Saturday, October 20, 2012

Live, Park, Drive - Or Why ATL Redevelopment Plans Still Don't Work

     Recently, various sections of Atlanta have been threatened with massive Walmarts.. Buckhead just fought off a proposed store at Lindbergh/Piedmont. Decatur is still in a fight with developers over a proposed super-store, and now Glenwood Park, a very expensive new-urbanist planned community is threatened with a Walmart based shopping center at its backdoor.
   Good news: the same developer was recently defeated in Denver. Since I live in Reynoldstown now and was thinking about moving to the area near Glenwood Park, the possibility of that Walmart has become a burning issue to me. Currently, Glenwood Avenue, where the Walmart proposed, is a two-lane road with ample sidewalks and bike paths in both directions. It connects the funky East Atlanta Village to Grant Park, so it's a useful pedestrian or bike pathway. The major shopping center being proposed there would likely turn it into a choked and noisy thoroughfare. While I would oppose Walmart in any situation because of its labor policies, I also am opposed to the overall plan of development for this neighborhood - no matter what thing they put in that space. I'm not alone. When one commenter on Creative Loafing's recent discussion of the plan suggested a Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Publix, or a movie theater instead of Walmart, I initially thought "yes, a grocery store! Perfect."
      Then, another person pointed out that anything on that scale would bring more traffic to the neighborhood. One of the major features of the proposed development is 75,000 square feet of surface parking. The plan could be tweaked by creating a storied parking garage instead, but still....there would have to be more cars coming into the neighborhood to make that work - and where would they come in and go out? The Beltline is supposed to come into the neighborhood via an expanded Bill Kennedy Way and extended Chester Ave, but even if the Beltline proposal were to happen and some kind of bike lane appeared, without public transit, the whole thing is still a bust.
    Look at Glenwood Park. it's a beautiful area with great housing and retail, including some less expensive rental housing. But - it looks a bit like ghost town. I read somewhere on the web people comparing it to a movie set - right, because the streets are empty. In the meantime, some neighbors in Inman Park are exorcised about a development plan for Elizabeth Street near N. Highland that would add rental housing & retail space to the already bustling and walkable three-block area.  That particular region of in-town Atlanta is one that I like, because it is walkable. Still, you have to drive to get there, and park when you do. This is what the neighbors don't like; urban density in this area has increased the traffic.
     All this hubbub points to the major problem that is holding Atlanta back. Despite the claims to the contrary as far as I can tell Atlanta's new urbanists, including the Beltline Inc and its supporters are focused on two things - bike trails/green spaces and retail/ upscale housing development. The Glenwood Park area, Inman Park and Atlantic Station to a lesser extent, all suffer from the same problem. All these places are islands that people have to drive to. For people living in these areas, new urbanism = more traffic, not less. 
     When Jane Jacobs was writing about the West Village, she wasn't just advocating bike paths and parks; she was fighting freeways and living in a city that had a long history of major mass transit. While it's a lovely idea that people will bike to work, it's extremely unlikely that they will bike to a grocery store. I did that in Minneapolis, but I was shopping mostly for one person. In ATL, it's still unlikely that people would even bike to and from the movie theater. Why? There aren't enough places in Atlanta where people are on the streets to make the streets feel safe at night. And the reason for this is the absence of adequate mass transit. Mass transit and pedestrian culture go together just like cars and parking lots.
   This city's transit hubs are not well connected enough, and often are not themselves pedestrian friendly. A new MARTA CEO has just arrived in town, and, like a principal in a troubled public school, he'll be saddled with the responsibility for structural problems beyond the scope of the institution he manages. For those who don't know, MARTA is the only major public transit agency for a metropolitan area of this size that doesn't receive state funding. As the article linked above indicates, it - and our city's growth have been hobbled by racist suburban politics. The other big problem with MARTA is that it still is not designed for pedestrian safety or convenience. The most striking example of the problem is the tragic case of Raquel Nelson.
  I've experienced less dramatic consequences from the unwalkable distances between transit hubs. Recently, I had a coupon for a discount hair salon near Buckhead; I was told by the salon staff that I could get there by walking from the Lindbergh Center MARTA station along Piedmont. It was an uneasy and hot trek along a heavily trafficked street, but I didn't turn around and give up (and took a cab that cost $10) until I hit the unprotected freeway entrance and saw the long walk under the dark underpass immediately after it.Sorry, but if you have to run across the freeway entrance, that's not walkable.
    Other MARTA stations are similarly positioned. Another problem is that the stations are massive and rarely staffed, making them dangerous at night. (I recognize that this is not MARTA's fault, given budget & financing problems) . I look at the size of the MLK center station and imagine walking through it alone at night and think "forget it." All you need is one small corner not visible from the street and you're in the proverbial dark alley.  The same is true for the station that serves my current neighborhood. The station includes a huge bridge to the neighborhood from which there is no exit if someone is following you. It abuts a dead end street with boarded up houses on one side and a residential neighborhood with little foot traffic on the other. It's a considerable walk to the retail district that most people would take it to get to. The MLK MARTA station is only accessible for pedestrians coming from one side of the area via another dark underpass.
     MARTA doesn't have enough regular passengers to guarantee a crowd for safety in numbers at various times of day. For that reason, I decided that taking the bus downtown would make more sense than the train, even though it would take longer. I agree with the Metro-Atlantan Transportation Equity Group (MATEC) that wants the new MARTA CEO to meet regularly with MARTA riders. The biggest obstacle to using MARTA, and then producing the critical mass of pedestrians needed for a feeling of safety is making the areas around the stations and bus-stops safer, more accessible, and more logically positioned relative to housing and other destinations. Until then, the dream of new urbanists will fail and fail again. If you build it, they will car.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Would You Buy a Used Essay From?....

Every time I promise to start writing regularly again, I always fail. So this time, I'm not starting with a promise. Here, though, is something amusing. Today I got this spam comment on an old blog entry:
At 5:01 PM, XXXX said... In inflict to support you with the highest stage of delivery in essay activity, employs only skilful pedantic writers to business on your distribution. narrative essay writing help
Inflict is right! Are these pendantic writers skillful parodists seeking to capture lazy students in the act? essay-writing bots? Please inflict your comments now.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Fact of the Day, File Under Punk Rockers

A 1991 study by Christine Hansen and Ranald Hansen found that "fans of punk rock ...were more likely to reject authority than were those of heavy metal."

cited in Lauraine LeBlanc's Pretty in Punk: Girls' Gender Resistance in a Boys' Subculture (Rutgers University Press, 2005)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Politics and Friendship and Using the Telephone

I haven't thought about blogging in years but the other day, for reasons I'll explain in a minute, I was re-reading old emails from an old friend and he mentioned reading my blog (and even commented on it once in a very funny way).
I have been thinking a lot about politics lately, and about this particular friend.
Since I moved to ATL I've had a hard time getting reconnected to politics, despite a few lame attempts. I'd say the main obstacles have been 1) my failure to learn to drive in city lacking not only adequate public transportation, but sidewalks, 2) being exhausted by work 3) not knowing people in the ATL political scene and 4) wanting to enjoy lazy weekends at home with my husband, who works out of town during the week. Just a couple of weeks ago, I finally got past the second hurdle. I finished some writing projects and the pressure in the administrative side of my new job has gone down as I've learned how to do it better. That's given me a sense of freedom about trying again to get re-involved in political activism. It also gave me the head space to start reconnecting with my old friend, who had asked me to read a draft of some of his new manuscript about 8 months ago when I was still overwhelmed and freaked out by work, and who I'd communicated with in February about something I was writing that involved a political theorist I thought he might know something about. This friend was someone who I'd just missed seeing because of both of our busy schedules and complicated lives several times since 2008 when I last saw him at an American Studies conference. Now, unfortunately, and for reasons that make no sense, it's just too late and there is no "later" when we'll catch up.
He's someone who I knew through politics when I "used to be an anarchist" (that's the expression he teased me about above). He stayed true to that tradition, and was active in anarchist politics and political theory. Of the people in Love & Rage, he was the person with whom I most often agreed politically; actually, in an email exchange we talked about having put edits in that afore-linked L&R Wikipedia page. In the 1990s, we talked and talked about debates that were going on in the organization, both on the phone and in person. I feel like we wrote things together, at least when we were on the coordinating committee of LnR together in MPLS. Years later, he wrote the most hilarious comments in the organization's Discussion Bulletin when he edited it in Phoenix. I hope someone has collected those. It included our intense position papers and proposals about our org's relation to the "race traitor" strategy, how to organize locals, cadre etc., interspersed with Joel's top ten lists of heavy metal songs for the Revolution, and how to keep cool in the Arizona heat. I learned so much from him, and he always talked to me as if he really appreciated my ideas. He also was a true friend; I used to go the movies with him and his wife, and they always supported me as I dealt with the fallout of a number of terrible decisions in my efforts at romantic relationships. He once took me out for a pitcher of malt liquor in our neighborhood bar and offered his shoulder to cry on after I was rejected by one of his own best friends. The malt liquor turned out to be a bad idea, but the shoulder to cry on was kind and the support was always there. When I told him I was getting married he said in an email, "That is wonderful! Do I know the lucky guy?" And I heard from another friend that he and his wife had toasted my happiness along with some other folks from L&R when he was visiting NYC after I had moved to Georgia.
In that later that's now not coming, we had a lot of promised conversations that would have been really great.
During the last ten years, he'd become really, creatively active in immigrant rights, from a revolutionary and radically democratic position. I am full of admiration for the work he did in Arizona. He's also written some of the best most critical writing on anarchism from within the anarchist tradition that I know.
Losing him is just terrible. I can't separate the Joel as a "human" from Joel as a political activist. He loved life and pursued his political vision with both passion and compassion. He was generous to friends, and as so many of my friends have commented in our conversations over the last few days, he was one person who could get along with people on all sides of big arguments in various groups, never making the political disagreements into personal grudge-matches. As a friend, he could accept people's limitations and appreciate what was best about them. If you read the linked obituary statements you'll see that was a very devoted husband and father, and if you feel so moved, please make a contribution to his wife and three children.
* * *
This experience brings me to two points beyond the fact that Joel Olson was a extraordinary person whose loss is inexplicable, shocking and heart-breaking to the people who were so lucky to know him. These two things are ONE - that friendships connected to doing serious political work are very special, and that it says something about what that political work does that is different from the routines that usually alienating capitalist daily-life puts us in - that's the concept of political miracles that my friend referred to in his piece on the Arizona Repeal Coalition's weekly meetings
TWO: If you can't afford time/money to travel to see them, call your damn friends on the phone! (and to those of you who I've been planning to call, expect a call from me for real this time.)
Facebook and email give us this illusion of being connected and of the connection always ready to be revived when we get around to it. Maybe that illusion's not true for everyone; maybe that says something more about me. There are emails of his that I enjoyed getting just because they were from him, but I often put off reading his longer pieces unless he had specifically asked me for feedback on them. Some of his mass emailed political articles were still "unread" when I saw them in my mail folder yesterday.
It's hard to live as if every day might be your last, or your friend's and I think that focusing on what I didn't do to see or talk to Joel in the last two years is, as one friend told me the other day, just a means of trying to take control of an out-of-control reality. And with that, I just miss my friend, and even miss the notion that one of these days, really soon, we're going to get in touch and really talk about all these things we've mentioned talking about later in real depth. The last email he sent me was one such promise - "I'd love to read it" he said about the thing I was writing that I'd asked his advice on. Even though I had a draft done a few weeks ago, I didn't send it to him, thinking he was busy with his own stuff and that I could send it to him when it came out this summer, but that I needed to remind him to send me that ms he was working on. Ah well.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Tribeca Film Festival - Moloch Tropical

So, I didn't really redeem myself as a blogger with this year's festival by keeping a daily blog of what I saw. It all started - or didn't start - because I was undecided about what to say with the very first movie on my list, Raoul Peck's film Moloch Tropical. I went to see it because I liked Peck's films Lumumba and Sometimes in April. He has also made the documentary, Profit and Nothing But! and is currently making a film titled Karl Marx. In other words, he is a left film-maker and he makes beautiful films.
Moloch Tropical was without a doubt, beautifully made - full of pathos, horror, and even humor. However, it justifies the overthrow of Aristide in 2004, and to use his story to portray the nature of the "universal dictator." At the Q&A, Peck discussed it as not specifically about one person, but about the nature of power and the meaning of democracy. However, this is a cop-out. It is obviously about Aristide - references to him as a former priest loved by the poor are made throughout the film, and the necklacing of a former friend and ally, of which Aristide was accused in 2004, is central to the narrative. What I find particulary problematic in this merging of the "universal" and the historically specific examination of a dictatorship is the portrayal of this Aristide-like dictator as a repulsive sexual predator.
I hadn't realized before I'd seen this, but during the U.S. coup, Peck wrote an anti-Aristide editorial in Newsday, and has been one of the Haitian intellectuals who are most disenchanted with his presidency.
In contrast, the film Aristide and the Endless Revolution shows multiple views on the 2004 coup, but is sympathetic to Aristide. The left in the U.S. is divided on the issue.
Having received most of my information about the events of 2004 as they were occurring through the coverage of it on the very pro-Aristide Democracy Now, I was shocked by this film and thought, if this is an accurate representation of Aristide in Haiti, it's devastating. To figure out what the deal is, I now plan to read Alex Dupuy's The Prophet and Power.
Ultimately, my critique of the film is that in merging "Moloch" story with a perhaps justifiable critique of Aristide, Peck has created an excuse for doing what one blogger describes as turning priest into a cannibal.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Back to the Tribeca Film Fest

I really started this blog in earnest back in the Spring of 2005 when I first went to the Tribeca Film Fest. Five years later, I've had very little time or energy for such focused procrastination, but perhaps this year I will blog about every movie I see at TFF and thus redeem myself. Today, I'm seeing Raul Peck's new film Moloch Tropical and later on, My Queen Karo.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Back-To-School Politics - the Politics of Composition

One of my friends posted Stanley Fish's NYT article on college composition courses on facebook today. There are lots of well-informed comments from different perspectives on the NYT page.
Since I taught writing in the kind of composition department that Fish decribes,I feel qualified to school the bemused Professor Fish.

Part of Fish's assessment of trends in the teaching of college composition courses fits my experience. I taught college-level composition for six years - first as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and then during my first two years working as an adjunct at CUNY, where I also read and evaluated ACT exams. I share some of Fish's frustration with college comp classes; I often felt I was doing something more "old-fashioned" than what others did because I did teach grammar and sentence structure, and because I insisted that the course material could not consist of watching movies, but had to engage the written word. I was, as Fish is, appalled to find that some of my colleagues did not give their student any reading assignments at all.
The reason that people did this wasn't really political; it was a strategy for dealing with the existing skills of the students they met in their classrooms. The majority of people teaching college writing courses today are graduate students who do not want to alienate their students, and want them to enjoy their classes. Confronting students with difficult reading assignments and practice with grammar is not an obvious route to teacher-popularity.

Some of these courses my colleagues taught involved lots of direct instruction in writing; one model course that was very popular with teachers involved students critiquing each others' writing as a group while the instructor marked up essays on an overhead projector. Those teachers couldn't be faulted for not teaching writing; there was no content in those courses at all. However, I never used this approach because I thought that exposing students to really good writing was key to improving students' work. If the students aren't that familiar with written language, they aren't equipped to teach each other how to write. Their criticisms of their peers might not be anymore valid than their criticism of Joan Didion; (my advanced journalism major students claimed that her book Miami was full of "run-on sentences" because she wrote in long -grammatically correct- sentences.

In his article, Fish blames bad composition teaching for the tragically bad writing of American university students. However, the real problem is that as television has replaced print as the medium of news and entertainment, the majority of our students are not literate in "print culture." It is more common now to encounter college students who simply do not read - not newspapers, not magazines, not books. Those who do read don't often read models of what college classes ask them to produce. At the beginning of the semester in my history class, I ask students what the most difficult book they read recently was. Almost all of them listed works of Shakespeare which they had read (and had not understood) in their English classes, and a few named Harry Potter books. Very few of them read anything for pleasure - unless they were reading internet news or sports articles.

The problem that writing instructors face is not the result of bad schooling. If people do not read, they will not be good writers. If they are not familiar with written language, which is not like spoken language, they will not be able to produce elegant prose.

Why don't people try to familiarize their students with this more difficult writing that would be a model of what they want their students to achieve? Is it because of a multi-cultural agenda? no.
One group that seriously objects to teaching essay-writing by assigning essays to read are the English literature faculty who want to teach their students the great works of literature. They are on the canonical mission for which Fish criticizes ACTA. Those lit people are holding back the teaching of writing just as much as those who teach the smarmier versions of comp-rhet.
They're not teaching writing either; they're teaching the appreciation of literature - and the students be damned who don't appreciate it. In order to engage students at all, many of these literature teachers ask their students to respond with an experience they once had which was similar to something in the book that they just read - but teaching students how to write autobiographical narratives does not help them write better essays in their college courses - although it may help them "relate" to literature.

One of the comments on Fish's article comes from a student who just couldn't relate; he's not interested in literature, but who says he would learn to write better if he could write about something that interested him:

I have always found it difficult to write about writing or literature, but easy to write about things that exit in the physical universe.
So it appears to me that rhetoric and grammar should be taught incidentally as students consider other things. After all, people who are actually interested in grammar are destined to become English professors.
Or to put it another way, I always want to learn to write better, but please spare me from writing about, or even thinking about Moby Dick.

That's an example of a larger general truth; I recall reading about a shocking study that revealed that students' writing improved when they wrote about subjects that were interesting to them. Maybe it's tragic that everyone isn't interested in Moby Dick, but being so shouldn't be a pre-requisite for learning how to write a decent college paper. Comp/rhet scholars who do the "writing across the curriculum" and writing-intensive courses that ACTA finds disdainful agree. They say the goal should be to teach students how to write argumentative essays that will help them in college courses in many disciplines, and to assign readings that help them learn about argument.

Following this notion, I assigned reading to students in composition classes that were models of what I wanted them to write. I did not assign Moby Dick because I wasn't teaching them to write literature. I assigned essays - on the topics that Fish thinks are standing in for what should be the real content of the course.
One semester, I used sports writing as a focus to try to engage students' interest. Another semester, I had students do research on ongoing debates about their own university, reading the school newspaper and documents in the university archives. I taught "composition with a cultural diversity" focus that got students to write about racism, class, gender, and media bias - all using great essays - James Baldwin, Cherrie Moraga, Noam Chomsky. I taught them about the value of evidence and logical fallacies by assigning Pierre Vidal-Naquet's work on Holocaust Denial for a couple of semesters. I used some excellent composition anthologies and some newergrammar books.
My favorite grammar book of all time was Scott Rice's Right Words, Right PlacesR, which used sentences from canonical works of literature to teach sentence structure and style.
That book, now out of print, brings me to the last point: Grammar.
Everyone talks about how bad it is, and yet no one really wants to teach it. Grading students' papers one grammatical-error at a time is not teaching, it is editing. I met countless students whose main lesson from high school had been that they "couldn't write" and "didn't know grammar". They were actually traumatized by people's attempts to teach them grammar; they avoided writing at all costs, finding classes with no papers required. They didn't think of grammar as something creative or interesting, but only as a something that they would "mess up" without knowing it. They learned that they were "bad writers" and they believed that "good writers" were superior people who were born, not made.
Meeting those students is what causes writing teachers to avoid doing much about grammar; they don't want to compound the problem. If they can just get the students to engage a little with writing in a positive way, they hope, grammar correction can come later. This doesn't work either.
But how do you teach grammar - at a college level? If I stand up and give a lecture about parallelism, it is unlikely to result in improvement in students' writing. The best method is all the "active-learning" and "critical thinking" stuff that the ACTA people Fish cites would probably hate, especially in college. My approach to teaching grammar was to stress to students that written grammar was a set of rules that they weren't comfortable with, that "good writing" wasn't a natural talent, and that they would not improve without practice, much as if they were learning to play tennis, or the guitar. I used grammar books that had creative exercises or got my students into games involving sentence structure so that instead of focusing on error, students could engage with grammar as a tool that they could use to express themselves more clearly. These grammar lessons were quite lively - but they took a lot of their methodology from creative writing courses that I had taken in the past. The comp/rhet people probably thought that was old-fashioned of me; and the ACTA people probably thought that if the students still needed that work in college, they just shouldn't be there in the first place. After all, the thing that Fish really doesn't mention is that the teaching of these important skills is done by graduate students and now adjuncts, because the "real professors" think that teaching grammar is beneath them, along with the students who don't know it.