Monday, May 28, 2007

The Second Energy Crisis and People with Disabilities

[This post is part of World Without Oil, the alternate-reality game. This is fiction, but my opinions are based on fact.]

According to the Salem Commission on Disabilites, 20% of Salem residents have a disability, a condition that impairs their daily life. About 1 in 10 of them have a serious disabilty that requires frequent and regular care. These include paraplegics and quadriplegics stricken by illness or accident and people with muscular dystrophy, MS or ALS to name the most obvious cases.

There are less obvious cases. The co-chair of the Commission (and a dear friend) has two adopted developmentally disabled daughters. (They're charming kids!) They need regular care.

Diabetic people are often not thought of as having a disability until something goes wrong. People with diabetes don't only have to worry about their meds, but they have to eat well, too. If not, the aftermath is not pleasant.

Can you even get your meds? (also see Meds and the USPS) What about chemo patients? Many elderly people need regular care, whether they're in nursing homes, retirement communities or just left by themselves in public housing (as I've seen too often in my building.)

If people lose their nurses and their care attendants, they'll head right for the emergency room. That is scary.

I'm fortunate in a few ways: I've had five eye surgeries (retinal detachments) and have kept my sight. I've always had low vision and cannot drive, but all I need is to be able to read books, use the computer and tinker with ham radio stuff. Even still, there have been bad times recovering from one operation or another, or suffering one complication or another, where I've been virtually blind for weeks and months.

What if you were in an accident and suffered a detachment? And a surgeon wasn't available (retinal surgery is very specialized in both its practitioners and its equipment)? You'll go blind. Untreated retinal detachments are not fixable. That's just one of the many dilemmas we face.

Another question: Our disabled Salemmites--are they working?

According to the Center for an Accessible Society, 30 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed. (The figures for blind people are even worse: 70 percent unemployment.)

The Salem Commission on Disabilities is considered a civil rights board, but many businesses consider it just another layer of bureaucracy. People with disabilities are a minority, and a common libertarian argument that many people subscribe to is that it is not worth the added cost to the majority (the business owner) to accommodate people with disabilities either as customers or employees.

(Anyone remember that old public service ad from the seventies? The one where a couple couldn't get education for their learning disabled child because the administrator told them, "we can't do this for only one child"! Many still think like that!)

When times are tight, businesses will not see people with disabilities as an asset, but a liability. We are already seeing this with health insurance; if an employee "gets" a disability or any sort of health crisis, premiums go up, and suddenly, the employer can't afford to keep that person.

Many people with disablities rely on gas-powered vans to take them to work and to shop. They just became homebound in the Second Energy Crisis.

People with disabliities have gained and kept their independence because we have been rich enough to lend a hand. At the first sign of a crisis, people with disabilities will be the first to lose their independence, if not their health and life itself.

It's very scary for us out there.

Take care.

UPDATE: Casuabon's Book goes into some detail on how Peak Oilers look at the poor and people with disabilities.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Salem's Future in a Second Energy Crisis: Recommendations

[This post is part of the World Without Oil game. Events in the game may not be factual, but my opinions are real.]

In the fall of 2006, RCG, a large developer based in Somerville, had plans for the downtown. They planned to develop 180 condos on three six-story buildings with a 500 car underground garage.

In public hearings, the plans were excoriated, with public response almost unanimously negative.

Last December, RCG cancelled the project.

[UPDATE: RCG came back and agreed to develop a smaller project to begin in April '08. Whether it was a negotiating ploy or an acknowledgement of changed circumstances is unknown.]

That was probably the best thing to happen to Salem.

In the mid-90's to the present, Salem and many other North Shore communities had condo fever (or luxury-apartment fever). Developers promised us the moon and the stars if we would let their projects be built. The people they hoped to have live here, at $400,000 per mortgage, were said to be dynamic, up and coming and added to the "character" of the city. Money really was the "report card of life" as they say.

In Salem, history was not a fact but an attribute to be sold. Too often, history represented nothing more than property values to the developers and to those that moved in.

Worse yet, Salem was becoming a bedroom community, slowly losing the diverse economy it once had. Those that moved in, and those living in "historic" districts came to believe Salem was a fantastic historical theme park, a perpetual Currier & Ives print where the horses never poop, where you can live in 18th century houses and still park your SUV's on the sidewalk on Federal St.

In a city, you are never far away from the infrastructure that you need in order to live. Roads, sewers, water mains, power plants, substations, rail lines, gas stations, garages, streets and sidewalks are all necessities today, just as stables, carts, wagons, rail lines, trolleys, markets, docks and sheds were in historic Salem. People sold on the historic fantasy become very resentful of this fact, as we have seen when the Federal Street association killed the Salem Depot project.

Salem was not and is not a bedroom community or a historic theme park. It was and still is the crossroads of the North Shore. If you understand that, Salem is a great city. It was and is a living city.

As we go through the Second Energy Crisis, I have recommendations to insure that Salem remains vital:

1) We must diversify our development. We cannot depend on an endless stream of affluent yuppies to inhabit luxury condos. Because there are no amenities downtown for them, they will have to drive--remember that proposed 500-car garage? This was already questionable even before the gas crunch, let alone now.

We let our commercial tax base disappear, as former factories like Parker Brothers became luxury apartments. This must not continue. We need more commercial properties such as offices, light industrial and the like. It's a crime that the old Sylvania property on Boston Street has never been developed.

Even more importantly, we need more retail downtown oriented to residents. Losing our old downtown as we did is still a blow all these years later.

2) Salem must have improved public transit. Public transit is not "welfare transit" but a vital link for people within the city and outside it. The Blue Line must be extended to Lynn at a minimum. The decaying Salem Depot must be renovated and serious consideration given to electrifying the Rockport/Newburyport Line.

Blue Line service to Salem should be seriously studied. If it's not possible for technical reasons, the MBTA should also consider converting Route 455--the busiest T route in Salem, serving the Point, Salem State College and South Salem--into a trolleybus. Or at least making it a frequent (15 minute) feeder serving the new Blue Line at Central Square, Lynn.

3) We must consider life without the powerplant. This is a recommendation for which I don't have a good answer. Dominion's Salem Harbor Station is a polluter, but it is also our largest source of tax revenue. It's also our backstop against power blackouts on the North Shore.

Nevertheless, we face Global Warming as one of our many challenges. Some scientists, such as Dr. Hansen (well known from NASA) have recommended phasing out coal-fired power plants, such as Salem's. Our plant is old and it's not certain whether it could have the necessary technology (carbon sequestration) fitted to continue operation.

Salem will have to imagine scenarios without the power plant and deal with them accordingly.

4) Put a moratorium on new parking garages and major road projects. Salem's Last Road really is Salem's last road. Since writing this, I've learned that the private garage planned for 10 Federal St. (next door to me as it turns out) is now on hold. It might turn out that we should build a garage at the Salem Depot as was originally planned, but I believe it'll be the last one for the foreseeable future.

Lastly, I want to remind elected officials, neighborhood associations and citizens of one point again: Salem is a Living City. Our purpose is to make Salem a prosperous city for everyone who lives, works and visits in it. Salem doesn't exist to boost your property values or give you a historic fantasy, and it isn't an empty vessel for developers.

With good leadership and citizens who recognize the kind of community they live in, Salem can get through the Second Energy Crisis much better than many other suburban communities.

Let's get started.

UPDATE: Perhaps Portland, Oregon could be a model for us?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Salem's Future in a Second Energy Crisis (Part 2)

[This post is part of the World Without Oil Game. It might be fictional but the opinions are real.]

It's 2007 in Salem, 33 years after the First Energy Crisis. What's different?

There are many, many more cars in Salem than ever before. In 1974 there were few parking lots, one of the biggest being the Almy's lot at Church St., in the rear of the store. There were also lots at Rich's and Giant Valu (a grocery store), the biggest stores on Highland Ave. at the time.

There were no malls and no parking garages.

In 1976, Salem's first parking garage was built on the site of the old Paramount Theatre on Essex St. (adjacent to Almy's). Salem's first (and second) malls followed, the East India Square mall under the garage, and the Hawthorne Square Shopping Center on Highland Ave (between Rich's and the then-new Salem High School.) The first private parking garage would not be built for another 10 years or so, when Naumkeag Mills, the big factory complex at Palmer's Cove was redeveloped as an industrial park.)

Today, Salem has 3 garages (2 public, including the new South Harbor Garage, and 1 private) and officials want to build at least 3 more (including 1 private garage.)

With an increase in cars has come a decrease in commercial space. Virtually all of the factories in business in 1974 are now gone. Parker Brothers is gone, and now "luxury" apartments are on the site. Sylvania closed both its Salem plants in the early '90s; one of them belongs to Salem State College and the other is an empty lot, undeveloped due to litigation from the neighbors. Except for the remains of Flynntan, you would almost never know there was an industry.

Salem's downtown, as a shopping area for residents, is dead. Almy's is long gone and the East India Square mall was remodeled into Museum Place and, like downtown itself, primarily caters to tourism. The old Jerry's Army and Navy--the big clothes store downtown--closed long ago and you can no longer buy baked goods at Bowman's or chocolate at Connelly's; they're gone too. (I bitterly regret the loss of Connelly's, since if they'd only held out for a little while longer, they'd catch the gourmet chocolate wave and I would be there every day!)

What industries Salem has are tourism and condos. Recent administrations and city councils have grasped onto luxury condos as the answer to Salem's decline. In 1974, very few people lived downtown outside of rooming houses. In 2007, there are some 500 (by my imprecise estimate) housing units downtown (in a square bounded by Bridge St, Hawthorne Blvd., North St. and Washington St.)

(Disclosure: I'm one of the 500 units, living near the train station.)

Most of these new residents are carrying mortgages up to $500K. In downtown Salem (!!) Virtually none of these people can shop without a car. There's nothing for them. So they have to get in their cars and drive at least to Highland Ave., or more often to Danvers or Peabody. And shopping drives our economy in the US.

Salem is not like, say, the Back Bay of Boston with Newbury St and Boylston St. where there are many choices and many opportunities to shop on foot (or at least with a handcart to take that LCD TV home!)

We've always had lots of traffic--we are the crossroads of the North Shore--but these developments have given us even more. So much more, that the previous administration pushed through a new roadway, the Bypass Road, that I wrote about in Salem's Last Road.

In 2007, there are 4 bus lines and the commuter rail, terminating at a truly depressing train station. I'm the only one I know who uses public transit--I can't drive due to poor vision--and it is not fun humping groceries home on the bus. In 1974 you could ride a bus to Marblehead. Not any more.

A few politicians have talked about improved transit. Every so often, the idea of extending the MBTA Blue Lynn to Lynn and Salem comes up. It's been often shot down in Salem; it would "destroy the character of the city". (The Blue Lynn to Lynn project exists only because officials in Lynn have pushed it very aggressively.) Much-needed improvements to Salem Depot were killed by one of the neighborhood associations several years ago (These associations are de facto arms of government composed of wealthy property owners more intent on preserving property values than the quality of life for themselves or anyone else in the city.)

Public transit in Salem is usually seen as a welfare program to get the domestics and other "low-class" service employees to work. (My family was lower-lower middle class and I am no prize in the social strata category myself, so don't take offense.)

As mentioned in the last post, Salem Harbor Station still operates now, as in 1974. It still runs on coal and still pollutes. Unfortunately, it's also the biggest commercial taxpayer we have. We're stuck with them and our increasing need for power. It'd seem that coal would be immune to the oil shock, but the coal barges, do they not run on oil? We also have an oil terminal and a LNG facility on the waterfront. The old Boston Gas (now Keyspan) aggressively pushed natural gas heating, as did other utilities.

We are no less vulnerable to the Second Energy Crisis than any other North Shore community. In fact, we're worse off.

Our car-centered, congested, historic little city is headed for disaster. The average Salemite would be screwed without their car. They need it. They can't walk to the neighborhood store; in many areas of Salem, they no longer exist! Where will they work? There are few jobs in Salem that aren't low-wage service or tourism jobs.

So what's next? We do have some strengths, and they don't depend on escalating property values for a few. We can still respect our history yet make a viable future for our city.

[To be continued.]

Salem's Future in a Second Energy Crisis (Part 1)

[This post is part of the World Without Oil Game. It might be fictional but the opinions are real.]

I remember being around for the first Energy Crisis (which I place in 1974 for discussion's sake.)
Salem was still a tired little mill city, like Lynn or Peabody only smaller and more congested. It had a downtown with lots of stores, including Almy's, a local department store chain.

It had factories. Mills and tanneries and machine shops. Sylvania, the big lighting company, had two factories in town, one in South Salem, and the other in Blubber Hollow (famous for the Great Salem Fire, near where I lived at the time.) The great Parker Brothers factory still existed. There were places to earn a good middle-class living. The great decline of the middle class hadn't yet happened. Nor had the decline of downtown, at least not yet.

Cars were becoming necessary in Salem and the North Shore, but one could still shop for everything one needed on foot. We had a commuter rail line and 8 bus routes. My family never owned a car; it was hard even then to manage, but we did.

Most importantly, Salem had a thriving commercial tax base with a lot of local employers. This meant a lot for charity and community events, such as Heritage Days and the parade that was held each year.

I can't romanticize this too much; we had serious environmental problems then that still plague us today. The North River turned colors according to what the factories were dumping that day and it still isn't clean today. As typical for the tannery business, many of the factories were firetraps. (I remember too well when the Flynntan factory on Boston St. burned, since my mom woke us all up at 3 AM when it happened; if the house burned, we were going to sleep in Gallows Hill Park as a previous generation did during the Salem Fire. Fortunately, the wind shifted and that didn't happen.)

Of course, long-time North Shore residents will recall the Salem Harbor powerplant and its environmental problems. I'll get to that later on.

What do I remember from the first Energy Crisis? Not much. I remember the glow-in-the-dark Count Chocula sticker that told us to turn off the lightswitch when we weren't using it. Turn off the TV. (In those days, a color TV could run 300 watts, so this was important!) Almy's shut down at 5 PM rather than 7 PM. To an 11-year old, even the newsjunkie 11-year old that I was, this was distant. I didn't have to pay the bills back then.

It's now 2007. What happens to Salem in a Second Energy Crisis? My speculations in the next post.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

World Without Oil game

For the next few weeks, I'll be participating in the World Without Oil game and posting my fictional speculations about life in Salem during the Second (and last?) Energy Crisis. My facts will be fictional (so far!) but my opinions will be very real. Salem has some very uncomfortable truths to face--but also some strengths we don't realize!

Salem's Last Road

In 2005, after decades of contentious discussion, the state started building a bypass road through Salem. This road begins at the Salem-Beverly (Veteran's Memorial) Bridge at Route 1A and continues alongside the railroad southwest, ending at the intersection of Bridge St. (Rt. 107) and St. Peter St., at the old Salem Jail.

The Bypass Road was conceived in the late 70's and was originally routed from Peabody Square through Boston & Bridge St, Salem, through to the Salem-Beverly bridge on a separate roadway. The city of Peabody balked, and the concept was cut back to terminate at Bridge and Flint Sts.
Mass Highway cleared the land between North and Flint Sts, approximately 3/4 of a mile, in preparation.

In the meantime, the MBTA moved Salem's commuter rail station to Bridge and Washington Sts. in 1985 following a fire that destroyed the railroad drawbridge between Salem and Beverly. This complicated the proposed routing, and killed the Flint St. highway terminus for good. (The cleared area between North St. and Flint is now Leslie's Retreat Park, a dog-walker's park.)

In the 90's, the Salem Partnership put forth a proposal and concept drawing (which is strongly burned into my memory since I live downtown, ironically at St. Peter St.) locating the end of the bypass road at Washington St. and building a new garage and street-level busway at the train station.

It seemed like the best idea, but often in Massachusetts, the best ideas go nowhere. For whatever reason this idea--and the MBTA garage at Salem Depot to this day--was DOA.

Former mayor Stan Usovicz--and the downtown business community--lobbied hard for the St. Peter St. terminus. That's how it would be and since late 2005, when construction started, that's what we have.

For $16 million, we are getting just over a 1 mile road, or as one friend calls it, a "second Bridge St." We're getting the road we always wanted; Salem has always been bitter about its congested downtown, seeing the traffic flow, office and shopping areas, go to Peabody, Beverly and Rt. 128 where cars more easily exist. But is it both too much and too little?

Would it be as if the Big Dig terminated at Dock Square?

With an underfunded state transportation budget following the Big Dig debacle, global warming and the scary prospect of Peak Oil, this may well be Salem's Last Road.

Massachusetts Highway Department project page for the Bypass Road
Flickr Set: "Salem's Last Road"