THAT MAYTOWN OBSESSION

12 03 2010

If Bell’s Bend were a woman, by now she would have gotten a court order to keep Jack May from stalking her, and Jack’s latest move in this apparently never-ending story would have landed him in jail rather than before the Davidson County Commission, where I and a lot of other people went early this month to watch Lonnell Matthews abruptly withdraw his, or rather Jack May’s, motion to overrule the Planning Commission (not to mention common sense) and allow Mr. May to go ahead and rape the tip of Bell’s Bend.  Hey, he brought her flowers, and he’s promised not to penetrate as deeply as he originally said he wanted to go….what’s the problem, sweetie?  Relax and enjoy it!

Hmm…that’s about as far as I think I’d better go with that metaphor!

Just the facts, m’am…Councilman Matthews withdrew his motion to allow May to proceed on the technical grounds that, since May has scaled the proposal back quite a bit in order to meet complaints about the strain that Maytown would put on Nashville’s infrastructure, it is essentially a new proposal that has to go through the whole Planning Commission process again.

That brings up another metaphor–the story of the Bedouin, his tent, and his camel.

One cold night in the desert, a Bedouin made camp, taking shelter in his tent and leaving his camel outside to fend for herself.  Now, it just so happens that this was a talking camel, and as the desert night grew colder, the camel said to her master, “Oh, it is so cold out here!  Might I just stick my poor, hairless nose in your tent so that I can keep it warm?”

The Bedouin, being a kind man, assented, and so the camel stuck her nose in the tent.  The night grew colder, and the camel said to the Bedouin, “My ears are freezing!  May I stick the rest of my head in your tent?”

And so, the Bedouin let the camel a little further into his tent…and soon enough, she asked if she could keep her neck warm, and then her whole body, and lo and behold, there was no more room in the tent for the poor, indulgent Bedouin, and he passed a very cold night, and never again was he so kind to his camel.

I think you can see the point I’m making with that story:  approving an initially smaller Maytown Center is just a way to get a foot in the door, which starts to get back to the stalker metaphor I started with…but, of course, it presumes that the development will be successful, and that, I think, is quite another question.

We are having a sort-of recovery, a “job loss” recovery, as many wags and pundits are terming it.   What this means is, the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are still getting poorer.  If Jack May’s target demographic is the middle class, Maytown Center will flounder even worse than Metro Center.  If, on the other hand, he’s wooing the über rich, he’s offering them a much more secure hangout than any other location in Nashville:  with only one bridge for access, it will be easy to keep out the homeless and other riffraff.  Should things get really crazy, like,rioting and looting, that one bridge, which could easily be guarded and gated, becomes a great selling point.

“Condo in Maytown Center?  $1500 a month.  Ability to walk the streets without being mugged?  Priceless!”

Of course, you can’t talk about things like that to Metro Planning Commission or Metro Council.   The future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades, and our new Nashville Convention Center will attract thousands of free-spending tourists, and pigs will fly.  O, Megan Barry, how you let me down!

Back to that Metro Council meeting…as I walked in the door, I passed a circle of smartly dressed young black women, all wearing “support Maytown Center” buttons, and I felt the irony.  Consider:  the once-iconoclastic womens’ movement has somehow been twisted to mean that most women should work outside their homes and give their children over to so-called professional daycare at the expense of real family life, not to mention “freedom” for women to serve in the military. Uh, wasn’t one of the original goals of the womens’ movement an end to militarism and corporate domination?

Similarly, the black power/equal rights/anti-discrimination movement has largely turned into a demand for people of color to be included in the corporate world.  Turns out, the corporate masters are only too happy to include people of color in their hierarchies.  It helps legitimize them.  Just ask Michael Steele, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, or…Barack Obama.  But don’t ask Stokely Carmichael or Rev. Martin Luther King.  For all their differences, they would be united in spitting nails about what the movement they once led has come to.

Both these movements, womens’ liberation and black power, have lost their original thread, which was a critique of the corporate capitalist state and its dehumanizing effects on society.  Similarly, the labor movement, which started out as a socialist/communist/anarchist assault on the status quo, ended up trading its radicalism for a bigger pile of crumbs from the capitalist table.  Indeed, now we see the Green movement encountering the same temptations–for instance, if you go to the Maytown website, you will see it pitched as “green,” anti-sprawl,” “walkable,” “preserving nature,” LEED certified,” and many other bits of window dressing from our deep critique of Western culture.

But the line between window dressing and the real deal is a very blurry one.  Suppose Jack May steps back from his determination to subjugate the wilds of Bell’s Bend with new urbanism, and instead cuts his 1500 acres up into several small farms, each carefully planned to be a reasonable size for a couple of families to support themselves on.  What if Jack May used his extraordinary wealth to help these new farmers with “seed money” for the buildings, livestock, and equipment they would need, and what if Mr. May further provided a fruit and vegetable packing house, and infrastructure for local dairy, egg, and meat production?  He could probably do all of that for less than the amount he is prepared to spend for a bridge across the Cumberland, and would actually get the money back directly, albeit over time, instead of having to charge insanely high prices for commercial property at Maytown Center.

OK, there’s one problem with this idea–the May family paid $14,000 an acre for that property, and there’s no legal way a farmer can make enough money to buy land at that price…since our cultural religion is profit, this could be an insurmountable objection.  Or maybe the Mays (and where is Elaine May when we need her?) could decide that this is a way to cut their losses, sell this rural land for less than the crazily inflated price they paid for it, get a big tax deduction, and maybe leave everybody happy  Is that a “green solution”?  Or a grey area?  Life’s like that, ain’t it?

music:  Buffy St. Marie, “No No Keshagesh





TALKING IN THEIR SLEEP

13 06 2009

I attended the first three hours of Metro Planning Commission’s May 28th hearing on Maytown Center, but, bowing to my infirmities, didn’t attempt to stay until the very end.  My friends tell me I missed the best part, but between what I heard there, the deep background briefing I was graciously given, and what has emerged in the media, I feel well qualified to give you an update and, of course, my commentary.

The big story that emerged in the media was the highly conditional nature of the May family’s “gift” to TSU:  no Maytown, no land, no endowment.  The only money that TSU has received from the May family is $50,000 to conduct a “push poll” intended to promote Maytown to the black community, hungry for any crumbs the power structure might be willing to throw them.  Others, of course, see through the ruse,   which Rev. Joe Ingle, a white minister of the United Church of Christ, described to the Interdenominational Ministers’ Fellowship as “a bribe.”

Behind the scenes, there is the story of how it took all the pressure the Maytown foes could bring to bear to keep the Planning Comission from voting on the Maytown proposal before the hearing, and before the economic impact report was released.  “Sentence first, veredict afterwards,” as the Queen of Hearts remarked.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, but many of those opposing Maytown feel that the Planning Commission is cheerleading the project rather than playing its legally-prescribed neutral role.

The big news (for me) that came out of the hearing was that, although Maytown Center advocates have long trumpeted that they are building their project on only 600 acres and preserving the other 900, 4- 500 of those “preserved” acres will be available for development as “corporate headquarters campuses.”  When you subtract TSU’s 250 acres, that leaves only 2-300 acres that will actually be left undisturbed–and Metro might turn that into a golf course.  So much for preservation.

The traffic impact study revealed that Tony G’s claim that building one bridge to Maytown would suffice was, to be polite, disingenuous–if I wanted to be rude, I say he lied–two or three would be necessary, and metro or the state would need to widen every major artery in northwest Nashville  to accommodate an estimated additional 5,000 vehicles per hour during peak traffic times.  While the Mays offered to build a bridge or two, they are not talking about paying for any of that.  This will be  very expensive, not to mention destructive of neighborhoods, and it will not be popular, although those factors rarely seem to bother TDOT–but that’s another story.

Back to the hearing.

Bell’s Bend preservation advocates allowed Maytown Center supporters to speak first in the public comment portion of the hearing.  I was unaware of that strategic choice, so I found it unnerving to have person after person come up to the microphone and recite the litany of how the project would provide  good paying jobs, development, and growth.  None of these people seemed awake to the real condition the country is in.  There is not going to be a recovery.  We have maxxed out our personal and national credit cards, used up all the raw materials, and monetized everything there is to monetize.  Yet, because we have known nothing but expansion all our lives, too many believe that there is some magic way to restart the bubble economy, and think of the comforting, deluded dream we have been living in since the last big depression as if it were reality.  It is not.

The economic report came out a week after the hearing, and it was a whitewash.   It merely confirmed that, if everything happened the way Tony G. says he thinks it will, Maytown will work.  Happy thoughts and pixie dust, anyone?

Today, my wife came home from a yard sale and told me she had met a guy who has been closely involved with the May family.  He told her that Jack May, the brother who is pushing Maytown Center, is a completely unprincipled, ruthless guy who will do or say  anything to get his way–and get richer.  Such a testimonial re-enforces Maytown Center opponents’ concerns that the “sustainability” promises around Maytown will be abandoned once the project goes through.  Jack May has the do-re-mi to buy and sell Metro government, and that is probably what he is working on–all behind the scenes and under the table, of course.  Jack May cannot be ignorant of the state of our economy.  As I have said before, I think the secret agenda at Maytown is a kind of gated downtown for the uber-rich.  Maytown is not just a struggle over land use–it’s a battle in the class war.

Maytown Center opponents, like advocates of universal single-payer health care, are in the uncomfortable position of having the facts on their side but the politics against them.  We will find out at the next Planning Commission meeting,  at 4 PM on June 25 at the Metro Southeast Building, whether the Planning Commission is honest enough, and awake enough, to resist the pressure of big money and do the right thing.

music:  Incredible String Band, “Sleepers Awaken





PLANNING COMMISSION TAKES A PASS ON “OZ,” SCHOOL BOARD TAKES A PASS ON DESEGREGATION

13 09 2008

“It looks like Oz, just springing up out of the fields like that,” commented Planning Commissioner Victor Tyler, as Maytown Center supporters groaned.  One of them called out, “It’s European,”, but this is Nashville, American-only, we don’t speak no stinking European in this town, buddy, if there’s skyscrapers, there’s sprawl and that’s how it’s gonna be because this is America, by Gawd.

It was not a good day for the Maytown crowd, as commissioner after commissioner gave faint praise to the proposal–they appreciated all the conservation safeguards and the walkability of the proposed community, calling it visionary, architecturally stunning, ahead of its time–and then noting that there are far too many unanswered questions.

If it’s everything Tony Giarratana says it will be, isn’t it a lot of traffic for one bridge?  Do we really want to extend Nashville’s infrastructure in this very expensive way when there is no guarantee of payback and we’re having a hard time making ends meet already?  Is it really only going to attract tenants from out-of-county, and what’s it going to do to downtown? This is the last big rural area this close to our urban core–are we sure this is the right use for it?   Is this really “smart growth”?  There have been no independent analyses of the traffic patterns, economic impact, or fiscal realities of this proposal.  What if corporate campuses turn out to be just as illusory a financial driver as strip malls turned out to be?  Do we want to attract big business, or have good quality of life for ourselves?

Doubt carried the day.  The Nashville Planning Commission is not a bunch of tree-huggers. It’s peopled by engineers, real estate dealers, and business executives, the kind of folks who you would expect have never seen a development they didn’t like, but they weren’t buying Maytown Center.  They passed the Area Plan for Bell’s Bend-Scottsboro, and gave the “special use area” an indefinite deferment, meaning that Tony Giarratana is free to bring it back up any time he thinks he’s got better answers for their questions.  I’m sure he’ll give it a shot, but it looks to me like so many of those questions point to basic structural problems with the project that there is no way it’s ever going to get built.

And what will Jack May do with his twenty-three million dollar pied-a-terre there on Bell’s Bend?  According to the Tennessean, he uses his property in Mexico to grow organic agave, the basic ingredient for tequila.  Much of the tip of Bell’s Bend is prime bottomland.  It would grow great rye.   Maybe we’ll soon see “Mays Brothers organic. authentic Tennessee sippin’ whiskey.”  Who knows?

Well, one of the premises of Maytown Center was that it would attract more wealthy white folks to Nashville–yeah, I know, they didn’t say it that way, but we all know who it was pitched to, don’t we?  In another front in the class war, the wealthy white folks have won at least a temporary victory, as the Nashville School Board voted to return to neighborhood schools–i.e., to resegregate the city’s school system.  The School Board tried to justify it on the grounds of promoting parental involvement in kids’ education and saving money by not busing kids all over the place, but there seems to be a great deal of evidence that their real concern was that exposure to lower-class black kids was chasing white families out of Nashville and deterring new ones from moving in.

The sad truth is, that’s probably true.  Nashville schools lost nearly 20% of their white students just in the first year of desegregation, in 1971, and the city of Brentwood was built on the premise of white flight–hey, let’s just call it racism–because it was just over the Williamson County line and exempt from Nashville’s court-ordered desegregation, but still close enough to Nashville to be an easy commute.  Just think of it:  Cool Springs is there because of racism.  Isn’t that sweet?  But I digress…Nashville schools, which were nearly half white ten years ago, are now approaching the one-third mark.  Without black, inner-city students to fill it out, Hillwood High, the city’s most upscale high school, would be about half empty.  Rich white folks just ain’t havin’ babies like they used to, I guess….good riddance, a lot of people would say.

But here’s the thing:  studies have shown that what helps black kids out step out of the poverty-crime cycle, more than any kind of expensive facilities at de-facto segregated schools, is going to school with, and thus forming relationships with, kids who are not stuck in the poverty-crime cycle.  Conversely, exposure to lower-class kids is very good for middle-class kids, because it expands their horizons in a way that no teacher-produced classroom experience ever could, even if a lot of white parents don’t see it that way.

Let me tell you a story from my own past.  I went to high school in the mid-1960’s; the civil rights movement was hot, but it was something that was mostly happening somewhere else, at least in the early sixties.  I never thought twice about the fact that I was going to a 100% white, upper-middle-class school, where I was actually one of the more exotic people, being Jewish and the only child of a divorced mother who was, by middle-class standards,  just scraping by.  This was back in the days when hardly anybody got a divorce, y’know?  So anyway, I was walking down by the Miami River in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, one chilly winter afternoon.  The Miami River was the divide between white Dayton and black Dayton, and sure enough I met a couple of black kids about my age.  Their coats were ragged and dirty, and one of them had something wrong with one of his eyes that turned the whole eyeball a kind of cloudy white.  They were picking up dead fish from the edge of the river, and they told me they were going to take them to a market they knew of and sell them.  I did not stick around long enough to find out which market!

In retrospect, I think they were putting me on, but at the time I took them seriously, and it put me through changes.  I had literally never encountered anybody like them before.  For me it was like the incident in the life of Gautama Buddha when, after having been protected all his life, he first encountered old age, sickness, and death.  Within a few years I would be working for civil rights organizations, reading Karl Marx, and moving in a trajectory that would take me as clear of mainstream America as I could get–and that was just one five-minute encounter.  Well, OK, I was a pink diaper baby, too….

But I think that’s just what white parents are afraid of, just what the school board is, after all, only responding to–that their kids will be exposed to something that calls into question the comforts they have been raised to take for granted.  This is a difficult, painful, and personal subject.   It’s why conservatives say you can’t pass legislation that makes people change their minds–if you put a lot of people (mainly conservatives, actually!) into situations where their worldview may be challenged, they will respond to their discomfort by attempting to withdraw any way they can–in this case, through private schools and moves to de-facto segregated enclaves like Williamson County.

It is unfortunate that Nashville’s school board, in confronting this conundrum, which admittedly is a bigger problem than they have the power to solve, chose to cave in to racist, classist impulses and throw lower-class black students overboard.  Their actions were probably illegal on a couple of counts:  mainly, of course, racial discrimination but also violations of the state’s open meetings law.   It is astounding that at no time did the school board seek a legal opinion about what amounts to resegregating Nashville’s schools; there will almost certainly be a lawsuit, currently threatened by the NAACP, and meanwhile, to the extent that our faltering economy allows, wealthier whites will continue to leave Nashville’s foundering school system for the still-viable, greener pastures of Williamson and other surrounding counties, where the economic realities of home prices, rents, and lack of public transportation effectively keep out all those scary low-life types.  They will have gotten themselves nicer deck chairs, but they’re still on the Titanic.

music: Michael Franti and Spearhead, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”  (w/Joan Osborne)








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