Monday, May 28, 2007

Everywhere, anywhere... nowhere, USA

I have a few thoughts (well, an essay, really) regarding some of the comments people made regarding my last post, which I was originally going to post as a comment on my blog. But posting on one’s own blog comments is kind of tacky, don’t you think? And anyway, a few themes that were touched on deserve a little more space… ok, make that a lot more.

First of all, regarding living downtown being a “choice”: yes, I chose to live here nearly ten years ago (if you count Wheat Ridge as downtown – which it is, as far as you guys might be concerned). Then I moved to Jefferson Park (in Denver) for about 4 years, a neighborhood overlooking downtown, and finally Capitol Hill, 3 years ago.

But it’s not as much of a choice as you might think. In Wheat Ridge, the area in which I lived bordered Denver and Edgewater, another, itty bitty ‘burb of Denver only about 8 blocks wide. While not a ghetto, the area is definitely of lower middle-class character with tiny, aging houses. Jefferson Park is now a mostly Hispanic area where you will hear more Spanish than English spoken at the local Safeway. The houses have more character but most are older and crumbling. What do these areas have in common? Cheap rent.

My “choice” was whether I wanted to live in older, poorer but lively neighborhoods with some character versus living in newer, poorer neighborhoods thrown up by some big corporation without regard to the future. I would’ve had to commute twice as far to my job, and probably lived in run-down 1970s era apartment complexes nestled amongst sun-blasted asphalt parking lots and dying retail businesses. So yes, it was a choice. A real no-brainer for me.

Then Wendi and I moved to Capitol Hill. We’ve always loved this area of town. The housing is more expensive, yes. That was also a choice, but there was also added value. You can walk anywhere you need to go in Capitol Hill, and there are bus lines that run every few blocks. You guys may remember that I was without a car for more than two years, starting when Wendi and I separated in 2005. I couldn't have made it in the suburbs that way. I work downtown and commuting by bus would’ve been prohibitive – but that’s would’ve been the least of my problems. Just getting groceries would’ve consumed entire evenings, to say nothing of doing the laundry.

Plus, Wendi and I separated but we stayed in the same neighborhood – her apartment was a 10 minute walk away, so we never really lost touch. This was a major factor in saving our marriage, I think. Had she moved to Westminster or out to Lakewood or Littleton, I think we would’ve seldom seen each other, and there would be no Simon in her belly today :-)

In Capitol Hill, everything is within walking distance – heck, I can even walk to work. This factor is important in understanding why housing is so much cheaper in the 'burbs... these days – fewer people want to commute two hours a day just so they can have another flimsy, poorly built box with a patch of chemically treated, water sucking grass.

Ask anybody who works in housing construction – anymore, big development companies come in and throw as many houses up as they can – shoddy, cheap, chipboard boxes that will fall apart within 30 years. Most housing today is not built to stand the test of time. To house people is not even its primary purpose. It is built to extract maximum profit in the shortest possible amount of time, often for a large corporation based out of state that does not concern itself with trivialities like building sustainable, affordable communities for the future.

This trend has particularly accelerated in the last 15 years or so, with few people seeming to notice, but it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. Don’t get me wrong – construction of the past was also built for profit, but they also built stuff to last, as a lasting legacy to posterity. Do you think Wal-Mart cares what the areas around their giant, thrown-up, warehouse-style boxes surrounded by acres and acres of parking lots will look like in 30 years, or even 5 years? Of course not.

This philosophy can be seen in old neighborhoods in Denver, most of which have nice parks, great architecture and thoughtful urban design. Civic Center Park downtown, or Cheeseman Park near our apartment are great examples of this, and are big reasons why so many people want to live here. These are public works of lasting value that are cared for down through the generations.

Everyone who lives in this area is reaping the benefits of decisions made more than 100 years ago, just like people who live in the decaying “inner suburbs” of Denver are now suffering the consequences of bad decisions in decades past. Even the bad parts of Denver often have character, they are victims of forces beyond their control. I'm thinking of Globeville, a North Denver neighborhood that has managed to retain some character despite being surrounded by heavy industry, bisected by railroad tracks and I-70, and chronic poverty.

You guys all make the 'burbs sound like such a paradise. Sure, the wealthier ones where you can just wall off yourself from the poor people (except when they come to clean) are great! But things are not so rosy all over -- many older suburbs of Denver are borderline ghettos today.

I'm thinking specifically of parts of Aurora, Northglenn and Westminster. When was the last time one of you guys drove up Federal Boulevard north of I-70? There you can see the results of bad planning from 40 years ago. And the lovely stretch of sprawling asphalt parking lots lined with big box stores just down the road from your neighborhood, surrounded by “luxury” apartment complexes? It’s next in line. Just give it time.

I am hoping that our new apartment works out, but you should know that the area is far from being some suburban paradise. There are parks, just not very nice ones. We will live right next to several major thoroughfares, and crime is by no means unknown there. I'm just hoping for the best. It's not a nicer area than Capitol Hill, it's just farther from downtown and cheaper.

I suppose some people will say that most of these problems are simply examples of free markets at work; that if people didn’t want to live in these places, they wouldn’t. My response is this: while there are markets involved, they are certainly not free!

Retailers such as Wal-Mart are notorious for extracting fat tax incentives from municipalities by threatening to simply build their store the next suburb over. Consolidation in the housing industry means that public works such as parks, roads and infrastructure are now designed and built by private corporations, while being effectively financed by public dollars. When one of these big housing developments gets thrown up, often at a net tax loss to the municipality, the municipality has to provide things like traffic signals, schools, police and fire protection, water and sewer, and so on. Guess who foots the bill?

It’s more than a local issue too. Not to slag on AZ, Jeff, but you guys in Phoenix are basically living off Colorado water. All that sprawl in Phoenix is possible because of an archaic legal framework between CO, AZ, UT, NV and CA called the Colorado River Compact. This was drawn up in the early 20th century as a way for the states to share water, but the hydrological science was poorly understood at the time. It effectively says that Colorado must deliver a certain amount of water to the states downstream no matter what. All is fine and dandy as long as water consumption stays the same and there is plenty of water.

So what happened? Water consumption has spiked due to sprawling development in all the states affected by the Compact, and there is a severe drought in CO, where all that water comes from. Colorado has to tighten its water consumption to water the golf courses and the swimming pools in seemingly every back yard in Phoenix. Colorado water is fueling the development that big corporations use to make a profit. That is not free enterprise. That is exploitation of a public, limited resource for private gain. And his doesn't even consider the vast environmental impacts.

There are other examples, not just retail and water. Returning to housing for a moment: for the past 15 years, the housing bubble (oh man… haven’t even gotten started on the bubble… some other time) has been fueled by cheap money provided by the policies of the Federal Bank, and quasi-government, corruption plagued entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (two years ago an audit discovered that Freddie Mac improperly booked billions in revenue over the past 5 or so years). Real estate has always been a shady industry, but never more so in the past ten to 15 years. Effectively, big companies have been skimming the cream off the top of a deep well of public resources. Your tax dollars at work… for big business!

Tyler said something with which I agree (wow!): this is not sustainable. The peace, quiet and serenity that are so prized in the suburbs is similar to the peace, quiet and serenity of an ostrich with its head in the sand. Our kids will be paying the price for the sprawling suburbs of today, which will eventually be where all the poor people, crime and drugs are. Why do we as a society allow ourselves to pass all our problems on to our children because of short-term "wants"?

I suppose it would be best if everyone could move to a small town, “Anurbia” like Worland, WY with no crime, drugs, traffic, etc… except that by doing so, Worland wouldn’t be small anymore and all those problems would suddenly pop up. Not every place can be a rural paradise like Worland apparently is. In fact, many older neighborhoods in big cities have characters much like that of a small town like Worland. Would Worland be so nice with miles of strip malls and cheap, mass produced housing? Probably not.

And it’s not simply a matter of “choice” either. Americans’ delusions and ignorance about the true costs of their “choices” are what got us into this mess in the first place.

It’s a big picture and a long story. To understand it requires a lot of explanation, so I'm sorry if I’ve been a little long winded about this. But this is why I simply can’t get with the idea that suburbs are the fulfillment of the “American Dream”.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Of Capitol Hill, moving.... and guitars

Life rolls on. Wendi and I are moving in two weeks to a larger apartment in Englewood. We are crossing our fingers and hoping that it works out; neither of us wants to move again for a considerable amount of time. In the past 4 years for one reason or another, we have moved 5 or 6 times, depending on how you calculate it… needless to say, we are sick of it.

So we are making the long anticipated move to respectability and middle class (ha!) suburban boringness, to a slightly larger apartment in beautiful Englewood, CO. The time has come for this era to end.

Don’t get me wrong – Capitol Hill is still the best, funkiest and prettiest neighborhood in Denver, in my opinion. The problem is that it’s a neighborhood that is friendly mostly to the very rich or very young – a diverse mix of big apartment buildings and VERY expensive houses.

We will miss the trees, the people, the parks, the nightlife, the bands and the friends we have here – we won’t miss some of the shady characters, the petty crimes such theft and random vandalism, and most of all the rich people who have pumped up the price of real estate to the point where it’s all but impossible to own a house here without making more than $200,000 a year.

We simply can’t afford the space we will need when Simon (that’s our unborn boy’s name, in case you didn’t know already) comes along in a few months. My only consolation is that all of the people in this area who tried to get rich from flipping one-bedroom condos for $250,000 are now losing their shirts. Ahhh… schadenfreude can be very soothing!

Capitol Hill is generally a safe neighborhood, although being an urban, inner city area it is home to some amount of crime. It is thick with bars and nightclubs – though these are part of the neighborhood’s character, you can meet messed-up people at anytime of day, and especially when the bars close at 2:00 a.m.

There are also a fair number of weirdos and people wigging out on any number of substances. These people are mostly harmless, though it’s advisable not to talk to them, or shake their hands, which they will sometimes offer to you in hopes of gaining an opening to hit you up for a cigarette or for money. Just say no and ignore them or you'll have a new, needy and unpleasant friend.

The down-n-outers are a species of human life common to the inner city, to even a gentrified, upscale neighborhood such as this. I learned long ago to be very cool towards anybody who approaches me out of the blue trying to be friendly – it doesn’t mean they like you for your charming personality, it means they WANT something. I’m not mean – I just won’t give anybody any money, no matter how heart-wrenching their sob story is. And people do tell some whoppers.

I remember one freakazoid who approached me in front of a rather notorious 7 Eleven on Colfax and York a couple of years ago. He galloped up to me, bobbing, weaving and gasping in what I suppose was intended as a desperate genuflection. “Oh please sir,” he sobbed, “I just need a dollar so I can get across town to see my baby daughter who’s in the hospital. Can’t you help me out?” I was amused by his bizarre behavior, but not impressed. “No, man,” I said flatly as I got into the car and drove off.

Later that week, in front of another store on Colfax, the same guy came up to me with the same weird attempt at eliciting sympathy. This time I was less than amused but I laughed in his face as I was taking my keys from my pocket. A quarter fell out and clinked on the ground. The guy didn’t remember me, misread my actions and thought I was being friendly because I’d laughed. “Oh, thank you sir!” he gasped at me as he watched the quarter roll away. I said, “Dude, I just saw you two days ago up the street. Still haven’t made it across town, huh? Well there’s your quarter!” This guy had absolutely no pride -- he dropped down on all fours groping for the quarter on the asphalt.

I wasn’t trying to be mean, but I do not appreciate it when wastoids like that try to hustle me. Trust me, the guy had no sick daughter. This happened in front of a liquor store. Coincidence?

Some of you may remember that Wendi was mugged about a year and a half ago, while she and I were living apart. Her apartment building itself was very nice, but it happened to be just around the block from a rather notorious, four-block stretch of Colfax between Logan and Washington, which for a while was an open-air drug market. A lot of shady characters aimlessly circling the block and saying “Yo. Yo. Yo. Yo!” when you walk by.

The police have thankfully cracked down on that area in the past year or so – I personally can’t figure out why any street dealer would frequent the area, because you can’t go five minutes without a cop cruising by, but nobody ever said that street criminals are gifted with high intelligence. Anyway, that was a very traumatic experience for her (and me!), but thankfully they didn’t hurt her – just knocked her down and took her wallet.

Since living in Capitol Hill, we have been subject to more petty crimes than I can remember – a car window busted for no apparent reason, our locked bicycles stripped, Wendi’s scooter tipped over, etc. But our last straw with petty crime happened a few weeks ago, when Wendi’s scooter was clean stolen from behind our building.

Our downstairs neighbor saw it happen. Three guys and a truck came and just picked it up and took it away. He doesn’t know us (and even if he had, I certainly wouldn’t have expected him to intervene), but did his utmost by contacting the building manager Steve, who knew whose scooter it was and tried to call us – we weren’t at home.

The scooter theft was a big blow to us, because we were planning to sell it and hoped to get around $750 for it. Wendi filed a police report but because it had no registration (under 50ccs and you don’t have to register a scooter in Colorado), we of course know that we’ll never get it back.

It was terribly ironic. We’ve lived in Capitol Hill for a long time and both of us have parked that scooter all over the place for days at a time without incident, and just as we were about to sell it… gah!!!! C’est la vie, I guess.

I am really hoping that our shiny new Elantra won’t be subject to such indignities when we move to our new apartment in a couple weeks, but I can’t be too optimistic. Englewood is a suburb of Denver, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of crime. We are moving to a fairly nice apartment complex. But it’s large, which means that there’s an uncomfortable degree of anonymity, and in fact the nice lady who leased it to us said there has been some “recent activity.” We’re crossing our fingers.

Having said all of this, I will reiterate that Wendi and I both adore Capitol Hill. It is a truly beautiful urban neighborhood, warts and all. We simply can’t afford to live here and get the space we want and need for our screaming bundle of joy – who will be arriving in probably less than 3 months.

Housing prices in Capitol Hill ridiculous. Our two-bedroom apartment, with its tiny bathroom and lack of air conditioning, is priced as it is because of its location, not because it is so luxurious. A family of three simply cannot live in this neighborhood on $40,000 a year.

This is a symptom of the currently imploding housing bubble… which is a subject I have been following with great interest for a long time. But I’ll save my strong opinions on that phenomenon of mass psychology for another blog post in the future ;-)

And now for something COMPLETELY different!!!

My last post was about Led Zeppelin’s glorious “Rain Song”. Yeah I know it’s been a long time since I posted – sue me! Anyway, I thought I would make a few comments about alternate tunings, for those guitar players out there who are bored enough to actually spare a couple seconds to read this.

As mentioned previously, this song is played using a quite different tuning (DGCGCD) from the standard tuning (EADGBE) that we guitar playas know and love and on which we probably learned how to play. While it is possible to play this song in the standard tuning, it doesn’t sound nearly as good and is much more difficult to play that way.

Since my last post (was it really 5 months ago? Wow!), I have had one of our guitars tuned his way, to what I call “D Modal” tuning, and it has been a wonderful, refreshing experience for me. I’ve written a couple of new songs in the “Rain Song” tuning that sound nothing like “Rain Song,” and plan to record them as soon as I can, after we get settled in our new apartment. This tuning has a lovely, melancholy ambiguity, due to its being so friendly to suspended 2nd and 4th intervals. And it's great for getting a nice drone going.

I recommend alternative tunings to any guitar player who happens to find themselves stuck in a rut. All those classic chord shapes you learned by rote get thrown out the window, and you are forced to relearn your instrument. New chord voicings, progressions and harmonic possibilities will open up like a secret garden before your ears. You’ll be exploring the musical wilderness like a newborn wolf cub. It’s just plain fun! Plus, there are literally hundreds of other tunings of one variety or another that you can use to spice things up.

Try one or more of them. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.