On the older work page of this site, I talk about occupying ghost-towns as a metaphor for the places we’ve been mentally, emotionally, vocationally, digitally.   In some cases, the journals where I first published flash fiction, prose poetry, and other work no longer exist.  The pages don’t load.  The links are broken.

In other cases, older posts on this blog have become ghost-towns.  Things I no longer wish to say are now Files Not Found. 

I write a great deal about where I’m from.  The story of the Rust Belt, and how my particular environment rusted out, has been (and continues to be) of primary concern for me.  Growing up in the shadows of what had once been glamorous, even famous, will do that to you; the actual color of rust on old blast furnaces and train engines fires certain creative paths that no amount of serotonin can counter.

Folks find their way here, to these posts, in all sorts of ways.  One of the more popular pieces has to do with Hess’s Department Store and what it symbolizes in the history of the Lehigh Valley.  Someone came here today with a simple query:  “where are the toy soldiers that used to be at Hess’s at Christmas during Christmas?”

They were big.  I want to say 15 feet high, maybe more. Until recently, they were on display every Christmas season at Zion’s Liberty Bell Church (the church that saved the Liberty Bell from being melted into British munition during the Revolution.  Also, my home church).  My understanding is that the logistics of storing and installing them are considerable.  I believe the City of Allentown owns them, but I’m not sure. 

These massive toy soldiers guard someone’s ghost-town.  Interesting to think about.

St. David’s Day Redux and Casimir Pulaski

Yesterday, I wished you all a Happy St. David’s Day. For more context, check out my St. David’s Day greeting from last year, here.

Oh, and also: Free Wales!

On Monday, we’ll observe Casimir Pulaski day with a short piece I read at an International Arts Movement event last year, an original photo of a Moravian grave here in the Lehigh Valley, and music by Sufjan Stevens.

Freeganism, Food Deserts, Free Markets: Where the Invisible Hand Fears to Tread

I help convene a monthly discussion series at the Allentown Brew Works called Beerituality.  Last week, we welcomed guests Cathy Frankenberg and Jon Geeting and wrestled with the topic of food deserts in the urban cores of the Lehigh Valley.  Cathy is a founding organizer of an initiative to establish a food co-op in neighboring Bethlehem, and Jon is a political blogger/journalist with a special interest in the urban transformation happening in Allentown.

As you might imagine, we had a very good time of discussion and participation.  I’ve been vexed by some of the realities we’re encountering on this issue, not the least of which being the problem of food waste in America, even in this awful economy.

Enter Jane Velez-Mitchell from CNN Headline News and a piece exploring “freeganism.”  Freeganism is dumpster diving for still-edible food behind restaurants and grocery stores and cooking those salvaged items for dinner.  For some reason, I’m reminded of Jesus picking wheat on the Sabbath as he walked through a field he didn’t own.  I’m also reminded of the practice we see in the book of Ruth, when grain that fell to the ground during harvest was left for the scavenging needy.  But at least that grain wasn’t thrown in the garbage for no good reason.  At least people who needed it didn’t have to scrounge in dumpsters.

We’d like to think we’re so much more progressive on so many fronts than our ancestors, but on issues of food and shelter, our older traditions have sometimes echo the kind of sustainable ethos that comes with living close to the land and the means of production.

This has everything to do with the problem of food deserts here and now. It has everything to do with how we will respond to the needs of our community.  For more commentary on the free market’s failure to bring healthful food to food deserts, read my recap of last week’s Beerituality gathering.

Dear Wealthy School Districts: It’s Not Your Money, Anyway (A Note About Non-Property Taxes and the Earned Income Tax in Our Cities)

Even if you don’t live in Allentown or the Lehigh Valley, if you’re interested in infrastructure, urban renewal, and stopping suburban sprawl (let’s call it “mall creep”), this post is for you.

As you might know, the former Philadelphia Phantoms are coming to Allentown.  The Phantoms are the top-level developmental affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, and their new arena is being built downtown as the centerpiece of what will ultimately be at least a $600 million dollar redevelopment project in the Queen City.   Honestly, redevelopment doesn’t begin to describe what the special tax zone (the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, NIZ for short) will mean for Allentown.  The NIZ, created by a bill in the PA legislature, does things that make relocation to the NIZ very attractive.  You can learn more about that here.

Something else the bill that created the NIZ does is return the Earned Income Tax of people who work in Allentown but don’t live there back to city to help fund the arena project. Some people don’t like that.  Some, maybe most, local municipalities are used to using EITs to help fund the suburban school districts they support.  Some people are starting to say “why should School District So and So pay for an Arena in Allentown?”

Those people miss the point.

For the last 47 years or so, Earned Income Tax in the Commonwealth has gone back to a worker’s home municipality instead of staying in the place where it was generated.  Before 1965, this wasn’t the case.  Before 1965 (read, before our core cities started failing), Earned Income Taxes stayed where they were made.  Pennsylvania legislators, keen on seeing farmland turned to suburbs, put a stop to that and the townships blossomed with stripmalls, blacktop, and sprawl.  Urban cores and urban schools were left to wither on the vine.

Now, the same school districts and municipalities that have benefited from this tax grab for close to 50 years are crying foul because EITs are going back where they belong. Heaven forbid the core cities and the near-broke school districts in them get a fair shake in 2012.

For shame, township people on the wrong side of this issue.   The Allentown School District can’t afford year-long art, music or gym classes, even at the elementary level.

Look, I know it’s easy to get used to privilege, and then to expect it.  But as Jon Geeting and others have been saying, the cost of living and doing business in the suburbs has been subsidized from the start.  This isn’t about a hypothetically free market dictating that setting up shop in low-density townships made more sense than continuing to develop walkable cities.  This is about, and always has been about, the myth of cheap suburban sprawl.  Sprawl came at a cost to our economies, our infrastructure, our environment, and our mental and physical health. It came at a cost to our cities, to be sure, and to our schools.

No one is building an urban arena with money that should be going to buy football pads for rich school districts.  No one is suggesting that we slash the budget of the Parkland High School closed-circuit television station so Spanish-speaking kids in Allentown can live in a city with a future.  Who would ever suggest something like that?

Allow me to paraphrase one person who actually might.  “Render onto Allentown what is Allentown’s.”

Spencer Soper for the Pulitzer? Yes, Please!

Spencer Soper’s award-winning work on the deplorable conditions at an Amazon fulfillment center here in the Lehigh Valley has earned the Morning Call writer a  nomination for journalism’s greatest honor:  The Tribune Co. is nominating Soper’s Amazon exposé for a Pulitzer Prize. 

I’ve talked about Spencer’s work a good deal in this space, and it’s not just because mindless abuse at the hands of the world’s largest online retailer is happening in my backyard.  It’s a global story, and a globalism story.  Many of the people I’ve shared it with have responded in encouraging ways, pledging to swear off Amazon not just because of the violations Soper uncovered, but because of what Amazon’s very model says about the corporate ethos.  Let’s be clear: getting things to you as quickly and cheaply as Amazon does means Amazon caring as little as possible about worker rights, local economies, brick and mortar small businesses, communities, and fairness.  Oh, how grand it was when these realities were only hypothetical.  But the abuse here in the Lehigh Valley brings things we should have all realized long ago directly to the fore.  Amazon is a machine built for speed, and if people get caught in all those moving parts, it’s fine with Amazon so long as the clean up doesn’t take too long.