Dear Los Feliz Neighborhood Council: This is not okay

I love neighborhood councils, and I’m so lucky to live in a city that has them. Knowing there’s a receptive layer of communication between me and the city itself has always given me confidence in my ability to make my voice heard, because I know that the council members are both familiar with and empathetic to my own personal concerns, whether or not they agree with them themselves. But after a recent interaction I had with the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, specifically Mark Mauceri, the Recreation Rep, my confidence in the organization was shattered.

I reached out to Mark because I read in the LA Times that he was pushing to create a pair of baseball diamonds in Griffith park. I disapproved of the plan, because though I fully support recreation, I don’t believe open park space and recreation space should be a zero sum game. That is, building a baseball diamond should not have to take away from existing park space. I also felt that Mark’s comments:

The birds will just move to the next tree up the hill.

and

Sycamores grow like weeds.

were at the very least shortsighted and environmentally insensitive. So I found Mark on twitter, and I told him just that. What I got in response caught me off guard.

A tweet by Mark Mauceri
Mark Mauceri’s tweet

See Charles Darwin? Really? I couldn’t believe I was getting this kind of snarky attitude from an elected neighborhood council member. So I responded:

Citygrows response to Mark Mauceri
My response to Mark

This obviously didn’t agree with Mark, because from this point forward, he unloaded a series of foul-mouthed responses that showed just how intolerant of my opinion he is. He called me a “nitwit.” He called me a “jag off.” And he made offensive assumptions about who I am and the choices I make.

This is not how neighborhood councils are supposed to work. When I’m being harassed by a public official, I don’t feel represented. And when that public official is resorting to foul language as a result of him not being able to control his frustration, it makes me sad that somehow, this person managed to get elected at all. I’m not saying that I think he’s at fault for disagreeing with me. At the end of the day, he’s older and has more experience with the city of Los Angeles than I do. But in this situation, I would expect a public official to impart his wisdom on someone with a differing viewpoint, not call them names. I would expect that if he disagrees, he would explain why he sees the situation differently. Or at the very least, if he felt heckled, I would expect him to refrain from commenting altogether. But this? This is shameful. I’m embarrassed for the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council. This is not why neighborhood councils were created. This doesn’t advocate for the public. This doesn’t accomplish anything.

Thanks for listening.

Sincerely,

Stephen Corwin

Bike / stroller ramp down forest trail stairs. Stockholm, Sweden
Bike / stroller ramp down forest trail stairs. Stockholm, Sweden
Street loungin'. Stockholm, Sweden
Street loungin’. Stockholm, Sweden
Pet Sounds. Stockholm, Sweden
Pet Sounds. Stockholm, Sweden
Boats in harbor. Stockholm, Sweden
Boats in harbor. Stockholm, Sweden
Kids with reflective vests on sidewalk
A safe bunch. Stockholm, Sweden
An old, yellow VW Bug
An old beetle. Stockholm, Sweden
An old, yellow VW Bug
An old beetle. Stockholm, Sweden
Statue of naked woman with baby
Accurate depiction of every girl in Stockholm.
Pet Sounds record shop
Pet Sounds records. Stockholm, Sweden

Helsinki

Helsinki is my mother’s living room. There is not a more perfect way to describe it.

The city is, without reservation, an absolutely beautiful thing. It’s obvious that each and every building in the city proper was designed and selected with the intention of completing the city as a work of art. But it’s not just the buildings. The roads old and new are made of cobblestones, arranged in cascading circular patterns that are just as beautiful as the buildings they connect. Street car tracks are embedded into the stones so perfectly that it only enhances their beauty. And the street cars themselves run all over the city. It’s tough to find a road they don’t run on, and they run frequently enough that they seem to just magically appear when you need them.

Pedestrian infrastructure in Helsinki is a dream. For every vehicle lane, there are matching cycling and pedestrian lanes, and cyclists frequently have their own traffic lights. Walking and cycling are so preferred that at times, you can go minutes without passing a car on the streets. It’s wonderfully peaceful, and yet, for all its majesty, it’s almost creepy at times.

Finns are known for being an unusually introverted people, a trait which pervades the city. Being an introvert myself, I imagined I would have quite liked the ambiance, but I found that after a few days, the perpetual silence started to make me uncomfortable. Most businesses during the week close at 6pm, and yes, that includes restaurants, so if it’s evening time and you haven’t bought groceries, you’re pretty much out of luck. There’s only one 24 hour grocery store in the whole city. Even on Friday night, most activity takes place quietly and behind closed doors—and said doors are hard to find. For some reason (perhaps in order to preserve the un-ornamented simplicity of the buildings), the Finns don’t seem to be much for hanging signs for their businesses perpendicular to the sidewalks, which makes it difficult when you’re walking to tell whether you’re close to anything of consequence. It also makes it easy to stare down a lively street and perceive it as cold and all but abandoned. A fun night out with friends in Helsinki would almost definitely have to be planned in advance.

Despite the strange tones, though, Finns have an insanely high quality of life. The air is clean and the streets are spotless, despite the fact that the they apparently have no problem with urinating on random bushes and trees as they please. (Side note: I saw 6 people pee and 2 people vomit casually on the sidewalk one night, and no one around them even blinked an eye, which was totally weird.) Wealth seems to be well-distributed, which makes Los Angeles (where I’m from) look like a third world country in comparison. During my entire stay, only once did I encounter someone I thought might have been homeless. He was waving his arms and talking to himself, but as I crossed his path, I soon realized he was just very involved in the conversation he was having via his bluetooth headset.

Because the Finnish government takes such good care of its people, there is virtually no crime–at least the petty kind that stems from poverty. Bikes are strewn throughout the city, some locked, others simply kickstanded or leaned against a wall. Thievery is the least of anyone’s concerns, which is kind of crazy given that my $100 bike back home in Los Angeles was stolen while locked up with a steel u-lock outside my apartment. The people are also incredibly generous, and delightfully helpful. When I couldn’t get the bus ticket machine to accept my credit card at the airport, a young girl offered to let me use her bus pass. “It’s only five euros,” she said. My attempt to repay her was borderline pathetic since all I could offer her were US dollars, but after refusing several times to accept any repayment at all, she accepted a $10 bill and assured me with a smile that it’d be no problem for her to convert it to Euros. Even so, I bet she probably just tossed it in a trash can when she got home.

The lack of extreme wealth or poverty creates a strange shape for the city, though. There are no good or bad neighborhoods–all of them are pleasant, and most of the apartments seem to be more or less the same. I’m sure some are larger than others, but externally the buildings are all similarly beautiful, and access to parks and open space is pretty ubiquitous throughout the city. In theory this should be a great thing, but I found myself missing the diversity that comes from people living entirely different lifestyles within the same city. Due to its homogeneity, Helsinki doesn’t have “neighborhoods” in the traditional sense, and that’s definitely something to be missed. All in all, this clued me in to the fact that though it’s certainly an important factor, quality of life is not the only requirement of a happy city.

So basically, Helsinki is like my mom’s living room. It’s a completed masterpiece, a spotless, perfectly laid-out work of art that is a source of pride to those who call it home. But in its completeness and perfection, it can be cold and un-evolving. It’s the only city I’ve ever been to that actually felt “finished,” in the sense that there’s nothing left to be done. What could I possibly contribute to a city that’s already finished? Not much. All I could possibly do now is live in it, and even then, I’d be living in fear of some voice from the sky telling me to get my feet off the couch.

In defense of taxes

// Originally posted on Medium

If someone told you they loved paying taxes, it’s safe to assume you’d probably call that person crazy. Who likes having less money to spend? Or more precisely, who likes feeding their hard-earned dollars into an essential black box, without the opportunity to ever keep track of where they go, what they’re used on, or who’s spending them? Taxes are the reason you can’t afford the computer you want. They’re the reason you have to wait to repair your car. Basically, anything you’ve ever wanted to do but not been able to do you can blame on having to pay taxes, so it comes as no surprise that any politician who calls for raising taxes, regardless of the reason, is immediately booed into oblivion.

I recently read this LA Times article which talks about how the aging infrastructure in our city is leading to unavoidable catastrophes like the water main leak on Sunset Blvd, and how without the money to pay for the necessary improvements, we’ll have to expect more and more frequent incidents of this sort. Los Angeles needs upwards of $5 billion to catch up on road and sidewalk repairs alone. That’s a hefty sum, but it’s not out of reach. In fact, earlier this year, Mayor Garcetti toyed with the idea of imposing a half-cent addition to the sales tax which would have raised over 80% of that amount. What’s crazy to me, though, is that he decided not to put the proposal on the ballot. Apparently, Californian’s hate taxes so much that this proposal to add one half of one percent to the sales tax, an amount that, for the average Angeleno, totals only $26 per year, had very little chance of passing. Sadly, I understand the logic. In 2012, Measure J, a ballot measure that would have paid for better roads, better side walks, and accelerated construction of rail lines by simply extending an existing half-cent sales tax failed to pass, despite the fact that people were already paying the tax, and will continue to pay it for another three decades, regardless of the outcome of Measure J. That’s right, people balked at the thought of having to continue to pay a half-penny tax that they’re already paying, thirty years from now.

Now, I totally understand not wanting to pay taxes on controversial issues, but I struggle to believe that there is anyone in this world that, when faced with an expense of $26, would choose to simply deal with our tattered roads instead. To do so would be an act of unbelievable selfishness, but that’s okay, because I don’t think this is what’s happening. What I do think is happening is a big ‘ol gaff in the presentation layer.

Whenever these types of issues arise, I find myself wondering why I seem to be the only one willing to pay more to get more. That’s right, I said it: I’m willing to pay higher taxes, and it’s because I know the more money I pay in taxes, the more smoothly my city will function, and the prouder and happier I’ll be to live here. So if I’m willing to subject myself to higher taxes, why isn’t everyone else? No one can answer that question for sure, but I imagine a lot of it has to do with trust in the people you’re paying the money to.

I’m quite fond of Mayor Eric Garcetti and his staff. I feel comfortable being taxed, because I believe that the people I give my money to are spending it wisely, even if I don’t physically see the results. But for a lot of people, the situation might be different. Maybe they’re not a fan of our current government. Maybe they’re not a fan of government at all. Or maybe it just takes them more time to build up trust than it does for me. For these people, feeding money into a black box just doesn’t cut it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not willing to pay for the things they want. Au contraire! The whole reason they’re adverse to taxes in the first place is that they prevent them from buying things that they want. Instead, I believe the issue is in the pitch itself.

Take a look at Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a website where people who want to get something done find other people who, despite having no affiliation with the project and often no affiliation with the people themselves, choose to spend their own money just to see that project funded. If you take the way people behave around tax season and apply it in the context of Kickstarter, the company should have folded years ago. And yet the Kickstarter community thrives! Over a billion dollars have been voluntarily pledged on the site. A billion dollars! What gives?! At their cores, both Kickstarter and taxes are people using money that they could spend on something else to instead selflessly pay for projects that benefit large numbers of people. And yet, they seem so fundamentally different.

I’ll tell you one thing that’s different right off the bat: taxes certainly don’t come with a fun, colorful interface that lets you not only follow funding and development progress for active projects, but also to browse all kinds of new and exciting future projects. But what if they did? What if every tax dollar you spent could be matched against live data showing the amount of money being raised via the tax, and the projects it got divied out to? And what if said projects could be followed by anyone with an interest in doing so? What if paying taxes worked just like Kickstarter?

I believe in people. I people that when given the proper information and the opportunity to hear a story, many people would willingly choose to pay for things like transportation infrastructure because those things will have transformed from political buzzwords to real, felt needs of a living city in which we are all communal owners. The only thing that needs to happen is a shift from the traditional “us vs them” attitude toward a more positive “all of us together” attitude, and that my friend is just branding.

If you have to take money from someone, the worst way to do it is with a vacuum cleaner. Instead, tell them a story, and you might be surprised to find that they were willing to help all along.

What it’s like to ride a bike in Los Angeles, Part I

S Alameda St & 2nd St

Waiting in the left turn lane at an unprotected green, a steady stream of traffic passes in the opposite direction as is the usual state of affairs in this city. When the light cycles yellow and oncoming traffic begins to slow, both the car beside me and I begin to make our left turns. Being a car and all, my left turn companion completes his turn and clears the intersection before I do. Then as I’m nearing the end of my turn, a couple in a small sedan coming straight at me decides they’d like to try their chances at the freshly red light, and accelerates to make it through the intersection before cross traffic begins. Unfortunately, in order to do that, they’d have had to have run me over.

I rang my bell when I noticed they weren’t stopping. Maybe it saved my life, I’m not sure, but the car came screeching to a halt when the driver finally clued in to my presence. I was thankful enough to be alive that I was about to raise my hand to the driver in a forgiving gesture of “thank you for not killing me,” but I’d barely initiated that movement when the couple in the car started screaming at me. Here’s a transcript:

You fucking retard! The fuck are you doing riding in the road?!

Then the wife chimed in:

Yeah dumbass! You almost killed us! Fuck you!

Then they peeled away, engine roaring.

Somehow in the mind of this middle-aged couple, I, the law abiding cyclist, was at fault for this incident. I was at fault for even being in the road in the first place. And not only that, in the event that an accident had occurred between that 1 ton vehicle and my fleshy body, their concern was that they would have been the ones killed.

This is cycling in Los Angeles.