On the Topic of Eminent Domain

The recent Supreme Court ruling on eminent domain, which validated the authority of governments to take private property for the elusive “public purpose” of economic development, has been heralded as an important victory for city planners and political interests. The narrow 5-4 decision, however, underscores the justifiable decisiveness this issue provokes, as well as the careful balancing act faced by our courts, leadership, and citizenry.  Whether one believes that governments have run amok, obliterating private property rights, or that polities must have the ability to back redevelopment projects that promise considerable if peripheral benefits, the decision illustrates that this issue cuts to the bone of American liberties and ideals, justice and injustice, and, less seductively in an ideological sense, the inability or unwillingness of American markets to nurture our poorest urban economies.

Critics of eminent domain make an alluring appeal to the storied concept of land rights established long ago in Europe and imported to America.  The narrative holds that land justly acquired shall remain in private hands, and that governments or any other party will pay market or above market values if and only if owners are willing to sell. That cash-strapped municipal governments, and the communities they serve, are often unable to afford these rates or acquire these lands is incidental; under this “fair shakes” mentality, if the ideal is right, outcomes too are just. One inescapable reality remains, however—that capital, whether from the public, private, or nonprofit sectors, too rarely finds its way to those places that need it most.  In an ideal world of political, economic, and social relationships, where rags always turn to riches, no one would be displaced, and public and private investments would be spread evenly throughout our varied places.  In the real world, however, politics is politics, and business is business, and neither in isolation takes care of impoverished neighborhoods particularly well.  The ability to provoke large-scale change needs to be one tool in the government shed, rarely used but available.

These are questions, though, that need be continually raised, challenged, and newly answered.  Governments have unquestionably gotten bolder in their envisioning of the “public use,” expanding these from the provision of infrastructure and public facilities to the conveyance of land to private interests with the expectation of social benefits. While this enlarged logic does not open fully a door to a wild state where property rights are ignored wholesale, and where any property in any community is vulnerable, an onus must remain on governments, developers, planners, and communities to work through these issues thoroughly and through an open and evolving dialogue that seeks common ground. Beyond just compensation and the availability of legal recourse, the courts have been clear that takings should be carefully considered within the context of a comprehensive plan (significantly informed by the community in question), and with clear and quantifiable notions regarding the economic benefit to be derived. Further, to truly benefit communities, the planning process need be combined with stringent safeguards designed to include those displaced from their homes in any new development, or, at the very least, must include provisions for payment and relocation that does not damage existing social and economic linkages.  The take-home point is that this action should not be an isolated one—instead it should exist within a system of policies and plans that aim towards equity as well as progress.  Anything less is an affront to the decency intended by urban planning, and should be viewed with extreme suspicion.

The American political and social environments, however, encourage that one choose a side and defend it with vigor and certainty, regardless of the peskiness of context. No room is allowed for exploring the considerable gaps between grand ideological positioning and the complicated work of city building.  Yet while the bifurcation of the court and public are quite logical, as the questions involved are relevant and real, it is a careful balance that is sought, one where quality projects cannot be derailed by a single stalwart owner and where government cannot wantonly destroy communities.  The stark polarizations that our sweeping ideological endorsements create ignore on either side the fact that these debates are exactly and exclusively about particularized contexts and places, and in many cases regard sadly blighted and unchanging ones.

Trading the certainty of a known present, regardless of how seemingly undesirable, for an unknowable future is certainty a terrifying prospect, and the call from a property owner proud of his or her home, no matter how it is viewed by public officials or the private sector, should never be disregarded. Furthermore, the New London case should not be seen as cause for a newfound government boldness, where takings are presumed easy or beyond challenge.  Instead it should be a call for officials to recognize the importance of and dangers inherent with these powers, and a cause to install means for ensuring quality planning, substantial public input, and thorough analyses that use common metrics, all of which would support a clear vision of community direction and benefit.

The majority in the seminal case of Hadacheck v. Sebastian concluded that to not allow communities and governments the right to infringe upon the rights of private owners would “fix a city forever in its primitive condition.” [1] To choose too firm a side on the issue of eminent domain, where it is always defensible or indefensible, would require that the law too be fixed in a primitive and static condition. The scales of justice, while tilting subtly from side to side, must remain in motion, seeking always a proper and modern balance.


[1] U.S. Supreme Court.  1915.  Hadacheck v. Sebastian.  239 U.S. 394.  Retrieved July 19, 2005 from: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=239&invol=394  

The Tortured Artist, the Tortured We

They say about the tortured artist that there is a link between the art and the mania, the art and depression.  A toxic fuel coarsening through veins exhilarated but eroding quick.

Would they trade it in if they had the chance?  Burn clean and long, not dark and fast?  Would some steal back from the brink, push violently against their demons and sacrifice what could be their only chance at greatness?  Trash it for some safe, sterilized version of happiness?

And if genius entails depression, requires it of the otherwise meek and average, and if we find ourselves depressed, could the converse be true, could it entail genius? Or is there a middle ground, a godforsaken hell of a place where one can recognize the great, catch its fleeting glimpse, feel for just a moment the thrill of life’s defining, dangerous edges, but where we also know inside we can never retreat and fully leave the normal world behind, nor can we keep the faith required to let loose and really live, whether it means living or dying? Continue reading

Pros & Cons of Becoming a Mixed Martial Artist (MMA Fighter)

I might not seem the type, but I love to watch mixed martial arts fighting (e.g. UFC, Pride Fighting Championship).  It fascinates me.  I think at one point of my life (pre-back and neck surgeries) I would have had a shot.  I coulda been somebody.  I coulda been a contenda.  Or….not. Below, some of the main pros and cons of my not-quite-yet-dead dream of becoming a modern day gladiator.

Pro: Huge potential for aggression release
Con: Huge potential for opponent’s aggression release
Pro: Study interesting fighting techniques from all over the globe
Con: Spend much time rolling around with another stinky sweaty man
Pro: Get to pick out cool fighting name ala Mike ‘Quick’ Swick or Nate “the Great” Marquardt
Con: Jon “Flabby Noodles”  Stang doesn’t appear to have roll-off-the-tongue quality
Pro: Improve stamina by going five five-minute rounds
Con: Heart attack a virtual lock
Pro: Get to meet interesting people from around the world
Con: They’re all meatheads intent on beating the living crap of out you
Pro: “Nut Cup” protects the old family jewels
Con: Rest of body not protected by any type of cup
Pro: Potential to make lots of money
Con: Potential is greatest through embarrassing neck break-related lawsuit
Pro: Chicks love a badass
Con: That’d be my opponent
Pro: Opportunity to be famous
Con: For being first MMA fatality in sanctioned event
Pro: Sport has evolved to include many fighting disciplines
Con: Many more ways to get my ass kicked
Pro: Get recognized routinely
Con: by Class A morons, rednecks, skeezers, buttmunches, jockos, and ass hats
Pro: Still got the old fire in the belly
Con: Fire spreads to kidneys after fight and results in peeing blood

New York: Part 2

Part two in a three-part series of writings done during my two-year stint in the world’s greatest city…

A Letter to My Friends and Family, September 10, 2006

As you, my family and friends, and most American and world citizens are aware, tomorrow is the 5thAnniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.  I am writing this letter largely for selfish reasons—primarily that it may help me make sense of my feelings.  After finding myself improbably living in New York, employed by the City and in the service of New Yorkers, and traveling each day to my office mere blocks away from Ground Zero, I feel it important to pause and reflect on that day, what it meant to me and mine, but more importantly to think about what it has meant to those directly affected and what it has meant to the people of the world collectively.  It is cause to reflect on life, and its joys, pains, and sorrows.

Like the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger explosion, everyone has a story for where they were and how they heard about the planes and towers. I was on a city bus headed to the University of Minnesota when I first heard murmurs that something strange was occurring in New York.  In my first course of the morning, events became clear, and an announcement was made that classes were cancelled, we were welcome to return home, but that if we felt the need for fellowship and shared contemplation a forum had been arranged to discuss what occurred.  When I moved to New York and took a job with the City, I heard the tales of people who were in lower Manhattan that day.  In fact, my office building was used to temporarily house the injured until hospital space became available.  When I heard these firsthand stories, I felt guilty in discussing the event, as if my own sorrows were somehow illegitimate in comparison to the more difficult and complex experiences of my colleagues.  In some ways this may have been right, but mostly I think no; feelings are our own, and it is up to each of us to deal with them, ignore them, discard them, or explore and embrace them as we see fit.  The world can be as close to the heart or as far away as we want it to be.

On a bike ride around New York Harbor today I stumbled across a memorial service in Bay Ridge’s John Paul Jones Park.  Local City Councilman Vincent Gentile was there, as was Borough President Marty Markowitz. Reading the names of each and every Brooklynite who died that day, and referencing of course all of the firefighters, police officers, and innocent civilians whose lives ended inspired a string of thoughts in me that I couldn’t quite organize or arrange.  Overall, and counter intuitively perhaps, I felt thankful, particularly for the safety of my friends and family, and for the gifts that they have individually and collectively bestowed upon me.  I also felt philosophical, convinced that our lives are wholly insignificant and at the same time imbued with deep meaning.  This may be among the most significant and illogical beauties of our lives—in an infinite universe, on a tiny rock, with all those that came before and will come after us—we still believe in the importance of our individual lives and our collective times.  It’s a sham, really, but it is also wonderful, frightening, and meaningful to us as we work our way through it.

We can choose to be as pained by this anniversary or as immune to it as we like, and I say that not as a patriotic virtue of American life, but as a patriotic virtue of human life.  In New York, the most diverse city in the world, we often coexist as much as we get along, but today all New Yorkers look like my brothers and sisters.  And this, it’s true, can be praised as a great benefit of life in our particular country.  Yet I can’t help but think beyond my apartment, my neighborhood, my city, and my nation.  It is the people who died in those buildings, and our still real opportunity to be concerned and peaceful beings that we should celebrate, and our inability to conceive of our world beyond borders of races, ethnicities, states, religions, or other abstractions that we should mourn.

There are two sides to every coin (it’s true, pull one out and you’ll see).  While any reasonable American citizen or human being for that matter would find an attack such as 9/11 disgusting, unjustifiable, and reprehensible, there are those that believe it reflects uneven and distasteful aspects of American policy and action across the globe, and those that perceive it as a wholly unprovoked attack on unassailable American ideals.  Obviously this was a central moment in our modern times, sure to reverberate for a very long time.   But as much as it can be seen as a rallying point for war, or to call out the wars waged by ourselves, it can be seen as a rallying point for considering honestly and openly our place among others.  As citizens of a country, yes, but perhaps even more, and more simply, as people.

Recently, I was walking toward the R train on an everyday workday morning.   A young Muslim girl in traditional garb strolled along ahead of me, and paused while passing a bill posted on a storefront wall.  In profile, I could see her eyes light up, her mouth drop open, and a surprised smile emerge.  She moved on, and I curiously stopped to see what had caused her to pause.  The bill promoted a pro-Hezbollah, pro-Palestinian, and anti-U.S. and Israel rally set to be held at some future point.  My honest, gut reaction was rage.  How dare they come here, enjoy our fruits, and condemn us at the same time?  It took me half a block to scold myself and realize that this was exactly the point of American freedom—the liberty to discuss ideas in an open forum, and, importantly, to be freely critical of American policy.  Do not in any way read this as an endorsement of the ideals promoted by the groups involved with this rally, but do take seriously the concepts of freedom involved.  You believe in them or you don’t.  And you believe that there is good and bad in all stripes of people or you don’t.  And there is both good and bad in all countries, as only fickle, fallible humankind comprises them.

These are just my thoughts, and if they seem distasteful, oblivious, or otherwise that’s okay because I own them.  I am personally very sad heading into tomorrow, not for myself—though that would be fair—or even for my country—which would again be fair and reasonable.   Nor is it because American or other ideals or symbols have been questioned or violated, but purely because people that didn’t have to die did.

Game Day: Vikings

Minnesota Vikings logo

Image via Wikipedia

Living in Singapore, a land with no seeming interest in or knowledge of NFL football, presents a challenge for me, and that is how to see the big game!  Luckily, my gal found a solution—the All Sports Network, or ASN.  Still, even with an ASN subscription, coverage is spotty and in any case oddly timed.  With the most recent game, today’s critical early season Monday night tilt between my beloved Minnesota Vikings and the plucky but annoying New York Jets, the game would be televised live, but at 8:30 a.m., the precise time when I needed to head toward school and “learn something.”  Argh is right, y’all! Luckily, consulting the local cable TV guide, I saw that a replay of the game would air during evening programming.

So…I don’t particularly mind seeing the game after the fact, so long as I have NO idea, NO clue, NO miniscule inkling as to the outcome. For today, that means avoiding Facebook, Yahoo, and a host of other media outlets (notably my favorite the New York Times) where the news could be leaked.  It also means steering clear of ANYONE who might know I am from Minnesota and also a loyal Vikes fan.

Generally, this is where the Singaporean indifference to American football pays dividends.  But it occurred to me upon my stroll to school that I have a classmate who dates a guy from Minnesota, who I have seen wearing local sports regalia, who tends to peruse a laptop during class, and who generally sits right in front of me.  Clearly I would need to brief her on the do’s and do not’s of checking the box score and blabbing her big mouth all over the classroom.

As it turns out, she’s not a fan, and could readily guarantee she wouldn’t spill the beans.  But as I described to her the intensity of my position, how badly I longed to watch the game free of bias, my mind raced with alternate and highly unlikely scenarios that, even if they were to occur, would not compel me to seek the results.

With that, the Top Ten Highly Unlikely Scenarios for Today’s Vikings Game that Still Wouldn’t Make Me Want to Hear About It

10) If President Obama attends the game, decides he would like to play, laces ‘em up, and throws 50 touchdown passes, one for each state in his beloved union, I do not want to hear about it.

9) If Aliens descend from outer space and proceed to administer rectal probes on each player, which, naturally, the Vikings players would object to but the Jet players would enjoy, keep it to yourself girlie.

8 ) If the Vikings cheerleaders preempt the game by taking the field in sexy lingerie and hold a three-hour pillow fight, I’ll just wait to see it this evening.  Zip it.

7) Should the NFL announce that today is “Fans Get to Play Day” and this leads to a spirited but dysfunctional and lopsided matchup between beer-bellied tradesmen and MILF-ish soccer moms, I’m sure I’ll still enjoy the game.

6) If both teams, depressed about global warming, world poverty, or the relative diminishment of old school “smashmouth” football in today’s NFL, commit suicide in a communal act of protest, shush it. Shush it!

5) In the unlikely event giant earthworms should tunnel up from beneath the turf and ravenously gobble up players and fans alike, I’m sure there will be extended coverage throughout the week, and I can catch up on the full set of events this evening.

4) If People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) suddenly convinces the NFL that playing with the old “pigskin” is inhumane and the game should instead be played with a NERF ball, but the game is cancelled because nobody can remember where their NERF football went but they’re pretty sure it got stuck in the kid down the street’s gutter system, I consider this a compelling human and animal interest story, one about which you should just keep your fat trap shut.

3) If Vikings coach Brad Childress and Jets coach Rex Ryan break up the coin toss, grab the Ref’s microphone, announce they are gay lovers, and proceed to make sweet, sweet man love on the 50-yard line, that’s something I might not care to watch but still don’t need to know about until game time.

2) While I would be disappointed if the league declared that football in its current state is too violent and institutes starting today a two-hand touch or flag football system, I’d still watch and be interested in the outcome.  Clamp down your pie hole, cupcake.

1) If Vikings quarterback Brett Favre throws 20 touchdown passes to his newest weapon, wide receiver Randy Moss, and puts the icing on the cake by kicking three field goals and driving in 10 runs including a grand slam, I’ll watch it on my own time, thank you.

Okay, if this last one happens, I don’t care anymore.  Lemme know.

Top Ten Unused Blues Musician Names

1)    Blind Willie Jefferson
2)    Scatman “Bad Scat” Williams
3)    Petey “Lemon Bark” Patterson
4)    Booby “.357” Carter
5)    Frank “Forget two-timin’, I be three-timin’!” Bailey
6)    Robert “Syphilis” Brown
7)    Chicken Leg Smith, the 3rd
8)    Spike “Shot my old lady down at the crossroads, 3 a.m., drunk on gin, and yeah I kinda liked it” Washington
9)    John “Ice Pick” Patterson
10)Clarence “Gangrene & Gout” Johnson