Friday, June 25, 2010

Venangoland's Housing Clutter

(News-Herald, June 24) Why all this clutter in my house?
First, the things I can’t part with because I might want them some day. Cardboard boxes, pieces of wood, assorted doohickeys—they are all perfectly good and the day might come in the future when I want them. So they stay.
Then there are things that I keep because I’ve always had them. I have a small black desk that I bought at Dave Beals’ yard sale for five dollars sometime around 1970. I’ve had it with me every place I’ve ever lived, but it has been thirty years since I actually used it for anything. But it has always been in my home, and so I can’t quite bring myself to part with it.
There are things that belong to my children. This includes furniture that their mother gave them, stuff of mine that I imagine they might want some day, and their own memorabilia (in my daughter’s case, that means basically everything she has ever touched since she was an infant).
It’s not just people that can have a clutter problem. It can happen to cities, too, and for many of the same reasons.
For the last month or so, users of craigslist (the most ubiquitous of internet classified ads) have been offered a chance to buy an entire city block in Oil City. For $29,900, you can have four conjoined buildings, including the old Brody’s site. 35,000 square feet, 48 offices, and low taxes. Prospective buyers might be turned off by the condemned sign on the old Brody’s door, but perhaps someone will see this as a great opportunity.
It’s not just business locations, though Venangoland has plenty of those (the Galena building in Franklin, anybody?) When a population shrinks, it leaves a lot of excess housing. Let’s crunch some quick numbers from the US census.
2009 population estimate: 54,183. 2000 population estimate: 57,555. 2008 housing units: 27,267. Households in 2000: 22,747.
So, right now, we have 4500 more housing units than we needed ten years ago, back before the population dropped 3000 people. We have more than one housing unit for every two people. We have too much housing.
In no place is the issue more evident than in the metro Oil City area, where the most recent study found 500 “problem” homes. What do you do with these sorts of problems?
It’s easy to fall back on clutter rationale. My kids, or someone, might want it some day. This building has always been here; the place wouldn’t feel the same without it. And there’s another problem that household clutterbugs don’t have.
It would take bales of money to save the Brody block. But it would also take a lot of money to demolish it. Demolition is pricey anyway, but then you add the various regulations surrounding old building materials which often require special handling. We can thank, for instance, the lobbyists for the asbestos removal industry, who years ago got legislators to insure that every building that touched asbestos would become a ridiculous, expensive nightmare.
There’s only one low-cost choice for people who own these white elephants—stand back and let nature take its course. This is, of course, a lousy choice for the community. For commercial property, it means large, dangerous eyesores. For residential properties, it means not only eyesores, but free housing and business space for drug dealers and other blights.
There is one large city that has a plan. Detroit has now lost about two-thirds of its peak population, and their housing blight problems are epic. Their mayor intends to demolish 10,000 houses over the next four years. This has some broadbased support, particularly among faith-based groups who are tired of watching their neighborhoods descend into guns and drugs.
It’s tough to do that kind of urban purging. You have to make sure you don’t replace old ugly with modern ugly (yes, Franklin’s 13th Street, I’m looking at you). You have to get people to let go, and you need leaders who can articulate a vision of your destination beyond “knock down excess ugly buildings.” And government needs to help, not so much with money, but with clearing the many bureaucratic hurdles. There are cheaper ways to get rid of Brody’s-like buildings, but they require government permission.
The payoff? When you cut off a diseased tree limb, you save the tree. And when you clear out the clutter in your home, you make space for new and exciting things to take its place.

Friday, June 18, 2010

BP: My 2 Cents

(News-Herald, June 17) Since I’m sitting here in the region that birthed the oil industry, I figure I can take a shot at the gulf oil disaster, too.
First, folks should stop latching onto events to either prove, or avoid disproving, political stances. Offering this spill as “proof” that all deep-sea drilling should be shut down is dumb; if City Hall burns down, we won’t outlaw all open flame. (It is a good argument for drilling in shallower seas, though.) Claiming that an oil spill is no big deal and that nature will just fix this up in no time is just transparently stupid; the next talking head who makes the claim needs to be put in a dinghy and dropped in the middle of the afflicted area.
Beyond the various schemes to stem the suboceanic gusher, we’re hearing many ideas about long term responses. Most are unattractive. Shutting down the entire oil industry and living on nuts and berries seems unlikely. The government should either take more charge or back further away. And somebody, somewhere should be held responsible.
Several writers have made a convincing case that this is one more instance of a repeating theme—enterprises that are too large to succeed. The oil drilling industry, the housing industry, the financial industry, and the health care industry are complexes of massive interlocking pieces so hugely beyond human scope that they are destined to crash and burn over something small and stupid.
That last part is not new. Every so-called natural disaster has one thing in common—an exercise of really bad human judgment. The Johnstown flood, the Titanic, any number of catastrophic fires—all of them are the offspring of some humans who said, “Nah, don’t worry. That won’t turn out to be a problem.”
The spewing well did, in fact, have blow-out protection, the same protection that has functioned correctly in the past. Only it appears that this one had been damaged just a short time before the disaster. What do you want to bet that someone said, “Ah, just keep pumping till we get the parts in. It won’t turn out to be a problem.” Safety devices are covered, but there’s no safety device so fool-proof that some fool can’t mess it up.
More government regulation? I’m not a fan, but there are times for governments to step in. Processes that can potentially screw up on a planetary scale seem like an appropriate time. The problem with government regulations is that there are too many dumb ones. The government can’t tell the difference between protecting the habitat of a rare stripey snail and protecting the coastline of seven American states.
And with government, the Principle of Stupid Rules applies: the presence of any stupid rule on a list of rules makes people more likely to ignore ALL the rules, including the necessary ones.
Another part of that problem is that even a government that is too big may still seem smaller than a big multi-national corporation. Congress knows who its boss is, fellow citizens, and we aren’t it.
What would I like to see? I’d like to see some people in handcuffs. BP leaders ought to be ashamed to show their faces in public. At every juncture they have hidden or lied about critical information, and they have invested way too much energy in PR garbage when any decent humans would be too ashamed to do anything but fall on their swords or enter a monastery. How do you show your face in public when you have screwed up an ocean?!
Yes, we are only human, and humans make mistakes. But if you are running a nuclear power plant, operating on my child’s heart, or pumping a gazillion gallons of oil out of the ocean, you don’t get to use that excuse.
Governments should fine them. People should sue them. BP should end up penniless, along with Haliburton and the other involved corporations. Individuals linked to the chain of bad choices should become unemployable pariahs. The work and oil won’t end; other companies should buy it up, take it over, and run it while living in fear of screwing up this badly.
Of course that won’t happen. Even small oil companies here in Venangoland know how this works; if you get in big legal trouble, declare bankruptcy, escape making payments, and re-incorporate as a new company that can’t be held liable for the old sins. And someone will still have to pay to fix the mess…

Friday, June 11, 2010


(News-Herald, June 10) For the past two weeks, my regular desktop computer has been in the shop with am infection of some virus or other. It was returned to health relatively quickly, but in the meantime I had to get by with a laptop.
You would think it would be a minor adjustment to go from sitting at my desk to sitting on the couch, but I think I would just as soon try to write the column sitting on my roof while being attacked by screaming weasels—as long as I can use my regular computer.
I don’t always do well with change. In this respect, I know I have lots of company. My daughter would, I think, happily freeze the world in place more or less forever. She has adjusted admirably at every new stage of life—graduation, adulthood, new places—but she does it grudgingly, and I understand her reluctance.
Not everybody is like us. My son actually requires a little change on a regular basis, and he can adjust pretty quickly to new situations, though I think even he likes to know that there is a solid unchanging base somewhere in the world.
This is a season of change. It is graduation time in Venangoland (and that also means the opening of wedding season). And that means lots of folks coping with change.
Perhaps this kind of official, ceremonial change is easier, because you can see it coming and brace yourself for it. On the other hand, the waiting time may just mean more time to be tense and fretful. Maybe change that comes as a complete surprise creates less overall stress.
Why does change create stress at all? There’s no question that it does—psychologists Holmes and Rahe in 1967 created the life stress scale, giving each major life change a rating. Death of a spouse clocked in at 100. Losing your job rated a 47, but getting married scored a 50. The message of this list is clear—even changes that we think of as good news create stress.
Change is always a sign that we’re about to face the unknown. Something is going to happen and we don’t know what the outcome will be. And that in turn means that we don’t know how well we’ll deal with whatever we’re about to face. Will we fail? Will we look stupid? Are we strong enough, wise enough, or will change reveal our failings?
For that fear, many of us stick to changes that are well-traveled by many. If most people have come through this change without great damage, we probably can, too. It’s when we handle a transition differently than the crowd that we can really start to worry. If we don’t do it the “normal” way, we might get hurt.
Still, most of us are far tougher than we look. In fact, most of us are far tougher than we look to ourselves.
We also often tend to over-estimate the amount of change we’re going to face. Graduation and marriage are two examples of transitions that change everything—and yet change nothing at all.
Once you have that diploma in your hand or that ring on your finger, your circumstances have changed completely. You have whole new responsibilities, relationships, realities and some other R word to face. So everything has changed.
But diploma or ring notwithstanding, you are still exactly the same person you were before. You have the same strengths, the same weaknesses, the same desires, the same abilities. You are no wiser, no more foolish, no less broken, no more whole than before a piece of paper declared that you had entered new circumstances.
At Franklin High School’s baccalaureate service, senior Kyle Askins made a wise observation that I’ll now try to paraphrase: it’s good to believe that God will send us what we need to deal with challenges, but it’s also good to consider that He may have already given us what we need to handle our circumstances. Change and challenge are a chance to examine ourselves.
Change reveals who we are and challenges us to see what we can become. One of the exciting things about life is the constant process of bringing our strengths and passions and wisdom to bear on the world in ways that change lives and lift us up in strength and growth. But that can be hard.
Change can be uncomfortable, but too much comfort is the enemy of growth. Here’s wishing every Venangoland high school senior an uncomfortable graduation.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Hit the Outdoors

(News-Herald, June 3)This is a great time of year to rediscover the beauty in Venangoland. There are many places in this country where taxpayers spend millions of dollars to create parks that offer a fraction of the beauty that we wake up with every day.
It is time to leap back into it, time to make your resolution to get active and outside.
Bike trail mileage gets extended a bit further every year. New places to go, new slices of our own great outdoors to see by pedal or by foot. But if you do some bike trailing, remember a few basics.
Traveling on the trail with a companion, whether it’s friend or family, is a great way to make the miles fly by. If you can just keep chatting, you can travel so much further. If you can’t keep chatting, it may be time for a rest stop.
But if you’re traveling side by side, please take an occasional look behind you and make sure that you’re not a traffic obstruction. People behind you might use some of the standard alert hails such as “Left!” or “On your left” or “Passing on your left” or “If you’re still on the left side of the track in a few seconds, we are going to have a potentially painful interaction.” Of course, the people behind you might be painfully shy or excessively polite or too busy gasping for breath to wheeze out a hail.
If your companion is a dog, keep an eye peeled. You may know that your adorable two-ton Doberman won’t try to eat the approaching bicyclist, but the bicyclist does not know that. And while the trail makes a great dog walk (there are so many things to sniff!!), please remember that others will be walking there, too.
And be friendly. It used to be that everyone you met on the bike trail said, “Hi,” and most folks still do. It’s a simple custom. You don’t need to break stride, exchange phone numbers or propose marriage. Just smile and acknowledge other peoples’ existence.
For those who would rather paddle than pedal, the good news is that watercraft rentals are once again easily available. OARS (Outdoor Allegheny River Service) has gotten a variety of custom trips going as well as the standard creek and river trips.
There is no better way to see Venangoland than by water. Geese, ducks, heron are all traveling about with their families these days. Sliding down the river and creek, valley and forest rising up on either side, is like going back to the days that Native Americans traveled through this territory, or the days when this was colonial frontier.
As regular readers know, I prefer kayaks to canoes. Harder to tip over, closer to the water, easy to travel even when you’re on your own. There are plenty of places to acquire kayaks—you can buy them off the rack or even order them through the mail. But I recommend a dealer who can help you try out a variety of craft to find the one that best suits you— my neighbors at Wiegel on the Water fit that bill nicely.
Kayaks come in a variety of space-age materials. My own is about ten years old and is just as healthy as the day I bought it. A kayak is an entertainment investment that can last a lifetime if you wish.
Whether by trail or waterway, you owe it to yourself to get into the outdoors in Venangoland. There’s no question that there are bigger, more spectacular vistas to view. The Rockies, the Grand Canyon, even b-list outdoorsiness like the White Mountains and the Badlands of One of the Dakotas, can suck the air right out of your lungs with their awesomeness.
That kind of awesome can remind you of how breathtakingly amazing the world is, the giant scale of creation. But next to that level of splendor, it’s easy to feel like a tiny intruder, overmatched and out of place. That kind of nature can feel outsized and out of reach.
Here in Venangoland, there’s plenty of beauty that is near at hand, nature that is close and welcoming, reminding us that all this is beautiful, that it is right here, and that we are part of it. Instead of grand opera, it’s your best friend sitting with you on the porch.
You meant to get out there last summer, but somehow didn’t quite. Don’t make that mistake again this year.

From my Flickr