Some Thoughts on “Gang Leader for a Day”

Again cleaning out some old notes and writing, I came across some thoughts I had about the book “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets” and the subsequent discussion we had about it in book club. I started to write this, but felt I needed to do some additional research to back up some of my ideas, and shelved it. Dunno if I’ll ever get around to doing the research, but the ideas I had are interesting, at least.

We were talking about the architecture of the Robert Taylor Homes, and how it was, to some extent ill-suited to Chicago and the climate, and about the galleries being built outside, etc. and I was thinking about that and what I have skimmed from the Christopher Alexander book “A Pattern Language” about how profoundly architectural components can affect us and how we interact as a family, a neighborhood and a community, etc., and it made me wonder if they had, when they had decided to build the projects, taken an entirely different approach to building for low-income families, whether there would have been an different outcome.

For example, the way the buildings were constructed had a lot of influence on how the people interacted as a community. People were required to live in a fashion that was more intimate than other communities might have been, and it forced dependencies on people like Mrs. Bailey that wouldn’t have existed in other settings.

Architecture also had a powerful effect on how the gangs were able to seize control of the buildings and use them – controlling halls and stairwells, using empty apartments, etc. I wondered if that wasn’t part of the difficulty the gangs had with establishing other places, like Iowa. They didn’t have as much control over their members because they didn’t have as much control over their locations.

That caused me to wonder whether the architecture of the projects actually contributed to the rise of the gangs and the influence of drugs throughout the community. Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library Series)” talks a extensively about how the city can curb criminal activity by sculpting the streetscapes so that people can see the street from their windows and keep an eye on what is going on.

Separately from those ideas, I was thinking about how easy it is for me to judge Mrs. Bailey and JT – because I have the freedom to be an ethical person because I have enough money to be moral. When the economic system you’re trapped in gives you absolutely no incentive to be moral when being moral can get you killed, and when there are additional powerful reasons — like survival — for you to engage in unethical and immoral behavior, you’re going to do what you need to. The odds are stacked against moral behavior and right conduct.

Continue ReadingSome Thoughts on “Gang Leader for a Day”

Old Northside, Caravelle Commons and political issues

I’m irritated right now at one of my neighbors. We live in Old Northside in Indianapolis, which is an historic neighborhood, but one with really large houses, and one that has been almost completely renovated in the 1970s and 1980s. According to a professional, it’s wise to use heavy equipment during such projects. I think he has a good point because it improves the overall efficiency. So the first wave of renovators – the hippies and liberals and gays – has come and moved on to more moderate sized homes and new renovation opportunities, and the next wave that have moved in are the wealthy right-wingers. It’s quite different than Herron-Morton Place, the neighborhood I first bought into, just north of here – where the houses were somewhat smaller, “single-family no-servant”-sized, and most people were liberals, and many were gay. I wouldn’t have thought that crossing 16th Street could make such a difference politically. And socially; some of the folks in my neighborhood are pretty big assholes and their opinions about neighborhood issues are pretty extreme. I’ll go into that a bit more later, but let me get to the specific issue at hand…

Here’s the particular issue that irritated me – one of the neighbors inquired whether there were other people receiving the New York Times, and if so, whether they were having problems with their delivery. Another neighbor replied “Typical of the Times, and much like their reporting — unreliable!” Not helpful information in any way, just any way to get a political jab in, because smearing the Times is terribly important to the tea baggers. Anything to get a political jab in. Makes me want to subscribe to the Times, out of spite. I know I shouldn’t get apoplectic about that, but come on. What the hell is the point of that?

So the other neighborhood issues: there are two major ones that have really highlighted the conservative crazy of my neighbors and made me reconsider why we’re living here. One of them is property taxes, which played out prior to 2008, and the other is more recent – a housing complex nearby. I’ll go into that first.

We have a set of apartments near our neighborhood on the north side of 16th Street, not within the neighborhood boundaries, but across the street. They are a low-income 64 unit housing project called Caravelle Commons. The apartments are not in great shape, and they’ve been mis-managed over the years so the residents have a lot to complain about. From what I understand there are problems with crime in the complex, although it hasn’t directly affected me any, so I’m not aware of specifics. Certainly our neighborhood has suffered petty crime like theft and vandalism, but there’s no real way of telling if that is coming from this apartment complex or elsewhere. We do know that there was one person shot at the nearby Kroger grocery store parking lot, and when they chased the shooter he ended up in Caravelle Commons, where they subsequently found the gun responsible for some other drug-related murders of two women and their small children. So yes – problems. Directly affecting me? Who can say. Not to any great extent, so far.

Anyways – due to the government stimulus money being handed out, the Indianapolis Housing Agency has decided to demolish and rebuild the current set of apartment buildings. What will go up is a set of 4-story buildings in a different configuration that what are there now, with greater residential capacity – 155 units, an increase of 90. So there will be less available parking, and more warm bodies in the space. There is some plan for tiered income ranges that will spread out the lower income to higher, and on the lowest level will be 65 units – basically what’s there now. The new 90 apartments are intended to be filled with people fitting the two higher tiers of income.

As soon as plans for this redevelopment were announced in March, the neighborhood got involved. To be fair to the ONS, there were some definite problems with how IHA went about doing redoing this project – they created plans and crammed them through and got initial approvals before anyone in the neighborhood knew what was going on or had a chance to ask questions or express opinions. They claimed they had support from surrounding neighborhoods before anyone from Old Northside had even heard of the project. They based their plans on increased density and parking on models from more dense cities like Chicago and New York that are not appropriate for Indianapolis. For Indianapolis, infilling vacant buildings and lots to increase density should come before making specific areas more dense.

So the neighborhood had some legitimate concerns about how the project came about, but unfortunately, those legitimate issues got drowned out initially by one loud neighbor. Specifically, one very loud voice on the neighborhood mailing list given in this site with the opinion that the whole housing complex needed to be moved “someplace further east” or “infilling the empty apartments along Meridian Street” or various other places away from our neighborhood. His opinions were loud and long and directed with animosity at everyone – the neighborhood association, the land use committee, individual neighbors, elected officials, local media. If you didn’t agree with his specific opinion, then you were an ass and an enemy. I dubbed him “Our Racist Neighbor” and that’s how I’ll refer to him here. Here are a few samples of his work posted to our neighborhood email list (April 7, 2010):

I believe that the surrounding neighborhood need to do every thing possible to see that this is not built on the current site and is built in a neighborhood more suitable to those it would house. I have been told by the city police every time we have a major crime wave in our area it is often associated with those who live at the complex and those who are visiting there. Now they want to triple the size. This smack of political gain for certain city council persons. Fair and decent housing is what the city needs but this area has changed and this is no longer the proper place for this development. The land is very valuable and could be sold and the profit could be used to build a better place and a more fitting development for those who need it. There are many sites in our area that would welcome this development that would be much more fitting. This should strongly be apposed.

Notes on that – this is a federally-funded project. The city-county council had nothing to do with it as far as I know, and had nothing to gain from it, either, other than potentially better housing situations for some citizens who aren’t well off. They didn’t have a hand in the plans at all.

More (Apr 8, 2010):

I have seen many email on how to fix the problem. IF we protest the building and sotp the project this would fix all issues. As I stated yesterday this project would be more suited now east of the monon trail and many undeveloped land areas and would be welcomed there.

And again – you can see as time goes by, he becomes increasingly unable to spell and use correct grammar (April 21, 2010):

I think every one who lives in our area should think long and hard about what this will mean. This will be a five story building {Ed Note: the units are 4 story, not 5} with line of site into many of your homes. You only need to look at Washington St. and the low income project to see what will happen to our neighborhood. We also need to see what this is going to do the price of our home and how they will drop as well as future investment in the area and what kind of developments will follow. The city has had a trend of following what has already been built. The City has already told me on occasion. I am not going to deny a petition to build a type of building when there is already one like it in the area. So if we get one five story low income project we will get another. Many in this neighborhood have worked long and hard to improve it. Many took the chance and started long before I resorted my home. Let not take a step back now so that other can hang on to there voting base and spot on the city council. People deserve a decent place to live and should but the site chosen is no longer the right place. Especially with Kroger and other retail development who would like to purchase the land. This could be sold at great profit to the city. Taking the day off could mean the difference of the loss of several hundred thousand dollars in value of your home and that of your neighbors. I think the 1:00 time is very convenient for the city to say see no one apposes it. If we need an example the federal government is asking for hundreds of thousand of dollars back from a project on the west side in which people with a criminal history were allowed to live there. The staff was found to be dealing drugs in the complex. We heed to take the time to propely oppose this building.

Here’s one to the neighborhood Land Use Committee (April 23, 2010) on what he thought their recommendations should be for the new project:

I think the position should be to push the city to sell the property at a profit and move the project east of college. This would solve all issues and be a valuble asset to that area that needs it and allowing prime space for reatail and other needed developement along 16th st Including a new Kroger. Rather than trying to fix it let give them a better alternative.

And these aren’t even the most volatile ones. But combing through his emails makes me want to vomit, so this is the selection you’re getting for now.

Now the notion of moving Caravelle Commons somewhere “more appropriate” may immediately strike you as problematic (and by problematic, I mean racist and classist and against the law) and well it should. It certainly struck our elected officials and media that way. And anyone with common sense in neighborhood realized that as well. But that didn’t stop Our Racist Neighbor one bit from repeating his plan over and over again, and even threatening legal action.

Our elected officials didn’t want to have anything to do with the idea of moving the housing complex, to their credit, and they certainly didn’t want to be on record as considering that as a possibility even to reject it. Unfortunately Our Racist Neighbor was so loud that when other people started to express concerns about the density of the complex and potential parking issues, they were immediately associated with Our Racist Neighbor in the minds of elected officials and media, and no one gave them the time of day. So they people with concerns about parking and the density of the complex had a pretty big mountain to climb to try to get their concerns heard.

I admit I associated all of the Caravelle Commons Objectors together for a long while, until I really took a look at the increase in density, and considered what I had read about urban planning and density issues. I know there’s a zeitgeist within urban planning circles to say that greater density helps a city become more vibrant, but I’m not sure that has really been proven, and I certainly don’t think it’s ideal from Indianapolis. Certainly we have a sprawl problem, and a lack of public transport problem that is intense bordering on the criminal in nature, but Chicago and New York are just way too dense.

Seriously – look at the people moving out and where they’re going. People live in tiny apartments in the city long enough not make enough cash to move to the suburbs and commute a few days a week and telecommute most of the week. So as far as density goes – they may have a point. But I don’t know that my fellow neighbors really have read as much about urban planning as I have and know all that. They also kept talking about the income levels of the people who will be residing there, which really makes me wonder how much their concerns were more based in racism and classism (we don’t want poor black people near us) than any real understanding of how changing the density of the neighborhood and surrounds will affect us.

I think the other Objectors probably have a real concern about parking, too. Indy public transportation is really abysmal. So planning for only one car per apartment unit is really a terrible idea. These residents will have no way to get around town, and they’ll definitely have more than one car – you have to in Indianapolis if you have more than one adult in your household. It’s not ideal, but it’s the case, and should be considered in housing planning.

After listening to what they were saying, I could see that maybe, probably, there were problems with this new housing development that could affect us. I don’t think carting the whole project over to the east side and dropping it there would be anything but racist, but there might be some concerns that revisions in the plan could address.

I had heard that our elected officials were all gung-ho in favor of the idea, so I wrote an email to various of them, and got a direct and specific response from Mary Ann Sullivan, who gave me a call to talk about it. I think she was legitimately surprised to hear from me. She does, I think, have a vague idea who I am from the internet and Facebook, and she knows I’m pretty far left on the political spectrum, so I don’t think she expected to hear me speak out against the new housing plans. During my almost 2 hour discussion with her about the project, I realized how badly Our Racist Neighbor had poisoned the well, because it was pretty obvious that all of the Caravelle Commons Objectors had all be lumped together in her mind and in the minds of everyone associated with developing and building the new housing project. They were all racists, and that was that.

I made a case about the density and the parking, and she seemed to think that those weren’t really huge concerns – citing urban planning studies and “folks who know about these things.” I told her what I knew about urban planning, and I tried to give her a better sense of what people in our neighborhood were thinking – including separating Our Racist Neighbor from some of the other folks who had no objection to the location of the project, just the size of the plans. I don’t know if my voicing my concerns helped. Maybe.

The folks who were making the case about parking and density and public safety issues did eventually get a chance to sit down and talk through those concerns with IHA just before the plans went through and everything was approved for groundbreaking. IHA made some changes to their plans for parking and enforcing how parking will work, and they tried to work on public safety issues with crime watch patrols. So some things changed as they are going forward.

The whole thing has left me very cynical about our neighborhood, though. Not the location or design, which is amazing; or the houses, which are stunning to look at. But very much about the people. Our Racist Neighbor has poisoned more than one well.

And after all this, I don’t think there’s time to jump back in the time machine to address 2007-2008 property tax issues and the ouster of former Mayor Bart Peterson, issues that also leave me cold with my neighbors, so I guess I better stop here.

June 2012 Update: While under construction, one of the new buildings being built on the former site of Caravelle Commons, now called Park 16 Apartments, burned to the ground in a 3-alarm blaze that also burned down surrounding church buildings and threatened houses across the street.

Continue ReadingOld Northside, Caravelle Commons and political issues