GAZING INTO MY GREEN CRYSTAL BALL

9 07 2011

We’ve got a Metro Council/Mayoral race going on in Nashville this month, but for the most part nobody’s getting too excited about it.  Most incumbents, including Mayor Karl Dean, are expected to coast to easy victories. spouting easy platitudes about growth, development, education, jobs, and “Greenness.”

But all that talk, from my perspective, is like Huxley’s “soma” in Brave New World, an addictive drug intended to pacify the masses, even though it will eventually cost them their lives.  When I look into my Deep Green crystal ball at the future of Nashville, I don’t see big international industries and businesses relocating here, on the old fairgrounds site or anywhere else.  I don’t see a busy convention center surrounded by crowded hotels and a tourist district for high rollers.

A lot of what I do see is not that pleasant to contemplate.  I see Nashville’s core cut off from the south as the bridges over a disused I-440 deteriorate, and ferries crossing the Cumberland once again, once we no longer have the resources to maintain those bridges, either.  Roads and bridges cost a lot of money, and if there’s a lot less fuel tax–or maybe even none at all–being collected–there’s no way to maintain them. I see a downtown that’s dangerous to navigate, not because of homeless, derelict people, but because of the danger of debris falling from abandoned, derelict high rise buildings.  I see neighborhoods depopulated, houses torn down, the Detroitisation of Nashville.  It’s already started, if you’ve driven down West Hamilton Road lately.  I see these empty lots being turned into gardens OR reverting back to forest.  I see neighborhoods getting together not just to garden, but to excavate buried springs and creeks so they can have a reliable, if not necessarily safe, water source as Metro’s water system deteriorates due to severely falling tax revenues.  Likewise, I see neighborhoods coming together to create their own security patrols as the Metro police department literally runs out of gas and can’t afford enough electric vehicles to respond to anything but the most dire emergencies.

Where are the people gonna go?  Many will move back to the rural areas and small towns where they still have family, because life will be somewhat more pleasant and secure in those locations.  We may see some horrific epidemics that either defy drug treatment or, worse, that could have been prevented if only the funds for public health measures had been available.  I think we will lose a lot of population by attrition–it will be easier to die from a broad spectrum of diseases, including a couple that I’m working it out with myself, and the world will be dismal enough that people will be less inclined to start families–and, like us older people, children will be more prone to succumb to things that are not, at our current level of civilization, fatal.

On a more positive note, I think we will see a revitalization of our riverfront as an industrial and transportation hub.  The Cumberland provides a deep-water passageway combined with a strong current, two factors that are little appreciated today. Before the era of rail transport, it was the equivalent of an interstate highway, and let’s not forget that there is a reason why the word “current’ applies to both rivers and electricity–they both provide energy.   The river’s energy, however, is not dependent on fossil fuel or high-tech solar installations.  Water power can turn lathes for machine shops, run industrial looms to weave cloth, and power bellows that can create a hot enough fire to run a metal forge, as well as the more common applications of grinding grain and lifting water into fields for irrigation.

I was very relieved to meet someone the other day who has a good technical understanding of water wheels and how to build them.  In another few decades, somebody with those skills will be able to, as they say, write his own ticket.

And since I’ve been talking about deteriorating infrastructure, let’s not forget that there are locks and dams on the Cumberland that are not going to last forever.  We have not had our last major flood here in the Cumberland basin.

But–try running for Metro Council talking about those issues.  Can you say, “Debbie Downer,” boys and girls?  I don’t believe their is enough moral courage in this country to face the likely realities of our future.   To function as part of Nashville’s government, you have to at least make nice with the soothing pabulum of “growth” that far too many people believe in even more fervently than Christianity.

It’s like they say–the tough part of knowing the answers isn’t so much the knowledge itself, as having the patience to wait for somebody to ask you the right questions.  So, if you are involved in Metro government and actually have a clue about what’s going on, you will only reveal your deepest thoughts in fairly subtle ways.  You might propose to allow people to keep a few chickens.  You might oppose “future’s so bright” projects like Maytown,  the convention center, or seeking to sell the fairgrounds to private developers..

When I see Metro Council members who take such positions, I am inclined to favor them, though I’m certainly not going to put them on the spot by asking too many questions.  I know what constitutes political suicide, and I’m not going to push my favorite local politicians to expose themselves, so to speak.

Funny–it’s easier, politically, to be out about being gay than it is to be out about understanding the transition we are about to undergo.  Well, being gay ultimately involves only you and your sweetie, but transition involves everyone. Aah– i digress.

As I’ve observed Metro Council over the last several years, two of its members have really stood out for me–Emily Evans and Jason Holleman.  Among the Council’s 40 members, they are two who seem to be the most clued-in about what the future really holds in store.   And yet….and yet…..our “Green Mayor,” Karl Dean, seems to be behind the well-financed effort to unseat Holleman.  What gives?

I think what we are seeing here is a case of greenwashing versus reality-based decision-making.  Dean likes to be billed as “The Green Mayor,” but a look at what he actually does, and a look at who’s behind him, reveals the truth.  His moves, most noticeably on the Fairgrounds and Convention Center issues, have been pure, clueless, big-business optimism.  His backers are the Democrat Party mainstream, who are not so much committed to being “Green” as they are to branding themselves as “Green,” just like the national party.  Corporate pigs with green lipstick.  Ugh.

Jason Holleman is a David to these Goliaths, who value loyalty to their personal power above independent, rational thinking.   By this time next month, we will know who the people of Sylvan Park have chosen.  Good luck, Jason!

music:  Jane Siberry–Superhero Dream>Grace





BOUGHT….AND SOLD?

13 06 2010

I created a bit of a flap a few months back when I referred to Metro Council member Lonnell Matthews, Jr. as “Step n’ Fetchit”  for being so willing to do the bidding of the May family.   I have been doing some research on who financed Matthews’ campaign for Metro Council, and here’s what it looks like to me:  Matthews may not have thought he sold himself to the May family, but the Mays, who donated heavily to his campaign, almost certainly thought they were buying him.

By the way, it was very disingenuous of you, Mr. Matthews, to claim you don’t know the occupation of someone who lists the address of the Nashville Civic Design Center as their “home.”

I have read Mr. Matthews’ campaign finance statements, and the names and amounts are all there in cold, hard print….or maybe it’s flickering pixels, but no matter what metaphor you use (“it’s there in black and white”?  nooo…..), the facts remain the same:  the Mays–Jack, Frank, Diane, and Leon–Jeff Zeitlin and his Mays Landing LLC, and various friends and relatives of theirs, were major backers of Lonnell’s 2007 campaign for the Council, contributing $25,000 of the $35,000 that fueled his’ run for office.

.  Thirty-five grand, by the way, is an eyebrow-raising amount of money to spend in a Metro Council race.

I mean, you give a guy 25K, you might expect something in return, right?  As  Lyndon Johnson famously said, “you got to dance with them that bought you”–oops, Johnson said “brought you,” but we know what he meant, don’t we?

And Matthews at first did not dance with them that bought him, stepped on their toes when he did, and ultimately failed to deliver.  At first he appeared to oppose the plan.  When he finally got on board with it, he proved to be an inept advocate, famously telling the planning commission “We have to put the cart before the horse on this project.”  So now, the Mays are out $28M on their Bell’s Bend adventure, with no financial returns in sight.  Furthermore,   to keep their reputation up with the TSU crowd, they have had to go ahead and give TSU the 200 acres of floodplain and the $400,000 endowment that were originally promised only if the whole project went through.  Well, the floodplain, as we’ve just seen, is worthless for development anyway, and 400 grand is just chump change after 28 million.

Jeff Zeitlin is probably smiling to himself and thinking “suckas…at least I got mine!”

I can certainly understand why Matthews and many others in the TSU/ North Nashville area would find Maytown’s bait tempting.  “Jobs, education, and development” was, for many years, the magic mantra of upward mobility among a people who have been oppressed and exploited for centuries merely because of the shade of their skin, which is no good reason at all.  But the American bubble has burst.  Development is largely over, and education is rapidly becoming a portal for debt slavery rather than high-end employment.  It’s time for new priorities and a new paradigm, and I believe that the changes we are going through will ultimately be an empowerment and not a disappointment, but I also understand that it may take a while for that to sink in.

Meanwhile, Lonnell is fortunate that the Mays operate on the right side of the law, or he might find himself on the bottom of  the Cumberland in concrete shoes.  And he’s lucky that they don’t literally own him, or they would be selling him down the river, as the old saying goes.  Rumor has it hat the Mays are doing is grooming a candidate to contest his seat in the next election.

Rumor further has it that that candidate will be former Metro Council member and unabashed Maytown Center advocate Saletta Holloway, who is currently registered with the city as a lobbyist for Bell’s Landing Partners.  One aspect of colonialism is rich white people choosing which native will hold power in the colonized area and help them exploit it.  That seems to be what’s happening here.  Other than being a stooge for her white masters, Ms. Hollloway has what passes for impressive credentials.  She is, as I understand it, on the Board of Directors at Meharry Medical College and was a delegate to the 2008 Democratic convention.  I’m sure she could give Lonnell a run for, um…the money.    She will have to move into the district in order to run for his’s seat, but her backers have plenty of cash and real estate, and a strong desire to teach Mr. Matthews a lesson.

By the time of the 2011 election, Matthews will have had four years to cultivate his constituency, and from my perch here in the hills it looks like he is doing a good job of taking care of the flood-battered residents of District 1, where White’s Creek literally pushed houses off their foundations.  Perhaps Mr. Matthews has learned from his fling with the May family about the dangers and obligations of accepting outside money.  I know that, when I first met him, I was impressed with his grasp of the real issues that underlie the thin veneer of conventional political discourse in this country.  I would be wonderful to see him scrape the Maytown debacle off the bottom of his shoes and go on to greatness.  Time will tell.

music:  Yohimbe Brothers, “More from Life”





A WAKE-UP CALL

9 05 2010

There was no earthquake.  There was no tornado.  There was no hurricane boiling up from the Gulf.  And Wolf Creek Dam didn’t even break.  It was just, as the Army Corps of Engineers put it, “a thousand-year flood.”

And suddenly, life came to a screeching, splashing halt here in middle Tennessee.  Interstate highways were closed and impassible.  The electricity went out over large parts of town.  There was no way to pump gasoline, if you could get anywhere, and grocery stores, their freezers, coolers, and cash registers disabled, closed down as tons of food. albeit only a three-day supply for the city,  spoiled.  Rising waters overwhelmed one of the city’s water treatment plants and came within a foot of flooding the other before starting to recede.

Up where I live, we were lucky.  Our homestead is at the head of a hollow, so although on Saturday and Sunday  we had a whitewater stream rushing down the dirt road that leads up our hill, damaging the road and washing away material we had stockpiled to expand our garden, the water quickly moved on and we have only had to deal witht the relative inconveniences of a 14-hour electrical outage and an intermittent supply of city tap water.

Things have been much more dire elsewhere.  Just a mile downstream from us, White’s Creek has expanded across its floodplain, inundating houses.  Here’s a quote from a friend who lives along the Harpeth:

Beth and I just got back from a 2 hour canoe ride to assess the damage to our place and to the neighbors…Hundreds of our neighbors no longer have houses to come home to. We paddled across the big lake to Beech Bend Subdivision where every house was at least partly submerged along with their cars and trucks. The Harpeth was taking the shortest route by cutting off Beech Bend and running a strong current right through the yards and houses. People had to wade quickly out and had no time to gather anything. We ferried a man back to his house from the shore so he could get his skidoo out of the garage. It barely fit between the water and the top of the door. You could hear the sound of a broken water main inside. He tried to wade  through the house in chest deep water to retrieve his wallet but said his bed was pinned against the ceiling and he couldn’t get to it. A National Guard helicopter was buzzing us, probably thinking we were looters, but they didn’t shoot. A cop back on the shore said that a kayak had just flipped over a few blocks away and the people had to be rescued. He said we had better leave quickly or the authorities would probably not let us get back out. So we stroked hard for home, the current strong between every house.

Except for the fact that the authorities didn’t shoot (hey, my friends are white!), it sounds like New Orleans, doesn’t it?

As an aside, I think the May family should be very grateful that they were stopped from building Maytown, because this flood would have washed it all away.  How ’bout it, Jack?  But, I digress…..

Cassandras like me and Albert Bates (Albert much more emphatically than I, to be sure) have been warning local governments for years that we are woefully unprepared for disaster.  Our police, fire departments, and hospitals have little or nothing in the way of long-term backup for motor fuel or electricity.  Maybe this brief, but dramatic interlude will bring official Nashville to its senses.

The IPCC has warned that one consequence of global warming will be more intense storms, and more of them.  What just happened in Nashville has been termed “a thousand-year storm,” but I have an uneasy feeling that we will see its equal, or worse, a lot sooner than the thirty-first century, quite possibly in the next decade or two.  Maybe even next year.

My eighty-year old neighbor, who has lived in this hollow just about all her life, said she had never seen it rain like that before.  “Is God punishing us for being bad?” she asked my wife.   I would have to say it’s not some God out there that’s punishing us, but this is a fate we are bringing on ourselves.  Can we wake up enough to stop before it’s too late?  Or is it too late already?

music:  The Band, “Look Out Cleveland





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





SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF DENMARK

11 12 2009

I am amazed and dismayed at how difficult it can be to get some people to cut loose of a bad idea.  Sometimes it’s local–like the May family’s recent hiring of a notorious  zoning attorney to work on getting their “Maytown Center” fantasyland approved.  Sometimes it’s national–like all the people who project their liberal expectations on Barack Obama and keep urging him to stand up and roar, when the reality is that he’s just a pussycat in Wall Street’s lap, and no more likely to pounce on Wall Street, the insurance/pharmaceutical establishment, the military establishment, or America’s carbon- and credit happy way of life than your cat is likely to pounce on you and eat you for breakfast.

And that brings us to the climate talks in Copenhagen.  Prospects do not look good for a serious, binding treaty, and why?  Two main reasons: the first is that big corporations are addicted to short-term profits and have the political clout to make sure that nothing interferes with their money fix.  The second is that we, the people of the United States, or “estamos jodidos“, as they say in Mexico, are  addicted to our petroleum-inflated, corporate-backed standard of living, and will happily vote out of office or ignore any politician who attempts to interfere with our comfort fix.  Ask Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader, or Cynthia McKinney.

Thus, we have the irony that many of those who excoriated the Bush junta for dissing “the reality-based community” are now themselves out of touch with hard, physical reality.  The hard, physical reality is that the climate is changing much faster than the IPCC predicted it would.  The hard, physical reality is that the planet’s carbon dioxide level passed the threshold of safety at 350 parts per million, and agreements that “hold” us to 450 ppm will not prevent massive, catastrophic changes to the only planet we have to live on.  Nature bats last, she doesn’t negotiate, and she doesn’t care how much some pundits fume about East Anglian emails.

But the wealthy elite who dominate our political system don’t seem to get this.  They think that the “political reality” that serious climate change legislation won’t fly trumps the “physical reality” of impending disaster, so if we can’t shut down every coal plant in the US and China in the next three years, if we don’t stop deforesting the tropics for grazing land and Canada for tar sand, if we don’t stop acidifying the oceans before we kill off the phytoplankton that provide 70% of our oxygen, it’s OK.

It’s not OK.  Maybe the plutocrats who run the big businesses of the world think their wealth will permanently insulate them from the consequences of their inaction.  In the long run, they are very, very wrong.

But in the short run, which unfortunately is all that counts for most people, it has been true.  Those who are suffering the most from climate change, or who are about to suffer the most from climate change, live in the third world, while it is we in the first world, with our material addictions, who have triggered  the catastrophe.  Geography insulates us from them.  Hurricane Katrina was an early warning, a reminder that calamity can strike America, too, and we should not let the fact that the Atlantic has been relatively quiet since then lull us into a false sense of security.

If, as seems likely, there is neither an agreement nor even an agreement to come to agreement as a result of Copenhagen, there is one deus ex machina that might derail catastrophic climate change, and that is economic collapse, which has already idled thousands of oceangoing cargo vessels worldwide, and at least slowed down that once fast-growing source of carbon emissions, which along with international airlines, was exempted from control under the so-called Kyoto accords.

Economic collapse has all but shut down urban sprawl in the US.  Home construction was the last big domestic industry possible in this country, since you can’t readily build homes in China and ship them here, and even building materials imported from China turn out to be suspect, as the recent flap over weird sheetrock demonstrates.

And, if the Chinese and Indians try to keep their economies (and carbon emissions) strong by developing their domestic economies, they will first find themselves up against the hard reality of spiraling oil prices and diminishing oil supplies, and then they will have to deal with their countries becoming uninhabitable as the Himalayan glaciers melt off over the next thirty years, drying up the sources of all of both countries’ major rivers.  Ooops….where’s a sixth of the world’s population gonna go when they get thirsty?   And, considering how much the US owes China, are we gonna be able to tell them no, they can’t come here?  Yes, the stage is set for chaos, boys and girls….

And the US government is gridlocked.  The “solutions” they pass in Congress are pitiful.  It’s not about what the Repugs won’t let the Dims do.  That’s a puppet show, and the puppet master has a Repug puppet on his right hand and a Dim puppet on his left, and we’re supposed to believe they’re really different.  The gridlock is that the wealthy, who are creating and benefitting from the mess the planet is in, won’t let the government do anything that is against their interest.  Forget “We, the people.”  It’s “We, the rich people, ” and they are determined to keep their priviliges no matter what.

“Green corporations” are a crock.   Walmarts with “green roofs” and massive energy conservaton systems and recycling, even if they’re full of “green products” are still part of the problem, not part of the solution, because they are still designed to pump money out of communities and into the hands of shareholders. It’s not just about changing content, it’s about changing form.  Once upon a time, the dinosaurs were so big and ferocious that  us mammals could barely hang on. Then the planet went through some sudden changes, and the dinosaurs’ size and inflexibility worked against their ability to adapt.   We’re approaching a similar point, but the dinosaurs of this age are the legal fictions of giant corporations and national governments.

What this means for you and me is that it’s time to take things into our own hands.  No, I don’t mean let’s go burn down Brentwood,  Temporarily thrilling as that might be, it would create a lot more problems than it would solve.  I mean let’s get together with our friends and neighbors and figure out what we can do together to get ready for the  excrement that’s already hit the fan.  Let’s turn our lawns into gardens and build henhouses and keep milk cows, let’s learn to make, make do, and do without.

This is going to seem terribly futile from a certain perspective.  BIg changes are afoot, and I’m telling you to grow beans?  And to that, I can only reply with trite maxims like “Start where you are,”  or “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”  Trite, but true.

I know it’s short notice, but I’ll be getting together with some old and new friends Monday night here in Nashville, 7:30 to 9,  to continue the discussion of what we can actually do…..go to earthrevolution.org and send a “contact” email to rsvp, and you’ll get directions.  Thinking globally, acting locally, y’know?

Ah, this just in–according to our Copenhagen correspondent Albert Bates, US EPA administrator Carol Jackson has announced that, no matter what Congress does or doesn’t do, the EPA will regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and that US emissions will be going down.  A bold move, or at least a bold gesture.  Call me cynical, but I have to wonder how long it will take the Congressional coal&oil caucus to muzzle her efforts, and maybe even give her the Van Jones treatment.  Stay tuned….

music:  Jefferson Airplane, “Crown of Creation”





MAYBETOWN CENTER, R.I.P.?

9 07 2009

Was there any one argument that tipped the balance for the Planning Commission?  There were so many good ones.  Call it “a death of a thousand cuts.”

At the June 25th Planning Commission meeting, witness after witness stood to give a different reason why Maytown is a bad idea.

Councilwoman Megan Barry pointed out that including Maytown Center in the neighborhood plan, at the developer’s behest, after a long series of open meetings spent developing a holistic, rural vision for Bell’s Bend, was a violation of the community’s good faith and trust and would seriously damage the Commission’s credibility when it came to working up other neighborhood plans.

Councilman Frank Harrison expressed concern that the infrastructure development involved would take Metro’s energy away from existing priorities at a time when money is tight.

Councilman Eric Cole cited the “great degree of risk” involved in the plan, pointing out that

“if it fails it leaves behind a string of massive infrastructure ‘improvements’ that benefit nobody—it will scar the landscape and we will pay the consequences for generations.”

Councilman Jason Holleman echoed Eric Cole’s concerns and elaborated on them, arguing that the real cost to the city had not been determined and that there were “too many unresolved puzzle pieces,” such as how much road widening, how many homes and businesses would need to be taken by eminent domain?  How much would all that cost?  And, of course, how would the cash-strapped city pay for it, with Maytown’s promised boost to the city’s revenues not coming for fifteen or twenty years?

Councilman Lonnell Matthews argued ineptly for the plan, drawing laughter when he insisted, “We have to put the cart before the horse.”  Oops.  About all he or the others who would later speak out for it could say was that it was “bold” and would “provide jobs.”  This seems to me to be a kind of wishful hoping for a return to the bubble economy, when we could borrow money to pay people to build things and call it economic growth.  Those days are very, very over, even if a lot of people haven’t realized it yet.  Denial…hopefully, it’s the first stage in a journey of acceptance, and not a permanent state of psychosis….but I digress.

Tony G and Melvin Johnson did a pro-Maytown presentation, waving all the tired buzzwords of jobs and growth as if it were still 2007, and then it was time for the opposition to make more points.

David Briley led off.  joking that there are so many unknowns involved in the project that perhaps we should call it “Maybetown Center.”  He noted that there were only two corporate relocations in the whole country last year, that the developer of Cool Springs, often cited as the example Maytown is following, is in bankruptcy, and that neither the state economic development people nor the mayor had endorsed the project.  “Nobody from the city is here to say ‘this makes sense’, ” he pointed out.

Urban planner David Eisenstadt said that the “benefits” of Maytown were “highly speculative,” and that the numbers presented to the planning commission in a University of Tennessee study  were based on the developer’s figures, not on independent numbers, and were inconsistent with the city’s actual real estate market, business cycle, and population settlement patterns.

Kay Swartz identified herself as “a career aviator” and pointed out that Maytown would be directly in the approach pattern for Tune airport, which would create a hazard for approaching aircraft, noise complaints for Maytown residents, and necessitate special urban-area training for all pilots who use Tune, which is Nashville’s preferred private aviation hub because it can be approached without flying over any urban areas.  The image of an airplane crashing into one of the highrises  was, if unmentioned, on everybody’s mind.   “If Maytown were already built, would you locate an airport where Tune is?” she concluded.  Implication:  no.

Several residents of neighborhoods on the south bank of the Cumberland talked about the negative impact the proposal would have where they live, and complained that the Planning Commission had apparently held up approval of their neighborhood plans in order to improve Maytown’s chances  “because if our area plans were in place, this proposal would never go through.”  More eroded credibility.

Robert Brant of the Metro Parks and Greenways Commission decried the proposed four-lane road through Bell’s Bend Park, saying that Planning Commission head Rick Bernhardt had assured him that there would be no road through the Park…still more eroded credibility.

A realtor pointed out that the cost of doing business in Maytown was going to be high enough to make it noncompetitive–that two major projects in downtown Nashville had recently gone into receivership, and that,  in spite of cutting prices from $32 to $22 per square foot, there’s still a lot of empty space in the new Pinnacle Building, while the cost of office space in Maytown was projected at between $30-$40 per square foot.  The high cost of the May property came back to bite them again later, when Sumter Camp addressed the fear that rejection of Maytown would lead to 500 tract homes being built instead by doing the math and pointing out that the land cost to the Mays  (around $14K per acre) virtually insured that they could not build competitively priced tract homes at the tip of Bell’s Bend, miles from gas stations and food stores–even if there were still a market for tract homes, which there isn’t.

A number of TSU alumni had spoken in favor of the project, due to the carrot offered to the school in exchange for support, but one alum broke ranks to observe that, no matter what the developer was promising, once the zoning changes had been made, there would be no way to enforce the “agreements” that had been made.

And so, one nail after another was driven into Maytown’s coffin.  I left as the hour got late, but I am sure someone parsed Maytown’s claim that they would “preserve” 900 acres, noting that that 900 acre figure included up to

6 “estate homes,” each on 5 acres.

227 acres of corporate campuses.

103 acres of “ball fields, tennis courts or other similar recreational amenities” and “future schools, churches, fire stations and similar uses.”

200 acres of floodplain for the TSU agricultural center

In addition, a certain part will be reserved for a “future marina and related development.”

If you do the math, that list adds up to about 600 of those 900 “preserved” acres, and a chunk of the remaining 300 is under a power line.  What was I saying about trust, credibility, and promises?

Well, the upshot of it all was that the Planning Commission voted 5-4 not to approve Maytown, “because it is not in accordance with the Area Plan,” which was a diplomatic way not to call Tony G. and Jack May a couple of shameless hucksters.  At Metro Council last night, it all ended “not with a bang, but a whimper,” as Lonnell Matthews asked for the proposal to be “indefinitely deferred.”  As the economy worsens, the likelihood of resurrection diminishes.  I think we can all breathe a big sigh of relief.

Well, them’s the facts.  Rural preservationists take on developers and send ’em packing.  Hallelujah, a happy ending! But–what’s my “deep green perspective” on the whole affair?

This was a classic case of the craziness that ensues from adherence to the twin legal fictions of “land ownership” and “profit.”  These are concepts that we take for granted, hardly realizing the depth and complexity of the problems they have engendered in our society.  I think they are a form of mental illness that we need to cure ourselves of, individually and collectively–individually through personal reflection and reconditioning, and collectively by revising our laws to end these impositions on the planet and our fellow humans.

We live in a radical fundamentalist materialist society in which no thing is sacred–not the air we breathe or the water we drink, not the land we walk on or the voluptuous curves of a young woman’s body or the perspective that comes with advancing age.  The abstraction of financial profit is the only sacred point in our culture, and all must give way to an individual’s right to financial gain.  Everything must be monetized in the cultural and legal web we have woven for ourselves–land, education, food, child care, sex and any other simple pleasure you can think of, have no “value” unless they are monetized, commercialized, and turned into tawdry imitations of their true, free selves.

Thus, our culture views “undeveloped”  land as a blank slate, valuable only for its ability to be turned into something else for the benefit of its human owners.  In this view,he deer, foxes, bald eagles, herons, field mice, fence lizards and lillies of the field who inhabit “undeveloped” land have no legal rights, no claim of ownership, no “right to life,” to steal a phrase from our so-called “fundamentalist” Christian bretheren.

And so the vote against Maytown Center was not so much a victory for those of us who fought against it (and Maytown proponents were correct in observing that most of us don’t live on Bell’s Bend) as it was a victory for the natural world, a victory for the right of the trees to be left alone.

I don’t want to get my hopes up too far–but maybe, just maybe, Maytown Center was the Pickett’s charge of radical fundamentalist materialism.  Maybe, just maybe, this was a turning point.  Maybe, just maybe, we have crossed the pass and are beginning our gentle descent into a saner future.  May it be so.

Maybetown Center, R.I.P.–but I will keep watch on your grave to make sure you stay dead.

music:  David Rovics, “The Commons







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





AS IF THERE WILL BE NO DELUGE…

10 05 2009

A number of bits of local news and commentary have come to my attention lately:  Mayor Dean’s “State of the City” address, the report of the Green Ribbon Committee for a Sustainable Nashville, news that the “reform” of Tennessee’s waste management policies is not only a shambles but a sham, and the renewed push for construction of Maytown Center, along with the howls of misguided (or intentionally misleading) protest that accompanied my characterization of its neo-feudal potential last month.

Hizzoner the Mayor used his moment in the spotlight to push for a new Nashville Convention Center, a sort of “build it and they will come,” Hail Mary pass proposal that has been so thoroughly excoriated by the Nashville Scene that I hardly need to go into detail here, except to answer their “what are they smoking?” question with, “must be crack, ’cause any self-respecting pot smoker would see through this welfare-for-developers proposal in a minute.”  I would also add that anybody who thinks any kind of tourism is going to make a comeback is inhaling the wrong kind of smoke.  The only big influx that I see in Nashville’s, or America’s, future, is Chinese and various Middle Easterners coming to repossess whatever they can in consideration of America’s unrepayable debt to them.  The “T” in “T-bills” is gonna stand for “toilet paper,” boys and girls.  Can you say “Confederate money”?

And, speaking of smoking crack, I have to repeat and re-emphasize that anyone who thinks Maytown Center is going to be good for Nashville is still living in the delusionary world of the Bush era.  Growth is over.  If it is built, Maytown will either rapidly turn into a ghost town or suck the air out of the rest of the city and become a gated version of downtown, so the upper crust doesn’t have to cross paths with the homeless.

We would be much better off using the energy that the city’s movers and shakers are putting into these mirages to fast-track and expand some of the proposals in the Green Ribbon Committee’s report, which is at least well-intentioned, if woefully under-ambitious.  I feel bad about having to say that.  I know some of the people on the Committee, and I trust their good will. I went to one of their public meetings, and I think the document they have produced is radical and edgy–for 1975.  At this point, it is too little, too late.    Can we create a sustainable local economy that will support our current population?  Can we produce enough hoes and digging forks for everybody to turn up the ground it will take to keep ourselves in potatoes, let alone manufacture  our own shoes and clothing? Ain’t none of that happening here in Nashvegas any more, — how many weavers and cobblers are there in this town?  We sold our industrial capacity to the Chinese for a mess of profit, and we are about to find out that money is nothing but funny-looking paper once everybody agrees it’s worthless.

The landfill proposals that so outrage my friends at BURNT (Bring Urban Recycling to Nashville Today) are another head-shaker, another high-stakes poker game, played with a marked deck, in the tilting first-class lounge of the Titanic.  Of course, as James Howard Kunstler points out in World Made By Hand, all the recyclables we stick in landfills now are a kind of savings account that we will be able to mine in coming decades, when we will be out of natural resources and the ability to acquire them through commerce, and will have nothing better to do than dig up old city dumps, straighten bent nails, melt down and recast plastic and metal, and treasure the one or two chemists in our city who figure out how to make matches from local materials–because all those disposable lighters we take for granted are gonna be a thing of the past in the future, folks.  Do I have to remind you that you are going to have to cook with a wood fire, unless you’re lucky enough to have a solar cooker and a sunny day? And where will you be gathering your firewood?

Oh, and speaking of rigged poker games on the Titanic, our newly-Republican legislature is attempting to make sure that we don’t switch to optical-scan voting machines in time for the next election, presumably so they can rig it more easily, since they are doing such a patently bad job of running the state that they know they won’t be able to win an honest election…not that the Dims would be much better, it’s just a question of who controls what’s left of the state’s treasury.   Well, OK…the Dims would be doing nothing instead of forbidding local living wage laws, allowing people to carry guns everywhere and restricting abortion rights. “Respect for human life”? HELLO?

As all the various antics listed above indicate, either both parties are clueless about the scope of what we’re in for in this country, or they are figuring the best way to survive is to cut as many people out of the loop as possible.  If national politics are any guide, I would say the Repuglyicans are trying to cut as many of us out of the loop as they can (leaving more goodies for themselves), and the Dim-ocrats are simply clueless.  In this state, most seem to think the best strategy is to try and be as conservative as the Repugs, but since they lack the intense commitment to self-aggrandizement that characterizes so many Repugs, they end up coming across as clueless namby-pambys, which is one reason (besides ignorance and its bastard child, racism) they have been fluffing so many elections lately–like, it wasn’t just that Harold Ford is black, it’s that he’s barely to the left of Bob Corker. Not only is Harold no Jesse Jackson, he’s not even a Barack Obama.

Let me make something clear here–I  am as threatened as anyone by the future I foresee.  Western civilization as we know it needs to end for the planetary ecosystem (including humans) to continue, and I, an aging man with health problems, may not survive the change.  With that in mind, I want to make that transition as smooth as I can, so I am living as simply as I can, and supporting organizations that I believe will help cushion our descent, like our local bioregional council and the Tennessee Green Party.  As long as we have a functioning statewide political system (and I am not going to hazard a guess on how long that may be), we need to take advantage of it and use the framework of the Green Party to raise real issues:  local sustainability, resource conservation, universal access to health care, economic justice, and grass-roots democracy, to name the first few broad headings that come to mind.  There is SO much to do, and we’re  running the Green Party of Tennessee with a skeleton crew–so come on aboard, there’s plenty of room.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Unsustainable





MAY FAMILY MAKES TSU AN OFFER IT CAN’T REFUSE

12 04 2009

You have to give the May family points for persistence.  In the face of a dead real estate market and a tanking economy, they are pursuing their goal of creating a new downtown for Nashville out in the green, rolling country of Bell’s Bend–a downtown with remarkably limited access and a handpicked population.  It reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson‘s sarcastic epigram, “If the government doesn’t trust the people, why doesn’t it dissolve them and get a new people?”  In this case, it’s more a question of big business not trusting the people–but hey, there’s not a lot of difference any more, is there?

The latest chapter in this drama is downright Machiavellian.  The Mays have donated 250 of their roughly 1500 acres to Tennessee State University, augmented by a $400,000 endowment for a “chair of sustainable agriculture.”  To further sweeten the pot, they have promised to help build an agricultural  “research park” in Maytown Center  that will “help develop partnerships with businesses in the area,” according to the Nashville Post.

TSU president Melvin Johnson called the bribe, excuse me, gift from the May family “the most transformative opportunity” in the traditionally black, traditionally underfunded  school’s history.  It is not reported whether he shouted “Hosannah,”  “shook his wooly mane in joy,” or did a “buck dance,” but my possibly paranoid notion about the feudal nature of the Mays’ vision is reinforced by the fact that they are arranging to have the darkies out toiling in the fields.

Oh, the irony!  A “chair of sustainable agriculture” and a “sustainable agriculture research park” established at a site that will require massive, unsustainable infrastructure development, not unlike those suburban sprawls with names like “Deer Park Way” and “Rambling Rill Drive” that have destroyed the deer park and the rambling rill that gave them their names.

And oh, the cleverness of splitting the blacks and the predominantly white environmental community–how dare we stand in the way of this wonderful opportunity for TSU!!?

Well, there is an upside to TSU getting that bottomland. even if  the “research park” that would come with Maytown Center is nevr built.  The school does have a solid agricultural program already, and could be a terrific partner in the agricultural renaissance that needs to happen not just on Bell’s Bend, but all around Nashville.  As I’ve detailed in other stories, it is going to take thousands of small farmers to feed Nashville locally, and at this point in time there are only dozens.  We need the moral equivalent of war, folks, if we’re going to keep eating.

And what’s really going on behind the scenes?  The Mays have lost nothing but a tax liability by giving TSU 250 acres of undevelopable floodplain; the exact nature of the endowment is not public knowledge, but they may be getting a huge tax write off from stocks that are about to go south and leave TSU high and dry.

As to the future of Maytown Center, I see three possibilities.  One is that sensible heads will again prevail and it will not be built.  Another is that it will be built, at least partially, and rapidly become a ghost town as it becomes obvious that the Mays’ business plan was an hugely expensive, unnecessary folly.  And the third possibility is my “paranoid” vision of it as  Fortress Maytown, a restricted access community where the wealthy will be able to seal themselves off from the chaos that this country could so easily descend into, while the darkies grow organic food for them.  I’m voting for the first option.  Once more unto the breach, good friends.

music:  James McMurtry, “Candyland





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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