Monday, July 28, 2008

What is "community," anyway?

The 2008 Southwest Colorado index tells us what we who live here -- really live here, and really endeavor to make a living here -- already know: It's really hard. In fact, the report from the Region 9 Economic Development District says, a staggering 72 percent of households here don't earn enough income to purchase a home at the median home price in Durango (which is estimated to be $350,000).

The Durango Herald's front-page story is here. The report itself can be downloaded as a pdf here. (Click on "housing.")

Hard to live here? Well, financially, anyway. Living here itself it pretty freaken' easy, all in all. On the day the Durango Herald ran their story on the report, I jumped on my cruiser and cruised our little town. The morning was a stellar blue and not yet hot, and the town seemed to sit there like an old dog in a cool shady nook. I rode through our downtown neighborhood, Sunday quiet and empty. crossed the historic (and expensive) Boulevard, aka Third Avenue, and down to the Animas River.

There I rode the bike path that follows the river from one end of town to the other. I passed other Sunday bike cruisers, roller bladers, and lots of walkers and strollers. I rode past the new not-yet-finished library that overlooked a team of rafts and duckies floating by on the river. I rolled along the little park behind the high school, and under the canopy of summer-shady cottonwoods behind the fairgrounds, where I could hear the hooting and PA system from some Fiesta Days event. Behind it all, the La Plata Mountains glowed green -- well watered by our recent summer monsoons -- squatting patiently like some granitic buddhas.

A couple miles of this kind of Sunday morning cruising brought me to another park, on the north side of town, where my wife and kids and some other friends were rigging a raft and some duckies to join in the Sunday floating -- riding our hometown river right through the heart of our town.

This is good shit. Very, very good shit. So is it an irony, then, that it should also be expensive as hell to live here? No. According to traditional capitalist theory, it would be completely natural -- what's good and desirable and somewhat rare should be expensive.

I cannot and do not dispute this. But I also don't think it's right. I don't think something so rare and fine and blessed should be easy, but I don't think it should be expensive. And I certainly think it's wrong that it's unattainable to those who need it most: Those who can't afford to jet around to beautiful, powerful places (and stay there in their second and third homes).

So, I ask, why is it so expensive to live here? Who is making it expensive. If three quarters of the residents in a place want to live there but can't afford it, that, I believe, is not the purpose of a community. That is the sign of illness, in fact, in a community. A community, I believe, should be a place to live, not get rich. And you shouldn't have to be rich to live there.

I've said it before, and say again: We control two things that can, without regulation or prejudice and in a completely fair manner, control growth and shape our community: infrastructure and promotion. And these are in the public domain. So, in response to this report, I'd like to once again offer a modest proposal. Call them Ken's Guidelines to Community Affordability:
  1. Keep infrastructure rough. Make it hard to get somewhere and get around once you're there. And herein I mean in particular mechanical transportation. (Gas prices are already helping with this.) It's public money that have put in four lanes from Durango to Albuquerque (and is well on the way to do that through to Salt Lake City). Beware a big airport, too ...
  2. Don't hoar your community. Growth may be hard to control -- but the promotion of growth is very much in our control. Celebrate, but don't prostitute -- they're two different activities. Shun the shillers who want to sell your town and its amenities to those willing to pay the most.
A town should be for living. But we have to make it that way.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A deeper view of ANWR

A recent posting on GOAT, the blog from High Country News, offers a radically different view of the Bush Administration's recent and ongoing focus on opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development: It's a straw man. The author argues that it has nothing to do with increasing oil production or lowering gas prices -- and that the oil companies don't even really want to develop it because of the cost and difficulties of the region.

The Bush Administration, though, the blog contends, keeps pushing the issue to keep the big national environmental groups distracted and competing to save this popular, glamorous place -- keeping the big environmental groups' money, eyes, energy, and media off what the oil companies really covet: America's public lands.

Food for thought, there ...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Senator warns about oil shale frenzy

There was a fine column in the Durango Herald on Sunday from U.S. Senator Ken Salazar reminding West Slopers of the history of bad busts from past oil-shale rushes that came to nothing. Sen. Salazar reminds us all that there have been West Slope oil-shale booms at the turn of the 20th Cenutry, in the 1920s, 1940s, and in the 1970s and 80s. (That most recent boom and subsequent bust is well documented in Andrew Gulliford's highly readable Boomtown Blues.) Each of these booms, Salazar argues, came to nothing -- and West Slopers were left to live with the mess and pay the bills.

A particular danger in the present boom that Salazar cites in the Bush Administration's rush to lease vast tracts of Colorado's and the West's public lands to oil companies for oil shale exploration and development -- even though the technology is still not yet invented to economically turn oil shale into fuel. (On Tuesday, the Bush Administration even proposed lowering those leasing fees charged the record-profit-earning oil companies to develop oil shale on public lands!) The Bush Administration is arguing that oil shale is needed now to alleviate high gas prices -- which is ludicrous, since commercially viable oil shale is several years away (if ever).

But, of course, it's the same argument now wielded to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development and to lift the offshore drilling ban. Just like history shows: The profiteers will do whatever it takes to keep the boom going -- people, land, and public domain be damned. Or mined.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

It's a block-party world

The festivity of the weekend: the KSUT fund-raising block party on Durango's Main Avenue on Saturday night. And it made me realize that if there is a statement-though-action about our Tribe, it may very well be the block party.

Over the past ten or fifteen years, Durango has added several events that close down sections of its main street in favor of food, music, beer, margaritas, and general convivial camaraderie. Good stuff. The proper values, I believe. And the best use of all that pavement in the heart of our lovely little downtown.

This event featured New Orleans goodtime band The Iguanas. The way the block party was set up, though, was a bit unusual: Main Avenue between 12th and 13th was blocked off for concessions and alcohol, but The Iguanas show was in Buckley Park, the city park abutting that section of road. The rule was, alcohol had to stay in the little corral and out of the virginal cleanliness of the city commons (even though said park is already locally known as "Stoner Park" ...).

This lead to an interesting filtering of the event's attendees. While lots of people, of course, moved over to the park to be near the stage -- since that's what the $20 entry fee was ostensibly for -- a whole mass of folks opted to stay in their pen and drink Ska beer and margaritas and socialize. It was after all, a lovely evening -- cool after the stark heat of the midday, and shaded by some of those summer thunderheads spilling off the La Platas. And for some of us -- Sarah and I, obviously, chose the corral -- we also found pooled up in that pen was a strange and wonderful little tribal vortex.

Well, that's what I found anyway. For in those four hours we passed milling around in the middle of the street, Sarah and I ran into dozens of folks we knew from dozens of little nooks and crannies of our Four Corners life - some that hadn't been poked into in quite some time. And in those meetings, we discovered some unexpected cross-threadings of relationships among people we knew, and we didn't know knew each other. It was like the core weave holding together the intertwined lives of those we would most consider members of the same tribe was revealed.

Or something like that. Whatever it was, it was a fine way to spend a Summer Saturday evening in our little town -- spent rounded up with others who chose to spend it the same way.

And the band? They were good, I hear. I don't really know. And the $20? Well, we were really there to support one of our regional public radio stations, right?

It was worth it all around.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lawn care-not

An interesting and inspiring article in a recent New Yorker magazine gives a quick but informative history of the invention -- yep, pretty much -- of the American lawn and the evolution -- or de-evolution -- of the culture (or cult) surrounding it. The piece, by Elizabeth Kolbert, also delves in the the growing anti-lawn movement, and discusses some of the alternatives proposed and practiced by such radical horticultural Luddites.

Quite inspirational. And familiar. I wrote a piece some time ago discussing my own attempts, and their consequences, at cultivation-through-benign-neglect of my own personal front-yard weed patch. Always nice to know I'm not alone ...