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June 14, 2009

Does Adam McManus have a pet gerbil?

Rookie Mayor Julián Castro didn’t wait long to show some cojones. Just a week after taking office, he came under vicious attack by San Antonio’s most rabid radio loudmouth and a few score of his minuscule band of followers. Castro’s offense? Agreeing to be the first San Antonio mayor to serve as grand marshal of a Gay Pride Parade -- it’s scheduled for July 4 -- and then refusing to go back on his word.

Gee, you’d think he’d done something really disreputable, like, I don’t know, graduating from Harvard or something.

Leading the charge against Castro was KSLR shock jock Adam McManus, who calls himself a Christian conservative.

I’ve listened to McManus on occasion over the years, usually when he was making mischief about the arts. A few yars ago, or example, he slandered Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” as “an attack on the Christian religion” and came perilously close to getting it removed from a Judson High School reading list. 

I have yet to detect any evidence that McManus is either Christian or  conservative, but he does claim to stand for biblical values, and he quotes Leviticus a lot.

Hearing McManus, I figured Leviticus must be all about forbidden sex, sort of like “Tropic of Cancer” except with a bunch of thees and thous. Naturally I had to check it out. Turns out there’s a lot more to it than sex. I guess McManus just read the good parts.

In a lot of ways, the biblical values in Leviticus are pretty far to the left. For example, if you hire someone to work for you, God says you can’t hold his wages overnight. You have to pay him at the end of every work day for that day’s work. But I’ve never heard McManus demand an end to the scourge of biweekly paychecks.

In Leviticus, God also says you can’t charge poor people interest on a loan, or sell them food for your own profit. But I’ve never heard McManus rail against payday loan companies, which exploit the poor and are rife in San Antonio, or against supermarkets and convenience stores that profit from selling to the poor. Maybe I just wasn’t listening that day.

What about private property? Well, in Leviticus, God says you can’t buy land outright. You’re only allowed to buy the right to work it until the next jubilee, which comes every 50 years. Then the property must revert to its original owner. I’ve never heard McManus decry the common practice of buying and selling land outright.  In fact, if some state legislator were to introduce a bill enshrining God's real estate law in the Texas Property Code, I guarantee McManus would condemn it as socialistic.

God has some strong views about immigration reform, too. In Leviticus, he says you have to treat aliens the same as citizens. “The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native born.” But McManus has equally strong views. He thinks foreigners without proper documentation should be deported, and if God wants to say otherwise he’ll just have to get his own damned talk show.

It is true that God is not altogether consistent regarding treatment of foreigners. He also says it’s OK to buy slaves from across the border, or to buy temporary residents of your own country, and make them your property for life. I haven’t heard McManus take issue with God on slavery policy, so maybe that’s an area where he and God see eye to eye.

In a television interview, McManus castigated Castro and the Gay Pride Parade by saying, “There's nothing to be proud of when you participate in behavior that God described as an abomination."

McManus himself has publicly and unrepentantly boasted of his own participation in behavior that God described as an abomination.

God says you have to drain all the blood out of an animal before you cook and eat it. But McManus often brags about going to a fancy steakhouse with his so-called “wife” and ordering a glass of milk with his steak -- so you know it wasn’t a Kosher steakhouse. As far as God is concerned, that’s like bragging about having sex with your pet gerbil. (I'm speaking hypothetically. I don't even know if McManus has a pet gerbil.)

I can’t really blame McManus for flouting that particular law. (I mean the one about the meat, not the one about the gerbil.) I’ve eaten God-approved bloodless meat a few times, and I can tell you that God don’t know squat about good eating. God also says its an abomination to eat the meat of pigs. I think it’s OK, and if you’ve ever seen McManus you know he’s not one to let Leviticus stand between him and a good pork chop.

Oh, now here’s something interesting in Leviticus: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people.”

Liberals and conservatives alike ought to be able to endorse that one, but I’m pretty sure McManus doesn’t. After all, the guy’s gotta make a living.

May 16, 2009

Leader of family-values party opposes marriage 

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, opposes marriage as a costly burden on small business.

When an employee gets married, Steele told Georgia Republicans on May 16, "Now all of a sudden I've got someone who wasn't a spouse before, that I had no responsibility for, who is now getting claimed as a spouse that I now have financial responsibility for. So how do I pay for that? Who pays for that? You just cost me money."

Steele was speaking specifically of same-sex marriage, but his argument applies equally to opposite-sex marriage. If a business is unduly burdened by having to provide spousal benefits to the one employee in 25 who is gay, then that business must a fortiori (as conservative icon William F. Buckley might have said) be unduly burdened by having to provide the same benefits to the other 24 employees who are straight.

Steele also made news a few months ago when he apologized for calling the incendiary, ugly radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh an incendiary, ugly radio entertainer.

Steele also underscored his firm belief that grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Mona Lisa must-a-been a man whose marriage created a terrible financial a burden for his husband’s employer.

April 17, 2009

Purty Perry flunks Texas history

There's a perfectly understandable reason why Gov. Rick Perry hinted to an Associated Press reporter on April 15 that Texas might want to pull out of the Union. The reason is that Perry is an idiot.

By way of historical prologue, Perry said, "Texas is a unique place. When we came into the Union in 1845 one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that."

Perry has his head up his pants. As every Texas schoolboy knows, the 1845 annexation resolution did not give Texas the right to leave the United States if things didn't work out -- "we" tried that in 1861, with less than satisfactory results -- but only to divide its territory into as many as five states, with each of the additional states being entitled to admission to the Union.

Non-Texans just need to realize that Perry wasn't elected for his smarts, but for his chiseled jaw and hair. Lots of Texas voters -- mainly, white heterosexual frat boys  -- find him irresistibly purty. And to that same portion of the electorate it is the opposite of blameworthy that, throughout his required semester of Texas history, Perry battled boredom by throwing spitballs.

And you thought Congress spends too much?

Perry spoke on the occasion of a nationwide wave of "tea parties," vaguely populist affairs the point of which was to condemn, among other evils, excessive government spending.

The San Antonio Tea Party drew about 5,000 people and cost the organizers more than $110,000 -- about $22 per person -- for a two-and-a-half-hour event. Extrapolating from those numbers, the tea party cost an astronomical $77,088 per person on an annualized basis. Total federal outlays for fiscal year 2009 amounted to a meagre, penny-pinching $8,833.33 per capita. And federal spending pays for some goods and services that are actually useful, unlike the Tea Party, whose organizers spent money like drunken sailors only to pay for an outpouring of bluster and bilge.

A Christian nation?

Speaking of bluster and bilge, a great deal of each has been expended over President Obama's recent statement, in Turkey, regarding America's religious status. Obama said, "We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

Obama has been saying much the same thing for at least three years, and one need only read the Constitution to confirm that his view is correct. Christian jihadists on talk radio and the blogosphere, however, have seized on this latest formulation to manufacture controversy. They insist that the United States is indeed a Christian nation and that Obama's statement proves he's a cryptoMuslim socialist bent on destroying America.

Salon.com has provided a thorough refutation of the claim that America is a Christian nation except in the statistical sense that three-quarters of Americans profess to be Christians. Not least of the refutations is the Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously ratified by the US Senate in 1797, one of whose clauses begins, "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; ..."

I'll add only these points:

One of the reasons the United States isn't a Christian nation  is that the United States isn't a nation at all, in the traditional sense, but an anti-nation. When the United States was born, nations were essentially big tribes, or extended families, each with its peculiar language, customs -- and religion. The United States, formed on the ideals of the Enlightenment, was intended to be a new kind of nation, bound together not by tribal loyalties but by abstract ideas about justice, liberty, diversity, reason and self-government. It was to be a place where people of many nations could live together in peace. These people of many nations would  not be required to abandon their native cultures and religions, but they would be admonished to put their tribal loyalties in brackets, so to speak, in order to allow the common enterprise to flourish. 

Americans have not always been true to American principles, of course. But the principles remain worthy.

Regarding America's statistical Christianity, even that is suspect. A recent Barna poll found that more than one in five American self-identified Christian don't believe  "that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches." About a quarter do not believe in a personal god. And most do not believe that Satan and the Holy Spirit are real. In other words, most of the Americans who identify as Christians don't meet the Christian jihadists' narrow definition of Christians. Indeed, Christian jihadi talk radio -- afternoon drive time on KSLR-AM, for example -- is awash with anti-Christian and anti-American bile. Rather than blaming Obama for telling the truth, they ought to be pointing their bony fingers at themselves.
Mike Greenberg

John McCain calls you a dirty, rotten Marxist

October 29, 2008

Don’t look at that shady reprobate lurking in the corner. McCain means you, Bub.

Let’s say you’re a hard-working machinist or truck driver or nurse, and you live in a school district that doesn’t have a lot of expensive real estate to tax. Back in the days when Texas school districts had to depend solely on local property tax revenues to foot the bills, your kid’s high school couldn’t afford the laboratory equipment, music programs and foreign language classes that were available to kids in property-rich school districts. If you demanded a change in the school-funding system so your kid could have the same educational opportunities that rich kids had, you are a Marxist, according to McCain.

Or let’s say you're a rich Republican who built a $3 million house in the Hill Country. A bunch of other rich Republicans built $3 million houses all around you, and suddenly the old rural two-lane blacktops can’t handle the traffic. You demand more and wider roads in your area. You are a rich Republican Marxist. That’s what John McCain says.

Or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle of the income pack. You have a bunch of Christmas cards to send to friends and family scattered in towns and cities all over the country. You could pay FedEx five or fix bucks apiece to deliver them. That’s what you’d do if you were a patriotic, God-fearing, free-enterprise-loving, true-blue American. But noooo. You want government bureaucrats to deliver your Ho-Ho-Hos for just 14 cents a Ho. You, sir, are a Marxist. John McCain says so, and he wouldn’t lie.

McCain and his propagandists have made much of comments Barack Obama made in 2001 during an hour-long public radio panel discussion on the US Supreme Court and the civil rights movement. About four minutes’ worth of excerpts, carefully edited to hide their context and meaning, have been posted on YouTube.

During those four minutes Obama says, for example, “One of the quote tragedies of the civil rights movement is that it didn’t bring about redistributive change.” Seizing on that comment, McCain has taken to saying that Obama wants to be the “redistributionist in chief.” 

If you listen to the entire broadcast, which is available here, you’ll learn what Obama meant by “redistributive change.” He meant dangerous  ideas like giving the kids of poor people the same access to science labs, arts programs and language classes that the kids of rich people get.

In the radio broadcast, Obama first broached the subject of redistribution in relation to public schools: “After Brown v Board of Education a major issue ends up being redistribution: How do we get more money into the schools, and how do we actually create equal schools and equal educational opportunities?”

Obama made the historical observation that, although the US Supreme Court declined to require equal access to public benefits that cost money, state supreme courts stepped in to fill the vacuum.

In particular, Obama cited the US Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio ISD v Rodriguez. A group of parents in the Edgewood Independent School District, contending that a school finance system based on the property tax violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, sued seven other local school districts and the state of Texas. The US District Court for the Western District of Texas agreed with the Edgewood group that education is a fundamental right, that residents of school districts with low property values were a “suspect classification”  eligible for protection under the Equal Protection clause, and that the state and its wealthier school districts had failed to demonstrate a reasonable or rational basis for the school financing system. The US Supreme Court overturned the District Court decision. But later the Edgewood School District filed suit in the state court system. In 1989 the Texas Supreme Court agreed with Edgewood that funding the schools with local property taxes favored wealthy school districts over poorer districts and violated requirements in the Texas constitution for “a general diffusion of knowledge” and “an efficient system of free schools.”

McCain might be surprised to learn that the justices of the Texas Supreme Court were not appointed by Leonid Brezhnev, but elected by the voters of Texas.

McCain also has not yet learned, after only 28 years in the US Senate, that virtually everything government does has a redistributive aspect. That is what government of the people and by the people is for. Public schools, public libraries, public parks, public transportation, public police and fire departments, public hospitals, public postal service, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, every tax and every tax deduction -- all redistribute wealth in the form of public goods.

Even the military redistributes wealth: When the armed forces defend our country from foreign attack, they defend rich and poor equally.   We do not have a system in which a few super-rich freebooters hire their own private armies, and everyone who can't afford to hire a private army is left vulnerable, as would be the case in a non-redistributionist regime. So, according to John McCain, the United States Navy is a Marxist-Leninist pinko commie redistributionist scheme. Well, he should know.

Let’s consider one more example of a Marxist, this one uncovered by the famous red-baiter Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. Suppose you’re the governor of a state that’s rich in natural resources such as, say, oil. You think it’s nifty that all the people of your state own those resources collectively, just as Karl Marx advocated. You confiscate hundreds of millions of dollars from the evil capitalists who inveted their money to develop those resources, and you turn around and give $1,200 checks to every man, woman and child in your people’s republic, including a lot of folks who don’t work for a living.

You, Madam, are a Marxist. But John McCain doesn’t say so. I wonder why.

What about Comrade Ike?

If Barack Obama is a socialist for wanting to raise the top tax rate from 36 percent to 39 percent, what do you call Republican Pres. Dwight Eisenhower? During his administration, in the period that conservatives regard as a golden age, the top tax rate was 90 percent.

When gasoline is $10 a gallon, you'll love this idea

June 9, 2008

Here's an idea to give the local Sultans of Sprawl a well-deserved case of indigestion, to say nothing of acne, athlete's foot and gout: Maybe San Antonio should require all new subdivisions (above some small minimum size) to meet the standards of the LEED-ND (neighborhood developments) rating system.

LEED refers to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a U.S. Green Building Council rating system for energy efficiency, use of recycled materials, etc., in new buildings. LEED-ND, hatched jointly with  the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Natural Resources Defense Council, extends green thinking beyond individual buildings and lots to the design of whole new neighborhoods. For good reason: No matter how green a house might be, it's still degrading the environment, wasting natural resources and contributing to global warming if the only way to go from there to work, school, shopping or recreation is to drive, or if substantial new public  infrastructure has to be built to service it, or if the development it's a part of threatens water resources or agricultural land. In general, LEED-ND encourages compact, walkable, transit-friendly, mixed-use, mixed-income development.
 
In the recently concluded pilot program, LEED-ND prerequisites relating to location included a range of options, but sprawl as we know it was not one of them. Gated subivisions were verboten. (Hallelujah!) The post-pilot standards are expected to be released next year.

You can learn all about LEED-ND on the U.S. Green Building Council's web site.

Would a LEED-ND requirement be possible in San Antonio? A year ago, no way. Today, with gasoline closing in on $4 a gallon, the idea could start to gain significant support. And a year from now, when gasoline is $6 a gallon? Or $10 a gallon? Those who like the culture of sprawl -- a lot of folks do -- might realize they can't afford it. And even the Sultans of Sprawl might realize that they'll go broke if they keep regurgitating their development plans from 1970.

Before long -- probably within five years -- something like LEED-ND standards are going to be mandated by the federal government in order to address critical energy shortages and climate change. It'll be a matter of national survival. The cities that will be in the best position to cope with -- maybe even profit from -- that seismic shift are the one that adapt early. Shouldn't San Antonio be in that group?

In a rut in Main Plaza

May 1, 2008

This being San Antonio, city officials staged the dedication and ain't-it-grand opening for the renovated Main Plaza back on April 13, even though the project was then -- and is still -- several weeks from completion. Thus a full and fair evaluation of the design and its execution isn't possible yet.

One thing is clear, however: The new Main Plaza is not friendly to people in wheelchairs. The space has been equipped with lots of movable chairs and tables, but they've all been placed on areas of crushed stone. Yesterday afternoon I observed an elderly gentleman trying to drive his motorized wheelchair on the soft surface so he and two friends could sit and chat in the shade. His wheels just made a deeper and deeper rut, and he finally gave up. His companions had to stand.

Unlike the $5 million worth of "interactive" fountains that turned out to be inactive, this  problem is easily solved. Someone with the city just needs to have enough sense to move some of the chairs and tables to the edge of the crushed-stone area, where it meets solid stone paving.  That way, a wheelchair could pull up to a table on one side.  (Probably five or six tables would have to be moved, to make sure that at least two of them are in shade at any time of day.)

I pointed that out to one of three Centro San Antonio "Amigos" who were languidly picking up litter  around the plaza. He told me the men were welcome to move chairs themselves. That was awfully kind of him. The tables, he noted, take two people to move. They're very heavy, to prevent theft. It did not occur to him to grab one of his colleagues and offer to arrange appropriate seating for the three men, despite my strong hint and even though none of the "Amigos" appeared to be overworked. Maybe our "Amigos" need to learn something about hospitalidad.

Oh, by the way, the man in charge of the "Amigos"  for the Downtown Alliance is Bernie Cantu.  If you spend much time downtown, you're likely to see him. In his wheelchair.
Tempest over River North
April 18, 2008

To give credit where due, the leaders of the newly organized San Antonio River North Improvement Assn. have not claimed that the River North Master Plan will cause cancer or poison the milk of little children. But one can't predict what might be said at the next meeting.

A sizable gathering of property owners stood among the Cadillacs in  the Cavender showroom on Broadway on April 17 and heard a litany of complaints against the plan and the process that produced it. A few points were well taken, but much of what was said by the organizers was disinformation, sometimes slopping over into egregious fear-mongering. One fellow, a full-of-himself attorney who ought to have known better, asserted that if the owner of an existing business, of a kind not allowed by the plan, so much as "puts up a new ceiling panel," he will be "deemed non-compliant." What rubbish. (An exasperated Beth Bender Wells, president of a design firm in River North and one of several people at the meeting who demanded some honesty from the organizers, corrected him on the facts of non-conforming rights.)

Several organizers lodged the bizarre complaint that the master plan's proposed form-based code and regulating plan would reduce the development potential, and thus the financial value, of River North property. The opposite is the case. Most River North property now is zoned industrial, with much tighter restrictions than those contemplated by the River North Master Plan. It turned out what the organizers meant was that the master plan wouldn't raise the value of their property as much as the nearly-anything-goes Downtown zoning designation would, if City Council would be stupid enough to grant it. In other words, if you give me $10 out of the blue, you're harming me because you didn't give me $20.

To judge from comments made by attendees, the most common concern of property owners has to do with the plan's height limits. I'll give partial support to their position. As I wrote in response to a  question from one River North property owner -- not associated with the River North  Improvement Assn. -- I believe that the most important urban design consideration is what happens at street level and one or two stories above. If the sidewalks on all four sides of a block are animated with visible retail, restaurants, offices, galleries, light industry and other productive  human activity, and if there's a good rhythm of facade articulation, preferably including balconies, then I don't much care about vertical scale, except in certain specific contexts. One such context is the area that includes a number of 19th-century Irish Flats buildings, some restored, some not. Tall buildings should not be allowed to crowd those historic resources. But I don't think Broadway would be harmed by a few tall towers, if their street frontages are properly designed -- that's part of what a form-based code is meant to guarantee -- and if transportation needs can be met without overloading the area with urbanistically inert parking garages. (That second "if" is a big one.)

One of the stranger complaints by the new group's organizers is that the planning process should have been initiated and managed by the city, and thus fully open to public participation, rather than by the private non-profit Downtown Community Development Corp., a creature of the Downtown Alliance. The group is right to want greater access to the process, but it has taken aim at the wrong target.

As managed by the CDC, the design charrette that produced the initial draft of the plan was entirely open to public view and participation. The consultant team, led by Moule & Polyzoides of Pasadena, Calif., was highly responsive to ideas and criticism from all comers, though not all were satisfied with the results. In contrast, the subsequent process of city staff review and redrafting has been mostly opaque -- as is nearly always the case with the city's internal reviews of planning documents. A few changes from the January draft have been posted on the city's Web site, but without explanation of how and why those changes came to be. One such change is highly troubling: The section setting forth objectives for affordable housing and policies to achieve it has been eliminated.  That's a very bad sign.

The city needs to find a way to let the public watch as the sausage is made, and no part of the plan should be adopted without a round of serious public hearings, with real opportunities to effect further change.

Feast from the Food Bank
March 30, 2008

I mean no disrespect to the expert speakers at the Transportation Choices Forum on March 28, but the best part of the event was lunch -- catered by the Culinary Arts Program of the San Antonio Food Bank. The barbecued brisket was outstanding, but even more impressive were the intelligently seasoned potato salad and beans, both of which rose far above the generic norm. Great work!
Paris and Vienna?
March 20, 2008

An Austin American-Statesman reader, Ricardo Acevedo, posted the following comment on statesman.com, March 19:
On Friday evening, the 21st at The Vicotry Grill and Sunday afternoon, the 23rd at the Hyde Park Theatre, Spike Galespie and a troupe of mostly women will perform “THE DICK MONOLOUGES”
Why “Dick” and not “P***s” as like “V****a Monologues”
I see this as retro-feminist sexism… I thought we’d moved past this crap people… I find this simular to subtle racism. A rising tide should raise all ships. Progressive modern people should be past oppressing someone else for their own empowerment.
I mean hell, there weren’t any guys doing the “V****a Monologues” I mean what do guys really know about “Vaginas”…? They don’t have one!
And pardon my assumption, this being 2008 and all, but I’m guessing none of these women have a “P***s”….
But Ric, we'll always have P***s ....
World-class groaner
March 6, 2008

I'll suspend judgment of "Luminaria," Mayor Phil Hardberger's March 15 showcase of local visual and performing arts, until it happens.

I can't, however, suspend judgment on the botched syntax, barbaric style and hick-town grandiloquence of the language its organizers use to promote it. From the Luminaria Web site:

"Luminaria is the first annual all day and evening celebration of San Antonio premiere artists and art organizations giving citizens of the community a chance to experience the city’s diverse cultures through observing and participating in our world-class artistic heritage. Through visual, performing, multi-media, theatre, dance, music and other artistic forms, audiences will be engaged throughout San Antonio in a free, world-class celebration of the arts."

Apart from the gangly clunkiness of the writing, you will note that "world-class" makes two appearances in this introductory paragraph. I will concede the likelihood that some small fraction of the talent to be exhibited during "Luminaria" has earned favorable notice far beyond the borders of Bexar County, or is worthy of being so noticed. But to describe our whole "artistic heritage" as "world-class" is patent nonsense, and whether the celebration will be "world-class" is yet to be determined. Anyway, only podunk cities call themselves "world-class."

I have a hypothesis about the use of "world-class" by city officials. If we're already "world-class," we don't need to invest the time, effort, thought and money it takes to get that way.

Then again, maybe "world-class" is sort of like "large olives." By that reasoning, if San Antonio is world-class, then Austin must be supernova-class. Houston is galaxy-class. And New York is billions-and-billions-of-galaxies-class. The Luminaria self-promotion continues:
"Luminaria is intended to be a cohesive celebration of the arts through a creative atmosphere showcasing San Antonio’s diverse artistic community.
"An artist-driven celebration of the arts, Luminaria is an unprecedented collaboration of over 40 non-profit organizations that will come together for 1 day to celebrate the dynamic vitality of San Antonio’s creative spirit."
The "world-class" quota having been met in the first paragraph, the writer dives into the "creative" quota. Never mind that "creative atmosphere showcasing" is gibberish, and "dynamic vitality of etc." is fatuous, and "artist-driven" is arguably contrary to fact. But wait! There's more!
"Based on the success of other international celebrations such as Nuit Blanche in Paris and Noche Blanca in Madrid, no other city in Texas has attempted to coordinate continuous artistic, educational and innovative programming for a city-wide arts celebration. To further highlight the name of this event, the traditional role of the luminaria is a clever small light that conjures up creative ideas which inspires waves of innovation."
Aha! The third "creative" shoe drops. The first sentence is syntactically challenged, and the second a complete mess. Was it translated by Google from the Latvian? But why just garden-variety "waves of innovation"? Shouldn't they be "waves of world-class innovation"? 
The language we use to describe things is a map of the way we think about those things. A random grunting of gee-whiz adjectives does not indicate thought. Even if San Antonio's arts product is not altogether "world-class," it deserves better than this.
Prescient
January 22, 2008

Remember that big New York bank's "Live richly" ad campaign from a few years ago? The ad agency Fallon Worldwide launched the campaign for Citigroup's Global Consumer Group in January 2001. The simple all-text messages, ubiquitous for several years on the streets of New York and other major Citi markets, elaborated on the unbankerly theme that money isn't everything.

Cynics may have suspected that, at the same time, Citi execs overlooking Park Avenue were singing "The Best Things in Life Are Fees," but the messages on the ground did seem to contribute to the general wave of caring and friendliness that swept New York for a year or two after Sept. 11, 2001.

Last May, Citi changed course with a new theme, "Let's get it done." As in "You can stick a fork in it," apparently. Last week Citi reported it had taken an $18.1 billion write-down in the fourth quarter of 2007, thanks mostly to sub-prime mortgage exposure. And the stock market's plunge suggests that investors would have been wise to interpret some of the old "Live richly" sentiments literally. Like, "The best blue chips to buy are the ones you dip in salsa."
Big thud
January 13, 2008

Americans who think have been wringing their hands of late over the extinction of public intellectuals, the shallowness of public discourse and assorted other signs of a culture that is increasingly inhospitable to reason, inquiry and cogency. Now comes bigthink.com claiming to remedy the situation, but falling flat on its face.

At the core of the site is a library of talking-head video interviews with  "experts," who supposedly say thoughtful things about important subjects, semi-organized by "meta" and "physical" categories. (Get it?) The site's users are invited to respond, or to submit their own ideas and questions for discussion. Users also are invited to "rate" ideas, so that the most popular ones rise to the top. Just like on "American Idol."

The whole thing is a disaster. The "experts" -- a potentially promising roster that includes the likes of Anna Deavere Smith, Calvin Trillin and Stephen Breyer -- might have something interesting to say. Alas, they don't say it on bigthink.com, probably because the interviewers haven't asked interesting questions. (The questions are generally excised from the videos.)

The site is poorly designed, ill-focused both graphically and conceptually. To judge from the paucity of responses, users are few.

The site's creators, Victoria R.M. Brown and Peter Hopkin, have evidently put a great deal of passion, time and effort into bigthink.com, and probably a lot of money. A little thought would have been nice.
Urban parks: A lot, or not?
January 9, 2008

During a Jan. 8 public presentation of the latest version of the River North master plan, chief planner Stefanos Polyzoides said that San Antonio has "more urban parks in your downtown than any other city I can think of." The comment drew a murmur -- perhaps a groan -- of protest from the locals filling the Providence High School cafeteria.

Polyzoides might have overstated the case, but the fact remains that River North and its environs are exceptionally well equipped with urban park space. Much of it is the legacy of a spate of park acquisitions and donations between 1870 (the block-square Travis Park) and 1881 (the block-square Maverick Park). In between came the twin-block greens of Crockett Park  (a few blocks north of River North) and Madison Square. At downtown's western edge, a former Catholic cemetery was designated Milam Park in 1883. Add the plazas from the Spanish Colonial period, modern additions such as HemisFair Park and Columbus Park, the River Walk and river improvements now under construction to the north and south, and almost any location in the downtown core and River North is within an easy stroll of a public urban oasis. 

Why, then, the perception of inadequacy? I can think of three reasons:

• Urban parks gain their sense of purpose from surrounding urban development. But the blocks surrounding most of the 19th-century parks are not sufficiently occupied, and they're especially lacking in  high-density housing. The blocks around Maverick Park (shown at left), Madison Square and Crockett Park are particularly gap-toothed, providing too few users for these parks and an inadequate sense of place. Even Travis Park, at the very center of downtown, has a parking lot filling most of the block-front to its east. The Vistana apartments, a high-rise block-front now under construction immediately east of Milam Park, serves as a model for what ought to be happening around the other downtown parks.

• Some of the parks are not well designed or cared for.  Maverick Park is depressing despite its rather nice rustic pavilion. Milam Park has too much furniture. Crockett Park and Madison Square have seen improvement in recent years, but both still function more as places to pass through than as places that welcome an extended visit.

• The low scale and the outright gaps in the urban fabric between the parks on the north end (Crockett, Maverick and Madison) make them seem farther apart than they really are. I haven't seen research to support this claim, but my personal experience suggests that perceptual walking distance is reduced by a continuous building line with active uses and substantial vertical scale (more than two stories) along the sidewalk. In San Antonio's hot climate, street trees help, too. A shady quarter-mile walk past storefronts and apartment buildings is a stroll; a quarter-mile walk in the blazing sun past parking lots and loading docks is a schlep.

If the River North master plan works as intended, the gaps will eventually fill in, the scale will rise, and activity will increase on the sidewalks -- and the richness of downtown's 19th-century parks legacy should become more apparent.

Mike Greenberg

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