Tuesday, February 17, 2015

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Shocked, Shattered, But Not Surprised

“Shocked.” “Stunned.” “Shattered.”  That’s a representative sample of the expressions of collective horror, grief and anger that rang through Lancaster’s West End following the hit-and-run vehicular killing of longtime neighbor Chuck Leayman at the intersection of  W. Lemon and N. Mary streets last Sunday evening.

What no one said was “Surprised.”

Chuck Leayman - quiet, literate, gently smiling
That’s because Lancastrians know all too well that crossing any intersection of a major thoroughfare in this city is part a game of chicken and part Russian roulette.

This is a moment for outrage.  Not only because the victim was a beloved friend and neighbor of so many -- a quiet, literate soul who wanted no more than to live among his books and gently smile at his many acquaintances.  The loss of one such as Chuck only makes the tragedy that much more painful and, one hopes, consequential.

Chuck was killed by more than a random act of criminally reckless driving.  He is dead because there is a fundamental failure of vehicular law enforcement by the City of Lancaster.

Just to review, under Title 75, Sec. 3542 (a) of the Pennsylvania Code, vehicles must yield to pedestrians crossing in an intersection.  The intersection does NOT have to be marked by a pedestrian crosswalk (though the one in which Chuck Leayman was killed was marked); nor must it display a “Yield to Pedestrians Crossing” sign.

Failure to yield is punishable by a $50 fine and a two-point license penalty;  admittedly, not great in deterrence value, but with the force of the law behind it, nonetheless.

Yet what use is a law that routinely goes unenforced?  Many will say that law or not, this is Lancaster and speedway driving is a part of a culture that can’t be fixed, so pedestrians beware.


The data are overwhelming that well-planned, well-publicized and consistently applied enforcement changes driver behavior almost completely in a very short time.

The proof is everywhere.

·      In 2006 in North Jersey, where aggressive driving is a blood-sport worthy of Olympic status, the town  of Montclair initiated several months of publicity and issuance of warnings to drivers pushing through crosswalks with pedestrians in them.  They followed with intensive enforcement including plain-clothes decoy pedestrians.  Driver adherence became almost complete in Montclair in a matter of weeks after full enforcement commenced. (New Jersey law requires a full stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, and backs it up with two license points, $200 in fine, and 15-days of community service.)

·      In Lisbon, Portugal, a country which embraces roadway anarchy as enthusiastically as any Southern European society, your correspondent during a visit earlier this month watched in awe as motorists from every direction stopped promptly and politely at the first sign of a pedestrian entering a marked crossing.

·      In New York City, the world’s jaywalking capital, nearly half of all pedestrian injuries occur to those lawfully within the crosswalks.  NYC Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg describes pedestrian safety as a public health issue of “epidemic” scope.  Lately NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has the force cracking down on failure-to-yield violations in some of the most dangerous intersections and corridors, such as Sunset Park in Brooklyn.

·      In nearby Bethlehem, the police got the memo last summer, instituting a program of decoy pedestrians and formal warnings to motorists failing to yield.

·      The Federal Highway Administration’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center website has links to program reports of successful enforcement initiatives and changes in motorist behavior in Amherst, Massachusetts, San Jose, Gainesville, Florida, and elsewhere throughout the county.

Yes, it can be done and Lancaster must begin to do it.  The city’s vaunted “Walkability” study may be a spearhead for progress, although at a recent public session, Jeff Speck, the planning consultant in charge of the study, was peculiarly dismissive of pedestrian crosswalk law as an effective tool to promote walkability.

Rather, Speck’s declared focus is to revert one-way “drag-strip” corridors to two-way traffic in the expectation that two single opposing lanes will promote more attentive motoring.

Speck’s strategy may work, but it wouldn’t have helped poor Chuck Leayman, who was killed by a car barreling through the intersection of a two-way thoroughfare.
A deadly corner

Chuck’s death was a crime, to be sure, and we can only hope and demand that justice be done.  But let there be justice not solely for the perpetrator, because this is a crime that also lands at the doorstep of the city.

Justice for Chuck Leayman – and the most fitting memorial – would be a full-out enforcement campaign to change driver habits so they begin to obey the law of Pennsylvania and observe the right of pedestrians to cross the street in safety.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ephrata Library Update: Temporary Relief But No Permanent Cure

The travails of the Ephrata Library — Lancaster County’s second busiest — may not be done just yet, but they have been significantly reduced. 

As discussed here last month, a structural budget deficit forced the Library into the worst case scenario short of a shutdown: half the staff was relieved of duty, programs were slashed and hours shortened to the minimum required to meet state operating standards.

Now the Library has announced a precariously balanced budget for 2015 and called back the furloughed workers to return to their desks.  But the abbreviated operating hours remain in force and programs will only be restored or continued if they are well subscribed.

Coming to the Library’s rescue was a successful fundraising drive, which raised some $160,000, much of it donated after the fiscal problems were made known to the public.

Some creative entrepreneurialism is also helping:  a food truck will be stationed in the parking lot some days, and passport services are proving to be a thriving line, bringing in revenue of more than $180,000 last year.  In fact, says Library Director Penny Talbert, “We made more in passports than we get in state funding.”

But that odd factoid only serves to underscore yet again the woeful state of library finances in our fair Commonwealth.  And again we are reminded that Lancaster County has chosen to forego the solution that has been effective elsewhere: a county-wide library tax on property.  In Dauphin County, the library tax of 23.3 cents per $1000 of assessed value has been a steady funding source that is barely noticed by the property taxpayer.

With Lancaster County’s Board of Commissioners up for election this year, it would surely be desirable if one or more of the candidates for the Board put the library tax on their campaign agenda.

Meanwhile, there should be no illusions that the squeeze on public library budgets is in anybody’s rear-view mirror.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2-1/2 Hours From Penn Square: Xu Bing’s Phoenix of Beauty, Power and Wonder

Some great art dazzles us with its beauty; some astonishes us with the power of its message.  Only intermittently do both qualities come together in a single work, and then the effect is transcendent.

So we should all rejoice that New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on Morningside Heights, has extended through February the exhibition of one of the most arrestingly beautiful and meaningful sculptures of our time: Xu Bing’s Phoenix.

Hung from the nave of one of the world’s grandest sacred chambers, the piece is a feast of imagination and a call to consciousness: a pair of flying dragons from Chinese mythology, 100 and 90 feet respectively, assembled entirely from the construction detritus of a major commercial office development in Beijing.

Aloft within the cathedral’s vastness, amid the sequoian columns, vaulted ceilings and stained-glass tableaux of Biblical imagery, silently fly these two fierce and noble creatures composed of tiles, tools, wire, ventilator hoods, machine parts, rebar, fasteners and fittings – all festooned with light-emitting diodes.

Commissioned to create a monumental sculpture as a signature for the massive, Cesar Pelli-designed Beijing World Financial Center, Xu, a MacArthur fellow who divides his time between the United States and his native China, was as deeply affected by the have-and-have-not conditions of China’s emergence, as by the commercial demands of the building project.

His dragon-birds capture both the high-voltage dynamism of the new China, and the terrible costs it extracts on the people and environment of the world’s biggest country.  The artist himself explained: "The phoenix of today's China bears countless scars; it has lived through hardship.  But it has adorned itself with great self-respect."
Xu Bing

When he assembled Phoenix at the building site, the developers wanted him to sanitize and soften the mixed message by giving it a facelift with a coating of crystals to make the birds shimmer like sequined ballerinas.

Xu would have none of it, and, to his great good fortune and America’s, Taiwanese tech tycoon Barry Lam financed the purchase and transport of Phoenix to the contemporary art museum Mass MoCA, in North Adams, Massachusetts.

Original plans had the work returning to its home in the Berkshires at the end of this year, but New Yorkers have been given an extra few months of viewing time.  Anyone with an opportunity to see and experience this 21st Century masterwork would be remiss not to do so.

Get up and go:  The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is located at Amsterdam Avenue and W. 112th Street.  Take the #1 subway to 116th Street-Columbia University.  Hours are 7:30 am to 6 pm, and admission is without charge.  Across Amsterdam Avenue a block to the south are The Hungarian Pastry Shop and V&T’s pizzeria/restaurant, both legendary for the generations of Columbia students who plant themselves there for hours of reading, writing and noshing.  On W. 106th Street is Culinaria Gastronomia, an extraordinary Italian restaurant.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ephrata Agonistes

Last August this blog discussed the looming fiscal difficulties facing public libraries generally and Lancaster’s public library specifically. Over the past month, the crisis has arrived, however it hit not in the City, but in Ephrata.

Facing a shortfall projected between $80,000 to $100,000, the Ephrata Library – Lancaster County’s second busiest – was forced to make deep, painful cuts: Sundays and Fridays closed, evening hours curtailed, programs cancelled, and 11 employees – half the staff – laid off.  Gone.

On the face of it, the shortfall was attributed to a bad year of fundraising from private donors, who generate almost two-thirds of the Library’s operating funds.  (Perhaps given a ‘kickstart’ by its crisis, Ephrata Library out-performed other Lancaster County public library programs in the Thanksgiving week ‘Extraordinary Give’ fundraising drive, harvesting more than  $29,000 contributed by 328 donors.)

We’ve become accustomed as a nation to having a certain type of public service increasingly reliant on voluntary contributions rather than government support through the appropriation of general revenues.  This concept took off during the tax-cutting 1980’s, underpinned by the rhetorical premise that so-called “discretionary” services should be able to demonstrate their worth to the public by surviving in the competitive marketplace of charitable giving.

The poster-child that was said to validate the concept was public broadcasting – PBS, National Public Radio, and their member stations – which went from hand-wringing over lost government support to self-sustaining fundraising juggernauts in a few short years.  (At this point in the article, there is an overwhelming temptation to take a short break in order to meet this hour’s goal.  Is there a matching grant somewhere out there?)

But except for a few flagship institutions, public libraries, parks and museums are really not in the same fundraising boat as public TV or radio, given broadcasting technology’s incomparable reach and messaging impact.

For our more localized community institutions, the current over-dependence on private donors just is not going to cut it for the long-term.

Must it be this way?  Apparently not, as evidenced by Dauphin County, where a dedicated countywidelibrary tax funds 65 percent of library operations, providing the county’s libraries with funding stability, if not quite abundance.

Then there is the parlous condition of our fiscally mismanaged Commonwealth.  If a new Administration in Harrisburg can find a way to overcome the forecast of gridlock from a General Assembly controlled by the loyal opposition, perhaps some reasonable participation and overdue funding relief is in sight for our precious community public services.  

As Willy Loman’s wife Linda, warning of the awful price of abandonment, put it to her sons in Death of a Salesman, “Attention…attention finally must be paid.”

Friday, November 21, 2014

You’re Looking Good, Lancaster, But How Well Do You Move?

So the good news is that one of America’s leading urban planners thinks Lancaster is the “best looking city” he’s worked in, and he’s worked in a lot of them.  The bad news –for planner Jeff Speck, that is – is that it’s not so easy to find ways to improve things.

Speck, who is co-author of the urban revival manifesto“Suburban Nation”, shouldn’t be overly apprehensive since he is the recipient of $50,000 from the Lancaster City Alliance to come up with ideas to make downtown Lancaster more ”walkable.”

To that end, an auditorium full of citizens and officials came to Ware Center Monday evening to hear Speck go through a locally customized version of his celebrated TED Talk (800,000-plus views and counting) on “The Walkable City” (not coincidentally, the title of his newest book).

The goal, in his catchphrase, is “to use everyday design in everyday spaces that get people out in the street.”

This is happening around the country, in urban centers large and small that are seeking ways to promote business, entertainment, housing, recreation and reputation – apparently, we all want to live in Portlandia these days – by getting people out of their cars and moving by foot (or by extension, two-wheeled, foot-powered pedals).

Speck cautioned that typical planning practice tends to look out 20 years, but, as a member of the cohort the planners now term “aging boomers,” his tolerance for deferred gratification has waned, so he’s viewing the Lancaster project as one of  recommending strategies that can be realized within two to five years time.

His fundamental, inarguable premise is that the miracle of the private automobile has resulted in a litany of social, economic and environmental ills; hence if people were to drive less it would benefit them and their communities with improved health, prosperity, social welfare and environmental quality.

Speck’s approach to reducing the tyranny of the car is not to abolish its use but to tweak the conditions of its operation:  Narrower traffic corridors and fewer lanes, more four-way stop intersections and fewer stoplights, replacing one-way raceways with two-way flows that prevent driver jockeying and passing, and lots of on-street parking, a bit counter-intuitively, to separate sidewalks and bike lanes from auto flow are the hit tunes in his songbook.

Plans are already afoot (as it were), including the reversion of Mulberry Street to two-way flow, followed thereafter by a look at the same change for Charlotte Street.   Moves such as these are not aimed to reduce congestion as much as contain congestion and turn it to benefit by discouraging those with a choice from getting into the car to make that quick trip to the market or cafĂ©.
Urban planner Jeff Speck

Speck makes little reference to the economists’ favored mechanism of pricing to incentivize behavior.  Nor does he have much to say beyond a perfunctory nod about the importance of transit. 

The latter omission seems shortsighted inasmuch as our commuter rail service is at the heart of what makes Lancaster attractive and successful far beyond that of Pennsylvania’s other comparably sized cities.  But with the recently spruced up train station almost solely dependent on car travel to deliver and collect passengers, the inadequacies of the bus network would be a worthy line of inquiry for Speck to pursue as his study proceeds.

Finally, he makes an explicit point of addressing safety in terms of accident reduction, not crime reduction.   The data-driven reality is that Lancaster is a safe community in which to live, work, visit and walk.  But because perception shapes reality, planner Speck would do well to be mindful that all the traffic-management strategies in the world will not get people out of their cars if they don’t feel secure in their person walking down the street after dark.

Make yourself heard: Jeff Speck invites comments and suggestions for his Lancaster Walkability Study.  Tweet him at: https://twitter.com/jeffspeckaicp