Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Was He Just Lost in the Flood?

Having come back from a trip to New Orleans a week ago, I find the hurricane's impact upon the city particularly poignant. (The trip partially explains this blog's inactivity). What a city. First off, they have two functioning streetcar lines -- Canal Street, running north from the Mississippi riverfront (which runs East-West at that point) and St. Charles Avenue, running a looooong east west perpendicular (and connecting) to Canal. These streetcars, limited as they may be, are integral to the city's identity. "A Streetcar Named Desire" was named for a line that ran on Desire Street, but doesn't any more. As in the film starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh, the name of the line shows above the car's front window.

These aren't merely tourist attractions, however. They serve a real need -- particularly connecting the garden district, which is largely residential, to the French Quarter, where even locals go to party. St. Charles was an incredibly smooth ride, if loud. Operated by electricity supplied by an overhead cable, the trolleys have conductors who literally make the thing speed up and slow down by opening and closing a circuit with a hand lever.

The group I went with took a swamp tour by airboat (think big fan on the back of the boat). The swamps were ecological marvels, a kind of place you may not want to be around, but are really grateful that they exist (and are preserved). We travelled a bit on the intercoastal waterway, a channel for barge traffic along the gulf coast and continuing up the eastern seaboard, then tooled about the swamps. The guides had an interesting relationship to the local natural resources. For one, they were long-time locals who were immersed in swamp-related activities and particularly hunted, fished, and trapped animals like muskrats and alligators. They didn't have much of a conservation ethic, however -- and I mean conservation in the sense of taking steps to make sure that current activities could be prolonged into the distant future. There wasn't much remorse or thought about the ongoing degradation of the swamplands and what might be contributing to it, except an anecdote about the arrival of the nutria rat at the hands of the McIlhenny family (of Tabasco fame). The nutria eats the root system of some type(s) of swamp vegetation, which allows the soil to wash away down the river, a serious problem in the Mississippi delta.

Anyway, much of the area in the city is underwater due to a breach of the levee system though the French Quarter itself, wisely built upon a hill, fared well. Though a LOT of the residential areas were run down, they had a special character, and throughout the city one found 2nd story verandas and balconies, a particular favorite form of mine. Lets hope the trolleys, for which replacement parts must be custom machined these days, get back up and running soon.

UPDATE: That doesn't look too promising. The whole city may henceforth be a memory.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Hey Hey! Ho Ho! NYU Sucks.

Academia -- corporate greed in professorial robes.

As the New York Times reports, New York University is refusing to bargain with its five-year-old graduate student union. Last year, you might remember, Brown University graduate students lost a decision from the National Labor Relations Board (packed with Bush Administration appointees) on becoming the nation's second private university to have unionized grad students. NYU was the first. After the Brown decision, NYU started looking at ways to break off with the grad student union. Now they have made their "final offer" on a new contract, which the union rejected, and offered a thousand-dollars-a-year raise to anyone who breaks off from the union.


During last year's strike at UofM, I didn't cross the picket line and argued for support of the union to skeptics (even skeptical union members). At its most elemental and self-interested, the issue is this: you, as a GSRA or GSI, get what you get because the union has been fighting for you for decades. You owe it to your predecessors and successors to support the union on reasonable compensation demands, even if you don't agree with them, exactly. Put strategically, it is up to the students to work collectively to counter the significant power that the university has in setting compensation. If not for the union, it could and would be a totally unilateral negotiation. University faculties the nation over realized this long ago and organized.

Supporting graduate student unions is in fact a matter of protecting the research mission of universities and, yes, even the quality of undergraduate education, strange as it may seem. Case is point is my alma mater, Western Michigan University. At the outset of my graduate career, MSU grad students were organizing and I began advocating for WMU to do the same. WMU grad students were employees of the university and played significant roles in the research and teaching missions. Anyone who has worked in a science department knows that students run most of the experiments and do most of the bench work, where faculty members get the grants and set up the labs. In the liberal arts, grad students teach many of the classes and do the grading and give the individual attention that undergrads outside of the honors college need. My idea found no purchase and was in fact publicly rebuffed by the head of the graduate student group because the administration was already being generous with grad students.

(This person, at the very same time, was reputed to have been sleeping with the provost. It was extremely plausible [corroborated by 2 mutual friends] and the provost was summarily fired in short order for unexplained reasons. I worked at the student newspaper at the time and investigated, but both sides had signed a non-disclosure agreement and no one was talking.)

Anyway, since the economic difficulties of the state of Michigan and higher education, WMU has slashed graduate programs. In fact, my old department is no longer funding new grad students and the university is undertaking an "accelerated" assessment of graduate programs (to determine where the ax will permanently fall). Why are grad students being cut? Because they have no collective voice to stand up for their interests. Now there are no individual sections for undergraduate history courses and FULL PROFESSORS are forced to do grading and teaching of elementary writing mechanics and research methods. This is not only MORE costly (for example, having professors teach introductory courses once taught by grad students like doctoral candidates), the increase in responsibilities means that professors are LESS able to mentor and advise students, meaning a worse educational value.

Bottom line? For large universities and those emphasizing research, it makes sense for grad students to organize -- for their own interests and those of the educational project overall. More power to the NYU grad student union.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Mark Your Calendars

The city's hottest new neighborhood politicos, the New West Side Association and the Ann Arbor Alliance, announce two events that you just can't afford to miss.

New West Fest -- Sunday, September 4, all day, at the Madison House.

Come meet your West Side neighbors, register to vote, and hear some emerging local musicians play sans electric amplification at the Madison House venue. The New West Side Association is a neighborhood association focusing on the social, economic, and political interests of students and renters on the West Side of Ann Arbor. Join and help form a permanent consituency for student and renter interests in Ann Arbor.

Arbour Fest -- Monday, September 5, nighttime at the Arbor Vitae loft.

If you are interested in developing a political voice in your neighborhood, wherever it is in Ann Arbor, come to Arbour Fest on the third floor of the Wazoo building on State St. If you can't make it to New West Fest, celebrate the end of summer at the nexus of town and gown on State Street. This will feature a live electric show of local artists. All ages are invited; all you have to bring is enthusiasm for local music and broad local political participation. Arbour Fest will also feature a voter registration drive. See you there!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Now, More Than Ever

[Cross-posted at NewWestSide.org]

Given Eugene Kang's narrow defeat this evening in the Ward 2 Democratic Primary, it may seem that student interests have taken a blow. Not so. Eugene Kang's candidacy was better funded and more representative of Democratic values than Stephen Rapundalo's, and that was not enough to win. This means to me, first, that Democratic loyalty is not particularly strong in Ann Arbor. I have absolutely no problem with Rapundalo coming to the Democratic Party. I wish more Republicans would. However, it is indicative that people don't care that Rapundalo, until two years ago, identified more strongly with a party that did not advocate women's reproductive rights, that espoused trickle-down economics, and that had a problem with tolerance.

For me, the lesson is that Ann Arbor's summer voters want institutional choices. Rapundalo had been around city government for a while, running for Mayor in 2002 2000 and serving on the Parks board in the interim. Students and renters -- those of us disparaged in the press and in conversation as "transients" and "temporary" -- have to form a permanent constituency for our issues. We have to organize in any of a thousand ways, participate in city and county government and, most of all, mobilize at the grassroots level. Every student and every renter should think of him or herself in that way; as part of a group which is only beginning to see itself as having common interests; as being underserved and underconsidered in a large share of city government; and as having the potential to help change that.

I think everyone reading this should join the effort to defend and promote student and renter issues. They should get to know their neighbors and learn that they hold common cause. And they should realize that getting involved and helping shape the future of this city is important because STUDENTS MATTER. Undergrad and grad school may be intellectually and emotionally taxing, but they are no reason to ignore the conditions of the place you live. Two years, four years, eight years in Ann Arbor: it matters not a whit to me. If you are here, you feel the affects of the culture and government of the city. Do not be a passive recipient or pretend it doesn't matter because you are only passing through. Every place matters, and I particularly think that Ann Arbor matters. Ann Arbor, as the home of one of the nation's largest institutions devoted to learning, thought, and experimentation, should be the state's -- if not the nation's -- laboratory for political innovation and cultural enlightenment. That it is not speaks to the influence of moneyed, conservative, and tradition-bound interests.

Let's get to work.

UPDATE: For those linking just to this post from AAiO or Arbor Update, please check out the rest of the site and feel free to comment.

Runaway Train

I'm turning in an application to the mayor for a position on the City of Ann Arbor's Housing Policy Board. To coin an analogy, this board is to Affordable Housing money as the Planning Commission is to site plans and project recommendations. The HPB makes recommendations to the City Council on how to deal with developers and allocate (and extract) affordable housing.

I call on Mayor Hieftje to name me to the board despite my calling him out last night at the city council meeting for not wanting to "shove things down neighborhoods' throats." And despite my knocking the idea of a pedestrian mall, which was abandoned by Kalamazoo -- the first city in the country to develop one -- in 1997. And I hope that the Mayor will live up to his stated desire to get more students involved in city government.

I will keep you posted, and I may also try to get a viewpoint piece in the Ann Arbor News on my house moving idea. Also, did you know there's a program called "Ward Talk" that airs once a month on CTV? Gonna have to start checking that out.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Proto Campaign Platform, Take 2

Historic Preservation

We should pledge that we will never knock down another residential building in Ann Arbor. I am involved in preservation and recognize the importance of maintaining the designs and materials of days past. I think they are generally superior to what we have put out in the post WWII era. That goes for residential and commercial and industrial. In nearly every thriving city, the area that is the most vibrant retains the form of days past. Preservation has become an engine of urban revitalization.

HOWEVER, in a fortunate few cities like Ann Arbor, that revitalization and vibrancy means that demand outstrips supply of urban land and space. The result is an upward spiral of real estate costs and decreasing affordability. Homes for less than $200,000 in the city of Ann Arbor are the exception rather than the rule. This is not sustainable, as the cost of a home should be about 2-2.5x the annual income of the family or household. This means that a couple would have to earn 80-100k a year to be able to afford a house that they want to stay in. That may be fine for lawyers, physicians, and even some engineers, but for most of the middle class, the only option is to live out in the townships. BTW, you should see the real estate fiasco in historic Chestertown, MD, I saw over the weekend. Houses go for anywhere from $300 to $600 a square foot (and, because of a robust land conservancy initiative there, there were NO OPTIONS anywhere outside the town [unless it was 30+ miles away]). It was simply unaffordable to live there.

How to reconcile preservation with the much-needed increase of the building supply? Moving the structures. Take the two houses that fell victim to the Glen Ann development. The space was incredibly underutilized, so I don't fault the new development. However, it was decided not to force the developer to pay to move the houses to some other lots in town. What should have happened was that the developer paid the million dollars to the Ann Arbor Housing Trust Fund, then either sold the houses for a dollar each or donated them to a non-profit developer. Really, it's no skin off their nose. Either they get two bucks and some good will, or they get a decent tax break, as the houses (without lots) would probably be worth a 100k each. The non-profit developer then would pay to have these homes moved either somewhere in town or on the outskirts, and at, say, 30k each to move, plus 25k for a lot and foundation, we have 2 new affordable units in town (plus all the money from the developer's "in lieu of" payment for future projects). "Win-win," they call it. In fact, moving structures is an historic housing strategy that got lost in the 20th century availability of cheap new construction.

Another bonus, while we're on the topic of density and affordability, is to change zoning in residential areas so that existing suburban plats within the city can see greater density (with these moved structures, perhaps). Another challenge to density and affordability is the perception that Ann Arbor is "built out." This is not the case. In fact, Ann Arbor has a CRAPLOAD of green space -- on nearly every single residential lot. First, what we must do is rewrite the zoning and covenants of our urban residential developments so that we can fill in this space. No more restrictions of 30 feet on each side of the house to the lot line. Then, we can reconfigure the lots -- say you buy 2 side by side lots and then slice some land off each lot where they meet to make a third lot -- to accommodate moved structures and greater density. To make considerations for fire hazards, let's stagger the houses so that they're not in a single line, but the third house is farther back from its neighbors, reducing the chance that a fire in one could jump to the next (part of the reason for the institution of side setbacks). Let me research how this last brainstorm might be practically achieved and update in a bit.

NOTE: Edited to clarify "residential" buildings in the first paragraph. Also, as Murph notes in the comments, it sounds like I'm blaming the developer for the loss of the two houses at Glen-Ann. I don't mean to; rather, I'm lamenting the whole process. As I hear it, the developer said, "you can either have a million dollars for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, or I'll move the houses and you can have half a million dollars." The city chose the former, which was wise, but the relocation of the houses is also an important measure.