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





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





EVEN IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY STILL WON’T COME

7 11 2009

There’s no rest for the weary, it seems.  No sooner did Maytown Center go down for the count than another concrete monster arose to threaten us:  a new downtown convention center.  Boosters believe (and believe me, belief is the operative word here!) that building a new temple to Mammon on the south side of downtown will attract worshipers from near and far to our fair city, and that these pilgrims (aka convention attendees) will inject so many shekels into the local economy that it justifies us going six hundred million dollars into debt–and it’s getting a little vague about whether that includes construction of the hotel that just has to accompany a convention center..never mind that, this year, Nashville’s hotel occupancy rate was only 55%, a better-than 10% drop from last year.  This is just an anomaly, boosters say, although some of them are willing to think that hotel occupancy may not turn around for another three or four years.

Who are they trying to kid?  The question is not when more people will be able to afford $100-a-night hotel rooms, but why anybody thinks the common people are ever going to be able to able to splurge like that again.  Haven’t they noticed that this country’s credit, at both the individual and governmental levels, is largely exhausted?  We hear talk of “recovery,” but that’s just whistling in the dark.  America has had a zombie economy for twenty years, and the only thing that kept that zombie walking was sucking the blood out of peoples’ home equity, which has now, in case you hadn’t noticed, been sucked dry.  We are not going to see hordes of free-spending conventioneers partying in the streets of Nashville.  The only free-spending parties of the future will be held in the Hamptons and similar locations, under armed guard if the hosts are smart.

Back to Nashville.  Convention center boosters say we can pay for their pet project by dedicating sales taxes from the area around  the convention center to paying the debt on the building.  Only problem is, to make the numbers work they have cast a very wide net in defining “the vicinity of the convention center.”  The three-square-mile zone they have proposed includes East Nashville (which should threaten to break away from Nashville proper and become a separate city if this kind of foolishness continues), much of West End Avenue, and areas on the north side of Charlotte Ave., aka the ghetto.  None of these areas are likely to see much traffic from the proposed convention center, but that last one really sticks in my craw.  We will be literally taking money from the poorest people in town and giving it to bondholders, i.e., rich people mostly in some other location.  That is not the way to build a better Nashville.

Building the convention center will create or save hundreds of high-paying construction jobs, the boosters claim.  That’s a cynical hunk of flim-flam if ever there was one.  I know enough about the construction business to know that the folks who really make out are the guys running the company, not the boots on the ground.  Again, a transfer of wealth to them that has.  Giving a few hundred construction workers a short-term job is like giving heroin to junkies–it will keep them happy for a little while, but sooner or later they’re going to need another fix.  They, and we, would be much better off  if we invested something towards retraining them (and all the management/publicity types) in skills that will actually be useful in the future, like gardening, cattle herding, butchering, tanning, leather working, blacksmithing, water wheel construction, or any of a host of near-forgotten pre-industrial skills that were temporarily eclipsed by the great oil bubble, which is bursting around us as I speak/write.

Pre-industrial skills?  What about all the cool, high-tech, high-paying green jobs everybody’s salivating over?

Oh, there will be a few of those, and I’m sure we can apply some of our new knowledge to improving the old technologies, but in my raving, prophetic opinion, most of the high-tech “green energy solutions” we have seen are too tied in to the existence of our current oil-based economy to survive long or spread far without it.   The oil binge has been fun, but it’s about to be very, very over.

Well, I’m betting that even most people who are against the convention center would think that’s crazy talk.  There are certainly plenty of good arguments against it that don’t challenge the existing paradigm, as Bruce Barry and Metro Council member Emily Evans have repeatedly demonstrated.  I’m glad they’ve got the tact and patience to enter the machine and try and talk to the sleepwalkers…me, I’m staying out here on the pavement with my “REPENT/THE END IS AT HAND” placard.  There’s a place for everybody in this dance.

music: Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over”








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