Monday, October 19, 2009

Livability Indicator #14 - Homeless

"May society be judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable."


Well sort of. Perhaps, it might be better stated, as "homeless" by choice rather than by force. I've been contemplating this post for some time but couldnt find the right tone until it was inspired by a quote at Dallas Progress's downtown post:
A good friend of mine in real estate made an interesting statement about the homeless, which was "if you had more people downtown, you wouldn't notice the homeless because they would blend in with everyone else." When you compare Dallas to other cities, there are not a lot of homeless people. I have seen cities with a much higher population of homeless revitalize their downtown. What city lets 10-15 people walking around during the day asking for change affect what is going to happen in a given part of town? See how much sense that makes? The people that don't travel downtown because of the homeless folks probably will never come downtown anyway.
It is very true. Of all the places that I've lived in, studied in, or spent any significant amount of time, every single one still had homeless, except for one - the suburbs of my upbringing. However, the fundamental problem with that is when you talk to someone who has bought a house in PHX, or DFW, or ATL in the nether reaches of the metropolitan area replete with brand new shiny roads (sometimes with stars on them, high five!), these people will tell you they love their homes, their two car garage, their yard, their 2.5 baths, then you ask them what they don't like? Well, there is nothing to do. Or, what they spend most of their time doing? Watching TV.

These are people who have, for the most part, unwittingly withdrawn from society. How is this any different than the homeless who have done similarly either consciously or have been thrown out for any number of reasons and are castigated, ridiculed, or spit upon?

They're effectively saying, "I'm taking my ball and i'm going home. I don't want to deal with all the messiness and realities of cities and humanity itself." All take but no give. One could respond, "well, if cities are so dreadful, why would I want to live there?" Or, "that is why people left cities in the first place." The problem is that cities offer the only opportunity for real wealth creation, economic development, AND staving off of potential environmental catastrophe. Cities are the greatest engine of wealth generation ever devised in human history by the agglomeration of collective human capacity.

Instead, I would like to order one super highway to deliver me to the office twenty miles away. Yes, I would like a side of entertainment district and a stadium on top, where I can go once a year. Yes, I want a new arts district. More on that later, but back to the original quote.

The most powerful word from the oft-attributed quote at the top is "its" b/c whether we like it or not, they belong to us, in the extended family that is our city, that are our neighbors. We're all in this thing together. Investing in people is the greatest investment there is (with the greatest return)...or else we end up spending on ways to warehouse people in prisons or shelters.

In my personal experience around town as a downtown Dallas resident for over 18 months, never have I had anyone be anything but polite to the point of deference - although I have heard stories to the contrary. This, of course, is not surprising given the ever increasing amount of people who are being put on the streets or even entered life without opportunity or the ability to pursue happiness, as Jefferson decreed. I shudder to think as more and more get backed into a the corner of survival. Do they react like the animals we are? Does the veil of culture and civilization that has failed them (and keeps our animalistic heart at bay) get dropped for tools of violence and striking back?) Or are they suitably conditioned enough to accept their fate like puppies on electrified flooring?

Personally, I'm almost ashamed to admit that I very rarely give out anything to those that ask. One, because I rarely carry change or small bills. Two, b/c its illegal (although illegality rarely has anything to do with behavior). But lastly and most notably, b/c I can't offer them shelter, nor treatment, nor training or whatever else is needed to get them on their feet, perhaps justifying in my own mind that it's a lost generation that society has cast down its corporate toilet and that I'm better suited to build a city more capable of paying for itself, building wealth, and being more just. Offering the ability to pursue happiness to its newest and youngest members.

As for those already on the street, collectively however we can afford to do so and there are people who possess the skills capable of doing so. This was the original point of congregating together in packs, forming the original cities; caring for the most basic of human needs: common necessities such as food, protection, shelter, and safety. If we can't even support the most basic of human needs, what are we doing spending a billion dollars on cultural components, at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs?

In much of scandinavia (thinking mostly of Sweden and Denmark) the WORST problem their societies face is people taking advantage of the free education and staying in school too long. They too have homeless. Some are refugees from the middle east, others are squatters who chose to do so, b/c you know what, a society that provided free healthcare and education just wasn't for them. They willingly "opted out" choosing instead to make a life at the edges of the economy.

Take the hippy commune area Christiania, in Copenhagen, for example. People began camping out and set up essentially a squatters village. It's not a place I would like to spend more than ten minutes in again ever in my life, but they successfully defended what is now their home from eviction in favor of real estate development. It's essentially an "opt out" area and I'm ok with that.

The point is that homeless are everywhere and the issue comes down to that of fear. We certainly can't be fearful of those that are appropriately described as the weakest in our society. In actuality, what we are fearful of is directly addressing our societies inner problems; confronting the reality that our policies driven by whatever ideology are failing us. We'd prefer to spout off some spoon-fed dogma, because it's easier that way. Our conscience is clear when we redirect the blame.

A few weeks ago, I personified Dallas as a plastic surgerized divorcee. I'm starting to think that a better description might be that of Buffalo, not the buffalo bill of Dallas's fantasized cowboy mythology, but the Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs; a thoroughly corrupted individual that wants to dress himself in a literal epidermal veneer in order to feel 'pretty'.

So all of this brings me to the grand opening of the Arts District here in Downtown Dallas put on to much fanfare. And certainly it was quite the occasion, 30,000 people, fireworks, tours of the grand performing arts halls. Jewels each of them no doubt, of which Norman Foster has said about his own gem-shaped icon (of which I do think is a gorgeous individual building),

"This(winspear opera house) project is about the creation of a building that offers a truly democratic experience of opera for the 21st century,"

Is that so? Something bestowed by the kings of the city upon a people that turned down the bond package for the same project in an open election to be entirely privately financed? A gift to the people. Feels more like a gold plated, pre-reformation catholic church. Call me old fashioned, but I'd like to think that I would be able to come up with at least one hundred ways of better spending the hundreds upon hundred of millions of dollars that went into this rather hollow concoction.

Maybe with goals like, building wealth from the ground up or restoring the middle class, rather than one dependent upon the gifts of the gods - a middle class is democratic. Norman, generally admire your work, but i wonder if working in a singular crowd for so long has distorted your notion of what democratic is. Patronizing paternalism isn't it, but providing opportunity is. Maybe it takes Thomas Jefferson to say it:
"That liberty [is pure] which is to go to all, and not to the few or the rich alone."
To my last breath I will argue that the Wyly is the uglier of the two buildings when accepted as a building of the cityscape, but perhaps it's prison cell like configuration is more fitting for the rats running in place, hoping to one day be that multi-billionaire on-stage cutting a ribbon. The unending nihilism of the twin-architects (who now despise each other, btw - perhaps their belief in themselves in fact trumps their nihilism?) doesn't make for attractive buildings, but it does make for the kind of deep objectivity necessary for critical analysis of its audience. In that way, the Wyly actually is a work of art.

Homeless, public school kids, to whom it may concern, et al. I have a message for you. "It puts the lotion in the basket or else it gets the hose again."