Friday, June 22, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter Nine

Things settled down for my planning career as 1971 moved along. Warm weather and the scheduled demolition of my apartment building had necessitated a move to another apartment, this one on Carpetbagger Hill, overlooking the Arkansas river. It was an old place, but it suited my purposes. It was furnished, clean, and large enough for my possessions and me. Best of all, it had an air conditioner.

On its east was another apartment building owned and managed by the same company. It was newer, unfurnished, and more expensive. I wasn’t quite there yet, financially, and far from one of the fancy places with a swimming pool.

I was happy, but I did have to drive to work. It was close enough to Downtown that I could walk on a nice crisp fall day, but I had to find a to place to park on most of the time. I chose a lot on East Sixth Street where a person could park for 25 cents a day. It was six or seven blocks from the office, but I didn’t mind. I procured a couple of rolls of quarters and was in business.

Actually, I enjoyed the walk. On morning, as I stood at the traffic light at Main and Fifth Streets, a man taking the morning air joined me, both of us waiting for the light to change. I looked over at him and my breath caught.

It was Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright. He was one of the few senators who had expressed concern about escalating the war in Vietnam. He also enjoyed the reputation of a true statesman, having initiated the Fulbright scholarship program that awarded thousands of scholarships to American and International students each year, designed to promote international relations. He was the longest serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And he was standing alongside me, just another benefit of walking the streets of a great city. I mumbled a hello. He nodded toward the two new high-rise office buildings and said, “This is a becoming a nice city, isn’t it?”

I agreed as the light changed. “It’s an honor to see you, sir,” I mumbled, so much for making a great impression. He took off in a slow “fast-walk” and faded into the urban fabric, a giant among Americans. We mourn the increasing dearth of his type.

On a more entertaining scale, I was walking on another day when an old, beat-up car painted in the historic fashion of an Arkansas State Trooper vehicle pulled up to a traffic signal. As its hood bounced on long-dead springs, I looked inside. There, to my amazement, were actors Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty, along with Dinah Shore, who was the then-girlfriend of Reynolds.

Odd? Not really. I knew they were in town for the filming of the movie, White Lightening. Still, it made a morning walk more interesting.

Time passed. As I continued to learn my craft, a young, newly-graduated young woman with long red hair and a royal smile was undertaking her first year as a teacher in her hometown of Lonoke, Arkansas, about 20 miles from where I lived.

As for me, as the year rolled by, I was keeping the sometime company of an odd-featured woman who could sing like Carol King, drink beer like a sailor, and wasn’t above providing additional benefits to special friends if and when she chose. She lived nearby, on a small and notorious strip of neglected street that led west from our apartment past a small white church, then past a row of modest but charming rental houses, eventually curving back to where Lincoln Boulevard transitioned into Cantrell Road.

Riverside Drive I think they called it, a strange place out of the view of prying eyes, maybe four or five hundred feet in total length, and strangely populated. It would play a minor, but nostalgia-producing part in my life.

J. William Fulbright
We won't see his likes
again anytime soon.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter Eight: (Cont._4)

Life wasn’t turning out like I had expected. How could I have known that I would be the chief target of the editorial page of the Pine Bluff Commercial for weeks shortly after the birthing of my career? I was a mere lad in 1971 and Paul Greenberg was making literary mincemeat of me.

It went like this. A young reporter named James something or other would report on something. He wasn’t a bad fellow, but desirous, I suppose, of keeping his boss happy. The next day, Greenberg would take a line or two from the news piece, twist it, or completely fabricate something about it, and light in on me.

That’s something to look forward to every day. And it was all because I didn’t think the city of Pine Bluff should render a person’s entire property useless in order to satisfy a public desire to preserve a greenbelt adjacent to the city.

Greenberg’s MIT source said it didn’t matter. What he thought was proper came first. The editor was also in a liberal state of mind back then. The individual could just give way to the public. He would change positions like a call-girl on a “role-play” assignment later, when he signed on with a conservative newspaper. But that was in the future. Now was now, back then, and it was dreadful.

I’ll wind the tale up here. We stood our ground, and the company would serve as a favorite Greenberg target for years. Herbert Hoover once said that “nobody hates like Bobby Kennedy,” but all I can say is that Herbert Hoover may have never met Paul Greenberg.

We finished the plan. The city adopted it. Much later the city repealed the greenbelt ordinance. I don’t think they ever replaced it and I’ve always thought they would have when we worked on the plan, had such controversy not erupted. Be the time of repeal, Greenberg was off on another kick, pissing and moaning because the government didn’t declare a “VV-Day,” complete with parades, when we finally pulled our troops out of Vietnam.

I tried to turn the experience into an educational “lemonade.” I learned to make friends with journalists and to always tell them the truth, maybe not all at once, but as time passed, and at the critical points. I learned not to charge up a hill with a big sword in my hand unless my client was ahead of me leading the assault.

For everything I’ve written or produced since that time, I have put myself in the mindset that Paul Greenberg and the ghost of his MIT man would read it, analyze it for weaknesses, and use their collective brilliance to editorialize against it. That has helped a great deal in my career.

Finally, I learned that it isn’t enough just to be brilliant in this world, or even a genius. One must temper that intelligence with a consideration of what impact its efforts will have on the public at large.

In short, I lived through the ordeal, albeit with some degree of resentment that I’ve been unable to shed, as the reader may have noticed.

Oh, and here’s a tidbit. The Supreme Court of the United States, by 1992, had fully established that ordinances such as the hallowed greenbelt ordinance of Pine Bluff violated Amendment Five of the United States Constitution. You just can’t regulate away the complete use of a person’s property without just compensation.

To paraphrase a law school article, regulations that eliminate all economically beneficial uses of a property are considered a “regulatory taking.” In Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003, the Supreme Court held that when property is rendered worthless by a regulation, such a taking has occurred, regardless of the fact that a legitimate governmental objective led to the regulation.

Odd … I was right and Mr. Pulitzer Prize and Mr. MIT grad were wrong, all along, and I a pitiful product of Arkansas public schools. Go figure. Actually, I’m pretty smart myself.           

To this day, Paul Greenberg has never apologized to me.

Still waiting.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter Eight (Cont._3)

1971 wore on and I continued my work at the consulting firm, preparing a park plan for my hometown. Trouble was brewing. Boy, was it.

We had followed the city’s direction and had studied the issues surrounding an existing “greenbelt ordinance” that denied certain property owners any use of property that touched Bayou Bartholomew, a sluggish stream that bordered the city on the south of its urban area. Somehow, it seemed to me, it was excessive to frame the restrictions along property lines. That prevented productive use of portions of a person's property that was to hell and gone from any public need or purpose.

In a public setting, we suggested that the boundaries of the restrictive ordinance be reshaped along an elevation line, assuring both a uniform boundary and a regulatory restriction that only affected unusable parts of a person’s property.

It seemed like a reasonable revision to me. The city got its greenbelt and the property owners got the use of portions of their property that weren’t needed for that greenbelt.

Reasonable it may have been, but all hell was about to break loose nontheless.

As I have mentioned, the editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, a vicious and talented scribe named Paul Greenberg lay in wait for an opportunity to harass, humiliate, and torment the existing mayor, Offie Lites.

I was to be the vessel for pouring on the fiery rhetoric, a naïve, optimistic young man, totally inexperienced in the intricacies of local politics. I doubt, as well, if my name helped.

The first indication that I was headed for trouble was when a local genius from the city sought me out. Arthur Stern was a brilliant man who had graduated a couple of years after me from the all-white high school in our city. He was an architectural graduate of MIT and attended, I was led to understand, the same synagogue as Mr. Greenberg.

Arthur stormed into our Little Rock office one morning, snarling and frightening the receptionist, and demanding to see, under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, all our notes related to the city’s park plan. The law was fairly new and, rather than argue as to whether a private firm had to follow its mandates on a moment’s notice, we offered up the material. Arthur and the toady he had brought with him began to pour over the material like dogs searching in the grass for a piece of dropped beefsteak. The toady was a former classmate named Tom, whom I had always considered a friend .... until that moment. Life is strange.

As I say, Arthur was a true genius and he was to die young. Following the dictum of De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, I shall refrain from describing the arrogant, insulting, demeaning, and humiliating way that he treated me and my colleagues that morning. In simple terms, the city’s greenbelt ordinance was a modern manifestation of the noblest works of humankind and we were all idiots educated in low-class public colleges if we suggested any alteration. Compromises were for sissies.

To his credit, he never cursed me. In fact, I don’t remember his ever actually calling me by my name. He just took notes, grimaced, and pointed from time to time for something that elicited particular disdain. After what seemed like an hour of agony, he rose and pushed the pile of papers toward me.

“Just wait,” he said, “until the paper gets hold of this.”

And so it began.

It wasn’t my particular dream to have the first appearance of my name in the newspaper as one describing me as a low-class idiot threatening to destroy a city with no more concern than a cow flicking away a horsefly. It left my Sainted Mother in tears, and her sisters in giggles, their having found proof at last of my long-suspected worthlessness.

After all, there it was in the newspaper, and newspapers wouldn’t lie. It got worse when the editor discovered a typo in an early draft of the plan. I had misspelled the work “athlete,” and that offered the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor a chance to spend half of an editorial exalting in a description of me as an untalented Yogi Berra without the good looks.

I, believing in truth, justice, and the American way, stood my ground. It didn’t matter, I was doomed by simple association, but I saw no reason at the time to back down. I looked around for help. Local politicians and the affected property owners were steadfast in support of my recommendations, but nowhere to be seen when the rhetoric ripened.

I saw myself as Will Kane. Greenberg presented me as Norman Bates.

It was about this time that I began having trouble falling to sleep. It would only get worse.

Maybe I should have
stayed in the Navy.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Redacted Life: Chapter Eight (Cont._2)

Here I was, a young planner in 1971, on my first solo assignment and about to incur the wrath of a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial writer. Further, it was an assignment in my own hometown. I think the conflict to come drew its strength from enmity between Paul Greenberg, the journalist, and the Mayor, a man named Offie Lites.

As the African proverb goes, “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

The assignment, as I have mentioned, was to prepare a stand-alone park plan for the city. The city council had previously adopted, as part of its planning, a so-called “Greenbelt Ordinance” designed to perpetuate a band of natural area between the existing urban area and any expansion of the city in coming years.

This concept fell in line with the so-called “garden city movement” a method initiated in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard in the United Kingdom. Garden cities were intended to be planned, self-contained communities surrounded by "greenbelts", containing proportionate areas of residences, industry and agriculture.

It was a sound theory, and the undevelopable nature of the Bayou Bartholomew floodplain lent itself well to the idea. The ordinance that the city council had passed was well-intentioned and supported by precedent.

There was one major flaw in its design, one that would cause me many sleepless nights, and a lifetime of resentment. The limits of the greenbelt weren’t based on elevations, distances from the bayou, or floodplain contours. This would have reserved basically undevelopable land for the greenbelt, placing only minimal restrictions on the use of private property.

That wasn’t the way the ordinance was drawn, though. Instead of reserving land below a certain elevation, the ordinance drew up the greenbelt boundary according to property lines. If a person’s property touched the bayou, the entire property fell within the greenbelt and its use restrictions.

Why was this a problem? Two reasons bear pointing out. First, the use restrictions on land within the greenbelt were severe. The land could only be used for … a greenbelt. That is to say the land couldn’t be used at all, only maintained in its natural state, to be enjoyed by the general public at no expense to themselves.

The second problem created more contention. Why would anyone want to develop a densely vegetated, snake and varmint invested, floodway in the first place? As it turned out, some of the property that bordered the bayou continued past the floodway, then beyond the floodplain boundary, rose up a hill created by eons of erosion, crossed an area of flat, developable land, and terminated at the boundary of the Pine Bluff Country Club golf course.

What might have been the choicest property in the city, property that was in some places far beyond any reasonable outline of a greenbelt, could now only be left in a natural state.

Needless so say, some property owners were pissed. It is needless also to add that some of those property owners were people of means.

After some deliberation, we expressed the opinion that the ordinance intended a sound planning principle, was flawed in design, and would present few problems in a redesign that would maintain the integrity of the greenbelt concept and provide relief to the property owner.

Mayor Lites agreed that the repair job was in order and nodded for us to proceed as we worked on the park plan. The parks director agreed as well.

Paul Greenberg decided that this presented an opportunity to create a crisis from nothing in order to harass the mayor, and perhaps to irritate those associated with the Pine Bluff Country Club, an institution historically closed to members of his faith. He therefore re-invented the Pine Bluff Greenbelt Ordinance, in its original form, as the greatest example of urban planning since Pierre Charles L'Enfant had presented the layout for Washington, D.C.

He immediately established it as a document only slightly less sacred than the nation’s Declaration of Independence.

That set the stage for a confrontation, a confrontation that would, on occasion, make me long for the relative peace of a war zone.

Greenbelts: Nice if you have
the money to pay for them.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter Eight

It started with good news. It would end months later with my having learned a great deal about human nature, newspapers, and urban planning. I would learn that there are vicious people in the world who would hate me just for expressing an opinion contrary to theirs. I would learn not to charge up any hill protected by institutions that publish whatever they choose daily, buy ink by the barrel, and paper by the ton.

I would, years later, learn that I had been legally prescient in the course I followed. I would learn that it didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference by then. In short, I would survive the ordeal, but I still carry the scars.

As I say, it started out with good news, double good news. First, my company had learned that my hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas had hired it to prepare a parks plan for the city. Second, my bosses had decided that it was time for me to take the lead on a planning project. A parks plan was ideal for such an intro, for they were pretty straightforward. Or at least they should be. This one proved otherwise.

To prepare such a plan, one first analyzes a city’s population and gauges public sentiment. Next, one analyzes the existing parks system. One then compares the existing system with national standards for acreage allocated to parks, recommended facilities per population, and spatial allocations. One then prepares a draft for consideration by the public and the city government

One needed to be aware of taboos and social restrictions, some racial, some not, some a little of both. For example, some baseball fields, though city-owned, were reserved for the exclusive use of white boys between the ages of 9 and 12. No exceptions. There would be no footfall profaning this sacred soil with the exception of coaches, umpires, and maintenance personnel. Empty fields, unused school grounds, and vacant lots served the other kids.

Armed with this background, I set about my business. Then I learned of an additional angle. I learned what Vaughn Black, the parks director, had meant when he said that he had a problem that involved city government, rich people, and a newspaper editor. He claimed that he faced a real problem.

Did he ever.

His problem also involved the muddy, smelly, wandering floodway known as Bayou Bartholomew. It had been a favorite area of exploration in my youth. Kids could build hideouts there, sneak around within its dense vegetation to smoke pilfered cigarettes, and hunt for snakes until their mischievous hearts were content. Fishing was allowed, but most folks considered consumption of those fish chancy, for the stream was contaminated both by municipal sewage and agricultural pesticides. The poorest of families partook from necessity. Others didn’t.

What was the problem? Its tentacles spread in a number of directions. First, there was an existing municipal ordinance that sought to establish the bayou and its environs as a “greenbelt” marking the end of urban development to the south of the city, at least in the current phase of its development.

Next, there were rich landowners who objected to parts of said ordinance. Then there was mayor, who like any successful mayor who has ever lived, tended to listen when rich folks spoke. Then there was a citizenry that didn’t much care one way or the other.

Finally, there was a newspaper editor named Paul Greenberg. It turned out that he hated Mayor Offie Lites with a long-simmering passion that pre-dated the present storm that was approaching.

In the account that I will relate, the central fact wasn’t that Greenberg detested the mayor. Nor did it center on the apparent belief that controversies, whether real or concocted, could increase, by the fanning and reporting of those controversies, newspaper readership.

It really wasn’t confined to the fact that Greenberg was a mean-spirited soul, governed by situational principles, who never hesitated for a second to use his position as editor to demean, damage, diminish, or destroy a person’s reputation in order to promote his own ends through his editorials.


The real problem was that he was so damned good at it.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Chapter Seven: (Cont._6)

As the weather warmed in late spring of 1971, planners in central Arkansas hosted a conference tor the professional association. I suffered through the daytime events, not understanding much of the deeper topics they covered. Tom and Jim introduced me around to resounding indifference and I just nodded as if I knew everything and everyone.

That evening proved different. There was a paddlewheeler docked on the North Little Rock side of the river and the planning chapter had leased it for the evening. Members brought their spouses for an excursion up the river to the new lock and dam, and back. It was a casual affair, a with drinks and food. Of course I came alone.

The crowd wasn’t rude, just preoccupied as we began our trek. I was, having been a naval coxswain, somewhat interested in the handling of the craft, but that interest had faded before we had passed the “big rock,” a stone outcropping on the river side of Carpetbagger Hill. The crowd gathered into groups and couples, recalling school days, past events, and missing acquaintances.

I leaned on a rail, watched the city glide by, and calculated how long it would be before this lonely, miserable, ordeal ended. Little did I know that I was about to meet one of the planet’s true saints.

A female voice broke the silence. “How are you liking your new job?”

I turned. There stood a diminutive woman in her late twenties with a soft drink in her hand. I knew that we had been introduced, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember who she was. She caught my confusion straight away.

“I’m Linda Vines,” she said, “Jim’s wife. You’re the new planner, aren’t you?”

I confessed my guilt. She said, “It must be a little odd, not to know anyone that is.”

What could I say? She was the boss’s wife. I concurred.

“You’re just out of the service?”

“Yes ma’am, the Navy.”

“Jim tells me you were in Vietnam.”

“Yes ma’am.” To my relief, she didn't give me "the look" that I had come to expect. She just smiled and nodded. “Now cut out that ‘ma’am’ stuff," she said, "I’m just Linda.”

My gosh, someone was talking to me. She asked about my family, my military experience, college, and hobbies. It turned out that we both had an interest in literature. We delved straight away into that, and soon discovered we had a mutual affection for F. Scott Fitzgerald.

 It was turning into a magical trip. It seemed no time at all before the craft was swinging in its long semi-circle to begin the journey back. I found myself expounding on my take that Fitzgerald used the exchange of water that powered the funicular railroad in Tender is the Night as a metaphor for the Pygmalion-like transfer of strength to the character Nicole from Dick, her lover and psychiatrist. I couldn’t believe that I was telling this tiny stranger all this and she wasn’t laughing.

Off in the distance I could hear Jim “holding court” with some story. He wasn’t missing her, so we continued to talk until the lights of Downtown Little Rock came into view. What a pleasant trip it had been.

I’ve thought of that night countless times and about how a small kindness to a lonely stranger can make such a difference in one’s life. I could never be as fine a person as Linda Vines, but I have tried to make strangers feel welcome whenever I thought they might need to see a welcoming face. Maybe, just maybe, I have affected someone along the way. I certainly hope so.

The years were not kind to the Vines family. They weighed heavily on Linda. The last time I saw her, she had shrunk to an even smaller size, but her face demonstrated the steel within her that kept her going through it all.

Long before that, I sat down one day and wrote her a long note recalling that night and the excursion up the river. I had become successful in my own right by then, but I recounted to her how miserably lonely I had been at that long-ago time and how her show of empathy had comforted and taught. I mailed the note to her, and I’m glad I did. She was facing Job-like trials at the time.

Jim called me a few days later. He said the note made her cry, and he thanked me for it.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter Seven (Cont._5)

As 1971 wore on, I began to learn lessons about urban planning that weren’t in the books I was reading. In fact, I learned a big lesson late that spring. It has stayed with me until this day, although a unified solution still evades.

It concerned a city in the northwest area of the state, a city that I have mentioned earlier it this venture, so there is no use in further identification. Suffice it to say that the firm was still receiving a small retainer to attend monthly planning commission meetings. Whenever possible, I would accompany Jim Vines to the meetings and take the opportunity to watch democracy in action, or so I thought.

Understand, although they were my bosses, we were all close to the same age, our late twenties. Despite a surfeit of education and enthusiasm, we were just a bunch of kids in a world dominated by alpha-males who had fought their way to the top of the heap and had no intention of either sharing or relinquishing control

I was perhaps more starry-eyed than the rest, having just played a major part, I had been assured, in saving the world from godless Communism and my country’s domination by the evil empire headed by Russia. Whew.

Jim Vines had his moments of naivete as well. He dutifully prepared reports on the cases coming before the planning commission, including recommendations as to appropriate action. On this particular trip, he had examined one outlandish request coming before the commission and rightfully recommended disapproval.

The reasons included a possibility of spot zoning (a small zoning that violates the land use plan and affords benefit to one property owner that wouldn’t be allowed for others). Also, the approval would allow a destabilizing effect on the neighborhood and set a questionable precedent leading to further destabilization. Finally, the city’s street system wasn’t designed for the recommended use.

It was clear to any observer that the request had no merit. Oh, wait. There was one factor in favor of granting the request.

The applicant was a close personal friend and supporter of the mayor.

There was quite a little set-to about the case before unanimous approval in the disapproving faces of a crowd of concerned citizens. The mayor sat stone-faced to one side and never said a word. His eyes spoke with exquisite eloquence, however.

We drove back to Little Rock in silence. Somehow, it seemed that we were overtaken and passed along the way by a letter formally stating that the firm’s service would no longer be needed in that city.

The incident provided, as I say some valuable lessons. Urban planning is as much, maybe more, about politics as it is about purity of intent. Also, one should make every effort to learn the territory. It is not unusual in our state to see enmity between two powerful groups, the cause of which may date back generations. Sadly, a city may be damaged more by its own citizens than by strangers or external forces. Somehow, they feel they have that right.

And finally, we can always learn from our friends who fight our wars for us when they tell us that one had best carefully consider what hill is worth dying upon before committing our all. In ensuing years, I’ve practiced that warning assiduously and managed to bumble my way through life.

As a consultant you learn, sometimes the hard way, that it is their city and they may or may not listen to you. Your best efforts may offend and alienate.  I would also learn that your own city might regard you with even less respect.

Well I'll swan.