The Conspiracy Line


By the 1960s, of the hundreds of streetcar lines that had once been a primary mode of transportation in cities and suburbs across the United States in the first half of the 20th century, only a small fraction still operated, and usually only in city centers. Competition from automobiles and buses was one cause for declining ridership of streetcars, and supposedly the costs of installing and maintaining lines was higher than costs associated with infrastructure for cars and buses. The history of what happened in the major mid-century makeover of American urban mass transit is muddled, and one explanation for it that keeps popping up has to do with the machinations of the automobile manufacturers, chiefly General Motors (GM).


The idea springs from how GM bought out streetcar lines around the country, and then dismantled the lines, junked the streetcars, and signed city governments to contracts for purchase and ongoing use of the buses GM manufactured. GM also sold cars to urban and suburban commuters who found themselves with fewer alternatives than they had before the 1920s, when the streetcar lines were still thriving. That’s a neat story, and it certainly fits in with the behavior we have come to expect of large corporations and the executives who run them, but in this case it turns out to be a little too neat and only partially true.

Purchase Street, New Bedford, Mass (68412)
A postcard circa 1930-1945 depicts Purchase Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Photo from the Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection.

Market forces generated by consumer preferences played the greatest part in the decline of ridership on streetcar lines starting in the 1920s and accelerating through the next quarter century. The streetcar lines were privately owned and the companies bore the costs of maintaining the tracks they operated on and other infrastructure costs, even though they used the same publicly maintained roads as buses and cars. The streetcar lines were more and more at a competitive disadvantage as public money benefited those other modes of transportation and as consumers came to prefer the relative freedom of driving their own cars or taking buses that weren’t restricted to tracks.

Comforting as it might be to blame the automobile and gasoline industries for ripping up streetcar tracks around the nation, depriving commuters of a useful commuting option, the truth in this case is that the public shoulders the greater responsibility. Individual consumers operating in their own self-interest took advantage of cheap gasoline and publicly financed road building, such as the interstate highway system started in the 1950s, to buy at least one car for every household. In most cities, taxpayers balked at public ownership of the streetcar lines, a move which would have saved many of the lines from the corporate scavenging that ultimately killed them off. In other words, GM and other auto and gas corporate interests didn’t precipitate the demise of the streetcar lines, but neither did they mourn their loss, and ultimately, of course, GM and the others profited greatly from the makeover of the American transportation system.

By the time of the 1959 release of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the streets of Manhattan were dominated by vehicular traffic, and mass transit options for New Yorkers were limited to subways and buses. Bernard Herrmann composed the music for the film, and Saul Bass designed the titles. The director makes his cameo appearance at the end of the title sequence.

More than a half century after streetcars were all but wiped off the map in America, they are coming back in spots like Brooklyn, driven by the desire of some people to get around town without the hassles of car ownership, the pollution of cars and buses, the blight of enormous parking lots, and the swallowing up of green spaces for more roads to alleviate the congestion on existing roads, only to have the new roads fill up as well. Streetcars powered by electricity generate pollution at a remove, to be sure, but as more power plants use renewable energy sources, that problem should lessen. Meanwhile, building out more mass transit infrastructure should take off the road some of the oversized vehicles too many Americans appear to love, and which the automobile makers and the fossil fuel industry love turning out for them since they are highly profitable. It has taken a century for Americans to learn anew the value of mass transit options like streetcars, and perhaps soon, before we reach the end of the line, gridlock on the roads will clear, and so will the air everywhere.
— Vita


Hepcats Build Green


“A person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns esp. in music; characterized by a keen informed awareness of or interest in the newest developments.”
— definition of a Hepcat from The World of Swing, Newsletter #2, October 2000.

An 18 story building in Brumunddal, Norway, has taken over the title of world’s tallest timber building after its completion this month. The construction firm Moelven Limitre used cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glued laminated timber (Glulam) to assemble the building’s structural elements. Until the recent development of laminated wood products capable of bearing heavy loads (unlike plywood, another laminated wood product), building heights of more than four or five stories were simply not possible using a wooden structure. For constructing buildings in the middle range of story heights, wood may be a greener alternative than steel, concrete, and brick, all of which have high environmental impacts in their production.


The good news in green building is that there are more options than ever, certainly more than the few allotted to the three little pigs in the story for children. Some of these, like straw bale building, will likely never be more than niche choices because of building code hurdles, expense of materials or labor in installation, or maintenance difficulties. Unusual building choices also often require specialized knowledge in their implementation if they are to be successful, and that can add to cost as well as scare off those unwilling to try something with a relatively high chance of failure. Working with wood or with steel and concrete has the advantage of familiarity, even considering new contrivances like wood laminates.

Straw bale house x - Dyssekilde økolandsby ecovillage Denmark
A straw bale house in Denmark. Photo by Øyvind Holmstad.

Anyone in decent physical condition with access to a supply of timber and a hammer and saw could assemble a wooden building using balloon framing, also known as stick building. Since stick building was typically limited to two or three stories at most, it was best used for residential or small business construction. Building with brick or concrete, and especially with steel, required more knowledge and experience, but the buildings could be made much higher than wooden stick buildings, and so they were more suitable for large commercial enterprises and apartment buildings. For all of the twentieth century there existed a bifurcation in building types and uses based on the divide between materials and the expertise and expense involved in assembling them.


The Emlen Physick House in Cape May, New Jersey, designed in 1879 in the “Stick Style” by architect Frank Furness. Library of Congress photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

Now there is a crossing of the lines, and helpfully it is the search for green options that appears to be causing architects, builders, and the ultimate occupants of the buildings to cross them. For more people than ever before, it is important that a new way of building and living incorporate materials and methods that leave a lighter footprint on the Earth. Certainly the pricing for these novel uses will be high, at least at first, and affordable only to elites, but that’s alright since historically it has been elites who, per capita, have had the heaviest footprints. There are far more poor people than rich people, unfortunately, and in the aggregate they demand a lot of resources, but individually their requisites are relatively light. In the nineteenth century, the Plains Indians required only a few buffalo hides for their individual shelter, while a Manhattan plutocrat deemed it necessary to amass expensive materials from every corner of the Earth to plop himself and his family down in an enormous mansion on 5th Avenue.

An imaginative 1957 reframing of “The Three Little Pigs” by a wonderful ensemble of animators, musicians, and storytellers.

If conspicuous consumption gives way to conspicuous greening then that’s a move in the right direction, and if prices and usage comes down to the level of ordinary folks, it will have become a movement. It’s definitely better for everyone if builders start looking at environmental impacts as equal to or greater than the lowest possible cost for everything, and consequently the highest possible profit for themselves. That should apply most of all to manufactured housing, typically the lowest cost option of all, but also often the most dangerous to its occupants because of the prevalence of noxious materials, heavy reliance on energy for heating and cooling, and flimsy construction. After Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, a movement started to design and build quality, humble cottages for the poor, and that movement needs rejuvenation if large gains are ever to be made in going green because the idea behind them would change whole neighborhoods and cities eventually, from the ground up rather than the top down, the way green grows naturally.
— Izzy


Powering Down


A strong nor’easteror northeaster, if you prefer – is causing havoc along the east coast from North Carolina to Maine and into Canada to kick off the first weekend of March 2018. Nor’easters typically occur in the colder months, almost always in the eastern third of the country, though occasionally slightly farther west, as in November 1975 when a storm whipped up Lake Superior, sinking the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, and they can be as destructive as hurricanes when taking into account the wider swath and longer duration of a nor’easter over a hurricane. Blizzards with heavy snowfall, downpours and consequent flooding, beach erosion, and power outages and damage to houses, businesses, and infrastructure from gale force winds, all can be attributed to nor’easters.


The winds of a nor’easter never reach the highest speeds of hurricanes, but even 30 and 40 mile per hour winds in winter can cause trees and tree limbs to topple onto overhead power lines. The ground does not dry out as quickly in winter as in summer, and that can make the difference between a tree staying upright in high winds or falling over. Add the weight of snow and sometimes ice, and not only tree limbs and trees fall, but even utility poles may snap off at ground level. It’s not uncommon then to hear reports during a strong nor’easter, such as the one currently blowing along the upper east coast, of millions of utility customers being without power, sometimes for days.

WinslowHomer-Eight Bells 1886
Eight Bells, an 1886 painting by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

After every particularly bad storm that causes massive power outages, many people want to know why in this country most of the power lines are still above ground, where they are vulnerable to storm damage. They want to know why more of the lines aren’t buried, seemingly out of harm’s way. The blizzard of 1888 brought New York City to a standstill, and the effect was that city leaders made a determination afterward to start placing essential services underground, in particular building a subway system to help city inhabitants keep moving no matter what the weather. Putting in new facilities at a time when the city was still in the process of being built out to its full potential turned out to be not as disruptive and expensive as it would be today, now that every square mile of Manhattan real estate has something already built on it.


Alley behind Connecticut Avenue, N.W. - Blizzard of 2010
An alley behind Connecticut Avenue, N.W., in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with power lines weighed down by heavy, wet snow from the blizzard of February 2010. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid.

Developers building new upper middle class subdivisions sometimes put the power lines underground because those developments can absorb the extra cost, typically 10 times more than overhead lines, and because the pleasing aesthetics and perceived security of underground lines enhance property values. There are drawbacks, often overlooked, such as the vulnerability of any overhead lines feeding into the new development, and the increased time and expense for power company crews to locate and fix compromised underground lines. One of the ways an underground power line can become compromised is through flooding, in which water or even water vapor will find its way into any vulnerability in the line’s sheathing and short out the line. Lines are usually buried from 24 to 48 inches deep, which in most cases is deep enough to insulate them from digging accidents and the soil water pressure of ordinary rainfall. In floods, however, the soil can become so waterlogged that pressure builds high enough to force its way in toward the power line.

There is no one absolute answer to lessening the risk of losing power during a storm, other than to disengage from the power grid entirely. For those who remain hooked in to the grid, some peace of mind can be had by purchasing a portable generator or installing a standby generator. Power companies should put more of this country’s grid underground in spots where the benefits can be greatest, leaving the rest of it above ground where the costs are prohibitive. Utility customers may wail once again about all the damaged above ground lines once this latest nor’easter has moved on out to the open ocean, but they often quiet down once they hear how much their power bill would have to be hiked and for how long in order to pay for putting the service below ground. The people who have it worst in some ways during a storm and for days or weeks afterward are the power company workers who have to be outside in dreadful conditions doing what is a dangerous job even in sunny, balmy weather, and is many times worse in soaking rain, blowing snow, pelting ice, and winds that could throw anyone off course.
— Vita


Love of Life


“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
— William Blake (1757-1827), Auguries of Innocence

Biophilia – love of life – is a term popularized by the American biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson in his research and books of the last two decades of the twentieth century. Mr. Wilson was interested in how humans appear to require some connection with nature no matter how much the modern world tends to divorce them from that connection. City dwellers in particular may be live amidst steel and concrete structures to such an extent that they never step on grass in the course of an average day, but they still will find comfort at home in tending a few houseplants and a pet or two. Mr. Wilson proposed that the need to maintain a connection with nature was so pervasive in humans that it went beyond culture to genetics, and was therefore innate and undeniable. Humans may pretend to be above nature and separate from it, but their genetics and behavior said otherwise.

Central Park-from Rock Center2
Looking north at Central Park from the top of Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. 2009 photo by Piotr Kruczek.

Scientific research since then has confirmed Mr. Wilson’s hypothesis, some of it confirming common sense notions such as how hospital patients with window views of trees and greenery appeared to recover faster than ones with a view of the building next door. The idea of biophilia itself appeals to common sense, but science needs to quantify things, and that’s for the best because there have after all been other notions in the past which seemed common sense, such as the Sun revolving around the Earth. Lately there has been a resurgence in belief that the Earth is flat, though it’s hard to tell just how seriously Flat Earthers expect to be taken by everyone else, or even by themselves.

Everyday proof of biophilia, however, seems so commonplace that it is hard to refute. Still, there are people who live for making their environment as sterile and devoid of nature as possible, and it seems there are more of them now than ever. Children especially seem to have withdrawn from nature both on their own and because of their parents’ protective instincts. Children now spend an inordinate amount of their time in front of screens, and much of the remainder of their time is structured education or play. They are seldom left on their own to scratch around in the dirt in their backyards and observe the ants at work, as Edward O. Wilson himself did for countless hours as a youngster and, indeed, as an adult, since his specialty as a biologist has been myrmecology, the study of ants.

Central Park west
A western part of the 843 acres of Central Park in New York City. Recent appraisals of the value of Central Park’s 1 and 1/4 square miles of prime real estate in the middle of Manhattan are well over $500 billion. May biophilia influence New Yorkers for generations to come so that they continue to prize Central Park for its connection to nature rather than its speculative value in dollars. Photo by Ad Meskens.

The steep drop in hands-on discovery of nature among the latest generation does not bode well for future conservation measures when those children grow up and start making their own decisions. Reading about a tree in a book can take a person only so far without the furtherance of education granted by resting under the shade of a tree on a hot day. Even the tactile act of reading a paper book, its pages made from trees, gives the senses a greater depth and breadth of perception than reading from an electronic screen. We are animals, with the senses of animals, and we engage the world through those senses every bit as much as we engage it with our brains, even when we are cut off from nature. But with a lack of input from our senses our decisions about the natural world are likely ill-informed, and much as we might try to help conserve animals, plants, and resources, we are not doing as much as we could because they are not part of our everyday world. How can you love the natural world which supports you if you cut yourself off from it and avoid embracing it with not only your intelligence, but with all your senses so that you can feel it as well as know it, and understand thereby you are a part of it and not separate from it?
— Izzy


Things That Matter


“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
― Martin Luther King, Jr.

Back in 2014, after New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a choke hold, which along with compression of the asthmatic Garner’s chest from having Pantaleo on top of him when he was on the ground, led to Garner’s death, a grand jury in Richmond County on Staten Island, where the altercation took place, refused to indict Pantaleo even though the medical examiner had ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Police were trying to arrest Mr. Garner in July for selling loose cigarettes. Eleven times Mr. Garner protested “I can’t breathe!” Officer Pantaleo pushed Mr. Garner’s face into the pavement. A bystander filmed everything using his cell phone.

After the grand jury decision in December, 2014, not to indict Officer Pantaleo, protests erupted in New York City and elsewhere around the country. Later that month a man shot and killed two New York City police officers, possibly in revenge for the grand jury decision. At the funeral for one of the officers, many New York City police turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio when he delivered a eulogy, believing his public condemnation of Officer Pantaleo’s actions earlier in the year led to the murder of their two colleagues. The police officers’ feelings on the matter were inflamed by the rhetoric of their union leader, Patrick Lynch.

Eric Garner Protest 4th December 2014, Manhattan, NYC (15947700981)
“No Justice, No Peace”; the Eric Garner Protest on 4 December 2014 in Manhattan, New York City. Photo by The All-Nite Images.

It’s not as if the murder of Eric Garner by a New York City police officer was an isolated incident, an anomaly. There had already been a long history of overly aggressive police tactics, particularly against minorities, aggravated in recent years by the unconstitutional and demeaning “stop and frisk” tactic, also particularly used against minorities. Mayor de Blasio criticized some police tactics during his campaign for office, and that did not set well with Patrick Lynch. When Mr. de Blasio became mayor at the beginning of 2014, tensions between himself and much of the police force were high, and after his public comments about the Eric Garner murder, the stage was set for a confrontation.

In a few incidents since then, some New York City police officers have expressed their displeasure with the Mayor by turning their backs on him in public. They have exercised their First Amendment rights to free expression while in uniform, on the taxpayers’ dime. Very well. That is nonetheless within their rights. Their protest, however, in its petulant contempt for the mayor, overlooks the role of one of their own, Officer Pantaleo, in touching off all the criticism of them and of how they too often are unaccountable when they abuse their power.

The nationwide protests of the grand jury decision were a criticism of abusive police power louder than anything Mayor de Blasio ever said. In turning their backs on him, the police were turning their backs on all Americans who were fed up with their abuses. The police, egged on by the bellicose Patrick Lynch, were attacking the messenger, Mayor de Blasio, rather than examining their own complicity in the retaliation that resulted in the deaths of their colleagues. Everyone has a right to protest, to express in public their criticism of policies and tactics they abhor. That is honorable. It is not equivalent to the public expression of grievance over criticism that you shouldn’t kill someone because he doesn’t like being harassed for selling loose cigarettes on the sidewalk.
― Vita

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.”
― Martin Luther King, Jr.