Saturday, February 24, 2007

what would jane say?

a weighty jury including ronald shiffman (director emeritus of the pratt center for community development), john reddick (education director at the central park conservancy), arts patron agnes gund (president emerita of moma), cooper union president george campbell jr., “the new yorker” architecture critic paul goldberger, and david rockefeller jr. will decide on recipients of the newly created “jane jacobs medal.” this award will honor the activist, author, and urbanist who helped stop the desecration wrought by robert moses on new york city. two “jane jacobs medals” will be awarded by the rockefeller foundation annually to living individuals “whose creative vision for the urban environment has significantly contributed to the vibrancy and variety of new york city.”

at stake in award of these medals are prizes totaling $200,000, with one medal recognizing leadership and lifetime contributions while the other will recognize new ideas and activism reflecting jane jacob’s ideals. together, the two medalists will represent the creativity, innovation, and dynamism of gotham.

working with the rockefeller foundation to administer these medals will be the municipal art society of new york, a private, nonprofit organization that promotes a more livable city through advocacy in urban design and planning, contemporary architecture, historic preservation, and public art. interestingly, the rockefeller foundation had an important--though little known--relationship to jacobs, who died at the age of 89 in april 2006.

in the 1950s, the rockefeller foundation launched an “urban design studies program” that helped foster the emergence of urban design and theory. as part of this groundbreaking initiative, the foundation issued a grant to jane jacobs, the then-obscure writer from greenwich village, to research and write “the death and life of great american cities”--now considered a classic.

beyond her writing and theory--which re-evaluated the balance between the needs of urban environments and those of living communities--jane jacobs is revered for her legendary and successful street activism against robert moses’ proposed lower manhattan expressway that inspired communities internationally as well as in new york city and the united states. had that expressway gone through, its construction would have decimated neighborhoods such as the village and soho.

sadly, new york city lost its indomitable champion when jacobs--a vociferous opponent of the vietnam war--exiled herself from the u.s. in 1968 in order to prevent her two draft-age sons from having to serve in that conflict. jacobs settled in toronto, where she resumed her visible neighborhood activism and her architect husband found ample work. ultimately, she became a canadian citizen in the mid-1970s.

set for a june 2007 announcement, the award ceremony will occur in september to coincide with an exhibit on jacobs opening at the municipal art society. nominations for the “jane jacobs medal” must be electronically submitted to the rockefeller foundation by 5 pm on march 2. with assets in excess of $3.5 billion, the foundation is one of the nation's largest.

for more information on jacobs and the award, go to:

Friday, February 23, 2007

pushing congress on the “safe climate act”

be sure to contribute to prevention of horrible eventualities posed by global warming--from chronic coastal area flooding and indefensible drawdowns of great lakes water levels to ever more destructive hurricanes. working toward solutions to global warming can be a challenge to bring us together as a society--and will leave our earth a better place for future generations. environmentally sound solutions we seek could potentially reap dividends for our economy and eventual energy security.

to prevent our being paralyzed by such a large issue, we can break from individual inertia and find accomplishable success. congress has offered us such a possibility with congressmember henry waxman's introduction of the “safe climate act.” if its objectives are realized, this science-based measure could reduce global warming pollution by 80% over the next 50 years. Bold action called for in this legislation includes: freezing u.s. greenhouse gas emissions to 2009 levels in 2010, starting in 2011 to cut emissions by approximately 2% annually and reach 1990 emissions levels by 2020, and cutting post-2020 emission by about 5% annually. it is hoped and projected that--by 2050--emissions will be 80% lower than 1990. such goals are similar to those announced by prime minister tony blair and governor arnold schwarzenegger with initiatives previously undertaken.

countering global warming demands nothing less. get your member of congress to co-sponsor the “safe climate act” and ask your friends and family to do the same. using the following link from “environment michigan” provides you an easy way to urge your representative’s co-sponsorship of the “safe climate act”--regardless of what state you reside in:

or you can use their suggested text and urge co-sponsorship by snail-mail:

"as power plants and cars spew out more global warming pollution, we will see rising sea levels along the eastern seaboard, more intense storms in the gulf, droughts in the west, and more dangerous heat waves across the country. but if we act now, and act decisively, we can stop global warming and protect future generations. i urge you to co-sponsor the “safe climate act,” which would prevent the worst effects of global warming by setting science-based limits to reduce global warming pollution by at least 15-20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050."

if you do not know your member of congress, you can find out who represents you and how to "sound off" to them at:

if you have any energy left over after this citizenly exercise, why not ask your senators to support legislation equivalent to the “safe climate act”?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

la chascona #4: peter balakian

while best known for his nonfiction such as “the burning tigris: the armenian genocide & america’s response” and the acclaimed pen/martha albrand prize-winning memoir “black dog of fate,” the poetry of colgate university english professor and guggenheim fellow peter balakian is sublime. though “black dog of fate” can be looked at in terms of its vibrant poetic nuances, balakian’s poetry books “father fisheye” (1979), “sad days of light” (1983), “reply from wilderness island” (1988), “dyer’s thistle,” and “june-tree: new and selected poems, 1974-2000” pop from the page.

pathos and whimsy tie together radically different historical milieus in balakian’s poetry to recall forced marches in anatolia, brutality and atrocities inflicted by turks against armenians in the 20th century‘s first genocide, and the social/cultural upheaval experienced by baby boomers from their childhoods in the fifties and sixties and beyond.

the sounds, sights, and smells of america’s “golden age of plenty”--the lawns, trips, college rite de passage--and the aching call of that privilege come to life in his wondrous verse. the realization that life and images explored by balakian--so absolutely american in scope--occur a mere handful of decades after those atrocities claimed his relatives and other armenians makes his poetry all the more poignant. hear the sound of a suburban new jersey lawn being watered. feel the cognitive dissonance of passing from the “new deal” paradigm to the more darwinist ethos of the 1980s. picture the outlook of a boy coming of age in relation to his parents. these and so many more twists and turns make peter balakian’s poetry a true powerhouse in which the reader has the privilege of traveling between whimsy and tragedy on a single page!

In “rock ’n roll,” balakian’s word economy gives the reader dividends unimaginable:
“I wasn't a fool in a satin tux.
I was Persian gold and blue chenille,
I was the son of the Black Dog of Fate.”

his verse travels back from teaneck and tenafly to give us a glimpse of the horrendous suffering on the march from diarbakir (and other horrors inflicted by turks) to the miraculous acclimation of survivors to a new continent and society with their resultant hopes, silences, and resurgence. in “end of the reagan era,” we make amazing leaps from a citation to willa cather and visions of saffron maple leaves to the distance between blue and red states in a struggle for the hearts and minds of america.

while it can take your breath away, peter balakian’s poetry is a trip so worth traveling.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

40th anniversary of “society’s child”

released in march 1967, janis ian’s landmark composition “society’s child (baby, i‘ve been thinking),” (which she recorded in 1966 at the age of 15) was largely ignored because its account of an interacial romance forbidden by the narrator's mother and frowned upon by peers and teachers was considered “too hot to handle.”

“society’s child” exploded onto the scene in 1967 when classical composer/conductor leonard bernstein featured janis ian and the song on his cbs tv special, “inside pop: the rock revolution.” (remember that in this pre-cable period--when most americans received only three or four television channels--television shows such as this had infinitely more impact.) the program’s resultant publicity allowed “society’s child” a #14 on the national billboard charts that summer by virtue of its reaching #1 or top 10 status in isolated “markets,” although most radio stations across the u.s. feared the song and refused to play it (either quietly removing it from their play lists or banning the song outright).

reflect on these lyrics written by ian (while waiting for her guidance counselor) and try to imagine the resultant furor that spawned apocryphal tales of disc jockeys beaten or radio stations burned down for playing the song:

Come to my door, baby,
Face is clean and shining black as night.
My mother went to answer you know
That you looked so fine.
Now I could understand your tears and your shame,
She called you “boy” instead of your name.
When she wouldn't let you inside,
When she turned and said“But honey, he's not our kind.”
She saysI can't see you any more, baby,
Can't see you anymore.
Walk me down to school, baby,
Everybody's acting deaf and dumb.
Until they turn and say,
“Why don't you stick to your own kind.”
My teachers all laugh, the smirking stares,
Cutting deep down in our affairs.
Preachers of equality,
Think they believe it, then why won't they just let us be?
They say I can't see you anymore baby,
Can't see you anymore.
One of these days I'm gonna stop my listening
Gonna raise my head up high.
One of these days I'm gonna raise up my glistening wings and fly.
But that day will have to wait for a while.
Baby I'm only society's child.
When we're older things may change,
But for now this is the way, they must remain.
I say I can't see you anymore baby,
Can't see you anymore.
No, I don't want to see you anymore, baby.

amazingly, these painful words shared the airwaves (in those cities in which it was “permitted“) in june 1967 with other such gems as petula clark’s “don‘t sleep in the subway,” the association’s “windy,” the jefferson airplane’s “somebody to love,” procol harum’s “whiter shade of pale,” spanky & our gang’s “sunday will never be the same,” the doors’ “light my fire,” the fifth dimension’s “up up & away,” van morrison’s “brown eyed girl,” nancy sinatra’s “jackson,” the turtles’ “she’d rather be with me,” scott mckenzie’s “san franscisco,” and stevie wonder’s “i was made to love her.” notably this period included the tense days of the “six day war.”

“society’s child” was produced by george “shadow” morton who also produced the shangri-las (of “leader of the pack” fame) and was working with vanilla fudge and janis ian at the same time. artie butler’s intense respective harpsichord and organ intro and ending of “society’s child” never fail to send shivers through those who remember the song and its impact. because the song was recorded onto only eight tracks (an industry advance at the time), butler had to run back and forth between the two instruments during the recording session.

although becoming a hit with verve records (which also recorded ian’s fellow high school of music & art alumna laura nyro at the beginning of her career), “society's child” was originally recorded for atlantic records. the latter company paid for the session but quietly returned the master after they heard the song, saying they could not release it. years later, according to ian, jerry wexler (then president of atlantic) apologized publicly to her for this, supposedly telling ian that, “if any company should have released “society's child,’ it was us.”

rightly recognized by the grammy hall of fame for its timelessness and influence in music history, “society’s child” was inducted into that canon in 2001. (the song garnered a grammy nomination for “best folk performance” in 1966.) some may better remember janis ian for 1970’s “jessie,” (parleyed by roberta flack into a pop standard) and ian’s 1975 gargantuan hit “at seventeen.”

armenian genocide resolution again introduced

more than 160 members of the house have added their names as co-sponsors of house resolution 106--the armenian genocide resolution. lead sponsor congressmen adam schiff (d-ca), joined with george radanovich (r-ca) and congressional armenian caucus co-chairs frank pallone (d-nj) and joe knollenberg (r-mi) to announce the support of that considerable number of their house colleagues for the introduction of this resolution.

joining these four members of congress as original cosponsors of the armenian genocide resolution are brad sherman (d-ca) and thaddeus mccotter (r-mi), both of whom are senior members of the house foreign affairs committee as well as strong supporters of recognizing this historic tragedy. prior to coming to a vote on the house floor, this proposed legislation will have to pass that committee.

h.r. 106 is similar to legislation introduced during the previous congressional session. while the house international relations committee (now the foreign affairs committee) overwhelmingly approved that resolution, its final passage was blocked by former house speaker dennis hastert (r-il). hopefully, the change in house leadership will finally lead to passage of this long overdue legislation.

debate on this resolution must spotlight the state department’s dismissal of ambassador john evans (who cited the historic reality of the armenian genocide) and the bush ii administration’s outrageous nomination of richard hoagland to serve as u.s. envoy to armenia (despite his denial of that genocide, which claimed 1.5 million). the inspirational courage of turkish writer hrant dink--whose recent murder in istanbul was incited by the turkish government’s outrageous campaign of denial, cover-ups, intimidation, and violence--forms an awesome backdrop to these developments.

please contact your members of congress to support this bipartisan legislation with their co-sponsorship. for more information, and to monitor congressional sponsorship of house resolution 106, contact the armenian national committee of america at

Monday, February 19, 2007

amtrak: destination holland, michigan

“how 1940s of you!” mused a manhattan friend of michigan origins when i told him of my plans to travel by train to visit my parents in the wolverine state.

at 3:30 on a saturday afternoon i walked down sidewalks on 7th and 8th avenues--teaming with people out shopping in the nippy weather. not much more than an hour later--ensconced in a large seat on amtrak’s lakeshore limited with lots of leg room--frozen ponds and the hudson‘s icy floes passed by. these stretches of icy marshes and bogs along america’s first river provided a backdrop for earnest snipes and other birds oblivious to our incursion.

with its bluffs and wooded groves, the train route from new york city to albany-rensaleer is inspirational. not having been up this way since a syracuse-bound trip in october 1987, i was accompanied on this journey is doris kearns goodwin’s “team of rivals: the political genius of abraham lincoln.” its riveting documentation of partisan politics and intrigue is more than familiar to one living in 2007. if you haven’t read this wonderful 2005 book by simon & schuster already, it provides a great window upon our nation’s worst war (our civil war having a higher american death toll than that of all the wars the u.s. has fought up through the first five years of the vietnam conflict). albany--with its newly (and tastefully) renovated station--yielded a nice stretch and a cup of coffee that my rush to get to penn station didn’t allow.

at some point in the snowy expanse of upstate new york, reading eyes surrendered to sleep--interrupted in rochester when flashlight wielding green-uniformed representatives of the border patrol came on board. “that your bag there?” one asked me while shining a flashlight into my sleepy eyes. when i answered “yes,” they were on their way down the car asking the same of others. they exited a few minutes later accompanied by four spanish-speaking individuals handcuffed to each other--one of whom sought assistance in rapid voice on his cell phone as he was led off the train. [on the return trip on march 1, a chinese gentleman came under their scrutiny--being interrogated in full view of other passengers.]

the bucolic scene at erie, pa.--with flurries bombarding that station’s sign--marked exit from the empire state’s large expanse. in dark early morning hours, a bright electronic sign at the stadium home of the cleveland browns overlooked that city's lakefront station.
we stopped in toledo to welcome--and bid farewell--to the number of detroit passengers who utilize that station. white encrusted farmland in indiana followed: straw remains of last year’s crop peeking above the snow. stops in south bend and elkart followed--our train blessed with a retinue of amish citizens. here, however, things got sticky. we trailed four freight trains that “took precedence” over us. what that meant was a substantial wait--making us several hours late for our 9:45 am chicago arrival. at one point, our train had to reverse itself to allow a freight train through on these undedicated tracks.

in chicago, i walked toward the loop and marveled at the icy waterways pictured above--passing by on a michigan avenue bridge named after that city’s mayor of the gangsters, william hale “big bill” thompson. snack wraps and coffee called from a food court a few blocks from the train station where i ingested the fast food and read about the incompetence of the prickly and disobedient union general george mcclellan.

unlike new york city’s penn station, in which passengers just board amtrak’s trains, chicago’s union stations is more “airport-like,” with its calls for elderly and people with small children to board first. competing for seats with scores of young girls and their parents--in chicago for a gymnastics competition--at 5:15 p.m. i made my way down the platform to the three doubledecker cars of the pere marquette en route to grand rapids via new buffalo, st. joseph, bangor/south haven, and holland. my minor descents into dreamland were broken by the antics of young girls playing tricks on their parents. (the latter quickly had dvds going to keep their daughters mollified by movies.)

the pere marquette chugged into a snowy, well-lit holland, michigan station at nearly 10 p.m. on sunday--its parking lot filled with cars of those greeting arrivals. as i drove home with my parents in their suv, the three doubledecker cars followed behind their chugging engine into the blustery night toward their final destination of the furniture city.

our blood & treasure

a sniper’s bullet took the life of a 20 year old marine in early december 2006 in iraq’s al anbar province.

this marine’s father and i grew up near each other in california’s bay area and new york’s staten island during the “new frontier”/“great society” years when our respective fathers--both career service members--had similar postings. the young marine’s father and i both had younger brothers around the same age. our connection was that typical of preadolescent males at that time: riding our bikes, building “forts,” and hanging out with other abundant baby boomers.

the young marine's father and i parted ways the summer before second grade (1966) when his father was transferred. i didn’t run into him again until late in the summer of 1976 when he--enlisted in the military himself--was posted in my michigan “hometown.” my senior year in high school had just begun when i picked up slain marine's father at muskegon airport and brought him to his new post the next day. who would've thought that our country would again so miscalculate?

thirty years later his son is killed on the other side of the globe and i wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of what to say to him. in fact, i wonder whether words can even help in such a tragic situation. perhaps they do more harm than good?

and, perhaps, our presence in iraq does more harm than good as well. issues of oil and geopolitics aside, there is the fact of our mediating a civil war between sunni and shiite muslims. is that mediation between these relentless fanatics worth the blood of young americans?

in my humble opinion, the answer is “no,” but then i am only one american. i wonder how the families of british soldiers killed in northern ireland during the “troubles” felt about losing their loved ones to mediate that senseless conflict between warring presbyterian and roman catholic extremists in their respective “ulster defense” and “irish republican” factions. today, do those families feel the lives of people in northern ireland were worth the lives of their sons? i just wonder…

at very least, in the civil war that raged in vietnam when young marine's father and i were in grade school and junior high, our “enemy,” ho chi minh cautioned his people on radio broadcasts that americans were basically a good people: that the actions of the u.s. government were an aberration. today’s sunni and shiite iraqis largely hate us--across the board--as americans.

i am grateful for americans who willingly put their lives on the line for our “freedom.” it would be so much better if this effort and sacrifice were built upon reality and truth rather than self-serving and expedient rhetoric. while i am not--in any way--a major fan of my state’s junior senator, i do agree with hillary rodham clinton on her strong words to the iraqi “government” that “they cannot rely on the blood and treasure of america any longer.”

please pray for the many thousands of families whose lives have been turned upside down by this tragic conflict.

saving valuable ecosystems

while visiting my hometown, i found out about a most worthwhile organization called the “land conservancy of western michigan.” whether this particular organization or other like initiatives closer to home (including the land trust alliance and new york‘s pound ridge land conservancy), such groups that keep nature nearby have a number of advantages. any number of ecosystems--bogs, beaches, woods, and wetlands--are protected for locals and visitors by these initiatives. preserved land initiatives benefit all of us, especially providing a valuable legacy for generations to follow. natural areas preserved closer to larger population centers allow more people to enjoy the wild without squandering fossil fuels and contributing to greenhouse emissions. naturalists at lcwm and other land conservancy initiatives take students--of all ages--on guided hikes through nature preserves. by providing volunteer opportunities and the ability to make new friends, these land conservancy initiatives help build a badly needed sense of community in addition to preserving threatened ecosystems. not only are financial contributions to land conservancies tax deductible, but landowners who permanently protect their property by turning it over to preserves, donating conservation easements, and conserving river frontage might find themselves eligible for income, estate, or property tax benefits.

in new york, governor eliot spitzer’s executive budget for 2007-08 contains a $1 million appropriation for the new york state conservation partnership program--representing a 100% increase over the current year’s appropriation. if approved by the new york state legislature, this will make a huge difference in the ability to build land trust capacity and advance land protection projects in new york state.

[last august, federal tax incentives were added that allow conservation easement donors to receive increased deductions in any given year from 30% to 50% of the donor’s adjusted income. additionally, easement donors will be able to “carry-forward” any unused portion of their charitable contribution for 15 years, up from the previous five-year limit. unfortunately, this offer is time-limited. these new federal tax incentives will be in place for easements donated between january 2006 and december 2007 only--tax benefits that conservation organizations will attempt to make permanent. tax benefits for qualified conservation easements differ markedly by state.]

the 3,000 natural acres preserved by lcwm (and countless acreage preserved by equivalent conservancies across the united states) allow us to hear the myriad sounds of the outdoors--all the chirps, hoots, squeaks, and squawks. dedication to undeveloped areas can be an inspiration to people across various lines of experience.

land conservancy of western michigan:
the nature conservancy
land trust alliance (new york)
pound ridge land conservancy