Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

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?”


Organized Labor Wakes Up to Transit

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Hmmm. Maybe I’ll have to change my opinion of organized labor’s resistance to enlightened thinking…..This just in from South Central Federation of Labor’s (AFL-CIO) Union Labor News (August 2009):

Regional Transit Authorities. The Wisconsin State AFL-CIO supported the creation of regional transit authorities to help facilitate a more modern transportation infrastructure for our state. In addition, we wanted to ensure that construction-related work done by any newly-created transit authority would be subject to the state prevailing wage law, and that protection was included the budget bill. We were also concerned that the collective bargaining rights of public employees who are absorbed into a new transit authority would be protected, and that language is included in the state budget as well.


Now if we can just get our elected leaders to set up an RTA that is just and equitable. The current proposed configuration transfers all of the power out to the ‘burbs. That means, Madison will get screwed and our bus service would be eviscerated for long-distance sprawl commuters. More on that to come….

Edgewater Hotel: Stink on the Lake

Monday, August 10th, 2009

This is horrifying. Mayor Pave and the current crop of very pliant alders are trying to turn Madison into Springfield. Illinoiz, that is.

It is a long post, but it is some of the best investigative journalism I’ve seen in years. Consider it your duty to democracy and in preserving the republic to read it, understand it, and bring the issue to your elected officials.

And make certain to read all the way down into the comments section. The second entry (the really long one) is from someone who was (is?) a reporter for one of the old Madison dailies. (I haven’t seen his name in a while, so he probably got caught in the downdraft of the print media). Quite an authoritarian rightist. And a scary one to boot.

Meanwhile, this Edgewater thing stinks to high heaven.

De-Growth for Prosperity

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Looks like the important people are starting to catch on with regard to living more simply for a better life. This is something of an update to the themes Ivan Illich (more here) professed back in the 70s & 80s in his critique of the over-sped, over-consumed, over-educated, over-institutionalized, over-mechanized life of rich countries.

And maybe here would be a time to acknowledge my membership in the cult of Illich! I’m coming to discover legions of us out there who have either actually worked with him (and gone on to do fascinating things or were heavily influenced by his writings. (Here is an interesting example that seems to be Illich-inspired.)

Bike Zeitgeist: Being the Engine, Pedaling Revolution

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

GM just went bust.

The Highway “Trust” Fund went bust a few months ago.

The repo man is busy, busy, busy.

No better time than today to introduce two great works that celebrate a better way:


Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities a book by Jeff Mapes (with a strong Madison connection; more below),


Be the Engine, a new music video  celebrating human powered transportation (posted below). This rockin’ tribute to all that biking going on out there has long been a crowd rouser at Motor Primitives shows. Now it is set to video and it evokes an explosive cultural resurgence into a non-motorized—and infinitely more fun—era. Pam Barrett, my rock star wife(!) who penned the song and performs it with the Motor Primitives, also created the video.

Back to Pedaling. The book is an amazing read. It is encyclopedic. It is well researched. It is a breeze of a read. It is a complete statement of the state of the bike movement as of today. For those of us who have been involved in bike advocacy since, well, forever (including yours truly), it is a mesmerizing read. The book is broad in scope; so much so that it becomes clear that our trials & tribulations here on the local level are, in fact, theorizable to the national level.

Or, at least rhyzomable to cities across North America—it could be called the Strawberry Strategy for Cycling Cities!

Even for non-bike geeks, the book provides a sense of adventure, almost in a Huck-floats-down-the-Mississippi sort of way.

Mapes, a political reporter in Portland, took a leave from his statehouse duties to divine the Zeitgeist of cycling, ca. 2008. First he traveled to several successful bike cities in the US—and even across the Atlantic. He observed the two wheeled action. Then he set out to interview the people who helped create the conditions for successful biking in their localities. Indeed, the sheer depth of creativity & willpower in the characters he meets along the way rivals that encountered by Huck on his adventures.

Powerbrokers take note: It is no coincidence that a political reporter took up the task of writing this book. Indeed, it was a natural. The emerging political power of bicyclists not only animates this book, but increasingly, it infuses the power—economic, political and cultural—of more & more cities and states which embrace a forward-looking vision. Many states and localities bemoan the loss of their kids after they’ve graduated from college. Well, it might behoove them to check out the places they are losing their kids to. This book provides a nice, shall we say, bike route map for creating places which attract & retain a thinking, creating and just plain competent populace. Smart people don’t like to live in places that suck. Bicycle-friendly places tend not to suck. (Note to the recession-ridden: Your giant highways suck.)

To give the reader a feel for how far cycle advocacy has come, Mapes takes a trip on the Way-Back Machine to interview the old bulls of the bike world–the likes of Dan Burden, Bill Wilkinson and, of course, John Forester. By bringing us all the way up through the history of the movement to the present, Pedaling illustrates just how far we’ve come since Effective Cycling was the be-all-end-all of bike advocacy. Not that there is anything wrong with EC; I am, after all, a League Cycling Instructor (LCI 636-C, Sir!). But there is a lot more to changing the world than just learning to effectively defy death on auto-centric roads.

Though Mapes essentially confesses to being a partisan of the larger cause at the outset of the book (he is a dedicated bike commuter), he does a marvelous job of even-handedly teasing out the oft-conflicting factions within the bike movement. (He is a journalist by profession, after all!).

The book celebrates bike celebrants—characters like the inimitable Reverend Phil of Portland, the wacky connoisseur extraordinaire of all things bike culture. And to be sure, it is heavy on analysis of what makes the hip bike capitals the hip bike capitals they are (the Portlands, the Amsterdams, the Davises, etc.). But I found the book most compelling, in a glimpse-into-the-future sort of way, when Mapes picks the minds of unlikely proponents of bicycling:

*The Mayor of patently un-hip Louisville, Kentucky, who sets out to create hundreds of miles of bikeways, with an eye toward creating an environment that retains and attracts an educated and creative workforce,

*A world-renowned Safe Routes to School coordinator who came to bicycling via asthma,

*Public health professionals/academics who finally “got it” in the late 90s (yes, Virginia, there is a connection between land use/transportation policy and health!),

*An old-line New Dealer in Congress whose district probably doesn’t need much bike infrastructure given its rural nature, but who fights like mad for bike & pedestrian funds nonetheless,

*The former Parsons-Brinkerhoff (yeah, that mega-highway building concern) executive who is single-handedly taming New York’s mean streets—as an appointee in a Republican administration!—to the benefit of cyclists & pedestrians,

*The tech entrepreneur who sees beyond his own fast growth business but uses that tech prestige & cachet to leverage better bike conditions, i.e., a better world around him.

The bicycle-wielding barbarians have crashed the gates…Indeed, They are in the king’s court! Mapes notes with relish that Obama is the first president to have specifically included bicycling as a major component of his transportation platform during a campaign (results TBD,of course!).

The one quibble I have with this tour de politique velò is Mape’s heavy reliance on the paid & professional. Pardon the metaphor, but, in a way, it is kind of like a car mechanic diagnosing a sputtering car by only looking at the engine block while ignoring the spark plugs. The folks who actually show up at city council meetings—civic minded volunteers one & all—are discussed and even lionized here, but only in a lumpen sort of way. This is too bad, because, after all, it was their dreaming, manifested in their political pressure which brought about paid positions for the bicycle professionals in the first place. The individuality of the professionals comes through loud & clear; the civic volunteers, not so much. This quibble notwithstanding, the auto-centric world has much to learn from this encyclopedic look at the cities winning with a bicycle-centered strategy.

The Madison Connection: There are several other reviews out there that will probably do more justice to the book than what I could write here, including David Byrne’s recent review in the New York Times. But I do want to highlight an unsung hero in the fruition of this book: My good friend Mary Braun. A former grad school colleague of mine in the UW-Madison Geography Department, Braun is now the acquisitions editor at the Oregon State University Press (the publisher of Pedaling Revolution). She met Mapes at a history conference where he gave a talk, and he mentioned that he was writing a book on the bike movement. Braun signed him up for her press, and, well, the rest is unmotorized history, published. This is a case of great minds thinking alike, because some months before that encounter, Braun had emailed asking if I knew anyone who would be up to writing just such a book. I didn’t have a good answer, but it’s obvious that she found a winner in Mapes—a natural given that he is based in one of those hip bike capitals and covers politics.

But the Wisconsin connection is very important. A good Wisconsinite through & through, Fondy born & raised, Mary Braun will be horrified that I even mention her here. But I’m tired of the unsung heroes going unsung. So here goes: This long-time Madisonian (Madison being a Mapes-certified “bikey” [sic] city)—and former acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Press—was a lurker on Madison’s “Bikies” listserv since its inception back in the early ‘90s. “Bikies” (the proper spelling, btw!) is one of those (in?)famous bike advocacy listservs that Mapes cites as a major factor in organizing bike politics. Braun was there—the proverbial villager supporting the bike insurgents—back when Al Gore invented the internets. She has long wanted bicycling as a movement to see the light of day. With this book, not only did she accomplish that dream, she helped produce the manifesto for a better day.



Zombies vs. Democracy, Part II

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

Madison’s cops are getting political, i.e., out of line, again. My suspicion is that this is more of a warning shot across the bow by Madison’s Mayor Pave. He has ousted a long line of progressives since his re-election. Now he is ramping up the velocity and viciousness of the ejections to include not just outspoken opponents, but *anyone* who happens to wear the progressive badge–even eminently pliable ones like Verveer. So even the Boy Scouts are fair game.

His latest Boy Scout target is Carl DuRocher, current chair of the Transit & Parking Commission. Nicest guy in the world. His crime was in looking out for bus riders’ interests and following Robert’s Rules of Order.

It will be interesting to see if the alder who represents him will finally stand up for one of her constituents. Already several of the 6th District Alder’s constituents have been dumped from various city commissions for the crime of <*gasp*> doing the right thing.

The drumbeat has also begun against a hardworking citizen Parks Commissioner as well as a Water Utility Board member (both also of the 6th Aldermanic District). (More on those soon.)

Madison Spring Elections: Revenge of the Zombie Pols

Friday, May 15th, 2009

The Revenge of the Zombie Pols is the title of the latest cinematic flop, aka the Madison 2009 spring elections. Look at those endorsements rounded up by the challenger (and ultimate victor) in the 2nd District! That picture of all those politicians who haven’t had an original idea since, oh, 1979 pretty much says it all. (Ok, except for maybe Mayor Pave, who seems to have shut down the idea machine ca. A.D. 2004.)

The scariest of the endorsements was from the Madison Professional Police Officers Association. They even took out a billboard ad against Brenda. What is scary about this endorsement? Isn’t it just another example of the First Amendment in action? Not in this case. Not when the words are backed by the badge & the bullet. The fact of the matter is these are the people to whom society has entrusted a legal monopoly on violence. With such a monopoly goes a major responsibility, that of absolute deference to civil authority. In their minds they may disagree with the politics of their bosses (you know, the ones who write their checks, the Madison Common Council) but they must absolutely defer to our elected officials publicly. That is the oath that they took. By getting involved in the political process, using the badge, backed by the bullet, their endorsement crosses the line: They have taken us from civilization & democracy into the realm of militarism & junta.

Brenda really pissed off the powers that be. And good for her. She denounced the cops for repeatedly flouting the Council’s budgets–i.e., flouting the constitutional power of the purse vested in our elected representatives.

The cops reacted with the reactionary gusto of coup-minded colonels.

This should send a shudder through anyone who believes in civil society.

Brenda’s steadfastness in defense of our democracy cost her personally. But we all gained through her tireless advocacy for a more just, democratic process. In the end she got more good done as an alder than this mayor has as an executive. Good to see that she’s still kickin’ ’em in the shins.