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Christmas Eve Guest on KDHX

December 23, 2007 Media 17 Comments

I will be a guest on KDHX’s Collateral Damage Monday the 24th from 7pm to 7:30pm.  We will be talking about stories from 2007 and some of the anticipated stories expected in 2008.  You can listed at 88.1FM or online.


Living Through the War, Then and Now

December 16, 2007 Media 10 Comments

We are at war, that much we all know — we see the reports on CNN about more death and destruction over there. For those of us without a direct connection to someone at risk, our lives continue basically unabated. It wasn’t always this way.

I just watched the 3-hour British mini-series called “1940s House” where three generations of the Hymers family moved into a period 1940s middle class suburban home outside London for 9 weeks. It was filmed starting in April 2000 and originally broadcast on BBC in January 2001.

A couple, their divorced daughter and two grandsons all transported themselves back in time to relive the years of WWII in middle-class suburban London, condensed into a two month venture. Air raids, rationing, blackouts, and such were just a small part of what this family was put through in their temporary 1930s home. The air raids, by the way, were simulated via recordings, while they squished themselves into their self-built shelter in the backyard. Citizens, regardless of how much money they had, all did without so help win the war. Here in America the situation was similar, although without the overhead attacks such as those on London.

My parents were just getting ready to start high school when the war was over. My grandmothers, both in their mid to late 30’s at the time, had their husbands around as well as many kids to feed. Both sides of my family were in small town rural Oklahoma. Neither grandmother ever drove. I don’t think either ever rode a bike, that would have been a luxury for them. Both sets of grandparents, however, each had a massive garden. Each, in fact, was not much smaller than New Roots Urban Farm. Of course, each had large families with five kids on my mom’s side and eight on my dad’s side. Canning was an important part of the ritual — growing more than you needed at the moment so you could save for winter. Sadly, my grandmothers and my mom passed without my learning how to can veggies. When I was an undergrad, I managed to make some marginally respectable Zwieback, a Mennonite roll my grandmother Klaassen could make in her sleep.

How many of us today could bake our own bread and prepare all our own meals from scratch? Sure, we have those times where we do but what if that was a daily thing? Lyn Hymers, the grandmother on the 1940s house, and her daughter did the shopping but meal planning went out the window when they would arrive at the market and the items they wanted were out of stock or beyond their weekly ration. The menu became not what they wanted but what was available at the time.

Last night, while making a huge pot of soup (Italian Cabbage & Bean in case you are curious), I was more thoughtful about how I peeled the potatoes and how I chopped the onion, so as to minimize waste. Rather than discard the outer leaves of the head of cabbage, as I had been prone to do, I carefully trimmed out a couple of bad spots so I could use the balance of the leaf. Although not called for in the now heavily-modified recipe, some fresh spinach I had in the fridge made it into the stock pot as well. Better to use it before it went bad.

But this is not a cooking website. However, during prior wars food was an issue. Now we are fighting a war over oil so we can continue to truck food all over the country — the “the 3,000 mile Caesar salad” as James Howard Kunstler likes to say. In our modern lives we just expect the supermarkets and restaurants to have everything 365 days out of the year. Walk into an Applebee’s “Neighborhood” Grill & Bar throughout the country and it likely has the same menu, regardless of location. We’ve lost the notion of eating local and seasonally.

In watching the 1940s house I thought the grandmother, Lyn Hymers (50), wasn’t going to make it to the end. However, following the show, it seems to have changed her the most. On the CD she says;

I just feel very privileged actually, to have lived through this. Some of the values that our parents, or our grandparents, held dear to, are actually, I’ve now found very important values. So I don’t know that having all the trappings of modern life makes it a better life.

True enough, modern amenities can indeed be a trap. Many are tied to the car, unable to get anywhere without it. A trap. So much of what we have, if push came to shove, we could likely do without. Sometimes we need that extra shove to simplify our lives. In the past, war would do that. Today, however, we are encouraged to continue our lives — keep driving and keep spending.

Lyn Hymers again:

The biggest impact that the war-time experience has had on my current day is that it is saving me so much money. I save money on the petrol, I save money by buying fresh produce instead of pre-packaged. I buy all my food fresh daily from local shops, not supermarkets. One of the things that was important to me during the war-time experience was my grocer, Mr. Lovegrove. He was a port in a storm. If my circumstances were different, and I were perhaps on my own or elderly, then it would almost be a lifeline, the local shop keeper. I do feel very strongly that I must champion the cause of the local shop keeper not only from a social point of view but because I found it to be cheaper.

Lyn Hymers indicated she had managed to reduce her pre-war vs. post-war grocery bills by nearly 60%, that is big!  But aside from saving money, I feel that we need to act like we are at war.

We have young men and women sacrificing their lives so that what, we can continue drive and shop? Most of us are too removed, myself included. Of course, the corporations making big profits from the war want the public detached. The more removed we remain, the more they can drag this out.

We can and should support our troops that are simply following orders of their commanders, all the while questioning why we started this war and why we are still there.  This holiday season we should make a sacrifice in our personal lives and do something for those fighting on our behalf.  Help the troops, help their families left behind.  Something, anything.


St. Louis’ Award-Winning “Vacancy to Vibrancy” Now Online (w/Invoice)

Last week I was pretty harsh on the city for “buying” a second so-called World Leadership Award (see post). Well, I did a records request (per Missouri’s Sunshine Law) and have for your weekend reading the “Vacancy to Vibrancy” entry as well as the invoice for £3,000 (a tad over $6,000) to be included on the short list.

Here are a few selections from the entry:

Housing is the key to a sustainable urban environment.

Historic preservation has proven to be the catalyst for the resurgence in the inner city housing market.

Recycling aging buildings is key to a healthy urban environment.

I believe the City of St. Louis strategy “Sustainable Housing Through Preservation” can encourage Mayor’s in the world’s industrialized cities to meet the growing demand for housing by recycling our existing built heritage.

Wow, the mayor seems like he cares about developing sustainable housing and preserving existing structures. In the report, they talk about the energy it takes to build a new building and construct a very good argument for retaining old buildings. Too bad they do things like raze the historic Century Building for a parking garage rather than more housing as proposed by other developers with less influence. Or allowed SLU to raze a historic building for a surface parking lot. The list is long, too long.

The region experienced a 25% increase in the urbanized area, yet population growth was only 6 %. The region ranks 18th in population in the country, but second in land consumption. Land consumption occurred four times faster than our population growth.

Again, quite true. In fact, the report is excellent. Now if only they actually talked publicly about sustainability and acted upon these beliefs rather than on what those with money and influence seek. It should not take me doing an open records request to obtain this information. The full submission is a large PDF file (4.5mb), Vacancy to Vibrancy: Sustainable Housing Through Preservation.

The letter from the World Leadership Awards indicated the city was on the shortlist is dated September 4, 2007. It acknowledge being shortlisted in the “Law & Order” category but our entry was clearly marked for the housing category — I assume this to be a clerical error in the letter.

The letter references some details as well as payment for the “presentation fee”:

Because of difficulties which occurred with several cities last year we have, with great regret, been forced to adopt a stricter policy regarding late payment. If we have not received payment by 14th September, then we may not be able to include your city in the shortlist, which will be published on 20th September 2007.

So unlike competitions where everyone pays an equal registration fee, here they make sure you pay up if you want to be on the shortlist. No money, no shortlist. With 38 entries on this year’s shortlist that is over $228,000. Cities still have to make flight, hotel and transportation arrangements to get their team there to present in person. I’m not sure where in the budget this is funded. Do we have a PR budget? Click here to see the letter and invoice.

Speaking of PR, we had less incorrect BS being spread this year but there was still some misleading facts out there. For example, the Mayor’s announcement about the win included this item:

In his presentation, Slay focused on rebuilding the City through the creation of new housing units and renovating historic buildings. Since 2000, more than 20,000 units have been rehabbed and 4,221 new units have been built in historic buildings, resulting in almost 14,000 new residents of the City.

Really? “Almost 14,000 new residents of the City?” I covered these types of lies back in April when they were twisting original & challenged census numbers around.

Here are the official Census figures:

  • 2000: 348,189
  • 2006: 353,837 (after city challenged the census estimate)

By my math the difference is 5,648. Most likely Slay’s PR folks are playing with numbers again hoping the media will pick it up and not question the source. As in the past, they use the pre-challenge census numbers from years past to compare with a newly revised post-challenge census figure to artificially inflate population.

I personally am quite happy that we’ve stopped losing people, it does not benefit anyone to twist the facts around to make it look like we’ve gained nearly three times as many people as we actually have.


St. Louis Buys 2nd Leadership Award, Mayor and Planner Get London Trip to Accept

Last night Mayor Francis Slay and Planning Director Rollin Stanley were in London representing the city at the World Leadership Awards. St. Louis was a finalist in the area of housing. Yesterday the Mayor’s blog noted this much. They also had a little note at the end:

Note to Editors: The World Leadership Forum (WLF) is a not-for-profit organization which promotes leadership internationally — especially in the areas of science, technology, education, communication and the arts — by spotlighting the work of exceptional leaders and achievers in a host of disciplines.

See, by adding a note at the end it gives the group some legitimacy. From where I see it, this organization is all about award shows and by paying money to “win” an award it is self funded. Sure, they have no entry fees but they notify the short list of people later and they must fork over some cash to offset costs. The price tag last year was £3,000 ($5,900).

So you are asking yourself, how can I be so sure this is all rigged? Well, I cannot prove anything. First, it is the price tag which raises a big red flag. World leaders seldom have to pay to be recognized as such. References to this have been removed from their website. Last year their site indicated:

Cities reaching the shortlists (from two four in each category) will be required to pay a fee of £3,000 to cover the presentation and judging costs (venue hire, audiovisual equipment, crew, catering, judges travel expenses etc.), as well as the cost of a table at the award ceremony (the table seats up to ten guests and includes complimentary cocktails, dinner, wine programs etc.).

Cities which fail to pay the fee within 30 days of the invoice date will be disqualified from the awards.

Cities that do not reach the shortlists will not be charged any fees.

Second, the sponsoring organization refuses to disclose how many entries are received in each category. Was it just the two-four on the shortlist or was it 10 or more. They indicate they refuse to disclose the entries not shortlisted because they don’t want to embarrass those cities. Well, they don’t want to disclose the number of entries as it would likely prove embarrassing to the winners. Furthermore, while claiming to promote leadership and give awards to cities so that it might help others, they don’t publish the winning entries.

Speaking of winners, The City of Las Vegas was the big winner last night. The unsustainable city in Nevada got three awards for Transport, Leisure & Sport as well as the American City of the Year. Yes, Las Vegas the American City of the Year! That has to tell you something!

We were a finalist against City of Ahmedabad, the capital city of Gujarat, India. Their submission was called Housing for the Poor.
Our submission? The title was, “Vacancy to Vibrancy.” Did we win? Uh, yeah. You don’t think we are going to send the Mayor and a key staff person to London if we weren’t going to win? (Wink, wink).

Last year the St. Louis PR spin machine was in full swing using words like “nominated” — as if someone suggested we deserved an award. They also said things like ‘out of 400 entries’ to imply it was a crowded contest. In actuality, it turned out to be the organization sent mailers out to over 400 cities asking them to submit entries. You can read last year’s post here and review last year’s entry here. I’ve already sent over my request for the latest entry via the Missouri Sunshine Law regarding open records.


Is St. Louis The 2nd Most Dangerous City?

Are we really the nation’s 2nd most dangerous city? In a word, maybe. This year St. Louis dropped from the #1 spot to the #2 slot, behind Detroit, as the most dangerous city in America according to a controversial study. So is it true?

As with any collection of numbers, it really depends upon how you put them together. What do you weigh more heavily? What do you include, what do you exclude? There really is no single right way to analyze the FBI crime data. However, according to the FBI and local officials there are a number of wrong ways to do it.

Do I feel unsafe in the city? No. Are there places where I might feel unsafe at 1am, you bet! But there are likely places I’d feel unsafe in the safest city? Absolutely.

To those of us that actually live and work inside the city we know the truth — the city is really a safe place unless you are dealing drugs or happen to live in an area where drugs & gangs constitute the main form of commerce. So, if you are white the city is pretty safe and if you happen to be poor and black you likely live in a very unsafe area. Our suburbanites are likely thinking in their McMansion’s miles from town, “I knew the city wasn’t safe after all.”

One of the common claims against the methodology of the report is that it looks at cities and not metropolitan areas. Unlike St. Louis, many older cities in the country were able to expand their city limits without changing the state constitution. True enough, but it would likely be true that defining Metropolitan regions might prove a challenge. Should St. Louis’ full 16-county region be examined instead of simply the City of St. Louis? Does every police force keep required FBI records or does that only fall to bigger cities?

Frankly if the citizens of our community don’t like the fact that St. Louis is tiny in geography we need to do something about it. Let’s take a big and necessary step and make the city and county one entity. And I don’t mean have the city join the other ninety some municipalities in the county — I mean make the city and county ONE government entity. Other regions have done just that, gotten over decades of incremental growth and small fifdoms. I can hear the objectors now, “…that is never going to happen in St. Louis.” Fine, stop bitching about the size of the city when cities, not regions, are compared.

Of course when cities are compared and we come out on top or near the top you don’t hear any complaining then. Our best water ranking, for example, is based on cities and not an aggregate of the region’s water. How would our water have compared if it was mixed with water from the balance of the region? And when regions are compared we often take credit in the city, not pointing out that we’d never be at or near the top on our own.

What is really sad is that nobody seems to be upset about being #1 in STDs. Where is the RCGA on this one? Relocate your business to St. Louis — if your employees don’t get shot they might get gonorrhea. OK, back to the crime stats.
From the San Jose Mercury News:

This year, the report looked at 378 cities with at least 75,000 people. Its conclusions were based on per-capita rates for homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and auto theft.

OK, so we know what the factors are: per-capita rates for six levels of crime. Again, some people use the false notion that looking at St. Louis as a city (which we are) is unfair because we’ve been unable to grow. So I pulled up some basic data on the top 10 of the list just to see if we can spot a trend.


The numbers are all over the board. Detroit, for example, is twice the geographic area of St. Louis and has a greater population density than us. St. Louis has 13% of our region’s population while the totals range from 1% up to 53%. Oakland California, across the bay from San Francisco, is very close to our same size, has greater density but has a much smaller percentage of the region’s total population. I should note here that Wiki uses total area within a city limits to calculate their density, whereas I listed their land area and excluded the amount of water so if you do the math it doesn’t work out.

So what does all this tell us? First, you can use data to tell any story you want — just a matter of how you arrange the numbers for others. But what I see from the above is that the top 10 list includes a variety of city types — central cities like St. Louis as well as areas like Camden NJ across the river from Philly. All Camden needs to do is lose another 4,319 people and they’ll fall below the 75K minimum threshold for this report.

But what do these cities have in common that I’ve not shown on the chart? Race and poverty. Without checking in each city, I think it is fair to say that whites do not constitute a majority population in any of the ten. This is not to say that if white were a majority the crime rate would be less, as that is certainly not necessarily true. What this does illustrate is a likely “spatial mismatch” between residents and employment — jobs are not in the places where people live.

We already know that affluent whites don’t turn to gangs to survive on the mean cul-de-sac streets of the gated subdivision. For that matter, neither do affluent blacks or anyone else. However, for those on the lower rungs of the region’s economic ladder, sometimes crime may seem the only viable option for a better life.

For me, while this report might have flaws, I think our city fathers should not have spent time trying to get the report shelved rather than published. Instead, we need to take a hard serious look at our city and how wealth and jobs are not shared. The data is based on a per-capita basis so increasing our total population will drop us in the rankings provided our number of crimes remain unchanged. Of course, dropping the total numbers of these crimes must also be a goal.

And while I appreciate the fact that Walgreens and Family Dollar are willing to open suburban-ish stores in some of our poorer neighborhoods to take back the profits to their corporate cities (suburban Chicago and Charlotte NC, respectively), I don’t think turning the city into a generic suburb is the right solution. We are not going to grow the city by making the city look just like everywhere else in our region. We must be urban and act like a city should act. Instead of dinky little houses at the intersection of Natural Bridge and West Florissant we should have 3-5 story structures that scale back into the neighborhoods. Ditto throughout the region.

At a minimum we need to accommodate those of us that chose to get around by means other than the private automobile. This can be a simple as actually planning a sidewalk to connect the public sidewalk to the front door of businesses. I know, simple concept but overlooked in our city and throughout the region. Maybe our market is ready for new commercial mixed-use buildings but we certainly have pedestrians and transit users that need to be accommodated as we expect them to walk to these retailers. Our residents also use bicycles so ensuring they have a place to park and lock their bikes. Over time we can incrementally get more and more urban in our building form, as the market permits. The market, you see, is not a fixed thing. Tastes and shopping patterns shift. Development patterns in the city and region seem etched in stone, never budging.

Something must give or we will continue to have a stagnant population with high per-capita crime rates.