Broad Views, Mutual Boot-Straps and Strong Foundations

SanFrancisco
1906 aerial photograph by George R. Lawrence/Library of Congress

 

I read an interesting story in the New York Times by Thomas Fuller, Anjali Singhvi and Josh Williams entitled “San Francisco’s Big Seismic Gamble.” What most captured my attention as I read it was the different interests described and how those interests could either conflict with each other or work together to provide a more unobstructed view of the whole. The synergy of a society/community/nation allows us to live much more fulfilled and secure lives than we might alone. As Aristotle first observed, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

If one subscribes to any singular “interest” described, they would be blinded to other significant points of view. For example, if everyone subscribed singularly to the “fear of The Big One,” San Francisco wouldn’t exist as the world-class city it has become. However, if we only subscribe to “unlimited economic/business/development” as the highest good, we see codes relaxed to promote such development without looking to the broader good.

I’ll admit from the outset that I’ve never lived in the Bay area and I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.  I’m not making a statement here about who should or shouldn’t live there and what they should or shouldn’t build.  I’m not qualified.  Being from Louisiana, it always frustrates me when people who know little about an area ask why anyone would rebuild where another hurricane is likely to occur.   The answer is, “because it’s my home.”  A quick response to that has often been, “then don’t ask me to pay for it (via taxes, government assistance, etc.).” The facts are, as citizens of an actual country with actual people from all points of an actual economic spectrum who live from actual sea to actual shining sea, we ALL pay for it. We are all in it together. Or at least we should be.

There are many interesting things about this Times story: The rebuilding of a city following a catastrophic natural disaster. The fading memory of history. The change from “low-rise” to “high-rise”. The science of earthquakes. The fact that the AVERAGE price of a home in San Francisco is $1.2 million. The hubris of “we saw that as a symbol of the new San Francisco and we wanted the building to be at least 1,000 feet tall.” The fact that the building across the street from this “symbol” has “sunk a foot and a half and is leaning 14 inches toward neighboring high-rises” in the 9 years since it was completed. Most of this “new San Francisco” is built on ground that has a “very high risk of acting like quicksand during an earthquake, a process known as liquefaction.” All interesting. Much of it terrifying.

Ultimately, NONE of us actually “picked ourselves up by our boot-straps”. Someone made the boots and the straps. We are all standing on someone’s shoulders. Usually, this is solid support and foundation on which to be and become the people we were created to be. But also likely, we are standing on shoulders of people whom we are simply holding down. If we fail to recognize the instability of such shoulders—if we fail to realize that ALL of us are in this together and we must pull our entire community up by all of our boot-straps— I’m afraid this great society might just find it is built on a foundation that is at a very high risk of liquefaction.  That is a catastrophe that could actually be avoided.

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living in exile…a voice in the desert!

It was the title that caught my eye…”What do low-income communities need?” Intriguing. Definitive. Hopeful? Maybe…I clicked the link and read the article in hopes of finding the answer.

After reading it, I’m not sure I necessarily “liked” what I read. But, I still felt compelled to post the link on both Facebook and Twitter. Megan McArdle’s perspective was frankly pretty dark and cynical in some respects. As I read it I found myself torn. There are ideas here that rub my liberal sensibilities the wrong way and others initiate a loud AMEN from those same sensibilities. I also found my more conservative impulses reacting almost exactly opposite my liberal side in precisely those same places.

Ultimately, the writer didn’t answer the question posed in the title. And that was sort of a let down after all of the opposing visceral reactions I experienced while reading the piece. Don’t get me wrong. McArdle’s point is well taken, specifically as she stated it in her last paragraph:

“Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face–and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers.”

And there’s the rub. Just like so many other things in our culture, we want to apply some kind of pharmaceutical remedy to all our problems and make them disappear. We don’t necessarily care how the drug works, just so it takes the pain away. It is in that spirit that we attempt to apply social policies to issues at the whims of elected officials whose main goal is not to solve the issue at hand but to be re-elected. Lets just say the “results” of these politically motivated prescriptions pretty much read like the foul side affects that are hurriedly read following the utopian myth offered by the drug ads we are constantly barraged with on TV (would anyone like to recall the first time you heard “please call your Doctor immediately if you experience an erection lasting for more than 4 hours” with your kids in the room? For a funny digression, check this out.)  All of the efforts from “both sides of the aisle” to solve these problems seem to be more effective at inducing cynicism and resignation that any sort of hope for real solutions.

However the false promise of the article led me to another thought. I was reminded of a passage of scripture we read in our Corner Bible Study at King’s Cross Church a couple of Sundays ago:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
—Isaiah 61:1

It was a prophetic word to a people who had lost everything: their homeland, their culture, their religion. They were returning from exile in a foreign land to rebuild their lives from the ruins of Babylonian conquest. And it was very good news.

I think we often forget that we (all of us) live in exile as well. As I listen to the noise of partisan politics and recognize it’s absolute inability to deliver the good news proclaimed by the ancient prophet, I begin to long for the realm promised by God.  As I become inundated with the call to consumption and materialism to which this season has devolved and recognize the fleeting nature of the “highs” provided by the giving and receiving of stuff, I long for a voice calling out in this wilderness. (With all due respect to my friends who work for Nissan, this particular ad was the last straw for me.  Seriously?…”most wonderful sale of the year“…seriously?)

This Advent season has been a reminder for me to rediscover the true source of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for allthe people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  — Luke 2:10-11

This is what poor communities really need.  Frankly, it’s what all of us need. Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love…generously applied in our day to day lives.  Generously applied to the problems of our day.  The empty words of politicians and the fleeting pleasure of the accumulation of stuff pale in comparison.  It is my prayer for my family and for all of you this season that we all absolutely enjoy our Christmas celebration.  All of it…the giving and receiving of gifts, time with family, the lights, the food, the TV shoes, even the shopping (but that was a bit hard to write).   But I also pray that in all of this busyness and activity that you will “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Peace!

How can we find peace?

some thoughts by Thomas Merton (from the book Choosing to Love the World)…

We prescribe for one another remedies that will bring us peace of mind, and we are still devoured by anxiety.  We evolve plans for disarmament and for the peace of nations, and our plans only change the manner and method of aggression.  The rich have everything they want but happiness, and the poor are sacrificed to the unhappiness of the rich.  Dictatorships use their secret police to crush millions under an intolerable burden of lies, injustice and tyranny, and those who still live in democracies have forgotten how to make good use of their liberty.  For liberty is a thing of the spirit, and we are no longer able to live for anything but our bodies.  How can we find peace, true peace, if we forget that we are not machines for making and spending money, but spiritual beings, sons and daughters of the most high God?

I’ll not be able to improve upon that…

…architecture and community/sustainability

Houses of the Future – The Atlantic (November 2009).

curtis-architecture-new-orleans-wide
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 24: 1631 Tennessee Street - Photos of New Orleans Houses photographed for Atlantic Monthly on August 24, 2009 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for Atlantic Monthly)

This is a link to an intriguing article I read on Monday in the November 2009 issue of The Atlantic.  Several things were interesting to me.

In particular are the comments sprinkled throughout the article that pertain to remembering, re-building, nurturing , and sustaining community and the role that is playing in the architecture on the homes being built.  One interesting section describes features of some of the traditional homes of New Orleans…tall ceilings (“allow residents to live below the worst of the summer heat”); shotgun cottages lack hallways (“allowing for efficient cross-ventilation in every room”); transoms (“make the walls porous and keep the air moving”).  Michael Mehaffy, Executive Director of Sustasis, says “What we’re learning is that these traditions are not just fashions.  They’re rooted in the real adaptive evolution of a place.”  Such an observation requires living in a place and listening to its voices.

An observation by Andres Duany, co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, was particularly insightful:

“When I originally thought of New Orleans, I was conditioned by the press to think of it as an extremely ill-governed city, full of ill-educated people, with a great deal of crime, a great deal of dirt, a great deal of poverty,” said Duany, who grew up in Cuba. “And when I arrived, I did indeed find it to be all those things. Then one day I was walking down the street and I had this kind of brain thing, and I thought I was in Cuba. Weird! And then I realized at that moment that New Orleans was not an American city, it was a Caribbean city. Once you recalibrate, it becomes the best-governed, cleanest, most efficient, and best-educated city in the Caribbean. New Orleans is actually the Geneva of the Caribbean.  …All the do-goody people attempting to preserve the culture are the same do-gooders who are raising the standards for the building of houses, and are the same do-gooders who are giving people partial mortgages and putting them in debt,” he said. “They have such a profound misunderstanding of the culture of the Caribbean that they’re destroying it. The heart of the tragedy is that New Orleans is not being measured by Caribbean standards. It’s being measured by Minnesota standards.”

As someone who grew up in south Louisiana near New Orleans, this is the first time I’ve heard that description of the city…frankly, it rings true.  Much damage is done to culture, place, community in the name of progress or good intentions.  Duany came by his observations by living in New Orleans and walking the streets, talking to people who love the place.  Brad Pitt, of all people, has bought a home in the city and is an integral part of the “high design” Make It Right development in the lower 9th ward.  Again, grew to love New Orleans, moved there, spends time there and becomes part of the solution.  (from the article, “BRAD PITT FOR MAYOR t-shirts are not uncommon around town.”)

The writer of the article quotes Steve Mouzon speaking to a group of contractors and architects: “The very core of sustainability can be found in a simple question: ‘Can it be loved?'”  Ultimately, that will be hinge of success in the rebuilding of New Orleans.  Wayne Curtis closes his article with, “The past here has much to inform the future, not just for New Orleans, but for an entire country that needs to rethink the way it designs its cities and homes.  New Orleans won’t be rushed—it never is—but the chances are good that whatever results here will be loved.”