Archive for July, 2017

THE Unreasonable Man: Tim Wong

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

A very dear friend recently died. For 25 years we were brothers in bikes, water & energy conservation, anti-consumerism and so much else involved in community building.  Below was my contribution to his Celebration of Life last weekend (this is the disco version; my talk was a much more condensed version). I hope to add further posts about all things Wong over the next few weeks. -MB

Tim was THE DEFINITION of The Unreasonable Man. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Progress in Madison toward a better biking future, a more energy sustainable future, a more water efficient future happened in great measure because of Tim and his unreasonable ways.

And the thing is, people hated him for it. But the way some of us saw it, the more people hated him, the more we knew he was on the right track.

Circa 1980, this unreasonable headline blared across the top of the front page of one of his many underground newspapers (a succession of which, he was routinely booted off of, btw): “$5 a Gallon and a Pound of Sugar in Every Gas Tank!”

And the fight against the deathmobile was on. But it was, of course, on before that.

Not long after high school (ca 1860?!), Tim joined in the defense of a minority neighborhood in Washington DC. It was the beginning of Tim vs. the highwaymen. That fight never abated for the entirety of his life. The DC highway fight was moral combat against environmental racism even before there was a term for it. The middle class black neighborhood that was slated for the bulldozer fought back. Tim joined that fight. They won. That neighborhood is still healthy & happy. Compare to the fates of once-successful minority neighborhoods across the country that went under the bulldozers. From Chicago’s Bronzeville to vast swathes of St. Louis, now they are just husks of their former selves.

Tim was in the thick of the fight to unshackle Madison’s minority neighborhoods from their highway entombement. An early 90s example: The Williamsburg Way/Beltline underpass that would have eased highway segregation was fought by the racists on the one side of the highway. Tim was on the other. He was in the thick of the fight to build the underpass and thereby push the all-neighborhood connectivity forward. Another example: The Beltline overpass was denounced by the aristocrats over in the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood on the grounds that “those people” would sneak into their backyards and rape their daughters; their property values would crater. Tim pushed for the overpass and for all-neighborhood connectivity there too. It was built. Crime is still negligible in the surrounding neighborhoods. Property values have soared. Hmmm.

At no point could Tim be construed as a ‘leader’ in any given fight. That would be anathema to him. But he was always there. Providing spine, bombast, data crunching, analysis, and snark. Basically, he was the villager that needed to be destroyed in order for the highwaymen to keep “saving” our villages from traffic. Saving us always meant more traffic, of course.

And they did keep trying to destroy him. At one point, he was the chair of the city’s ped-bike subcommittee. The highwaymen & others tried every strategem possible to shut him down. But they just couldn’t. So they did the midwest nice thing, and did away with the committee altogether.

When he was on the Transit & Parking Commission, he used the city’s own data to show how awfully they were managing Madison Metro’s resources. This really pissed off the powers. Eventually Mayor Pave summarily threw him off of the commission for the crime of analyzing data.

I think the apotheosis of all things Tim came through our neighborhood’s plan, The Schenk-Atwood-Darbo-Worthington-Starkweather Plan of 2000. They made the “mistake” of making him an official appointee. A mistake because he just wouldn’t act at all like an official power broker (as all too often happens with people in appointed positions). It soon became apparent that Tim was not about to accept the boiler plate pro-car neighborhood plan that the Planners wanted to shove down our throats. But what made this the pinnacle of Tim’s power was not Tim’s POWER. He was more about just getting the ideas out there. Bombastically, YES. But he was about putting the onus on others to follow their own consciences to just do the right thing. Vote their own true consciences. The problem is, most people, once in power, even low level power like a little neighborhood committee, believe that it is their duty to submit to powers above them, to the detriment of ethics, morality, just doing the right thing. In most activist endeavors, victories are scarce. But it was different on this committee. It was made up of others who were dedicated to doing the right thing, powers be damned. And almost all could hear past Tim’s bombast and understand that what he was ultimately pushing for was really just a more civilized community and sustainable environment. Every traffic calming measure was a blow for civilization. Every bikeway, another push for the people. In militating against zoning and parking regulations that strangled our neighborhood business district, Tim and the whole committee made this neighborhood the cool place it is today. But the point was, it was the whole committee. That was where Tim was most comfortable: when ordinary citizens banded together as co-equals to push for the good & the just. If someone had made Tim King of the World, he wouldn’t have liked it. Remember his standard salutation: SLAY A LEADER!!!! If he were designated a leader, he would have just killed himself instead of being boss! The most natural order for a dedicated anarchist like Tim: A united front of co-equal citizens working in the trenches together.

Neighborhood was Tim’s laboratory for doing the right thing, for a more sustainable future, a more just future. He never had that liberal angst about other places being “denied” because of our efforts. His idea was that our neighborhood could serve as an exemplary beacon for doing the right thing. Indeed, once our neighborhood plan started making its way through the city committees, alders started asking the planners why their neighborhoods couldn’t have the same pro-community things. The green eyed monster worked for good! And here is what started happening: the zoning regulations that strangled cool neighborhood business districts started getting suspended. Our older hoods started to flourish (and how many of Tim’s beloved micro-brewpubs sprouted because of it?!!!). Eventually, thanks to the successful example of Tim’s collective efforts with his neighborhood, the entire zoning code was scrapped in favor of zoning that allows neighborhoods to look like our old hoods built before the dominance of the deathmobile. Mayor Pave & his powerful sycophants could never understand what was happening over here, but it was Tim and co-equal cohorts that got the ball rolling and transformed this city from a boring highway to the suburbs into the cool place it is now.

His life’s way was a) read everything there is to read about a subject, b) process it through a moral lense (is it good for lowering our pollution output? Is it good for community? Does it reduce the need for engineered bossiness (or any bossiness)? c) to get the truth out there, d) let people follow their own consciences once they have this information. No bossiness allowed. Bombast, yes, bossiness, no. The problem, of course, was that most people couldn’t hear the truth for the bombast. Some of us loved the bombast as much as the underlying truth. Because the bombast was just a wayfinding sign to the truth.

Tim is perhaps best known for his bike advocacy. But his activism went well beyond. In my google perusals I even found a comment Tim left for the Securities & Exchange Commission, excoriating them for some random de-regulation of the banksters. One of his more memorable fights for me is one that probably only 3 people know about: Water conservation policy.

As Dan Melton, former president of the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Assn., said in an email around the time of Tim’s death:

Here’s a little “resume” Tim put together, in 2011 (sent at 1:50 AM–one of his favored times to send email).

Of all his many civic activities, one I’d like to call attention to — because not many got to see it — was Tim’s vital involvement in 2011 in the Madison Water Utility’s East Side Water Supply Citizen Advisory Panel (ESWS CAP). It was grueling work, important work — and, frankly, I wasn’t sure Tim was up to it. Boy, WAS he. Former City Engineer Larry Nelson was the eminence grise on the ESWS CAP. Larry knew everything–about everything. If you wanted to challenge Larry, you had to know your stuff–inside-out. Tim did. Tim was the ONLY citizen on the ESWS CAP who would directly challenge Larry. Tim didn’t just spout slogans, he KNEW his printouts. I’m not sure how he did it but Tim would go printout to printout with Larry. Tim made some important points to nudge the City Water Utility towards more conservation–and less willy-nilly well-building. Tim pushed Madison to come up with a water rate structure that would “punish property owners for over-watering their pesticide grass”–(‘their pesticide grass,’ a typical Tim flourish). Tim and Dan Moser (who know lives in NYC) worked hard with Larry to craft a Conservation Advisory statement. Tim suspected the ESWS CAP was “sort of window dressing more than anything” but he was willing to swallow his doubts, and put in the work, work that no one else was willing to do, to help nudge the Water Utility towards more conservation.

From bikes, to water, to people, He was the true Renaissance Man of Activism.

But as with those Renaissance greats of yore, Gallileo, Dante – jailed, run out of town– Tim pissed off just about everyone he came into contact with, most especially the powerful, the sycophants & suckups, the propriety obsessives, the moral peacocks. The snowflakes on every listserv he was on wanted him to drink hemlock. Listmarms were left clutching pearls at Tim’s every e-utterance. For those with a less pinched view of the world, we could listen past his bombast and actually hear the truth of what he was saying. Deathmobile? Well, yeah, it’s the #1 killer of all people ages 4-44. What else you gonna call it? Pesticide grass? Well, why else would suburban lawns look like astroturf?

Tim was very much the community’s moral compass. I will so very much miss him.

To close with another George Bernard Shaw, so channeling Tim:

“I hear you say “Why?” Always “Why?” You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?”