Saturday, June 02, 2007

“Deep Economy” meets “A Pattern Language” at the corner grocery

Bill McKibben’s book “Deep Economy” stresses the urgency of building small communities, nurturing local economies and living simply. The driving force is global warming and the planet’s limited resources.

Reading his book, I’m struck again by how much, and how quickly, we in Hillsdale need to change.

(By the way, “Deep Economy” is the choice this month for our Hillsdale Book Club. We discuss it this Thursday, June 7, at 7 p.m. at the Multnomah Arts Center. You are welcome to join us, whether you have read the book or not.)

As I see it, the first needed change is to connect with our neighbors, taking back time that is now “screen time” spent with mediated, fictitious people and places.

To bring about such a change requires those of us trying to build communities to make community life and involvement manageable, attractive and, yes, more important than screen fantasy.

In Hillsdale, we have a prototype for what I’m talking about in the Farmers’ Market. A sheltered civic plaza (with solar panel shelter) would build on the community center concept.

We also made great progress when, in the mid-'90s, we reconfigured neighborhood boundaries, creating a Hillsdale neighborhood with a Town Center at its a center. Another step forward came with the resolution of boundary overlaps with the Southwest Hills Residential League last year.

But Hillsdale, with 6,000 people, is too big to be a true neighborhood. In recent years, considerable research has shown that much smaller numbers are needed for a community to be cohesive and effective.

One source for this observation is the remarkable book “A Pattern Language.”

The book’s authors (Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King and Shlomo Angel) recommend that neighborhoods should not be “more than 300 yards across, with no more than 400 or 500 inhabitants.” They go on to say that cities should “give the neighborhoods some degree of autonomy as far as taxes and land controls are concerned.”

Actually, cities should give autonomy to what we now call Town Center neighborhoods—Hillsdale being one of them. They should be rightly called "Town Center communities" consisting of smaller neighborhoods.

I’ll return to the Town Center Community concept at a future time.

For now, let’s focus on one aspect of those small neighborhoods. They are really defined by how far we can comfortably walk with a small push-cart full of groceries. We would buy those groceries from a great American institution that was killed off by the automobile and the supermarket: namely, the locally-owned corner grocery store.

More than small businesses, corner groceries were meeting places where neighbors would linger and get caught up on local news. They were, and once again would be, seven-day-a-week, small, indoor, neighborhood farmers markets. The owners, far from being some giant corporations in Delaware or New York, would be the family living upstairs.

A community like Hillsdale would have 10 to 12 neighborhoods, and 10 to 12 corner grocery/local gathering places.

And yes, not surprisingly, the authors of “A Pattern Language” had something to say about corner groceries. McKibben doesn’t mention them per se, but you can feel their presence in much of what he writes.

Of course to revive corner groceries means major revisions to Portland's zoning codes. And that means dealing with City Hall, not an institution prone to empowering neighborhoods, let alone a new civic entity called “a Town Center Community.”

But perhaps the Herculean challenges of these times will shake up the city's planners and powers that be.

We’ll see.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Driving home the point

We were down to three peace vigilers (vigil-antes?) at Sunset Boulevard and Capitol Highway during this evening’s rush hour. Not that our numbers have ever been overwhelming. The most I can remember is 12 or 13 waving placards at two thousand or so commuters headed home. We’ve been protesting since January or February.

Some commuters, call them Group A, must wonder what good we think we are doing. It reminds me a little of Emerson’s famous exchange with Thoreau when the latter was in jail for refusing to pay his war tax.

“Henry, what are you doing in there?” asked Emerson, to which Thoreau retorted, “What are YOU doing out there?”

It’s important to prompt Group A’s 400 or 500 commuters simply to hesitate, even if only to question our motives. At least they will be forced to think of this tragic, wasteful war.

You might say that I’m standing at Capitol and Sunset, a sign in both hands, in order to get Group A to think about something other than mowing the lawn, the weekend sale at Macy’s or the price of gasoline.

If Group A commuters pause a single instant to reflect on this war, my half hour at Sunset and Capitol is more than worth it.

And then there are all those Group B folks who obviously do understand our protest. Group B still honks and gives us thumbs up. And, like us, they too draw the attention of Group A.

Even if our numbers dwindle to one, each Friday evening from 5:30 to 6:00, the protest will still have Group B, honking and helping — driving home the point for peace.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Living happily ever after?

A few posts back, following the May 15 election defeat of the Portland government reform measure, I waxed somber. I rued that many changes I would like to see brought about in Portland simply aren’t going to happen in my lifetime.

Not that the charter revision measure was any great shakes. It failed to address the root problem with the current city government — its utter failure to provide representation for neighborhoods as vital civic institutions.

The measure, as it played out in the campaign, also raised the imagined omen of a “strong mayor”. Opponents were successful in linking the “strong mayor” concept to our problems nationally with a “strong executive branch” in general and our present disastrous administration in particular.

But at least the measure represented movement, so, after some public hand-wringing, I reluctantly voted for it.

Two young readers chose to comment on my seeming post-election doldrums. One assured me that I have more years than I imagine and that I might well see real change in my lifetime. The other simply said that the blog post was “morose.”

In response, I went back and edited the post to explain my feelings. Part of it had to do with Mayor Potter’s concession, in which he said he wouldn’t try again to reform Portland’s archaic governmental structure. That means that if he runs for mayor again and wins another term, the issue is dead for six and a half years.

I’ve had two subsequent thoughts about my mood.

First, I have a responsibility keep my own time-bound perspective from younger generations. They have enough problems to deal with already, and, if we can believe the experts, the problems (global worming, nuclear proliferation, religious intolerance) are only going to get worse, much worse, during their lifetimes. It isn’t fair for me publicly to abandon hope for change.

Recently I’ve been studying the remarkable life of Winston Churchill. His advice to the young late in his life was resounding. “Never give up. Never, EVER, give up!” he told a class of graduates from his “public” (which means private in Britain) school alma mater.

It’s good advice, if only because the opposite, giving up, robs our lives of purpose.

My second thought hinges on the classic fairy tale ending: “They lived happily ever after.” Read to us as small children, the Pollyanna phrase with its buoyant optimism sinks into our psyches.

How much does “happily ever after” shape us? How much does it deceive us?

In both cases, a lot.

For much of our lives, most of us do indeed treat our time here as lasting “ever after” — and I’m not talking about religious notions of an after-life. There also is a presumption that if only we work hard and do the right things, all will turn out “happily.” Jefferson even included the “pursuit of happiness” as a founding principle.

There is obviously no guarantee that we will live “happily ever after.” Indeed life can become very unhappy, even disastrous, in short order. And we mortals obviously don’t have an “ever after.” Our time on this small, blue pebble in space is short and precious.

What would it mean for youth to be spared such sugar-coating. I’m not talking about taking the fun out of childhood, but I am suggesting that we inject constructive, realistic challenges into it.

And at some point, early adolescence perhaps, we need to introduce the very real challenges to be faced in a brief lifetime. We would bury once and for all the “happily ever after” myth.

The change would be a huge cultural undertaking. The mass media feed on the myth of happiness and immortality. We are told repeatedly that if only we buy such-and-such product (a skin moisturizer, a new convertible, a fancy pair of shoes), we will indeed live “happily ever after.”

So one way to get real, as I have written many times before, is to connect to reality, to leave the couch and the TV and venture out the front door.

So am I morose? At 65, do I have plenty of time?

No and sort of.

My hope is that some of my sense of urgency will take hold among the young whom I teach and know. I hope that through my writing and work in media literacy, I will join with others who are teaching younger generations to create a culture of involvement and awareness.

I may not see that change take hold, but by the end of my life I would like to be able to say, as Churchill did, “I did my best.”

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Do-nothing industry, TV marketing threaten diabetic kids

Time to connect media dots again.

My friend and colleague Jean Rystrom of Kaiser Permanente has alerted me to two media stories in the news this week. I haven’t seen them printed locally, so its off to the web to find them.

The first reports on a study that found that the more time a child with juvenile, or type 1, diabetes spends watching television, the more difficult it is for the child to control sugar intake and hence the disease itself.

Although the study didn't specifically gather evidence for it, part of the problem is the lack of physical activity resulting from sedentary television viewing. Another part is the advertising of sugary junk food on children’s TV.

And that brings us to the second story from Jean. This one reveals the hypocrisy of food companies who use TV to market junk food to kids. Two years ago, with considerable fanfare, the food industry announced it was cutting back on junk food TV advertising.

Not so, according to a recently released University of Arkansas study that found no appreciable reduction of such advertising since the proclamation.

In other words, once a scoundrel, always a scoundrel. The food folks are no different from their tobacco industry counterparts, and in some cases they are one in the same. For example, Altria, the former Philip Morris, makes Marlboro cigarettes, Oreo cookies and Jell-O.

Every angle of the problem of TV’s negative impact on our health needs to be addressed, but it seems to me that the least effective way to achieve change is to appeal to the conscience of an industry that demonstrably has no conscience.

No, we must change our own behavior and that of our children. When no one is watching its ads, the industry will be forced to change its ways.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Swapping names on West Burnside

Last Friday, as I was walking to a Timbers soccer game at PGE Park (OPKA — “once proudly known as” — Civic Stadium), I happened on a surprising, confounding and, finally, fortuitous appellation.

But first, a little history.

Six years ago, City Hall dumped the name “Civic Stadium” and sold the naming rights to the publicly-owned stadium to PGE (Portland General Electric, then owned by Enron — need we say more?). Hence PGE Park. The naming rights sale was part of a back-room renovation deal cut by the Katz administration. The peddling of similar civic names persists here with the Portland parks bureau recently gaining city council approval to sell off the names of parks facilities to corporate high bidders. I’ve written about this abomination before.

Okay, back to my discovery.

It came in the form of the 16-story condominium tower going up directly across West Burnside from the stadium. It’s name, by some stroke of genius, is “The Civic.”

So here we have a civic facility, PGE Park, now named after a monopoly private utility, directly across the street from a private, high-end condominium that has assumed the proud civic name once attached to the civic facility.

(A whimsical possibility is that the condominium’s developers have really named the building after a type of Honda automobile and are quietly taking naming-rights royalties from Honda. Stranger things have happened….)

Anyway, name-wise, things are sorely out of whack on West Burnside.

So here’s a suggestion. Why not do a name swap? The condominium developers could sell their building’s naming rights to PGE in exchange for returning the name “civic” to the city and the stadium. PGE Park is a not half-bad name for a condominium. After all, what’s fair for a proud civic stadium should be equally fair for a tony condominium.

So how will the city keep getting the PGE Park naming-rights money it has come to rely on?

Consider this: Because the condominium is approximately four times the height of Civic Stadium, the “PGE Park” sign atop the new building would be much more visible — and valuable. No doubt city officials have some control over regulating such elevated signs. Therefore they likely have the regulatory leverage to negotiate a deal to ensure that the stadium continues to receive sign money, thanks to the “added value” of the new, far more prominent placement.

Once the name swap is complete, the citizenry will no longer have to mouth a corporate plug in referring to the publicly-owned stadium where Portland’s teams play. No more “They’re playing at PGE Park” or “Do you have directions to PGE Park?” or “I’ll meet you at PGE Park” or "After paying my PGE bill I won't have enough money left to see the game at PGE Park."

Returning to “Civic Stadium” will be something for Portlanders to cheer about.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

A World War II letter home

On this Memorial Day, I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. For the first time, I've dipped into my dad’s wartime correspondence to my mother.

During World War II, William F. Seifert was a flight surgeon with the rank of a major in the U.S. Army Air Force. His 58th Bomb Wing of B-29s was stationed in eastern India with the job of flying “The Hump” (the towering Himalayas) and delivering bombs and supplies to bases in China. Later, the wing’s Boeing-made “Superfortresses” bombed the Japanese in Thailand, China and Japan itself.

In the last stages of the war, the 58th was stationed on Tinian, where the planes were being readied for their fateful A-bomb missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Dad survived the war and went on to practice urology in Rockford, Illinois. He died in 1989 at the age of 77. My mother saved every letter he wrote during the war, packing them into a cardboard box that was passed on to me when she died.

I picked a letter at random from that box today.

The letter, pulled from its envelope, is crisp and creased and in remarkably good shape. The words jump off the page. Dad was an excellent writer. He even dabbled in writing fiction later in life before depression, even paranoia, and tremors brought him down.

I’m looking at a letter dated Sept. 13, 1944. It describes the debilitating humdrum of war. The unremitting, sweltering, sleep-destroying heat of Calcutta. In the letter, Dad admits to having medicated himself to induce sleep. When realizes that he is becoming addicted to the drug, he stops taking it. The result, he writes reassuringly, is that he “feels like a new man.”

Then there is the dysentery and the diarrhea and “severe abdominal cramps.” Again, he manages to cure himself through his own regimen of drugs and diet.

A paragraph describes a strange incident of nocturnal noises in the corner of his sweltering tent:

“I had gone to bed at 9 p.m. when I heard crunching in the waste basket. Thinking it was a rat, which I’ve been chasing with a crowbar, I grabbed same and switched on the light to find a good sized wild cat. He made a bolt for the door. I let him have it as he went by, but I missed his head. Though he rolled over a couple of times, he kept going. Afterwards, I was sorry because I prefer wildcats to rats anytime, and this fellow should be very efficient at killing rats. Besides, maybe I can tame him.”

There’s a request that my Mom have prints made of photos of two airmen who were killed and that she send them to the men’s families. “I know you don’t like the assignment,” he wrote, “but it’s the last thing we can do and you know it’ll be appreciated.”

There’s his account of a pick-up volleyball games (“…my side lost — largely because they had to carry me. I truly played for the hell ‘off’ it….as I hate the game.”) followed by rounds of bridge. “You know — all-around athletes — and I should do better.”

He offers advice to my mother, who had written about how those who had been isolationists prior to the war and had managed to avoid fighting, were now celebrating V-Day in Europe. My mother had expressed her anger, and Dad writes her, “… and you are right, but we mustn’t forget that we were charter members of the isolationist school, although, of course, we have seen the light and done an about face… even if I lose the decision [Dad’s way of say he could be killed], which I won’t, you will always be able to tell Rick [I was 2 1/2 at the time] that the old man believed in giving it the full treatment, and that’s going to mean a lot to us….Don’t ever forget, we have ourselves to live with, and our country to live in, and if it’s as fine as we say, then it’s worth fighting for. Patriotism? Sure, but the kind that’s been raised by good, solid thinking, not just over-night.”

Mom used to recount how the war changed Dad from being a religious man to being a skeptic. He rarely talked about the war but he once bitterly recounted how the battered and shot-up B-29s would limp home only to crash land on the runways. He told how he and the medics would jump into the ambulances — they called them “meat wagons” — and how they would be left with the agonizing task of collecting the scattered remains of their buddies.

As is evident in his wartime letters, he clung to his humor and tried to brightened my mother’s life on the home front during his service.

I have no idea what I would have done in his position in those years before, and days immediately after Pearl Harbor. I know what he did. I have an idea of what the war did to him and that knowledge has influenced me.

In the years and wars that followed — Korea and Vietnam — he would occasionally speak of terrible costs of war, but without elaboration. I know this box of letters will fill in some of the blanks.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sound advice from beyond the grave

Today a friend shared a story about her elderly father, a widower. He isn’t a religious man, she said, but he religiously gets up early each Sunday to walk to the grave of his wife, who died four years ago.

When my friend asked her dad about the purpose of his routine, he answered, “To have a conversation with her.”

Once my friend went with her father on the cemetery visit. Her father stood in silence in front of the tombstone. If he was holding a conversation, it was a silent one.

Afterwards my friend asked him what his wife tells him.

“She usually says, ‘It’s the beginning of the week; be sure to put on a clean shirt.’”

Community aids "damsel in distress"

After reading Abby Haight’s excellent story in today’s Oregonian about the Wilson High School “peace” garden restoration, I’ve edited and updated yesterday’s post.

I had completely missed the great “damsel-in-distress” back story, but Abby wisely played it to the hilt. Check Abby’s story out. Metro section, page C 3 for printophiles.

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