Thursday, December 20, 2012

So long Uncle Milt

After this evening, another bastion of intelligent discourse will be gone from commercial radio as Extension 720, the two hour talk program on Chicago's WGN Radio will sign off for good. The show's host, Milton Rosenberg, whose day job was professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has been on the air for the past 39 years. I've listened off and on for the past 30 or so.

The topics of his programs ranged from history and the fine arts, to esoteric branches of science, to politics, and to more popular subjects such as sports, cinema and food. Regardless of the topic, the level of conversation was maintained at a very high level and his guests ranged from the high and mighty to the mere brilliant. Divergent points of view were presented as well, however in recent years as Rosenberg grew more and more politically conservative, ("a liberal mugged on the way to reality" he was fond of saying about himself), his shows reflected that bias.

In 2008 Rosenberg had a well publicized feud with the Obama campaign when he planned to interview conservative writer Stanley Kurtz about Obama's alleged connection to Weather Underground terrorist and fellow Hyde Parker William Ayers. Obama has always claimed to have had only a peripheral connection to Ayers and the campaign felt the interview was part of a smear campaign against their man. They waged a call in campaign trying to halt the interview which Rosenberg and his supporters viewed as a blatant attack on their freedom of speech. To this day Rosenberg makes no attempt to disguise his contempt for the president.

In a way that only made him more endearing to his listeners, myself included, as like your kind but cantankerous old uncle, you'd love him despite his ramblings. I often found myself so infuriated with his program that I'd shut it off ( as I did just this week) only to tune in the next night, hoping the subject would not be politics.

Besides the loss of a brilliant radio host who brought a welcome relief to the dregs of typical radio conversation, I will miss the voice of a respected elder. As a person who is older than our current president (not by much mind you), it's becoming more and more difficult for me to find that voice, the airwaves being filled to the brim with gen-Xers and younger folks these days. When Milt Rosenberg talks about seminal subjects such as World War II, the Depression, and the urban scene of the past century, he speaks from the first person point of view.

I will deeply miss that.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The solution

Last Friday the unthinkable happened. While mass killings in public places are nothing new, the massacre in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and its victims, mostly children in their first grade class and teachers, have taken this horrific trend to a new low. The question of what kind of sickness would lead a person to commit such an atrocity has been first and foremost on my mind since Friday. And yes I question the wisdom of easy access of weapons capable of deadly precision on such a scale. Anger and rage over our inability to keep these weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of dangerous private citizens have dominated the airwaves and social media.

Predictably, people who advocate gun rights have been chastising the other side for their rants. How dare they take advantage of tragedy to lobby for their agenda.  The possession of guns they say is our constitutional right, and if we start banning assault weapons intended solely for the purpose of quickly disposing large numbers of human beings, they're afraid that in the words of one gun advocate this weekend: "Once you draw the line, where do you stop?"

Now admittedly I don't have much of a desire or need to own a gun. Even though I live in a big city with a murder rate to match, even though its not unusual to hear gunshots outside our window, AND even though I've been the victim of more crimes than I care to remember, I still don't feel that I or my family would be safer if we owned a gun. On the contrary, I think a gun inside our home would be asking for trouble. But what do I know? People on the other side are clamoring to get more guns in the hands of people, not fewer. Proving I'm open minded, here is something I stumbled across the other day, written by someone whose opinions are diametrically opposed to mine:

Like clockwork, before the gun smoke had dissipated from the elementary school in Connecticut, all the gun control people posted, tweeted and blathered on and on about how we need to change this country's gun laws to prevent crazies from going on rampages. Don't they realize that guns don't kill people, people kill people? Don't they know that taking guns away from honest, law abiding citzens means the only people who'll have guns will be the criminals?

No, the solution to the problem of all the shootings isn 't to take our guns away from us. On the contrary it's to make sure that all honest, law abiding citizens have at least one gun, to protect themselves, other honest, law abiding citizens, and our way of life.

Just think about it, why did that guy up in Connecticut walk into a school to do his shooting? Because he knew no one was packing heat at the school. It was easy pickings. If I were in charge, I'd pass a law requiring all teachers in the classroom to carry on their person, a loaded firearm. That way the teachers instead of huddling in the corner trying to protect their students, could stand with their heads held high, and when the perp walks into the classroom, pop him right between the eyes.

Now you might think it would be dangerous to have a loaded gun in the classroom. Well I'd give teachers classes on how to handle firearms. But what about the children you might say; what if the teacher was having a bad day, something snapped, and he or she used it on one of the students? Well all I'll say is this: have you seen kids today? They have no respect, they don't listen to their elders, they misbehave, they do things that kids in my day would never have dreamt of doing. I'll tell you one thing, you'll find a whole lot more respect coming from those little hooligans after you point your piece at them and say: "I'd like you to meet my little friend." Now eventually some of the little thugs might catch on that you don't mean business after all, you wouldn't dream in a million years to actually use the gun on them. That's why my plan would have the teachers learn how to shoot to maim, not to kill. Better to inflict a leg wound than have a kid who doesn't take you seriously.

It turned out that the Connecticut shooter lived with his mother who was a gun collector, and all the guns he used on his killing spree were registered in her name. She was in fact his first victim. That was her first, and I guess last mistake. All those guns in the house aren't going to amount to a hill of beans if you don't have one loaded and ready. If that poor woman had been on the ball, she'd have had a gun loaded, cocked and at hand. That way when her son came into the room to kill her, she'd have been ready for him, and plugged him before he had the chance to take her life and the life of all those kids.

After all, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Well at least I agree with the last sentence. The rest of that piece was clearly written by a disturbed individual. I should know, I wrote it last Saturday, the day after the massacre. Yes the irony was intended, but not at all with tongue in cheek. It was written out of unchecked anger over the direction this country is going. It's true I made it up but with the exception of the part about the woman shooting her son, those words reflect actual words I've heard over the past few months from people in the gun crowd. Allow me to go over them one by one.

It's true that guns don't kill by themselves, but it's a heck of a lot easier to kill twenty seven people in a few minutes with an assault rifle than a knife, or a bow and arrow. Saying only criminals would have guns if guns were illegal implies that guns are only dangerous in the hands of criminals. That's a huge leap of faith blown to pieces by the events of last Friday. All the guns used in the massacre were legally obtained; the mother who owned the arsenal, and her son the mass murderer, were at least until Friday morning, both law abiding citizens. There is simply a clear and present danger to the public in the manufacture and distribution of firearms, especially high powered, assault weapons, intended solely for the purpose of killing lots of people in a short period of time.

To answer the question of where do you draw the line if you ban the sale of these weapons, I have a simple answer: common sense.

The reasons most people bring up for private ownership of guns are hunting and self protection. Now I've known lots of hunters but never met one who used an assault rifle to bag a deer or whatever. As for protection, well a hand gun, conventional rifle or shot gun should be quite sufficient for most personal protection needs, unless of course an entire division of the Waffen-SS, al Qaida, the bogeymen or any other enemy that we can conjure up in our imagination comes knocking at the door.

Common sense allows us to limit certain forms of speech without anyone objecting. You cannot write harmful lies, defaming someone's character legally. You cannot lie while under oath in a courtroom. You cannot yell fire in a crowded theater. If common sense can limit certain forms of speech, our most basic and sacred right, why can't common sense limit the kind of deadly firearms we're able to obtain?

Certainly with all the bright legal minds in this country, a clear distinction can be made between weapons one can reasonably use for hunting and self protection, and weapons of mass destruction. The Second Amendment is not going anywhere, we will always have the right to bear arms as guaranteed by our Constitution, even though the Founding Fathers' true intent, as stated explicitly in the first clause of the amendment, is conveniently overlooked by the vast majority of gun advocates.

I'm not blind to the inexorable fact that banning assault weapons alone will not prevent such tragedies. A person who wants to do something badly enough will always find a way. But the very least we can do as a society is to not make it painfully easy for a person with such an intent to procure the weapons to wipe out dozens of innocent men, women and children in a matter of minutes.

At the exact moment of the massacre in Connecticut, I was sitting in my children's school attending a holiday assembly. Ever since the tragedy in Newtown, the faces and voices of those little children keep going through my head. I can't stop hearing them singing their hearts out, and seeing the determined faces of their teachers who work so diligently, day in, day out, giving so much of their lives to those kids, our future. Then in a perpetual nightmare, I see a deranged killer shooting his way into their school, silencing all those voices forever.

Children should feel safe at school. Human shield should not be part of a teacher's job description. Unfortunately those days are gone for good. I heard one legislator say this morning that mass killings such as the one in Newtown, once rare occurrences, are quickly becoming the "new normal." We are more than likely to see more and more of these attrocities taking place in the not too distant future. Both of my children, including a kindergartner, have gone through the terrifying experience of a lockdown drill at school. I grew up during the sixties through some pretty heady times, but I saw nothing as terrifying as some of the things my children have seen in their young lives.

I don't pretend to have the solution to this rash of mass murders. We live in a society that is continually turning inward; we prefer texting to face to face contact, our children are playing video games, usually violent ones, rather than going outside to play with their friends. We've lost respect in all our institutions and become a society of self centered, cynical individuals, losing much sense of hope or community. The list goes on and on, and unfortunately they're mostly problems we cannot solve through legislation. Then we have the issue of mental illness, its stigma, and the difficulties of dealing with it, let alone treating it, again issues that are very difficult if not impossible to solve through legislation.

Then there are the guns, the one piece of the puzzle than can be legislated. If only rational minds on both sides could come together and work out a reasonable compromise. A law aimed at keeping weapons out of the hands of sociopathic individuals by banning assault rifles will not be the solution to these devastating tragedies, but it will be the start.

Liberty does not come without a price. What the gun advocates who oppose a ban on assault rifles are saying in not so many words is this: our freedom to possess these weapons of mass destruction is worth the cost of the lives of the children and teachers lost Friday in Connecticut, as well as the lives of those most certainly to come including possibly, God forbid, my own children, or even yours.

And you wonder why so many people are sick and tired and mad as hell?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


My own mortality is not something I dwell over very often but today's date, December 12, 2012, gave me something to ponder.  I realized that never again would I experience a date with three identical numbers, day, month and year, as the next occurrence will be on January 1, 2101. Unless drastic technological breakthroughs regarding human longevity take place soon, most likely I won't live to be 143. Honestly, I'm OK with that. My son might make it, as he'd be right on the eve of his centennial. My daughter might have a better chance as she'd be a sprightly 94. If my wife and I are ever blessed with grandchildren, they might have a good chance of seeing 01-01-01.

I had another jolt of mortality thrust in my face this evening. In my plethora of transportation choices, this evening I chose to treat myself to a ride on the commuter train. It's a longer walk than taking the L but the ride is much nicer and quicker, besides, it was a lovely evening for a long walk. Anyway I got to the station with a few minutes to spare and there was a choir of eight year olds singing "Little Drummer Boy" which made me very happy. The happiness was short lived as I discovered there were massive delays in the service. In the words of the railway, there was a "trespasser fatality" on our line. In other words, someone stepped in front of a speeding train.  Now lots of thoughts go through one's head hearing something like that, I always think first of the poor engineer who is entirely helpless to prevent the tragedy. Then I think of the people who are forced to witness the event. And yes, I think of personal convenience. "Couldn't that person have been a little more considerate and at least taken his or her life at a time other than rush hour?"

I made the decision to backtrack and take the L after all, as no one knew for sure when the trains would start running. The L ride was miserable, people jammed cheek to jowl in every car. There was a near altercation on the platform as a young man chased down a middle aged woman who happened to bump into him. "Are you fucking serious?" was her response. Happy holidays to the both of you I thought. When I finally got off the L and passed the commuter train tracks, there was a train stopped. It had to have been standing there, full of passengers for at least two hours.

Anyway, when my uncomfortable commute was over I couldn't help but think about the poor soul whose life ended this evening as it turned out, at the very station where I would have gotten off that train. I got home and hugged my wife and children extra hard. It was kind of like that scene at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life" when Jimmy Stewart returns from his brush with non-existence and realizes his own miserable life isn't so bad after all.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Radiant City is Alive and Well

Not so long ago we decided there was something terribly wrong with the way we built our cities. They were overcrowded, had too much traffic congestion, too much noise, and this was contributing to crime, disease and a host of other social problems. Planners and architects set out to change all that, conceiving what they imagined to be the city of the future.

In that vein, two of the most famous architects of the last century took divergent paths to create their own concepts of that city of the future. Although neither vision was fully implemented, the impact of the vision of these two architects, combined with the explosion of technological development in the last one hundred years plus, drastically altered our cities and the way we live.

Frank Lloyd Wright hated cities. He called his idea for the utopian city of the future Broadacre City, not a city as we know it at all, but a strictly planned community where every family is alloted exactly on acre to call its own. The personal transportation device, automobiles at first, then ideally personal aircraft in the future, would be the primary means of transportation. If this sounds familiar (except the part about the personal aircraft), well it has all the trappings of suburbia as we know it today. Frank Lloyd Wright did not invent the concept of suburbs; he saw the movement away from big cities as inevitable as in fact much of it was going on during his life. Where his plan and reality diverge is in the design and administration of these communities. He distrusted big money and politicians, instead, his communities would be administered by designers and architects. Not surprisingly, in the real world the moneyed interests and the politicians won out, and it's unlikely that Mr. Wright would approve of the lifeless, ugly, banal version of his dream, known today simply as suburban sprawl.

Some of Wright's inspiration came directly as a reaction against ideas for the city of the future that came out of Europe, specifically from Swiss born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, the architect famously known as Le Corbusier. Le Courbusier was deeply troubled by the living conditions of the big city poor. His solution simplistically put, was to knock down much of old city housing and replace it with soaring mixed-income, multi-unit apartment buildings. These buildings would be separated by green, open space where everyone, poor and rich alike would have access. All vehicular traffic would be segregated into either above or below ground highways. He would label his utopia, Radiant City. As with Wright, some of what Le Corbusier envisioned became reality. Large sections of cities were cleared to make way for these massive buildings including the entire neighborhood of the West End of Boston which I wrote about in an earlier post. There, a thriving historic working class neighborhood was deemed slum land by the city. It was leveled, and replaced by Corbusian housing, and there it stands today, a successful if rather uninspired, upper middle class housing project.

The fate of the Boston West End project is vastly different from that of very similar housing projects in cities all across the United States, intended to house not urban professionals, but the urban poor. When the big housing projects were first built in the fifties and sixties, they were seen as a welcome relief to the old tenement slum buildings they replaced. They had strict standards for admission and waiting lines to get in. Soon enough however, the rules and regulations became lax and many of the buildings were taken over by gangs of thugs who terrorized the residents who felt imprisoned in their own homes. The projects were so vast and dangerous that even police and other emergency personnel were hesitant to enter them. In much of America, the dream of a Radiant City had become a nightmare.

The first Radiant City to go was Pruitt-Igoe, a vast project built in the mid-fifties in the north end of St. Louis. It was blown up in the early seventies having been around less than twenty years. It took a couple more decades here in Chicago, but eventually all of the major Corbusian housing projects for the poor: the Robert Taylor Homes, and Stateway Gardens on the south side, the Horner Homes, and an agglomeration of projects known collectively as ABLA on the west side, and most famously, the Cabrini Green Homes on the near north side, have been relegated to quote a former president, to "the dustbin of history."

Just as it is unfair to blame Frank Lloyd Wright for suburban sprawl, it is unfair to blame Le Corbusier directly for the failure of large public housing projects. Unlike his vision to create mixed income housing, the American version of public housing was intended, not with entirely good intentions, to exclusively house the poor. By doing this, their ultimate effect was to segregate the poor, cutting people off from the rest of the city and society, and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

There are in fact, mixed and upper income projects in Chicago that have proven successful including Prairie Shores on the near south side, and Sandburg Village on the near north.

Successful or not, building massive blocks of flats in row upon row of identical buildings in the style of Le Corbusier has been stigmatized and is no longer in fashion, in this country anyway.

But the Radiant City is alive and well in China where new cities have sprung up in some of the strangest, most inhospitable of places, built in a style very reminiscent of the plans of the late Swiss architect. The cities are purely speculative, built with the hope that one day they will be filled with citizens in a booming economy. The fact that these sites sit mostly empty as ghost cities is a fascinating story in its own right and has been dealt with in many places. Just google "Chinese ghost cities" to see what I mean. The bottom line it appears is that the endeavor is either a boondoggle for wealthy Chinese businessmen and corrupt government officials to build a place to hide their money, or a very shrewd, far sighted plan by the Chinese government to prepare itself for the staggering population shift from rural-agrarian to urban that will likely take place imminently in that enormous country. We'll surely find the answer to that question in the near future but today these "cities" sit virtually empty on sites where no one in their wildest dreams would have built a city in the past.

Which is par for the course with most cities built from scratch. Washington D.C. was built on the flood plain of the Potomac River between the already settled cities of Georgetown, MD  and Alexandria, VA. The reasons for building there were political rather than practical, as anyone who has been to our nation's capital in the summer can attest. An even more extreme example is St. Petersburg, the scratch built one time capital city of Russia, built to satisfy Peter the Great's desire to build a great navy for his enormous but for all intents and purposes land-locked country. St. Petersburg was so remote and desperately cold that the hardships suffered by the builders of that great city prepared them and their ancestors for the brutal hardships they would endure during the subsequent three centuries.

Most cities don't begin on the drawing board, they evolve over time, starting out as small settlements, then growing as the local economy will allow. Sensible people don't settle in places with harsh economic and natural climates, it takes a government to make such big and outrageous plans. Enter China, still a totalitarian government with apparently most of the money in the world. Without having to worry about market forces (yet) or the fickle nature of public opinion, the commissars in charge have free reign to build whatever they want, wherever, and in whichever style they want.

It's interesting to see what style of architecture the Chinese officials have chosen to fill their cities. Why is the building style rejected by most of the Western World appealing to the powers that be in China? Maybe it's because multiple high rise units are the most practical means to house the largest number of people. Maybe it is the easiest way to control masses of people, remember that Paris during the 19th Century was reworked first and foremost to eliminate the hiding places of insurrectionists. Or maybe it's because this style of architecture with columns of identical buildings standing like soldiers at attention, evokes grandeur and power, at least in architectural renderings or in photographs of the buildings without people present, which these days are not hard to come by.

Could it be possible that the Radiant City is ideally suited to totalitarianism?

In any case, these real life Sim-Cities beg the question, who on earth would want to move into a ready made city with absolutely no history?

In two words: not me.