Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hard Choices

Upon my return from a recent trip to the UK, I recorded my thoughts about British politics vs. those of the US (You can scroll down to “A New Perspective” in case you missed it.) For those of you unfamiliar with the current state of US politics, I refer you to recent events in South Carolina. We’ll just skip lightly over all the sexual shenanigans but something seems to be in the air in the Palmetto State. Could it be powdered Viagra? More to the point is the current reelection campaign of Sen. Jim DeMint and that of his new Democratic challenger, Alvin Greene. While Vic Rawl, a Charleston County councilman and retired judge, was expected to easily win the Democratic primary to challenge DeMint for his Senate seat, Alvin Greene came from nowhere to win his first foray into electoral politics, getting 59% of the vote (although Rawl had received as much as 84% of the absentee ballots in some districts), in a state election which featured electronic voting machines with no paper trail. “Nowhere” in this case was the very modest house in Manning, SC that the unemployed Greene shares with his father after an involuntary discharge from the Army, in which he had served for twelve years. Greene’s place in the race is not yet assured since he faces felony charges relating to showing pornography to a (presumably under-age) SC University student, and because there is some question about where he got the $10,400 for the filing fee, given his serious lack of income or other resources. Daniel Vovak, a Republican who had run against Michael Steele in the 2006 GOP primary for the US Senate, claims to be Greene’s campaign manager.

I confess that Greene’s success has engendered a certain amount of envy on my part. Like Greene, I am short of cash, and even the outside chance of gaining a US senator’s salary and perks has more appeal than most lottery tickets on the market these days. Therefore, I hereby declare my willingness to run for any congressional or senate seat that someone is willing to pay my filing fee for, along with reasonable relocation expenses. Like Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton and countless others before me, I’m ready to establish residency in any state which provides suitable political opportunity, though since the cost of home heating is so high here in Italy, I would prefer the sun belt. Nevertheless, if Alaska beckons (it seems they're in bad need of new blood) or any other desolate place, I’m open to the challenge.

Unlike Greene, I have no pending felony charges, and I do have a political platform, which won’t be affected by choice of locale, given my foreign residence for thirty-seven years and my regional loyalties to Umbria. My platform hasn’t changed much since my 2008 presidential platform, ignored almost equally by both major parties. Indeed, party affiliation is also no problem. Just as I could provide an unlikely alternative to shoe-in GOP senators such as DeMint, Cornyn or Shelby, I could as effectively provide token opposition to any dysfunctional Democratic incumbent senator such as Nelson or Landrieu.
Sadly, sunny South Carolina, with its charming, sexually charged atmosphere, is out of play, barring a Greene disqualification. Returning for a moment to that contest, there is the prospect of a tough choice that South Carolinians will have to make. Jim DeMint has a perfect voting record, according to the Conservatives Fund, which gives Mitch McConnell only a 79% approval rating. He has consistently voted for all wars, guns, war resolutions, proposals and funding, border fences and corporate interests, while regularly voting against education, separation of church and state, health care, environmental protections and civil rights. Alvin Greene has no voting record at all, and his comment on any issue raised to date has been “no comment”. Still, if he votes differently on any one issue from what Jim DeMint has done until now, or if he never shows up to vote at all, we will see a significant improvement over DeMint’s performance. Weigh your choices carefully Carolinians!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Destroying a Medieval Town

Medieval hill towns, typical of Umbria, but present in most of Italy, grew up as fortified castles on hilltops where both visibility and air quality were good and would-be invaders had an uphill battle. Their massive external walls enclosed and protected artisans and shopkeepers, as well as some of the people who worked the surrounding agricultural land. Little changed in this scenario for a millennium until the advent of the automobile. Still, throughout the twentieth century these old towns continued to provide compact urban centers of remarkable architectural richness, surrounded by unspoiled landscapes.

Indeed, Professor Richard Levine, who headed an overseas branch of the University of Kentucky School of Architecture, starting in 1983, described one such medieval town, our own nearby Todi, as the model sustainable city. The town fathers were thrilled by the good professor’s praise and went on to declare Todi to be the world’s most livable city. No doubt Prof. Levine only intended to identify the urban characteristics in evidence in Todi as qualities to be emulated elsewhere. In what would be an extreme case of the law of unintended consequences, foreigners flocked to Todi to buy up houses and apartments where they could spend two or three weeks a years reveling in this ideal environment. Every third shop in Todi was transformed into a real estate agency and very quickly existing houses were priced well beyond the means of young local people who needed homes. Despite a static local population, a great deal of building has taken place on the periphery of Todi since its fame spread.

The town government has done a reasonably good job (scroll down to “The Sienese Invasion” for a notable exception) of assuring that the new buildings are compact and the materials reasonably harmonious with the existing town. However, when people are compelled to move to new houses, they want those houses to have modern amenities, or more precisely, the basic modern amenity, easy access to a car, and the new housing has provided this access. Despite worldwide evidence that we’re facing energy shortages and that greater urban densities will be needed to sustain our environment and our standard of living, Todi is moving from a compact pedestrian-oriented town to one in which most local movement is by car. Todi’s main street is a narrow passage allowing one lane of downhill traffic and, in most places, one lane of parking. It doesn’t work very well for shoppers who come by car, and merchants complain that the city hasn’t done enough to provide parking. In reality, the city has done a great deal to improve access. In addition to frequent bus service to the center, a large pay parking lot has been built at the bottom of the hill with a funicular elevator leading to the center of town. Existing parking spaces in town have been divided into those reserved for residents and others where people can park and pay with time-stamped tickets from conveniently located machines. In a town so dense and hilly, there just isn’t a lot of space to put cars. The main piazza at the apex has a busy mix of commercial, governmental and cultural activity. Local institutions make a strong effort to promote fairs, concerts, theater, etc. in the town center. Nevertheless, shops along the main street have been closing for years, and once you get 150 meters down the hill from the piazza, the empty shops outnumber those still in business, at least until you approach the hospital near the bottom. More on that another time.

Much of Todi’s revenue these days derives from tourism. The beauty of its setting and its architecture are impressive attractions, but if its economic decline continues, its appeal to visitors will diminish, creating a sad downward spiral. Some of the recent changes were inevitable, others less so. The arrival of large supermarkets signaled the end of the small food shops in the center, just as has happened everywhere else in the world. Nevertheless, small shops depend on pedestrian traffic and it can’t all be tourists.

What’s to be done? Many people have tried to answer this but the decline continues. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do believe more of a stick and carrot approach is required. The town has provided lots of carrots, such as subsidies to people opening shops in the town center, and the amazing variety of cultural promotions. I would propose taxing the owners of storefront properties on the main streets that remain vacant. The owners have to pay taxes on the rental income, an incentive to not rent, but not on the value of business potential. The community spends a fortune to keep the town viable, but by holding out for non-economically feasible rents, these owners are damaging the town by wasting a valuable community resource.

It’s also important that doctors, lawyers, notaries, dentists, accountants and design professionals keep their offices in the town center to insure an ample presence of pedestrians. Unlike supermarkets, these activities do not require a steady flow of bulk merchandise. Many doctors, etc. have already moved to the new residential districts where parking is hardly better, and where the flux of patients does nothing for the town. Whether by stick or by carrot, they should be encouraged to stay in (or move to) the center.

As local residents, what can we do? We can support the various government initiatives to promote the town. More practically, we can patronize businesses in the center, from barbers, lawyers, dentists and shoemakers, to bars and restaurants. Do your banking in town rather than at the strip mall. This violates the theology of the new religion of Convenience as God, but heresy has its own rewards. It may take more time to park one’s car and walk through Todi to a bank in the center than it does to stop at some roadside shack, but for those of us not under inflexible time constraints, the trip is well worth it.