Sunday, May 31, 2009

Local Politics:Left, Right and Wrong- Part 2

Two planning mistakes, similar to the proposed artisan zone, have been made in the past several decades. In 1972 the national or perhaps regional government decided that Umbria should produce more meat. A seventy-meter long block and eternit barn was built just down the hill from Acqualoreto, paid for with government subsidies. It lasted something like six months, maybe even a year or two, before going out of business. After 37 years, the barn remains a scar on the landscape. There are apparently no subsidies for tearing down such eyesores. Perhaps it could house the new artisan activity, but then, building in virgin woods is no doubt cheaper than rehabilitating a huge dilapidated shack.

Acqualoreto, Collelungo and Morre each had their own elementary schools. The post-war exodus left too few children to support the three schools, so rather than close two of them and expand one, it was decided to construct a new school at the intersection of the roads leading to the three villages, on previously unbuilt land. Unlike the livestock barn, the school is not an eyesore, but it is located on a curving three-way intersection, which is hazardous enough for motorists without the addition of a schoolfull of children. More important, all the children and teachers arrive every day by school bus or car from the villages, which are two to four kilometers away. This may be just as well, since the roads connecting the villages are narrow and rigorously devoid of sidewalks. Thus, while we’ve avoided periodic human roadkill, we’ve done nothing to alleviate the epidemic of childhood obesity.

The political decision may have been astute since it left all the villages equally unhappy but none jealous of the others for receiving favored treatment. Nevertheless, it was and remains an environmental error, despite seeming just the way it always was to the recent generations, born after its construction.

Umbria is a gorgeous region, one of the least populated in Italy. Much of it has been defaced in recent years by ill-considered development. This is one small area that has remained relatively intact and every year it attracts more and more visitors. Turning it into just another nondescript zone of marginal industry, besides being an affront to nature, will have negative economic consequences for the area.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

local Politics:Left, Right and Wrong- Part 1

We are currently in the midst of a local election campaign to see who will run the municipal government of Baschi, a comune of about 3000 residents spread over a large area of mountains, forests and hilly farmland. Our “mountain zone”, about 24 km from the main town of Baschi, contains three villages of 200 or so, plus two smaller villages, all within a radius of about four or five kilometers.. The center left and center right coalitions will compete and the center left will probably prevail, as they traditionally have for decades. There’s little ideology involved. Everyone wants better roads, more tourism, school improvements, better lighting, etc., and the Comune struggles to do its best with limited resources. They’ve done a pretty good job considering the difficulties.

However, one proposal of the ruling coalition is controversial. More than controversial, it’s just flat wrong. The zoning map calls for a new “artisan zone” down the hill from Collelungo, on the road to Todi. In the winter landscape at the top of this page, the two villages of Collelungo and Morre sit atop the hills, and the proposed industrial site is the light green area to the right of the big tree.

Some 15 years ago, a similar proposal for an industrial zone on this site was heroically fought by the late Nino Cordio, an artist who lived next door to the site. He took the fight through the Department of the Environment and the high courts, with the industrial zone eventually being declared unconstitutional, as I recall, because it had been conceived for the exclusive benefit of one family. This family has a saw mill in Collelungo and wanted to expand down the hill where the trailer trucks bringing large logs would not have to navigate the extremely steep and winding road up to the village. The owners subsequently opened a new mill in a flat industrial zone some 25 km to the south.

What brought on the new assault on the environment I don’t really know. Some cynics say that the mill owners still want to expand locally and they have “invested” a lot of money in approvals and demand payback. My own understanding is that EU rules reward local government with subsidies for establishing industrial zones, and the Comune doesn’t want to lose the money. However, the official line is that there is a need to stimulate the creation of local jobs, and that tourism is not enough. This is short-sighted nonsense!

First of all, the beauty of Umbria resides in the fact that its medieval villages are compact and surrounded by lush countryside. Towns, villages and cities are by definition, places of human life and activity. They need new activity at times and workshops would be welcome additions, but not at the cost of despoiling the surrounding countryside. This region was abandoned en masse by its tenant farmers after their post-WWII liberation. Starting in the 70’s the empty farmhouses were bought and renovated by writers and artists from Rome, later joined by an influx of foreigners, all attracted by the quiet unspoiled beauty of the place. The local people who remain derive most of their income from providing services to the outsiders. Many are builders who do their renovations and additions, others clean their houses, tend their gardens and pick their olives. There is also tourism, given that many houses are rented, and restaurants, staffed by locals, are mostly supported by outsiders.

Local natives may hope their children can find work near home but when they send them off to a university, their aspirations are not to see these sons and daughters return to work in some mechanic’s shop in the woods. There’s a huge demand for electricians, plumbers and construction workers here but few local youth seem to be interested in these trades. Construction firms resort to getting workers from Eastern Europe and North Africa. I’m told that a few local businesses do hire trainees at a minimum wage and get government subsidies for doing so. When the training period ends, so does the work, until the process can be started again. There’s little protest, as the workers are typically foreigners and come and go like migrant birds. More can always be recruited.

When I mentioned the dubious nature of the hoped-for jobs to some aspirants to the Town Council the other evening, they said, oh, but there could be good jobs such as web site designers. Wonderful! Such activities are carried out now in nearby Todi and could easily be accommodated in any of the local villages. They don’t require a shack in the woods! Most of our roads are hilly, narrow, curvy, and full of potholes, which the Comune struggles in vain to fill. The last thing we need is a growing flotilla of oversized trailer trucks to service new industries of questionable viability.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Live Music and Background Music

Last week I brought a CD of Blossom Dearie to to our weekly International Happy Hour at the Circolo of Acqualoreto to honor her memory (she died in February at 82) and celebrate her birthday. For those who don't know, hers was the anonymous female voice on King Pleasure's classic recording of Moody's Mood for Love. That bit of information I picked up from either Symphony Sid or Mort Fega in the 60's when their midnight to 4 AM shows were the only jazz to be found on the radio in NYC, the Jazz Capital of the World.

We talk at the Circolo so probably nobody heard her. (A critic once said her voice couldn't make it to the second floor of a dollhouse.) That's OK, because this wasn't a concert, she's dead, and we come to socialize, not to listen to music. However, it got me to thinking about the idea of background music vs. live music.

I'm neurotically respectful of performing musicians. When my wife calls saying "dinner is ready" and I'm listening to a record or CD, I have trouble turning it off in mid-track since it feels disrespectful. Logic would suggest that it's more disrespectful toward her. This isn't something I learned at home. My older brother took violin lessons and I don't recall being overly reverential when he practiced. More likely, it was fear, the fear induced years later at the Half Note in New York when the volcanic Charles Mingus reacted to the lack of respect he detected in some of the club's noisy patrons (not me, I hasten to add). Mingus, a giant
physically as well as musically, had an ability to intimidate his audience every bit as impressive as his compositional skills. Thus, the lesson that musicians are to be respected was permanently etched into my consciousness some fifty years ago.

My most recent encounter with similar purposeful truculence was at Iridium in NYC six years ago. Tony Scott, my former neighbor in Rome, was in town to play a week with another veteran clarinetist, Buddy De Franco. On the evening that I knew to be his 82nd birthday, I went to celebrate, bringing him a nice bottle of Italian wine. His children and wives were all in the room for the occasion and I sat at a tiny central table at the edge of the stage. At one point Tony was in mid-solo, standing right over me, when a waiter, seeing my empty glass, insistently asked if I wanted another. Embarrassed, I silently waved to signal yes, but it was too late. Tony stopped the music and let fly a string of expletives at the waiter before returning to his interrupted solo.

One of the unsung joys of life in Italy is that jazz clubs often have separate bars for talking and drinking, and listening rooms, where the music is played and listened to.

Mingus and Tony Scott are no longer with us, and now Blossom Dearie too is gone. I never had the pleasure of seeing her perform. She played exclusive clubs, such as the Hotel Carlyle, in New York's upper East Side, which are out of my zone. I wonder how those patrons behaved with respect to her dollhouse voice and her magical way with words.