Thursday, May 16, 2013

Missing the moral fortitude to oppose gentrification

Why I'm not gonna get involved

I got back from walking Jetta at about 10:00 this morning. On the last leg of the walk, Jet and I went down a block with several newly planted street trees. It was obvious that when those trees reach some green-crowned maturity, the whole streetscape will be beautified. Into the bargain, the air will be a little bit cleaner and the houses below will be little bit cooler on an 80-degree day like today. The houses will all be worth more, too.

That all sounds good, I suppose. Who wouldn't want to live in a more valuable property, in a cooler house on a shadier street?

Nobody would wish otherwise I think, assuming the changes don't suddenly make living there unaffordable. But that's the way Washington, DC is headed for a lot of people who have roots here two or three generations deep, roots deep in the house they live in now, deep in the neighborhood, deep in a local church, deep and solid like the work they did and the businesses they built and maybe passed on.

Parts of Northwest DC have been very upscale for a very long time. The rest of the city has long been a different place--majority African American, lower income, and frequently the object of official disinterest and neglect. But always home to hundreds of thousands of African Americans who were born here or moved here, were educated here, raised families here and from here participated in every struggle for freedom and civil rights and for a new deal and a better deal.

You don't really have to walk down a street and see a few young trees to predict that upscale and mostly white and very professional Northwest DC is expanding inexorably into Northeast and even parts of Southeast. You can see it at every Red Line Metro station in Northeast. You can see the mid-rise, high-density housing coming for the recent college graduates and the new political interns flooding into the city. You can see it in every remodeled supermarket with their salad bars and their health food aisles. You can see it in the new taverns with craft beers on tap replacing the old neighborhood bars. You can see it in the fading community churches selling land to developers. You can see it in all the new young families moving in, some black, most white.

When the change spreads far enough, DC will be a majority white professional city with first-class bike lanes, new trolley lines and, even, improving public schools. Though there will be a spreading chain of Bus Boys and Poets restaurants and bookstores with a bias toward empowerment and human rights, all the bus boy-poets, like the young Langston Hughes once was, will be gone. No more of the community that nurtured Chuck Brown's Go-Go mix of funk and soul and rock 'n roll, either. No more of the Chocolate City that showed George Clinton and Parliament the love.

It wasn't all good. No way. After Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, rioting in DC left 12 people dead, more than 1,000 injured and 6,000 arrested. Twelve hundred buildings were burned, almost 1,000 businesses destroyed. Historic black business strips in Columbia Heights and U Street and H Street were devastated. For some, the riots were merely an opportunity to take what they felt had been denied them. But for others the riots were an expression of pain and loss and frustration and rage. Still, even some of the scars from the riots have acquired a patina of beauty and a whiff of something profound just from aging in place. From enduring. Those monuments of street and struggle will be gone, also.

What a loss. It's too bad that I don't have the courage or fortitude or energy to join with the opponents of gentrification here in the city, don't have the will to testify to the value of the community and the history and the slaves and free men who came here and built this city.

Right now, I live in the nicest house I've ever lived in on the quietest street I've ever lived on. The house may get a little nicer over the years as we work on it. Those changes might not make the house more valuable, but they will make it even nicer for us. The street won't change much, either. But the streets around us will likely improve in that the houses on those streets will be renovated and remodeled and, as time goes on, increasingly occupied by people who are wealthier or more professional than the people they replaced. And everybody's house will go up in value. Quickly. So will their taxes.

People unable to keep up with higher taxes and insurance premiums will move away. Heritage and soul and community of a particular sort will be lost. And I won't be standing in the way.

I like that my house will increase in value. I like that a super market will be developed nearby. And that we won't have to leave the neighborhood to find a good restaurant. I don't want to live anymore in a neighborhood that's falling apart, like Five Oaks in Dayton did, or in a low-income community with a lot of marginal housing and big parking lots and no trees like 33rd and S. Wallace in Chicago. And I can't work up any particular hate for the newcomer in our DC neighborhood, either. After all, we're among the "pioneers" in a neighborhood that was fully pioneered long before we got here.

So, I'm not going to stand in the way, but I'll tell you that I dream of something else entirely. I don't want to be a gentrifier. Nor do I want to be gentrified. Instead, I dream that someday I'll live up in northern Michigan somewhere, near Petoskey or Traverse City. I'll build a big, roomy house to live in, on a piece of land that's green and inviting and all of you who go on fighting the good fight will be welcome to come by and stay for a little R & R.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Worst Thing about Drones

I drove Brendan to school this morning--actually, I do that every morning. His school day is long enough as it is. If he had to take the DC metro and bus system to and from school, it would add more than two hours to his day. Throw in his track or basketball practice and he would spend almost 12 hours a day marching in lines under somebody else's command. Call me a slacker, but I think that's a bad deal even for adults, no matter that they get paid for some of that marching.

On the way home, I heard a story about a former Air Force drone operator on NPR's Morning Edition. He's a kid, really, but by the time he was, oh, say 20 years old, he had likely killed more than one innocent and killed at least one child with missiles he fired while sitting in a trailer on an Air Force base somewhere in Nevada.

Brandon Bryant's in college now, but it sounds like he's hurting and probably battling PTSD, a battle a lot of soldiers end up losing. And how can he actually win that fight? To a certainty he knows he killed a child while running no risk to himself at all.

I know this: Left to my own devices that kind of guilt would bring me to my knees.

And he sure as hell is left to his own devices. The American public doesn't even know Brandon Bryant went to war. That's the worst part of the drone program--suddenly almost all war is on the verge of becoming clandestine. And we in the US are going to lose track of our wounded vets when the day comes that none of their scars are visible.

Over the past two generations, we have done so many things to make war more bearable for civilians. We eliminated the military draft. We acquired global military superiority and a whole range of weapons that would allow us to kill wholesale at a great reduction in American dead and wounded. Now, we have drones and a kind of silent combat we can wage from our desks.

It's a game in which we run up the score and always shut out the other side. But our combat vets are invisible and, as has always been the case in war, the children they kill are invisible, too. The collateral damage is mounting. And every drone that explodes in Yemen or Mali or Sudan also blows up something here. Early education funding, maybe, or unemployment spending, to say nothing of the damage to a warrior's conscience.

Friday, May 3, 2013

No-fly zone in Syria should be a no-no

The odds of U.S. intervention in Syria accomplishing much other than increasing the death rate seem very low to me. Sure, destroying Syrian air fields in order to keep Syrian planes on the ground would reduce the rate at which Bashar al-Assad can kill civilians. That would be an unequivocal good.

But a Tomahawk missile costs $1.4 million. And, according to Sharon Weinberger of the Center for Public Integrity, quoting William Hartung, the no-fly zone in Iraq cost $1 billion a year to maintain. The one established in Libya cost more than $100 million in the first day of operations. In a time of sequester, in a time of cuts in childcare funding and unemployment benefits, every missile exploded in Syria also injures Americans.

Arguably, immediately reducing the rate at which Assad kills civilians would make no real long-term difference. After all, he has so many other options, like tanks, mortars and automatic weapons, for a more retail approach to killing civilians. Assad's regime will fall, but the sectarian violence that follows will make victims out of tens of thousands of other Syrians.

This is not a slam at Muslims or Arabs, either. Great power intervention and exploitation in the Middle East has structured the region geographically and politically in a way that ensures continuing power struggles and fratricidal violence.

The Iraq Body Count Project reports more than 100,000 documented civilian deaths in Iraq between 2003 and 2012. Sanctions on Iraq during the period between the first Gulf War and the U.S. invasion of Iraq reportedly resulted in the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraq children. That figure has been disputed, but even, a libertarian operation, concedes that sanctions probably caused the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqi children.

Tens of thousands of Afghani civilians have died since the U.S. launched a war against the Taliban in 2001. Hundreds of thousands of Afghani civilians died during the Soviet Union's invasion and ten-year war that ended there in 1989. During that period the U.S. gave billions of dollars in aid to various Afghani military governments and to insurgents, many of whom evolved to become the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

And, though U.S. forces have almost completely withdrawn from Iraq, IEDs are still exploding every day, maiming and killing Iraqis. The question must be asked: How, exactly, does U.S. intervention spare civilian lives in the before, during or after the event?

And the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone have cost the U.S. somewhere between $4 and 6 trillion, a spending decision that has had adverse consequences in both the Middle East and in this country. A truly humanitarian intervention supported by the U.S. would rely on the UN and NGOs and be exclusively focused on aiding Syrian refugees wherever they might be and finding ways to get Syrian civilians out of harm's way. But the history of other U.S. interventions in the Middle East suggests that only Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Tomahawk missile, stands to benefit from establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.