On becoming unreliable

I read something recently about being unreliable:

The reason why you are unreliable is that you don’t comprehend the sanctity of a promise and keeping your word. Your lack of prioritization is another factor that affects your ability to be reliable and dependable.

That sentence was a slap in the face and then I checked on the author and found they are in their mid-20s. That explains a lot.

I am retiring from the university and moving back where I grew up for many reasons, the top two being 1) my mother has nobody else to help her out and 2) I have become unreliable.

I like neither of these reasons, but the second is exceptionally hard for me. I don’t like it. To be honest, I was never particularly reliable in the first place: I was slapped into reliably by parents who didn’t understand that my unreliability was related to my cognition. Society demands women do everything for everybody, and nobody wants their doormat/maid to be unreliable. Capitalism requires a girl with no family support to fit a mold in order to make a living and support herself. I was just reading in an English novel the phrase “she has her living to earn.” Indeed.

I did all right, I guess, keeping it together over the years. I mostly relied on substances and other bad coping mechanisms to shove my functioning into an acceptable shape. And then I hit 50, and absolutely none of it worked anymore. All of my cognitive differences came thundering back, refusing to be covered up and put away. Things I had spent years and years standing up to and making work were no longer manageable. My dyslexia came back with a dreadful vengeance so that now, writing an email takes me a very long time, and has to be proofread by husband or a sympathetic student, or I sound like a lunatic.

I’m not sure what went haywire, but something did, and I just can’t do very much any more that involves making ideas into words.

Many days I am unable to read at all. Reading has been the greatest solace of my life, and to have it out of reach pains me more than I can communicate.

I very much do not enjoy being at a disadvantage with words.

My autism, too, has decided that it doesn’t like being denied, either. Brightness and noise that I was once able to withstand now paralyze me. Los Angeles is a beloved place. It is also bright and noisy. I can not manage being outside when the sun is up most of the time now, even with sunglasses. Walking from my house to the car is agony. Waiting for the bus feels like torture. Being jostled on public transit feels like a hard punch. Having young people whiz by me on a bike on campus—a delightful thing, by any account—causes my vision to blur and my head to ache.

I have my mother in my head telling me to stop being so dramatic, stop being so self-important, stop whining. That used to work for me; I could take the sensory beatings of the world and keep going. Now I can’t. I ran out of coping. Maybe my autism got worse? Hard to tell.

All of these things, along with aging and an illness, have made me very tired. I didn’t know such fatigue existed—I always thought that people who told me they needed to rest were a) more sensible than me and just taking care of themselves and/or b) not part of the hustle. I didn’t judge them particularly as lazy, but I didn’t understand that fatigue just lays you out and takes all you have so that standing up and taking a shower feels like running 10 miles.

Together, all these things have made me unreliable. I am trying to hold on long enough so that my PhD students I have can finish their studies and launch their careers. But it is hard to hold on, and I feel a great deal of shame about not being always to keep the appointments that I make, or taking longer than I said I would doing something. I used never to return reviews in late. Now I always late with everything. Saying yes to anything feels like self-abuse and lying to whoever made the request.

A few years ago, I began refusing speaking invitations because I knew that there was a big chance I would need to cancel and leave people hanging with an empty panel chair. I thought that would be enough to cover my decline. It wasn’t.

I do not like being unreliable. I judge it harshly. So does the world. People do not understand why I need to stop and slow down even more than I am because right now I seem to them to be barely moving. I wish I could help people understand that I did the best I could, and I am still doing the best I can. I realize, more than they do, that the best I can is not particularly good according to the standards I used to have.

Letting go of my profession has been agony, but it is what it is, as they say. My colleagues are mostly wonderful, and I shall miss them. Surprisingly, the person I thought was my closest friend and mentor withdrew from me entirely and now barely speaks to me—only when a student needs something. I am, no doubt, a terrible disappointment to him. He did a lot to help me understand the university and get my research done. I miss him and grieve for the relationship, but watching me decline must be hard, too, just as experiencing it is. He has younger colleagues he’s generally always preferred to me anyway, and, despite my sadness, I understand and wish them all the best. Doors close.

The very good news, I think, is that as I step away from professional life, I am seeing so many wonderful new young people step in. The 21st century does not need an old white lady teaching justice classes in it—there are too many bright people from all over and with all different backgrounds who want the role and will move the needle more than I ever could or will. It is wonderful to watch them become who they are as scholars and planners even as I let go. The future amazes me still.

And my dear husband, tirelessly cheerful, compliments the bad art I make because I have to express myself somehow, and I can’t trust words anymore. He talks about the things we shall do when I’m done with work: going out on a boat; puttering in the garden; making more bad art. I have been listening to a series of lectures and interviews by artists. Most of them became artists young. Now and then, one will come along who took their first art class at 50. They give me a great deal of hope that my ideas won’t all wilt on the tangled vines of a mind I no longer seem able to control. We’ll see how it goes.

I maayyyyy be losing my mind

On Monday I reported that I’ve been asked to join two editorial boards Planning Theory, and Planning Theory and Practice, and I went to send to send the invitation emails to my department chair because they like to brag about such things, but I Icould only find one invitation. In my mind, I *swear* there was another, but….I can’t find it. So…..

  1. We now have evidentiary proof that I am really, truly incompetant at organizing my emails, and Outlook does f*ck-all to help by being sucky at this, too, and having bad search functions.
  2. If anybody associated with Planning Theory and Practice is reading this and I have not been asked, my apologies, it was an honest mistake, and I am happy to keep reviewing just as a regular scholarly reviewer.
  3. If I have been asked, how wonderful, I am honored to serve.
  4. I still really miss Ed Soja.

All the ambitions, all the folly

I really have not kept up with this effort very well, and I do apologize. I just haven’t had all that much to say in the past six months, and my health has been uncooperative…which brings me to my major news: I am phasing into retirement over the next few years. I am going to do a few service things I think people are owed, and I have some students to support yet, but after that I am laying down my pen and going to go sit in a boat–assuming my health holds out.

I have a bunch of written materials that I don’t really have the energy to publish through normal channels, so I may throw that up here, with the full assent that it is not particularly well-vetted and you are getting what you pay for. I may just toss it. We will see.

My reflection today is short and in gratitude. This summer I was ask to join the editorial boards of both Planning Theory and Planning Theory and Practice, two leading English planning theory journals. It’s wonderful and I’m very happy, but it’s also funny because I was one of those students who grumbled and whined and complained (endlessly) about planning theory.

When I was young, I had all this ambition, and now that I’ve done the things I meant to, including a bunch of things I hadn’t ever thought I would ever do (planning theory contributor)…all I can think now is how much I wish Ed Soja were still here with us so I could tell him and he would laugh at me, after the rough time I gave him, with his big laugh, big smile, and big, adventurous mind.

Farewell Marty Wachs

Marty Wach left us a few week ago, and I hardly need to add my voice to the many, many students and colleagues who were much closer to him than I was. But I am going to.   He is a huge loss, and very unexpected. He has been so active in things here in California for so long, right up to the end, that I think everybody is walking around shocked as well as sad. I didn’t know Marty dreadfully well—we never overlapped anywhere, weirdly enough for all the time I’ve spent in CA—but he was warm and lovely. He was at Berkeley when I was at UCLA, and only returned to UCLA once I left.  I think one reason we seldom interacted was how similar we were—if a committee had Marty appointed to it, they didn’t usually reach out to me, too, and he was very generous with his time with public agencies, so we seldom saw each other. 

Marty genuinely believed in good policy, and you would think that should go without saying in a public affairs scholar, but it doesn’t. He was intellectually rigorous and extremely generous. Even though we didn’t know each other well, he always had time for me, and I suspect that many others can say the same thing.

When I was an arrogant punk grad student, I discounted the old dudes for the most part–and I had some pretty good reasons for doing so (so, so many old white guys telling me “justice is a fuzzy concept, nobody knows what it means, it’s a waste of time, etc”). Marty never did that (nobody at UCLA did that, bless them), and I remember the exact moment that I began to take Marty really, really seriously, not just as an established scholar and kindly man, but as a thinker about topics I cared about.

It was some Metro-sponsored meeting about their rail stuff, and Marty was on panel about futures, and he kept coming back to the past. He pointed out that Metro had made a lot of promises to south LA when they built the Blue Line decades earlier. (It is now the A Line.). At the time, Metro was a relatively newly merged agency seeking to establish its usefulness in managing a rail construction program, and South LA had just had the uprising following the Rodney King verdict. The Blue Line would brings job, opportunities, development….they said. Welp, the region and Metro got its rail line, which is an amenity, certainly, but not much of the other things that planners like to trot out to impoverished people as promises.

Marty said in that meeting, 18 years later:
We need to deliver to south LA what we promised to south LA. We need to make good on that.”

The world slowed down a bit as I realized: everybody in the room thinks he is being quixotic–an academic. But he’s right. The idea that planning should be expected, as a matter of course, to deliver on what it promises even it takes a long time was important to me then, and it still is now. Marty wasn’t a fool; he later in the day said something about how one reason he loved to study technology is because, unlike like structures and institutions, technologies actually change (also insightful.) The idea that the guy would use his position–his basically untouchable position (because by then he was already a giant)–to say the inconvenient thing, instead of the thing that promoted himself, to remind people in the room of the harms done when those people thought the harms and broken promises where safely past–was exactly the point of becoming untouchable as an academic in the first place.

He was so loved–his wife and kids along with legions of devoted students and colleagues. That’s a life well-lived.

Marty has a huge cv of wonderful work, but my favorites are his work on LA sprawl and the streetcars and some work he did on air quality and governance (in part because it get right at the heart of the question about planning delivering on promises):

Wachs, M. (1984) Autos, Transit, and the Sprawl of Los Angeles: The 1920s, Journal of the American Planning Association, 50:3, 297-310, DOI: 10.1080/01944368408976597

Wach, M. and J. Dill. (1999) “Transportation and Air Quality: History, Interpretation, and Insights for Regional Governance in Transportation and Air Quality: History, Interpretation, and Insights for Regional Governance” in Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 1999. Governance and Opportunity in Metropolitan America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/6038 . pp. 296-323.

A selection of obituaries from around the web:

UCLA ITS Obituary

UCLA Luskin’ Memorium

Let’s always have kids and pets at the Golden Globes

If the clips I am seeing this morning are any indicator, kids and pets make the Globes way more interesting, just as they have made class more interesting for the past year.

Watching them, I finally figured out why op-eds from people preaching about how to “professionalize” your Zoom get on my nerves so much. Those people are pretending like our work lives matter more than our home lives, like kids and pets and occasional messes are the deviant and artificial part of our lives, compared the work-bots they want us to project, instead of the most worthy and wonderful parts of it.

I have read “the death of the office due to coronavirus” pieces, and I have no idea, but for all the pain and suffering the virus has wrought (over 2 million people globally dead now), I have been grateful for the chance to share my pets and places with students, and for the insight on the possibilities for capitalism and professional life that doesn’t act like it’s the end of the world if a kid interrupts a meeting to announce his sister as a loaded diaper. We have, if we have beening living right, extended each other a lot of grace for these things. Remember when having to bring your child to work because of a problem at daycare was embarrassing or a disaster—so unprofessional. Now it’s part of it–still embarrassing, still distracting, still tiring–but it’s real, it’s happened to us all—and it’s all fine.

Is there any chance we keep extending this grace to each other even as we go back with vaccines and the like? Working women need childcare; it’s dumb to romanticize it otherwise, like we can all just have kids around all the time. But I hope we take this time to critically examine the rank stupidity–and harm–of the capitalist office where emotions, “bringing your home problems to work” and other natural things aren’t treated like weaknesses or sins.

We are whole people who deserve to live our lives in all dimensions at all times.

Abolish DPS: Envisioning a #PoliceFreeUSC student zine

One of my wonderful students, Jody Liu, is a part of an on-campus movement to get rid USC’s security as it exists today. I support student-led efforts for either reform or abolition, as our security needs to change. Students should lead in re-envisioning security because it’s their campus and honestly I feel like the old folks (this includes me) on campus have run out of ideas. Here is the intro from one of the zine’s makers:

We’ve spent the past couple of months putting together the zine “Abolish DPS: Envisioning a #PoliceFreeUSC”, which elucidates the connections between the University of Southern California (USC) and the prison industrial complex. In particular, we highlight violent incidents that have been inflicted on the surrounding South Central communities. We then outline our vision for prison abolition at USC.

In full disclosure, my own interactions as a person with a disability with on-campus security has fallen into two categories: a) great interactions with mostly women who get that they are part of a community and b) miserable, escalated confrontations with dudes who get off thinking they are commandos by shouting at me to move faster (I can’t) or to not be where I am (you can freaking ask instead of shout, dickhead). I’d like to see campus security protect the livelihoods of the people who have made the effort to be a part of the place and find other work for the dudes who use the job to recreate the power trips they took in high school sticking the small kid’s heads in toilets.

Professor Clayton Nall (@ClaytonNall) on liberal self-interest in housing politics

UCSB’s Dr. Clayton Nall came to USC’s Price School to give a talk for the Bedrosian Center, and in it he presents some of his really good experimental work, partnered with William Marble, on home ownership and political ideology, helping us understand why people in ostensibly progressive enclaves like Berkeley can be so unwiling to allow inclusion via new housing.

I have THOTS, but let’s get you to Clayton’s excellent material first. Here is the highlight reel/trailer:

And here’s the full talk if you want to hop right on in:

Here’s my blather:

I meant to post about this really nice presentation from USCB’s Clayton Nall ages ago, but I forgot, and then Clayton piped up on Twitter over the weekend and I remembered. I was kvetching about Ezra Klein’s piece over the NYT last week about supposedly liberal California not delivering on progressive housing goals.

The most you can say about the Ezra Klein piece is that is he is not wrong about California failing to on progressive social promises, particularly housing. Lefties who exist to scold each other eat that stuff up, and thus I had this column all over my various timelines. The problem is the premise: California is not a particularly progressive place, it never has been–except as an imaginary construction for those who want it to stand for whatever abstract point they want to make about politics. CA’s early colonial politics were vicious (including indigenous enslavement); CA’s spatial politics regarding early Chinese immigrants were also vicious; CA has a long and disgraceful affection for sterilizing women from marginalized group that extended into the 2010s. That’s to name just a few obvious human rights abuses of many here. California in part brought us modern US conservatism–through John Birch, Howard, Jarvis, and Ronald Reagen. Californians routinely pass bone-headedly reactionary referenda from Prop 13 to Prop 8 to Prop 209 to last year’s damn mess, but particularly Prop 22. There are more registered Republicans in California than residents of many other states. The proper headline of any piece on CA should really be “place not particuarly liberal, except in the culture war imaginations of conservatives who hate gays and Hollywood, not really delivering on liberal ideals.”

There are some issues where Calfornia really does fall into that category; we (probably) won’t be the state drafting “If a woman has an abortion, she should be flogged to death on television on a new reality tv show” laws. And gun control. And I am grateful for those things.

California is better understood, like most of the US outside of New England, as a place where the governing ethics center primarily on exploiting land for wealth for white people. Yes, the US is a constitutional republic, and you can analyze its institutions that way, but development politics make a lot more sense if you set aside Federalist papers propaganda and just think about things from the perspective of settler colonialism, replicated again and again and again using various policies, practices, and regimes.

When you look at things that way, you have a ready explanation for why Democrats and Republicans don’t really differ all that much on their behavior regarding class politics and land development. You can scold and shame and harangue progressives about their lack of virtue if you want to, but as long as individual and family welfare is as tied to individual property ownership as it is in the US, you are going to have a struggle on your hands with home owners being way too risk averse to allow change. (This even includes things likely to put money in their wallets, including amenities like a rail station. )

Wonderful reads, 2020: Lowe (@kateontransport) and Grengs on Detroit’s Public-Private Streetcar in JPER

I reaaaaaaalllly wanted to write on this topic but I never got around to it and I am really really glad that Kate Lowe and Joe Grengs did because I think it’s an important topic: it’s clear that the primary beneficiaries of streetcar projects are the landowners that surround them. Streetcars are not easy sells in terms of mobility; they are circulators. How many car trips they actually “take off the road” is a dubious conjecture, but they are fun to ride, contribute to defining districts, and circulators are really useful in the places that have them. (Those alone strike me as good enough reasons to do them even if they do not do much to fight climate change or any of the great big goals we planners tend to attach to things.)

The Detroit example shows philanthropy directed at just such a project, and I think Lowe and Grengs are more fair and less critical than I am about treating the Detroit streetcar as mobility rather than as a simple land amenity. By most indicators, this is businesses and elites doing fairly standard philanthropy: it doesn’t alter power relations, and it’s ultimately done for their own private interests. Again, I have no real problem with that except to the degree that there has been the temptation to act like these arrangements are the future of transport finance, and as Lowe and Grengs show, it’ll take a lot of changes to this model to make it workable outside the context of this one project.

Here is the citation and the link. It’s behind a paywall, but if you ask me or the author, I suspect we can find you a copy of it:

Lowe K, Grengs J. Private Donations for Public Transit: The Equity Implications of Detroit’s Public–Private Streetcar. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 2020;40(3):289-303. doi:10.1177/0739456X18761237

Transportation agencies are increasingly seeking private sector funding, but resulting deals have implications beyond specific projects. We analyze the broader regional and equity impacts of private funding by examining Detroit’s donation-funded streetcar. Despite potential negative consequences for transit-dependent populations, the longer-term political will forged through streetcar planning has a contingent possibility to enhance regional transit. In addition to donations, the streetcar relies on public sector funds, but we found limited public influence to ensure collective transportation benefits. A federal-level actor did mandate that a regional transit agency form, but more systematic public action is needed.

Can we retire the whole “public agencies aren’t real estate developers” myth soon?

Ok, I am violating my sabbatical commitment to read books and look at roses, but this piece from Dr. Jenny Schuetz at Brookings crossed my desk, and I want to talk about one part of it. First, in the interest of full disclosure, I think the world of Dr. Schuetz; I think she’s right about a lot of things and is a wonderful policy analyst. And I also understand the pressures of putting together blog post after blog post.

This one, I just disagree with. I’ve lived in cities where public housing was fine, but I don’t actually have a sense of what role public housing should play within the larger portfolio of American housing strategies. I haven’t thought about it systematically. I’m sure she’s right in that it’s not “the solution” but even upzoning, which would be a boon, doen’t strike me as “the solution” because housing, like most important things in life, is not a single-solution policy domain. I’ve never heard anybody say public housing is “the solution.” It’s a tool among many other tools. How that tool should be deployed, I don’t know, but I won’t dismiss it out of hand because I’ll take any tool I can get.

But one argument from the Brooking piece slapped me in the eyeball and we need to talk about it, and that’s this:


Proposals for “the government” to build public housing are often vague about which agency or department they mean. While funding for public housing originates at the federal level, the properties are operated by more than 3,300 local housing authorities across the country. And most of them don’t have recent experience with new construction—a long, complicated, risky business under the best of circumstances. Public agencies operate under more rigid rules and processes than private sector companies as well; for instance, procurement and labor requirements that make construction substantially more difficult and more expensive.

I get that we are now in the era of real estate specializations at universities where real estate is a very specialized thing that only certain people with certain qualifications supposedly do, but this argument is wrong the minute you step outside of housing. It MAY be that local governments do not develop much *housing*, but if there is one thing governments in the United States do as a matter of routine, it’s develop land and buildings. From bus garages to courthouses to libraries to police stations to animal shelters, etc., subnational governments maintain large real estate portfolios. The idea they are somehow incapable or less capable of managing a construction project simply ignores all the real estate that governments DO build and maintain. Governments can build bridges and dams that stand up for a century and a space program AND all the transit for the T part of TOD, but nope, an apartment complex next to the T is somehow just not something that governments can do.

The US is not called a settler-colonial state for nothing.

But let’s get to housing. Every single college student living in a dorm at a state university, from Fresno State to Applachia State to all those students at snooty UCs….all of them are living in housing constructed and maintained by public agencies. Jails, even though we all hate them, are routinely built and maintained by governments (as well as private entities, sure), but they house quite a few people. There is at any given time in the Indian Ocean at least one Nimitz class aircraft carrier that houses 8,000 people *on a boat*, which is a tiny fraction of what the US military does to house its members.

Now, all of these things are, I guess, outside the realm of “housing” but that doesn’t mean we should assume that governments are just bad at developing housing or that they don’t do it. Governments develop buildings in concert with private companies all the time, and quite often, entirely competently.

My WordPress is acting wonky so I shall stop as I’ve made my point. We could argue that private sector entities would be ever so much better at doing all the development that governments do in all sectors, not just housing, that’s fine, but let’s not act like American governments can’t develop real estate. They do it all the time.

Wonderful reads 2020: Tore Sager on planners and rejecting authoritarian populism in PT

Ok, I am going to have to admit to being a little bit of a Tore Sager fangirl because I pretty much love everything they write and everything they write about and the way they write about it and am really jealous that I didn’t write all the things they did. Like every single time they publish a thing, I’m sad I didn’t write it because it’s so good and important. So now that the introductory breathless fangirling is out of the way, let’s get to the breathless fangirling about the actual content.

Planning has a problem with democracy; not that planners themselves are anti-democratic or pro-democratic themselves, it’s just that planning as a field relies on its legitimacy to no small degree via the notion that we can help foster a deliberative, democratic decision-making about place futures. The problem we have is that democracies can do terrible things, and that plenty of democratic preferences are really shitty. Lots people in neighborhoods want to keep people out, and that is a democratic preference, and it’s generally not a good a good one. (sometimes it’s warranted, other times it is just an impulse to maintain privilege.)

Sager speaks directly to our times with a discussion of what planners should be doing to refute the Schmittian authoritarian populism that has swept across multiple nations, including my own, with things like Trumpism. Trumpism is avowedly anti-urban, and we owe its adherents no deference just because they hold their preferences with passion or because they have coalesced into a political force.

This is in some ways not a happy or hopeful paper, but it is a VERY useful paper for understanding the profession in our current political context.

It’s not paywalled, so you can go read it noooooow:

1. Sager T. Populists and planners: ‘We are the people. Who are you?’*. Planning Theory. 2020;19(1):80-103. doi:10.1177/1473095219864692

The purpose of this article is to offer planning scholars a basis for criticizing authoritarian populism and not limiting ideological critique to neoliberalism. Authoritarian populism is anti-elitist, anti-pluralist and excluding in that the authentic people includes only part of the population. Authoritarian populists imagine a homogeneous people whose will determines policy. The article deals with confrontations and contact points between communicative planning theory and populist currents. It distils several core themes from five authoritative collections of works on planning theory and examines their relations with populist ideas. Authoritarian populism is an incomplete ideology that can fuse with various other ideologies. Amalgamations of populism and neoliberalism pose new challenges to participatory planning. Authoritarian populism criticizes planning institutions for blocking the immediate realization of the will of the people and being sympathetic to social diversity and cultural influence threatening heartland values. Neoliberalism is opposed to the welfare policies, equity goals, growth restrictions and other public interventions associated with spatial planning. Joint pressure from the two ideologies may alter the planning of liberal democracies in an autocratic direction.