Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It’s still Wrigley Field

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2015 at 12:10 PM

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I was dreading this.

As longtime readers know, yours truly is an inveterate Cubs fan. It’s a family affliction with me, passed down by my dad and his dad before him. My son has a Ferguson Jenkins bobblehead in his study in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I’ve been going to Cubs games at Wrigley Field in Chicago since I was seven-years-old. That first time my dad and I (with maybe several hundred others) saw Warren Spahn and the Braves defeat the Cubs on a dank and drizzly September afternoon. The ballpark was redolent with the convoluted aroma of cigar smoke, yellow mustard and spilled beer.

I loved it.

I didn’t know it then, but I was learning something about history that day. In time I would come to understand that real history is made of shared experiences. The ballpark my dad shared with me was pretty much like the one his dad shared with him. As the years passed, the differences between our respective generations would become increasingly acute. But thanks to Wrigley Field, there was also something all of us had in common. A history.

So I was more than a little concerned when the Cubs new owners, the Ricketts Family, began tearing down the bleachers and erecting enormous electronic screens atop the outfield walls.

The Ricketts, of course, said that these changes were a necessary part of doing business in the 21st century. Contemporary sports fans want — no, make that demand — the kind of full sensory overload that only a jumbotron, complete with massive player portraits, instant replays and an endless gush of statistics, can deliver.

A mere baseball game, in other words, is no longer enough. I get this. Baseball is boring. But that has always been part of its charm. Going to a baseball game is a way of taking it easy. That’s why they call ballparks parks.

This doesn’t readily line up with today’s cultural drift. Sitting outdoors, listening to the occasional crack of a batted ball, being overtaken by a sudden burst of live action, isn’t where it’s at.

It seems we prefer life mediated. Screens are everywhere, from our wrists, to our desktops, to billboards. We float across a sea of imagery, the like of which once only existed in dreams. Somewhere a boundary was crossed and, effortlessly, we shifted from being spectators to virtual participants — emphasis on virtual.

I fretted that going to the new Wrigley Field would now be like entering a baseball simulacrum, that I would be bombarded with a digital onslaught of sights and sounds designed to distract me as much as possible from the actual game.

But I was curious. When an old friend said he had tickets, I was there.

And you know what? It’s not bad. The green grass of the field still buzzes, the ivy on the walls is coming back. They prohibited smoking years ago, so there’s no cigar smell, but there’s plenty of yellow mustard to slather on your hot dogs and people keep spilling beer.

Yes, those screens are huge. But they’re not as intrusive as I feared and hey, there are worse things than seeing an instant replay on a close call at second. Apparently I am not quite the 20th century guy I thought I was.

Have no fear, Cubs fans. It’s still Wrigley Field.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

DNR gets an earful about Dunes State Park

Posted By on Fri, May 15, 2015 at 1:35 PM

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This mess started with a good idea.

By any measure, the Indiana Dunes State Park is one this state’s most extraordinary public assets. Located on Lake Michigan, in a landscape where the science of ecology was born, the park is one of the state’s most popular public destinations — it was recently named one of the top ten state parks in the nation by USA Today.

It is also about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Maybe that’s why the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the agency that oversees state parks, finally decided to rehab the park’s old pavilion building.

That building dates back to 1930. It’s a wonderful old deco structure, built in a time when public architecture seemed to have a knack for making people who used it feel special, like they were being transported out of their everyday lives to a place where better things might be possible.

Over the years, though, the DNR neglected the building for lack of funds, allowing it to fall into disrepair.

So the news a few years back that the DNR wanted to partner with someone to rejuvenate the pavilion was welcome. This, however, would be a “public-private” partnership, a type favored by Indiana politicos, wherein public resources are made available for private profit.

Such partnerships allow Indiana to brag about its low taxes — a good thing given the state’s low level of average household income. But I digress.

The DNR put out a call for proposals. But, it claims, there were only two respondents worth considering. One of those, a group calling itself Pavilion Partners LLC, won.

This group, which includes a fellow named Chuck Williams, a former chairman of the Porter County Republican Party and member of the Indiana Dunes Tourism board, was willing to put up several million dollars to make things happen. This meant no tax dollars would be needed — the kind of deal Hoosier state government types have been conditioned to consider sweet.

But Pavilion Partners isn’t interested in just fixing up the pavilion. They also want to build a conference center on an empty lot next door. They get a 35-year lease with two 15-year renewal options.

In exchange, the state gets $18,000 a year and two percent of gross sales.

People in Northwest Indiana are not apathetic when it comes to the Dunes.

They’ve spent 100 years fighting to save this landscape, and many of them take it personally when bureaucrats and developers look at the lakeshore and see nothing but dollar signs.

People here were disgusted by the clueless, seemingly computer-generated renderings they saw of the proposed conference center. Many objected to turning a public treasure into a private business. Most of all, they were outraged by the high-handed way the DNR went about making this deal. Work had already begun on the pavilion when a public meeting was held April 6. But this meeting was “an open house,” and no public comments were allowed.

Not that the public didn’t have plenty to say. Hundreds of us showed up at the Dunes Visitor Center outside Chesterton. Some were picketing. Others offered petitions.

Another, more formal, meeting was hastily called for April 15. It, too, was packed. Of the 52 people who spoke that evening, 50 spoke against the project.

Things have only gotten worse for the DNR and Pavilion Partners since then. The Hoosier Environmental Council, the Indiana chapter of the Sierra Club and the Citizens Action Coalition have lined up against the deal, joining early opponents Save the Dunes and the Izaak Walton League.

Government officials are forever talking about the importance of public input. “Be part of the solution,” they say. Well, they’re getting an earful over at the DNR.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Why Mad Max? Why now?

Posted By on Tue, May 5, 2015 at 2:55 PM

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It seems every time I turn on the boob tube, it’s more of the same: highspeed mayhem, explosions and an ever-higher body count.

And that’s just the trailer for the latest Mad Max sequel, Fury Road.

I haven’t seen this movie; it doesn’t open until May 15. But I think I’ll skip it. Who needs more of “the old ultra-violence,” as Alex DeLarge, the bowler-hatted hooligan in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange so quaintly put it — when the world is awash with the regular stuff?

Take your pick, from beheadings to mass abductions, drone strikes to the demolishing of entire towns, the 21st Century’s proving itself bottomlessly adept at wedding archaic forms of cruelty with the latest industrial know-how.

Compared to what appears to be going on in Mexico, Syria, Nigeria or Iraq, the daily rat-at-tat of assorted shootings in this country seem like the morsels pretentious restaurants serve between courses as palate fresheners.

I remember when the first Mad Max film came out, in 1979. It was a stark, low budget revenge fantasy — a comic book with live actors that added yet another wrinkle to a new wave of films coming from Australia. The movie’s dystopian fixation on space and speed was inspired by the 1973 oil crisis. As co-screenwriter James McCausland wrote: “George [Miller] and I wrote the script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.”

Given this context, you could say the movie had a certain metaphoric cache. It also chimed with the theory, embraced fulsomely by successive generations of arrested-adolescent (mostly) males, that film at its best is about nothing so much as unadorned action.

Depictions of violence, of course, are as old as dramatic art itself. The Greeks, from whom we derive our understanding of tragedy and comedy, were forever stabbing, gouging and disemboweling. These acts, or their threat, were ways of showing how much the lies, delusions, and weaknesses of the characters mattered. Violence equaled consequence.

But today it seems violence has become a default mode for lack of imagination. Acts of violence are strung together and called a storyline. This is what overtook the 1980’s Mad Max sequels, Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, wherein high octane bombast was confused with mythmaking. Violence, it turns out, is like noise. The more you use it to get peoples’ attention, the louder it needs to be. In the end, instead of feeling the fear and pity the Greeks tried to evoke, people feel desensitized.

In this, life seems increasingly to imitate art. The idea of hijacking passenger jets and flying them into skyscrapers and other buildings is, at its core, nothing if not cinematic. The 2008 terrorist storming of a luxury hotel in Mumbai weirdly recalled Irwin Allen’s all-star disaster flicks from the 1970’s.

That’s why I’ll skip Fury Road. The trailer tells me more about the future than I can bear.

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Monday, May 4, 2015

Mike Pence and the Koch Brothers

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2015 at 10:45 AM

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I don’t care where you’re from, it is hard to imagine a more beautiful city than Indianapolis in the Spring. The flowering trees, the carpets of creeping phlox and now, the yard signs saying PENCE MUST GO.

As outrage over Gov. Mike Pence’s signing of the “religious freedom” act percolated throughout the country, friends from other states called me to commiserate about what had befallen Indiana.

The first thing I told them was that this retrograde insult to our state’s well-being was far from the worst thing that could happen. The grassroots protests it sparked were actually inspiring. I had never seen so many people mobilized in favor of social justice in these parts.

But then I told them something else: Watch out.

As tempting as it’s been to see Pence and his ilk as representing some kind of throwback that’s passed its sell-by date, this battle’s just begun. What’s happening in Indiana could just as easily be a preview of coming attractions. While the RFRA debacle made Indiana appear out of step to most people, a small but powerful contingent still thinks of this place as a model for the way things should be. They loved the way Mitch Daniels corporatized the state, never mind that Hoosier incomes remain among the lowest in the country. As far as this crowd’s concerned, Pence’s mistake was more about style than substance.

This is why Pence and his Republican fellow travelers in the Statehouse seem more flummoxed than chastened by the blowback over RFRA. Instead of passing legislation making equal rights available to all Hoosiers, in every part of the state, they hired a public relations firm. Indiana, they want you to know, “welcomes everybody.”

This especially includes the Koch brothers. This billionaire brother act, whose fortunes are derived in large part from fossil fuels and chemicals, have recently declared their intention to contribute almost $900 million to candidates in the 2016 national elections. This is more money than the Republican National Committee and that party’s two congressional campaign committees raised in 2012.

The Kochs have also backed ALEC, the bill-writing factory that supplies conservative Indiana legislators with material concerning environmental regulations, agriculture and industry.

When Christy Denault, Gov. Pence’s communications director, resigned in the wake of the RFRA meltdown, Pence immediately filled that position by hiring a fellow named Matt Lloyd. Lloyd, whose history with Pence goes back to the governor’s days in Congress, “is leaving his job running communications for Koch Industries,” according to the Indianapolis Star.

It turns out Lloyd is not the only Koch connection in Pence’s camp. Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff, is now president of Freedom Partners, the political piggy bank the Kochs will use to distribute all that money they intend to spend in 2016.

With friends like the Kochs, it’s no wonder some people thought Gov. Pence could be presidential material. Whether or not his embarrassment over the RFRA is any more than a speed bump remains to be seen.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Design and Michigan City’s NIPSCO plant

Posted By on Tue, Apr 28, 2015 at 1:00 PM

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From street lights to desk lamps, more and more of us are taking notice of how things work and what they look like. Part of this has to do with our craving for whatever’s new. But design matters in other ways, as well.

I think about design every time I approach the lakefront in Michigan City. The north end of town opens up to Lake Michigan. There’s a harbor that, in summer, is crowded with pleasure boats; a long pier with an iconic lighthouse at the end may be the single most photographed site in Indiana.

Then turn your gaze one click to the left. On the harbor’s western bank is a gargantuan coal-burning power plant, built and operated by NIPSCO, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company.

To tell you the truth, gargantuan hardly begins to describe this facility. It’s actually a kind of history of modern American energy production rendered in architectural terms. Its first iteration, still standing, and clearly visible, was completed in 1931. This industrial deco-style plant, with its three smokestacks, must have been the biggest building in town at that time.

It provided sufficient energy for a large part of Northwest Indiana until the late ‘60s, when expansion was deemed necessary. This addition, completed in 1970, dwarfed the original plant. It consisted of a featureless box-like structure and towering stack, rising up like a great middle finger. A cooling tower was added, giving newcomers the false impression that Michigan City, like the Simpsons’ Springfield, is nuclear-powered.

Today, a third expansion is taking place. Prompted by clean air regulations, it is another enormous cube, a behemoth jutting out to the lake’s edge. Its cost, we are told, has been estimated at $250 million. This latest addition is meant to be understood as progress. Since it burns coal, NIPSCO’s Michigan City plant has been an historic polluter, casting plumes of toxic emissions across the lake and into neighboring states. The new building houses scrubbing technology, which is said to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 80 percent and nitrogen oxide by 35 percent.

Given the demonstrable harm that burning coal does to public health, this is helpful, to say the least. In 2010, Abt Associates of Cambridge Massachusetts calculated that, in Michigan City, 29 deaths, 45 heart attacks and 450 asthma attacks could be linked that year to living in proximity to a coal-burning plant.

But when I look at the NIPSCO plant and how it has grown over the years — at the sheer size and, frankly, the ugliness of it — I wonder about design. To see all it takes to make coal a less toxic form of energy is to wonder whether we should still be going down this road. The way the NIPSCO plant has grown over the years looks more like dependence than progress.

If it takes huge amounts of human, financial, technological and environmental resources to create what is then called “energy,” maybe we should be working harder to develop new, more efficient forms. This is what design can tell us, why it matters.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Hemp: still too scary for Indiana

Posted By on Fri, Apr 24, 2015 at 2:22 PM

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When I was in college, back in the last century, I had a friend who went to Purdue University. We’d gone to high school together; John had been a solid student, involved in sports and student government.

But when he got to college, John, like just about everybody else in those days, let his hair grow long and adopted the Army surplus look that passed for fashion.

One day, during summer break, John showed up at my house. He had something he wanted to share: a baggie full of marijuana he said grew all over around West Lafayette.

This, of course, was ditch weed. Hemp. It grew wild in uncultivated fields like a kind of muscle memory from Indiana’s agricultural past. As we soon found out, it made for awful smoking.

Hemp used to be a cash crop in Indiana. During World War II, the Federal government encouraged farmers to grow it as part of the war effort. It’s a versatile fiber that can be used in an amazing array of products, from lotions and soaps to biofuel.

It could still be a boon for Indiana farmers. According to the Congressional Research Service, the annual U.S. market for industrial hemp-based products is currently more than $580 million.

Last year the state legislature passed a law legalizing the cultivation and processing of industrial hemp. They had no problem doing this because, as my friend John and I found out, hemp carries virtually no THC. And without THC, there is no getting high.

Unfortunately, though, our government is still so freaked out about reefer madness that it has a hard time letting actual facts about marijuana, of which industrial hemp is a cousin, get in the way of its paranoid policies.

For example, before going ahead with hemp cultivation, Indiana felt compelled to get the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s blessing. Additional legislation to expedite this process was proposed this year. It sailed through the House, but was killed in the Senate after the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council fretted that what amounts to smoking rope is too dangerous a notion for Indiana to embrace. More “study” is required.

But as the history of America’s prohibition of marijuana shows, the act of prohibition itself has only served to perpetuate ignorance and mythology. Genuine scientific research has been inhibited by illegality, which has, in turn, prevented us from both fully enjoying this plant’s attributes and understanding its side effects.

So a state like Colorado, with the intellectual gumption to reject government-perpetuated paranoia, has become what amounts to a living laboratory. Almost a year and a half after legalization, Colorado reports a 41 percent decrease in all drug arrests, better regulation of its medical marijuana industry, improved youth prevention and mental health efforts, a decline in youth use rates, traffic fatalities at near historic lows, the lowest unemployment rate since 2008 — and more than $40 million revenue in marijuana taxes.

What might that number be if it included, say, biofuels made with hemp? As long as Indiana’s bureaucrats cling to the paranoia of prohibition, it will be some other state that finds out.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Who owns the beach in Long Beach?

The State of Indiana weighs in

Posted By on Mon, Apr 20, 2015 at 5:00 PM

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From small things big things sometimes come.

That’s what appears to be happening up in my neck of the woods, Long Beach, Indiana. This week a judge in nearby Michigan City will hear a dispute pitting a small group of beachfront homeowners against an alliance of citizens and environmental groups, as well as the State of Indiana. The stakes are high. At issue: whether an assertion of private property rights outweighs the public trust.

My family started vacationing in Long Beach in the late 1940’s, after my Chicagoan grandparents began renting a cottage there. Days were spent swimming and roving up and down the beach. In the evenings, somebody might light a campfire. My dad and I tried sleeping on the beach once — a bone-chilling experience.

The town of Long Beach was founded in the 1920’s. Since most Chicagoans (with the notable exception of Al Capone, who built a house here said to be in the shape of a gun) tended to cluster in the small towns dotting the Michigan coast, Long Beach remained under the Big City radar.

There was always money along the beach. But in the 1960’s, an average CEO made 20 times what a worker did; not 200 times, which is the difference today. Affluence was visible, but retained a certain modesty.

And when it came to the beach itself, people didn’t hassle one another. It was understood: everybody was here to relax and enjoy one another’s company.

People will tell you that things began to change about 10 years ago. Folks, Chicagoans mainly, began showing up and buying lakefront property. In many cases, they tore existing homes down to build much bigger ones. Some bulldozed the foredunes — sandy hillocks covered in marram grass — between their homes and the beach.

It seems at some point during this time, a few of these homeowners got the idea that they didn’t just own the lots on which their houses stood. They owned the beach — all the way to the water’s edge.

Never mind that they don’t pay taxes on this bonus land. Never mind that there are no records definitively backing up such claims.

These beachfront homeowners claim the beach as their private property because, well, because they can. Now they are suing the State of Indiana to make their assertion real.

A much larger group of homeowners, the Long Beach Community Alliance, formed three years ago to defend traditional public access to the beach. They tried to negotiate an amicable agreement with the beachfront owners. The beachfront owners went to court instead.

Save the Dunes, one of Indiana’s oldest environmental groups, and the Great Lakes Alliance, intervened. Eventually the State of Indiana had to get involved.

As then Indiana Assistant Attorney General William Daily wrote in 1978, state and Federal case law going back to at least 1893 shows that Indiana owns the Lake Michigan beach up to what is called “the ordinary high water mark.” That mark is determined by “physical markings,” usually taken to be where those foredunes begin.

This, however, has not deterred the beachfront owners’ side. They seem determined to colonize this little part of Indiana for themselves. If they somehow win, this will be a very big deal. Not just for Long Beach, a town whose name will suddenly be meaningless, but for the very idea of public trust.

We all know that money talks. In Long Beach we’re about to find out if it owns a bullhorn.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Barack and Mike: odd couple indeed

Posted By on Thu, Apr 16, 2015 at 12:45 PM

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Politicians, believe it or not, are people just like you and me. If we get frustrated with the dysfunction we see tying up government at state and federal levels, imagine how the politicians who have to put up with this each and every day must feel.

It seems some of them have decided there’s got to be a better way: let Big Business take over.

How else does one explain the recent rapprochement between Pres. Barack Obama and Gov. Mike Pence?

Pres. Obama’s tribulations with Congress are practically legendary. From healthcare reform to immigration policy, every time he adopts an idea Republicans once favored, those same Republicans throw it back in his face. If he says “tomato,” Republicans are bound to say “tomahto,” just to make him wince.

As for Pence, he found out the hard way that even a one-party government, like the one we have in Indiana, isn’t enough to keep embarrassment at bay. The “religious freedom” debacle and a ham-handed attempt to create a state-sponsored news service were rude reminders that, like it or not, even Indiana has to get with the 21st century.

What’s a chief executive to do?

Pine, it seems, for the so-called efficiencies of the private sector. On April 10, Gov. Pence sent a letter to members of Indiana’s Congressional Delegation urging them to support two major trade deals being promoted by Pres. Obama: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Obama is asking Congress to give him fast-track authority to push these deals through; Pence supports that, too.

Pence pointed out that, according to the Department of Commerce, total Indiana goods exports set a record $35.5 billion in 2014. He, like Obama, believes these trade deals will make that number even bigger.

The trouble is that these trade deals, like their predecessor, NAFTA, appear to have a whopping potential to not only undermine the middle-class by undercutting pay and degrading environmental regulations, they also cut to the bone of national sovereignty.

As Zach Carter wrote in the Huffington Post, and Michael Shank reported in U.S. News & World Report , “Foreign corporations operating within the U.S. would be permitted to appeal key American legal or regulatory rulings to an international tribunal. That international tribunal would be granted the power to overrule American law.”

These tribunals, made up of corporate lawyers, would have the power to order taxpayer compensation for health and environmental policies that might threaten foreign investors’ “expected future profits.”

A case like this recently took place in Ecuador where, under NAFTA provisions, that country lost a $2.4 billion judgment to Occidental Petroleum. At a time when our export trade is booming and corporate profits are at record highs, it is hard to see what we might gain by enacting international treaties designed to privilege global corporations over national and state governments.

Unless, that is, your view of government has grown so jaundiced from our dysfunctional politics you imagine tycoons can do a better job.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Letter from up north

Posted By on Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 1:20 PM

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It takes a couple of years.

That’s been my experience in moving from one place to another. It generally takes a couple of orbits around the sun before a place to live becomes a home.

It is now almost two years to the day since Melli and I left our longtime home in Indianapolis to live up north; in northwest Indiana, to be exact, near the Lake Michigan shore in a town called Long Beach.

Long Beach: If you’ve lived in Indiana for as long as I have, that name is something to conjure with — the stuff of dreams (and beer commercials). A surprising number of people find the very idea hard to believe. When I tell them where I live, they give me a look, like I’m trying to pull a fast one.

“There’s no beach in Indiana,” they say.

But there is. And a vast inland sea to go with it.

Being able to live in close proximity to Lake Michigan is ultimately what drew us here. The lake, the dunes, the towering oak trees along the shoreline. This is what some folks call a “power place,” one of those landscapes where the planet makes itself felt on a regular basis, where your sense of consciousness expands at the same time that the self you call your own feels smaller and smaller.

This place’s story is very old — timeless, really — and relentlessly new. As tempting as it is to keep one’s eyes fixed on the beach, the lake, the woods, this place was also the 20th century’s forge. “Rust belt,” is the lazy shorthand some use to describe our part of the Midwest. Drive 20 miles west from my front door and you’re looking at mills where they made the steel used to turn America into a world power. A few miles farther and you practically taste the fumes from BP’s massive oil refinery in Whiting. Pipelines carrying all manner of hazardous stuff — or “energy,” as we prefer to call it — run under and above the ground here like spider veins.

They call this “the Region.” To say the earth has been bruised around here is a gross understatement. Bludgeoned, stripped and torn is more like it. The fact that cancer rates are as high as they are in these parts is enough to make you believe in karma.

On a clear day, you can stand on our beach and see Chicago’s skyline. It’s an awesome sight made of equal parts promise and threat. The city remains inspirational, but today’s glut of upper tier fortunes has created an uber class with the money to bend the landscape to suit themselves. This passes for freedom.

Someone once said the southern coast of Lake Michigan is a microcosm for the planet. A big city, massive industrial plant, and one of the most extraordinary ecosystems in the world share the same 50 miles.

I’ll be writing you letters about this part of Indiana from time to time. It’s complicated, exasperating and gorgeous — and yes, it feels like home.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

Republicans vs. cities, round 2

Posted By on Fri, Apr 10, 2015 at 1:00 PM

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Indiana’s one-party (Republican) legislature keeps talking to itself, which leaves the rest of us saying, “What?!”

Our fearless leaders seem to have decided that Indiana really doesn’t need its cities anymore. They’re doing their best to make urban living as unappealing as possible.

That’s the message being sent by the cuts to urban public school systems in the new state budget.

While the Republicans are touting spending increases to public education, these increases are selective. They will go to suburban schools systems.

These systems are growing and need the money, say Republicans. But as we should know by now, a major reason these systems are growing is because families with kids who live in Indiana cities and towns are faced with a stark choice. They can choose to stay where they are and try to navigate their way through a tangle of public and private options or, if they are able, move to the ‘burbs.

If you’ve lived in an Indiana city for any length of time, you’ve seen this happen. That cool young couple next door has a kid. Next thing you know they’re saying that as much as they love living in town, they’re thinking it’s time to move out to where the schools are better. Their kid is only going to be a kid once, after all.

Indiana Republicans will say this boils down to competition. A competition that city schools (let’s not mention the thousands of kids who attend these schools) are losing.

So cut the funding to city schools. The Republican budget calls for cuts to Indianapolis Public Schools of between $22 and $32 million over the next two years. Hamilton Southeastern, on the other hand, will get at least $23 million more.

But if this is a competition, what, exactly, does it take to win? Michigan City Area Schools (MCAS), a comparatively small system with a student population of less than 6,000, has struggled with an array of challenges — some self-inflicted — for years.

Yet in March, MCAS was named a “District of Distinction” by a national magazine and cited for dramatic increases in its ISTEP passing rates. Unfortunately, the system’s student population, like the population of Michigan City overall, is falling. School funding in Indiana follows students; when parents move to suburban systems, like Hamilton Southeastern, they take funding with them. And so the Republican legislature will reward MCAS’s improved performance with another challenge to surmount: new rounds of budget cuts.

There’s no secret about the role public school systems play in the lives of their communities. Strong public systems are magnets for families and employers. When it comes to assessing a place’s quality of life, the quality of its schools is a leading indicator. Nothing could boost Indianapolis or (even more) Michigan City, like public school bragging rights.

Most Hoosiers live in urban areas; what’s more, cities and towns generate major revenue for the rest of the state. Instead of hollowing out urban school systems, you’d think our Republican legislature would try finding new ways to help.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

RFRA: Not over yet

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2015 at 4:00 PM

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Thank heavens, that’s over.

The Final Four, I mean. Fears that the tournament would devolve into yet another public relations debacle, courtesy our State Legislature (and that includes you, Scott Schneider!) were put to rest. Indy did its hospitality thing, a splendid time was had by all.

Before that could happen, of course, a veritable posse of Indiana power hitters, the business elite, had to troop into the Statehouse to make sure our elected representatives cleaned up a measure of the mess they’d made with their “religious freedom” law.

Order, or what passes for it in Indiana, was restored.

Protections against discrimination aimed at LGBT people have been written into state law for the first time.

That’s better than nothing but, as many others, including some Republican politicians, have said, it’s only a beginning. Or, to be blunt: it is not enough.

What is clear — or should be — is that what this state really needs is legislation that guarantees equal rights for everyone in Indiana, no matter who they are, or where they live.

We need to get beyond damage control and broadcast a positive message that backs up all our “open for business” sloganeering.

This should be easy, but it will probably be hard.

That’s because one of the lessons learned over the past couple weeks is that, for some Hoosiers, LGBT people simply are not the same as the rest of us. According to these Hoosiers’ reading of the Bible, LGBT people are beyond the pale. They may feel sorry for LGBTs; they may even want to save them.

But they don’t want to do anything to affirm what they consider a sinful choice.

This is why Mike Pence flubbed questions about discrimination. While he himself would hate to see LGBT people turned away, as he said, from a restaurant, he shows no signs of being ready to protect their civil rights throughout the state. As far as he is concerned, the way some Christians interpret the Bible trumps equal rights for all.

It could take awhile, and an election or two, to straighten this out. Which is tough, because Indiana needs to get past this episode sooner rather than later.

All states in this country of ours are not viewed the same way. In part, it is hard not to conclude the national backlash against the RFRA in Indiana was probably heightened by the fact Indiana is an easy target. National brands can threaten us because there’s little downside for them in doing so. We’re the home, after all, of the “Mole Women” in Tina Fey’s new sitcom, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — a running joke at our expense.

It’s easy to laugh off the state’s dubious perch in our country’s pop culture. Some might even take it as a backhanded compliment.

But the RFRA episode demonstrates the tenuousness of our place in the country’s pecking order. Suddenly we seem a lot more like Mississippi than Minnesota.

So take a deep breath. High fives for a great Final Four. This isn’t over yet.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

This crisis is too good to waste

Posted By on Tue, Mar 31, 2015 at 12:50 PM

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“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything…” That’s been the cultural rule of thumb in Indiana for as long as I can remember. We don’t have a lot of strikes, protests or demonstrations around here. Hoosiers tend to be team players.

So the firestorm following Mike Pence’s signing of the so-called Religious Freedom act has been beyond breath-taking.

Indiana, welcome to the 21st century.

The passage of this law, and Gov. Pence’s clueless attempts to defend it, have been shameful. There is no need to “clarify” this mess. Anybody with ears to hear and eyes to see has known what this was about — look at the who’s who of homophobes pictured round our governor as he signed the bill in a private gathering: Micah Clark, Eric Miller, Curt Smith.

When these guys lost their fight to make LGBT people second-class citizens in the state’s constitution via a marriage ban, they regrouped with their legislative buddy Scott Schneider (of Indianapolis, I’m afraid) and came up with this steaming pile.

The rest is history in the making.

It’s amazing what can happen when you have one-party rule. That’s what Indiana got after Republicans redrew the state’s districts. The Statehouse is now an anti-urban rightwing club, where the members nod and congratulate one another like scavengers at a flea market for outdated appliances. It’s been such a long time since they checked in with the rest of the world, they had no idea what was in store.

It’s not that they weren’t warned. Mayors, business moguls, even religious leaders begged them not to do this awful thing. All were blown off. Our fearless leaders wanted to make “a statement.”

But it turns out even a place as hidebound as Indiana is not immune to change. It turns out life doesn’t just go on, it wakes up, stretches and imagines new ways of being.

Not to realize this or, worse, to try and stop it, means trouble.

But we’re not used to trouble like this in Indiana. Usually we just make things so uncomfortable for somebody they leave, and then everything’s okay again.

Not this time.

Like it or not, Indiana is part of a larger world. That world is now letting us know that there are rules for participation. We can, of course, choose not to play, but at a cost. We can say good-bye to our kids, our future.

The mess our leaders have made is dire. But something thrilling is also happening. The intensity of the backlash to what Pence and Schneider and their ilk have done is unheard of in our state. That’s because too many people have worked too long to make things better here. We see it, we feel it — and so does that wider world. None of us wants to go back.

The Fairness for All Hoosiers Act, proposed by Freedom Indiana and the state’s ACLU, is a way forward. It would extend civil rights to all Hoosiers, throughout the state, for the first time.

There should be no rest until this is done. Call or email your lawfaker: tell ‘em the 21st century won’t wait.

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