The Next City
March 21, 1998
Food not politics
IN 1988, A GROUP OF CIVIC-MINDED San Franciscans cooked up a plan to address the city’s hunger problem. They convinced supermarkets and bakeries to donate surplus food destined for the trash, stirred up a storm, and served vegetarian fare for free in public parks and plazas. Since then, over a 100 — and sometimes 200 — homeless people join the daily picnic. And unlike other aid groups, Food Not Bombs requires no government cash.
Some cities might offer a commendation, a word of thanks from the mayor, or some other pat on the back. But in San Francisco, the city obtained a court injunction in 1989 prohibiting the group’s volunteers from serving food without the appropriate permits. After a protracted battle, officials issued health and parks permits to Food Not Bombs. In an about-face, the parks commission then abolished all permits for free food distribution in parks. In turn, the health department refused to issue a permit — standard procedure, they said — unless the parks department granted the group permission to operate. The result was a catch-22 that required unobtainable permits. Similar permit problems have plagued some of the other 100-odd chapters worldwide of Food Not Bombs, which was born in 1980 in Boston by anti-war poverty activists.
San Francisco police, sometimes clad in riot gear, made over 700 arrests over the years for distributing bagels, stew, and oatmeal. They imprisoned members of the group for up to three days — for felony conspiracy, assaulting an officer, or resisting arrest — before dropping or dismissing charges and repeatedly confiscating their delivery vehicles, food, and cooking pots.
In reality, Food Not Bombs was caught in the cross fire of the city’s attempt to control the homeless population, estimated at 6,000 to 10,000. Under Mayor Frank Jordan’s controversial Matrix program, police enforced “quality of life” or “nuisance” misdemeanors like sitting, lying, or sleeping on the ground in public, panhandling, and public drunkenness. Special squads roamed the city, issued thousands of citations, bulldozed shanties in Golden Gate Park and disposed of the squatters’ possessions. Military helicopters with heat-sensing equipment to seek out squatters were planned, but nixed after press reports of outrageous costs. Over 40,000 citations and arrest warrants issued under the program were dismissed last year by a municipal court judge. Against this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that Food Not Bombs ran into trouble. Its public picnics — part potluck and part political action — serve up healthy portions of criticism of government social policy. It rejected the city’s offers of a permanent, indoor space, fearing that reliance on institutional support would muzzle its politics and reduce media attention on homelessness.
Whether the government was trying to sanitize the city or curb the group’s criticism, Amnesty International called the arrests a campaign of “selective harassment” and a violation of the group’s right to free speech and assembly under the U.S. constitution and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It dubbed one group member, sentenced to 28 days in prison for violating the court injunction, a “Prisoner of Conscience.”
The city’s new administration, elected in 1996, said homelessness was not a crime and dismantled many of the Jordan policies. Food Not Bombs’ picnics are now virtually trouble-free.
Traffic chaos at New York City tolls
TRAFFIC JAMS AT U.S. TOLL BOOTHS are a familiar sight, but even hardened New York City drivers were outraged at the toll system at Throgs Neck Bridge linking the Bronx to Queens. Last summer, on their way to a family reunion, William Bowlby, his wife, their two increasingly cranky children, and his 80-year-old mother were stuck in a toll plaza for hours with no food or washroom facilities. But no traffic accident, breakdown, or construction caused the mammoth delay.
The cause of the problem — the E-ZPass electronic toll collection system — should have been the cure to the area’s traffic woes. Instead, its botched implementation at Throgs Neck Bridge in 1996 by the Metro Transportation Authority worsened traffic congestion and pollution from idling vehicles. Bowlby, a transportation and air quality consultant, calls it “the most incredible mismanagement of intelligent transportation system technology that I have ever seen, experienced, or heard of.” New York City veteran helicopter traffic reporter Tom Kaminski calls it a case of “monumental delays and total chaos.”
Just weeks before the toll system’s debut, the authority announced an impending toll hike from $3 to $3.50, prompting motorists to hoard toll tokens and delay signing up for the E-ZPass system. Then, soon after the system’s introduction and before many drivers became E-ZPass subscribers, the MTA converted several cash and token lanes into E-ZPass-only lanes. In another miscalculation, MTA planners didn’t account for the perennially heavy springtime weekend traffic on Throgs Neck when locals and tourists flock to nearby beaches.
Other planning mistakes contributed to the chaos. Confusing signs were difficult for motorists to follow, and the MTA moved E-ZPass lanes around, from the left lanes on Friday, to the right lanes on Monday morning. All this forced drivers to jostle around — some needed to cross up to eight lanes to reach to the right booth. Once through, they’d often have to quickly cross back over the same eight lanes to make their exit ramps. The result was traffic gridlock, every day, for weeks.
Throgs Neck had been such a disaster that, when the MTA announced E-ZPass’s next implementation at the Queens Midtown Tunnel, media reports of impending mayhem had motorists “gritting their teeth in anticipation.” On opening day, reporters and camera crews, local and national, swarmed the area to cover the expected mess. “It was like Vietnam,” says MTA Bridges and Tunnels spokesperson Frank Pascual, referring to the half-dozen traffic helicopters buzzing the area.
Of course, E-ZPass is supposed to — and generally does — work much better than this. E-ZPass lanes can process up to a 1,000 vehicles an hour, four times as many as cash lanes. Instead of stopping to pay a toll, an electronic device reads a credit-card sized transponder attached to a vehicle’s windshield, automatically billing a subscriber’s account or credit card as the car cruises through at between 30 to 50 km/h. E-ZPass is part of a plan among the region’s authorities to let drivers pass through several tolling jurisdictions and receive one toll bill.
After the ill-planned and ill-timed implementation at Throgs Neck, the MTA introduced E-ZPass more slowly — and in trouble-free fashion — at its eight other locations. Now, with 1.1 million E-ZPass customers — 55 per cent of the MTA’s total users — MTA Bridges and Tunnels toll plazas are less congested than they ever were.
Dutch art on the dole
IN 1949, THE DUTCH GOVERNMENT DECIDED to buy art from young, up-and-coming artists, freeing them from more mundane work to focus on their talent. The government would then hang the work in government offices, lend it to public spaces, or sell it to private galleries. A simple idea, but with one hitch: No one wanted to buy the works the government purchased. By the time the government cut the program in 1987, most of its 220,000 pieces of art were gathering dust in a massive warehouse, unsalable and never before viewed. Municipal storerooms held an additional 200,000 works.
One problem lay in the program’s implementation. To receive funding, artists didn’t need qualifications, such as prior sales, exhibitions, or other forms of recognition. If a review panel thought the artist showed promise, it agreed to buy a number of pieces, the price based not on the value of the work, but on the needs of the artist — marital status, number of dependents, rent, and cost of materials. It paid the artist monthly, up to $16,000 annually. If the artist didn’t deliver the goods, the cheques would keep rolling in nevertheless.
But to the arts community’s consternation, rather than creating a market for art, the program effectively took art off the market. Under the $34-million program, called Beeldende Kunstenaars Regeling (BKR, or Visual Artists Arrangement), art disappeared into the warehouses of the ministry of culture. Worse, artists blamed BKR for supporting mostly tried and true, conservative painting and sculpture, and turning out few innovative or critically acclaimed artists. The hot art schools denounced BKR for sucking budding artists into a black hole, sapping their motivation, and dulling their craft. By the 1980s, getting by without BKR became a mark of respect in serious art circles.
After an election in 1982, the most conservative Dutch government in decades attached strings to the patronage by withholding grants to artists who didn’t sell $1,500 worth of work a year privately; in 1987, it raised the requirement to $4,000. That effectively culled the list of qualifying artists from its high of 3,600 to 2,300. When bureaucrats finally terminated BKR in 1987, they were at a loss over what to do with nearly a half-million works — only 13,000 could be sold or placed in public museums. Almost all the art was given away or junked. Most of the artists refused to take their art back.
New York jolts automakers
AUTOMAKERS MUST SELL THOUSANDS of electric cars in New York state to avoid a ban of new-car sales or a $10,000 daily fine, according to a state clean air statute that requires two per cent of total sales to be electric. To meet this quota, which came into effect in January, General Motors and Ford would have to sell almost 2,000 1998-model electric cars each, with five other manufacturers bringing the total to 8,000.
While politicians expect sales of zero-emission electric vehicles to cut their state’s pollution, their constituents aren’t cooperating. According to the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA), electric vehicle sales have been shockingly low. One Big Three manufacturer, who wishes to remain anonymous, has had only four electric vehicle orders this year. The price of electric vehicles is one roadblock — Ford’s 1998 Ranger EV pickup sells for $32,795, nearly $21,000 more than the gasoline-powered Ranger. New York’s cold weather also stalls demand for electric vehicles by draining their batteries and limiting their range. The shortage of recharging stations — only five, with a total of 15 electrical outlets — in a state where residents often park on the street or in driveways without easy access to electrical outlets, further increases customers’ reluctance.
A court battle only adds to the confusion. New York passed its mandate in 1992, after a federal Clean Air Act amendment allowed states to adopt either federal standards or more stringent California pollution regulations that involve the 1998 electric vehicle quota. When California, recognizing the virtually non-existent market for electric vehicles, delayed its mandate until 2003, the AAMA took New York to court to obtain a similar delay. The AAMA president argued that states have to “mimic to a tee the environmental standards they chose — either the federal or California standards. We believe that if California has postponed its mandate, New York must also.” The industry lost in a U.S. District Court in fall 1997, but hopes to win on appeal this spring.
In the meantime, regulators and environmentalists insist automakers can comply with the electric vehicle regulations, just as they have with seat-belt and air-bag requirements, fuel-economy rules, and emissions limits. “We have often heard that things can’t be done in the auto industry, and they have a way of getting done,” says a spokesman for New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. An energy expert with Environmental Advocates in Albany asserts, “If the automakers put the same time and energy into marketing zero-emission vehicles that they do in marketing and selling sport-utilities, there’s no question in my mind they could sell electric cars to meet the mandate.” On the other hand, New York car dealers almost unanimously oppose the environmental statute. “We can’t mandate the marketplace and force people to buy these cars,” says the executive vice-president of the New York Automobile Dealers Association.
Amid the confusion and litigation, a compromise may be available. General Motors recently announced that it can equip some of its 1999 gasoline-powered cars with advanced catalytic converters and electronic engine control systems, making them 99 per cent free of hydrocarbons and nitrous oxide. To detour other states from taking the California route, GM proposed a national emissions standard.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency jumped at the compromise, saying national standards would limit the flow of dirty air from state to state and from interstate travel and would better reduce smog in any individual northeastern state than a spotty adoption of California standards. The National Low Emission Vehicle Program would allow just 0.075 grams of hydrocarbon emissions per mile by the year 2001 in place of electric vehicle quotas. California’s mandate allows 0.062 grams a mile, while the current national standard is 0.25 grams.
New York rejected the deal in late January, but the Big Three have opted in, even without the agreement of all 49 states. If New York decides electric vehicles aren’t the answer to its pollution problems, it can change its mind.
Hamilton blocks hubcap business’s road to success
WHEN KHADER SHAHEIN MOVED HIS USED HUBCAP BUSINESS to an empty lot he purchased in 1997, he thought his business would hit the road running, but Hamilton’s building department blocked his way with zoning regulations. Six months later, K & E Hub Caps no longer sells used hubcaps, and its profits are halved.
Shahein started his Hamilton business in 1992 after moving from Calgary with a busload of used hubcaps. Over the next five years, he established a group of suppliers who kept Hamilton’s roads and highways clean of hubcaps. His clientele appreciated the wide selection and low prices in his rented Main Street storefront — rather than paying close to $200 for a new hubcap from a car dealer, drivers could pick up a used hubcap for $1 to $25.
With business booming, Shahein decided to move from his rented premises and buy the vacant lot a few doors away for $45,000. After paying $185 for a new business licence (the city wouldn’t let him transfer his old licence) and confirming with the building department that he didn’t need a building permit, Shahein began moving his 2,500 used hubcaps to a shed he built on the new location. In late October, the building department sent him an Order to Comply, giving him seven days to get a permit for his shed — a three-sided structure, with no heat or hydro.
While applying for the building permit, the clerk delved into the city’s regulations and found that for the past five years, Shahein’s business had been breaking a zoning bylaw prohibiting the sale of “scrap metal, waste paper, rags, bones, bottles, bicycle and motor vehicle parts” along Main Street East. Shahein was flabbergasted — his business hadn’t changed in five years, and each year the city had granted him a second-hand business licence. K & E Hub Caps seemed to fit right in with the other second-hand stores selling clothes, jewelry, clocks, and furniture along the street.
“The city waited for five years, after I have four kids to support, to discover their mistake,” laments a frustrated Shahein. The building department suggested he apply to its committee of adjustment, whose mandate includes sanctioning minor variances to zoning bylaws. An application to the committee costs $400 and takes 7 to 9 weeks to process. He and his wife decided they’d rather give away all their used hubcaps than pay the fee or leave their fate to the adjustment committee. Shahein now sells only new hubcaps and brings in extra money by leasing some of his lot to a used car salesman, whose product is allowed under the zoning bylaw.
No cocker spaniels, please. This is Singapore
DUE TO A TIGHT GOVERNMENTAL LEASH on pet ownership, Singapore residents have to think twice before asking, “How much is that doggy in the window?”
Regulations in government-subsidized apartment complexes, where almost 80 per cent of Singapore’s three million people live, allow only one pooch per flat from a list of approved small breeds, including chihuahuas, dachshunds, toy poodles, and five breeds of spaniel (but not the cocker). Although the one-small-dog rule doesn’t fence in the few people who live in private homes — the government watchdogs over animal licensing and control allow them to own up to three dogs of any breed — that doesn’t mean wealthy dog owners can have their bone and eat it too.
Those who adopt an akita and mastiff, which fall in the government’s Category A, must sterilize and microchip their dogs, take out a $100,000 insurance policy against damage to people or property, and put up a $5,000 cash bond that will be returned upon the dog’s death, but forfeited if the dog appears in public without a leash and muzzle. Category B dogs, including bull terriers, Dobermann pinschers, and German shepherds, escape sterilization and insurance, but, like their Category A cousins, must wear a leash and muzzle in public. If a dog of any size commits an “act of nuisance” — barking too much, defecating in public, harassing passers-by, chasing a car, or rummaging through a garbage bin — the government may revoke its licence. Owners of unlicensed dogs face fines of several hundred dollars. These regulations have kept Singaporean dog ownership to a minimum: According to official statistics, only four per cent of households have dogs.
Singapore regulations also leave cat lovers hissing. Housing officials forbid cat ownership because the pets can escape through the open windows of kitchens and storage rooms. But the ban hasn’t kept the cat species completely down — stubby-tailed strays still live on the streets even though the law prohibits feeding them.
Singapore’s dogged pet regulations reflect a highly organized society that also bans littering, graffiti, chewing gum, jaywalking, spitting on the sidewalk, and failing to flush public toilets. Officials say the pet laws keep flats quiet and streets clean.