The subject of the inaugural CIVITAS, exactly three years ago, was that of the free lunch; specifically that their ain't no such thing. Every schoolchild learns you can't get something for nothing, and every adult forgets it.
Of this I was reminded a few weeks ago while sitting in a Plan Review Commission meeting. As almost always, the subject was a request that property be granted a rezone — so as to allow a developer to build a fast-food restaurant on it.
I asked the developer's attorney what public benefit would accrue as a result of the rezone? In other words, what would the residents of Monroe County get in exchange for their giving the developer his rezone? How would the lives of county residents be better if we granted the rezone and how would our lives be worse if we did not?
Hoosiers are strange. Fiercely clannish, easily provoked, and ruthlessly individualistic. Suspicious of diplomacy and prone to fight rather than compromise. Untrusting of authority, derisive of education. Stubborn to a fault.
In short, very little changed from their Scots-Irish ancestors.
I think it was George Kennan, the United States' ambassador to the Soviet Union during the height of the Stalin era, who said: "A Russian is someone who will lie even when lying is not in his best interest." If Kennan had been ambassador to Indiana, it might have come out "A Hoosier is someone who will destroy his own home, if only to deny his neighbor the pleasure of a nice neighborhood."
It's that time of year again, when columnists all over the world are writing their year-end closers. Why do we do it? I'll tell you why. Because we're lazy. As anyone who remembers SCTV's Great White North, with Bob and Doug McKenzie, knows — it's all about the topic. Or lack thereof.
Coming up with a good topic is the single most difficult thing about writing, and so, when an opportunity to re-use an old topic comes along, we writers jump on it like there's no tomorrow.
At New Years the topic is always the same, and it's always real simple, which is a good thing considering that not only are writers lazy but they're also gluttonous. Having to come up with a topic is bad enough. It's nigh on impossible when you're passed out face-down in your mashed potatoes with a belly full of Molsons.
So, with that in mind, I present our annual New Years' topic: What happened in 2005 and what I predict for 2006.
I'm thinking this is the end-of-the-year column, and therefore it's time for some end-of-the-year thoughts. Why? Because the New Year is more than just an excuse for a hangover. Things will happen in January, and some of those happenings will have a direct effect on our lives. So here's a heads-up.
But before I get into the specifics, let me speak in generalities. Let me speak of local government. What is local government, and what are its duties? Well, things like plowing the snow, keeping the sidewalks safe, running the sewers, schooling the kids, and putting out fires come to mind for sure.
But is that all? Nope, and what's more, those things aren't even the most important function of local government.
What is, then?
As I found out last week, the sum of one's crises is a constant. Just as I was finally settling into the realization that the decades-old bete noir of I-69 was dead (yes, it's really dead, but that's for another column), just as I was finally relaxing, there came a crisis anew. A crisis ready to take the void left by the highway's demise.
It came in the form of a terse answering-machine message, left by a Herald-Times reporter. It came something like this: "Greg, Sophia. This is Kurt. Do you know anything about a toxic waste dump just discovered next to your property? Call me in the morning. Bye."
That's not quite verbatim, but it's close enough. And it's how I'm always going to remember it.
William Gibson's 1984 dystopian novel Neuromancer set out a science-fiction vision in which, contrary to the utopian visions of the Modernists (as in Le Courbusier's Radiant City, the gleaming highways of Norman Bel Geddes, and Star Trek), the future would be just like today, only much worse.
And it popularized the metastatic nature of sprawl, vividly, in Gibson's description of "BAMA," or the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis -- a vast thousand-mile long swath of overdevelopment in a necrotic core surrounded by ever-growing tumorous exurbs.
Gibson wasn't the first with either of these observations. After all, everything from popular movies such as Blade Runner and Alien to comics like Dick Tracy had already brooked the notion that the future might be dirty.
On Tuesday, the City of Bloomington's Housing & Neighborhood Development department hosted a lecture by Donovan Rypkema entitled "The Economics of Historic Preservation." Mr. Rypkema's thesis in a nutshell? That the value of historic preservation isn't found in abstract aesthetic criteria. It's found in something a little more tangible and quantifiable.
A little something called economic development. Wealth. Jobs. Vitality.
According to Rypkema, that's because older structures are generally of higher quality than newer ones. The aesthetic of the past was to build for the future, to build something that would survive the builders themselves, whereas the aesthetic of today is to build for today.
I had to travel up to Chicago last week on business — which isn't in itself remarkable. What was remarkable was that I upgraded to a Sebring convertible, even though it was raining (I guess a Miata is next). But, more important and the subject of this column, was that I made a decision to take the roads a little less traveled.
And one of the great ironies, not to mention joys, of my life is that despite having more electronic and mechanical gadgets than anyone short of Agent 007, I still get called a Luddite with frequency — by both friends and detractors.
The satellites are out tonight
So it was that this Luddite slapped his Garmin M5 GPS to the Sebring's windshield and commanded it to lock onto the $15 billion-dollar taxpayer-funded GPS satellite constellation. Lock, load, and find me a route from where I was, to where I wanted to be.
But I wanted a route with a catch. I wanted my electronic Man Friday to take me deep into the City of Big Shoulders — but not via the deep-vein thrombosis of the Interstate highway system. I've had enough of I-65 for a lifetime, thank you. So, with a tap of a pen and a click of a button, I told Man Friday to get me there anyway he wanted to, so long as he kept me off the big highways.
And he gladly obliged.
Last week a colleague and I went down south to see what we could do to help in the aftermath of Katrina. As we loaded the van with water, chainsaws, gasoline, and hammers, I knew where we were going but I didn't know what I'd find.
I had images of downed power lines. I had images of long gasoline lines. Houses blown from their foundations and refugees huddling for their rations. Standard stuff, the kind of which you're inculcated by television images sent from a thousand miles away. I thought I knew what to expect to see when I got there.
But, what I found instead proved only the poor pedagogy of the television. For what I found wasn't what I had been shown to expect.
What I found, was mold. And lots of it.
How do you cause something to atrophy? You just ignore it. How do you get a lot of people to ignore something? By creating a big enough distraction. What's the result if you're successful? The atrophication and death of your subject.
What's the agenda? To kill off national and local government as an instrument of social relief and progress. Why? To replace it with a government of patronage for vested corporate interests.
That's the subtext of the national Republican administration, so successful in their overseas distraction that 200,000 people, most of them of the wrong political demographic, were left stranded and dying for a week in New Orleans.
And it's the subtext of the local Republican operation who, like their Washington comrades, have created a little distraction of their own.