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Archive for April, 2009

It has been opined that “It’s not over until it’s over”. It has also been observed that there are two types of people in this world, those that divide people up into two groups and those that don’t. In that vein, we come to a local news opinion television program called “The Georgia Gang“.

I’m a fan of the program, as is my lovely bride. I have caught her yelling at the television on occasion when Georgia Gang is on. I’m largely over yelling at the TV, but if I were to do so, the Georgia Gang would probably be the target. The program is rarely boring, and on occasion, quite interesting. The format is largely the same each week, and there are four panelists; their demographics and political persuasions can be sliced and diced in a variety of interesting ways. There are some hardened positions about certain matters, and in that way, the program can be quite predictable. Predictable should not be equated with boring in this case, because periodic fire fights break out over interesting things.

Today’s program (4/26/2009, Confederate Memorial Day) was no exception and things exploded over events that largely happened in the 1860’s. Yes, you can’t live in Atlanta without discussing Atlanta’s first urban renewal program, which was instigated at the direction of a certain General Sherman. And, that matter is part of a larger matter, a certain war. Atlantans can’t even agree upon the right term for the war that started in 1861; there are those that use the term Civil War, while others, usually those who have been educated in The South, often use the term The War Between The States. A few use the euphemism The Recent Unpleasantness. People can’t even agree upon the names of many of the significant battles of the War. To quote a website The troops of the North came mainly from cities, towns, and villages, and were, therefore, impressed by some natural object near the scene of the conflict and named the battle from it. The soldiers from the South were chiefly from the country and were, therefore, impressed by some artificial object near the field of action. Thus you have the battles of Pittsburgh Landing and Shiloh Church being fought in the same place.

Regardless, one would think that for something that had ended officially at Appomattox Courthouse (or Clover Hill, if you wish) in 1865, that hostilities would be over and done with. Of course, that’s not the case, and an interesting rapid fire discussion broke out on The Georgia Gang today between two panelists.

At the center of things is Loren Collins, who is an interesting character in his own right. In the most recent state-wide election cycle, Mr. Collins was an official write-in candidate against Hank Johnson, of the 4th Congressional District of Georgia. Johnson ran without opposition by the Republican Party, a legacy of Congressional gerrymandering in recent decades. Mr. Collins felt that this was inappropriate for a country such as ours. Of course, another point of contention would be over the manner in which we describe our form of government; Republic or Democracy. In any case, Mr. Collins had virtually no chance of success, but did manage to garner 159 votes in the election. However, we have not heard the last from Mr. Collins, and a recent example appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on April 24th; please see here.

The Georgia Gang ends each week’s broadcast with Winners and Losers, and our Mr. Collins became the center of an embroiled discussion between two panelists, one Caucasian-American and one African-American. More heat than light was generated, but this little tiff is yet another example of things that never seem to conclude. And, that if it hadn’t been this particular subject, it would have been another. My point is that if we are to continue as the dynamic society that we have been in the past, this is the sort of discussion that will occur.

So much has been made of trying to maintain civil order, and a lot of institutions have gamed the system to their advantage. Congress has used computer technology to fix elections so that we have reached a point of stasis. Expression of conservative thought on college campuses appears to be a thing of the past. While the automated telephone support systems tell us that “Your call is important to us”, we know better.

Yet, if we are to be a free society, accommodations have to be made to opposing opinion. Accommodation is not the same as agreement. A lot of people assume that because they express their opinion, this should also include the squelching of opposing thought. There are euphemisms for this, but at the heart, it’s just arrogance and then using whatever clout they can deliver to silence any possible opposition. If we are to remain a dynamic society, there has to be freedom of expression and freedom of thought. To do otherwise is to slowly grind our society down into a bland and shapeless mass of mediocrity.

A startling number of politicians, at all levels of government, have reached office by the slimmest of majorities.  It is no longer sufficient for a politician to simply play the numbers and say that because they won, they have the right to do anything that they want.  Regardless of who voted for them, they have the obligation to serve, as best they can, every citizen of our Republic.  Because the reality is that in recent years, almost half of the people that voted didn’t vote for them.

One of television’s lasting legacies for our society is that we expect problems to be concluded in 60 minutes, less time for commercials, but life doesn’t work that way.  The reality is that some things are never over and that we need to reach a sense of accommodation and acceptance.

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By way of background, the Atlanta region is in the throes of a significant transportation problem.  There is a project developing in the City of Atlanta called “The Beltline” which will take existing, but mostly inactive, freight railroad lines and convert them to mixed-use rapid transit conduits, with electrically powered rail cars and bike / walking paths.  This project will occur entirely within the physical limits of the City of Atlanta, and some state geopolitical players do not have an active role.

One such player with reduced status is the Georgia Department of Transportation.  The Georgia DoT represents an unique problem for the Atlanta area, and not just the City of Atlanta enjoys their peculiar role in the region.  In an apparent effort at “fairness”, the 13-member GDoT board covers the State of Georgia; each member has roughly equal power, and they are responsible for divvying up transportation funding for the entire State.  Needless to say, this effort at fairness often works against a specific transportation project, since if a voting majority is not on board, nothing happens.  It has been said that there is Atlanta and there is Georgia; in many cases, it is hard to see that the two entities are even related to each other.  So, interesting problems arise with transportation in Georgia.

Several years after the State Highway Department was redirected to become a Transportation governing entity in 1972, the stone facade on their building front still said State Highway Department.  Although it now says Department of Transportation, for all intents and purposes, the GDot is still the State Highway Department.  Because of the nature of their mission, the GDoT is a hotbed of political intrigue.  And, like any good power base, the GDot can be relied upon to throw a spanner into the works at critical moments.  As the Beltline project moved along at its own pace, GDot announced that it was unwilling to give up a portion of the Beltline right of way, so that Amtrak trains could access downtown Atlanta.

As soon as word leaked out, it became an immediate cause with the local neighborhoods and we were off to the races.  The headlines screamed High Speed Trains in Piedmont Park!, and the activists were dismayed and outraged. I couldn’t let this one pass, sending an email to a few individuals who might care, and they, in turn, sent things along to others.  The matter finally got resolved, but not before a lot of the local media enjoyed the flap.

My comments, with some light editing to clarify some text and to correct an error of fact:

Let’s start with the really obvious. Labeling the potential Amtrak trains which might operate on the line that runs alongside Piedmont Park as “high speed” is alarmist. Given the circumstances and given the Federal regulations for passenger train operation in that environment, 30 – 40 mph is more likely. High speed by 1860’s standards, to be sure. And, given today’s circumstances, these trains will pass Piedmont Park twice a day, one in each direction. Even if Amtrak doubles the Atlanta service, that’s four trains a day. Comparably, the CSX line that goes through Marietta typically sees 60 trains a day and the NS line that goes through Brookhaven typically sees 40 trains a day, maybe a few less with current economic circumstances.

What prompted Amtrak to start talking about the Piedmont Park line is driven by the presence of a proposed “intermodal” station in downtown Atlanta. This would be a facility that combines railroad service, intercity bus service and heavy-rail rapid transit in the form of MARTA. Of course, the airport is only twenty minutes away by MARTA. So, when Mayor [Shirley] Franklin opposes Amtrak’s use of the line near Piedmont Park, she also hinders the development of the intermodal station, which is supposed to be located in the “Gulch”, approximately where the old Union Station was, seemingly a century ago.

What Amtrak wants to avoid is a backup movement. That is, the current Amtrak train goes from Washington to New Orleans, dropping off or picking up a few cars in Atlanta. It is currently a “run through’ movement. Historically, because of the location of Terminal Station in downtown Atlanta, both the Southern Railway and the Seaboard Air Line had to back trains departing from Terminal [Station] to the Howells Junction area, near Huff Road and Howell Mill Road. That is, a train going from Birmingham to Washington could either head into Terminal for the Atlanta station stop and then back up to the main line and continue on to Washington. Or vice-versa. Railroads dislike backup moves because they are inherently dangerous and they are inefficient. So, going forward in both directions is desirable and the Piedmont Park line fits nicely into that scenario if the intermodal station is built in downtown Atlanta. Well, sort of.

Way back when, the Piedmont Park line did have passenger service in the form of the Crescent, which was, at that time, a joint operation of the Southern Railway, Atlanta & West Point and the Louisville & Nashville. Eventually, the Crescent pooped out and the line reverted to being freight-only, serving several customers along the line. That eventually went away, leaving the line in limbo. Back in the 1970’s, someone got the hot idea that this line would make a great Rails-to-Trails, but nobody bothered to ask the Southern and its freight customers about the matter. Eventually, cooler heads reigned and the idea went away for a couple decades. Of course, you know what happened with that idea.

Likewise, there is another factor against Amtrak using the Piedmont Park line, which is the same issue that the trolley car people are dealing with, which is the south end of the line at DeKalb Avenue. At one time, this line crossed DeKalb Avenue, went up a slight grade and then continued on into downtown Atlanta, that was the old Crescent’s route. That was all changed with the construction of the MARTA East Line. Since the belt line trackage was deemed to be unnecessary at that point, MARTA built a very nice retaining wall, making the route a stub-end, not a belt line. The DeKalb Avenue crossing is still in place, but the right of way itself has been usurped by CSX; any use by Amtrak will require regrading and track relocation.

There is another alternative. Currently, the Amtrak station is on the Norfolk Southern mainline to Washington, on Peachtree in Brookwood. At one time, this was a suburban stop for the benefit of Buckheadites who were traveling to and from Washington. This little jewel was designed by the late Neel Reid, and it was very convenient for some people, saving them a trip all the way into downtown. But it is too small to be the main station for Atlanta, and has virtually no parking. If you go westward on the NS main about four blocks, you come to Mecaslin Street, which runs north/south. Just north of the NS main is Bishop Street, which runs parallel to the Norfolk Southern line. At the far end is 17th Street and then Northside Drive.

At the corner of Mecaslin and Bishop is the former site of National Lead; it is now a Superfund site that has been largely remediated. Of course, no commercial developer wants to touch it until there’s nothing left to touch. This would make a fabulous site for an intermodal transportation station. You’re right on the Amtrak/Norfolk Southern main, you’re near the interstates, you’re near MARTA. In fact, when the MARTA N/S line was constructed, they put in the tunnels for a Northwestern Branch that was, in the fullness of time, supposed to go up into Cobb County. So, a MARTA line could be extended from just north of the Arts Center Station, curve westward over I-85 and go to the intermodal station located on Bishop (and the intermodal station could open up into the Atlantic Station development). For that matter, it could continue onward into Cobb County anyway. Also, special ramps could be built for bus traffic off of & onto the interstates. So, maybe we should not tell Mayor Franklin, because an intermodal transportation station in Atlantic Station just further moves what is considered to be “Downtown” up toward Buckhead.

*****

If you’re interested, some aerial shots of the potential site:

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Fred Rogers

One of the numerous indiscretions of my youth was that I did a wicked Mr. Rogers imitation. Get a couple beers into me, and I was off. But somewhere along the way, I gave it up, because I came to realize that he was a real and decent human being who played it straight with those who watched him. The show wasn’t very manly, but it was appropriate for its place and time.

One of the major tenets of Christian ministry is that you receive The Call. Somehow, some way, God gives you the internal understanding that you as a minister belong in a certain place addressing the religious needs of certain people. Fred Rogers’ Call was for generations of young television viewers. I was never much of a viewer of Mr. Rogers, but I am reasonably certain the specifics of religion were never discussed on his shows. Rather, Fred Rogers quietly gave his audience the sense that they had the values necessary to live a good and successful life within themselves. That they did not have to do some things just to be popular. That so much of life was merely appearance but that what really counted was within. And that living that way could help others by your example.

I am thankful for the life of Fred Rogers.

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No matter how you feel about David Brooks’ “A Nation Based On Commerce“, he does support the point that whatever Americans might be, we’re not Europeans.  At the core of it, this is because we’re here and they’re still back there.

I’m very obviously of Irish descent, along with a healthy dollop of Scot.  My great grandfather became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1878, well after the potato famine in Ireland, yet, there he was, ending up on a farm in northeastern Missouri.  I have no idea as to what motivated Charles O’Connor and his wife, Catherine to immigrate, but whatever did it was the result of a personal calculation.  That is, the unknown of the United States was a lot better than the known of Ireland.  So, unless your people have always been in the North American continent, you are the descendant of someone who felt that greater opportunity lay in America.  Or you are the descendant of someone who was forcibly brought here.  Regardless, you are the product of a different experience than those who stayed in the home country.  Which creates an interesting mindset.  Although the North American continent started off life under the rule of kings and queens, that didn’t stick here in the U. S., and that is the core of our story.

During the ramp-up to the latest Middle Eastern War, much was made that we were losing the respect of the Europeans, especially the French.  Hey, I like the French, but they don’t think much of other countries, especially the U. S.  I’m not even sure if they like each other, but it was hard to hear that the French were unhappy with us.  They were, after all, our allies during the big dust-up with the British in the 1700’s.  Of course, politics makes for interesting bedfellows.

There’s a class of people who are always concerned about what people think of them.  So, these people leapt into action, telling us that we were losing the respect of the world community because of our drive to remove a two-bit dictator who was killing his own people.  It is now a little late to be discussing the ramifications of our actions, but it is still the object of  popular obsession as to what the world community thinks of us.  And, it has become the obsession of the current administration to create a more European style government, with greater governmental intervention into every aspect of our lives.

It is helpful to point out that the Europeans think the way that they do because they stayed over there.  Even though their governments are democracies, they still think from the perspective of having a central power which has control over every aspect of their lives.  Their kings and queens may be gone, but the legacy of a strong central power stays with them to this day.

Someone once observed that the balloon was a symbol of the French Revolution.  When the hot air balloon was new technology, it developed in France during the reign of Louis XVI.  In that era, the king had absolute power over the lives of all citizens; the king determined where you lived, your occupation, your family life and what you read.  So, when the hot air balloon was discovered, this new technology had to be controlled by the king.  During balloon exhibitions, large walls were erected around the viewing site so that only the king and his approved attendees could see this new technology.  Once the balloon began to rise, it came into clear view of anyone nearby; this would lead to the question of “If the king cannot control who sees something, what else can he not control?”  Louis le Dernier was executed in 1793.

Although the king was now gone, the people and their descendants were already predisposed to a strong central power.   Baron von Steuben, who trained America’s Revolutionary Army, discovered that American soldiers were at their best once they understood; European soldiers simply followed directions.  The U.S. Army currently uses the credo “Be, Know, Do”, a direct connection back to the lessons of von Steuben.   Today, the European mindset shows up in interesting ways.  The European Union is proof of that, but it goes down to much lower levels.  In Germany, for instance, you cannot mow your lawn or wash your car on Sunday.  Retail stores have restricted hours of operation so that the store employees can spend time with their families.  In the United States on the other hand, some riding lawn mowers have headlights, presumably so that grass cutting operations can take place at night.  More than a few stores stay open all night and Sunday “blue laws” are a thing of the past.

Brooks’ “A Nation Based On Commerce” has produced the expected reaction from those who feel that the United States is a crass place which could use some culture.  Okay, they’re right about that one, but in the larger sense, what Brooks is talking about is losing our entrepreneurial spirit.  The country that produced pet rocks and the hula hoop also produced the integrated circuit and the personal computer.  This is the spirit that comes from taking a flier and leaving your relatives and coming to a new and strange foreign land.  Leaving a place where many Europeans rarely travel beyond the boundary of their own village and coming to a country that knows no seeming bounds; neither geographical nor mental.

Capitalism has laid an egg, and we’re paying for it now.  There was a lot of brave talk about those that take the risk should reap the rewards.  Fine enough, but once real risk showed up on their doorstep, these brave capitalists were flopping about like a bunch of startled spring warblers, running to the government to bail them out.  They can’t have it both ways, and more than a few of those brave risk takers are beginning to wonder about the wisdom of governmental assistance, since it is now yielding governmental interference with the operation of their businesses.  As a taxpayer, I am now a stock holder in some large financial entities, and I want results.  This was done against my will, and in my expectation, should never have happened in the first place.  Now, the government is in the business of picking winners and losers, not a free and active marketplace.  And the notion of personal responsibility is beginning to seriously erode.

Very European.

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