Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Who Owns the White River?


Who Owns the White River?


         With its recent, quiet and unilateral decision to build a rock ramp dam across the White River in 2021, Citizens Energy Group, which now runs the Indianapolis water system, may have opened up a battle royale over the future of the river.  I hope that there will be a vigorous public discussion of these plans, and one that will consider the White River not simply as a drinking water and sewer system, but as an integral part of the social, political, economic and environmental fabric of our city.
          Citizens Energy’s decision to build the rock ramp dam is the result of a cascading series of causes and effects.  As part of its “Flood Damage Reduction Project” in Indianapolis, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer built a gate across the canal, just upstream from Butler University, that could be closed in the event of a flood. 
Because the Canal is crucial in providing water to the City, Citizens Energy abruptly closed the Canal Towpath for several months in 2018 in order to build a water intake station north of 30th St.  This intake station would allow Citizens Energy to pump water from the White River into the canal in the event that the canal were closed upstream.
But these plans to keep water flowing in the city were disrupted by the breach of the Emerichsville Dam, south of 16th St., in October of 2018.  The Emerichsville Dam, a low-head dam that allows water to flower over its top, was built in 1899, and made the portion of the river upstream from it deeper, slower and wider.  Most notably, a wide stretch of the river, known a Lake Indy, at around 25th St., between Riverside Park and Coffin Golf Course, was the direct result of Emerichsville Dam.
With the breach in the dam, the White River become much lower, and flowed more sporadically through the Rieverside area than it had for the previous century. Some began to refer to the White River as a creek.  Lake Indy virtually disappeared.  And there was insufficient flow to the intake station that Citizens Energy had built.
Initially, Citizens Energy tried to repair the dam.  It’s not clear how extensive these efforts were, or why they abandoned them, but sometime in 2019, Citizens Energy decided instead to construct a new “rock ramp dam” across the river  Unlike the previous low head dam, this rock ramp dam not form a solid wall, but would be a system of rocks that would allow water and fish to flow through it.
According to Dan Considine, the manager of corporate communications for Citizens Energy, the company’s original plan was to construct the dam just north of 30th St., near the new intake station.  In response to neighborhood concerns, though, the company is also considering a site nearer to 25th St., which would cost slightly more but would restore part of Lake Indy.  In a private conversation with me, Mr. Consodine stated that the company is not considering placing the new dam near the Emerichsville Dam because that would be too expensive.
As I write this article, on Feb. 12, 2020, Citizens Energy has not made any public announcement of its plans.  Instead, it has met representatives of neighborhood organizations in the area. 
Circulation of these plans has inspired a movement within the Riverside community either to restore the Emerichsville Dam or to construct the new dam near that site in order to increase the flow of the river through the Riverside area.  Two residents of the area, Derek Tow and Ronald Rice, spoke of their concerns on a show on WRTV channel 6 on Feb. 11.  They also created a Facebook page entitled “Keep the River in Riverside” to rally support for their position.
As part of their argument for restoring Lake Indy, or something like it, Tow and Rice point to the recently completed masterplan for Riverside Park (https://www.riversideparkplan.com/).  In one of his FB postings, Tow says that this ambitious plan depends on having a “usable river,” with the implication that the Citizens Energy plans would render the river unusable.
I have three distinct and contradictory responses to these developments.  At the risk of trying the patience of my readers, I want to lay out all three.
On the one hand, I do not want us to allow anything to interfere with the progress of the Master Plan for Riverside Park.  This plan takes in more than 800 acres along the river, and could make the park a treasure for the entire community.
Moreover, I think we must restore Riverside Park as a step towards social and racial justice in our city.  I say this not simply because the Riverside Park area is largely African American, but also because the former private Riverside Amusement Park, north of 30th Street, was a notoriously racist institution, and the public park itself was off-limits to black citizens until the 1960s.  We can make a modest step toward a more justice community by improving Riverside Park and making it more accessible to all citizens.
On the other hand, however, many of the claims of Keep the River in Riverside are exaggerated, and, quite possibly shortsighted.  The standing headline of the FB group states, “The River Will Be Gone Forever Unless DPW & Citizens Rebuild the Emrichsville Dam.”
While it is perhaps possible to bury an urban stream, as the history of Pogues Run suggests, no one is talking about eliminating the White River. It might be different in the future, and it might not be as wide and deep as it once was through Riverside Park, but it will still exist.
And it will be “usable,” perhaps in better and more sustainable ways.  I have occasionally seen speedboats navigate Lake Indy, and it is not a pretty sight.  I could imagine that, even under Citizens’ current plans, canoeing and kayaking might be better, and fishing too.
On my third hand, I wish that we were considering the possibility of removing dams altogether from the White River.  I understand that this is not consistent with Citizens Energy plans, and would probably be equally unpalatable to the champions of Riverside Park.  And perhaps it is impractical.
But I do think we should consider un-damming the White River.  Flooding on the Mississippi and elsewhere has shown us that dams can, in the long run, do more harm than good.  And if our aim is to restore the White River to something like its original form, removing all dams would be a good place to start.
Beyond the question of where and how to dam the White River, I am astonished that we, as a City, have ceded authority to decide these questions to Citizens Energy.  My strongest sense about this is that this is a political question, and should taken up by all citizens of the city, including their elected mayor and city counselors.  While Citizens Energy is, in theory, a “public charitable trust,” they tend to act more as the Corporation that is now part of their title—which is to say that they do what is in their own best interest, and not necessarily the best interest of citizens of the city.  Moreover, I just don’t think they are in a good position to consider the complex political, social and environmental issues at stake here.
In short, Citizens Energy Corporation does not own the White River, and should not be allowed to make decisions that might determine its shape for the next century.  This is a profoundly public matter.
And, while I do not agree with all of the claims of Keep the River in Riverside, I do agree with their assertion that this decision should not be considered in economic terms alone.  Apparently, Citizens Energy is unwilling to consider placing its new dam at 16th St. because it would cost more to do so. 
That decision is surely short-sighted.
Ratepayers in the city are paying more than $2 billion for sewer infrastructure that should make the river cleaner.  If the Riverside Master Plan is realized in any responsible way, it will cost tens of millions of dollars.  In that context, it seems to me, we, as citizens, should consider paying more for a better system of managing the river.
At the same time, though, I wish we would also reconsider our relationship to the river, and what goes into our efforts to make it “usable.”  Partly, I think that this means accepting the fact that the White River is seasonal, and it rises and falls with the rain and snow.  Even when the Emrichsville Dam was intact, portions of the White River could be impassable by canoe during dry periods.
In order to restore balance with our natural world, I sometimes think that we need a reformulation of Kant’s categorical imperative, which calls on us to treat people not as the means to some end, but as ends in themselves.  I think that we should think of elements of our natural world, including our rivers, not in strictly utilitarian terms, but as entities that deserve our respect, admiration and stewardship, regardless of how we might use them.
Thus, as we begin this public discussion, I hope that we confine our deliberations to how the White River can serve us.  We need also to ask how we can serve our River.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

On the Horizon, April 2019

An Occasional Column about Cycling in Indianapolis         


            It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the development of cycling infrastructure and culture in Indianapolis, which had such momentum when Greg Ballard was mayor, from 2008 to 2016, has stalled, at least temporarily, under the Hogsett administration.  Indeed, Austin Gibble wrote an article in a local blog in September of 2017, not long after Joe Hogsett became mayor, under the headline, “Indianapolis Loses Its Bicycling Mojo” ).   He notes in his article a steep decline in bicycle commuting, and a disjointed approach to the development of bicycle infrastructure.  He argues for a number of remedies, including better budgeting for bicycle infrastructure, more protected lanes and bikeways, and other provisions to make cycling more safe and convenient.
          It’s not that nothing has happened in the first three years of the Hogsett administration.  The protected bike lane along Michigan Avenue, in front of IUPUI, has changed my life for the better, and I am grateful for it every time I pass that way.  But it has been very difficult to see a strategy for developing bicycle infrastructure in any kind of systematic way in the city.  In the Ballard years, you could go on a city website and see plans for new bike lanes and trails by timeframe—some were planned for the next two years, others for the next five years, and still others for the next ten years.  There appears to be no such plan now, and the development of infrastructure has seemed sporadic and haphazard.
          But it seems that we are about to leave this listless period, and enter a more dynamic period, with a series of very exciting cycling projects on the horizon.  In this column, I will provide an overview of major projects scheduled for completion in the next two years.  In future columns, I will go into more detail about some of these projects, and how they will connect and open up new parts of the city to cyclists and pedestrians. 
          Before I get to my overview, however, let me mention a related development which, in my view, has the potential to improve cycling in the city in tangible ways.  In recent years, the City has contracted street sweeping out to a private company.  Now, the city is acquiring its own fleet of sweepers, and will take over this job.  As part of this project, it is acquiring a sweeper designed and sized for bicycle lanes and paths.  Beginning this summer—and possibly as soon as May—there will be a dedicated sweeper out cleaning bike lanes and paths.  Those of us who regularly ride the city know that broken glass is a constant pain in the tread; I have sometimes had three flats in one week.  This sweeper will surely not eliminate the problem, but it could make things a whole lot better for many of us.
          In putting together this list of projects due for completion in the next two years, I am beholden to Joshua Tharp, the Operations Manager for the Pacers Bikeshare, who keeps excellent minutes for the Indianapolis Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council (IMBAC), which meets monthly.  I have included in this list major projects to be completed in 2019 and 2020.
  1.   A multi-use trail around the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  This trail will partly solve the problems caused by the closure of the grounds to pedestrians and cyclists three years ago.  There will also be a Pacers Bikeshare Station on the campus.  The cost of the trail is about $1 million, with the Art Museum and the city sharing the cost. To be complete in 2019 or 2020, depending on the Art Museum.
  2. Widening of Monon from 10th to 96th St.  This project is scheduled to be completed in 2020, and will involve closures and detours for those using the Monon.  The cost is about $3.5 million.
  3. Enhancement of three sections of the Pleasant Run Trail at a cost of about $2.1 million.  Scheduled for completion in 2020.
  4. Construction of the Monon bridge over 38th St.  This is scheduled to be completed in 2020, presumably in conjunction with the widening of the Monon.  Cost: about $4 million.
  5. Extension of the Canal Towpath from 30th St. to Burdsal, due to be completed in 2020 at a cost of $1.6 million.  This will reclaim an overgrown section of the historic canal, and will bring infrastructure to an underserved corner of the city.  It will also connect the Canal Towpath to the extended Fall Creek Trail (see below), and to the bike lanes on Burdsal.
  6. Extension of the Fall Creek Trail from 10th St. to Burdsal.  Due for completion in 2020 at a cost of about $2.5 million.
  7. Cold Spring multi-use pathway from 30th St. to the Velodrome, due for completion in 2019 at a cost of about $775,000.  This will connect with the existing bike lane on Cold Spring Road from Lafayette Road to 30th St.
  8. Buffered bike lanes and sidewalks on 22nd St., from Capital Ave., near the White River Trail, to Dr. A. J. Brown Avenue.  This is part of a road resurfacing project scheduled to be completed in 2019 at a total cost of about $2 million.
  9. Resurfacing of the existing Fall Creek Trail, which, in many places, is broken up by tree roots.  The project will be divided into two parts, with the north half to be completed in 2019 and the southern half in 2020, at a total cost of about $2 million.

In my view, this is an impressive list of projects, and suggests that there will be nearly $20 million of investment in new infrastructure over the next two years.  It also brings infrastructure to some areas that have been underserved.  It is also worth noting, however, that only one of these projects, the improvement of the Pleasant Run Trail, is on the south side of the city, compounding the neglect of that area relative to the north.  I will write more about this later.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Bike Transit Indy: A New Advocacy Group

Bike Transit Indy


Bike Transit Indy is a new cycling advocacy organiztion in Indianapolis.  We aim to provide energetic and focused advocacy by cyclists on behalf of cyclists in our city.  We will hold our organizing meeting at 3 p.m. on Friday, April 5 at the Liter House (5301 Winthrop Ave,), just off the Monon Trail.

Here is a draft of our mission statement.  We offer this as a point of departure, and are open to suggestions for revision an enhancement.

D R A F T
Mission Statement for
Bike Transit Indy


Bike Transit Indy is a new bicycle advocacy group that is designed to reflect the experiences, interests and needs of those who rely on cycling for transportation around Indianapolis.  While we do not see ourselves as opposed to or incompatible with recreational cyclists, we do think that we have a perspective and a set of needs that should be represented in deliberations and planning for the development of cycling in the city.

In keeping with this perspective, we hold the following positions:
1.   Cycling infrastructure must be seen as a necessary and important part of the complete transportation network of the city.  It is neither a luxury nor an amenity; it exists to serve the real needs of people trying to navigate the city.
2.   Cycling infrastructure should be considered as a system, designed to enable cyclists to travel to all corners of the city, and it should be developed in that way.  Accordingly, we need to think about connecting disconnected sections of our cycling infrastructure, and we need to work diligently to bring needed infrastructure to areas of the city that have thus far been neglected.
3.   Our goal is to provide all cyclists in the city with safe routes to the places they need to go—to work, to school, to shopping and entertainment venues.  We will work to identify the routes and areas that need new infrastructure, and we will advocate for these needs with city officials.
4.   The essentiality of cycling infrastructure means that we should maintain it and protect it.  When it is necessary to close a bicycle path or lane, we should plan alternative routes well in advance.  We should strive to maintain our cycling infrastructure so that it is safe and functional.

To advance these positions, we aim to take the following actions:

1.   To hold periodic meetings with and for cyclists to identify their needs and to develop strategies for advocacy.
2.   To exercise the rights of citizenship in petitioning elected officials and their agents for changes in policies and investments in infrastructure that will improve the environment and infrastructure for cycling in the city.
3.   To maintain a list of needs, including maintenance and infrastructure development, and to remind city officials of the need to address these needs.
4.   To monitor city planning for cycling infrastructure, and to lobby for adjustments that will make new infrastructure effective and integrated into the existing system.
5.   To hold our elected officials accountable for their commitments, particularly in areas to do with sustainability and the quality of life in the city.
6.   To monitor the Complete Streets Ordinance, and to make sure that the development and redevelopment of our roads honors this ordinance by ensuring safe passage for all users.




Friday, February 16, 2018


The Newfields Travesty:
Taking the IMA out of Indianapolis

“Newfields,” the new brand for the institution formerly known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is more notable for what it does not say than for what it does.
          It is not primarily concerned with art.
          It is not in the city of Indianapolis.
          And, most emphatically, it is no longer a museum.
          Before I get to the consequence of these pointed omissions, let me begin with two concessions.
          First, in some theoretical and hypothetical way, the name of the Indianapolis Museum of Art still exists. While the letterhead, website and sign on 38th Street all now proclaim the Newfields name, the IMA exists as part of the new brand.  As Charles Venable, director of the institution-formerly-known-as-IMA explained, in his announcement, “The Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Garden, Lilly House, and The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres will all continue to exist as key attractions at Newfields, a Place for Nature and the Arts.”
          In other words, this is a marketing stunt.  We can now think of the IMA as comparable to the Big-K signature at Kroger’s.  If you root around on the bottom shelf, you may be able to find the Indianapolis Museum of Art, next to the Big-K spaghetti.  But your destination is Newfields, or Kroger’s, not Big-K, or the IMA.
          Secondly, “Indianapolis Museum of Art” is not the original name of this 135-year-old institution. The original organization came into being in 1883 as the “Art Association of Indianapolis.”  In 1895, the fledgling institution received a bequest from John Herron, a wealthy local real estate developer.  As a result of this bequest, the organization purchased a plot of land at 16th and Pennsylvania and opened the John Herron Institute of Art, housing both an art gallery and an art school, in 1906.
          For more than 60 years, both the art museum and the school resided on the 16th Street campus under the Herron Institute name.  In 1967, it became necessary, for accrediting purposes, to separate the museum and the school.  In that year, the Herron School was transferred to Indiana University, and it persists, in name at least, on the IUPUI campus.
          In 1966, the J.K and Ruth Lilly donated Oldfields, the family estate bordered by Maple (38th St.) and Michigan Road to the Art Association.  In preparation for the move to this new campus, the Art Association changed its name, in 1969, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  Thus, the IMA was born in 1969, and it moved to its new campus in 1970.
          As the IMA makes clear in its own history, Every Way Possible: 125 Years of the Indianapolis Museum of Art¸ published in 2008, this new name represented a kind of promise to the City of Indianapolis.  Throughout the 1960s, as the museum looked for more space, there were concerns that moving to the edge of the city would sever the museum’s relationship to Indianapolis.  At a protest in 1962, “one person stated that the Herron Museum belonged to all citizens, not just to the wealthy or to families with automobiles. Others spoke of the need to keep the city’s core strong and the obligations of institutions like the Museum to stay in a central location.”  In renaming itself, the Museum was seeking to allay these concerns, and to say that, even as it moved from its central location, it remained committed to the City of Indianapolis and to its citizens.
          Thus, in renaming itself “Newfields,” the former museum is reversing not the 135-year history of the institution, but the 50-year history of the IMA.  Crucially, however, this new name reneges on the museum’s commitment to the city.  In important ways, the museum is no longer in or of the city of Indianapolis.
          To begin with, the “Newfields” name has no local resonance.  Yes, some people in the city know that the original name of the Lilly estate was “Oldfields.” And, yes, it is also apparently true that the Lillies made a joke of this when they referred to the children’s house on the estate as “Newfields.”  But the inevitable reaction of people who have lived in the city and actually gone to the museum is, “What? Where did that come from?”
          I can see how the name might appeal to a professional marketer from Brooklyn, or Bel Aire, or Bogota, making a pitch to the director of the IMA: “Newfields, it’s like Oldfields, but it’s new Get it? Get it?”
          The rebranding reminds me of another infamous and ill-fated branding effort in the city.  When the city’s venerable hospitals, Methodist and University, merged a few years ago, they hired a marketing company to come up with a new name for the organization.  They called it “Clarian,” and they made a similar pitch: “Clarian, it’s like clarion, as in ‘clarion call,” but it has an ‘a’ instead of an ‘o.’ Get it?  Get it?”
          The Clarian name had no meaning for people who had a long attachment to Methodist and University hospitals.  The name did not last, and the organization now calls itself “Indiana University Health.”  I predict a similar future for the ill-conceived Newfields.  It's a nowhere name.
          In a physical sense, Newfields has also removed itself from the city of Indianapolis.  Like many long-term members of the Art Museum, I first learned about the changes to come two years ago, when the museum suddenly closed its pedestrian entrance on 42nd Street, and began building a series of internal barriers where none had existed before.  These moves effectively closed the museum to the surrounding neighborhood, and ended access to the upper grounds for pedestrians and cyclists.  I refer to this stage of development as the “fortification of the IMA.”  Others began calling it an “art prison.”
          At the same time that it closed access to pedestrians, the Museum also eliminated its charge for parking, and effectively made the grounds a landing pad for suburbanites from Zionsville, Carmel and Fishers seeking a bucolic experience.  When he explained these changes, Venable emphasized his desire to make the museum grounds comfortable for pedestrians, and to maintain a “level of tranquility and atmosphere” for patrons.  In taking measures for internal tranquility, however, Venerable forced pedestrians and cyclists coming to the museum to travel through the intersection of 38th St. and Michigan, one of the most dangerous in the city.  And there is still no sidewalk that leads from the old pedestrian to the entrances pedestrians are now forced to use.  Newfields is the fulfillment of the worry expressed by the protester in 1962 that the museum would become accessible only “to the wealthy or to families with automobiles.”
          This move to cut the museum off from local residents and from pedestrians and cyclists is all the more appalling because it flies in the face of recent developments in the city.  While there is still much to be done, Indianapolis has made impressive strides in becoming more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians.  Since the construction of the Monon Trail in 1999, the city has developed a remarkable network of trails that run along that run along Fall Creek, White River, Pleasant Run, and Pogue’s Run.  During the Ballard years, we went from zero to 80 miles of bike lanes, with more now under development.  And the city is rightfully proud of its Cultural Trail, which connects downtown neighborhoods and cultural destinations with a Danish-style pedestrian and cycling trail. 
          In my view, the IMA should have been actively working to connect itself with this developing system of infrastructure.  Ray Irwin, the architecture of our Greenways system, always spoke of his passion for “connectivity” as the guiding force in his efforts.  He wanted to create ways for people to move from one area to another in the city without having to get in a car. In my view, the IMA should have been working to connect itself with its neighbors and other institutions.  It should have joined partners in Midtown to bring the bike share program to the area, and to extend the Cultural Trail to its gates. It should have become more, and not less accessible to pedestrians.  In this regard, the anti-urbanist agenda of Venable and the IMA board have been damaging both to the institution and to the City as a whole.
          The fortification of the IMA was part of its efforts to raise additional funds by instituting a charge of $18 for admission not only to the Museum, but also to the grounds, both of which had been free.  To justify what would inevitably be viewed as a very high price of admission to the Museum, patrons were offered access not just to the art within the buildings walls, but also to some of the most cherished outdoor spaces in the City. In addition, this strategy was designed to encourage more people to join the museum.  Rather than pay $18 for a single entrance, patrons could pay $50 to $80 per year.
          In an effort to draw more visitors and members to the IMA, the museum began de-emphasizing its art collections and developing outdoor attractions.  Venable pointed to studies that showed that potential patrons from the central Indiana were relatively uninterested in art, but would be interested in “curated outdoor experiences.”  In keeping with this line of thinking, the museum built a beer garden in one part of the greenhouse, brought back a popular miniature golf course designed by artists, planted thousands of bulbs for a spring flower show, and put on a large-scale display of Christmas lights, for which it charged a $25 admission fee ($20 to members).  In these various ways, then, the museum was to become less a museum and more of an amusement park. 
          In responding to these changes, both critics and defenders of Newfields have used the word “elite.”  Opponents suggest that the $18 admission charge makes the institution less accessible to citizens of the city, and therefore makes it more elite.  Those who criticize the museum for turning away from art and toward beer gardens and miniature golf have been called “elitists” by defenders of Newfields.
          To my mind, the word “elite” doesn’t really work very well in either direction.  I don’t think it unreasonable to impose an admission charge to the museum, although I shall have more to say below about how this charge was imposed and justified.  On the other hand, there has always been a populist strain at the IMA; it is the home of both Van Gogh’s “Enclosed Field with Peasant” and Robert Indiana’s “LOVE.”  Personally, I have no objection to the beer garden, the winter lights exhibit or the miniature golf.  But I still want a serious art museum.
          And here I think there is real reason to worry.  The energy and resources of the institution seem to be flowing toward these “curated outdoor experiences,” and away from art.  One way to see this is in the special exhibitions of the museum.  The IMA had a very good record of bringing in exhibits that connected its patrons with developments in the rest of the world.  In recent years, I enjoyed exhibits on Matisse, Georgia O’Keefe, the Craftsman art movement, and art from Fontainebleau.  I especially appreciated the 2013 exhibit of the works of the Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei.  I had read a lot about this artist, and I was grateful for and moved by the opportunity to see his works up close and in Indianapolis.
          When the changes in the Museum got underway, I asked Charles Venable, in a private exchange, whether we would have exhibitions like the one focusing on Ai Wei Wei in the future.  He responded that we would, but that the Museum would have to take greater care to make sure that these exhibitions paid for themselves.  But the record of the past few years has been unimpressive, the exhibitions for the foreseeable future look to be low-key affairs, drawing mostly on the IMA’s own collections.  We seem to have gotten miniature golf instead of, and not in addition to, Ai Wei Wei.  And that seems to me a real loss.
          For me, the changes that have accompanied the Newfields branding campaign have been discouraging in and of themselves.  But the pain has been compounded by the ways in which Charles Venable, the director, and Thomas Hiatt, the chair of the board, have explained and justified them.  In particular, I object to their suggestion that these changes were necessary, in light of the financial needs of the institution, and that they have already been successful.
          In coming to grips with what has happened to our cherished institution, one must understand that the IMA was in some financial difficulty.  These difficulties came from a variety of factors, including a decline in the value of the museum’s endowment (now over $350 million) during and after the Great Recession, and the accumulation of about $100 million in debt from recent expansions of the museum.  These two factors meant that, even after a round of staff reductions, the Museum was drawing more than the 5 percent from its endowment that is customary and prudent to support its operations.  It is my understanding that the board charged Dr. Venable with bringing this draw back to 5 percent over a number of years.
          Without entering too deeply into the finances of the IMA, and without claiming financial expertise I do not possess, it seems to me that this situation called for adjustments but not for panic.  One could have imagined any number of other ways of responding, without locking down the grounds, renaming the 135-year-old institution, and shifting the focus from art to “curated outdoor experiences.”  One obvious course of action would have been to raise admission to the Museum to a more palatable $10 to 12, and to allow citizens of the city to continue to enjoy the grounds, as they had for more than 50 years.  Going from no admission to $10 or $12 would surely have created a substantial new revenue stream, with little disruption or added expense.
          In justifying this course of action, Venable and Hiatt have pointed to a record number of members of the museum-formerly-known-as-IMA.  Newfields now has more than 17,000 members, but this is not a terribly impressive number. One can point to comparable or lesser museums with higher membership rates.  In the 1970s, when the museum did not charge an entrance fee, it claimed more than 12,000 members.  The mere imposition of an entrance fee, where none existed before, is bound to drive membership up.  And it seems to me that this would have happened whether the IMA charged $12 for admission, and allowed the public free admission to the grounds, or charged $18 and closed the grounds.
          Perhaps more than anything, though, I am disturbed by the lack of accountability of Venable and the Board to members and to the general public.  I have a relationship with the IMA that goes back to the early 70s, when I bought a membership from earnings from my newspaper route.  I understand that, as an individual member, I cannot expect to have a voice in the direction of the Museum.  Nevertheless, I have been astonished by how little interest the leadership and board of the IMA have in what members think about these changes.  There is quite a bit of discontent with the direction of the Museum among long-time members and even some donors, but Venable and Hiatt seem to have insulated themselves from this criticism.
          I understand the fiduciary responsibility of the board, and the imperative they must honor to ensure the solvency of the museum.  I think they have other obligations as well.  The IMA has grown through the generosity of generations of donors, and through the tax-protection enjoyed by both the institution and its endowment.  While it is a private institution, it has commitments to the public and to the ages.  I am not sure the Museum is fully honoring those commitments.  It looks more and more like the vanity project of Hiatt and Venable.
          In many ways, it is fitting that Newfields has been unveiled under the Trump administration.  My attitude toward Newfields parallels my attitudes to this country under Trump: I object strenuously to the policies, overall direction and communication practices of this administration, but I do not wish for the enterprise to fail.  After the fortification of the IMA, I refused to renew my membership, and I boycotted the museum.  After a year, though, I came back.  After the Newfields transformation, I have let my membership lapse again, and have not dared set foot on the campus.
          I expect that I will be back again.  I can only hope, though, that this ill-considered effort to Make the IMA Great Again will pass, and that new and wiser leadership will one day work with the community, rather than agasinst it,  to create a better and stronger Art Museum.
         

Monday, April 17, 2017

Remembering Micky


Remembering Micky


One of the things I love about randonneuring is that it compresses and intensifies physical sensations and emotional responses.  One can experience the lowest of lows and the highest of highs on the same ride.  Sometimes, only a few kilometers or a control stop separate these swings in feeling and mood.
          I’ve been thinking a lot about this aspect of randonneuring in relation to the death of Mitsuaki “Micky” Inagaki this spring.
          Micky was killed by a truck driver while he was riding on Twizel Road in the Tiki Tour in New Zealand on March 15, 2017.  At the time of his death, Micky was 61 years old, and was the president of Audax Japan.  He had previously been in charge of inviting and recruiting foreign riders to participate in the Hokkaido 1200 and other events in Japan.
          Micky began his international randonneuring career by completing PBP in 2011.  Over the next five years, he completed 16 grandes randonnĂ©es, in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, and he finished PBP again in 2015.  In 2016 alone, he completed the Okayama 1200 and Hokkaido 1200 in Japan, the 1001 Miglia in Italy, and the Cracker Swamp 1200 in the U.S.
          But neither Micky’s biography nor his record of accomplishments adequately conveys who he was.  As sad as his death was, it was wonderful to learn how many people had been touched by Micky.  In the days and weeks after his death, Facebook was full of tributes to Micky, together with tales of memorable experiences and kind gestures and words Micky had bestowed on others.
          And there were lots of pictures.  Micky loved to take pictures of himself and others, and he was the frequent target of other people’s cameras.
          Micky’s earliest randonneuring experiences were also among my earliest.  I didn’t see him at PBP in 2011, although we finished a mere 26 minutes apart.  I was aware of Micky at the Cascades 1200 in 2012, and at London Edinburgh London in 2013, but I did not talk to him at either event.
          I really got to know Micky on the Super Brevet Scandinavia in August of 2013.  We were both riding at the back, I at my natural, plodding pace, and Micky leapfrogging me, as he dealt with knee pain.  We generally didn’t ride side-by-side, but very often Micky would surge past me, laughing, waving and taking pictures, only to stop a bit up the road to rest his knee.
          Micky was a presence.  If you were around him, you knew it.  The photographic record shows that he was sometimes close-cropped and clean shaven, but the Micky I knew was long-haired, exuberant and a bit wild in his appearance.  He was invariably cheerful, even when he was suffering from knee pain.  And everyone knew Micky by his smile.
          One of the beautiful things about SBS is that it involves six ferry rides, with five in Denmark and one in Norway, ranging from about 20 minutes to nearly two hours in length.  It was on those ferry rides that I got to know Micky.
          My Japanese is non-existent, and Micky’s English is limited.  But Micky had a Ph.D. in nonverbal communication, and our conversations involved lots of gesticulation and repetition.
          I learned a lot about Micky on those ferry rides.  I knew that he had training in medicine, but had retired.  I knew that he had a house in the mountains in Japan, and that he was devoted skiing as well as cycling.  And I also learned that he wanted me to do to the Hokkaido 1200.
          With Micky’s encouragement, I made plans to do the Hokkaido 1200 in 2014.  Because of some complications in my schedule, though, I bailed out of that ride, and instead did a newly established 1200K around Bordeaux, France.  I used to think it lucky that I had changed my plans because that the Hokkaido 1200 that year was stopped mid-ride by a dangerous thphoon.  Now I regret the decision, because I lost forever the chance to ride again with Micky.
          My most memorable experience with Micky came as we were riding in Sweden.  Late at night, in the darkest and most remote corner of Sweden, my headlight quit working.  At that point, I had been on the road for over three weeks, having begun my journey with LEL.  I had a new light, the Luxos U, which turned out not to be as watertight as one might wish.  My Luxos U quit working suddenly and irredeemably.
          I had also lost my backup light during a protracted roadside repair session on LEL.  I had acquired a handle-mounted flashlight in Germany, but it was too feeble to navigate by.
          I survived that night through the kindness of Wolfgang Nitsche, a German rider who stuck with me so that I could see my way forward.  But when I woke up the next morning, I did not know how I would get through the last night of the ride.  I didn’t think that I could ask anyone to ride with me at my slow pace.
          When Micky heard of my plight, at the last control in Sweden before we entered Norway, he unstrapped his own back-up light from the fork of his bike, handed to me, and gestured to me that I should strap it on my helmet.  I gestured back to him in a way that said, “What about you?”
          Then Micky said, “It is important for me to finish, but it is also important to you to finish.”
          I often had trouble understanding Micky, but this time I understood both the literal meaning and the significance of what he had said.  He did not have to repeat himself.  And I will never forget those words.
          With the help of Micky’s light, I navigated the steep hills of Norway.  We finished together in Kristiansand, Norway in the last hour of SBS, badly beat up but gleeful.  For me, the finish was all the sweeter because I finished with Micky and with his help.
          I loved Micky.  I only knew him for a few days, but our experiences were intense, and they are still vivid to me. We rode together the roller coaster of emotions that define a 1200K, and we survived.  I would have loved him even if he had not helped me.  But the fact that helped me was of a piece with everything I know about him.  He was a generous soul.
          Sometimes I think that the purpose of randonneuring is to create opportunities for generosity.  We put ourselves in difficult, challenging situations, and, while we are not reckless, we know that we take risks and make ourselves vulnerable.  Very often, we need the help of others to succeed.
          I am, by nature, a forgetful person, and so I often need the generosity of others.  More than once, someone has handed me a fistful of cash on a ride when I have forgotten or lost my wallet.  One time, I arrived at a 200K in Ohio, only to discover that I had forgotten my trunk bag, containing most of my tools and my spare inner tubes.  When the riders around me learned of my plight, they started giving me what they could spare—one offered a tire lever, another an inner tube, and another an inflator.  When I started the ride, the back pockets of my jersey were full.  And so was my heart.
          For me, any one act of generosity has value and meaning beyond that event.  Generous acts help us to believe that this is a benevolent world, populated by good people who wish us well.  That hill might be brutal, or riding that stretch against a headwind and without enough water might be daunting, but there are people at the next control or along the road who will help us, and who will make it better.  A bit of kindness makes hardship manageable.
          Randonneuring is a sport that is unusually preoccupied with awards, medals and accomplishments.  I don’t object to that; I have a drawer full of medals myself, and I am proud of what I have accomplished.  At the end of the day, though, we will be remembered for the good that we do for others, and not for the number of Super Randonneur series we have completed.
          Sometimes, the thought of Micky’s death is nearly unbearable.  That tragic crash on Twizel Road in New Zealand forces us to ponder all of the imponderable questions of death.  How can this person who was so vibrant and vital suddenly be gone?  He was doing what I do; what does his death mean for my future?  And, for those on the ride, perhaps the most difficult of all: Why him and not me?
          While we do not have satisfactory for any of these questions, we can find comfort and solace in Micky’s goodness.  I will remember the light he lent me, and the words he spoke to me.  Others have similar stories to tell of Micky’s generosity. Mark Thomas, who was also on that fateful ride in New Zealand, says it well: “Micky was generous with his joy.”
We remember Micky through the good he has done and through the joy that he has given us.  At the end of the day, isn’t this the best that any of us can hope for?    

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

We Have to Talk about This: Academic Freedom at Butler Unviersity

We Have to Talk About This

            A few years ago, Butler went through a very destructive period when it sued a student for libel as the result of a blog he kept in which he expressed certain opinions, anonymously, about administrators in the University.  In my view, the very fact of this lawsuit was a threat to academic freedom, and I wrote about it in my essay, “Butler University v. John Doe: A New Challenge to Academic Freedom,” which was published in the Journal of Academic Freedom (http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/JAF/2011%20JAF/Watts.pdf).
            Now, I fear, we may be going through a similarly destructive period.
            This time, the threat to academic freedom comes not from an alleged libel against an  administrator, but from the University’s interpretation of Title IX.  I’ll come back to Title IX toward the end of this piece, but let me say at the outset that I support the aim of Title IX, which is to guarantee the civil rights of everyone, regardless of gender, in educational institutions supported by federal funding.  Title IX has, in my view, been used appropriately to expand women’s access to sports programs in colleges and universities, and it is now being used appropriately to address the scourge of sexual violence against women on University campuses.
            I am worried, however, that the law is being mis-applied in order to deny the academic freedom of members of our community.  Ironically, some of those losing their academic freedom are women who have worked to support and promote the aims of Title IX.
            The case that concerns me at Butler University is shrouded in secrecy, and that is part of what concerns me here.   Secrecy is a veil under which injustice flourishes.  Because this case concerns public discourse and public issues, it deserves public discussion.  Unfortunately, however, the people who have been accused through this process were apparently forbidden to speak about it to anyone on campus.  A lot of people seem to know something about the case, but very few people seem to know the whole story.
            Here is what I have been able to glean so far.  I would be grateful to anyone who can correct what I have gotten wrong, or fill in the gaps that are missing from my story:

  •  In mid-April of 2015, the Information Commons, a joint enterprise of the University’s library and its Information Technology areas, sponsored an exhibition entitled “Diversity in Every Color.”  Those participating in the exhibit could win a $20 gift card for their exhibit.
  •  A faculty member put on her personal Facebook page a posting that was critical of the idea of diversity that informed the exhibit or a poster that was made public as part of this exhibit.
  •  Many other faculty members and some former students added to this Facebook posting, and questioned in some way the idea of diversity behind the exhibit.
  • A complaint was made through the Human Resources Office of the University, and handled under its Title IX authority.
  • Five faculty members were put through a lengthy examination, and many others were tangentially involved in the investigation.
  • The investigation now seems to have reached its conclusion, but one of the five faculty members is appealing a judgment made against her.
  •  The five main targets of the investigations—and perhaps others as well—were told that they could not talk to anyone other than their spouse about this investigation for fear of creating the impression that they were retaliating against their accuser(s).
In several important ways, this case reminds me of a case that received national attention earlier this year.  Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, published an essay entitled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  As the title suggests, the essay was provocative, but well within the range of academic discourse.  (And, in the spirit of academic discourse, let me state that I disagree with some of the claims Kipnis made in her essay.)  As the result of her publication of this essay, she was subjected to a strange and ill-defined investigation in which she was accused of violating the provisions of Title IX.  She subsequently wrote an essay about this experience, also published in the Chronicle, entitled “My Title IX Inquisition.”
While Kipnis was cleared of the nebulous charges brought against her, her story also makes it clear that the investigation itself was a kind of punishment, and a deterrent to the principles of academic freedom that animate a university.  I fear that we have a similar situation at Butler.  As nearly as I can tell, those accused of Title IX violations at Butler have been subjected to a similarly Kafkaesque experience.
     Title IX itself is rather simple and straightforward; the main text of the law, passed in 1972, states that, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  The problem, though, is that, over the years, a body of interpretations of this law has developed that go well beyond this simple text.  And, in some cases, these interpretations threaten the very enterprise of the University.
    I hope that there will be more discussion of Title IX and its ramifications at my University and elsewhere.  For now, though, let me articulate some principles that I think need to be honored alongside our efforts to realize the aims of Title IX:

  • To paraphrase an important Supreme Court opinion, and the underlying principle of the American Civil Liberties Union, the proper response to obnoxious speech is more speech—not prohibitions, punishment, libel lawsuits, or other means of suppressing speech.
  •  It is the business of faculty members and students to express opinions.  No one at a University should ever be punished—or threatened with punishment—for expressing an opinion.
  • Extended processes that interrogate faculty members about their expression of opinions create a climate of fear and suppress the exchange of ideas at University.
  • This climate of fear is compounded when the accused are told that they cannot talk to others about the accusations made against them.
  • The University as an institution should not take an interest in what faculty members and others post on Facebook and other public areas unless these postings 1) threaten someone, or 2) engage in some illegal activity.  And in those cases, the investigation and prosecution of offenses on Facebook should probably be carried out by law enforcement agencies, not universities.   
  • There needs to be a strong academic presence at the beginning of Title IX investigations.  Investigations in response to a faculty member or student’s expression of an opinion should be stopped before they start.
     It may be that I have gotten some things wrong in this posting, or have blundered in some other way.  If so, I hope someone will alert me to my mistakes, and I will correct them.  My hope is that this posting will mark the beginning of a public discussion, and not the end of it.  I insist, however, on my right and the right of others to express their opinions about the terms under which we work and exchange ideas. That’s what a university is all about.