Monday, July 22, 2013

Blame It On Springfield

Let me start by making it clear that there's no love lost between me and the legislators in Springfield, IL.  The only thing worse than having an oligarchy in this state is the stunning realization that it can accomplish nothing. Well, at least, nothing of value.

They did manage to pass concealed carry legislation this term, but I fail to see how that bill took priority over the state's fiscal condition.  It reminds me of the smoke screen arguments in Washington, D.C. over abortion and gay marriage that hide the fact our national economy is in a downward spiral that will soon make all of us proud workers at part-time or freelance jobs.

However, I think it's unfair for every municipality in the state to blame its woes on the state capital as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has done in recent days.

First Emanuel blamed Springfield and its inability to pass pension reform legislation for cuts to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).  He repeated his scripted CPS crisis talking point this week while adding one new item to the blame list--Moody's recent downgrade of Chicago's bond rating.

Both talking points of the new Emanuel "blame Springfield" strategy came up during a press conference held at the Port of Chicago.  Our fearless leader, Il Duce Emanuel, is taking a page from King Richard II's playbook, leasing public assets for quick cash.  Kind of like the municipal equivalent of the Pawn Broker.

Perhaps the Mayor thought his blame strategy would hide the potential boondoggle that's in store for Chicago's port or maybe he was hoping against hope that residents would overlook that fact that our leader, quite frankly, has been missing in action.

As the city's school system implodes and credit ratings agencies have fun telling us how to run our city, the Mayor has been hiding in plain site--going to relatively non-controversial press conferences that make it look like he is doing something (think Divvy bikes).  In reality, he's been letting the crisis roll along waiting for someone or something to take charge.

His strategy of blame and inaction makes his comments about Springfield's "denial" of the pension crisis quite a hoot.  An instance of the pot calling the kettle black.

The one bright spot in this summer's political opera buffa comes from the Progressive Caucus in the Chicago Aldermanic Council, which issued a statement demanding that the Mayor release Tax Increment Financing or TIF money to help support Chicago's Public Schools.

Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), a member of the Progressive Caucus, reiterated this demand today asking why the Mayor sees a new basketball arena to be used by DePaul University and the Divvy Bikes program as more worthy of TIF funds than our city's schools.

I applaud Waguespack and the Progressive Caucus for making this demand of the Mayor.  It's a much better approach to our city's financial problems than blaming Springfield and waiting for them to take action to solve our problems.

But I would take this request to alter the TIF program one step further.  Abolish them entirely.  TIF money was originally meant as a way to encourage development in blighted communities.  Now it has simply become an unregulated slush fund for the Mayor and his developer pals.

Putting this money back into city revenue is one step towards solving Chicago's financial problems.  Sure CPS isn't known for using money well, but I'd rather they waste the city's TIF money than a developer who has a lot more cash to spare.

Let's have proactive leadership for a change instead of blame and recycled bad ideas.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Chicago Divvy's Up for Bikesharing

In the news this past week was the unveiling of Chicago's new bike sharing program called "Divvy."  This service, available for a basic membership fee of $75 and an advanced membership of $125, allows  Chicago area residents to rent bicycles for short trips of 30-90 minutes for a minimal fee.  Daily rentals are also available.  Bike stations are currently being installed throughout the city.  At the moment, most of these locations are in the loop and its immediate surrounding areas.

As an avid bike rider and one time commuter cyclist, I'm always glad to see initiatives that help encourage Chicagoans to get in the saddle and use peddle power instead of fossil fuels.  However, Divvy seems like another public-private partnership boondoggle.

For starters, a bike sharing program was already unveiled in 2010.  Part of a national chain, it was called Chicago B-Cycle and run by the owners of Chicago bike rental behemoth Bike and Roll.  Bike sharing stations were installed at various sites throughout the city such as the Buckingham Fountain.  Tourists seemed to be the target audience for this program as few stations were set up in the business district or in the neighborhoods farther away from the loop and the lakefront park system.

From what I can tell, B-Cycle is no longer in operation in Chicago.  Their local website is still up but Chicago no longer appears on the national webpage for the company.  Additionally, Bike and Roll has introduced a new "Bikes @ Work" membership, which suggests that the company has severed its relationship with B-Cycle in the Chicago area.

Without access to rental data from the company, its hard to tell how successful B-Cycle really was during its short life span.  But that it is no longer part of the current bike sharing discussion seems like an important detail missed by the city, Divvy, and local media outlets.  Success tends to make a business pretty visible.  Failure too.  The invisibility of B-Cycle suggests that it was too lackluster to turn a profit while at the same time being too successful to qualify as a total failure.

Perhaps Divvy has found a way to get around this problem, but I doubt it.  The Chicago bike rental market is saturated, particularly by companies like Bobby's Bike Hike and Bike and Roll who cater to visitors from out of town.  These providers remain the best source of a bike rental for local residents who aren't likely to need a bike for just a few hours over the course of a year.

Even more concerning than the boondoggle-like nature of this deal is the total lack of discussion about bike safety.  Divvy follows the procedure common to most rental companies of placing all liability on the shoulders of the renter.  Unlike car rental companies, however, they don't seem to plan offering an optional liability insurance.  No helmets or other safety equipment will be provided to Divvy renters.  There also has been no discussion about providing Divvy members a guide (in print or online) informing them of the rules of the road, including the city's new fines for bikers who violate those rules.

Apparently neither the city nor Divvy bikes is worried about the prospect of sending groups of cyclists out into the Chicago streets unprepared to ride.  This tells me one of three things:  they expect this project to flop and only really wanted T.V. time, the city is salivating at the thought of more cyclists to fine, or they really believe that old adage that "it's easy as riding a bike."

I have ridden Chicago's streets on a bike and can tell you that the last of these assertions is simply untrue.  While following all the rules of the road, I have been hit by a car twice.  The first time nearly led to permanent paralysis.  It's only a mixture of luck and/or divine intervention that kept me from meeting Bobby Can's fate.  He too was following the rules of the road when he was struck and killed by a car in the city's Old Town neighborhood.

Only time will tell if the other two assertions are true.  I just hope no one riding one of these toy bikes gets killed.

There are plenty of ways to encourage cycling in Chicago Mr. Mayor.  This isn't one of them.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Rally on Behalf of Adjunct Faculty at Columbia College Chicago (THURSDAY!)

A message from P-Fac (Columbia College's Part-time Faculty Union)--

Stand together to halt Columbia College's harmful Prioritization plans and its clear attempts to bust our union. 
Please clear time on your calendar to attend an Informational Rally that lets Columbia know that P-fac members stand together for quality education and a fair contract!

Thursday, May 9, 2013
11 am - 1 pm
In front of 600 S. Michigan building

We encourage all members, students, staff, alumni, and other concerned community members to attend this extremely important public demonstration for any amount of time.

I'll be there.  And if you care about the future of higher education, I'd encourage you to be there too.  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Shteir's Complaint

(Note:  This piece is also posted on my Professional Site

By now I'm late to the discussion of the controversy surrounding De Paul University Theater Professor Rachel Shteir's April 18th review of three recently released books on Chicago-- Thomas Dyja's The Third Coast:  When Chicago Built the American Dream, Jeff Coen and John Chase's Golden:  How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor's Office and Into Prison, and Neil Steinberg's You Were Never In Chicago.

Her article has started a heated debate between those who agree with her that Chicago has an unwarranted sense of self-confidence(i.e. "boosterism") and those who feel that she's a bitchy New Yorker carrying on in the age-old rant that Chicago is a provincial or "second city" in comparison to the coastal greatness and finesse of the Big Apple.

As fascinating as these critiques are to rehash, they are at least a century old, their writers have neglected to point out three of the largest flaws in Shteir's piece.

The first is one of genre.  Shteir is a terrible book reviewer.  Perhaps she thinks that she has attained the status of an Edmund Wilson or Susan Sontag who could ramble on about whatever they liked while ostensibly "reviewing" a book or film.  That, at least, is what Shteir does throughout much of her review.  In fact, the only section that truly feels like a book review involves Thomas Dyja's masterful book, which deserves a much more incisive commentary than Shteir can provide.

A second flaw manifests itself in her categorical confusion between literary writing and public policy.  Rahm Emanuel and his staff are indeed"swaggering" in their boostership for Chicago.  So are local businesses and developers.  That's their job.  Chicago literary writers, on the other hand, are beholden to their own idiosyncratic ideals.  Part of our problem as a city is that the published writers who are labelled "Chicago authors" are so divergent that a clear picture is hard to assemble.  What is the common thread that links Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, Ida Wells, Aleksandar Heman, and Brigid Pasulka?  Immigration is about the best I can do, but that applies to many U.S. cities.

This leads me to my final point, and that is Professor Shteir's silence on the role the publishing industry (most of which is located in her beloved New York) plays in skewing the image of Chicago writing and culture that she purports to explain to NYT readers.  I can think of many Chicago authors, quite a few of whom are close friends, whose works answer Shteir's charge that Chicago needs to be more self-critical.  Yet they can't find a publisher willing to take a risk on their fiction or they publish in small presses who hardly ever come under scrutiny by the likes of the NYT book review.

Shteir's review should remind cultural critics that public intellectual work has standards of its own.  Just because you're not under the unrelenting microscope of the peer-review process doesn't mean that you can get away with sloppy reasoning and evidence.  It should also remind us that generalizations about cities (or anything for that matter) are limited by thousands of qualifiers.  "Chicago literature" or a "Chicago style" are simply heuristics.

On a more person note,  I've lived in Chicago for 13 years.  A transplant from Vermont, it took a while for me to get used to how flat the landscape is in the city.  I've grown to love Chicago over that time in the complicated way described by Nelson Algren in his book Chicago:  City on the Make--"Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

Like any city, town, or village, a resident needs to learn how to take the good along with the bad if they plan to become "part of this particular patch."  I've learned how to do this in my time in Chicago.  Shteir apparently is still deciding if its worth her time.  I wish her luck.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Endless Quest for Rational Gun Laws

Never again....  

We hear this refrain each time a mass shooting occurs in such divergent places as Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, or a supermarket parking lot in a suburb of Tuscon, Arizona.

And yet, as the list above illustrates, the desire to stop such shootings seems to outstrip our ability to prevent them.  Just this Friday there was another shooting reported at the branch location of a community college campus in Christiansburg, Virginia.

Critics on the left are quick to attribute this frustrating lack of progress in preventing mass shootings to our nation's regressive gun laws. Although there is some truth to this claim, most of these critics display an open disdain for anyone owning a gun (regardless of type) that mirrors the disdain for religion often displayed by these same critics.  Self-professed liberal and gun owner Dan Baum addresses this problem to a certain extent in his recent book Gun Guys.

In stark contrast to liberal critics of our nation's gun laws are those voluble defenders of gun rights such as the NRA who not only want more people to own guns but also make the same mistake as their opponents.  Every gun to them is the same.

Ignorance of firearms is one of key handicaps in the current gun control debates.  Since the abolition of the draft in 1973, fewer Americans receive firearms training through the armed forces. Moreover, even though U.S. Fish and Wildlife Statistics show an increase in hunting licenses in 2011, those licenses reflect a small cross-section of the larger population.  In addition, the majority of hunters surveyed (73%) are over the age of 35 suggesting that such growth trends are ultimately unsustainable.

While congress is busy wrangling over legislation that would expand background checks for gun purchasers and would limit the types of weapons that ordinary citizens could buy, it's time for ordinary citizens to educate themselves about firearms.

The reasons people purchase firearms are as diverse as the types of weapons manufactured.  Until we realize this as a nation, any gun legislation proposed is doomed to fail.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

An Ill Wind at the CTA

On Wednesday the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Board unanimously approved the new Ventra Card system that will replace the current fare collection system on buses and trains starting this summer.  This decision came only two days after a heated exchange between a small but vocal group of 60 public transit riders and CTA leadership at their headquarters on 567 West Lake Street on Monday.

As usual, transit leadership ignored the concerns of its riders about the proposed changes to the fare card system.  System President Forest Claypool suggested that "savvy" users would find the new system easier and more cost effective than the current one.  

While this argument is certainly true for the CTA, the reality for system riders who pay with cash is much less rosy.  Even though the rail fare will not increase for single ride users, they will still be required to pay $3 to obtain a paper entry ticket.  The extra money presumably goes to the private vendor as a "processing fee."  Ventra cards will have a $5 fee associated with them, unless riders "register" their name and address with the private company.  They are also subject to a $5 dormancy fee if the card is not used within 18 months.  

Claypool continually dodged questions from reporters about the impact this change in fare structure will have on the city's poorest residents.  Apparently he believes that tourists are the main users of the CTA system and that they will be willing to abide by this new fare structure.  If he keeps going on with his plans like this, the CTA's leader might just get his wish.  

Due in large part to safety and reliability issues, many Chicagoans are choosing to drive (despite the parking costs).  Under the current CTA leadership, public transit in the city is slowly returning to the way it was in the 1980s, a last resort for the urban poor.  And since they are soon to be hit hardest by the new fare system, one can only wonder who we'll see on CTA buses and trains in the future (if anyone).  

I'm not a huge believer in conspiracy theories, but you can't help but wonder if there is a method to the CTA's slapstick approach to management.  Perhaps when they've broken the system down to the point of no-return, they can sell it to a private investor looking for a cheap addition to his/her portfolio.  After all, if you're going to privatize the fare collection why not the buses and trains themselves.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

An Eye In the Sky

After a long hiatus due not so much to lack of news as the power of the mid-winter blahs, the Man Without A Newspaper is back.  And what better story to usher in a new year of posts than the latest developments surrounding the ever controversial subject of unmanned drones.

State Senator Daniel Biss, a Democratic legislator from Evanston, recently introduced legislation in Springfield, IL that would regulate the use of unmanned drones in the state of Illinois.  This legislation would require a search warrant prior to the use of a drone over state airspace, would prohibit the use of lethal and nonlethal weapons except in cases of emergency, and would require all information gathered that is not part of an active investigation be destroyed.  

Although far from ideal, the legislation put forward by Biss is a step in the right direction.  It also serves to vindicate those activists who have decried the use of unmanned drones overseas and long warned American citizens that what can happen in Pakistani villages could also happen here.  

At first glance, unmanned drones seem like the perfect solution for a nation constantly embroiled in war but afraid of heavy casualties.  Think first Gulf War with its "smart bombs" and "stealth fighters."  Now we've taken the next logical step of replacing the people flying the weapons into the combat zone with a computer.  

The removal of the potential for U.S. military casualties simply makes it easier to go to war overseas.  It also provides the government a new way to watch over its citizens and (if needed) kill them.

When I first suggested that Obama's killing of Anwar Al-Aulaqi, an American citizen who was a leading member of Al Qaeda in Yemen, set a dangerous precedent, some felt that I was splitting hairs.  Al-Aulaqi after all presented a clear and present danger, was located in a foreign nation known to harbor terrorists, and had clearly forfeited his citizenship rights by joining an enemy of the United States.  We're at war, I was told, and in war such actions are justified in the name of national security.

Maybe all of this is true, but it will be cold comfort to remember that tired refrain if you're ever faced with the business end of a drone.  Don't think it can't happen as the National Defense Authorization Act of last year opens the door to military action against terrorists on domestic territory, and the Federal Government has shown itself very creative in its definition of the word "terrorist."  Just ask "S," the woman I met in 2011 who was suspected of terrorist activities for visiting the West Bank.

If the legislation put forward by Biss passes, Federal law would still supersede it.  But any state law would put Washington, D.C. on notice.

Let's save the eye in the sky for traffic reports and not make killing like a video game.  Wars may be necessary from time to time, but they should never be easy.  Otherwise we'll never have peace.  And any security bought at the expense of civil liberties simply isn't worth the price.