Cities


Of all people skeptical of the backyard chicken fad, I’m sure I come across as an unlikely one.  So it is with great shame that I have to recommend this article in the New York Times from a few days ago:

“When Problems Come Home to Roost”

The author, Kim Severson, rightly characterizes the backyard chicken craze as a fad, like the potbellied pigs of a decade ago.  Like any fad, many people jump in head first without acknowledging the risk, commitment, or education and skill involved.  Severson rightly points out that a lack of attention to these issues by unprepared and inexperienced owners–as well as the unavoidably strange and unique biological climates that urban and suburban areas contain–often lead to some bumps in the road.  In the case of San Francisco, new diseases and other persistent health problems have emerged, and many unprepared chicken owners have begun abandoning their hens and roosters at animal shelters.  These unprepared and overly hasty owners have unfortunately given the movement a bit of a black eye.  No offense to the people featured in the article–I’m sure they meant well–but they are far from the victims in this story; the abandoned and sick chickens are.

Seriously adorable backyard hens in Toronto, Canada. Photo from torontochickens.com via http://www.blogto.com.

Personally, I grew up around chickens: picking them up from the post office at 5:00 AM in a loudly chirping, warm cardboard box, raising them, collecting their eggs, cleaning them, and butchering them.  I (with my younger brother) even won best in show for the Grant County Fair two years in a row, and have the trophies to prove it!  These were, in fact, the only two years we entered, marking a short and impressive reign in Southwest Wisconsin.

At any rate, I love chickens! They’re wonderful, intelligent, even affectionate creatures, and if I ever have the time and space to care for them, I’d do so in a heartbeat.  I do have an apartment with a private backyard in Brooklyn, and its physically able to handle a few chickens, but still I’d never attempt it here for a few reasons.

First, I’m a renter and I seriously doubt my landlord would approve.  Elena and I looked at an apartment in Red Hook where the landlord lived downstairs and had chickens in the backyard, but as the chicken owner also owned the building, the situation there was much more friendly.

Second, I’m more than a little worried about the microclimate that these chickens would be living in.  Brooklyn soils contain a lot of lead and other heavy metals, and anyone who knows chickens and has been around them knows that chickens spend a lot of time with their beaks in the dirt.

Granted we all have to start somewhere, and as far as chickens in backyards, go I’m all for this movement gaining ground.  It’s a spectacular and sustainable trend, and as soon as I am in a place to participate, I’ll do so!  Online communities such as Backyard Chickens and The City Chicken do a lot to encourage responsible urban chicken ownership, and more and more cities are realizing that they are beneficial creatures that should be legalized.

It’s clear that we’re headed in the right direction, and this I applaud!  But clearly, more education is necessary.  We saw this in tomatoes as well, just this year. The blight that affected the tomato crop this year was partly blamed on too high a demand for seedlings by too many amateur gardeners growing heirloom varieties for the first time.  This problem, I would surmise, has partly the same roots as the chicken diseases we’re seeing emerge.

So, please, if you’re planning on gardening or getting chickens for the first time next year, do your homework! Do more than you think is necessary, or even sane!  I’ve seen far too many tomatoes planted in the hard soil of full-shade tree pits in New York, and it really does sadden me every time. There are plenty of skilled gardners and urban farmers dying to warn you about that kind of thing, and you have to listen to them.  Thanks!

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Somewhere along the Williamsburg Bridge. I have no recollection of taking this photograph.

Now that the weather has begun to turn, and the longest winter in recent memory is receding in the rear-view, I’ve begun walking places again.  I’ve resumed my semi-regular walk home from work: a constantly evolving, jagged path through the fire-escape-gilded Lower East Side and the pungent lanes of Chinatown. Aside from the sidelines–Broadway to the west, and the Co-op (balcony-clad) and NYCHA (balcony-less) towers to the east–no street is safe.  Anything in between is in-bounds.

A couple weekends ago, I offered to bring a case of Brooklyn IPA to an afternoon of watching baseball in the vicinity of Gramercy Park.  Ordinarily, the trek to the Brooklyn Brewery involves the L-Train, but I decided to walk instead.  Having never walked across the Williamsburg Bridge, I headed straight down Avenue D (and then Columbia, as I crossed Houston). After I realized that I couldn’t access the bridge at Columbia and Delancey, but before I started to backtrack west, I ran into something that reminded me of Iowa: Masaryk Towers.

Masaryk Towers: Named in rememberance of the Third Defenestration of Prague in 1948.

Masaryk Towers: Named in rememberance of the Third Defenestration of Prague in 1948. (It's private, not public housing: notice the balconys!)

Masaryk Towers, according to New York Songlines (a spectacular site for DIY walking tours of Manhattan), was a 1967 Mitchell-Lama co-op development, sponsored by SOKOL (A Czech organization similar to the German Turner’s Society).  As I suspected at the time, this development was named after Masaryk the younger, Jan Masaryk, who while acting as Foerign Minister, was (though there is some speculation of suicide) thrown out of his bathroom window in 1948 by Soviet-sympathizers.  This defenestration, was actually the third in Prague’s history, thereby emblazoning this unfortunate event as the “Third Defenestration of Prague.”

Tomas Masaryk, first President of Czechosolvakia, and father of the victim of the Third Defenestration of Prague.

Tomas Masaryk, first President of Czechosolvakia, and father of the victim of the Third Defenestration of Prague.

I spent the fall of my third year at Grinnell in the Czech Republic, and during my senior year I studied Jan’s father’s personal and literary relationship with Karel Capek, for whom this blog is named.  Tomas G. Masaryk, a philosophy professor turned politician, led the exiled Czechoslovak army (literally) around the world during the First World War.  After the War he became the country’s first president, and was a strong crusader for small nations during the inter-war years.  Masaryk’s story and his writings are fascinating, and I would recommend “The World Revolution” (translated meekly in English as “The Making of a State”) to anyone with an interest in European history.

Back in New York, I rounded the corner of Columbia and Delancey, and headed west until I hit the bridge.   Of the three East River bridges I’ve crossed, the Williamsburg Bridge may be the most visually interesting.  And, like the elegant Brooklyn Bridge, it is most striking in that it reflects the character of the neighborhood you’re traveling to (that is, if you’re coming from Manhattan).

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All gray steel and rivets, save the red stripe elevating pedestrians and cyclists above the roadway, the bridge is mesmerizing and beautiful and repetitive, while at the same time transparently functional.  Nothing is showy; there is no artistic stonework; and the girders themselves are straight and simple, unlike the curved and stylized metalwork of the Manhattan Bridge.

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As the cables between the towers began to rise in front of me, and as the slope of the bridge began to tilt Brooklyn-ward, I was reminded that my comparison between the bridge and Williamsburg itself was fragile and tenuous.  On the south side of the bridge, uninteresting condominium towers jutted upward from what was once a completely industrial area, and much of the industrial buildings that have been left standing have long since become residential.

I like Williamsburg, and I like to an extent what it has become, but after two years studying cities and Urban Planning, there is one constant despite the chaos and diversity of American cities that is nearly universal.  Once manufacturing areas are rezoned and turned to residential, they never go back.  Jobs may be lost for residences, but residences are never lost for jobs.  And in a society that requires vapid consumption just to survive economically (as we’ve seen recently with the demise of Circut City, Chrysler, and, (*gasp*) even the strategic shrinking of Starbucks), the permanent loss of manufacturing and industrial infrastructure in favor of residential development in communities like Williamsburg, Willets Point and Red Hook is a historic act whose reprocussions will be far reaching, and, most likely, irreversible.

These were the sorts of thoughts in my head as I got off the bridge and walked north on Berry towards the Brooklyn Brewery.  But to finish my story, I made it to the Brewery, had a Blast! (the beer) while reading Lush Life (Richard Price’s most recent novel), and trudged back to Manhattan and up First Avenue to my destination: this time with a case of beer in hand.  Thankfully for my back and my arms, I took the L-Train.

The moral of the story: Good beer tastes even better under the following conditions:

  • it cost only $25 for a case,
  • you drink it in good company, watching a good baseball game, and
  • you just walked 4 miles to retrieve it

CHEERS!

Around the corner from the Brooklyn Brewery: Silly, I know, but really well done!

Around the corner from the Brooklyn Brewery: Silly, I know, but really well done!

Its been awhile since I’ve posted anything even remotely political, but as a regular transit rider and supporter of the MTA, I wanted to post this poster produced by the Working Families Party in New York.  As any NewYorker already knows, significant fare hikes, and massive reductions in service are set to kick  in over the next few months, and its not too late to take action (or at least voice your outrage).

Even if you can afford the fare hikes, there are thousands of people for whom the proposed hikes and service cuts are really, really detrimental, so click on the poster or go to the link below (www.haltthehike.org), print out some of these, and spread them around!  Write a few letters to representatives while you’re at it; there’s a form to do just that after the link!

Book CoverI’ve finally gotten around to reading McDonough and Braungart’s influential Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and within the first few pages, I can immediately understand the book’s street cred.  The book itself is a polymer–composed of plastics, rather than paper.  Its waterproof, and 100% recyclable.  However, given McDonough’s obsession with practicality–redesigning simple items like carpeting and shoe soles–I was surprised and disappointed by his willingness to retreat into utopianism.  

How can one be forward-thinking without being utopian?  I don’t know frankly, but I can tell the difference between productive utopianism, and counter-productive utopianism.  McDonough (and Braungart; I don’t want to neglect our co-author) manages to do both.  

In terms of public policy, Cradle to Cradle is, in a word, spectacular!  The idea of legislating waste by requiring manufacturers to dispose of the products they produce(a utopian idea, to be sure), I’m certain, if it were ever established, would greatly reduce the amount of heavy metals going into our landfills, and would conversely reduce the amount of virgin materials that we need to expurgate from the earth.  Relatedly, I’m afraid that his semi-Orwellian guarantee that landfill mining will be a major growth sector in the coming years is spot on.  In addition, the collaborations that he has worked on to produce materials such as recyclable carpet, etc. are noteworthy.  

His argument against so-called “recyclable” plastics is stunning.  Though I had never actually thought about it, I didn’t know the vast qualitative differences that exist between the recycling potentials of glass and plastic.  Glass can be melted down and reconstituted forever, essentially.  A plastic bottle of water, on the other hand, cannot under any circumstances return as the same plastic bottle.  Each time it is melted down and reconstituted, its quality is reduced.  Therefore, when you recycle a water bottle, it doesn’t come back as a water bottle; it comes back as a parking cone, or a playground apparatus, or some such thing.  In short, the degradation of plastics is absolute.  And, when you consider the equally absolute law of the conservation of matter, the frightening realities of our reliance on virgin plastics hits you (or at least it hit me) like, well, a parking cone to the face.

All that said, I was left with a very sour taste in my mouth after having finished this book, and McDonough’s excitement over what I would call architectural utopianism, is the sole culprit.  

In graduate schools across the country, the great utopian thinkers of modern architectural and urbanist thought are taught not as shining examples of forward thinking, but instead are off-handedly guillotined every semester in our graduate classrooms as examples of large scale planning gone horribly awry–Corbousier, Ebeneezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, even Olmstead to a certain extent (see Riverside, IL, not Central Park, NYC).  In fact, I would argue that the most infamous of all urban planning quotes was Daniel Burnham’s “Make no small plans.  The lack the ability to stir men’s souls” (or something to that effect; I’m too lazy to play factchecker right now).

And yet, generation after generation of urban thinkers are prone to the large plan.  Its just so glossy, and new, and the answers are so clear and concise, and, “consarnit”, even revolutionary!  But, every time, within a few decades, the big plans (Cabrini Green; Civic Centers across the country; cul-de-sacs; pedestrian malls) are exposed as careless, under-nuanced and over-funded, and prone to political or social collapse.  And, yet the circle continues as McDonough has fallen into the same glittering trap.  

Instead of towers in the park and garden cities, McDonough gets all twitterpated about his grand plans for sustainable cities: huge plans for huge cities, sweeping changes, a new paradigm for urban design, lots of fancy graphs and artistic renderings of perfectly manicured green-roofed cityscapes and aerial views.  And ooh, look at that fancy powerpoint!  I wanted to just stand up and say (despite this being a book, and there being nobody to complain to) “How?”  In China, where one of his major projects is located, he flings up these fancy pictures on the page, and doesn’t bother to mention basic political hurdles such as, I dunno, land ownership, cost, or god-knows-what-else.

A front-porch clad, New Urbanist House

A front-porch clad, New Urbanist House

I guess I just don’t trust that kind of thought.  Its one thing to plan a perfect city in your head where everyone acts rationally, and you can save the world through urban design, but to implement it verbatim frightens me.  The new urbanists (the darlings of progressive urban planning theory in the mid-nineties) are learning this fact now.  You can require front porches in newly built neighborhoods (and they look mighty fancy!) but nobody is going to sit on them.  Nobody is going to sit on their stoops, because there’s no reason that people should.  The fall of close knit communities was not linked to the departure of the front porch from American architecture; it was caused by two primary inventions–television (the lesser of the two) and air conditioning.  And new urbanists suggest that people can keep their TV’s and sir conditioners, just as long as they have sidewalks and front porches.  Its a joke!  

The only thing worse than a house without a front porch is a house with a front porch that’s never used.  That’s the problem with McDonough.  All of his micro-analysis is wonderful, but his translation from treatise on waste to manifesto on the future of architecture doesn’t reflect the political, social or economic complexities of urban environments.  

In short, I’ll recommend this book to anyone.  However, I will recommend that they put the book down when McDonough unveils his bright, shiny, perfect sustainable city.  I generally avoid things that are bright and shiny to begin with; things that are perfect are outright dangerous.

Here’s the trailer for what looks to be a decent attempt at encapsulating Milwaukee’s mass transit woes:

Spread it around!

At the end of this month, a number of local activist and education groups will be holding a national urban agriculture conference: “Pollinating Our Future.” This occurrence, at this time, in this fine city is (at the very least) fortuitous. As anyone who knows me can attest to, urban agriculture and urban food systems are my primary activist concerns, and I am in the middle of an independent study through which I hope to devise an avenue for urban agriculture as an economic development strategy in cities like Milwaukee.

Pollinating Our Future

As anyone who lives in a large American city can attest to, a sort-of food revolution has begun in small populations of Americans: whites with a certain level of income. However, the people who would be best served by an agricultural revolution that values quality over quantity, localism over the international trade of perishable food items such as rock hard tomatoes, wilted bell peppers, and iceberg lettuce, and an emphasis on seasonal eating, are being left out: the poor.

As incomes have dropped in America’s inner cities, vicious cycles have begun to develop as regards goods and services. Hospitals in inner cities (St. Michael’s in Milwaukee) have been forced to close and move to the suburbs in search of greater profitability, which is a different injustice for a different post altogether. And grocery stores have also moved to the peripheries of metro areas, leaving inner city residents–who largely get by on public transportation–without an affordable source of quality foods, and without a reliable source of health care: the brutal combination of which has had a devastating effect on the well being of millions of Americans in the form of increased Type II diabetes, asthma, etc.

As usually happens when we let the falsely titled “invisible hand” of capitalism rule over the business community, the poor are continually under-served. I believe that urban agriculture can provide good jobs, increase education among populations of Americans that no longer understand the value of good food or the consequences of a poor diet of processed food, decrease the cost of food for inner city residents (through decreased transportation, preservation, processing and handling costs), increase the availability of good food, help the city economy as a whole through import-substitution, and by providing an outlet for municipal waste (compost) that will help to close the nutrient loop that has been painfully, catastrophically severed since the onset of public sanitation.

If that last paragraph was a bit jargonistic, my apologies, but honestly, if things are going to be genuinely changed, they need to be attacked from technical (rather than amorphous, hippy-dippy, earth mother, divisive) language. Essentially, y’all should take a look at the conference website, check out the types of sponsorship organizations, speakers and workshops that will be happening. Its a good way to start understanding the causes of urban degradation in America, and to start looking at ways to remedy some of those neoliberal policies that have led to the shrinking middle class, the privatization and financialization of services, the resulting lack of accountability when the private sector gets involved in urban public policy formation, the increased efforts to get Americans to take on debt, and a number of other things that we as a society have refused–out of convenience, primarily–to see correctly: both the forest and the trees.

In addition, I will be adding to the links section of this site a number of urban agriculture websites and organizations that are helping to educate the public, that are trying to convince people that the separation of agriculture from cities, from urbanity was a catastrophic, artificial imposition.

New Orleans, 2005

On the New York Times website today was an articleabout the failed effort by thousands of New Orleans residents to hold the Army Corps of Engineers resoponsible for the flood damage to the homes and properties affected by the three seperate levee breakages soon after Katrina.  Read the article, and read the Judge’s statement.  Though I approve of his language in chiding the Corps for a number of magnificent failures–both calculated and unknown, the fact that he was powerless to rule against the Corps on the basis of an 80 year old law (the Flood Control Act of 1928) is despicable.  For a state to forcibly divorce itself from any legal liability shows the real lack of public accountability that the U.S. Government has to its citizens…as though that hadn’t been proven a mere two days after the hurricane!

Read the judge’s dismissal order.  The flaccidity of the decision (due to the Flood Control Act) is genuinely depressing. 

In all seriousness, how else than by an unjust law can a passage like the one below occur in a dismissal order?

“This story–fifty years in the making–is heart-wrenching. Millions of dollars were squandered in building a levee system with respect to these outfall canals which was known to be inadequate by the Corps’ own calculations. The byzantine funding and appropriation methods for this undertaking were in large part a cause of this failure. In addition, the failure of Congress to oversee the building of the LPV and the failure to recognize that it was flawed from practically the outset–using the wrong calculations for storm surge, failing to take into account subsidence, failing to take into account issues of the strength of canal walls at the 17th Street Canal while allowing the scouring out of the canal–rest with those who are charged with oversight.

The cruel irony here is that the Corps cast a blind eye, either as a result of executive directives or bureaucratic parsimony, to flooding caused by drainage needs and until otherwise directed by Congress, solely focused on flooding caused by storm surge. Nonetheless, damage caused by either type of flooding is ultimately borne by the same public fisc. Such egregious myopia is a caricature of bureaucratic inefficiency.”

I’d write more of a complete reaction to this, but I really should get back to work…