Feb 082012

A Colombia-Kentucky conversation

By Betsy Taylor

The global economy is devastating small-scale farming. Can small farmers create global solidarity to fight for a more level playing field?  Last October, a leader of Colombian small farmers visited Lexington—catalyzing fascinating discussions that showed both the promise and the limits of such global solidarity-building.

John Henry Gonzalez Duque, from Colombia and co-founder of the Small Scale Farmers Movement of Cajibio. Photo courtesy of Witness for Peace.

For three weeks in October, John Henry Gonzalez Duque toured the southeastern U.S. to communicate a grassroots, South American perspective. Gonzalez Duque is a small farmer from the southwest part of Colombia and co-founder of the Small Scale Farmers Movement of Cajibio. Gonzalez Duque’s tour of the U.S. was sponsored by Witness for Peace, a grassroots group which began in the 1980s struggle against U.S. involvement in Central American wars and now works for “peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing U.S. policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean.”  Carlos Cruz (who works in Colombia on Witness for Peace’s international team) traveled with Gonzalez Duque and provided excellent translation. Continue reading »

Feb 082012

By Clay Wainscott

Cave paintings are like science fiction only in reverse. Here are Paleoliths who don’t weave or cook in pots making art with sensitivity, humor, and uncanny technical facility. It’s hard to fathom. My neighbor informs me their brains were actually larger than modern man’s, and they were hunters and so had the leisure time to tell stories, play flutes, and draw.

I once had a job servicing mechanical voting machines and a lot of them were kept in county jails. Incised on jail cell walls through fifty layers of gooey yellowing enamel were the pictorial musings of our current crop of humans, a sample admittedly bored and down on their luck. Well these guys in caves were different. They weren’t fascinated with body parts—they wanted to paint the animals who shared their forests, some now extinct tens of thousands of years.

Why were they painting deep in the cave? Archeologists speculate. Maybe it was sympathetic magic, somehow imagining these images would give them power in the hunt, or some other religious or ceremonial purpose. In any case it was so long ago all anyone can do is guess.

My guess is that artists, our oldest documented profession, haven’t changed that much in all this time. I imagine their conversation being about a place somebody had found where the rain wouldn’t wash their paintings away. A place out of the wind, out of the cold, and deep in a cave. It’s possible to imagine modern artists thinking that way. The paintings are in the caves because they were a quiet calm place to work and the surfaces were almost fresco-like already—worth the muddy crawl.

It’s more difficult to explain how the artwork could be so good. Art doesn’t pretend to be the thing itself but something more mysterious. Marks of charcoal and ochre applied to a cave wall enter the complex labyrinth of our modern perceptual field and we think that’s an ox, that’s a lion, that’s a bear. The European cave bears, extinct twenty thousand years, who occupied the cave after its walls had been decorated didn’t see antelope, didn’t see the rhinoceros, didn’t see themselves. Only humans translate marks on a flat surface into living reality.

These images in caves aren’t realism, not even close. In one, four horse’s heads appear in succession, like four jacks fanned. Their necks are too thick and their muscles too small. They all have different coats, and the one in front seems to neigh. There’s something about it that goes way beyond just pictures of horses. The artist applied a visual poetry because he knew I’d see it better that way, and I have to nod back. It works. I see horses moving, hear them snort and stamp, and smell them too. I see lions nerving up to attack an unaware beast grazing on the next cave wall prominence twenty feet away. I hear the artists laughing and admiring each other’s work.

‘All in this together’ means something else when you realize it includes those artists. They bought a ticket when they left evidence of who they were and what they’d seen in a visual form all humans coming after would understand. Animals don’t comprehend art and neither will the most complicated machines, ever. Art is totally human, and through art we know each other and ourselves—that’s its job.

Clay Wainscott also blogs at www.owningart.blogspot.com

Feb 082012

Why public higher education should not wager on precious metals

By Andrew Battista

Most people agree that the U.S. economy imploded because brokers were placing wagers on whether or not people would be able to pay their mortgages.  The idea of mortgage debt became a speculative bubble that could not be sustained.  Now, in place of one collapsed futures market, the real estate and mortgage industry, the country has developed a twinkle in its eye for another:  precious metals commodities trading.  Our infatuation with gold in particular is as intense as it’s been in at least a century.  One needs to look no further than the Discovery Channel, which features a reality series about modern-day speculators who solicit benefactors to fund backcountry mining expeditions.  These working-class men, caricatures of American ingenuity, take a fleet of expensive equipment and ravage our last frontier, the Alaskan tundra, as they look for shards of gold now selling for $1700 per ounce on the market. Continue reading »

Feb 082012

By Dave Cooper

Because our little house in the Joyland neighborhood is about 50 years old and the backyard is pretty overgrown, we get lots of “volunteer” trees coming up in the fencerows and in the garden: hackberry, cherry, water maple, and the occasional oak or redbud.  I don’t believe that trees and plants have feelings, but it still makes me feel bad to pull up a struggling little tree and throw it on the ground, where it will die a miserable, slow, and painful death from dehydration.

How to kill a tree: surround the trunk with bricks. North Limestone at Church St. Photo by Dave Cooper.

Continue reading »

Feb 082012

By John Hennen               

Everyone understands the importance of music to social movements, and no song of working-class justice is more widely known than “Which Side Are You On?” written by Florence Reece in 1931. Florence was embroiled in the 1931 Eastern Kentucky coal strike, when thousands of Harlan and Bell county coal miners struggled for survival against local coal operators and law enforcement. Florence performed her masterpiece hundreds of times in the next half-century and never failed to inspire the spirit of militant resistance to economic, social, and political oppression.

Radical actions, radical reporting: Harry Simms was a 19-year old organizer for the National Miners Union who was assassinated by Knox County deputies in February 1932. His murder was a front cover story for the Labor Defender, a now-defunct radical labor magazine from the 1920s and 1930s.

Many may not realize, however, that the organized resistance to the “gun thugs of J. H. Blair” during the 1931-1932 Harlan and Bell county mine war was led not by the United Mine Workers of America, but by a competing radical alternative to the UMWA, the National Miners Union. Convinced by the Great Depression that capitalism was on the road to extinction, the NMU rejected the capitalist accommodation practiced by the American Federation of Labor and the UMWA. Instead it promoted a radical vision of social revolution, class solidarity, and workers’ control of the means of production. Continue reading »

Feb 082012

By David Shattuck

In 2005, people from throughout central Kentucky identified their top 5 likes and dislikes about the region.  “Traffic blew away the competition in the dislike category,” wrote the Herald-Leader in November 2006.  Lexington is by no means unique in this regard.  In the last 40 years, traffic has consistently outpaced forecasts.  In early 2006 the Texas Transportation Institute predicted that if things continue as they are, by 2013 “midsize regions such as Omaha will have traffic problems that larger areas like Cleveland now have, and larger areas such as Cleveland will experience traffic problems that very large areas like LA or New York have now.”  So to be safe, we should assume that Lexington’s traffic will soon look about like that in Nashville or Charlotte just a few years ago:  we will experience big city traffic congestion.

Indeed, these days may already be upon us.  In 2002 the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for central Kentucky calculated the “travel rate index” for Lexington’s major roads at 2.81; this means it takes nearly three times as long as it should to travel these roads; by comparison, the average index for Los Angeles is 1.50!

State engineers report that traffic on New Circle between Russell Cave and Georgetown Road has tripled from 1964 to 2001; there is every reason to believe that traffic on Main, Vine, High and Maxwell Streets has experienced similar increases as well in the last three decades.  Over time, traffic always seems to get worse, never better (unless roads are expanded, such as the recent extension of Newtown).  According to the Brookings Institute, the U.S. will add 50% more houses, offices and shops over the next 25 years, which of course means even more traffic clogging our streets.

Yet a few developers, city planners, and Mayor Gray seem intent on making Lexington’s traffic problems worse.  Since 2001, they have insisted that converting Lexington’s downtown one-way streets to two-way traffic will help revitalize downtown.  As a Sacramento planner put it:  “Motorists who are forced to drive more slowly may notice businesses they might like to visit.”

The 2-Way Thesis

The zany notion that two-way traffic will help revitalize downtowns has its origins in a single paper presented in the early 1990s by Orlando archictect/planner Walter Kulash and his firm, Glatting Jackson.  Kulash’s premise is that two-way traffic will force cars to slow down, making streets more user friendly for pedestrians and businesses.  (In a future column I will dispel these myths).

That one way streets move traffic more efficiently is beyond dispute: seven lanes of a two-way street are needed to match the capacity of a four lane one way route.   So converting Main and Vine, or High and Maxwell, for instance, to two-way traffic could effectively cut traffic capacity—the ability to move cars through traffic—in half.  Kulash’s own analysis shows why conversion would necessitate unacceptable traffic delays in Lexington.  He reasons that “[m]ost downtowns have a well-developed street grid; this abundance of alternate routes is the inherent advantage that downtowns have over [suburbs], where all traffic is generally forced onto the one or two available arterials.”

Lexington is unlike “most downtowns” in this regard, for there is no “abundance of alternate routes” for getting from, say, the Masterston Station or Meadowthorpe area to UK or Chevy Chase. .  As Fred Pope wrote in Business Lexington in early 2006: “Lexington’s streets flow like the spokes on a wheel, outward from the hub of downtown.  It is a design made for congestion.” During a phone conversation on March 1, 2007, LFUCG’s Max Conyers stated that downtown Lexington lacked a grid system sufficient for a successful two-way conversion.  Businessman Howard Stovall confirmed this fact to Chevy Chaser Magazine last August. Stovall stated that “[i]f Lexington had an effective grid system so one could get across town without traveling Main and Vine, that would be one thing, but we don’t.”

Even in cities with an effective grid system, two-way conversion would cause significant congestion.  According to Kulash, “in most downtowns, the delay penalty will be small for the through traveler.  For instance, a decrease in average arterial travel speed of 5 miles per hour over a one-quarter mile segment of network yields an additional three minutes of travel time.”  Let’s apply this “delay penalty” to Lexington’s streets, with the caveat that I am a lawyer, not a traffic engineer.

Currently one can drive from one end of downtown to the other in three minutes or less, driving 25 miles per hour on Main and Vine, and stopping at no more than two traffic signals (such as Rose and Broadway) when the signals are working properly. During peak traffic hours, one could not expect to drive much faster than 10 miles per hour on a two-way Main or Vine, a reduction of 15 miles per hour.   Based on this assumption, it would take 18 minutes to get from one end of downtown to the other—an estimated half-mile—from Broadway to Midland, if Main and Vine were converted to two-way traffic.  And this doesn’t include the delay brought about by the inability to time traffic lights and by the absence of turn lanes such a conversion would necessitate.

We must not forget why one-way streets were created in the first place: to relieve traffic congestion.  Lexington drivers know traffic congestion; the average commute in this town exceeds 20 minutes.  Lionel Hawse noted in a letter to the Herald-Leader in November 2006:  “There was a reason for going to one-way streets 40 years ago.  On-street parking and left-turning traffic made driving in downtown exasperating.”  As Stovall wrote in Business Lexington in December 2006, the streets were made one-way because things were “a total mess,” with traffic gridlock “especially at the corner of Main and Rose.”

The LDDA, the Master Plan, and the Traffic Study

In the summer of 2004 the Lexington Downtown Development Authority (“LDDA”) was formed.  LDDA raised $450,000 from local “stakeholders”, including Keeneland, banks, utilities, law firms, and James Gray Construction Co.  In December 2004, the Herald-Leader reported that this money would fund a study with the idea of developing a “Downtown Master Plan.”  The paper quoted developer Bill Lear as saying Lexington needed two-way traffic but that it wouldn’t happen unless part of a master plan.

The Master Plan was released in summer 2006.  The Plan’s 17 recommendations included the conversion of all downtown streets to two-way traffic as well as the creation of a “linear park” to run through the middle of Vine Street.  Of these 17 recommendations, Bill Lear told the Herald-Leader that street conversion was by far the most significant.

A traffic study was to have been completed as part of the Master Plan, but that didn’t happen.  Instead, a traffic study which cost taxpayers $100,000 was completed in spring 2007.  The Traffic Study is like an elephant in a room; it has received remarkably little public attention, most likely because its conclusions are at odds with developers’ and city planners’ wishes.

The study, conducted by Entran of Lexington, revealed five areas “that likely would become congestion ‘hot spots’ if streets were converted to two-way.” Not surprisingly, these “hot spots” are at precisely the same locations which led planners to make these streets one way in the first place.  Significantly, Maxwell Street, in its entirety, is one of these “hot spots”.  Conversion of Vine, moreover, is not feasible unless the Transit Center is relocated, a proposal that no one contemplated seriously until federal stimulus monies became available.

Furthermore, by making unrealistic assumptions, the study understates the true impact conversion would have on traffic congestion, since it makes assumptions that are unrealistic.  For instance, assuming Main and Vine are narrowed to 1 lane in each direction, with a center turn lane, the model says it will take an additional 10.4 minutes to travel from Broadway to Midland on Vine.  But to travel from Midland to Broadway on Main, under this scenario, would take only an additional 2 minutes, a time that would certainly surprise anyone who has ever traveled Main during peak hours.  And the devil is in the details; actual traffic impact cannot be determined until it is known how the Main/Vine pair will be configured at either end.

More important, the study makes assumptions concerning housing density and bike/bus use that border on wishful thinking.  For instance the study assumes that, by 2030, increased density and bus/bike use will lead to a 50% reduction in interzonal auto trips within the downtown core.  Yet a Department of Transportation study concluded that “doubling an urban area’s density would, at most, reduce the total number of car trips by 10% to 20%.  No U.S. urban area has managed to double its density or to reduce car travel by these magnitudes.”  In addition, even if bike use approached that of Portland, Oregon, which boasts the most bicycle commuters of any U.S. city, only one in ten of us would be riding a bike instead of driving a car to work.  And, of course, it is not likely that Lexington’s bike commuter rate could ever match Portland’s.