz and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, both of whom have spent decades doing research in Chicago projects, consider the broad implications of public housing demolition across the country. (Think of the scene early in the third season of The Wire, when Bodie and Poot watch as the politicos set dynamite to their geographic hub.)

First some background, from Venkatesh:
It is interesting to note how this movement to demolish distressed public housing began. The objective was to replace concentrated, highly segregated inner-city poverty with "mixed-income" housing in which the black poor would live with the nonblack middle class. Sounds noble enough. The problem was that there was no social science evidence that this kind of mixing was possible or even preferable. Hundreds of millions of dollars were given by HUD to mayors, with minimal oversight. All this rested on the hope that the poor would either live in newly designed mixed-income neighborhoods—or use vouchers to live among the middle class...

This massive federal initiative to alleviate poverty was done with the best of intentions: namely, to create vibrant, economically diverse neighborhoods. And nearly every tenant I ever met agreed that the conditions of the projects needed to be changed. But, in the end, the pace of demolition and relocation was too quick, there were few watchdogs looking to see that government monies were spent effectively, and the stories were never sexy enough to sustain the attention of academics and journalists. So, not surprisingly, we now hear calls of "land grabs" on the part of developers and of mayors wanting to get rid of the poor.

Now that the urban poor are out of sight, Kotlowitz wonders if they're out of mind.
The demolition of public housing will change the landscape of our cities and the lives of the poor for decades to come. I fear that Chicago and other cities will come to resemble the cities of Western Europe, where the poor—in Europe's case, mostly new immigrants—ring the city like a wreath. Truly out of sight, out of mind. What are the implications for cities? For addressing poverty? For American politics? What has happened to J.T., Ms. Bailey, and the others in your book now that their community has been leveled? I drive by that 2-mile stretch of what used to be the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens, and it takes my breath away. It's all urban prairie, a stretch of vacant land awaiting the new homes to be built. Some 50 years ago, as the city's public-housing high-rises were being constructed, a local journalist suggested, in a moment of naive hope, that squalor is going out of fashion. I fear that people drive by that 2-mile stretch of now-empty land and think the same thing.

Decentralizing poverty, Venkatesh argues, dissipates anti-poverty work:
It's hard to imagine that a family could be worse off than in the projects! But, in fact, as the poor migrate outward, they find communities that simply don't have the services to cope with the influx of needy households: There are not enough settlement houses and faith-based organizations providing food and clothing; there is minimal affordable housing; landlords tend not to have much experience with the travails of poor people; and schools can't provide remedial education or day care. Public housing was more than simply shelter for most families. It was a place in which a number of supportive services for the poor congealed. Policymakers have simply hoped that the private market would provide a similar safety net and, to date, it hasn't occurred. Look around Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, and Miami and you see a real mess.

This is the urban fringe, and as Venkatesh notes, it produces some remarkable stories: "Some of it is truly inspiring: Dorothy Battie helps a network of a dozen families stay together by reinforcing the kind of sharing they used to experience in the projects: They trade day care for free food, one family cooks while the other does the laundry… and these families may be traveling several miles to do this, where once they lived on separate floors. Even the squatters have come together by staying in touch with one another and helping one another deal with homelessness."

Venkatesh and Kotlowitz on what they owe their subjects

A great dialogue on Slate on the relationship between outside observers (Kotlowitz is a journalist, Venkatesh a sociologist) and their inner-city subjects. They consider their own experiences balancing opposing ethical concerns--objectivity and independence on the one hand; and giving something back to their often poor subjects on the other. And in this research, how does the reporter observe events without shaping them?

These are hard, important questions that all journalists writing on marginal communities wrestle with. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent a decade with a couple women in the South Bronx, seeing them make bad decisions (with bad options) time and again, but still keeps herself out of both the narrative (and, presumably, the events). David Simon is completely absent in the events depicted in The Corner, though in a useful postscript notes that he paid for some things, within ethical bounds (such as cab rides to jobs). In contrast, Barbara Ehrenreich and Ted Conover (with whom I'm studying) place themselves himself in their narratives, rejecting the idea that a highly educated woman and a white guy can exist in blue collar and non-white worlds without having some impact on events. Rob Boynton (another teacher of mine) has compiled a series of interviews with "new new journalists" (immersive, participatory journalists) on their methods of negotiating this terrain.

Venkatesh and Kotlowitz seem to agree: there's no right answer, and the complexity of the question requires more dialog. Sounds like they're doing a pitch for j-school!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Evangelicals and the domestic poor

Nicholas Kristof has an interesting piece on the impact of evangelicals in fighting global poverty, climate change, and in Darfur. (He's careful to distinguish between this new type of evangelical and the gay-baiting, anti-abortion Pat Robertson type.)

He talks with Rev. Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life" and the head of a California megachurch:
“I realized they [a 25 person church in Africa] were doing more for the poor than my entire megachurch,” Mr. Warren said, with cheerful exaggeration. “It was like a knife in the heart.” So Mr. Warren mobilized his vast Saddleback Church to fight AIDS, malaria and poverty in 68 countries. Since then, more than 7,500 members of his church have paid their own way to volunteer in poor countries — and once they see the poverty, they immediately want to do more.
Rev. Warren's remarks highlight a distinct feature of evangelical anti-poverty work: its focus is primarily, if not exclusively, international. America's poor in struggling cities and Appalachian backwaters aren't his focus. (Granted, there's poor and there's really poor, but we do have problems here.)
“Almost all of my work is in the third world,” Mr. Warren said. “I couldn’t care less about politics, the culture wars. My only interest is to get people to care about Darfurs and Rwandas.”
Interesting quote. The politics of welfare--enormously contentious and divisive partisan issues over the last 30 years--have turned the social work-minded Christian right away from addressing American poverty. Is he chanelling the conservative anti-welfare platform, e.g., poor people in this country (disproportionately drug addicted anti-social types, or so the thinking goes) deserve what they get? Or is he saying that this kind of work wouldn't be possible in this country because of opposition from the right?

Wire analysis, closer to the action

Sudhir Venkatesh has been leading a conversation among gang members in NYC after each Wire episode this season. Venkatesh, you may recall, was profiled in Freakonomics for his ethnographic research on the economics of low-level drug dealers in Chicago (asking the question why so many drug dealers live with their moms). He's a sociologist by training, who writes on underground and illicit urban economics. And he's fearless.

Some highlights from his conversation with gang members:
  • Ambivalent sympathies for Prop Joe. Some disdain his foolish attempts to socialize the drug trade, ignoring the fundamental tenet of dog-eat-dog (embodied by Marlo).
  • Much love for Budgie (Omar's patron). All the gang leaders say they had a Budgie in their lives. Amazingly, his murder seems to hit these guys in a soft spot.
  • They ask Venkatesh who his readers are. Um, me. I wonder what they think of that.
  • They love Omar, while seeming uncomfortable with, even disgusted by his homosexuality. They describe him as the hero of the streets, who will avenge Budgie's murder. But they praise him with guarded slurs. They're torn. Great writing, David Simon and Co.!
Also, some interesting analysis from DeAngelo Starnes, a columnist for EbonyJet and former resident of D.C., "pre-gentrification" (his words).

Two good non-Super Bowl Super Bowl articles

Here are a couple non-sports stories that ran in the NYT this week in lead up to the Super Bowl. Good example of a paper using a news peg to tell undertold stories. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing--shouldn't we be reading stuff like this even if the NYG aren't in the Super Bowl?

For Just a Few Dollars, a Big TV and Years of Debt: Rent-a-Centers using the event of the SB to sell TVs at usurious interest rates to low income Giants fans. My dad tells a story about how he bought our first modern big television after the Giants beat the 49ers en route to SB XXI -- if we were poor, he probably would have been tempted by this...
If this were set up as a loan, the interest rate would be 71 percent and illegal under the usury laws. But this deal is called “rent to own.” In all other particulars, it is much like a subprime mortgage for pull-out sofas and television sets.
In the Town Where the Giants Play, a Sense of Being Overlooked Short article on East Rutherford, a struggling post-industrial town where the Giants (and Jets) play. More of a culture piece (and goes into some silliness on NYC-East Rutherford divide), but has some good stuff on the importance of the stadium as tax revenue for the town.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

A dirty little corruption scandal has erupted in the Narcotics Division of Brooklyn South, encompassing the 17 precincts between the water and Eastern Parkway. Nearly 20 officers in two graveyard shifts have been reprimanded—some facing criminal charges—for purportedly doling out confiscated narcotics (to wit: crack) to confidential informants. Commissioner Kelly has reassigned (demoted, really) senior officials in the citywide narcotics division.

It’s quite an embrassment to the department, to be sure. Fall out is certain. The NYT discusses structural management problems in Narcotics’ overnight shifts. Daily News gives a grittier portrait, referencing allegations by a CI that an officer gave her crack in exchange for sex (rape is indeed mentioned), and another story, less salacious but fairly ugly, about a micro-cover up.

But there’s gray area. The officers are not accused of using or selling the drugs. Rather, they supposedly used them to secure cooperation from CIs. In other words, they did it to yield better policing outcomes. The Times’ gets an unnamed police source to call it “noble-cause corruption.” (Aside: I’m astonished, but probably shouldn’t be, by the fact the Daily News’ article that breaks the story is constructed almost entirely of quotes from unnamed sources. For shame, sayeth the j-school student!)

This incident is surely a reflection of NYPD’s struggles to get cooperation from CIs, which as us post-Wire urbanoligists know is the lynchpin to winning any Drug War skirmish. As the News points out, NYPD has a paltry budget for CI compensation. But probably more to the point, they face a monolithic anti-snitching culture that gets you in a lot of trouble for cooperating with the police. (Here’s not the place to discuss how Drug War enforcement fosters violent animosity towards aggressive, skull-knocking cops.)

See this appalling sentence in the Daily News article, wholly validating the culture of condemning cooperation with police as the lowliest form of cowardice:
Undercover cops are allowed to pay snitches, known as confidential informants, but have to go through a lengthy vetting and paperwork process to do so.
I mean, shouldn’t the media—even NYC's esteemed tabloids—promote the idea of community ownership and police-citizen cooperation? Even Brian Lehrer uses this problematic word. Brian Lehrer!? I don’t use the big word “monolithic” lightly to describe how thoroughly the term “snitch” dominates the dialogue.

I certainly don’t mean to justify the officers’ corruption. Their actions—even without the possibility of sexual abuse—are inexcusable. As both the Times and News point out, over 150 prosecutions brought by the Division may be compromised.
Defense attorneys could make mincemeat out of a cop on the [witness] stand if the cop was involved in this mess," said a source close to the investigation. "And it could force old cases to be reopened, examined and thrown out as well even if the arrests were good.
And a good quote in the Times from a former chief of Brooklyn detectives:
"For them to become, in essence, crack dealers, shame on them,” Mr. Abruzzi said. “The question is: `Were they lazy? Was it an accepted practice in the unit? And, if so, why would it become accepted?’ Either way it is wrong; it is against the law and it is against our rules and no matter how you slice it, it is corruption.”
An interesting aside: Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn DA, seems to be washing his hands of the investigation, leaving it up to Internal Affairs: "I have full confidence in the ability and the integrity of the Internal Affairs Bureau of the NYPD and we're working very closely with them," Hynes said to the News. I'm not sure if's that S.O.P., respecting turf, or what.

The David Simon Wars

Much virtual ink has been spilled on David Simon’s anger, some call obsession, with his former Baltimore Sun editors John Carroll and Bill Marimow, as depicted in newsroom scenes of Season Five and in Simon’s post-release media blitz.


To catch you up to speed: David Simon sees the blood of the Baltimore Sun on the hands of the two senior editors at the time of his buy out. But they’re both well-respected guys in the field: in the last couple years Carroll fought the good fight at the LA Times (the very fight Simon accuses him of surrendering in Baltimore), refusing to make the cutbacks demanded by the Tribune Company; and Marimow, now Editor in Chief at the Philadelphia Enquirer, has a pretty impressive track record himself.

Though he sees fault in his former editors’ actions, Simon is not simplistic about the systemic factors behind the death of the mid-size paper. He blames a) an out of town, market-driven ownership ethos that shrugged its fourth-estate responsibility; b) buy-outs and staff cutbacks that left the news coverage in fewer, less-experienced (but more affordable, from a management perspective) hands; c) prize-obsessed editors [e.g., Carrol and Marrimow]; and d) editors pushing simplistic stories that looked for villians rather than analyzing systems and institutions. He sees Carroll and Marimow schilling for the man: they panicked, surrendered to the trend of bad journalism, and failed to resist.

(To hear it in the man’s own words, which you should, see this long Chicago-Trib interview, pugnacious Washington Post op-ed, or this narrative piece in Esquire).

We’re talking about this now for two main reasons: 1) Season 5 is riddled with attacks on Carroll and Marimow, and the news industry at large; and the industry is striking back. [Marimow trickles in to Season 4, as the namesake of the loathsome Lt. assigned to sap Freamon’s Major Crimes Unit.] 2) A lot of people are murmuring that his anger has affected his writing, and has reduced his newsroom characters to unidimensional types—the very quality (or absence of) that makes the Wire so categorically different, and smarter, than most shows.

Some good journalists have tried to navigate the terrain between Simon, HBO megaphone in hand, and his esteemed prey. Margaret Talbot of the New Yorker framed the argument we were to expect last spring. Mark Bowden, a Wire-obsessive like the rest of us but also a friend and admirer of the editors, explores how Simon’s anger has been turned into a “searing attack at the excesses of Big Capitalism,” which he sees the editors representing in some form. Then David Plotz, in Slate’s blog on the current season (a disappointing follow-up to last season’s blog with Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James), makes the argument of shallow newsroom characters by referencing a conversation he had with Simon in which the latter harped incessantly on the editors (the post elicited an angry response from Simon). Most recently, the Columbia Journalism Review put together a pretty amazing piece on the history of Simon’s relationship with his editors.

What is this all about?

Here’s the real point of this controversy, very meticulously described in the CJR piece and hinted at in the Bowden piece: this is about the genesis of David Simon as we know him and The Wire’s unique place in the contemporary study of urban poverty.

Aside from being the literal beginning of his career in television (disgusted with the editors and refused a pay raise, he left for Homicide), this incident also highlights Simon’s philosophy of journalism: Simon believes understanding poverty requires looking at it wholecloth, trying to wrap our heads around its myriad causes and effects all at the same time. This is what good journalism does: it provides a narrative sociology. He believes that media absolutely should not cut out little snippets from the broader cloth (which of course it often does)—that just diminishes the complexity of the problem, leading us astray, sometimes even distorting the conversation (he talks about a piece the Sun did prior to Clinton’s welfare reform bill looking at SSI fraud—a marginal issue that obscured the more important issues).

The CJR piece then explores his editors’ opposition to this position, a sound and logical stance that is far more subtle and conscientious than season five’s newsroom dopes.

“I don’t think a paper can necessarily take on all the complex issues that go into blighted neighborhoods and blighted lives,” Carroll says. “To try to do every factor, you’ll dissipate your energy and not really give attention to any one factor.” Carroll offered the school system as an example. There could be fifty topics worth writing about, he says, such as unions protecting bad teachers, wasteful bureaucracy at the board of education, and unsafe schools. “If you do all fifty,” he says, “you won’t do anything well enough to have an impact… Did it solve the problem of inadequate schools, poverty, racism, or other issues that are so intractable in the city? No. But it did some good for some people.”

Simon’s rebuttal: (if it sounds familiar, it’s because Gus said the same in episode two)

“Instead of doing honest reporting about what was happening on the streets and in the city, they took a bite-sized piece. It’s kind of like, a hurricane came through town, and instead of reporting on the hurricane and its net effect and its causes, you do a carefully constructed five-part series about three tiles that were not hammered in right so they ended up three miles away in a field. Guys, the house is wrecked.”
This all raises some interesting questions (at least for me: a Wire fanatic / journalist-to-be (trying to get those training wheels off!) / student of urban poverty.
  • Can you provide a meaningful analysis of systemic causes of poverty that is at once engaging, accessible, and people-centered?
  • Can "sentimental journalism" (my shorthand for what Carrol is describing) probe the sociological depths Simon's work explores?
  • Does corporate media have any place for probing sociological journalism?
  • How else can this journalism get out there?
One last thought: Simon shows a bit of Sobotka in his unceasing obsession with the 1990s journalism environment. He sees no potential for balancing technological innovation and advancing the human condition (Sobotka was right, he's wrong). He doesn't acknowledge that he himself is the beneficiary of a less-newspaper-centered culture. Would HBO's sociological dramas have the cultural prominence they have without information decentralization that came with the internet and media corporatism?